For an electronic artist and DJ, Photay writes deeply personal records. His previous LP, Onism, explored the frustration of being in one body and recognizing how little we will see of the world in our lifetimes. Waking Hours, the producer’s new full-length album, out on Mexican Summer this summer, is about finding peace and stillness within: “In this record, I was flirting with the idea of finding time to sit with myself and be still instead of filling every second with something,” he says on the phone from his home studio upstate. Yet, it is a state of being he admits to not having fully mastered throughout the writing process. “Half of the record I was at ease and the other half I was feeling stressed and anxious,” he says.
For someone to graduate from a fear of missing out to then accepting peace and stillness suggests a period of strong emotional growth over the last few years. It also suggests Photay’s albums are not just finely crafted musical artforms, but personal healing mechanisms as well. “A lot of the lyrics [on Waking Hours] are simple mantras or reminders that I needed both while writing the record and beyond,” he says.
Photay spends half his time in Woodstock, New York, where he grew up, and enjoys a quiet life at peace with nature. The other half he spends in the city, immersing himself in people, events, and the never-ending quest to remain busy and productive. For now, he is stationed in his studio upstate, where he reflects on the current pandemic and the resulting period of social distancing: “The way I see it is for a while it felt like we were going to reach a peak. I didn’t know what the peak was going to be — technology, stimulation, capitalism, politics, something ... talking strictly optimistically, the environment is now taking a much needed break from human activity. Maybe this is a necessary pause to think about our lives, the current systems in place, and how we’re operating as a society.”
Under normal circumstances, Photay will DJ frequently around New York City, at small, intimate, and community-oriented clubs and radio stations, where he has earned a reputation for his eclectic sets exploring house, techno, and afrobeat, among other genres. His favorite venue to DJ is Black Flamingo (“You really feel in sync with the crowd”), and he also hosts a monthly show on The Lot Radio, (“It keeps me searching for new music”). When he’s not in New York, you will find him on tour in India (“I’ve been getting deeper into Indian modal music”) or performing at Berghain, the famously exclusive nightclub in Berlin, where he’ll test out his original material in front of an international audience. “My live sets are very much influenced by DJing — extending songs and making them more rhythmic and more dance-oriented,” he says.
On Waking Hours, as if to mirror the balancing act that is his life as a DJ-cum-producer and Woodstock-cum-New York City resident, Photay continues to explore dichotomies and blur boundaries. Where his previous album, Onism, showcased free-flowing brass arrangements, glitchy IDM, and R&B, this time around, there are strong elements of vocal pop, West African music, experimental, and snippets of grime and industrial house. One of the standout tracks, “Warmth In the Coldest Acre,” is a particularly well-crafted pop song, featuring a driving, rubber-like rhythm, delicate backing vocals, and Balkan-inspired percussion.
Of his relationship to genre, Photay explains: “I think it’s helpful to be familiar with genres, but I also think that can be stifling. For better or for worse, when something is easily identifiable, there is a certain excitement that I miss in my own music. I get really excited when it hits this middle ground.”
Even more unidentifiable than genre is the line between acoustic and electronic sound on Waking Hours, with drums, pianos, guitars, and bells (by the brilliant Carlos Nino) often processed and distorted beyond recognition. These sounds sit seamlessly alongside the Buchla Music Easel, which features heavily on the record. Photay purchased the synthesizer just prior to writing the album, and he used the learning curve as a mechanism to uncover unexpected musical gems: “I would take a phrase, loop it, and then pitch it down or up to recognize a rhythm somewhere deep in there. I would unintentionally stumble across rhythm and sounds through chaotic jams — letting it loose and then reeling it back in.”
Waking Hours is generously peppered with effortlessly catchy hooks. It’s a notable strength of the producer, who tends to strike the right balance between memorable and unpredictable in his melodies. Of his process, he explains: “Sometimes when I write melodies, they come out of a really casual phrase. It’s a phrase that doesn’t deserve to be a chorus melody, it’s just a little passage from a solo. I really like taking a line that doesn’t seem intentional, then stacking five voices on it, singing on it, and then calling it the chorus.”
When acoustic instruments are afforded space on Waking Hours, it produces some of the album’s finest moments. Photay's own singing voice is featured for the first time in his career on “Is It Right?” It is warm, inviting, and draws a strong association with Arthur Russell. There is also a wonderfully expansive 16-bar melody performed on the kora by Gambian musician Salieu Suso. Suso’s plucking adds a sense of humanity that complements the swirling pulses of electronics that surround it. “I find that instrument to be so calming,” Photay says of the kora.
The fact that this album about peace, calmness, and stillness within is releasing during a period of global lockdown is consequential, albeit circumstantial. Of his contribution to the zeitgeist, Photay states: “The last thing I want to do is capitalize off of this scenario. With the pandemic, the illness, and the results of that — the lives lost. It’s tragic. On the positive side, the stillness is interesting.”
Jared Proudfoot is the co-founder of Pique-nique Recordings, a label specializing in leftfield jazz from around the world. He hosts a monthly show on The Lot Radio, runs a deep listening event called Take Two, and writes for Bandcamp Daily. He is based in Brooklyn.