With a pan-dimensional outlook toward music, Phillip Washington aka Cygnus approaches electro with an illustrative, science fiction mindset. His machine funk on labels CPU, Electro Records and others juxtaposes silky relaxing melodies with smooth dancefloor drums to feed the soul and expand the mind for inner harmony. He’s an avid gear-head and video gamer, who is transmitting from his home studio in Dallas.
“When I was a kid, the first time I saw that word ‘cygnus’, it was the password that you entered into a video game called Flashback.
“I looked at the word and was transfixed. It spoke to me. My breathing slowed down, my heart rate increased, and I got some interesting visuals. It felt like my brain was getting information that had been encoded into that word.
“You ever met somebody and felt like you’ve known them for lifetimes? I saw that word and was like, wow, that’s me, isn’t it. That was the first time I identified with that word and I’ve been using it as a as a moniker for… I’m 35 now… I guess that would make around 30 years.
“There’s also the constellation Cygnus – its name comes from the Greek word for swan. I’m a big fan of swans. They’re graceful, beautiful animals. So, it’s a kind of multi-faceted appreciation for the word and everything that it means.”
On his musical background…
“I’ve always loved music. I took piano lessons when I was a kid. My dad had me and my brothers learn piano. He was a producer, and a doctor, and had a home music studio.
“I had seen all these movies where you have the computer room and you have the battle station with all these knobs and buttons and things like that. And my dad had all these synthesizers and drum machines and computers, and I was always peeking my head into the door when I was really little, like, what is that stuff?
“His name is Dr. Ronald J. Washington and he released this stuff that was called Therapeutic Medical Relaxation. You can’t find it anymore. He only ever released it on CD cause it was the ’90s. Maybe a digital version exists somewhere, but if anybody can find the CD, I would be astonished.
“He taught me how to use all the gear when I was super young, like how to make samples, how to use MIDI. A lot of this was on the first version of CakeWalk, which, nobody believes me ran on MS-DOS. It was terrible. It was a fucking headache. And he taught me how to write songs, how to record – you play a note on the thing and it would record into the computer and then you could hit play on the computer, and it would play it back. That blew my mind the first time I saw it.
“So, a very musical family. My mom was a singer. My older brother is a drummer, an excellent drummer. I just got influenced by seeing my dad make computer music.”
On his love of technology…
“Of course, being into technology and video games and all that, I liked how computers were involved in making music. I thought that you had to do it all by hand, I didn’t think you could do it all by yourself in front of a computer.
“I got my start just messing around with my dad’s stuff. As I grew up, I got some computer software for early stuff. When I got into the teenage days and early twenties, I was on Ableton and started buying gear. I skipped going to college because I wanted to get a job so I could buy synthesizers and drum machines.
“My dad had an AKAI Ensoniq ASR sampler, which was really fun because you could record anything and then play it back at different pitches. That blew my mind.
“With my brother, we would scream curse words into it and just record weird, funny stuff, record the TV, then play it back and just laugh our asses off at how weird you can make stuff sound.
“Then we found out you could sequence it and make beats out of it, and we laughed even harder. We had a JD 900, 808, all these Roland racks, Roland sound canvas, so much more. We also had a lot of sound packs in the computer that were fun.”
On his first studio gear…
“The first synthesizers that I owned myself included a Boss SP-303. I bought it with my friends when I was in high school. I then got a Juno 106 and DX7, but I didn’t like the DX7, I got rid of it. But the first gear that I really liked was the Elektron stuff – the Machinedrum and Monomachine. I also bought a lot of the groove boxes. I’ve owned and sold so much gear over the years. But now I feel like I have what I need.”
“The Monomachine particularly is a tremendous experience. A lot of people who bought one would then treat it like a video game console or a TV or any other consumer electronic. I bought that thing and I didn’t leave my bedroom for like a year and a half. I was just playing with it, doing cool stuff with it, and I fell in love with it. That was the first time I really developed a deep connection with something that didn’t have blood or lungs, you know. I just really, truly loved it. I still have it. It doesn’t work anymore, but I do truly love it, man. It’s awesome. I want that kind of experience for everybody too. Absolutely.”
On the thematic link between science fiction and electro…
“In every science fiction movie, the groundwork is usually related to a scientific truth – something that we expect to obey the laws of the universe and follow a pathway down a logical trajectory.
“And then that thing gets weird and then the entertainment starts, right? You get stimulated. You’re like, what if this happened, where they take an idea of something that’s a robust, scientific idea and they make it a million times bigger than it is.
“When you’re watching these kinds of movies, especially when you’re a kid, man, your mind expands. You get a broad panoramic expansion of your mind. It really does something to you. You can always identify a person who is really into science fiction and it’s before they even say anything, it’s just a look, it’s something, it’s the way they regard the world around them. It’s always drawn a lot of respect out of me for people that have a similar kind of vision.
“So largely the music that I make is for people like that, which celebrates science fiction and the broadening of the mind into a comprehensive structure of ideas.
“The machines are an implement to accomplish that. The man-machine interface we’re in, a high-fidelity connection between the user and the instrument, can be so powerful. That’s really something deeply spiritual, where the borderline between body and knob and button and fader and sound disappears. It’s a kind of science fiction-y thing if we’re talking about the theme of transcendence or, say, cybernetics.”
On science fiction influences…
“I, Robot, Asimov. I read a lot of Asimov. And it’s kind of cheesy and people make fun of me for this, but I actually highly rate Michael Crichton. A lot of his stuff’s cheesy, Hollywood stuff, but I liked him a whole lot growing up. Besides that, the usuals, Arthur C. Clarke, I love Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash and William Gibson’s Neuromancer, which changed my mind. I had the basic science fiction diet.
“I was hugely drawn into anime too. I saw Ghost in the Shell in the theatre during its first domestic United States release and that changed my life permanently – it altered me similar to how you’ll hear about like a Pentecostal Christian awakens to Christ. I had a similar experience when I saw that movie in the theatres. I’ve watched it hundreds of times since then as a reminder of what’s really going on. I ran with a lot of the ideas in my head from the movies and the books that I ingested growing up. I took them literally.
“Crying Freeman, Fist of the Northstar, Bio Boosted Armour Guyver, Cyber City. Anyone who is reading this, you know exactly what I’m into. If you’ve heard my music, you know it’s there. These types of stories are so good for people’s minds. To witness something so absurd, and at such a young age, I think that’s excellent and a great place to start appreciating creativity.”
On the science fiction concepts in his music…
“I’ve never talked about this before and you’re the first interviewer who has picked up on the concepts denoted in the track names. So, there are three distinct universes within all of my music. There’s the biosoft universe and within that is a little remaining bit of the Icasean, which was a net label started by Satoshi Aizawa, Tom Knapp and Alex Peverett in 2009 and the first label I participated with.
“I was really inspired by the vibe, the collective, the theme of it. I keep the theme of Icasean alive with some of the Biosoft releases in which you can piece it together if you listen to the tracks.
“There’s the machine funk universe, which I created in tandem with Alek Stark, who runs and started Fundamental Records, which is now Electro Records. That has its own narrative story.
“If you get the first edition of the Machine Funk LP, I wrote a story behind it. I’m actually writing a five-part story, kind of like a comic book. When you open the record, you will get to read about a place in the distant future where climate change has claimed most of humanity and there’s something like 800 million people left on the planet and most of them exist in a simulated AI. Then there are hacker groups that are basically trying to claim what’s called a Xeli Cube. You just have to read it. This is what you’re spending your money on, haha.
“Now, I can’t explain the whole thing, you’ll just have to dig into it, but there is another universe that I’ll expound as things develop.”
On the most important dimension to his music…
“Within all the stories and my tracks, the themes and the lyrics that I write in tandem with the music have a sense of relaxation and a theme of meditation.”There’s a lot of electro that people make now that’s for the dancefloors at big clubs, but I come from the IDM world so I like the idea of combining the vibe of smooth, relaxing pads, strings and lush flowing healing energies with hard hitting funky beats and deep basslines. We’re here to dance and celebrate and enjoy life, which also includes the time to relax and chill out.”
“With the Machine Funk tracks, I feel like I’m trolling people a bit because the cover is a drawing of my face by a guy named Paul Calvet in which I look really mean. I’m frowning and kind of frustrated, but when you listen to the tracks on there, they’re actually smooth, jazzy.
“I can never really keep from making smooth tracks and handing that dimension over to people and seeing how they react to it. They seem to really be into it, so I’ll keep doing it.”
On describing his music…
“If you were totally new to electronic music, I would ask do you like to dance fast or dance slow? I got tracks for either one of those moods. Do you like to just sit back and relax? Do you like cartoons? Have you ever wondered what animation sounds like? Think of your favourite scene from your favourite movie and subtract all the actors and the concepts and things, now what does it sound like in a raw audio form? I got tracks for all that too.
“I was supposed to go to college to learn how to be a cartoonist, but I dropped out so I could get a job because I wanted to buy synthesizers and play gigs, and I wanted to hang out with girls too.
“So, I think my music is very visual. I would say, no, you don’t have to dance to any of it. You can just sit back and relax and think about cool stuff or just let yourself be happy – just enjoy the act of listening to music. I would say it’s a celebration of science fiction, anime, meditation and the expansion of the human consciousness.”
On the scene in Dallas…
“Right now, it’s non-existent, of course. There’s an RA article titled something like Dallas, electro’s second city. There are a lot of people here doing electro, such as myself, Gerard Hanson aka Convextion, Brian Bishop, Dover aka Blixaboy who’s released on CPU and more.
“There’s a lot of people who really, really love electro here. It’s a small, tight knit group of people, but for the amount of love that we pour into it, it’s really big.
“We have a broad audience, some of which we borrowed from the house, EDM and techno scenes. We get a lot of the goth people liking electro because they really love sci-fi.
“Electro brings everybody together. It also has the Latino aspect to it with how it relates to Latin freestyle from the early eighties, late eighties, which is my favourite aspect of it. I love that vibe, you know?”
“We have one night here called Computer Love that is usually me, Ricky Simpson, DJ R-9, who’s one of the best DJs I’ve seen in my life, Wanz Dover, DJ Cymatic, Gina Garza and others.
“We also have the proton parties, big warehouse parties where you can go dance to some electro. There’s also house parties where things are going along and then somebody just breaks out the records and starts playing some Drexciya, then it’s going down.”
On how Dallas influences his music…
“There’s a lot of industry here in Dallas, it’s a big commerce city. Funny anecdote, I heard this 15 years ago and I don’t know if it’s true or not, but Metroplex records, which is based in Detroit, was named after the Dallas Metroplex. Whether that’s true or not, I cannot verify, but I’ve heard it enough.
“People say it that Dallas inspires electro in a general sense, but for me it’s my friends. I just like my friends so much and I want to make cool music for them to listen to – it’s about the people.
On the day job…
“I work in technical configurations and support for high-end gaming PCs for a computer company. I also do a little bit of employee training and just kind of some general clean up. I keep the place clean. I’ll just put it that way.
On video games…
“I grew up playing a shitload of video games and there’s something really stimulating about hearing the same sounds dozens of times. I like the crunchiness of 8-bit video games, man.
“I love Metal Slug, Final Fantasy, the JRPGs. I love all the Japanese games. I played all of it. I grew up in the arcades playing a lot of Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter, Eight Man and those Neo Geo SNK cabinets. Those are like holy temples for me.
“Speaking of which, my friend Thomas Evanson and I started working on a video game called Epsilon Wars. It’s a space artillery strategy game with Newtonian gravity simulation. You have to bend your shots around planets and suns and in order to hit ships – it’s pretty crazy. I did all the music for it and a bit of principal design. It’s out in November.
On his studio gear and secret weapons…
“Very, very good question. I have two secret weapons in my studio that I have never told anyone about, but they are absolutely seminal and required for me to do what I do.
“I know maybe like six or seven other people who have one of these things, and I will never tell anyone about it. You will just have to work it out or get to know me and maybe one day I will tell you.
“Other than that, the Elektron boxes, the Digitakt, the Digitone, the AKAI Force, which I’m still getting to know it though – we’re in our honeymoon phase. I was a big fan of the Waldorf Blofeld. I did so many tracks with that, all the songs on Rainy Days or Neon Flux. Every track I’ve made in the past, five or six years has had two synthesizers on it that I’ll never reveal.
On his relationship with record labels…
“Chris Smith approached me during the Icasean days and asked me to do the first record for his label. I think he liked the tracks and I was happy to do it, and that kind of started off a whole bunch of stuff for me, including touring with Warp and Autechre in 2015.
“Ari Goldman. He’s a really great guy. He approached me about doing a vinyl release because he really liked Rainy Days, and it became a Biosoft release with artwork from Bobby St. Alban.
“Craigie Knowes just hit me up. These are all just people who wanted to put my tracks out. In some cases, they were older tracks that were available digitally and then got put onto vinyl. In other cases, like DMX, people just said ‘hey, you should do a release with us,’ and I was like, all right, cool.
On the process of making music…
“Gear doesn’t really matter. It’s your brain, it’s the attitude and the approach that you take. The attitude and approach I bring to making music is the same as what I bring to reading a good book or watching my favourite anime or spending time with my girlfriend or watching TV or having a good night’s sleep. I make sure to put my best wishes out there and have a lot of gratitude and bring a lot of mindfulness to it, so that things turn out right.
On his upcoming music…
“I’m working on the next Barba Records release, titled NeoGeo. After that, I’m working on stuff with a more Chicago house vibe to it with electro and vocoder running through it.
“I’m working on the next Machine Funk releases, doing a four tracker for a label in Dallas, and some remixes. It’s a full-time job.”
This transmission was brought to you by…
Acid_303, a pseudonym for a writer, DJ and budding producer from Melbourne, Australia, who sees the sonic interface between man and machine as a medium for self-enlightenment.