My first contact with Jean-Patrice Remillard aka Pheek was through the music released at Archipel, the netlabel he launched back in 2004 (wow, close to 20 years ago!). Established as an underground hatchery for young producers as well as his own playground, Archipel covers a plethora of house & techno subgenres. It’s the place I’ve discovered producers like Leif, Tom Ellis, Mark Thibideau, Vakula or Laurine Frost, to name just a few. Built over the course of almost 2 decades, Archipel’s back catalog evokes a special kind of sound with almost every release.

This is where Pheek’s touch comes into play: a keen ear for that special something, that makes one artist stand out.

What things do really count for an artist to create a signature sound that would resonate with his audience? Is it the studio gear? The music education he received during his childhood? The sleepless nights spent on dancefloors or behind the decks? Both an audio engineer and teacher, part of Montreal’s vibrant scene since the early 90s’, Pheek has been a fine observer of the electronic underground ever since. If anyone, he’s one of the few guys who can put up an objective opinion on what really matters.

Photo: Kathrin Hanga

I approached Jean-Patrice for a classical over the email interview,  but he came up with a better idea: a text messages based dialogue that turned into one of the most inspiring discussions I had in years. Set apart by a few 000s’ kilometres (he is now in Shefford, 50 minutes ride from Montreal), the discussion glided from the joy of organizing electronic music retreats to the disappointment brought by the electronic underground, spoiled nowadays by social media likes and the techno business. So grab a cup of tea and enjoy this talk. And don’t forget to hit the play button on Pheek’s fresh release on VRNT Limited, to get the pulse on what’s cooking at his studious placed in the Canadian wilderness.

How are you, all fine? Saw on facebook you just finished another retreat 🙂 How did that go?

Beyond what I was hoping for! It’s important to know that my parents were into that kind of events in the 70’s and I grew up in a house where many people would come and they would do retreats with workshops. So to do this myself, after they both passed away, was a way to keep a tradition happening and honouring them. The response has been wonderful and I see benefits to the ones who came so I can’t be happier about the outcome.

Wow, pretty rare to have this coming from your family. Were their retreats music related, also?

Photo: JF Briere

My parents weren’t into music that much. They had limited interest and knowledge in it. My passion for music didn’t come from them. I just was really into it from a young age. Their workshops were more about psychology and self development. That part is still an important part of my life too.

I guess that having your close ones involved into this kind of workshops did help for your retreats, easier for you to build stronger connections with your students and between them 🙂  Now coming back to the retreats: tell me more about them. Is it a limited number of participants per retreat? How advanced should one producer be in order to take full advantage of the workshops? Is there a list of minimum technical requirements for the participants?

My vision of how this works is pretty simple. I invite 10 people at a time to come for a weekend where we do music and try to see how we can improve everyone in their personal development as a musician. Very beginners could come but it might be very challenging. Although if their expectations are low, then it can be a really good starting point. I have a very inclusive approach to this kind of event and want to welcome pretty much anyone interested.

Is there an outcome for this retreat? Like every student finishes a track or something similar?

Photo: JF Briere

It is whatever you need it to be. I’m there as a teacher, offering workshop and personalized attention to all. But some people came with the idea to be away from distractions to finish working on an album. Some came to rehearse a live set. Some discover new friends, jam and create together. There’s no real goal else than connecting to your needs and learn how to ask for help, overcome struggles and build self confidence. We do listening sessions everyday where we learn how to provide feedback and people can go back and fix what is needed. The main thing I realized is that everyone makes music alone at home and go to club to connect, but those places aren’t suitable for real connection. It’s loud, it’s distracted, there’s a lot of ego involved and in the end, not helpful. It’s a celebration in itself, which is important but it is not a real learning context.

I can only imagine the energy generated by a group of artists syncing on the same higher frequencies, so they can start creating together ❤️ As far as I know, the location itself is something special also, right?

It is, yes. I grew up in Shefford until my teens. It is in the nature and I have a huge land of 55 acres. There’s a little stream, a private small lake, mountain, lots of forest and a cabin with sauna as well. The house I host people in was designed by myself in the last years and this is where I live. It’s a special land where we can go for a walk when feeling out of energy. We have 2 retreats coming for the winter where it will be cold but I have some ideas of outdoor activities to record snow, ice crackling and feel the deep cold.

This sounds like a heavenly place tbh 🙂 If at some point you need an assistant, give me a sign :)) Although I am not sure if I can live more than a few weeks without the hustle and bustle of a 2 million people city like Bucharest 😅

Montreal is only 50 minutes away, I go back every weekend because I also need the city life

Most of the people attending your retreats are from North America, I guess… Did you have any Romanians there? 🙂

Not yet. So far, we had people coming from as far as Norway, Belgium, United States. Most of the people that were at the first one were originally from France but now located in Canada. Before the pandemic, we did 2 retreats and the attendees were mostly Quebec based participants. But the last 2, I noticed that european people seem more interested. Since it’s like that, doing retreats in Europe by exporting my concept there is something that is going to have to happen.

It does sound like something really unique 🙂 Does preparing these retreats and managing all things related leave enough time for your studio work, be it music production or mix & mastering?

I’ve been a teacher on and off since 1995. I used to also teach at a private music school in Montreal for a few years. The way I prepare for the retreats is pretty organic. I don’t really know much of the needs of the participants until they show up so we decide of the workshops then. This means I have to remain agile and open to teach what’s appropriate. Since I coach and teach every day through my Patreon, most of the workshops are known grounds for me and is easy to teach ad hoc. This means that the hardest preparation is to prepare food.

Photo: JF Briere

If we reached the Romanian subject… I guess you have a lot of people from Romania, sending tracks for the mastering services, asking for advice on Patreon… Also, a few Romanian names appeared on Archipel also, I guess you’re pretty familiar with the sound. Comparing the Romanian sound 10-15 years ago to how it sounds now, what’s your take? Does it feel as special and unique like it was a decade ago when it really brought something new to the underground electronic scene?

I’ve been following Pedro and Rhadoo since their first releases on Cadenza, when I met Pedro in Berlin and remained in contact for a bit. When the Romanian sound started to emerge around 2011, I was instantly drawn to it because it felt like the logical extension of the minimal house scene that almost died in 2009. In my last EU tour then, everyone I knew went to follow the house trend and I was in the last ones that didn’t want to change but that pretty much killed my interest as gigs were getting weird. It stopped me from moving to Berlin then. So at that time, the Romanian sound was like essential to me and loved it. Nowadays, I’m not too sure what’s happening but I’m still getting a lot of great music but sometimes, I see some formulas that have been overused and it feels like its redundant. This sort of killed any leads in Montreal and the scene here became beyond small, crushed by the fast paced techno scene. But the Romanians, to me, are incredible at grooves and catchy ideas. When that is done right, then it’s special.

Following your scouter instinct (I can see that just by browsing the Archipel back catalog), did you find something interesting you were not aware of at Waha?

Yes, I discovered a few artists that I didn’t knew before. I met with Olga Korol (that I had came across in Ukraine), heard many lovely artists that made me appreciate even more like Ada Kaleh. But what I didn’t expect was to meet random people who were so nice and lovely to chat with.

I don’t know if it’s me getting older or is a general feeling: you said it earlier also and now again – people seem to enjoy more events where the human interaction weighs more than a dark and drug infused basement. At least in a post pandemic club scene. Take Waha, your retreats, more boutique festivals focused on daytime events… what do you think?

I don’t think its related to age. In the 90’s, I remember attending my first day time event in an afternoon, watching Swayzak play live and it was a revelation to me: it felt fun, I went to bed early and was feeling fresh the next day. From then, I started seeing the potential to change my view of electronic music; I didn’t want it to be a debauchery place as for me, music is super important and I want to be surrounded with people who take it seriously, passionately. This is what I want from the retreats. Going to a club where everyone talk, want to get drunk, aren’t dancing and are filming around is not about the music. But it’s ok for them, it’s just not a place where I feel I can really connect with other people like myself. I always felt like that in a way. So yes, day time is where I have the best of myself for music and it makes sense as is.

Talking about your first contacts with electronic music, do you remember your first studio setup? :)

Yup, I do. It was pretty simple but I had quickly collected a lot of hardware because the options for computer softwares were limited. It was very all over the place and not productive at all. I’m surprised I managed to do quite a lot with it but I remember spending more time troubleshooting issues than making music.

Photo: Kathrin Hanga

Don’t want to go into the software vs hardware production tools debate, I guess it’s really what the producer feels more comfortable with using. Yet, technology levelled the differences between producers in terms of tools. So, nowadays, what things set a difference between a good producer and one who just stays in the platoon, in anonymity?

That’s a bit of a difficult question to answer because there is a prerogative towards people who aren’t in the trends. Just the idea of defining what a “good” producer is gives me an itch because I really teach my students not to define good or bad, as this is pretty much arbitrary. To me, music is a way of life, a mirror within oneself and want to encourage everyone to give it a try. By bringing the idea that one can be good can disconnect them from being spontaneous as they’ll focus on technical details. But that said, if I understand your question right, someone who emerges with attention and beautiful music are people who are connected with their inner artist, who aren’t afraid of taking risks of being themselves and who can be a step aside from whatever makes anyone popular. I respect people who makes no compromises.

I totally agree with you, labelling artists with good / bad doesn’t seem right to me, also. But you understood the idea 🙂 More like producers who stand out and manage to create a sound of their own, against the long tail producers 🙂

I get it but there are a lot of people who associate popularity with “good” and there are extremely talented musicians that I work with that have no recognition or media support and yet, their music would make some famous artists, blush. If there was a way to separate the talent from the media recognition, we’d see a lot more quality music out there.

Photo: JF Briere

Oh, you opened the Pandora box with this one 🙂 There is a vicious circle, as artists tend to keep their social media profiles as underground as possible, yet at the same time clubs and promoters are tempted to book artists with bigger followers base, in order to sell tickets and sustain their business. Do you think there is a way to break this circle and make everyone happy?

I don’t think so, honestly. It’s always been a huge work of labor and I think it will always remain one. The problem I see is deeper than what we can actually think of. There are a lot of general values in club goers that are going to harm talent. People who go out now have different ways of being than before and I’m not saying this in a nostalgic way, it is factual. As long as we turn events in circus where self image is more important than the music, there will always be a problematic for fostering raw talent. How can you promote talent when you focus on a show that costs a lot of money and with people expecting headlines who costs a lot of money? There’s no room for risks and I don’t blame it. I think the only way to change things is a big crash of the mass events and more support and interest to little to mid-size events. It becomes a nice place to start from scratch and rebuild on what really matters. What I want is little events of die hard music lovers, limited capacity but with maximum comfort. Plastikman used to throw minimalistic events in Detroit where the visuals were a simple laser and everything black, with a smoke machine. It’s sort of what I’d love right now. also, we have this illusion that the online world makes a huge difference but in-person networking is where things move the most. If you want to be signed, booked, seen, create a move, then face to face meetings is where things go more positively. We have this impression that if we are everywhere online, things will happen but it is not the case. it’s a bit of an illusion. This is why people are obsessed with self image and instagram showcases because it pictures our lives in a perfect way. But people remember you from what they see, in person beyond what is pictured.

Returning to this one: could small gatherings and intimate parties become the drive to refuel the underground scene as it once was? Can clubs and promoters sustain a decent business and at the same time artists would have a decent income? You sounded so pessimistic, like there is no chance for things to get better 🙂

I’m sorry about that. I think I have frustration of how in the 90’s, we had it so hard when it came to going out and how we fought to have decent events, in decent conditions and then I see where it evolve into, which is sort of the opposite of what we had hoped for. If I want to be positive about this, yes I think mid sized events where we have music curated according to a direction instead of aiming at headliners so that the event has a coherent vision, i believe it could benefit everyone while promoting people properly.

Photo: Kathrin Hanga

I know it’s a difficult one and it doesn’t do justice to all artists you’re into, but can you give us a few names that caught your attention lately?

I’ll try to name a few but I will for sure miss some. And it’s hard sometimes to know if they’re young or not, but sometimes I hear music and it just feels fresh to me.

Marcu Rares, Jotunn, Andrei Constantinescu, Or Hanuka, Kyle Hall, Jaimie Leather… I’m constantly seeing lovely music in my coaching group as well. Honestly at the moment, I’ve been really into Drum and Bass as this genre is on the rise. It’s a genre where I see a perfect dose of innovation, originality and constant reinvention. It’s also technically challenging enough for me as it takes a lot to throw me off guard.

Following your vast life experience as a producer, DJ, teacher / mentor / label manager: what should your generation of artists give back to the underground world in order to make it better?

I don’t think the underground needs to receive anything in itself as it’s a safe zone for discovery and authenticity, development and evolution. I think I’d reframe your question to better answer because what I think you mean is how they can contribute perhaps? To me, the best thing is to forget about seeing competition in the success of others. Success is meant to be celebrated, not envied. Because it is cyclic and being there for the right reasons is the healthiest approach.