Interview by Mark Bayross and EDF
PHASE9 talks to Jez Willis and Tim Garbutt of UTAH SAINTS – 28 June 2000
After a hiatus that makes the Stone Roses look like they had been churning records out with careless abandon, Utah Saints are back and poised to unleash a brand new album. With two singles already out, including the storming Edwin Starr-fronted FUNKY MUSIC, the year 2000 should see Utah Saints back where they belong – in the charts. We caught up with singer / multi-instrumentalist Jez Willis and DJ Tim Garbutt before their live performance at London’s Fabric.
You’ve been away for so long; how did it feel playing Glastonbury?
TIM: Well it was scary initially because it the was the first thing we’d done besides the TFI Friday performance, and that was ok because we just got together and rehearsed one song, whereas this was a whole live set. It guess it was a bit of a baptism of fire. We were playing in front of 12,000 people and when you play Glastonbury you don’t get a proper soundcheck, you’re straight on the stage. With the music we’re doing, we need a proper sound check – there are so many things with technology that can go wrong. It’s not like, if something goes down, you can do an acoustic bit. But it was a really good gig. We had a few technical problems at the start, but it went really well. I was surprised how many people remembered the early records – they really went down well.
JEZ: We were a bit taken aback actually, because we didn’t really know what to expect. You’re never sure how it’s going to go, but it went really well. We were quite taken aback…and quite humbled.
It looked like a really good line-up this year, did you catch any other bands while you were there?
TIM: I only caught what was going on in the dance tent, but I saw a lot of it on the telly when I got back home. I had to go back to Leeds and DJ afterwards, so we managed to stay until about midnight. From what I saw of it, it did look really good.
Are you sorry you missed anyone?
JEZ: Well all of it actually, because I would have liked to have seen the Chemical Brothers outdoors…I saw some of Nine Inch Nails, who were very good, and Dave Clarke was DJing in the dance tent….it’s funny because you try to work the times out and plan ahead, but it’s chaos really.
Do you prefer playing gigs or DJing?
JEZ: We’ve only ever DJed as Utah Saints once together. Tim DJs a lot. I tend to just play around with the dials. [laughter] I don’t count myself as a DJ… But we only did it once as Utah Saints and it was very stressful because we were trying to fit a lot of different records together – that’s always a challenge.
Did you argue about which records should go in the set and in what order?
TIM: The one time we did it, we opened with “Enter Sandman” by Metallica. We started with that, then went on to Public Enemy. We do occasionally do the odd half hour set….
JEZ: …but we don’t do it as Utah Saints. I just like playing funk records at the moment.
Hinted at by your last single…which I have to say was excellent…
JEZ: Edwin (Starr) originally did that in 1973, and the Temptations did it as well, but Edwin’s version is a real mix of dance and rock. He’s got such a shouty voice and we wanted to use it. That’s been the challenge of making this album –we were taking a long time to do it because we just kept messing with it.
TIM: The album finally got cut a week ago on Friday at 2 in the afternoon and at 10 in the morning we were still in Leeds putting the last finishing touches to it….
JEZ: …That’s after five years…[more laughter]. That TFI thing was a bit of a rush – throw everything together and hope for the best. Everything’s been a bit hurried. The good thing about Glastonbury is that we did two old tracks, then we did “Love Song” and “Funky Music”, which the crowd knew, and then six new tracks. We had to push ourselves, because we thought about doing a sort of ‘greatest hits’ thing, but we thought, if we do that, we’re putting ourselves into a category.
And what was the audience’s reaction to the new songs?
TIM: Really good. The set at the minute is fairly four-to-the-floor, fairly bass-heavy so it suited Glastonbury, really.
So when does the album come out?
TIM: We’re going to put another single out first towards the end of August, and that’s just been finished – that was part of the problem why we cut the record so late – because we’ve got Chuck D from Public Enemy who’s recorded a vocal sample for us, over a Metallica sample.
JEZ: …the timing couldn’t have been worse with the whole Napster thing…
Tim: We got the recording going about six months ago, then we had to get each individual involved sorted, Metallica sorted, Chuck D sorted, and then this whole controversy kicked off again and everyone began to panic. We thought we were going to have to do an alternative version just in case anything happens.
Is there anyone who you have approached to try to work with or sample who has refused?
JEZ: Yes. What happened was they cleared it and then somewhere down the legal process it all fell apart.
TIM: It wasn’t like “We really hate what you’ve done with our sample…”, it was like a legal issue.
And is there any particular artist for whom you have refused to do a remix on principle?
JEZ: In the past we tried not to remix ‘classic’ records. We have been asked to remix a few classic records, when basically the record company just wanted us to put, like, new drums on them…
TIM: …That’s never really interested us at all. Part of the reason it’s taken us such a long time to do this record is that we’re trying to do something different. We could have taken a 70s record and made it go ‘boom boom boom’, but, as idealistic as it sounds, we are trying to do something that people will find at least a bit interesting. That’s why making a beats record with a Metallica sample on it and Chuck D rapping over it is a challenge.
JEZ: The funny thing is, we did an interview years ago, in 1993, for Melody Maker, and we had to list our top five ideal records and in there was Metallica. I’ve never heard a record with a Metallica sample on it. So we should break some new ground when that record comes out.
So that’s the next single?
JEZ: Yes. There was a presidential style debate about Napster on national TV about three weeks ago and on one side they had Chuck D and on the other side Lars Ulrich from Metallica, arguing the opposite, and that’s when everyone in our camp panicked. Well, we didn’t panic, we just thought, this is a typical media thing – there isn’t really an argument to be had: they were arguing about different points of the same issue. There’s Metallica saying, “We want to control our music”, and there’s Chuck D saying he wants music to be freely available, to overcome corporate strangleholds. They are not actually against each other, but the media keep trying to push it. That’s why it’s going to be interesting when we put this record out.
So are you going to put any MP3s on your site?
JEZ: We don’t know yet. We need to put a lot of work into our site – it’s kind of been just ticking over on its own. We want to interact with it a bit more, change the colours and stuff…
TIM: Our plan was initially to be on it a lot more. We wanted to go onto the pages and put all the news items on ourselves. Of course we haven’t had the time to do that, but I think we may have more time now that the album’s finished. When people look at the site, they are going to want to see that it’s being updated daily – I know I do – if I look at a site and see that it’s not been updated I probably won’t go back for a while.
JEZ: We’re working on developing a backstage room on the site, so that may include a few MP3s. I’d like to put a couple of live things on it.
There’s a major band currently touring Europe who have said that they will be releasing CD recordings of each performance on the tour. Would you consider doing something like that yourselves?
TIM: The only issue is one of permission…I mean, if I cut a sample into a live set and it gets recorded and someone was to sell that, I wouldn’t be sure about the legality…
It’s a bit of a murky world now…
JEZ: Yes it is. But I think the whole music industry is going to change in the next ten to 15 years, I think the way people use music is going to change…how music affects cultural changes. In 200 years time, people may look back and think that in the late 20th century music served a very different purpose. It’s quite interesting.
There are artists like Moby or Fatboy Slim whose material has been used over and over again for TV and films. Would you consider doing that yourselves or maybe lending your music to adverts?
JEZ: Yeah, but if it was for something that we thought was a bad thing to promote, then we might try to divert the money back to something positive, to redress the balance. We’ve had situations in the past when we didn’t want to be associated with certain companies – the bad boys – and we always thought that if we did go through with it, then we would try to use the money for something good.
TIM: The thing that happened with Moby was that he made his music totally cross over into adverts. But if you look at the album, the first few singles that came out didn’t actually do very well in the Top 40. That album took a very long time to catch on. Moby was fortunate that he was on a label, Mute, that was prepared to keep putting the singles out. I think that if that record had been on a lot of other labels, after having a number of singles not hit the Top 40, they would have said, “Right that’s it for that album”. We have followed a similar pattern with the album we’re putting out. The first single, LOVE SONG is by no means the strongest track on it – we wanted to put a track out that eased us back in, then we took it up a gear with FUNKY MUSIC and we’ll take it up another gear with this Metallica / Chuck D thing. The releases will keep getting stronger and we want to get to a point where we could release anything off the record as a single. We first have to get the right people playing the record before we can start thinking about lending our music to adverts. We won’t take five years, though…[laughter]
Phase9: How did you go about approaching Chuck D?
TIM: I wrote a letter about a year ago. I wasn’t sure if he got it because it was about a year later when he wrote back…
JEZ: We sent him a work-in-progress version of the track, and we only really wanted one line from him. When he sent it back, he’d done the same line for about five minutes, so we had plenty to choose from.
TIM: We didn’t want it to be a collaboration as such, like we’ve done with Edwin – we didn’t want to release an album of collaborations – it was more just about getting a clean version of the sample.
Was it similar for Metallica?
JEZ: With Metallica, we just took it off the CD…[laughter] We took a bit of “Enter Sandman”. We didn’t take the main riff, we took the guitars and messed them up so that it’s recognisable as Metallica, but more for just the sonic quality. Once we’d done it, we sent off the tape to get clearance, and we didn’t honestly think we’d get it, because they’ve never cleared anything before.
TIM: It’s quite a hard record, not the most radio-friendly, but it’s a record we felt we had to make.
Do you find it hard to get the balance between trying to get a hard, gritty sound and making a record that people are going to want to listen to?
JEZ: Yes. [laughter] That’s the simple answer, yes.
TIM: Probably the most satisfying thing about the first album was that we started off with singles that were radio-friendly and quite dancey, basically pop records with strong hooks that went Top 10, and then we followed up with “I Want You” which was much harder and had a Slayer sample. But we still managed to get onto TOP OF THE POPS with it, and that was a massive achievement. Hopefully, now we’ll be able to do that again – if we can get the new single with the Chuck D / Metallica samples into the Top 40 and knock some of these manufactured pop records out of it, then great. Even if we only get to number 25, a lot more people will have heard it. It annoys me when some bands have a hit, then follow that up with the first record part 2. Much better to follow it up with something different – if the first record was a hit, then they’ll still get the support. I wish more people would do that – take a few risks.
The last time you were in the charts, back in the early 90s, there was a lot more variety around, and groups like Nirvana were getting onto TOP OF THE POPS. Nowadays, they don’t really get a look in unless they have a novelty record. Does that make it harder for you?
JEZ: Yeah, it’s very hard when the nation breathes a sigh of relief when Westlife knock Cliff Richard off the No. 1 spot… [laughter] It’s becoming an enormous machine that’s destroying itself, and the main powers within the industry, the marketing men with the money, are just completely reactive. There’s no proactivity at all. So, yes, it’s really hard to get anything going at all. We just have to work that much harder at what we do, so at least we can provide an alternative to what’s going on. It’s quite depressing that popular music has become so narrow.
What’s Chris Evans like?
JEZ: [Much laughter] He’s fine. We never met him when we did TFI. The time we did meet him was when we did ZIG AND ZAG a few years ago, but the way it works on TFI, the way it was filmed, we didn’t see him.
I didn’t realise you were on ZIG AND ZAG…
JEZ: We got on really well with them. They never took the piss out of us, well, either that or I’m so dense I didn’t realise it. I think what happened was, our guitarist used to be in the Rollins Band and when we went on the programme I was wearing a Rollins Band T-shirt….and Zig really likes the Rollins Band, so we got on from there. The other thing was that we didn’t try to compete with them.
Yeah, I’ve seen some people reduced to looking pretty silly, upstaged by a couple of puppets…
JEZ: I think they really reflected public opinion a lot of the time. I think that, if someone wasn’t real, or they were trying to be something that they weren’t, they would jump on them and take the piss.
What inspires you most, the music that’s out there or the technology you now have at your disposal?
TIM: We go to the record shop every week, and we’ll get as much variety as we can. Before, people making dance music would only tend to listen to that. I think it’s really good to listen to a bit of everything. At the end of the day, you can break any type of music down to a similar structure to what a dance record is. Even Nine Inch Nails works on the same principle as a dance record – the dynamics of building up and dropping down.
Would you say that you are a rock band that happens to use technology?
JEZ: I would say we are an electronic band. I have given up trying to categorise our sound. We feel a strong affinity to dance culture, although we’re not so in line now with what dance culture has become – you know, when you get “Now that’s what I call Ibiza”. I mean, last summer, with a particular dance magazine, the July issue had on the cover “Trance – the sound of 1999”, and then on the September issue they had “Latin house – the sound that defines 1999”. [Laughter] You know that in the July issue they had a big trance compilation they were trying to push and that in September they had a big latin house compilation…and it’s such a shame that it’s become like this now. Which is why I think it’s going to end up shooting itself in the foot…
TIM: The music companies are all buying each other up and soon we’re going to end up with one company controlling everything. New bands are going to find it that much harder to break through, and when albums are released, then labels are only going to see how the first couple of singles do – if neither of them is a hit then they’ll be in trouble. It’s quite scary.
JEZ: …Which is why we are so lucky with the label we are on; Echo. It’s a small one, but they have been very understanding. We have been lucky – the way we do things, we’re not that expensive. A lot of what we do was recorded in a bedroom, and we don’t spend lots of money on expensive videos. What’s more, lots of people liked “Funky Music”, even though it didn’t get much regional radio play, so they’ve been happy.
If you had all the time and money in the world, and an audience that would listen to anything, what kind of record would you make?
JEZ: We’ve just made it. Basically, if we couldn’t make the record we wanted to make, then we’d stop.
TIM: We’ve been able to throw everything into this album, and there’s an Iggy Pop sample, a Chrissy Hynde sample, the Chuck D and Metallica samples…
TIM: …and Michael Stipe. We managed to get him on the record too. He did an interview a while ago and said that he wanted to bring about a ‘revival of the Utah Saints’, so we wrote to him to say thanks. He got in touch and we recorded a conversation with him over the phone. I think the record company wanted it to be another collaboration, but we didn’t want to take advantage of the situation, so we divided it into four interludes across the album.
It sounds like the album is going to be excellent. What’s it going to be called?
JEZ: 2. We’ve been away so long, we wanted people to realise that this was in fact only our second album!
And with that, the duo left to get ready for their live show.
They emerge onstage to a thick fog of dry ice and throbbing electronics before launching into LOVE SONG, complete with pounding bass. As at Glastonbury, they play a selection of new, sleeker and more trancey material, alongside old classics like I WANT YOU and WHAT CAN YOU DO FOR ME?. However, forthcoming single POWER TO THE BEATS is 24-carat Utah Saints, welding Metallica’s guitars to slamming beats and a malevolent Chuck D vocal.
The highlight of the set comes halfway through, when, having coerced the crowd into singing Edwin Starr’s vocal for FUNKY MUSIC (the funk legend obviously being far too famous to grace a tiny club in Farringdon with his presence), the man himself appears onstage to a shocked and delighted audience.
With banks of flashing TV screens adding to the hi-tech multimedia effect, the Utah Saints give a fine performance, worthy of the kind of crowds they have been more used to playing to. We should consider ourselves very lucky to have witnessed such a unique event at close range.