I start our conversation with a question that I suspect Phil Gamble, AKA Girl Unit, will be asked frequently around his debut album, Song Feel. Aside from the excellent remixed single ‘WYWD’ featuring Kelela that dropped last year, now the album’s intoxicating closer, this is his first release since 2012 – ‘Have you been putting the record together for a colossal seven years?’
“Sort of, yeah. I did a lot of work on side projects and remixes as well,” he admits. “So yeah, that was one part of it. But a lot of it was wanting to get better at producing, because it’s one thing to just make instrumental music, but to write with people and actually structure songs and do songwriting is a different thing altogether. I just wanted to take my time with everything. I wanted to take some time to make a lot of stuff and just see how it worked out and sounded, putting the album together. Rather than just necessarily making the twelve tracks, I made about fifty and took what I liked.”
This approach resulted in Song Feel, a kaleidoscopic long player that manages to pay homage to the classic Night Slugs sound Gamble has pioneered for so long, while incorporating elements as varied as trap, jungle and soaring pop choruses. It’s the latter style that lends the album its stand-out moments, as tracks like ‘Stuck’ and ‘24 Hours’ dish out euphoria by the bucketload, propelled by crisp, unique Girl Unit instrumentals.
“I think a lot of it was to do with the fact I hadn’t made music for a long time. I just felt like I had a clean slate and I could do whatever I wanted,” he says of Song Feel’s genre-spanning tracklist. “I didn’t feel too tied to anything I’d done in the past, so I was really able to channel myself and just see what happened.”
On that note, it would have been a far easier win to throw some club bangers together as expected and call it your debut, I consider. But a Girl Unit full-length was never going to be predictable. Gamble replies: “I still wanted it to sound like me and I never wanted to go too much in any one direction because, I mean, I’m not an expert in any one specific genre. The idea was just to make the thing that I make and withdraw from it somewhat, but still not necessarily go so deep with it that it became disjointed. So it was a case of having to make everything sound like me, pull back a bit and medium across it, so that I never go too far in one direction.”
On repeated listens, the significance of collaboration feels integral to Song Feel’s success, although Gamble perhaps didn’t set out to make a record with so many features. “I started making instrumentals and that was mostly what the album was going to be, and it wasn’t really until I started making certain tracks and meeting up with songwriters and singers that I was able to realise the potential of them being vocal tracks.”
“…I just felt like I had a clean slate and I could do whatever I wanted…”
That potential was realised by an exhilarating array of talent, including collaborators he already had personal connections with (Rush Davis), to those he drafted in through Bok Bok and other mutual friends (Brook Baili, Ms Boogie). His process was always the same, however. “I’ll always have a conversation with the collaborator. Every track starts with just getting to know the other person and, even if I do already know them, it’s still helpful to talk about whatever’s going on and helps to get the subject out. But, for the most part, I didn’t want to give too much direction in terms of lyrical content, purely because I just want to create the setting, and I want them to tell their story in whatever way.”
The crucial connection between producer and collaborator may feel effortless to Gamble, but it elevates Song Feel into territory occupied by only the most sublime debut albums in electronic music. Well worth the seven-year wait, if you ask me.