Phony Ppl are a five piece musical group from Brooklyn, New York consisting of Elbee Thrie (vocals), Aja Grant (keys), Elijah Rawk (guitar), Matt “Maffyu” Byas (drums), and Bari Bass (bass). Forming in 2008, Phony Ppl aren’t newbies to the music scene, but in some ways they still feel like they’re just getting started. After touring with Kali Uchis, Phony Ppl are now out on their own. Under their label, 300 Entertainment, they released their latest album mō’zā-ik touching on topics of love and social issues last October. We had a chance to sit down with the group at the start of their first U.S. headlining tour to learn a little bit more about them.
R: So tour just started, what have y’all been up to in your free time on the road?
Bari: I just watched John Wick 3 and I’ve been making some art.
Maffyu: I’m usually in bed playing Mario Kart or Smash on the Switch.
Aja: I’ve been working on the album and just playing keys in between schedules.
Elbee: We setup a studio in the back of the bus to record while we’re on the road, so I’ve been playing around with the musical equipment.
Elijah: I’m working on finding a new skateboard.
R: How would you guys define Phony Ppl?
Elijah: We call ourselves a bit of amalgamation of five distinct personalities. We never try to pinpoint one phrase that is “Phony Ppl” because we are all so different. We appreciate those differences too much to kind of mix them all into one word.
R: Coming off of touring with Kali Uchis for two years, y’all are now going out on your own. This year you guys have been all over the place including South Korea, Japan, Indonesia, SXSW, and Australia to name a few. Which place has been the most exciting to visit from a personal standpoint?
Elijah: Japan! For one it was all of ours first time going and it definitely exceeded our expectations. We’ve all wanted to go since we were kids. The people were so friendly and we are just in love with the way the city moves.
Bari: Yea, we grew up on different comic books and anime like My Hero Academia and Samurai Champloo, so it was surreal to go where it all originated.
R: Can you guys talk about your “Tiny Desk” performance a bit? When I watched it looked like you were all having the greatest time! What made it such a special or different performance?
Phony Ppl: What made it different from other performances was that we understood it was a big platform to meet a larger and different audience. We held it in high regard, so it was very important for us to nail it and have fun.
Aja: “Tiny Desk” was also different because we had to play a lot quieter that we usually do which made it a fun a challenge. I remember seeing all that was behind the desk was really cool too. There are actually a ton of really interesting trinkets people leave behind, so it almost felt like a museum.
R: This morning while pumping gas, a clip from a Smashing Pumpkins interview came up where they talked about the musical journey they go on with their fans. They discussed how it’s not linear, but a circle that they as artists kind of orbit. That being said, what’s the line y’all walk, if any, when creating music?
Phony Ppl: The Smashing Pumpkins couldn’t have expected their song “1979” to become so popular, but after it did, they would have wanted people to resonate with all of their music while understanding that that one song doesn’t represent their entire catalog. A lot of acts go down a path and lose their sound with a clear division between old and a new. Like The Smashing Pumpkins, we don’t necessarily want to lose some fans to make new fans or grow our audience, but we do want to make music that we feel represents us at the time.
R: So, mō’zā-ik came out a year ago. How are you guys feeling about it now that’s it’s been out to the public for some time and you’ve performed the songs live?
Phony Ppl: We can really feel a difference. At performances, it’s almost like the people were at rehearsal with us. They feel along with the music and add in the harmonies. There are stories that go along with the music that people share with us like how they got engaged to a song or how our music saved their life. There are just so many special moments that come from having time to sit with the music.
R: Was there anything different about putting mō’zā-ik out compared to your previous work like Yesterday’s Tomorrow?
Elijah: When we made Yesterday’s Tomorrow, our previous record, it was after a big transition with the band lineup. When mō’zā-ik came out, it was a new chapter. We had a record deal, different management, and new people around us. By the time we went around to choose what should be on the album, we had an abundance of songs to pick from. We wanted this album to be a representation of the three years prior to its release. This one comes from a deep place for all of us. We wanted to make sure this project had the right balance like heavy entrée paired with a light desert.
Maffyu: As the years go by in anyone’s life, unless you try not to do so, things that you can’t even help change will evolve. Maybe you moved to a different city, so the people you spend time around will naturally be change. Everything effects everything. The same thing happens with a drum beat. Today’s different from yesterday, so the music will capture those energies too.
R: Do you guys have a set songwriting/creating process?
Phony Ppl: We have no rules when we create unless we sit down to create a specific song with a specific theme or idea throughout. Usually, we’re just jamming and blindly exploring.
Aja: Sometimes Maffyu or Elijah will have a beat and we’ll go into the studio and play over it. Then we’ll take that and perform it live and then go back to the studio to change it again. For instance, with “Why iii Love the Moon”, we had that song for four years before we officially released the version that’s on the album.
Maffyu: We like to keep it interesting. Us making the songs should always be fun and spontaneous. It should have us feeling good like music was made to do.
Seeing as how y’all make music with others and have solo projects, do you ever take what you’ve learned from outside and apply it to the group?
Elijah: For sure! At least for me personally, in the band we look at music from a similar perspective. Meeting others who may view it differently always changes your perspective a bit or gives you new tools to try. For example, if I’m working on a Hip-Hop track, I can see how simplistic ideas can be so impactful. How less can be more. It’s led to me, at times, take a simpler approach when I create.
Was there a moment in your childhood, now, or maybe a string of continuous moments that solidified for you guys that music and creating was what you wanted to do?
Bari: I do remember a moment when it was like “Music is what I wanna do”. I was helping my friend study at the NYU library and this Jamiroquai song called “Alright” was playing. I remember hearing the bass line in that setting and I thought to myself “This is what the bass is.” It’s such an amazing piece of the song. After that, I started listening to music differently.
Phony Ppl: For the band as a whole, you know we started playing together back in 2008, but in 2012 songs we put out on Bandcamp were getting more streams and our shows got way more full. There was a big shift with more outside of New York giving us attention. We remember thinking we were really making some noise when we played this show at Knitting Factory in Brooklyn. It was the biggest audience we had pulled since starting.
Going through your discography, what is the most important song to you due to its message?
Elijah: It’s not my favorite, but “the Colours.”, because it brings light to things you might not literally see with your eyes that are just as real. It’s about navigating through life and how one should respond. It’s like an eye and spirit opener.
You guys had your first show of your headlining tour in D.C. What can the fans and people who stumble upon y’all expect for the rest of tour?
Phony Ppl: We’re so excited to play everywhere for this first headlining run! We’ll be all over the U.S. playing shows. Maybe there will be some new songs. We also have merch this time. We out here!