Get To Know Phony Ppl [Interview]

Courtney Fields

Phony Ppl, the “fearless five-man band” hailing from Brooklyn, New York are comprised of lead vocalist Elbee Thrie, percussionist Matthew Byas, writer, composer, and man on the keys Aja Grant, visual artists and bass player Bari Bass, and the other half of the band's string duo Elijah Rawk. The band sat down with me as we talked growing up as musicians, challenges they face as a band, their outside interests, and more below.


What was it like for you all to grow up somewhat musically inclined? Did it ever feel like a chore or was there always no doubt in your mind the music was one of your life's purposes?


Elijah: I would say for me, at least, it never felt like a chore, it felt almost like a calling. It felt as though it was really natural and almost like my own personal responsibility to myself to dive deeper into music as I grew up. 


Matt: Facts, I know with me and music, it was a way to spend time with my sisters and go to orchestra, learn something. It was a way to escape, you know, like, I don't have to do school work. I don't have to go on this trip. You know, I could go play music, you know, have a great time on stage versus, "Damn I'm going to the zoo" or something like that. 


Bari: Yeah, I'd actually say my answer is pretty similar. I got into music to sort of like, hang out with my friends and it just got into like a journey of just progressing as you go along. 


Aja: I got into music because Bari was actually in music first... we're brothers by the way. He was playing the saxophone and I just thought it was really cool that he brought a saxophone into the house. 


That's funny, I used to play the sax in fourth grade.


Aja: Yep, it was fourth grade. 


Matt: Everyone playing the sax! 


Aja: I wanted to play the trumpet, but they put me on the baritone horn because they needed players. It was just so much fun. It was like 1-2-3.


Elbee: So for me, the only times music really felt like a chore in any sense was when I was younger in music school and there'd be something that was maybe hard to grasp at first. But then, you know, just understanding it, or doing music theory homework felt like a chore at some point when I was a kid. But the stuff that was like a chore, you grow up and you start calling upon yourself. It seemed like a hurdle when you were little, but now it's something that you're doing on your own time, so it's kind of funny how that works. So, yeah, it definitely doesn't feel like a chore now.


Do any of you all recall any specific moment that you fell in love with music, or with making music? 


Bari: I do. It was early on in Phony Ppl, but I wasn't with any of the band members. I was actually with my friend at the NYU library. This is why you hear me say I love Jamiroquai in every interview, because I was sitting down in the library with him reading about African tribes and then "Alright" by Jamiroquai came on and I just remember listening to the intro and then when it got into the full groove of the song, I had to stop working and I was just like, "oh my gosh." I was just completely taken over by the baseline, then the whole song and I was just like, "Yo, I'm glad I'm making music." Yeah, that was a significant moment. 


Aja: I think for me it was when we were working on the strings to “Yesterday’s Tomorrow.” I was writing the parts and then being so insecure about how I wrote the parts and to go to these musicians and hand it to them, and the way they interpreted and brought it to life. You know, just, it made me emotional. I was like, "Wow. Creating music is just. What I want to do for the rest of my life, you know?" 


Matt: I'm emotional every time I listen to music, I just be crying for no reason. I don't know.


Elijah: I don't know if I remember the exact moment. There were a lot of different pieces, I guess leading up to moments like different instruments over time and really liking different bands that I grew up with and learning a lot about the musicians in the band. All of that led to like this feeling of community in this world that felt really natural to be a part of. So I don't know. I don't know if I remember the exact moment, but there are definitely like significant moments over time. Significant bands, significant moments in music. 


Matt: I mean, this is I mean, I was just joking, but like literally every time, every time, like any time that I learn something, any time that I think of some new music, any time that we crushed a performance, any time that I'm playing… that's the most emotional experience. Every time I'm touching a drum I feel great. 


Elbee: Word, I think for me, I'd say early on just practicing, composing, just composing in its purest form and thinking of the spectrum of sound and how the relationships coincide between something happening in one part of the sound spectrum and something else happening at the same time in another spectrum, or silence. You know, just understanding that at a young age made me see something come together from nothing, you know, and then experimenting with that and meeting friends to actually help you and be pilots and co-pilots with you to bring these songs, or musical ideas for life. That's when I knew this was going to happen forever. The process could happen any other way. There's no right or wrong way for it to happen and no matter how it does come together, there's still that click when everything's right. It clicks when everything's right, so that click, and always looking forward to that click. No matter what kind of musical piece it is, it's something that, you know, it is a consistency to it, but it's different every single time. So the first time I experienced that was when I knew. "All right, I'll be putting music together forever."


So I read a while back that Elbee said the name Phony Ppl was born, simply out of teenage adolescence. I wanted to ask since everyone is obviously grown up a bit since then, does the name mean anything different to you all now? 


Elbee: Oh, yeah, definitely. The name has expanded and gained dimensions, you know, depth. One of the things that I love to say when I'm asked this question is the "NY" the New York that's dead in the middle of Phony Ppl? If you add a little "c" in there then you get NYC. So it's like for New York City people, you know, or for New York people. That's something that blows my mind every time. 


Bari: To add on to that, the name has expanded, and because it sort of came out of adolescence, we also gave it meaning and multiple people gave it meaning, like  sound people, phonetic people, poly phony, you know, a lot of different ways to explain the "Phony" and the "Ppl" side of it to. It's sort of grown into a spider web of a lot of great things. 


So with you all being a genreless collective, how do you all ensure that the general sound stays unique while also incorporating something each member wants? And is there any sound that you guys want to tackle next?


Elbee: The dynamic of that question and perspective, it changes per song and per piece, you know? It's even different for the same song, but the recorded version in comparison to how we perform it live over time. You know, the purpose of a particular song may be opposite to the thing it could be besides what the lyrics are, it could be a sound. It could be the way Matthew, you know, the way this kick drum changed everything that could be the purpose of the music. So that's all, we'll try to execute that in that way and make everyone happy in that sense. But there are some things that's like, "man, maybe I'm not quite happy of how it's going down right now." But, you know, with patience and brainstorming, eventually you'll get to the idea that will make the breakthrough. So, it changes form, but a lot of patience gets us to those moments where we're all happy. Usually it's the songs we've been playing for a longer amount of time that we've had time to experiment and try different things that worked, different things that didn't work. And, you know, just trial and error. 


Bari: I remember this one time on a previous album where Matthew used his actual like foot and the floor to make the kick drum. Then he used a sub kick to beef it up. There's a whole bunch of odd ways of just finding ways to record and then there's different ways of practicing that we sort of tried and that there's many other ways of trying. So, there's still more in store for the future that I think makes every song unique. Even how we perform the songs will change over time, too. So each song also has a unique identification or I.D. from when it's created even to how it lives in the present. I imagine that's something that we'll keep doing as we go forward is reinventing songs and finding ways to make new songs. 


Aja: It's no real algorithm to how we make music. I think it's a collection of what we've been listening to or a sound that we may have heard or just the tools at our disposal and exploring them and discovering and then being like, hey, that sounds nice. Just anything, like a caveman would bang on something and make a beat and or make something and be like, "oh, that sounds good." Even for me, I realized that the sessions that we find a love in are usually the ones that stick. Even with this project that we're working on right now, we tried a different approach. It's always an ongoing wheel of, "oh, let's try this, let's try that, let's try this." We're just making music how it should be made.


Elbee: Let's say we found a way for all five of us to be happy. That's a ticking time bomb even when all five of us are happy with the way we played a song. because there's going to be a day where we're like, "Yo, we're tired of playing it this way. How can we change it up?" Then once that question comes into play, then we try to find new ways to make all of us happy, you know, because we want to keep it funky and fresh for ourselves too and not be robotic, whereas it's just the same cookie cutter shit all the time. It's just like, "how can we have fun and be excited, just as excited about what we're doing as the people who are coming out to see us, or the people buying the music?" So it never ends, it literally never ends. 


Being an artist can be especially difficult, and I'm sure being a part of a five-member band has its ups and downs. So for those who are upcoming artists, or people wanting to start a band, do you have any advice on how you all have navigated the unpredictability of the music industry? 


Elijah: Read your contracts! 


Aja: Yes, read. Don't be excited by money. Money will come. I would say focus, and focus on building your team. Focus on, making sure that the people around you are willing to help each other, and not just help you. You know, everybody's helping each other out, everybody's growing together. But most importantly, don't just sign a contract. Read it, and you might find another contract that's better, that's less money. But if you think of yourself, you always hear the expression like, think of yourself four years down the line, five years, 10 years down the line, like, that's what contracts are because you'll see some contracts that's like for life. That's the things that you don't want to sign, and there's certain things you've got to understand: lawyer talk, money talk, understand what publishing is. Understand what it is yourself before you hire somebody to do that for you. Understand how to build your own home studio, how to work a camera, how to edit, all that stuff you want to learn. 


Matt: Make sure you educate yourself about what's happening in the music industry. It's not all about just the music, it's definitely about the business. You can't neglect that side of it or, you know, you'll be lost. 


Elijah: Yeah, I mean, even on this last tour, for the most part, we were setting up our whole setup on stage. More than a lot of the venues were helping us because we find that it's really important to know every part of whatever field you're going to be in. If you know how things work that you use every day or every time you work or you every time you create, it just makes it easier to translate what you want. Ask yourself what you want. And I think that applies to almost every part of making music. Like the more that you are informed and knowledgeable about how you're doing something and what you're doing. 


Your project mō'zā-ik did a lot for me in terms of appreciating different sounds of music while I was in high school. So I wanted to ask, what did that project mean to you? (I had to shamefully admit to them that after 3 years of listening, I still had no idea how to pronounce the name of the project, never put together that it was literally the word mosaic.)


Elbee: Thanks man! So mō'zā-ik to me is a beautiful collage of colors. The color of every song in the color spectrum is different and it's just beautiful. Bari and his friend created the cover, it's this tile mosaic artwork of all of us. I think that speaks to the beauty of what the album sounds like in a literal translation from audio sense to visual sense. We touch on different topics from just existing, period, and all the things about life that mean a lot that can be tell tale signs of things that you can't see with your eyes, which you have to tap into the colors to perceive and understand that we got things like being a black man, getting assassinated for no good reason. We got things like, "oh man, I'm ready to settle down with this woman right here." You know what I mean? There's a lot to it, it's packed. I just think we captured those years of our lives, in a brick of musical mosaic. So I think it will live on, I hope years down the line. So, yeah, I'm glad to speak to you, man. That means a lot to us. 


Bari: You know that that's essentially how I describe it. It's like you have songs like "Once You Say Hello.," "on everythinG iii love.," "The Colours.," I think is the branch point to it, you know? "Way Too Far.," all of these songs have different emotions and moods that capture different parts of life. It's not just one consistent flow, it's purposefully spread out. So that's why it's a brick, it's solid, but it has so many different colors inside of it. That's what how I see it. 


How have any outside collaborators influence your upcoming work? 


Elbee: We got some friends, we got some friends. We've been having open sessions, call a friend that's a musician that you love and tell them come through! We just tap in and see who you know, who our friends are, or people that we don't even know could be our friends that you just have to say, "Hey," and you find out that this person's been listening to Phony Ppl forever or, you know, a legend in the game that you would never think even heard of Phony Ppl before. We're not reaching to have features or to be features, but you know, when it naturally bubbles up because we're open to it and we were early on in our career, more shit sticks. We'll also be popping up on other people's projects here and there, whether it's all of us as a whole or just combinations of us or one of us here and there.


Do you all have any individual or collective pre-performance rituals? 


Bari: Good ole circle up to make sure we hype each other up, and talk to each other. 


Matt: Aja has been doing this push up challenge with mainly Elijah and our sound guy Drew. Where you go from 10, nine, eight, seven, six. You know, just get the blood going. 


Aja: It's basically a ten to one push up. You start with ten push ups, ten seconds rest, nine push-ups, and go all the way down to one and it kind of just gets your blood flowing.


Matt: My stomach is always bubbling. We've all been performing for years. But it don't matter, my stomach get in knots, butterflies, all of that. All of the guys look at me and be like, "Are you ok?" But I just nervously pace back and forth and just breathe, and I just try to remind myself to be like, "I'm here for a reason." Then as soon as I hit the stage, I automatically know what to do. But I only get violently nervous right before I hit the stage. No matter how big or small the performance. But just pacing, and making sure I got my shit right up top, I'm gucci.


Elbee: You could probably catch some combination of the guys playing video games. Depending on what my voice is like, I just like to break it in a little bit or to find it. I might freestyle to some instrumentals, and the other guys might jump in in the freestyle, too. Then it's a holiday at that point. I'd say when I can and I have the time to, one of my pre-show rituals is using a vocal steamer. So I just breathe on a device that creates hot steam. So it moisturizes my vocal cords. That's one of the things that I do. But besides that? It's getting the mindset to, you know, put on a good show.


Has anyone been up to anything else besides music. Pick up any hobbies during the pandemic or just in general what has everyone been up to? 


Matt: I've been streaming a lot, I've always wanted to get into streaming, but the pandemic allowed me the time to actually sit down and create that infrastructure. I've been making a lot of cool videos using social media for what it's supposed to be used for, that's what I've been up to.


Bari: I kind of overlap with that, too, but I've been doing art, and I've kind of got into animating a little bit more, so I really spent a lot of time exploring that hobby. Elijah and I have been in the DC, and Marvel world and working on some stuff, we drew a lot of huge inspiration from there. 


Aja: For me, it's been photography, you know, just getting into that world. Pandemic wise, I cleaned up my backyard and I just started planting. I started doing perennial planting, annual planting, just getting my hands dirty. Literally getting my hands dirty felt like the cleanest thing, and the the closest thing to Earth. So it was great.


My last question is, was there something that people misunderstand about you as a collective, or is there something that fans should know that they don't already know? 


Matt: I just want to say that we are funny, caring, loving people. We like to make jokes and we like to have fun. I feel like a lot of people be like, "they're so musically inclined, it's all about the music" and I be like, "yo I like to have fun, and make jokes, and do silly stuff."


Matt: We're just niggas making music. 


Elbee: I'd say, in this world of what social media has come to, I'd say even though we're here and there, we exercise our social media limbs. But I'd say as far as Phony Ppl, we're not spokesmen, I'd say we're musicians, you know, we're not public speakers, we're probably singers or we're public musicians, you know, and not public speakers. I don't know if that makes any sense, but take it how you take it.

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