With his latest album in stores now, iDJ meets a veteran of the UK scene whose career has spanned soulful house, broken beat and much more
A DJ and producer with more aliases than you can shake a box of 12”s at, Restless Soul's Phil Asher has been part of the fabric of London's dance music community ever since he first took to the decks back in the mid-late 80s.
As co-creator of legendary London club night Co-Op, Phil became one the founding fathers of broken beat, a genre which swept through the global underground in the late 90s/early 00s. Although that particular genre tag may have come and gone as a passing fad, Asher's music most certainly hasn't, remaining true to the timeless and soulful jazzy blend of deep house and disco he's always loved.
Beloved as a tastemaker throughout the scene, Phil's radio shows and mixes attract a loyal crew of listeners. He was the primary curator (sometimes with the assistance of Seamus Haji) behind Slip N' Slide's long-running Jazz In The House compilation series, and his standout Boiler Room set in 2012 earned him a legion of new fans.
We caught up with Mr Asher to talk pseudonyms, record shops and his latest project, The Restless Soul Fun Band.
What came first for you: DJing or production?
"I started DJing in 1985, with my best friend Ray Whittard. We started playing around the rare groove era, at house parties and small rented spaces. Back then we were playing hip-hop, go-go, New York disco and funk.
"Our first professional gig was in 1988 at Kid Batchelor and Nicky Trax's club Confusion at Le Beat Route on Greek St in Soho. We warmed up for the legendary Colin Faver (RIP), and by then we were playing house music. But production wasn't even on our radar then: the possibilities and options for producing weren't as easy then as they are now. That came later."
You worked in a few record shops over the years, as did seemingly everyone on the London soulful house scene! How did that shape you as a DJ and producer?
"When I started working at Quaff Records for Roy The Roach in 1988 there was no 'soulful house' scene, it was just house music. Roy was into everything danceable. We stocked rare groove, disco, funk, boogie, electro, New York dance and house music from Chicago, Detroit and New York."
Do you feel like the decline of vinyl has changed things a lot, in terms of the music and nightlife?
"Not at all - if anything we now get to hear more types of music that are being made that may not have been able to secure a vinyl release. But when all's said and done, nothing fills a room with sound more than a well produced, well mastered record."
How's it been sustaining a career in music with all the changes we've seen in the last decade?
"Challenging, economically and artistically, especially in London. You have to learn to survive. I try and look for the positive and exploit that. I feel very honoured to have been offered all the remixes and productions I've worked on."
Your discography is huge! Do you ever find yourself trying to remember the name of a track in a club and realise it's one of yours?
"Often! I've even gone up to the DJ and asked them, 'What is this track playing, please?'. It generally starts with the beat, then I'm curious. I remember some projects a lot more than others - probably because there were some good times connected to them. Making music is fun; we mustn't forget this."
Which tracks or remixes of yours immediately spring to mind as highlights?
"Probably Phlash & Friends – Runnin' with Shea Soul and Exaltation with Sandra Nkake, Nathan Haines feat Verner Francis - Earth Is The Place, Peven Everett - Stuck, Earth Wind & Fire - Let's Groove, Fini Dolo - Blow, and of course Restless Soul Fun Band - Fun, to name-drop just a few. But I've enjoyed making and playing almost every dance record I've made."
You've used quite a number of aliases over the years. Did these tend to represent a particular project, or a slight difference in your sound?
"Some were just a progression of the one before, such as Electric Soul, Basic Soul and Restless Soul. Others, like Phlash, are just a play on my name. Names like 12 Bit Rephugeez, Crazy Mofo's and World Of Left Foot were spur-of-the-moment things I thought of just before delivering the tracks. They weren't flippant names, though, ever: a little philosophy and thought went into them all."
Your productions always show a huge amount of musicality. Do you play many instruments yourself?
"Not really, I tinker on the keyboards, bass guitar and drums, but I would never call myself a musician and never have. I enjoy making sounds: if they are in-key, even better! I've always surrounded myself with amazing musicians so I could concentrate on writing and production, but hanging around with these guys certainly rubbed off on me. So I experiment, let's put it that way."
How did your latest project, The Restless Soul Fun Band, come about?
"Very naturally. I had a bunch of tracks in mind, I made some more, and hey presto an LP was born. I added the singers and musicians and the project came alive. It was an organic process, very easy. The name is simply a play on the word 'funk'. Restless Soul Fun (not Funk) Band felt a lot better to me, especially as there isn't any funk on the LP. Fun! is what it says on the tin."
Are you planning to perform live with RSFB?
"Maybe. If somebody really wanted to invest in a live show we would think about it, I suppose, but at this moment there aren't any plans. Maybe on the next LP?"
The album Fun! does indeed have a palpable sense of fun and enjoyment to it. Were the studio sessions as enjoyable as the record sounds?
"Yes, entirely. It was probably the easiest album I've made. The path it took to reach BBE was a five-year process after approximately 10 months in the making. The whole story would fill this page, but needless to say it all turned out fun in the end!
"Breaking It Down took the longest, because it contains breaks, live musicians, friends and singers. Working with Shea Soul, Zansika, Mark de Clive-Lowe and Toni Economides has always been a blast. Toni plays harmonica on a few of the tracks, which for me is very special. As a mixer, musician and mentor, Toni is the full package.
"Another very talented pair, Ommas Keith and Motet, came to my house, helped me construct my son's trampoline in the garden, then Ommas and I wrote Joy. It took 25 minutes to get the beat rolling, then another 25 for Ommas to play all the keys on a Juno 106. Song done!
"My son is on the LP doing backing shouts as well. So yeah, it was fun."
What other artists and labels are you into right now?
"Dego and the 2000 Black family, Rekids, BBE, Rainy City, Paranoid London, The Mighty Zaf, etc, etc… I never know what to say to this question, I like so many types of music!
"Lately I've been listening to a lot of records: Michael Urbaniak's Constellation, Brian Eno, roots reggae and dub (especially), Steve Reich, 80s pop, 90s hip-hop and 00s electronica. I have a soft spot for a song, a long arrangement and a warm sound."
What's coming up next for Phil Asher?
"I've just remixed some wonderful songs for the Real Nois label and a new label out of Heartbeat Records in Paris, and I'm constantly writing with Dan Kiely for his Wood N Waveforms Project.
"I don't know, maybe I'll make some more house music. Luckily I still get to DJ a lot, so I'm happy for that. And a holiday sounds like fun!"
Words: Will Sumsuch
Fun! by the Restless Soul Fun Band is out now on BBE