Seven Questions with The Foreign Exchange

Published Wed, Dec 19, 2012 01:03 PM
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Nicolay, left, and Phonte are The Foreign Exchange. Courtesy of Tobias Rose of Kompleks Creative

Submitted by Melissa Howsam — Correspondent

After three studio albums, a GRAMMY nod, and, now, on the heels of a two-year global tour, the boys of The Foreign Exchange — rapper/singer/songwriter Phonte Coleman and Producer Nicolay — are set to bend the boards and bring in the New Year for their first-ever Bull City show, to stage at The Cotton Room as part of The Art of Cool Project's NYE show.

In the age of the Twitterverse — where even the latest Bond Girl wrangled her spot in "Skyfall" via a tweet-the-right-people onslaught — social-media creative connections might not seem that arbitrary, or shocking. But do they last? Apparently, if you’re +FE. After an (e-)meeting, and connection, on rap message board OKAYPlayer.com 10 years ago — from Raleigh (Phonte) to Holland (Nicolay) — that led to that across-the-pond first album in 2004 ("Connected," completed before they ever met in person), the boys of +FE are proximal (Nicolay relocated to Wilmington, N.C., in 2006), flourishing and ever-so-humbly unaffected by rising fame.

Now with their own label (FE Music, 2008, with Director of Operations Aimee Flint) and their fourth studio album on the horizon, they are still the same sound engineers with a shared vision who sought each other out over social media. “It’s not about mass production. It’s personal,” says Phonte, of the intended heartbeat of their qualifiably electronic sound. “It’s very warm and very human,” he continues. “It’s not processed and edited to the point where you can’t see any fingerprints on it. It’s something that very much breathes.”

And now? With all those carefully crafted fingerprints, they’re finally gonna 'bring it home,' and leave their footprint in Durham.

Q&A

Q: After 10 years of recording together, how has life changed for the boys of The Foreign Exchange?

Phonte: Life has just changed in that, one, we’re both stateside now. Nic has moved over here [from Holland]. And The Foreign Exchange has overall moved from just a group to an organization on its own — me and Nic being the group; then Me, Nic and Aimee running FE Music; then the artists that we put out on our label: Zo!, Jeanne Jolly, etc. So, in those 10 years, it’s just kind of become something that is consuming both of us a lot more (both laughing). Ten years ago, I think at the time, it was just something that we just saw as a side project — not that we didn’t take it seriously, but it was just, looking back, like a ‘here goes nothing’ kind of thing, and 10 years later, it’s become the nucleus of a whole lot more.

Q: Your sound has been described in the press as "game-changing." How would you classify your sound? And what about it changes the game, so to speak?

Nicolay: I don’t know if I would say ‘game-changing.’ I think ‘game-changing’ is something that I’ll just let somebody say rather than me; I wouldn’t claim that our sound changed the game, but I think something that we do is we change ourselves. I think that a lot of what makes The Foreign Exchange really special is that with each project, you can really tell that we’re in a different place than we were the time before. So, if our sound is anything, then I think it’s constantly evolving, constantly growing; it’s constantly encompassing more and more of our influences. So it’s really something that’s very liquid — open to change and progression.

Phonte: If you go through all of our albums, they’re gonna be certain characteristics that stick out in all of them. But we just try to make it a point not to repeat ourselves. So, in terms of finding our sound, in terms of finding the core of what makes us ‘us,’ I think we found that. Me and Nic have found generally what works for us and where our sweet spot is, so to speak. But the trick is just to not show it the same way every time — finding new ways to reinvent it. That’s where the fun lies. Knowing what your strengths are and finding new ways to showcase that.

Q: You mention influences. Who are some of the influences to your sound?

Nicolay: I would definitely say Prince is an influence. I’m the biggest Prince fan, like, ever. Hmm, vocally, Marvin Gaye. Definitely Marvin Gaye … D'Angelo … the use of harmony and just really big background vocals. In terms of production and kind of atmospheric, Zero 7, Brian Eno … definitely Radiohead. I think we’re definitely kind of in the meeting place between all of those, starting in the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s … there’s a lot. Definitely Dilla. Hip-hop in general is obviously a big foundation for the both of us. In terms of writing, also, definitely a lot of singer/songwriters: James Taylor, Neil Young, definitely Stevie Wonder. It’s really an endless list.

Q: How did the GRAMMY nom (Best Urban/Alternative Performance) for your single "Daykeeper" (from album "Leave It All Behind," 2008) change things for you guys, if at all?

Nicolay: I would dare to say it didn’t change much. It definitely gave us some extra wind in our sails. At the time, our album, “Leave It All Behind,” had already done really well for us, so by the time the GRAMMY nomination came around, it really gave the album a second life, a set of extra legs, and allowed for it to travel further than it would have otherwise. So I think the best thing that it did for us was that it introduced a lot of new people to our music, and, for us, it was a little bit of validation for all the hard work. But in a practical sense, I don’t think it changed things. Looking back, I don’t think that specific things happened because of that. I think we’re still very much independent, and still very much trying to do everything, as much as we can, ourselves, and that will probably never change, regardless of what kind of accolades we get.

Q: You just concluded your two-year tour for third album "Authenticity" (2010), after playing over 40 cities across the U.S. and Europe. What was the highlight?

Phonte: For me the highlight would be just the last show that we did in Phoenix. That was really kind of special for me because you look back on it and you don’t realize how far you’ve come until after you’ve walked those miles. So you look back and it’s like ‘damn … we’ve been touring this record for two years.’ There are not too many people who can really say that. There aren’t too many artists who can tour on the same record for as long as we did. And I think a lot of that really is just a testament to what we do and our audience constantly growing little by little. That’s definitely the highlight: two years, several personnel changes, missed flights, delayed sound checks and all of that, and we’re still here. That was pretty inspiring.

Nicolay: For me the beginning was also very memorable. We started in Europe, and since I’m from Holland, one, we got to play in my former hometown, which was really special obviously, but I remember even the shows in London and Paris. They were just really wild; they were really, really cool. So I think just being able to take it worldwide was definitely an adventure for us — to really take eight people on the road with us [The Foreign Exchange, plus live band traveling from five different U.S. locations]. Ya know, for flights alone, that’s quite a hassle. So just to really be able to do it on our own terms, with our own band, and to really come there with our show was definitely an accomplishment.

Q: So you've bent some boards in Raleigh and Carrboro (Red Bull Music Academy's Sound Clash, Hopscotch, Lincoln Theatre and Cat's Cradle) and played all over this great land — but you've never played a show down the road in Durham. How excited are you to be a part of The Art of Cool Project's NYE show at The Cotton Room for your first Durham and your first NYE show together?

Phonte: It’s a lot of firsts. Playing in Durham is really fun and special to me because Durham is where I went to school [North Carolina Central University], and when I first moved to this area, it’s where I lived. So Durham was very much like a training ground in terms of recording and finding my footing as an artist. I’m looking forward to [playing a show there]; it’s going to be a lot of fun. I’ve heard the venue is really nice; I haven’t been. I’m happy to see there are actual concert venues in Durham, now. We hadn’t had it for some time, so that’s what’s up.

Nicolay: For me it’s the first time I’ve played New Year’s since the late ’90s — it’s been forever, so I’m looking forward to that part. And I love playing the Triangle. I’ve heard that people from Raleigh don’t always go to Durham and vice versa to see shows, so I think in a lot of ways it’s definitely cool for us to be there.

Q: So … album #4 is due out in 2013. Can you give us a hint?

Nicolay: No, not really (both laughing). We make a point of not really doing that, not because we don’t want to, but, ultimately, because we really want to keep the surprise, and I think our fans at this point know that with every album they can expect the unexpected. So they’ll definitely be a familiar +FE sound to it, but it will definitely again tread new territory. [Q: How about a hint on timeframe?] N: It’ll be late before it’s early (laughs). But even that, right now, is still very much on the table, but it will more than likely be later in 2013.

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