Anonymity’s quite the fashion these days. Hand-stamped white labels from big-name producers emerge every week, with press releases proclaiming artists free from the shackles of fame, whose metaphorical masks let them experiment with sounds bereft of preconception. Which is all well and good when you’re knocking out short-run 12”s of faceless techno.
It’s something else entirely for an album, more than three years in the making, which encompasses lush, heartrending house, digital soul and fizzing bass music. Which stars collaborations with big-name vocalists and hotter-than-hot producers. Which is just part of an encompassing visual concept and festival live show. The stakes are just a touch higher.
But Will Saul’s never been one to take the easy route. He quit his A&R job at Sony to set up his own label, Simple, funded out of his own quickly depleted pockets. Its off-shoot, Aus, was one of the first to take a chance on dubstep’s second wave, the mutant marriage of Croydon rhythms and Detroit house that on paper should never have worked.
Will his latest gamble — the adoption of pseudonym CLOSE for his first full-length in eight years — pay off? Well, you wouldn’t bet against him.
Why did you make the album as CLOSE, rather than Will Saul?
“It never started as a concept. As I started writing, the idea and the concept started forming in my head really. I think it was actually the process of writing and doing it with a lot of people. I started thinking more about it, and a possible name, and I really liked the idea of tying it into a bigger concept that linked into the visuals and the live show.
I’ve always been really into artwork and music, and I saw that the whole thing could connect. And also I liked the idea of having an album moniker, just to be able to do things that are a bit more poppy, or touch on some different areas that aren’t necessarily about the 12”s that I’ve mainly written up to this point.”
How did working with vocalists compare to those 12”s?
“I much prefer working with them just because — especially when you’re lucky enough to work with such great vocalists — you start a sketch, send it to the vocalist, and then they come back with some ideas. And then you’re inspired by the beautiful work that they’ve done, and can take it off further to finish it off. So I find it much easier to work with vocal tracks because you’re working with a lovely song, because you don’t have to carve out a melody from nowhere. You create a sketch and hint at which direction you want them to go melodically, and they do a lot of the work for you. They write an amazing song, and you’re then left to not ruin it [laughs].”
What about producers, rather than a voice?
“With Paul [Rose — Scuba] it was ping-pong. We never sat together in the same room. I sent him over an early version of the track that I’d fully finished, and then just stripped out the vocal and let him start the groove. He sent it back over to me, I rewrote the melody, and then we back-and-forthed it a few times until we were both happy. It was a really easy process.
“With Jules [Smith – October] it’s very different. We’ve got a lot of mutual friends, and when I first moved to Somerset, near where he lives, we ended up just sitting down in the studio and working a little bit, becoming good friends. And again they were already tracks that I had kind of finished versions of already, so in many ways it was more like I sat down and remixed them with Jules. It’s part of the name, and why the project is what it is, because there’s been a lot of getting close to people, and how they work, what makes them tick. It’s been a really insightful process. I’ve learned a lot from different styles of collaboration, some online, some in the studio with friends.”
It must be slightly odd to sit on the other side of the A&R divide, considering your own pedigree there. Do you accept demos like the one you submitted to !K7, from acts you don’t know?
“I don’t. I don’t have time, so I tend to see what other labels are doing and try and pick artists up after they’ve released their first 12”. But if I hear something I like, I’m able to trust my gut feeling on it, it’s never a question of thinking about it.
With the Joy Orbison 12” ['The Shrew Would Have Cushioned the Blow'], I got a third of the way into his first Hotflush single ['Hyph Mngo'], and immediately contacted him on MySpace and asked if he wanted to do a 12” for Aus.”
Dubstep was a very insular scene and you were one of the first non-dubstep labels to start picking this stuff up. What was it you heard that you thought would fit on the label?
“Melody is what makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Rhythmically I’ve always been quite open to breaks and stuff — it’s what got me into dance music, and what I started with Simple. Not that dubstep is breakbeat, but it’s 'broken', and when it started fusing with house and the melody was there, I started to get excited by it.
I was never into the tear-out side of it. That’s not really my bag. But my love of that heart-wrenching, melancholic melody, something soulful but quite wistful — that will always underpin my love of all music. And I think that’s what underpins both labels really.”
With setting a label up digitally so much simpler, you get a lot that have a really linear focus on just one sound...
“That’s dangerous, I think.”
In many ways it’s the former dubstep guys that have embraced house and techno, and are doing the most exciting things with it.
“Totally. I’ve got a concept for a label called Squarepeg, based around people writing in different genres. Because as soon as you start writing music without any preconceptions or rules about how things should sound, or any habits, then you get amazing results. And that’s why house music’s been so fresh for the last couple of years, because you’ve got people from other backgrounds doing their own thing with it.”
What made you leave Sony and set the labels up?
“It was killing my love for music. Everything was a product, there wasn’t any artistic or creative integrity placed on the artist. But also, I had a psychopathic, menopausal boss. You never knew if she was going to kiss you or scream at you. So that made my decision easier, shall we say [laughs].”
Considering how easy it is these days, people forget just how big an investment in time and money setting a label up was...
“It was such a different way of working even 10 years ago. I remember driving to the manufacturing plant and picking up the first two releases, the finished product, and then driving them to the distributor — a thousand records stuffed in a 10-year-old Golf, and the back was literally dragging along the floor, two hours into London. And then driving into Sony, going into the back door at Sony and posting 100 of each record. Putting it through the Sony postal system completely illegally because I still knew a lot of the guys that worked there. They’d open the back door and let me in. I did that on the first five releases. Sony paid for the mailouts on them. So hands up, thanks for the assistance [laughs].
“I think we’d have gone out of business by the time we got to the fifth record, 'Cliff' by myself, because fundamentally we were releasing incredibly esoteric, deep music. By the time we got to our fifth record, we were losing money hand over fist. But 'Cliff' had an Infusion remix on it — whatever happened to Infusion? And that sold incredibly well, and got a lot of quite big compilation rights, and that’s what kept us in business.”
How has digital music changed that?
“Piracy’s the killer. It’s something I find quite hurtful. Why are you doing this? You’re not making money, you don’t look good, so you’re only causing harm and hurt to people who’ve worked to create something. It’s really malicious and fucked up. For a few releases, our records were getting leaked online, with a photograph of the press release, inside the test pressing. So we knew that it was coming from someone in a record shop, who was actually ripping it and putting it up onto file sharing sites. Someone in a vinyl record store. How fucked up is that?”
How does putting together the live show compare to DJing?
“It was a long and drawn out process [laughs]. I’ve not taken the easy route with any of this. I got in touch with Al Tourettes; he’s an amazing drummer, and I also knew that he did a lot of live Ableton stuff, so I told him I had a disparate album, and I wanted to turn it into a live show. He gave me an insight into the controllers that he uses, and showed me how he takes a track and turns it into a playable, live thing. I worked with him to recreate the album rhythmically with drums and a couple of Roland SPDs. We sampled a lot of the sounds on the album so he can play the vocal chops and percussive bits on the SPD as well. I’m controlling the arrangement, and he’s drumming the whole thing.”
And what about the visuals?
“It takes on a whole different dimension. We’re behind a huge gauze screen, there’s lighting behind and in front of us, and the concept the visual guys I work with came up with was this film of a girl set in the future. It’s the end of the world and everyone’s dead and she was the only person who was left in the UK, finding her way back to London. They actually filmed a girl travelling from the highlands to London via Sheffield and dilapidated Skegness, in the arcades. So it plays with perceptions, because you can see us live at certain times. It draws links to the concept of CLOSE because you’re seeing us, but all the images become almost holographic.”
If you’re going to do a live show, you should do it properly...
“Absolutely. I didn’t want to be the guy on a stage just with a laptop, and I’ll never be that guy. I wanted the crowd and audience to connect with the music visually, so you can see the rhythm when Al’s drumming, and the visuals really convey the feel of the music. But it’s really expensive. The lighting? Wow. So we’ve basically built a show we can never play out, because it costs too much to put on [laughs].”