Saul Williams: "I desire to live within a nation on fire..."
- Saul Williams »
_It's the fifth floor of some faceless hotel or other; you know the sort: walk in, impressive reception foyer, walk up, dated decor and under-whelming rooms. Through the window, though, the city climbs skywards from the car tire spray and general mist of a day's unrelenting rain. It's here that Saul Williams finds a little respite from the bustle and rush of the outside, where a rider-covered tabletop is the only indication that a gig is afoot. By the time Williams takes to the stage at Islington's particularly dank Electrowerks, DiS will be in bed; these rock stars, they keep ungodly hours.
Only, is this a (n amethyst) rock star, or rather an (insert whatever prefix suits) star in the making, or is Saul Williams as grounded as he was before his self-titled second record attracted more acclaim in one month here than any of his previous works combined, be they musical or published prose and poetry? More importantly, why am I so in awe – my nerves utterly electrified – of a man whose own slouched pose is absolutely a request for relaxation, a million motor neurons away from the livewire performer that's got so many journalists excited? But these aren't questions for now, for Saul; these, however, are..._
So what, exactly, is this event you're in London for? (Tonight's gig falls between an appearance in Edinburgh and sets at Reading and Leeds.)
It's a Sony PSP thing, that's for the launch of the new PlayStation thing.
And they give you one of these PSPs?
(Nods) Yes, really. That's why I'm doing it. The guy I'm working with - I can't call him a DJ 'cause that's not what he does... the musician I work with - has one, and I've been eyeing it for ages, thinking it's really cool. So when we got this offer I was like yes.
But you were coming over here anyway...
Yes, for Reading and Leeds. Will it dry up? I think that's a wasted hope, there. I'm doing music and poetry at both sites, but in Leeds there's an experimental something something. (See here for details.)
"I walk the streets of London like 'Know what I mean...'"
This is, what, your third visit to the UK this year? I've seen you at the Scala, the 100 Club, and now here, I think...
Perhaps... at least the third, it could be four. I enjoy coming to Europe, but I'm only here due to commitments; I've never come here just on a vacation. There are several places that I'd like to come back to and spend some time in... but they're all the warm places! I enjoy London, I do... but I've just come back from Edinburgh and that's a beautiful city. I like the smaller places; you can feel the age there, with the cobblestoned streets... you really feel like you're walking _in_ history.
I suppose that these commitments are all a byproduct of the success of the record, Saul Williams...
It's doing pretty good. This is the only official release here. Am I surprised by the positive reactions? How many artists go into shit thinking, 'People are gonna hate this?' You know what, I have a pretty good relationship with the press; the press usually gets it. And the people, the people often get it. It's radio programmers and industry know-it-alls that sometimes don't get it, so to have a warm response from the press doesn't surprise me. I feel that your average person who's involved in journalism, or what have you... they're listeners, actual listeners, and to anyone that's a listener there's a lot there for you to enjoy. It's the people that are fast-forwarding through, they're the people that're like, 'Aaagh! I don't know what to do with this!' So it doesn't surprise me to have a warm response from press or people. It's the industry people...
"White boys listen to white boys, black boys listen to black boys..."
I don't know so much about radio here, but I know in the States that we use certain words to describe stuff, but it's all very racially motivated. You can say rock radio, urban radio, or specialty radio, but really it's black and white. I know tonnes of black rock bands that don't get any play on the rock radio, but Eminem will get played on rock radio. Oh, of course he gets played on urban radio - that's where he got played first - but he gets played on rock radio 'cause he's white... they don't play any black hip-hop. 50 Cent? On rock radio? No. Over here I would assume that channels are a little more open, and that's why you'll find that certain artists, myself sometimes, may experience more success over here, because in The States, we've quite obviously throughout history tried to make things black and white, y'know. So things fall into those categories, unnecessarily.
Is it the case, then, that you've enjoyed more success here?
Not with this album - this album has been equal, so it's been cool, and who knows how the last album (Amethyst Rock Star) would have done? The fact of the matter with the last album is that Sony didn't even want to release it, and then I changed labels and got a release date, but that was... (long pause)... a year and a half after it had become available here. And it came out a month after 9/11... which had an effect on everything. I mean, I don't know what happened here but imagine if your album came out on July 8th, here. So, yeah, it was interesting.
You must have caught some of the positive feedback from the last record. Do you have to keep yourself in check when reading such articles, or is it easy for you to keep your feet on the ground?
You know, reading that stuff and hearing what people say, it doesn't really affect me. A performance is a performance and a recording is a recording, regardless of how someone responds to it, and as much positive feedback I get, I get a lot of negative feedback too. I guess even not hearing back can be assumed to be negative. So I'd say things were pretty balanced.
It's Reading and Leeds this weekend - have you played a lot of festivals back home, with such mixed bills?
Oh yeah, I've done tonnes of festivals back home. Festivals are the coolers primarily because you get the opportunity to see bands that are, quite frankly, not bands you'd have considered paying to see. You pay to see one band, but have the opportunity to see fifteen others. It's an opportunity to be blown away. And that's the other cool thing about performing at festivals: you have the opportunity to play to people who are just checking you out, and to win some new people over. For me, doing well means having a good time, so I've enjoyed every performance that I have done... I think just about every performance I've done in Europe. I mean I've had fuck-ups on stage and all that, yeah, but I wouldn't be performing this much if I didn't enjoy it. As far as selling merch... that's not always a sign that people like it or not. In certain cities we don't sell any T-shirts or CDs because the tickets cost such and such and the people are poor...
**...But you get the feedback from them?
Yeah, exactly - you get the feedback from the audience. That stays pretty consistent, but sometimes when the culture's a bit different...
*So is it harder on the continent, or in non-English-speaking territories? *
I have struggled in front of non-English-speaking audiences only when the audience is not my own. For instance, we played Barcelona with Nine Inch Nails, and while it was a good show, initially it felt difficult. You couldn't tell for the first couple of songs, but then we were able to hone in. I can cater my shows - for the most part, it's all about the music. These are musical shows, so the music is the driving force. If you catch the lyrics, then that's extra. If you don't, then sometimes the music can be enough. That's the thing I like the most, actually - when I'm with someone who couldn't give a fuck about what I'm saying but is digging the music, that's cool.
That said, I guess people do come back to you and say they've learnt something from what you've said, or have investigated a subject further...
That's the average response: 'We like what you're saying'.
When I saw you with Nine Inch Nails the crowd really did get into it, but was there a lot of pre-show doubt on that tour? Did you expect, or hope, to receive a warm reception?
Yeah, it was a thrill to see those people dancing. It's interesting, as initially it registers as a little bit of shock, but at the same time you have to have some kind of confidence to get onto a stage in the first place. ** Well certainly, but you're out there on your own every night; at least your man behind's got a table to hide behind...**
Well, you've got to have some kind of confidence. At the end of the day I can really stand behind what I'm saying, and I am speaking from a place that has little to do with ego and that has a lot to do with my hopes and dreams concerning all of us, y'know. And I think people can relate to that. It's not much different to what Trent Reznor's saying - speaking a truth that resonates. Eventually you take on the attitude that if people of our generation are going to chose the same barriers and boundaries that those older than us chose, then fuck you, you're stupid. But if you're really as open as you'd want to be, then yeah, you should feel this. I am aware that your average Nine Inch Nails fan is likely to be the kind of person that doesn't necessarily pay attention to hip-hop, for whatever reasons, but then again who cares? I don't take that on stage, and I don't walk off thinking I'm a hip-hop artist. At the end of the day, we don't think of Fred Durst as a hip-hop artist, but he rhymes in his songs more than I do. Which is to say that the categories that exist in our minds are motivated by something beyond the music, and what I'm speaking about is usually getting beyond those boundaries, those categories that exist in our minds. Does it surprise me when people relate to it? No. It actually surprises me when people don't relate.
No, actually... it doesn't surprise me when people don't relate to the music. Music is music and either you feel it or you don't. That's the other side of that coin.
"I want to show you what the stars are made of..."
My girlfriend had some reservations when we saw you at the Scala this year - she hadn't taken massively to the last record - but her face throughout was absolutely stunned. I guess that happens a lot, though...
But that has little to do with me and more to do with peoples' lowered expectations. Part of what I'm talking about is that I desire to live within a nation on fire, where creative passions burn and raise the stakes ever higher... So why do we have such low- and medium-sized expectations? Why is what we accept so below average, or below normal, or below our highest ideals. We don't have to accept bullshit. I know tonnes of people who write, think and perform better than I do, and that aren't reaching people, that can't get record deals... Shit, if someone opens a door for me, there's whole slew of motherfuckers like me that will follow. So yeah, there are people that are blown away - and maybe I do offer something that blows people away - but at the same time I think we've been dumbed down, a great deal, recently. Some of the shit that we fuckin' cheer for is not that fuckin' amazing. There is some amazing shit happening, but not everything's beautiful. There's a lot of bullshit, so when something does come through that resonates, it's going to resonate even deeper now, just because we've been on some fuckin' cheese and crackers for the last couple of years, in the arts world and politically and across the board. We've been living below our means.
Do you suppose that peoples' mindsets are now better suited to such songs, or art, of depth, what with all the 24-hours-a-day televised tragedy on the news, and so on? If they look deeper into one thing, they find a depth in something else, and are keener to explore it...
It all applies, it's all interconnected. What it really is nowadays, which is the strangest thing in the world, is that so few people realise the power that they have. I've seen it steadily here, I see it in The States, I see it everywhere I go. We forget that our parents and grandparents fought for democracy, but we tend to think that the power exists in the hands of this small few, forgetting that we can take the fuckin' power from them if we disagree. We forget that. It's all of our fuckin' fate, it is what it is, and it applies to everything: more people will watch a cop chase on the TV rather than the migration of the such-and-such bird, y'know? We're drawn to the so-called... whatever... the negative. We feed that, we feed it in ourselves. It's not natural, it's socially nurtured. It's like most of us don't have a vision of world peace, most of us can't imagine what the fuck world peace is like...
...But that's because we've grown up around these images of war and terror...
...But we've been seeing it our whole fucking life! A first kiss is what world peace looks like. We know what the fuck apocalypse looks like - how many films are there describing apocalypse? We have one with cars, one with girls, one with zombies, one with blood-sucking zombies, one with robots... you know, you choose what kind of apocalypse you want to tune in to every night. I was fascinated with the love stories.
But the 24/7 coverage of such worldwide injustices, it must have an effect on people. To people like me, those images have always been around. Do you think that your music isn't so difficult to grasp, to understand, because we're at least partially aware of the message you're delivering? It somehow doesn't seem as shocking as it might've been just 20 years ago...
Of course. We've become desensitized.
_"It's just coincidence that oil men would wage war on an oil-rich land...
...This one goes out to my man, taking cover in the trenches with a gun in his hand...
...Gets home and no one flinches when he can't feed his fam'"_
'Act III Scene 2'
One of your songs, 'Act III Scene 2', is very much about the Iraq conflict, but highlights the plight of those that return from service to nothing, maybe even less than they left with. Is this a common problem in The States?
It's always been a major problem - it was a problem during Vietnam and World War II. It's upsetting and unacceptable to witness so much poverty and corruption in what is meant to be the richest country in the world. The fact of the matter is that you'd think that America is full of these patriotic types, but no - there's some of that, but most people who join the army don't do it because they want to protect and serve. They do it because they want benefits, they want an opportunity to go to college and they can't afford to. That's the one way in the country, the one way, that you can get to go to college, or get to travel a bit or get healthcare. It's the only way. There's a little funneling system if you want to make it out of your neighbourhood. They have recruiting centres at all the poor towns, and there you have it: our massive army. I forget what the question was... Oh, yes: many people do come home to find they're still fucked. There was an article in the paper last year about a husband and wife that were both in the army, had three kids, and had both been drafted to come out. One of them had to decide not to go, but ended up being sent to court! They got off, but it made the papers. People were outraged: 'You'd send a mother and father out?'
When you're writing a song, or poetry, do you look to express that other side to subjects that might be obvious, or a cliché? I mean, even The Rolling Stones have written a song against Bush...
When I was writing that song, 'Act III Scene 2', I was specifically looking to talk about the war. I already had, probably, an album's worth of antiwar material, but I decided not to put too much of it on the album. I didn't feel it was necessary, and that it'd be an overstatement what with Green Day and all these people. I didn't need to do it, but I did want to dedicate this one song, primarily, and I knew that I wanted to do it with Zack (de la Rocha)...
There had just been this thing on the news about soldiers and the music they listened to when they were in their tanks shooting their guns. They have headphones, and quite often they choose really aggressive music. I had been in contact with a few soldiers through my website, and they'd been saying 'We blast you, we listen to you, thanks for what you're saying', and I knew they listened to aggressive music. So I was like, 'Okay, I want to write a song that soldiers can listen to that would inspire them to think but not anger them'. So I had to find a way to do that, and that was the song. I felt that a few things that I'd written before hand, out of anger - like I wrote something when I learnt about the mistreatment of prisoners - that was negatively aimed at soldiers. I never released that; I didn't want to do it out of anger.
Is the songwriting process fairly free-flowing?
I took time over the intro, 'Talk To Strangers', because I had to decide what I wanted to say, creatively, to get people to consider listening to the rest of the album. I kind of took a while over 'Black Stacey', kind of. It was a lot of fun writing it, thinking 'This'll be cool'. But that wasn't really considered, it was more just having fun. Most of the other songs - 'Grippo', 'Telegram' - they were just what came, inspired by the music.
So do you get the music first?
I did that on the last album a lot.
And how did you come to collaborate with Zack?
We were supposed to do something on my first album, a track called_ ‘Om Nia Merican’. But he had to go out of town when we were supposed to be recording it, so I called him and said, 'I just sampled 'Born Of A Broken Man'_, so all you need to do is get your people to clear this sample, and that's our collaboration'. We both live in LA, so when we want to we see each other as often as we like.
And do you get people coming to you, to collaborate with them? I know you did vocals on Sage Francis' 'Sea Lion'...
Sometimes I do, but the way I like to use my status is to stand on the side of the stage to watch Radiohead or someone perform, that's all! Touring with The Mars Volta, for me, on their first album... they were friends of mine, but they'd also recorded my favourite album of that year, so I watched 60 shows in a row! But it was really cool watching Nine Inch Nails perform as well.
You're back over again for ATP in December, with The Mars Volta... looking forward to that?
It's going to be cool. I've not been there before but I heard it's cold and miserable.
But it does have a beautiful beach...
(Genuine surprise) It's outdoors?! No? Okay... but tell me this: when it's really cold, why the fuck would I walk to the beach? Just because it's pretty? You like going to beaches in the winter? I like pretty girls and fireplaces. An electric heater? That'll do.
On 'Telegram' you, basically, express a dislike of most contemporary hip-hop, or rather the fashion that goes with it. But I guess you don't really dislike quite so much of it...
I'm actually loving a lot of it right now! It's the theoretics that fuck with me, but at the end of the day I feel a lot of it.
"I know where diamonds come from and I ain't about to bling..."
You say you know where diamonds come from on 'PG', which again is an attack on the bling-bling look of many commercial hip-hop artists, but now Kanye West has come out with the _'Diamonds From Sierra Leone' _single... does that make you happy, that a major artist has highlighted a major problem?
I think it's a nice move on his part. The way that came about is like this: his original song was 'Diamonds Are Forever', and it didn't mention where they came from at all. And then a friend and I had been working on a documentary on the atrocities surrounding diamonds in Sierra Leone, and that treatment came across his desk right before he shot his video. He didn't know about the atrocities, so he then took Hype Williams and decided to write a treatment connected to what he'd just learnt, and then they brought me in to see if I felt that what they were doing in the video was accurate enough. I'm happy with the result. It means that it's good to be putting out these messages and ideas, 'cause it does reach people.
Finally, how's new material shaping up, and are there any other projects in the pipeline?
Oh, I'm halfway through the next record. I'd like to do more acting, but I've been on the road for the last year so it's been hard to be there for auditions and meetings. Maybe after the next record I'll do that, but I'm really excited about the next album. I think it'll be my most important record. I just finished a book, too, that'll come out in The States in February. We're trying to get it out here but we've struggled to get any publishing. We'll see...
Tape clicks, hands are shaken, door closes, lift descends. I’m unable to lift my shoulders above the persistent drizzle to see the visions of hope that Saul waxes so lyrically about. Some things you can change, and some others you must_ - like the man says, the power is there to be retrieved if you can only see beyond your realities. The English summer, though, remains doggedly depressing._
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