Utah Saints – Jez Willis

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Interview by Mark Bayross

Back in the early 1990s Utah Saints, the duo of Jez Willis and Tim Garbutt, were a regular presence, both on the live circuit and in the charts. Their sound was really quite different for the time, fusing rave-style dance beats with sampled guitars and, famously, the voices of Kate Bush and Annie Lennox on their two biggest hits, SOMETHING GOOD and WHAT CAN YOU DO FOR ME.

This soundclash, best illustrated on their 1993 self-titled album, produced some stunning live shows but very little recognition for their efforts. They were undoubtedly ahead of their time – it took The Prodigy another three years to fuse guitars to techno and set stages alight around the world. By then, Utah Saints seemed to have disappeared. Until now. A new single, LOVE SONG, and an upcoming album and tour are set to bring Utah Saints back to the music biz and hopefully back to the charts.

I spoke to Jez about his plans.

You seem to have been away for ages, what have you been up to?

To cut a long story short, Tim’s been DJing in America, I’ve been DJing on Kiss. We stopped before because we got into a vicious cycle of people expecting us to come up with hits and write music they wanted to hear. About eighteen months ago we started making tracks and making music we found exciting again. Tim also toured America with Orbital, Moby and The Aphex Twin, which was very exciting.

You have a new single out – what can we expect from the new album? Will it be as diverse as the first one?

The album’s coming out in May. It will definitely be as diverse as the first one – LOVE SONG has a sample from The Average White Band; we have also sampled Iggy Pop, Chrissie Hynde and even some folk singers from a place called Tuva – it’s near Mongolia. Out of 11 tracks, eight are in the running to be singles. I don’t mean we’ll be releasing eight singles – just that eight of the songs are good enough to be considered possible singles.

So you’ll be adding new dimensions to the techno-guitar mix?

Definitely. We will be trying to make a good quality electronic-based record.

Do you think the success of bands like the Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers has changed things for you?

Their success has definitely helped us. It’s got more people into electronic-based music. Before, people seemed to be going round in circles, just sampling each other. When our first album came out we played a lot of festivals where we were the only electronic band on the bill. We also supported U2, which was unheard of for an electronic band. I think now our type of music is more widely accepted.

Do you feel in some way responsible for the popularity of those bands?

No, I don’t take responsibility for anything anyone else has done. [laughs]

Which other groups do you feel close to, musically?

Underworld, The Chemical Brothers, The Prodigy, Pitchshifter…I really like their stuff. I like good artists who have quite a diverse sound. I really liked Luke Slater’s last album, which for some reason got totally ignored. It’s a shame because it’s a really good album.

You used to be in The Cassandra Complex – what do you think of the electro-industrial scene here and in Europe? Do you feel any links with that scene?

Totally. We [The Cassandra Complex] had two No. 1 indie singles in Germany. That was coming to electronic music from a different angle. I feel close to certain bands – The Young Gods, Front 242…I’m good mates with Richard [23, former Front 242 member] now. Have you heard “Le Track”? It’s Richard 23 – he’s done a kind of disco-thing. But I have always been into that kind of music. The thing that always impressed me with The Young Gods was that they had all those guitar sounds and no guitars.

Have you heard Front 242’s new sound? They’ve put a kind of drum & bass twist on their music. It works on some of the old classics like HEAD HUNTER, but it doesn’t work on others…

It’s funny when bands drastically change their sound. One of the worst moments of my life was seeing DAF at a festival when they came on and tried a new dancey sound. They got pelted with mud. I nearly cried. I think people should be open to new sounds and styles. It’s the same with the Utahs. When we supported U2 and turned up with a load of samplers and effects boxes, everyone was stunned.

It must have been great supporting U2…

Oh yes. When we were offered the opportunity we knew we couldn’t pass it up, although at first we were petrified playing to crowds of that size…

When Utah Saints first appeared on the scene, sampling was a bit of a contentious issue. Now that everyone is doing it, do you feel in some way vindicated?

No. We never set out to make a huge point. People have asked us if we feel vindicated, and it’s not like we’re now sitting back, thinking “See, we were right”. All that’s happened is our job has been made easier. I mean, we had that statement on our album about “the rise of the sampler” and now it’s almost as accepted as the guitar. The sampler really has taken over. Of course it’s still abused by some people – some people think it’s fine to take whole bits of other peoples’ tunes and shove a dance beat on top of it.

You’ve always been great live – what can we expect from your live shows this year?

We’re still working it out at the moment. There won’t be just the two of us on stage – there’ll be a four or five piece band but I’m not quite sure how we’re going to present it. The first time around we tried to present it in a traditional way. This time around there will be one or two drummers hitting things. We also want to expand the visual side. We are thinking of putting TV screens around the band. If you rig them up the right way you can make the whole stage look as though it’s shifting from right to left. Of course, it depends on the budget…

Where do you see yourselves going from here?

I don’t think we’ll lose the momentum this time. That’s really what happened last time and why we stopped. We have at least another three albums’ worth of stuff. We want to stay in sync with the label – we are on a new record label. As long as we keep as focused as we are, there’ll be another three albums.