With her strange sounds and irresistible rhythms, Phoebé Guillemot maps a world that exists only in her imagination. Andrew Ryce hears about her journey so far.
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Google RAMZi and you'll see: a convoluted theory for discerning a baby's gender after six weeks of gestation, one of the perpetrators of the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing and, among many other musical artists, a young electronic producer who shrouds her identity in a web of odd terms. Phoebé Guillemot relishes this ambiguity. She chose the name RAMZi for the musical sound of it; its masculine associations were a bonus. In her early days, Guillemot hid behind cryptic social media pages, with words like BigBird and Phobiza attached to releases or mixes that contained unreal, unfamiliar music. You could hardly tell whether it was one person or a group, never mind where she lived or where she came from.
In person, Guillemot is a lot less mysterious. I first met her when she moved to Vancouver, where she became an unlikely fixture of the city's then-growing house music scene. Now we're chatting over bottles of Rothaus Pils in her new home of Berlin—a relocation that signals a more professional and organized phase of her career.
Guillemot's music doesn't belong any more in Berlin than it did in Vancouver. In fact, her music sounds like it belongs in another dimension—or at least like it came from one. As RAMZi she conjures up alien worlds of sound, where texture is mapped out like terrain and odd rhythms push and prod in unpredictable directions. See Guillemot live and you'll watch her hunched over her equipment, muttering into a mic in the middle of herky-jerky dances, as if she were in a trance. Heavily manipulated voices coo and chatter gibberish, mixed in with recognizable fragments of English, French and strains of patois and Creole.
The world imagined in RAMZi's music comes from a tangle of influences. She synthesizes an enormous range of ideas from across the world into a dense musical language. She sees it as an ongoing research project, taking in bits and pieces of music from different cultures. It's a mass of knowledge and sounds that Guillemot is constantly building on and adding to, reflecting an overactive imagination and an obsession with warmth, nature and the most fertile parts of the earth. Guillemot describes her style as both "psychoactive" and "tropical."
"I would write it 'twopikal,'" she corrects me. "I would say twopikal bounce, because I think it's really bouncy sounding. It's a lot of nature—and being in a tropical environment is kind of warm, it creates this protective dome above me."
Guillemot speaks in a heavy French-Canadian accent, a product of growing up in Québec, which is a far cry from tropical. As a project, RAMZi was born in Victoria at the other end of Canada, on an island about 90 minutes from Vancouver by ferry. (It's not tropical there, either.) Guillemot went to Victoria to try something new and fell in love with the Cascadian forests, though not before falling out of love with them, too.
"I went there for tree planting," she says, "which was a really bad idea. It was hard and I hated it and then I escaped, pretending I found a new job. I went to this hippie festival and I was traveling and meeting people and then I felt like how I always feel when I'm traveling—like I'm on this quest, and I'm flexible, and don't have any plans."
Living at various places around Victoria, including a spell on a farm, Guillemot withdrew into a haze of weed smoke, being "in her bubble," as she describes it. In isolation, she started to sketch out the geography of her new project, inspired by the lush green nature around her.
Guillemot began with sampling. She assembled Latin and African-inspired percussion sounds and added things that inspired her—birdsong, bizarre noises, chewed-up human voices—feeding it through grain delay and other effects in Ableton. The result was staggering even in the early stages: RAMZi's music, from the very first tracks, wiggled, slithered and lunged, rarely moving in any linear or predictable way. The initial releases came out on leftfield labels like Pygmy Animals and Total Stasis.
Her approach to production actually came out of a desire to DJ. Guillemot set out to create collages of samples and loops, things she could play, layer and repeat. She also built strange drum kits out of found sounds, which have become a sort of mother source for the music she's made since then.
All of Guillemot's records grow from these elements, like flowers spreading pollen through a meadow. Her earliest releases, which were finished once she moved back to Montreal from Victoria, showed an obsession with dub and Latin music. Guillemot started playing afterparties in Montreal's melting-pot of a scene, where indie rock was starting to blend into electronic music and all-night dance parties would feature an array of bands, performers and DJs.
"It was really fun at that time in Montreal, it was what I liked most," she says. "It was a good challenge because my music doesn't fit into afterparties that much, but people at that time were less into having this clean, steady music—it was more punk. But after a while I couldn't play anymore in Montreal—I played POP Montreal three times, and MUTEK twice."
Living in a sitting room without even a door for privacy, Guillemot decided it was time to grow up and take her career to the next level. She planned to move to Portugal—"I had no idea why, it was just an intuition," she says—but on a tour with artists from 1080p, she made her way to the West Coast, hit Vancouver and, in her words, "got lost."
There was a formidable house music scene on the rise in Vancouver at that time, built on the back of labels like Mood Hut and 1080p, the latter of which released Guillemot's breakout record, the dense and dizzy Houti Kush.
The city's house-and-disco focused afterparty scene was the opposite of Montreal's, though just as inspiring. Guillemot became a regular at events, opening for DJs like Anthony "Shake" Shakir or playing sets alongside local artists like Pender Street Steppers and D. Tiffany. Her music wasn't anything like what was popular in the city, but she found almost instant support and encouragement.
"I wanted to release on Mood Hut, but I didn't tell them," she says with a laugh. "I was just like... 'I'm gonna make an album for them.' I had this intention in mind. I was like, 'Hey, here are some tracks if you wanna send it to your friends in Europe, or to labels, whatever,' and they were like, 'No, we want to release it!'"
The EP on Mood Hut was another pivotal moment for Guillemot, one where the unique mythology of RAMZi started to recognizably surface. It was the second volume in a trilogy called Phobiza, a series that alludes to a fictional place and references words that appear often in RAMZi's music, like "Houti" or "zombie."
"Phobiza refers to Ibiza, but it's also an island," she explains. "There's a mythology, but I shouldn't talk too much about it. I think about music more than words. I created a topographic map of the RAMZi world, and it's still in progress—I want to design it more and then show that world in detail."
As the mythology of RAMZi grows and becomes more defined, so do its musical influences. The initial foundations have expanded to include West African highlife music, dub, dancehall, soca and Guillemot's current favourites, kwaito and kuduro. She also mentions new age and experimental music from Southern Europe, old acid house and obscure classical music. YouTube is Guillemot's tool of choice—she's made mixes entirely from YouTube rips. She finds material through specific channels more than searching by genres, and then puts it all together in a way that only she could.
"My music is a big mash of fusions and re-imaginings," Guillemot says. "There's one track where I use a guitar from Durutti Column. I use instruments from old songs. I don't have any hardware so I'd just sample the sound of someone's synths. And I like music from Angola—kizomba. Music from the beginning of kuduro. Stuff that's hard to find even on Soulseek. Music that's groovy and dancey, but with slow BPMs."
Guillemot is quick to note that there's no one culture, place or genre she associates with RAMZi. She says she's guided by her ears, not cultural signifiers, and that she sees RAMZi as a mixture of "fantasy and cartoon" more than anything grounded in the real world—though she's aware that she's opening herself to criticism by sampling from different cultures.
"Cultural appropriation, to me, is if you only take one culture and stick to it," she explains. "I think it's case by case. For me, RAMZi is more of a fusion, taking elements of what I like to hear. The first criteria is if it sounds good to my ears—then I'm gonna sample it. I don't think I'm appropriating. It's more integrating. It has to be cooked somehow, it's not just copy-and-paste. It's a long process."
The idea of "cooking" has become fundamental to Guillemot's latter-day approach to music. She meticulously edits, manipulates and rearranges what she samples, morphing whatever significance it might have once had into something that fits her sometimes grotesque world. This is often done on a micro level: in addition to the layers of percussion from her homemade drum kits, Guillemot will take a specific sound or instrument from another recording and then map it onto a keyboard, playing her own melodies, warping the original sound and context of what she's borrowing from.
Guillemot operates the same way with words. She takes them apart and rebuilds them, creating her own lexicon based on musicality rather than meaning. Voices are a near constant in her music, some high, some low, some gendered and some ambiguous. They interact with each other, fluttering, giggling and chattering—representing the inhabitants of the RAMZi world, human, insect and animal alike—but they're almost never intelligible, known only to Guillemot like an inside joke of sorts.
"They're stupid things that nobody understands," she says self-consciously. "But for example, there's one sentence—sometimes I say it in French, sometimes in English—the small voice is worried about being spied on or being paranoid, and the big voice is like, 'No, I'm your friend.' I'm very curious about words. I need to find words in German, too. But I like words that sound fun to say, and sometimes I like the meanings too. There's a lot of that in Creole, and maybe it's because I know French, but I think it's a funny language, almost cartoonish. Quebecois [French] sounds cartoonish, too."
"It's just mixing ingredients and seeing what results," she goes on. "I like to try it, even spontaneously while DJing—just adding the voices, from two different cultures and seeing how it goes."
Guillemot has set her sights on DJing as the next phase of her career, after bringing her live show around the world. Her style of DJing is as much about mashing up ideas and sounds as her productions are. She plays out her own edits, making loops out of solos, intros or outros, removing the context from the music and adding her array of voices to chatter over it, while making it all a little more approachable.
"I don't want to be less of a weirdo," she says, "though RAMZi can evolve into something dancier and have a more polished sound. But I need more help. I cannot just use Ableton Live. I need an engineer and plug-ins I don't know how to use. It's gonna happen."
To go with this new phase, she has a raft of releases lined up, including an EP on Music From Memory sub-label Second Circle and an LP called Pèze-Piton—Québecois for "push-button"—due out on 12th Isle.
"It's closer to the early tracks," she says of Pèze-Piton, "like, deconstructed, dubby and raw. I lost the masters and only had the audio files for a few, so it sounds quite compressed. It's more like the punk RAMZi. And this is the album that pushes the foundation as far as it can go. It's the last piece of music that is close to the RAMZi core."
The final volume of Phobiza will be released on her own new label. It's meant as the bridge between what Guillemot calls the "ancient world" and the new world of RAMZi, an area that she's still intrepidly exploring and mapping out while she seeks out new kinds of music to take inspiration from.
"Listening to a lot of kwaito has inspired me, it's around 100 BPM and is more about trance, it's steady. I'm curious about the world trance movement. It's hard to define what is trance, exactly, but I have this idea of what I like in trance music. I still don't know enough. I'm researching."