Label of the Month: Phantasy Sound

Sean Griffiths learns about the history, development, and fearless genre exploration behind Erol Alkan’s celebrated Phantasy Sound imprint.

16 min
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May 3, 2021
Sean Griffiths

What do you do when you’ve just been named DJ of the Year by Mixmag, the small London club night you started for friends 10 years earlier is widely considered to be one of the most influential in Europe, and kids up and down the UK are walking around in black t-shirts with your name scrawled across them in a now iconic red font?

“My instinct was to deliberately not capitalize on any of those things,” says a perma-stubbled Erol Alkan as we speak over Zoom one Tuesday morning. “It felt like a really good time to just take a different step.”

That different step included moving into music production, working on 21, the second-album from South London indie band The Mystery Jets; and the other “different step” was setting up record label Phantasy Sound. Launched in October 2007, the first release on the label was “Engine” by LA Priest, a side-project by Sam Eastgate, the singer of then little-known and unsigned band Late Of The Pier, whose debut album Erol would go on to produce.

“I remember Sam playing me some music he’d made separately to Late of the Pier, and I asked him if he was going to release it. I don’t think he’d even thought about it,” Erol says. “I told him we were starting a label and asked if he’d be interested in putting it out on Phantasy.”

Now something of a national treasure within the British electronic music scene, it’s easy to forget just how much of a phenomenon Erol Alkan was back in 2007. He’d built his name as a DJ, initially at Trash, the club night he ran with friends, first at the original 180 capacity Plastic People on Oxford Street, and later, The End. Playing mostly “glam rock and ‘60s music,” Erol, a veritable musical omnivore, began dropping in the odd dance record and taking note of the crowd reaction. “I remember playing ‘The Green Man’ by Shut Up and Dance, this insane and intense electronic record amongst David Bowie and just seeing it work,” he says.

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After indulging his love of electro, techno, and everything in between further with regular slots at Bugged Out’s residency in fabric, by the mid-2000s Erol, along with the likes of 2ManyDJs and LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, had begun to bring the dancefloor and the indie kids together in a way not really seen since Primal Scream dropped “Screamadelica.”

While starting a label at the height of your powers as a touring DJ might not seem such a sideways step, for Erol, launching Phantasy was about turning the spotlight towards the music he wanted to shine a light on, rather than something to use as a marketing tool to build his own brand further and demand higher and higher DJ fees for bigger and bigger shows.

“It started as a singles club, really,” he says. “The whole idea was for it to be a springboard for artists we believed in to start on the right path to getting a proper record deal. And all the artists we released early on, like Primary 1 and Fan Death, they went on to sign with majors or big indies.”

The early releases on the label included the aforementioned LA Priest debut single, “Engine,” which combined a cascading 8-bit melody with a gripping synth bassline; “Veronica Veil,” a disco-tinged mid-tempo stomper from Brooklyn duo Fan Death; and Riton and Primary 1’s “Who’s There,” a classic slice of sleazy late-noughties electro house.

“It was really organic how it all worked back then,” Erol says. “We found a lot of those early acts, like Primary 1, Fan Death, and Babe, Terror on Myspace. We liked the music and wanted to give them a leg up. By the time an act like Fan Death actually came over to the UK, NME were all over them and they were the hottest new band in the country for a moment.”

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Sat in front of a vast wall of 12-inch records, wearing a grey sweater with the name of his record label emblazoned across the front, Erol Alkan was, and still very much is, the archetypal record store kid.

“Pure Groove was literally at the end of the street!” he says, as he recounts tales of buying early 12-inch releases on Warp, XL, and Outer Rhythm in his teens.

“The obvious labels that influenced me early on were things like Creation and Factory,” Erol says. “And Island Records because I loved what Chris Blackwell did where he’d sign a band and then produce them and work very closely with them to help them develop.”

If there’s a strain that holds all the records released on Phantasy over the last 14 years together, it’s what Erol terms “a certain ‘Psychedelic Sensibility.’” So much so that when they put out their first retrospective mix and compilation last year (mixed by music journalist and Phantasy affiliate DJ John Loveless), that’s what they called it.

“At the heart of Phantasy, we’ve always had a very left of centre bent,” Erol says. Sometimes I’ll hear something we’re putting out and think ‘that could potentially be really popular and touch the mainstream,’ but even then it’s quite leftfield compared to a lot of other stuff around. We always slip back into that psychedelic edge.”

That ‘psychedelic edge’ is none more apparent than on the 2011 debut album from New Zealander Connan Mockasin. “That was another really organic signing,” Erol says. “As he’d moved to London from New Zealand and my friend Fred had become his bass player. He brought the album round, we listened to it in my living room and straight away I said, ‘Can we put it out on Phantasy please?’ We weren’t really set up to release albums properly at the time, so we struck a deal with Because Music in France so they could invest in it and help market it, as that album deserved to be heard and released properly.”

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“I think that record is quintessentially Phantasy,” says John Loveless, who has been involved with Phantasy in a creative capacity since 2013. “I loved the attention to detail and presentation of it and also that on the remix. Erol took this weird psychedelic record and turned it into this incredibly bittersweet dance floor anthem.”

A longtime devotee of the art of the record, Erol used the label’s first album release as an opportunity to indulge further into the world-building that goes into releasing music, encouraging Connan to use his own paintings as the album artwork and producing a wonderfully surreal video for the album’s title track “Forever Dolphin Love.”

“I love helping with sleeve design and album artwork and helping people finish music and mixing and mastering,” Erol says. “With that album, it felt like everything went widescreen for the label.”

“The one thing Erol told me very early on is, ‘whatever you do creatively, just do it for yourself and your circle of friends first and foremost,” says longtime Phantasy affiliate Daniel Avery, who cites “oddball and heavy psychedelic records from the dustier corners of the label by acts like U and Babe Terror” as his favourites. “That’s what he did with Trash and that’s definitely what he’s always done with Phantasy. It’s music he believes in that he wants to hand to his friends and go, ‘Have you heard this record? It’s amazing.’ I don’t think that’s ever changed in him and it’s a philosophy that’s in line with mine.”

Now “a relative superstar in our world,” according to Loveless, when Daniel Avery first started working on what would become his 2013 debut album Drone Logic, it wasn’t abundantly clear to everyone what a phenomenon it would become.

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“The music Dan was making early doors was not fashionable at the time,” says John. “But Erol really heard something in it and he’s great at trusting his instincts with an artist and believing there’s something there in the depths of their creativity that he can help bring out.”

Seeing an opportunity to indulge further in the kind of 360-artist development his hero Chris Blackwell is famed for, Erol and Phantasy were pivotal in helping Avery create the world around Drone Logic, leading to it becoming one of the most celebrated techno albums of the past 10 years.

“Myself and Dan have a real affinity as we’re coming from an alternative background, and have a real appreciation of that indie culture and what those records mean to us,” Erol says. “So with Drone Logic and the ‘Water Jump’ EP, all our conversations revolved around approaching those records as if they were being released by a band as opposed to a fairly anonymous producer. Don’t get me wrong, I love a lot of labels that take an anonymous approach and just put out plain black sleeves. But for me, helping build this world and aesthetic around the music which will potentially live forever, it really satisfies a creative urge in me.”

Check out Daniel Avery’s ‘Together In Static’ Beatport Chart.

It’s an approach that’s led plenty of other artists towards the label too, with Berlin-based Brazilian producer and DJ Terr saying that the label’s broad-minded approach to the art of music is what singled it out when she was seeking a home for her new music.

“I love the open-minded attitude they have towards releases, music, and art,” she says. “It’s a dance music label but it goes far beyond that. There’s a genuine soul behind everything they do.”

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While being a springboard and incubator for countless new artists over the years, from James Welsh to Terr to Ghost Culture, Phantasy has also allowed Erol to further develop his own music and production style. He released the Illumination EP back in 2013, his first body of solo original material, as well as the debut album from his and Richard Norris’ Beyond the Wizards Sleeve project in 2016.

“I always viewed myself as a DJ who shared music but didn’t necessarily make it, Erol says. “But then there came a point where I just had that urge to make things. Getting to work with someone like [ex Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci] Euros Child on the Beyond The Wizards Sleeve album was incredible. I’m a massive fan of Gorky’s since my teens and having him say yes to being on it, then being sat in my living room eating veggie burgers I’d made for him was just amazing. I’m a massive fan of the things I love and never want to lose that.”

Despite experiencing a year where Erol admits it felt ‘very strange’ to be releasing club records, Phantasy Sound has been in top form lately, with key releases coming since the pandemic struck , including Avery’s Love + Light album and the “Lone Swordsman” project. However, Loveless says the label spent 2020 “getting its ducks in a row” so they can spend the next year “surprising people with the music we put out.”

But for Erol — who dug into the vaults of his hard drive to finish off a filter-house tinged track called ‘Automatic’ from 2007 to put out as the 100th release on the label — just getting this far is enough of an achievement.

“Stability is so important to me,” he says. “And just getting to 100 releases and managing to survive for 13 or 14 years is what I’m most proud of. It’s a great achievement for us. We’re still here and we want our music to be heard.”

Sean Griffiths is a journalist mainly covering music and popular culture. He is formerly Mixmag’s Deputy Editor and has freelanced for The Guardian, Time Out, The Big Issue, Apple Music, The Face, and others. Find him on Twitter.