The music of Faze Action (brothers Robin and Simon Lee) has soundtracked parties and club nights since the release of their Nuphonic debut, Full Motion, in 1996.
It was swiftly followed by the classic “In The Trees” – a unique, string-laded modern disco epic that got under your skin and which featured in many best-of-the-year charts. They have since produced a substantial catalogue of high-end disco-rooted music, including six artist albums and numerous EPs, remixes and compilations. Their music – always referencing different elements of the various strains of disco music – is characterized by their singular mastery of the mixing and matching of live instrumentation with synths and drum machines.
2018 was a pretty busy year for Simon and Rob, both of whom tour separately as well as together, and they are both involved in numerous side projects. We began the interview by asking the pair what they’ve been up to recently.
Simon: It’s been a busy one. We had the Under the Influence compilation, the repress of Faze Action “Mangwana ” feat Zeke Manyika, on our own label, we then had the compilation on our own label, Disco Excursions. So we are expanding our own label as Rob also releases under different artist names. With regard to performances we took the full live band to the Southern Soul Festival in Montenegro, which was an amazing experience. Rob did a 6 week DJ tour of Asia and I just got back from a DJ tour in Australia in October.
Rob: It’s been a good year. The repress of “Mangwana” caused a bit of excitement. I did a couple of DJing gigs in Madrid and Bogota at the start of the year, we did the live show in Montenegro in the summer and then I went on a whistle-stop tour of Asia soon after that. Aside from compiling an Under The Influence compilation for Dave Lee’s Z Records label, there was a slew of releases from Rudy’s Midnight Machine, Andromeda Orchestra and Faze Action in the spring. A compilation of our own catalog called Disco Excursions and a digital-only release under the Shogone Deep moniker.
I’ve started writing for Japanese vocalist Satoko Ishimine and I’m in the process of being part of a team that is doing something extremely exciting with Japanese disco orchestra, “A Hundred Birds Orchestra,” which I can’t tell you about yet but trust me … keep your ears to the ground. Something very exciting is coming there.
In between all of that I’ve been remastering for top reissue labels, Kalita Records, Mukatsuku Records, Emotional Rescue & Bahnsteig 23.
Not quite sure how I’ve managed all of that. I’m still in the middle of it all with plenty of remastering jobs in the pipeline, more Andromeda Orchestra and Rudy’s Midnight Machine 12″s in the works as well as a couple of scoring and arranging jobs to be completed and I’m directing a new Gospel live show called Mass Connection which is headed up by Toni Rossano and features Vanessa Freeman and Tasita D’mour.
You’ve given lots of interviews over the years; what questions would you like to be asked that you never get asked (and more importantly, what are the answers)?
Rob: You have just asked it. It’s impossible to know what kind of things your audience would like to find out about us or our music because well … we’re us and I guess we kind of know everything about us so we don’t really think about what would be an interesting angle or what would be something different for people to hear about. I guess I’ve never been asked about my classical background very much. No one has ever really asked me about what I did before myself and Simon started Faze Action. So I suppose after learning cello and piano when I was 8 years old, the next big thing was performing in operas at The Royal Opera House Covent Garden when I was about 10 years old. I suppose I was a child singer/actor, performing in the children’s chorus of big Romantic Operas such as Turandot and La Boheme by Puccini and Boris Godunov by Mussorgsky, as well as more freaky modern pieces such as L’enfant et Les Sortileges by Ravel where I played the back end of a tea pot and a maniac Maths professor amongst others. I was always drawn to the bass guitar so when Simon started getting into collecting rare funk and soul records at around the same time, that’s when I decided to pick up the bass. I must’ve been 15 at the time. At University I always had one foot in the orchestra playing the cello and one foot in the jazz and pop department playing bass. When I left Goldsmiths with my music degree I was performing regularly with about 10 different bands.
So with all those different musical influences, what defines the Faze Action approach to making music, what is it that defines your sound?
Rob: We’re very close to our music. I guess we use the music of the past to guide our own music. We aren’t drawn to the latest fads in terms of production. I can’t talk for Simon but I’m very distrustful of music that doesn’t have a discernible root. Or at least the roots that you can actually hear. Stylistically I mean. So you will always hear a link to the music of the past with Faze Action.
Simon: I guess like Rob says, we are always looking to the past to get to the future. I’m also a bit of an obsessive vinyl digger/collector. Regarding production we tend to do just do our thing and if it works and we are in agreement then it’s usually at this point we know we have something good.
So who does what in the studio?
Rob: I see Simon as the architect. For example, he sets a lot of the direction in terms of production and will come up with lyric ideas, etc. I’m quite good at getting out of the way when it comes to imposing my own musical ideas on others. I have so many that it would be pointless to collaborate if I was just left to make all the records. Faze Action really is a collaboration. I get a chance to explore my own personal direction with other projects on Faze Action Records such as Rudy’s Midnight Machine. So, in Faze Action my job is really to be the builder. I’m the one that gets to push the buttons and finish off the mixes and interpret instructions, etc.
Simon: I guess I’m a kind of architect/direction man for Faze Action, but really for us to get the best results its direction with vocals /lyrics. From here, Robin can build the idea and make it all happen.
And when people ask you what kind of music you make, what do you tell them?
Rob: I guess I tell them “Disco” which is the very simplistic answer. It’s always met with furrowed brows and loads of questions about ABBA and Village People. I really do need to get out more often.
Simon: I usually say a mix of Disco, African, Balearic and House but if it’s my Gran asking I would probably just say “Disco.”
And what direction are you taking your music next?
Rob: A new mini-LP with Zeke Manyika. It’s a follow up to “Mangwana,” so expect lots of African disco, lyrics in Shona and Ndebele and a few surprises as well. A new Andromeda Orchestra 12″ will be revealed and a new Rudy’s Midnight Machine 12″ too. The Rudy’s Midnight Machine 12″ will have a bit more of a continental jazz funk element to it this time.
So you’re over 20 years deep into the Faze Action career, looking back what were the pivotal moments?
Rob: For me it was when I had a phone call from Simon when I was living and working in Osaka, Japan. “In The Trees” had been really well received and the DJing gigs had started to roll in and at the same time I was becoming involved with A Hundred Birds Orchestra in Osaka. It was getting to the point where I was teaching during the day and doing sessions in Osaka by night. It looked as though there was plenty of work in the UK too and so I took the decision to come back to London.
Simon: There have been a few moments. “In the Trees” was a big one at the start of our career. Playing live at Glastonbury, DJing at the Exit festival in Novisad. They were all great moments and hopefully there will be more.
Apart from you and your brother, who have been the most important people in your success?
Rob: Our audience. That is to say, anyone that has ever bought one of our records or come and partied at one of our live shows or DJ sets.
Nuphonic Records, without a shadow of a doubt. They gave us our first record deal and they really believed in us. Zeke Manyika has been a mainstay forever with us and we love him dearly. Our live band, Pete Z (keys), Nathan Curran (drums), Mickey Ball (trumpet), Richard Wargent (flute/sax), Vanessa Freeman and Mary Moore (vocals). Dave Lee (aka Joey Negro) who has given us loads of opportunities over the years. Our agent (MN2S) and Patrick Spinks from Sublime Music.
Simon: Like Rob says our audience and fans who have bought our music, come to see us DJ or play live.
What are you most proud of in your career, what’s given you the most satisfaction?
Rob: There have been so many proud moments. We’re always most proud of our last record. But if I’m looking back there was this one time we played at Glastonbury. Those that were there will know. Sadly there’s no film of it as for some unknown reason the BBC covered up the cameras when we went on stage. We were the only act not filmed that year. The tour we did across the USA was also a lot of fun. But there are so many more moments to come.
Simon: Playing at live at Glastonbury in between sets by Horace Andy and Gil Scot Heron. That was pretty special.
And what were the most challenging times for Faze Action?
Rob: It’s only the beginning. We have some big challenges ahead. I guess the biggest challenges in the past have been when record labels have gone bust, leaving us sort of homeless, I suppose. We have our own label now. Over the years the music business has changed immensely and as human beings, it is in our nature to adapt and I think that is what we have done and will continue to do. No doubt there are going to be some challenges ahead and we will meet those challenges and overcome obstacles because we only really seem to be happy when we have a record coming out or a gig in the pipeline.
Simon: I guess the most challenging things for us is time management as we both have other jobs so that we can keep Faze Action moving. This takes up time but it does enable us to keep the label and Faze Action moving on.
So aside from production, what about DJing, how do you prepare for a DJ gig?
Rob: Listen to a lot of music. Put a lot of music in the mix. Get to know the music, I suppose. We might even prepare a sort of roadmap of tracks we want to play. But of course, we never end up actually playing them because you never know who is going to be in front of you until you actually arrive at your festival/club etc. etc.
And where do you get your music from?
Rob: I get loads of music from Simon. I also restore old music for digital reissue. So I get to know loads of music that way. I get sent a lot of promos. I go digging in the charity shops and I spend time on the internet. Especially Juno.
Simon: All over! Juno records, Discogs, record shops and charity shops. Buying music is like stoking the creative fire. We have to keep listening and this is where we get the creative sparks from.
What are your go-to-when-all-else-fails tracks or artists?
Rob: We’re rarely, if ever, in the situation where all else has failed. Especially these days. The reason being that Disco has become much more widely accepted now than it was in the ’90s, for example. You can pretty much figure out what people are going to respond to when you arrive at the club you are playing at.
Simon: There are so many but as Rob says you can pretty much gauge what kind of records/ music will work when you get to a club.
What’s the best and worst thing about DJing?
Rob: Connecting people is the noblest thing you can do in this world and I can’t really think of a downside to it at the moment. I love the travel. Meeting new people. Sharing music.
Final question then: tell us why you DJ?
Rob: To bring people together.
Simon: To bring people together with the music we love.