The Foreign Exchange have travelled a road most independent bands only dream of, from literally meeting through a foreign exchange on a message board to Grammy Awards and achieving longevity in an ever changing musical landscape. With the recent release of their 4th studio album, Love In Flying Colors, Kristie Nicolas had a chat with Phonte and Nicolay from the band to discus. Amongst other things, how “Love In Flying Colors” came together, their craziest tour story and what success means to them.
What is the inspiration behind your latest album, “Love In Flying Colors”?
Phonte: Just, wanting to show the brighter side of things, you know what I’m saying? The last album, Authenticity, was very dark and so this was an album that we wanted to bring the colour back. Lighten things up a lot more. The writing definitely reflects where I am now in my life versus where I was during Authenticity. So I wanted to write an album that reflected that.
What do you want fans to take away from the album?
Nicolay: If anything, hope would be a good thing; hope, optimism. Looking towards a better day, whatever it is, as long as it’s something that makes people feel better. That’s really what I love for them to take away from it.
What inspires FE in daily life, and musically?
Phonte: For me, just life on the regular basis. My life is really simple. I spend time with my family, take care of my kids and you know, that’s pretty much it. I try to write songs that people can live to. Somebodies cooking dinner for their kids – they can cook dinner to it. Or if somebody just wants to ride out, take a drive by yourself, this is an album you can do that to. So I guess, I’m inspired by wanting to write songs that fit into people’s lives. You write a song and after it’s done you can listen to it and you think OK, how will people utilise this? Is this going to be something that they will listen to before they go out? Is it something they’ll listen to wind down from work? You never know how people are going to use your music, so that’s always exciting.
Can you talk us through how a FE song comes together – Does the idea, beat or lyrics come first?
Nicolay: Normally, it will start with me and it will start with a musical idea, with the track. I’ll send the track to Phonte and for there on out he takes it and he will write the song and figure out what to do with it vocally and who to have on it with him. It’s really been like that from the start, from the moment we started collaborating, that it starts with a track. But there are notable exceptions; you listen to “The Rain” or other exceptions where maybe the lyrical idea will come first, but most of the time it starts with the musical blueprint.
FE is a completely independent project, so do you see as the pros and cons of being an independent artist?
Nicolay: The con is definitely that it’s a lot more work. You know, A LOT more work. The pro of it is that really we don’t have anyone to blame but ourselves if anything goes wrong. We have our fate in our own hands and we make our own decisions and make what we want to musically without somebody telling us that we can’t. Ultimately for us, the pros, averagely, outweigh the cons in a major way. There are obviously cons to any situation.
FE has had quite a ride since its beginning, from meeting on Okayplayer message board to Grammy nominations and being highly respected in the music industry – What’s the most surprising thing that you’ve discovered about success and the music industry?
Nicolay: I think for me, one of the most surprising things that I’ve learnt about success in the music industry is that really everybody has a different definition of what success is. A standard way of looking at success is sales or something like that, for us we have learnt that success for us means we can make our own moves; that we don’t have to ask for permission. Success in my eyes is the independence, the freedom that we have to move. While, you may not be successful in one way, you can certainly be successful in your own way. I think that we have learnt that there is a place for artists like The Foreign Exchange in the music industry. There is a place for an alternative, for like a different sound and you can make it as long as you are prepared to work hard.
Phonte: That wasn’t surprising to me. Most artists come into the game believing that they can win by doing what they do. But then little by little you have to people that beat that out of you. So, I think all artists when they come in they have a vision to some degree and they say I like this kind of music that I’m making, so I’m sure there’s other people that like it. But whenever you allow your dream to be controlled by someone else or whenever you put it in the hands of someone else it really is not your dream anymore.
So I think for us, just really having things in our own hands and just working, we know what we want and success for us is what we say success is. It’s not what anyone else would say success is. Once you can define success for yourself you can actually attain it. Versus if you are trying to define success through someone else’s eyes, you know, that’s a moving goal post, you’ll never attain it. It’s not really surprising to me that we are able to do this. I just feel blessed that we’ve been able to do it for as long as we have. In the time that we’ve been doing FE music there’s been labels that come and go, artists that have came and went, and we are still here, ten tears after the fact. Ten years in the modern day music industry terms that’s like a century! The fact that we’ve been able to make a living saying what we want to say that’s a blessing that we don’t take for granted.
In this digital age, music has the power to reach anyone, anywhere. Your name and how you came together is proof of that. Where is the most surprising place in the world that you’ve discovered there are FE fans? Somewhere that you never dreamt your music would reach?
Nicolay: There have definitely been a few places that you’re just like wow! Places like, the other day we got hit up by somebody from Bulgaria, in Eastern Europe, which I would have never thought that we would have fans there. We get people all over the world, from Russia, from South America, a lot of people from South Africa. Australia obviously. It really is crazy that the music that we make has such a universal appeal to it. That people all over the world in all these different cultures can appreciate it. That is a very fascinating thing.
We all know that some pretty crazy things happen on tour. What’s the craziest FE tour story/experience?
Phonte: I mean, crazy by our standards but probably not crazy by regular industry standards! In Canada, that is probably the craziest one. Our drummer couldn’t get into the country so we had to find a drummer and teach him the show like 30 minutes before the doors opened. Actually, the guy now, if I’m not mistaken he plays with The Weeknd now. This was like back in 09, that cat is now drumming with The Wkend. His name was…
Nicolay: Ricky Lewis.
Phonte: He was out of Toronto, and our drummer couldn’t get in. We called another drummer to see if he could get in from Detroit, and he couldn’t get in, and then we made some calls in Toronto and we found this other guy; he came through, and he got on the drums and he sucked, it was f***ing terrible. So, then Ricky came in and I was literally beat-boxing him the beat, you know, like an hour before the doors open. We ran it and he got it and he killed it! It was insane! And so now he’s touring with The Wkend. That’s dope.
Any plans to show your Australian fans some love in flying color?
Nicolay: We would love to. If the opportunity arises then we would love to. Over the years, we’ve definitely gotten a very steady and growing love from Australian fans, so I would ultimately love to do it. We are live, we are 9 people travelling. It’s not something you can put together on a whim. So, some thought needs to go into it. If the right opportunity would come along then we would love to come down there. Phonte has been there before, but I personally have never been to Australia. I’ve always heard so many good things about it that I really need to come and see it with my own eyes.
What is your definition of Grindin?
Phonte: I think the definition of grindin’ is just what you said. It’s working for yourself, working to make your dream come true, not anyone else’s dream. To me, that’s what grindin’ is. Creating your own vision of success and what that means to you.
Interview by Kristie Nicolas