Established 10 years ago in the heart of Soho (London’s localised hub for record stores), Phonica Records may have joined a community in decline but while others around it were failing, Phonica found success with the help of its power team Simon Rigg, Heidi and Tom Relleen alongside early staff such as Will Saul, Pete Herbert and the sadly missed Martin Dawson. Over the years they established themselves as the place to locate the emerging German pre-minimal sound of the moment and it soon became a meeting point for DJs in town to secure those most wanted cuts.
On my way to interview Simon Rigg, the original founder of Phonica Records, the talking points I imagined our conversation would be dominated by were the challenges they face in this digital age: the decline of vinyl and the rise of hyper-commercial EDM and all that negative stuff. But what actually became evident from the outset was that Phonica is a success story of the house and techno underground’s purest principals: quality output and community.
While the team has changed over the years from the aforementioned founders who’ve all gone onto do good and great things – Heidi an international and in demand DJ with a residency on BBC Radio One and Will Saul prolific for his own output and label Aus Music - their current roster of in store helpers are promising their own contributions and successes to the scene. That’s something we’re further looking forward to having represented in full this Saturday when we mark 10 Years of Phonica across both Rooms One and Three here in Farringdon. From the old school to the new generation and the growth of their in house label, we got the low down from Rigg, which comes backed up by Sarah Ginn’s first class photo documentation of the store as it looks today.
We should probably start by going back to 2003 when you founded Phonica, who was involved in establishing the shop and what spurned you on to do so?
The owners of Vinyl Factory approached me because I was also running another record shop called Koobla Records at the time and they asked me if I wanted to open a shop. So I left to prepare all that and I also brought on board my friends and workmates at the time in the old shop which was Heidi and Tom Relleen and so the three of us we opened the shop.
So yeah, we just opened, we didn’t advertise it. It was the kind of time when no record shops were opening, it wasn’t the best time as a lot of shops were closing down. We were a little bit worried at first but it soon took off and within a short space of time we were kind of doing really well. We also became known for a particular kind of music that was becoming really popular in the early 2000's and that was the Kompakt German pre-minimal sound which nobody else was really selling so that’s what we did really well on, then afterwards you know Ricardo Villalobos, Perlon and that kind of stuff sold really well for us and that was what we became known for.
So you really found your identity in this particular sound that was emerging – was it important to make yourself stand out in this way?
I think the point is that we weren't just one genre because at the time there were lots of shops who were like this is what we do: ‘we do house’, or ‘we do techno’ and we just wanted to sell all genres of dance music, electronic music. So yeah, we just opened, we didn’t advertise it. It was the kind of time when no record shops were opening, it wasn’t the best time as a lot of shops were closing down. We were a little bit worried at first but it soon took off and within a short space of time we were doing really well.
That time when you’re talking about such amount of dance music in the mainstream has changed a lot, especially with online giving music more exposure and availability – has this impacted on the way you do business? Have you had to adapt?
I don't think it's changed the way we do our business because before if you heard a record out and you didn't get it on vinyl then you probably never would hear it again or you would have it on a cassette or a mix or something. But now it's the other way round you always have access to every bit of music out there and you can always get it on Spotify or Last.fm or it’s on every mix that some DJ's put out so getting that actual track to listen to is easy but getting that track to own for those people who want to own it is harder and it's what people want to do people still want to source out those particular records and buy them to play over and over again and not just hear in a mix. And of course most of our customers are DJ's as well so they're sourcing those records to play out themselves.
And for the DJ’s do you think Phonica is a kind of collective space, meeting point and hub still?
Yes definitely on a busy afternoon or a Saturday and they'll come in there'll be djs such as Ben UFO , Four Tet, Seth Troxler or whoever's playing at fabric probably that weekend they'll be down in the shop such as Dixon or Ame so you know it's still a meeting place and all the London based DJ's who are regulars you know they come in, it's quite a social place.
I think it’s a really interesting and nice thing that with the staff that they’ve all gone onto do so well for themselves and now there’s a new wave of them who’re coming down to rep in Room Three on Saturday – can you tell us a bit about the artists you’ve picked to celebrate 10 Years with us this weekend?
It’s a social affair, kind of like Phonica is. A lot of people have worked here and have been an integral part of the shop so they're all playing whether that's Heidi who obviously was one of the founding members. She was such an important part of the shop and now she's gone onto be a Radio 1 DJ and she basically tours the world now, she's the most successful of all the Phonica staff and she hasn't played at fabric for a while. Then of course there's Hector and Anthea who were both here for about 3-4 years so we wanted to invite them - it's like the Phonica family coming back. We're all in Room three other than Heidi but it's a family affair in RM3 with Johnny Rock who worked here for a number of years who is playing with all the current team. Now,in room 1 , Levon Vincent he doesn't really need much introduction but he's probably our best selling artist for 12"'s in the shop but we could probably sell about three times as many as we could sell because it's usually very limited but I would say that he was the typical Phonica sound. This is what we sell a lot of and we love his music his production is excellent and we were also the first people to bring him to the UK when we played fabric i can't remember how many years ago…
We’re such huge fans of Levon here too of course, thanks to you it seems
He's a really nice guy and I remember when me and Anthea we heard his records and thought wow we must invite him over to play, but we'd never heard him DJ. So we asked him to send over a mix and it was very different [from his production] it was very soulful house and we were expecting it to be darker. And I think Anthea said ‘You need to do it again, we need to send it to Judy [the fabric booker] and she isn’t going to like it’. So we got him to do it again he sent back it was great! It was so much better and it was what we were kind of expecting and we sent it to Judy and she was like ‘oh yeah this is great let's get him to play.’ I remember when he actually came he took me and Anthea aside and said that he was so glad you got me to do that mix again as he rushed it and he just wanted to get it out there. So I'm glad that he came and did it for us
All the mixes he's done are really out there, mind blowing the ones he’s done for our blog and of course his fabric 63 mix, and what about the rest of the guests?
So we've got all these people and A Guy Called Gerald we wanted because he's an old friend of the shop, he is making excellent new productions such as his last single on Bosconi but he's been around for a long time and we wanted someone with a long standing you know. And I'm looking forward to just hearing Voodoo Ray played at our birthday at fabric.
And then for new artists from our label we have Lord of the Isles playing live, he's released a record on our own label and we have another release ready and waiting to go which should be out in the new year and he's also contributed to our 10th Anniversary compilation so that's why we wanted him.
You'll have to tell us about the compilation - I was going to ask about the label it was only really started in 2009 a few years after you established the shop…
Once we kind of got used to the amount of work we had to do with running the shop and we got a lot more staff we thought ‘oh maybe we should do a label’. The label started off basically because we had productions by staff such as Hector and Anthea and we really wanted to put them out, plus people were offering us tracks. It's not as though we had this idea of this is what we're going to do, it was more that we had good music and we wanted to put it out! So now we also have the PhonicaWhite label as well and then Phonica Special Editions which features full sleeve artwork and 180g heavy vinyl and that's less dancefloor oriented records. The 10 Years compilation was supposed to be out in autumn but it's been delayed now until February it’s going to be a triple album, triple CD and then another three vinyl samplers because we had so many tracks to put on and they’re all exclusive.
So these are a mixture of people who work here and people who are your regulars?
There’s only one from a current staff member and thats Alex Egan as The Draughtsman and he's also released on Erol Alkan's label. Basically it's people like Joe Claussell, STL, Roman Flugel, Joakim, Juju & Jordash, I-Cube, DJ Kaos, Psychemagik and then some more up and coming names whose records we really liked such as Moire, Lo Shea, Ol. We also have Morales the legendary disco producer Mr G of course who's a bit of a legend Legowelt you know there's loads of people…
Sounds great, with your current team in the shop being so linked in with music, for someone who is interested in music and want to get involved in what’s going on, how do you think working at Phonica helps with that?
Well it's still hard work and the shop’s always busy from the moment we open and there's lots of internet sales on the website so that all has to be done, but you know there's lots of rewards from whether it's you know hearing all the new music first and actually having time to listen to it all and seeing it before it goes, because the good stuff sells the quickest obviously. And it's a social place so , as a staff member, you can meet a lot of other djs and producers and people you respect.
What about you and your role - how has that changed in anyway in hat you're actually doing?
?.It hasnt changed too much over the years - I do all the buying so it's mostly the buying and the managing so I'm not on the counter very much these days which I kind of miss because the enjoyable part of the job is actually talking to people and giving them what they want. So I don't do that as much anymore and we don't organise as many nights as we used to unless it’s somewhere we're like fabric where everything is taken care of and you just have to worry about the music!
Now you’re at 10 years, do you have an idea as to where you want to take Phonica?
Well at the moment I think we're just trying to do what we do at the moment but better, such as improving our website so we're getting a brand new website in the next month, after a year of waiting, so we’re looking forward to that. Then the label will continue have so many good releases coming out of the label I'm really excited about that especially about the compilation and if that goes well we’ll be doing more of those.
Before we finish can we chat about the new staff playing on the 5th we derailed a bit earlier…
I think we have a really good team now with Vangelis, Nick and Brian and everyone else so I just wanted to say that and not forgetting Soho as well who's playing in RM1 . So what is really nice is that it does cover a lot of music, so you will hear an eclectic set from everyone in RM3 from Brian's disco to Nick's set - hopefully, he'll play all over the place: techno and kind of what's called ‘outsider house’, yeah I'll put that in inverted commas - leftfield house we like to call it - and then I'll probably come in at the end and play lots of Phonica classics from the last 10 years
Photography by Sarah Ginn.