- Thu, 2008-03-06 12:15
Having sold over 2 million records to date, recorded with the likes of REM's Michael Stipe, and performed with U2 and others on mega-stadium tours, Utah Saints remain one of the most trail-blazing outfits within electronic music. Now Tim Garbutt and Jez Willis are back with a Van She Tech remix of their classic anthem, Something Good (08).
I Like Music caught up with the lovely Jez to talk about the new single, video and forthcoming mix album, sampling through the decades, touring with U2, and what happened when they recorded Michael Stipe.
''I Like Music because… it’s very good for the soul.” Jez Willis, Utah Saints
ILM: Utah Saints, Something Good 08 - The Van She Tech Remix is out now to download and in shops 17th March 2008. I understand you stumbled across it on a blog about a year ago, got in touch and asked them just to not release it on the net, tell us more and describe its vibe?
Jez: Yeah, you’re absolutely right, we discovered it on a blog a week after Van She Tech had done it. Van She Tech is two guys out of an Australian band called Van She, and they’ve got this electronic arm, a bit like Too Many DJs and Soulwax. We’ve always kept an eye on new music that’s coming up through the blogs and found loads of stuff that’s started life on blogs that’s become big elsewhere. So we emailed them and said this is a cool mix, but you can try and keep a lid on it and not unleash it just yet because we’re planning our own mixes at some point. And they were really cool about it. And then the whole track gained momentum culminating with Pete Tong making it his essential new tune in September and Zane Lowe making it his hottest record in the world the same week.
And that’s one of those happy accidents that seems to happen with tracks that we’re involved with. They somehow end up on Zane Lowe and Pete Tong at the same time, which is wicked for us, but confusing for most people to know whether we’re a dance act or an alternative act or what we are.
So we thought we need to get our own version sorted. So we had to recreate the whole track, because they’d sampled the original from 1992. So we recreated the whole thing and recreated the Kate Bush vocal even and then sent that back to them and they put it in and here we are.
ILM: And now everyone’s got Utah Saints fever again and are so glad you’re back…
Jez: Yeah, but it’s funny for us because we haven’t stopped. To be honest this track is going way bigger than we anticipated. I don’t want to count our chickens, but we’re getting a lot more love for the Utah’s so that’s really taken us back. But this is how it happened in the first place; it was kind of a happy accident back then too.
ILM: The very marvelous Utah Saints video shows the story of the Running Man dance move (which I so remember) - in Cardiff in 1989, by a mystery random man who starts an unstoppable craze... I so remember the Running Man craze and MC Hammer doing it as well, so how did the idea for that video come about?
Jez: Years ago Kiss launched up here and eight or nine years ago Tim and I presented a History of Dance show and we had two hours to play everything we wanted. And we always tried to find new dances each week, so each week we’d feature a new dance and especially prevalent in the early 60s when they had the jive and mashed potato and the early rock n roll dances and then every few months a new dance would come a long and usurp the previous one and, for a while, that happened in the early 90s too, because you had garage, drum n bass and everything mutated into tiny little genres and that carried on until a couple of years ago, it’s only now breaking down again
The Running Man was the director’s idea. He said we should set it somewhere unexpected to show the origins of that. I said well I’m from Carlisle, let’s set it there, in the North of England. But somewhere in the Chinese Whispers process, Carlisle mutated into Cardiff. Then we took one step back and thought, actually St David’s Day is two days before the release, so it all fitted.
And then the dancers were fantastic. The choreographer was amazing, we wanted it to have some humour in it and, at the end of the day music should be fun really. You can have some music that’s full of angst but this whole track is meant to be fun and uplifting and positive and that’s why the video needed to reflect that.
ILM: Casting your mind back over your singles and albums, which track stands out as the most fun and enjoyable to record in the studio and why?
Jez: There’s a track that never came out and there’s a video of it on YouTube. It’s called Rock and we sampled ACDC and did an homage to the film Taxi Driver. It was fantastaic fun because we went to New York and I got to have a Mohawk and drive a yellow cab around New York all night. So that was a lot of fun.
We’ve only ever released two albums, so if we get an album out next year, then we’re still on schedule really in terms of the gaps between albums. [Utah Saints and ILM laugh].
And this track [Something Good 08] is a really special one for us. We were trying to make every track as good as each other on all the albums and that’s probably why they took such a long time to make. We’re quite trainspotterish like that and we keep analyzing things until we think we’ve got it absolutely the best we can, so that’s frustrating for people around us. But we’ve now adopted a different approach because technology has caught up with us. We can do things now in hour that it used to take us two weeks to do.
ILM: Please can you describe the UTAH SAINTS process of making such bloody good anthemic music?
Jez: Thank you. Well, it used to be very time consuming. It’s almost laughable now the equipment we were using, it was almost steam powered! We had an old Atari computer and a big old Akai sampler and the general way we make tracks is to make the rhythm work properly and then we work out a bassline and then Tim and I both always liked to have the hook lines so we try and fling in as many hook lines as we can and, if it gets too cluttered we take things out, and then it’s finished.
With the samples for example, the first time round working with samples, we had to have this big logarithmic chart on the wall and that’d tell you by what factor you had to alter the sample to get it to fit at a certain speed. Even then it was hit or miss and it took about half an hour to process one sample and if you got it wrong you had to go and recalculate the whole thing! So it was incredibly time consuming. But you can do that now in a few seconds on a lap top. So it’s now very liberating for us because we can try out lots of different ideas really quickly.
ILM: Which piece of software could you not live without?
Jez: Ableton Live, a lot of people would say that, it’s just an amazing tool for using samples.
ILM: So you’re recording new material and playing gigs, with a mix compilation also planned. How’s that all coming along?
Jez: The mix compilation is coming out on a label called Finger Lickin’, and it’s part of their Fresh Traxx series. We run our own nights called SugarBeat Club and we’ve booked a lot of slightly left of centre acts. Like over the weekend we had Herve and Sinden and Switch and in the past we’ve had Zane Lowe and Annie Mac and we’ve also had lots of breaks acts who are all on this label Finger Lickin’ so we’ve got this relationship with them. They’re just a very focused small label, it’s not going to set the world on fire, but they’ve allowed us to do what we wanted to do. So that’s coming out in May and we plan to get an entirely new track out over the summer time.
We’re hoping to do a couple of festivals too. We’re curating a couple of stages at some smaller festivals. There’s a really small festival called Ilkley Moor festival in Ilkley just up the road from where we live in Leeds, that’s about 1500 people and we’re programming 12 hours of dance acts, which is great fun. And we’re also involved in another one in Lancashire which is a similar sort of size called Beat Herder. It’s a really nice vibe on the day and everybody’s just interested in the music.
ILM: You’ve sold over 2 million records to date, recorded with the likes of REM's Michael Stipe and Chuck D – any amusing anecdotes you can share from those times?
Jez: With Michael Stipe, the reason that came about was because he’d done a few interviews and cited our first album as his favourite dance album, but he started dropping that in inteviews about eight years after it’d come out, so, to still be his favourite dance album was a massive honour. We didn’t want to do a Michael Stipe goes dance kind of track, we wanted to do something different. So we spoke to him and said we won’t write a song, we’ll just talk to you for an hour over the phone about anything and whatever we get we’ll use that to make some tracks out of. And that’s what we did.
When you get into sampling you learn a lot about how noises can work and it’s easy to forget when people are talking, there’s always a pitch to their voice. They’re not singing, but general speech has got a melody and a rhythm to it. Someone like Michael Stipe doesn’t get interupted very often so he’s got quite a good rhythm and BPM… his sentences were always in time, so it was a really interesting way of working and he was really nice and really helpful.
But, when we first recorded it, we went down to Tandy and bought this contraption that was meant to record both sides of a conversation. But, when we played it back it sounded like he was on the moon, he was so quiet. So we recorded him for an hour and a half but messed it up. So we had to reschedule it. We must be the only people in the world who’d mess up recording Michael Stipe and have to do it again, so it was very embarrassing, but he was totally up for it and totally cool.
ILM: You’ve also performed with U2 and others on mega-stadium tours. How was that?
Jez: To tour with U2 was amazing and what we learned from U2 was that they’re arguably one of the biggest bands in the world, but they’re incredibly down to earth and nice people and they don’t have any attitude about them. They’re very focused on what they do and they’re brilliant at what they do. But we learned that, just because you’re a big star you don’t have to go round and boss people around. They certainly don’t do that. So if anybody tries to have any attitude with us, we don’t take them very seriously.
ILM: And playing stadium gigs must have been such a buzz as well?
Jez: Yeah, it was quite intimidating. The biggest one was 85,000 at the Stadium of Light in Lisbon, so yes, it’s an experience.
ILM: If you weren’t in the music business - what would you be doing? Did you have a plan B?
Jez: I’ve been doing this more or less since I was at school. I started DJing at weddings. I had a little mobile disco when I was at school and put things on at the local WI hall when I was about 14. And I’ve always wanted to be in music and I’ve been very lucky or stupid in terms of the fact I’ve never given up; it’s been up and down a lot. If this hadn’t worked out, I’d probably have done something with maths. I’ve not got the best memory in the world. But with maths the answer is either right or wrong, so I’d probably have done something with that.
ILM: Well, it’s good you did persist. I read that Kanye West even mentioned you on his blog…
Jez: Yeah, it’s very strange when that happens. I’ve no idea how that happens. We’re just two blokes from Leeds who make records. It’s humbling and we’re honoured to appear on Kanye West’s blog because it’s not the most obvious thing in the world.
ILM: Well, I guess it’s because your music is part of the soundtrack to so many people’s lives, including celebrities?
Jez: Yeah, maybe. When we started we pressed 1000 copies of What Can You Do For Me which was our first single and thought we might sell 2000 if we were lucky, so it was all a bit of a happy accident. [They sold 170,000 copies in three weeks and bagged a top ten hit in the process.]
ILM: You were ahead of your time, fusing sampled guitars with dance beats way before anyone else, like the Prodigy or anyone did so… Do you feel like pioneers?
Jez: It’s funny. People have said that in the past and it’s very kind, but we took the baton up and were influenced a lot by Public Enemy, KLF, Simple Minds, The Human League who started with that electronic sound and we took the baton from them and used the technology that we had at the time. We were lucky that when we started it coincided with the sampler coming out, which changed a lot of things. You make your own luck but we also realise that we were in the right place at the right time.