Leave it all behind

Everything is open: “You have to do something as an artist to make it interesting to yourself,” Phonte Coleman says. Photo by Tobias Rose
Everything is open: “You have to do something as an artist to make it interesting to yourself,” Phonte Coleman says. Photo by Tobias Rose

Hooking up a phone call with Phonte Coleman and Nicolay Rook, the stylistic poles and primary creators of electro-R&B outfit The Foreign Exchange, takes a good deal of coordination. On one particular Tuesday afternoon, Rook is ready and waiting, while Coleman is on a plane and in the middle of another interview. After holding for Coleman to finish and quickly overcoming a few connectivity issues, both men are on the phone. They rarely interact in their responses, content to offer their answers in turn, building on each others’ points, reaching cohesive conclusions with isolated input.

Overcoming obstacles of communication has been an overriding theme of The Foreign Exchange. Coleman and Rook completed their 2004 debut Connected by sharing snippets via the Internet. The Raleigh-based Coleman met his complement on the hip-hop message board Okayplayer. Despite the fact that Rook resided in Holland, the two found immediate common ground, Rook’s soul-inflected R&B soundscapes pairing perfectly with the pillow-y croons of the then-Little Brother emcee.
These days, Rook has moved closer to a coastal home in Wilmington, but the pair still largely create in isolation.

“We still do it the same way,” Coleman says. “The way we work just enables us to come to each other with a finished product rather than an idea that might only make sense to ourselves. Nic can come to me with a finished or somewhat finished musical idea, and once he sends that to me I can send him back an 80 to 90 percent finished vocal idea. That’s pretty much how we get it done.”

Despite the disconnected activity, The Foreign Exchange’s music is remarkably coherent — even if it’s never quite consistent. Leave It All Behind, the 2008 breakthrough that garnered a Grammy nomination for lead single “Daykeeper,” bustles with rhythmic and sonic complexity. A kinetic collage of sensual beats, spacey sound effects and lush melodies underpin a canopy of richly reverberating vocals. It was a winning formula that earned the band a national reputation and built an easy template for continued success, but The Foreign Exchange followed it with a sharp and immediate left turn.

2010’s Authenticity is an uncompromisingly stark affair, pairing minimal beats with thin, but sparkling sheets of electronic gauze. The multilayer shroud surrounding Coleman’s vocal is drawn back, exposing his raw warmth to the paralyzing chill of Rook’s sparse production. It’s an arresting mixture, one that pushes listeners in a new and unexpected direction without forsaking the seductive smoothness that makes The Foreign Exchange so appealing.

“All we know is for every project that we do, we want to make it something that is unique and stands on its own,” Rook explains. “We really don’t try to define what we’re doing until we’re done. We kind of work continuously, and when we feel like we have enough for an album, we bundle it and get it out. At that point, we kind of see where we took it. But during the making and before the making all bets are off. Everything is open. All the cards are on the table. It can literally go anywhere.”

The approach is unlimited, but the music of The Foreign Exchange is no series of random decisions. It’s the result of aggressive evolution, moving quickly along logical lines, arriving at sensible sonic detours quicker than one would expect. A great example is Dear Friends, the live album the group released last year. Recasting Authenticity’s futuristic minimalism as a tangle of warm acoustics, the live ensemble deconstructs the back catalog, transforming steely synths into lilting swells of guitar and piano.

“When you have records that aren’t even big records, but records that are fan favorites, and you perform them night in and night out, and you’re always sort of working on them, after a while you get tired of playing them the same way,” Coleman confesses. “You have to do something as an artist to make it interesting to yourself. You don’t just want to get on stage and do it by the numbers. You really want to get excited about it, and you really want that excitement to channel itself to the crowd.”

With a diverse repertoire that nevertheless maintains a singular identity, The Foreign Exchange’s achievements are a testament to the bond between two men who have grown close despite starting far apart. On Dear Friends, Coleman introduces Rook with a story about meeting his parents in Europe, informing his audience that he obtained embarrassing childhood photos of his partner, ammunition he says only family can possess.

“That’s my brother,” Coleman claims over the phone. “That’s family. It’s blood almost. His parents, I’m sure they never thought they’d have an adopted black son.”

Rook laughs, offering the interview’s lone interruption: “They always wanted one though.“

— Jordan Lawrence is editor at Charlotte-based Shuffle Magazine and a contributing writer at The Independent.

who: Foreign Exchange, with RBTS WIN
where: Emerald Lounge, 112 N. Lexington Ave.
when: Saturday, June 9 (9 p.m. $15 advance/$20 day of show. tickets online at http://www.brownpapertickets.com. More at http://www.theforeignexchangemusic.com and http://www.emeraldlounge.com)

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