Portland Musicians Corner With DJ Sonic Szilvi – Interview with Photona

I had heard of Photona in the past, but I confess, I never really knew their songs and hadn’t seen them live until recently. I was looking to feature a local band for my radio show and decided to contact them. My message felt welcome and I instantly felt a great connection to them. They are great musicians and excellent human beings.

To top things off they create absolutely amazing songs, loaded with emotions, stories and musical depth. Their genre is a cool mixture of the darker side of synth pop and rock, with a great beat and chilling vocals that give you the shivers. Vocals come from Outer Stace, who has the pipes of a dark angel. Synth, sound programming and guitar come from Phono, and last but not least XavierX completes this trio with those essential beats and rhythms.

Put all that on a stage and you have a pretty sweet show that is hard to forget.

Sonic Sz:  How did Photona start?

XavierX: Our vocalist, Outer Stace, had written and recorded a lot of great material a while back. I had the riffs running around in my head, and I tossed one of them into my recording software and recorded some drums to it. That first song was “Packed Away”, that’s what started it all. “Packed Away” is on our first album, Alabaster Inlay Tiger Panels. We just kept writing and working, and here we are!

Outer Stace: What X said… That is the beginning in a nutshell. X having faith in me as a musician & kind of pushing me to realize that I could do this. I had stopped for an excessive amount of time. We have known each other a long time…he knew just what button to push to spark that flame and get me back to singing. I am so glad he did. Our good friend Betley started us out on keys/guitar and then we found Phono. Woah… he is an incredible and irreplaceable addition. He is now one of us..one of us…one of us!

Phono: Yea and it was purely serendipity. I just so happened to run into Stace at the right place at the right time and we gave each other a shot. It didn’t take long for us to figure out our sound and take things to the next level.

Outer Stace: Bonus, we all like each other a lot and have fun working on all of the aspects of the process, even the hard work. The work is beyond satisfying when you love what you are doing and who you are doing it with. We are very fortunate to have come together. You can feel when it’s right.  All of the little pieces are perfectly in place.

S Sz: You define your music as Synth Pop and Wave mixed with elements of rock. Was this an intentional genre you wanted to tap into or did the sound just happen?

Outer Stace: It just happened. The synth, to me, is so emotional. Always has been. Add some nicely placed synth to anything and suddenly you have more texture, more mood…a story in sound. My musical background is punk, post punk and metal primarily, and my love for synth has always interweaved in those genres. The synth pop/synth wave is kind of a marker to steer listeners. I would say we lean more towards electro rock, but we just make whatever feels right. If it is a heavy synth song or a more guitar driven song… Does it feel good to play? Are we inspired to perform the Hell out of it? Do we dig it? Then it is Photona.

XavierX: We just let the music define itself. I think that any specific designation we put down is really kind of a general guideline for what we are doing. We have to label it somehow, so that people can have a general idea as to what to expect, but we are more than that for sure. We all have different backgrounds, but I’d say that we also have very similar tastes. You’ll hear everything from Pop to Rock, to Dance, to Speed Metal, to Goth, etc, etc, etc.. All of those genres and more are represented in the songs we write.

Phono: And it’s interesting how it all works together. My background in production is mostly in dance music but because I work with synths so much, it makes it easy to dial in the sound we need to fill in our songs. I agree with X that it’s not really a particularly defined sound, and I like it that way. Sometimes I’m feeling heavy, sometimes I’m feeling mellow, sometimes I’m feeling energized. I think our repertoire so far kinda covers the spectrum.

S Sz: I have seen you live two times now (I know, not enough), and each show was mind blowing. All three of you are amazing musicians. Strong vocals, kick ass drums, cool guitar and synth to complete each song. What is your music background, how did all this begin?

XavierX: I’ve been playing drums since I was around 9 years old, and there have been a lot of influences that have made me play the way I do. I really have enjoyed playing everything from Death Metal to Swing to Bubblegum Pop to Gothic to Synth stuff. I’ve loved learning and playing everything from Slayer to Scritti Politti to The Police to Tool. Pretty much everything EXCEPT country. But that’s a given.

Outer Stace: I come from a long line of singers. My parents were folks singers in the 60’s, both of my Grandmothers were singers and I have a great Grandmother who was an Opera singer in Norway. So, I have been singing since I could talk in one way or another. Choirs, acapella groups & musicals as a kid/young teenager. I found my own voice when I was around 16. A friend of mine and I started doing Misfits covers under bridges, downtown, schools…pretty much anywhere we could for anyone who would listen. She played guitar and after some time we formed our first band, covered Metallica & started writing our own music. We didn’t have a gender centric musical bone in our bodies. That’s a big thing for me still… if I want to sing it, I am going to. I don’t care. If you don’t like it…go see something else or check your ideas of what you think women “should” be doing.

Phono: Stace is going to laugh. I’m classically trained on the piano. Been playing since about 6 years old and took formal lessons for years, until about 16 when I started teaching at the same private conservatory that taught me. So when I’m not riffing away on loud and dirty synths, I’m at home playing some Chopin or Beethoven. I picked up the guitar around 13 and learned a slightly different approach to music. I started playing by ear, improvising, listening to rock, metal, blues, and fell in love with artists like Tool, Radiohead, Rage Against the Machine, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Sound Garden, etc. Definitely a bit of a contrast in sound but it all helped shaped my approach to music.

Outer Stace: I laugh only because it’s true…it’s funny because it’s true. It is really great that we are all influenced and trained so differently, yet we make a cohesive, unique sound together. I think you can hear a little bit of everything in our music and that is pretty cool.

S Sz: What is come inspiration behind the words? Do you all pitch in with lyrics?

Outer Stace: That’s my area. But, you know… I am largely inspired by the visuals that the music provides for me. OVERDOSER for example…Phono was messing around with that synth line at practice and I immediately had a visual and an overwhelming sadness that electrocuted me. I took that overwhelming sadness and scrawled out some pain and angst that I feel deeply and consistently. That is true for nearly every song. I may have some words or ideas scribbled out to use for later here and there, but generally the music tells me what to do and I tell it “okay”.

S Sz: Let’s throw in a fun question. I like to make up these imaginary scenarios. How about this one: A super rich celebrity wants to throw the party of a lifetime and wants Photona to provide the music. Imagine this is a very exclusive party and out of this world. Who would that famous person be? Who would you want to party with and why?

Phono: Man, if Elon Musk would host us, that would be incredible. Tesla, SpaceX, Hyperloop. And I just heard about a neural interface company he’s starting up. I can’t even imagine the amount of tech there would be at this party. I’d want to party with Michael Cera, though. He seems like a cool guy.

XavierX: I think that my person would have to be Martin Shkreli. He’s an inspiration to us all. So creative, charming, and compassionate? Nobel Prize material, that one.

Outer Stace: OMG X… Ha ha no! No. No. Um… for me I guess I would hope Neil deGrasse Tyson, Mark Mothersbaugh, Peter Murphy and Gary Numan all had some party together and asked us to play? Unfortunately, Leonard Nimoy & Carl Sagan are dead or they would be at that same party. Then we could discuss Science, Sci-Fi and music for an extended amount of time after the show! Oh and then Peter Murphy would FINALLY ask me to sing with him. Twist my arm… “Okay okay Peter, I will sing with you”.

XavierX: Okay… what they said. I changed my mind! Those guys can invite us instead.

S Sz: You just released an EP – Overdoser. Can you tell me more about this? What can a future listener expect and where can they get it?

Outer Stace: Yes, we are really happy with this EP. It is the first real recording with Phono & a great representation of where we are today and where we are headed. It is available on https://photonaband.bandcamp.com in a “pay what you can” digital download, limited edition Brown vinyl & soon, standard black vinyl. It is also available on Spotify, Apple music, Amazon music, google play etc… we put our backs & guts into this release.

XavierX: We have really moved into a whole new arena with this EP, in my opinion. The music started evolving into new directions after the first album, but it’s still congruous with the songs from our first record. As for the creation of the EP, I really feel that we came of with the song parts, and then those song parts told us what to do. It was a very cool process.

Phono: It was a lot of work, a lot of processing time, a lot of back and forth, and a lot of patience. We all had a vision for it and I strongly believe we were able to find the right balance. I really wanted a particular hard hitting, almost dance music sound to it that actually worked out really well. It really shows in the kick, the bass, and the overall thick and creamy sound of it.

S SZ: What will we see from Photona in the near and far future? Any big plans?

Outer Stace: We are working a post EP/Pre LP single. We have written a lot of new material (which the live shows are mostly comprised of) and are writing even more.

We would really like to make a video for “You look like Warhol”, it would be really fun to make. It’s on our list, but writing is kind of our thing. We are prepping to play PIGfest 3 with some insanely good bands (August 10-13 at the Paris Theater!) and a couple of other great shows before and after that. We don’t have big plans necessarily, we have hopes, we have ideas and we have music.

Phono: Yea! I’m really excited for our next show on June 29th at Paris. We’ve had the opportunity to hang out with some of the members of the other bands and they are just so nice and awesome. Stoked!

Outer Stace: On that note, we really have met some of the most generous and kind people over the last year in this particular “scene” if you will. Supportive, collaborative, fun, open minded people. Shows me that the good part of PDX isn’t dead, it’s just quietly supporting others. Refreshing.

S Sz: How do you pronounce Photona? (I couldn’t help myself 😉 )

XavierX: That’s a GREAT question! A lot of people pronounce it Fo-Toh-Nah, but that’s not it. It’s pronounced Foh-TAH-Nah. It’s supposed to be like a Photon (Yup, a light particle), but a humanized version of the word. It’d be a pretty kickass superhero name, now that I think about it!

Outer Stace: FO-TAH-NAH… Photon with an ‘a’ at the end. X thinks we should add a symbol over the first “o” to show how to say it. I’m on the fence about that. I feel like a little more science and a little more Sci-Fi in people’s lives would help with the pronunciation. But odds are, we will add the symbol and maybe make more “bet settling” videos?

Thank you very much for taking some time out of your day to do this interview with me. It’s a pleasure of knowing you all and to being able to introduce your cool band to all the Freeform readers!

Outer Stace: Thank you Szilvie! We love what you do for bands and for Portland!

To find out more about Photona please visit their FB page.

DJ Sonic Szilvi, a European native, joined the Portland music scene a few years ago, currently playing bass for two active bands and one on hiatus. She recently joined the Freeform Portland family as a DJ. Sonic Szilvi hosts the weekly show Dark Noise Radio