“Phony Ppl is for the goddamn people,” says Maffyuu the drummer. “The people is what got us here, and we will always remember that.” The five-piece band from Brooklyn are made up of highly trained musicians Elbee Thrie (lead vocals), Bari Bass (bass guitar), Elijah Rawk (lead guitar), Aja Grant (keys) and Matt “Maffyuu” Byas (drums). Meeting them at SXSW 2019 after their StubHub show, their energy and dynamic is unmatched. Having played together for over eight years, grown up in Brooklyn and now and split between the close-by neighbourhoods of Bed Stuy and Crown Heights, these guys are family.
Regardless of their extensive history, Phony Ppl only signed last year to 300 Entertainment, half-way through making their latest album, mō’zā-ik. Having appeared on Tiny Desk in March of this year, currently playing a residency at the legendary Blue Note in New York, and continuously announcing global festivals, the band is versatile. “As musicians we’ve adapted ourselves to learn how to play in different settings. We’re able to compact and expand anywhere,” says Aja. Elbee continues his thought (as the guys do for each other throughout): “Being DIY for so many years, you start off small, then you get to bigger venues. You try and think about every space you’re performing in and who you’re doing it for.” Having supported the likes of Pusha T and Kali Uchis on tour, Phony Ppl have proven their music is most definitely for the many, and not for the few, as Elbee puts it, “We’re humans from earth. Music is music, sound is sound. The fact that I could hit you and I’ve never met you, never seen you, that’s amazing.”
Watching them for the first time before the interview, it’s notable how little ego is present. They are a five piece band but everyone receives equal light and praise. When it comes to making the music, the structure is just as flat, as Maffyuu explains: “We just try to respect everybody’s opinion, there’s no, “Listen, I’m better than you at this.” All of us deliver ideas for bass, guitar, keys, the same way they deliver me ideas for drums. It’s humbling because you’re allowed to be vulnerable in your own instrument and see things in a different light.” One might imagine this elongates the creative process to almost a standstill with infinite opinions bouncing around, but Bari explains it’s all part of the magic: “It may take a while to make a decision but that decision is very sound and solid, and that translates to the stage…We’re such nerds about what we do that it makes it easier for us to not have to have any arguments or discrepancies. I think we just all try to look at it as opportunities and challenges, rather than good or bad.”
This approach seems to have worked well in mō’zā-ik, their most successful release to date. Elijah explains: “mō’zā-ik is just a product of us having to have patience. If you would’ve asked us after Yesterday’s Tomorrow, “You guys trying to take almost four years to make the next album?” We’d be like, “No.” But really, we had to learn so much about life.” The outcome is a beautiful mix of ethereal, soulful sounds, intimate lyrics and a heavy dose of jazz. It’s clear that this body of work couldn’t have been made any other way, at any other time. It’s a product of the band’s cumulative experiences, connections and emotions, all brought forth at their own pace. Aja continues, “We have done a lot of building ourselves up in a very traditional old school way. We go a lot of places, split up and come back with five friends. Between Yesterday’s Tomorrow and mō’zā-ik, we were trying to soak up as much as we could from our life before we rushed a project that we might not have been 100% proud of.”
Clearly, a huge accelerator was getting signed. Elijah elaborates: “The bottom half of mō’zā-ik happened in a few weeks. The first half took years. After we got signed, we had to have that period of learning what more resources is like, what having a machine behind you is like and not having to worry about paying for studio time.” Of course this scenario has its benefits, but there was also a conscious adjustment to not disrupt the dynamic that got them this far: “It makes us be a little extra careful because things can happen that much faster. You don’t want to bring a bad idea to life, fast.” Especially in this landscape where we’re used to seeing project releases the day after a studio session, this is not the route Phony Ppl wanted to tread, and quite rightly. For a group of musicians who know how a good song is made, the resources are being used to emphasise what they already do, not multiply output for the sake of it.
Working on new music already, their excitement is infectious. Maffyuu uncovers some of their collaborators: “From the other projects we released, we’ve been working with producers…Ivan Barias, Kaytranada, a lot of people to cultivate this new look on Phony Ppl and the kind of environment we want to set for the forthcoming project.” From their individual personalities, to unbounding energy, to sheer talent, it’s not surprising these guys have built up a network over the years, from which they have thrived: “It’s a big deal in terms of how much we’ve done with ourselves and just the relationships of friends. It makes us feel because Phony Ppl this band, we’re all built on musicians and creating new ideas and that ultimately is what makes us feel the most successful, the most strong.”
Although Phony Ppl have entered a new era by signing, their vision isn’t clouded: “At the end of the day, excuse my French, but we’re not dickheads. We know the amount of discipline and the amount of persistence it takes to achieve that kind of success,” Maffyuu says. “I remind everybody this is what we signed up to do as musicians. We always planned to be on the road and making sure that we’re spreading music for the love and to inspire other people.” Elbee has a particularly philosophical outlook, which other members echo: “Success is momentary and successfulness is infinity. Where I was two years ago, I’m looking back and I’m smiling. And where I’m about to be two years from now, I’m looking up like, ‘Aw shit, here we go’.”
When you meet a group who are as skilled musicians as they are special people, you feel a duty to spread their gospel. Phony Ppl deserve the world, and they’re finally getting it. Not without accolades and support from well-respected peers throughout their careers, it’s due time for them to receive the added resources they need to make their music more seamlessly, and travel the world more easily. Self-described as “noGENRE”, Phony Ppl make the kind of music you can listen to in any place, in any mood, and feel better about the world. More power to them and to those inevitable fans who are inspired by their positive outlook and immense talents.
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