Richard X on Working With M.I.A., Annie, Pet Shop Boys, and His Brilliant Career
This is a big one. Bucket list-level, for me.
Richard X is a legend. If you care about the last twenty years of pop and dance/electronic music, he’s influenced the music you’ve loved even if you didn’t know it. The songwriter and producer known to the global government as Richard Philips has spent the last twenty years stretching his legs across the gamut of electronic pop, weaving in and out of the zeitgeist with his just-off-kilter-enough spin on the synth-pop that he grew up with as a teenager.
I’ve wanted to talk to Richard X about his impressive career—a multi-decade-and-still-going-span that’s included collaborations with such modern pop legends as M.I.A., Annie, Pet Shop Boys, Saint Etienne, and Erasure—for years, ever since we started DM’ing in the early 2010s about something or other. Last week, we finally hopped on the phone for a 90-minute career-spanning conversation about some of the highlights in his impressive and nearly inimitable career. I’m positive that you’re going to enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed talking to him.
Sugababes, “Freak Like Me”
This was your first big pop single, and it happened because of the attention you got from the bootleg mashups you made as Girls on Top—specifically, “We Don’t Give a Damn About Our Friends.”
“I Wanna Dance With Numbers” was year zero as far as what I was doing. I’d had that Whitney Houston a cappella for ten years—I bought it in a charity shop—and I was always annoying my DJ friends by trying to mix it over anything. What made it work was putting it out as a record. It was probably the best thing I’ve ever done—the best sleeve I’ve ever made—and it’s been downhill from there [Laughs].
The very act of making [“We Don’t Give a Damn About Our Friends”] into a single was risky—people can get sued for that sort of thing. But it was part of the London music scene. It fit in with electroclash, as well as all of the post-post-post-punk stuff. It got in the hands of [UK DJ] Ross Allen who took it to Darcus Beese, who was doing some A&R for Island. It seemed like such a weird idea for Sugababes—who’d already been a band, and then were dropped—to come back with something like that. I thought about it and said, “Why not?”
I learned a lot doing that record, with the push-and-pull of record companies and what you might need to do to make a record a little more palatable. It’s not mine—it’s their single. But it felt good to have something so strange and underground live in another world. I brought my hard drive home from the studio before lockdown, coincidentally, so I can see some of the dates I made this stuff. It’s quite shocking to me how long ago it was. Some of it is 21 years old already!
In the era of the “Blurred Lines” legal decision, do you think you would’ve been able to make something like “Freak Like Me” today?
I don’t think we could go back to the De La Soul style of multi-sampling. But there’s nothing stopping anyone right now from making the craziest bootleg of all time and throwing it out there without benefiting financially from it in any way. I mean, if people are putting out songs on other peoples’ music services…I don’t support ripping off material, but it shows that you can put something on a streaming site and it lives there before it’s taken off. I hear levels of uncleared samples everywhere when I’m listening to stuff, and I know that they’re uncleared because the records are small and they couldn’t have gotten permission. I don’t know if there’s anyone left at the labels who are listening to uncleared samples, though.
Rachel Stevens, “Some Girls”
This was the first time you worked with frequent songwriting partner Hannah Robinson.
We wrote “Some Girls” the first day that we met. I’d just signed to my publisher, I met a few writers, and me and her clicked. She thought I was a bit weird because I had concepts and ideas—I wasn’t just pulling samples from other records. We had the basic idea for [the song’s] story, which was the casting couch in a bit more detail. Those are the sort of things you can’t really do at the moment—the idea of a young starlet coming into that sort of world. It’s not supposed to be funny, but putting that into a record in a self-referential way appealed to me.
This was an era where you couldn’t have much flexibility when it came to remaking stuff. I had a huge Fairlight sampler that was used by the Thompson Twins, but you go into a professional studio and you have all this good stuff while my stuff didn’t really work. But Hannah had good melodies and ideas, as well as the general understanding that there was a sort of humor to it without being ridiculous, which is what we were trying to do.
I was already moving on [from bootlegs]. It felt right to get back to writing songs, because I hadn’t written songs since I was a teenager with synthesizers that were a cross between Pulp before I’d heard Pulp and bands like the Human League and Half Man Half Biscuit. All my stuff sounded like an early Muse record, with me singing about celebrities I’d seen on television, so it was good to come back to songwriting and realize that I liked doing it. But I don’t know how much impact these records had outside the UK. Rachel’s one of those ex-pop band girls who was famous in this country, but I don’t think she was anywhere else. Every country has those, don’t they?
Geri Halliwell wanted “Some Girls” at one point.
Before Geri and Rachel, it was offered to Annie, funnily enough. In that era, word got around that there was an interesting or hot song—people wanted to hear it and have it. Before I knew anything about it, Geri Halliwell heard it too—I didn’t ask for that. [Laughs] They got a bit ahead of the game, because no one actually asked me if I was happy about that, and they went a bit too far deciding that was her next single. They already had someone on board who was interested in doing the video, and then someone was like, “Maybe someone should check in with Richard.”
At that point, “Some Girls” had gone to Rachel, and for me that made such a better record than [if it went to] Geri Halliwell. There was a little bit of pressure to go with Geri because she was the bigger artist at the time—but it was going to be awful, I just knew. [Laughs] It wouldn’t have been my vibe, and it would’ve felt like it would’ve gone the wrong way, while I knew Rachel would be able to do it and I’d be more involved in the record and make her understand how to do it properly.
The story about Geri Halliwell locking herself in the car because she’s so angry…I wrote a bit of a retort song with Hannah for Annie, “Me Plus One,” which describes the beef. We were saying some not-nice things about Geri in a fun way, and [Annie] said, “I’ll sing that.” So weirdly, Annie is involved in this strange beef with Geri Halliwell too.
I’ve never met Geri Halliwell, but she wrote a retort song which started out, “Excuse me, Mr. X, let me kiss your lips and unwind my knickers from this twist.” That song got sent to me, and I was like, “What the fuck is this? Why is Geri Halliwell writing an answer song?” It never came out, but I’d love to hear it again. She’d obviously gotten really pissed off. It’s great when you have a hot song where more than one person wants it, but I’m not an artist—I don’t stand up and sing and do all of that—so I need to have my style and have my control over it. I’m not as much of a control freak now, though.
M.I.A., “10 Dollar”
M.I.A. was in between London and Sheffield, so she did a lot of work with Steve Mackey of Pulp and Ross Orton, who was in a band called the Fat Truckers—Ross still produces bands like Arctic Monkeys today. They were integral in getting “Galang” off the ground. She made the original version, and they turned it into a record with her. But the thing about M.I.A. is that it’s all her. The way she generates stuff is what makes it her thing.
I met her through people in the Sheffield electronic scene, which she was on the periphery of—I DJ’d her for a few gigs, playing the dubplates behind her. She was into hearing stuff from all over the world, and she played me so much new music that inspired the dancehall stuff on Arular. We were getting it wrong and putting our own spin on it, using different sounds and trying to keep the essence of the imperfections. Even though I was using the same equipment I was using on “Some Girls,” we had a different palette and sensibility. A lot of the time we’d work on a bit of music together, or I’d play her some beats and she’d write something in the room, or she’d have an original idea. We worked together on all the skits too—some of those started out as full songs and were cut down. She is a bit of a genius. [Laughs]
For the next five years after Arular, most musicians that I worked with loved her because she was so inspiring to people. It wasn’t even her sound—it was her aesthetic and how she was. “10 Dollar” had a bit of a roundabout trip, because we started with a Diwali rhythm and the original version was quite slow. But when Diplo did the Piracy Funds Terrorism mixtape, I gave him loads of parts from the songs we’d done. He mashed up the a cappella of “10 Dollar” with a Kraftwerk song, and after we both heard that we decided we could do with something more energetic.
I remember saying to her after the album that it was quite evident that she could do what she was doing, but have an engineer rather than a producer. And I think that’s what she did for the next album. I’m not saying I was responsible for any of that [Laughs], but it really shifted what she wanted to do because she could take that control. It wasn’t just looking for beats that came her way. It was getting someone to make it if you didn’t have the technical chops to—but she was really good. I did something on the last album, and she said “You’re good at song arrangements.” It’s always good to see her. I loved the film on her, I thought it was very entertaining too. I’m not sure when I’ll see her again.
On the Arular song “Hombre,” you used the pseudonym credit Dwain ‘Willy’ Wilson III. Why?
It was probably her suggestion. This is so silly, but I was associated with pop music at that point, and everything seemed so cool that was coming from the States. I remember her playing me Lil Jon and Ciara, and suddenly there wasn’t really something cool about my name on that song. I can’t even remember who made it up. And then no one knew I made it. [Laughs]
Pet Shop Boys, “Fugitive”
Pet Shop Boys are one of a few legacy acts that you’ve worked with. Who were some of your idols growing up?
Pretty much all synth-pop—Human League at the top. When I was very young, I liked Ultravox and OMD. Those three are the trinity of synth-pop to me. I also used to buy a lot of Mute Records [albums]—pre-coldwave electronic stuff. I made my first songs when I was 11, and I bought cheap analog synths from the money of my newspaper rounds.
I was a bit older when Pet Shop Boys came along, and that took it somewhere completely different for me. It made a lot of early synth-pop seem basic. The technology they were using took it somewhere completely new and sophisticated. As a teenager, you picked up on that depth. Then house music came to the North of England, where I lived, and that was huge. I was a bit too young to go to the illegal raves, but you live through other people and hearing their stories, and the music was great. That’s where I heard more soulful voices. I was mad obsessed with Saint Etienne, too, but we’ll talk about them later.
What was it like working with Pet Shop Boys?
I was never starstruck until that session. Even when you’re meeting pop stars, it wasn’t the same as meeting those two. They were so funny—just nonstop hilarity. It’s nice to be considered as a producer [on that song]. I didn’t make the whole thing, they did the original programming with Pete Gleadall. I dropped a few sly referential sounds in it, because I like doing that sort of thing. The intro’s got a few little Easter eggs.
Trevor Horn did the rest of the album but didn’t want to touch this song, because it was originally called “Suicide Bomber.” It came to me from management—I think they knew I was a fan—and that was a discussion point. I couldn’t see any way it wouldn’t end in negativity. The chorus was originally “Suicide bomber!”. It was just so raw after the London bombing that it wasn’t gonna end well. The idea of the song being banned or not coming out was not a positive thing—it was a good song, it was classic Pet Shop Boys, so it would be a shame if that kept it in the studio drawer.
So Neil Tennant rewrote it. They published a lyric book, and they mention the original title in the book—but there’s no way that wouldn’t have been Daily Mail fodder, and that would’ve been a shame. Even now, the mauling that would get…But it’s a very valid position, that a family member would question why someone would become a suicide bomber. People might think it’s trite to do that in a disco song, but that’s what they do and we can appreciate that on any other level.
Róisín Murphy, “Parallel Lives”
I met Róisín years ago in Ibiza. I did some work with Diddy and Kelis, and they basically kidnapped me in Ibiza. I was at a friend’s birthday, and I got a call from the head of Virgin—I was a new signeé—and he told me to go see Nellee Hooper, so I went to the session with a keyboard in a sleeping bag. Diddy and Kelis were there, and they told me I had to get on a plane the next day and come to Ibiza with them. “There’s a great studio there.”
Long story short, there was no studio. There was some equipment that had been borrowed from one of the local musicians, and there was very little Diddy and Kelis until four in the morning. But I went out with them, and I met Róisín after she’d just jumped over the fence from a yoga retreat, because she was in the middle of stuff [Laughs]. So we were in the middle of Pacha and we had a chat.
One of the tracks I did in that session with Diddy formed the basis for “Parallel Lives.” I always prepare a few backing tracks—for today, for next week—so I’ve got a lot that’s meant for someone that ends up for someone else. The groove was from a Diddy track that never came out. I put a clip of it on my Instagram a few years ago, and that was the only previous public airing. It was club-playable dance music, and she liked the stark elements of what I was doing—but it’s all 100% Róisín. She did a Tim’s Listening Party recently, and I once put out the Human League’s early demos as a fan project, and she mentioned that she took that as a sign that I was ok to work with. [Laughs]
Annie, “Songs Remind Me of You”
Me and Hannah wrote this song back in 2004. Before I played it to Annie, Dannii Minogue was interested in cutting it. It’s very Giorgio Moroder-influenced, but that’s not gonna get me in trouble. He’s not gonna get much money out of suing me for that. It’s like guitar strumming, though: sometimes it’s the easiest thing for us to do. I can’t remember whether there was any influence from Madonna’s “Hung Up,” but when I heard that Madonna album I remember thinking that it sounded a lot like Dannii Minogue.
When Annie was doing the album for Island, we recorded “Songs Remind Me of You” alongside “I Know Your Girlfriend Hates Me” and an early version of “Anthonio,” which [Island] really hated. [Laughs] But we liked [it]. It all eventually came out when Smalltown Supersound reissued the album that didn’t come out—I think that’s how it worked.
Annie works in a similar way to me. She doesn’t just write songs—she thinks about the whole picture. When it’s me, her, and Hannah, it feels very natural. There’s a lot of laughing. “Anthonio” started out when we had a bottle of aftershave in the studio, and it just smelled like the wrong sort of man would be wearing it. You can only do that with people that you’ve been writing with for a long time.
She’s got an album coming out soon. Stefan Storm from Storm of Arrows produced the whole thing, and I think I introduced them because Stefan and I did a song with her called “Cara Mia” a few years ago. It’s a lot more filmic, and the cinematic thing is something she’s wanted to do for a while. It’s not quite the type of thing I do—but it works well with Stefan, and times like this remind you of how much you miss working with creative people.
Saint Etienne, “Tonight”
Saint Etienne were one of my biggest influences, and one of the first bands where I was so obsessed that I went and stood outside their house. They used to put their actual addresses on the back of their records. I certainly didn’t knock on their [doors], but I stood outside their houses, and I met a couple of other fans over the years who did the same thing.
There was a band on their label Ice Rink called Oval who did a cover of Def Leppard’s “Photograph,” and I was so obsessed with the single that I wrote to them. I was apparently the first person who wrote to them, so they sent me over this huge package—you can imagine what the indie scene was in the ‘90s, the effort that went into the fanzines. But [Saint Etienne] are very easy to get along with. You can go for a drink with them, which quite often was the case. [Laughs]
Saint Etienne are chameleon-like. Think of all the styles they’ve done over the years—and Sarah’s there, making it a Saint Etienne record. All the records I’ve been doing since the late naughties have had big vocals, and Sarah carries the whole thing here. I know that sounds obvious, but it makes your job a lot easier if you have the vocal sounding loud and proud and great. I want bands like Saint Etienne to get on the radio, and I’m quite happy to help—and it’s probably why I’m still employed. [Laughs] It’s what people need.
[Mute Records founder] Daniel Miller has always been good to me and understands what I can do, so he sometimes thought of me—and he thought of me for this. He played me the demos, and I said, “Where are the songs?” And he said, “That’s gonna be a hit.” It’s not a criticism—that’s how they work.
With this song, there was a melody, and [Vince Clarke] wanted this whole album to be analog, so I worked on the arrangement before the song—which is quite odd for me, because I think the song informs the sonics. But it was quite easy to work with Vince and [Andy Bell] on this. At the time, EDM was huge, but it was also wiping out all other electronic music in its wake. I wanted a bit of the influence [of EDM], but not necessarily the sound, which made the arrangements a bit dancier.
If you listen to it, it’s still Erasure—but people really hated it when it came out. I think it’s because they made a dance-y looking video. There’s nothing wrong with the song at all. But [Erasure] weren’t in the video, and it was a sunny dance video, so some of the fans were up in arms about that—but they calmed down when they heard the record. It’s nice to have people like them respecting my opinion when I grew up listening to their records.
Innerpartysystem, “Money Makes the World Go Round”
You have to have some flexibility when it comes to respecting what [artists] do and what you want to do. For Innerpartysystem, [vocalist and programmer Patrick Nissley] had done a lot of work at home on the sound design, but wanted a producer to come in to structure, re-do some vocals, and suggest new parts. We were using all this modular synth stuff that had a resurgence around that time, so a lot of those sounds you couldn’t do on the computer. More than anything, you can hear the Ed Banger sound. It’s hard to listen to with today’s ears, where everything has a lot more bass and everything sounds a lot more worn.
But this song sounded exciting in the clubs, and I brought a European sensibility into something that wasn’t quite as dance-y, when it came to me. I don’t think I actually got a finished copy of this song, and I don’t think it’s been on Spotify for very long, because I looked for it a year ago and it wasn’t there. So it’s nice to hear it again [Laughs]. It sounds alright! I wouldn’t say it’s dated, but it has a lot of the tropes of the time in there, and that’s fine. If I was still putting arcade sounds on things now, I might not be as popular as I was in 2004.
I mean, I might give it a go.