Now with his latest project, CLOSE, Saul has again rocked the boat. The collaboration-heavy Getting Closer album, which was released in June through !K7, sidestepped the sound of his club singles and eased towards home listening. More recent converts to his labels seemed surprised by the album's flirtations and with pop and soul. But, as Saul explained to me last month, he just sees this as a continuation of a style that's always been a part of his repertoire (see 2005's Space Between LP for more of the same). And, after all, he says he's merely doing what he's always done: making and releasing the music he loves.
I wanted to start by talking about the CLOSE project. I understand that you initially set out to write a Will Saul album.
It started out with me just thinking, "Well OK, I finally want to write another album." And then it sort of morphed into more of a collective project in the sense that when I started a lot of the sketches I [figured out] the album I wanted to write. I wanted to have some vocal tracks in there, and I just thought it might be nice to start some of the sketches with one of my best mates, Fink, down in his studio in Brighton, because he tours with a really good bass player and drummer. So I just went down there for a couple of days with him and we recorded some takes of his guys playing and then that was the basis of some of the sketches that we sent out to some of the vocalists.
I then went into the studio that I share with Tam Cooper in London—well, I don't anymore because I moved down to Somerset two years ago when we knew my boy was on the way. But this was three years ago, so I then took the tracks and the vocals into the studio with Tam. As this was happening I'd written some instrumental stuff as well… But you have to bear in mind that this is over quite a long period of time because obviously I run the labels and they take up a lot of time. And you do the odd remix or the odd piece of work. I occasionally write music for TV and ads… Sadly I wasn't able to sit down and go: "OK, I'm going to devote six months or a year of my life and get it done."
I decided throughout this process that I was going to send it out to different labels because I didn't really want to release it myself, and at that stage I guess my devious A&R hat was put on and I just thought that it might be nice to do that anonymously, A, because it would be nice for people to listen to it with a clean slate and no preconceptions, and B, because doing something anonymously can create a buzz. And I, at that stage, then engineered the remixes of Little Dragon, Fink and Scuba and promo'd those and got a little bit of momentum behind the project and did the little website—all on an absolute shoestring to be honest with you—and that was able to then create a bit of a buzz, which got quite a lot of interest from different labels. In the end we went with !K7.
Did you decide at the outset that you were going to write something that more resembled a downtempo or a pop record?
Not really. I mean, if you listen to Space Between, the first album that I wrote, stylistically—I've now listened to them both a little bit since—it's not a million miles away. If anything this album, for me, is much more uptempo than Space Between, which is much more languid and laidback. I've never really written overtly dark and intense music. I veer towards more soulful sounds and more… I dunno, I don't want to say relaxed or anything like that, but definitely with an album I wanted it to be listened to and enjoyed in the car and on headphones.
What's the significance of the name "CLOSE"? It's also tied in with a distinctive visual aesthetic.
The name for the album came first actually, half way through the writing process because I was getting closer to a lot of people and personalities. And so the name for the album came first, for some reason whilst in the shower, actually [laughs]. I just thought that the name CLOSE represented the sound of the record very well, and that the two fitted nicely together. At the same time I approached Michael Place (who's always done the Simple and Aus artwork) before I'd got the record signed and before I'd even sent it out, to create a little bit of a visual identity for it.
How would you describe the vibe of the record?
I think there's definitely a theme of a type of melody that I'm always drawn to and what I've always written throughout the last 10 years, which is a kind of melancholic… soulful—I hate the word soulful because it's so overused, by myself as much as anyone else, but there's a certain kind of melancholic melody that I like that I think probably underpins the whole of the album.
And there's a lot of attention to detail. I've spent a long while working with a lot of outboard effects, old reverb chambers, and spending a lot of time on the mix and the detail and wanting it to be a really engaging listen that you could keep coming back to and getting lost in on your headphones.
In the last half-decade you've become known as somebody who's heavily involved in club music. Did you have any concerns that the tone of album would somehow throw people off?
No not at all really. And the review on RA, I find it quite mystifying that the reviewer had taken that view—that it was a big risk for me to write tracks then have songs in them. I reference back to the Space Between album that I did eight years ago: there's two vocal tracks with Ursula Rucker and another two vocals on that album, and so for me it's not something new at all. To be brutally honest, I don't really ever see it as a risk when you're writing music that you love.
I'm not going to start ranting on about journalistic presumptions, but it is the one thing which I find quite upsetting and actually, yeah, it seems to have happened quite a bit recently, where journalists make presumptions as to what artists were thinking and their motivation behind doing something. And that's just a guess, really—how can a journalist know anything about that? Because they're not inside mine or any artists' head, do you know what I mean?
I wanted to talk about Aus and Simple. You appear to have been able to pretty easily move with the times, particularly in recent years. Is this something you've been conscious of?
It's definitely what you describe but it's not really ever done in that calculating a way. I'm just a massive music lover and have quite a ferocious appetite for keeping in touch with what's new and what's interesting. And actively approach people to come and work with the label. So I mean, it doesn't ever feel like I'm trying to keep the labels current, I'm just constantly keeping myself current for what's new and what's interesting and what I love. And I guess that keeps the labels current.
I think I've been lucky in that once you get a bit of momentum, and you start to build a catalogue that other artists are into, your job becomes much more easy in terms of getting people to work with you, and signing acts and newer people coming to you. Now we're in the position where managers over the last six months to a year have really very much approached me with stuff, whereas before I would have had to be a lot more proactive.
Do you feel like your core aim, when you started out with Simple, has changed much over the years?
Simple was set out to release good music of any genre. That was our initial approach for the first five releases. But we very nearly went out of business, and rapidly realised that releasing quite esoteric broken beats probably wasn't going to allow us to keep doing what we were doing. It was lucky that we stayed in business because back in the day you had to have your first five releases planned out cash flow-wise because you couldn't get a distribution deal unless you had five records in the bank that you could go to a distribution dealer with. If you wanted to release five records over the space of a year or six to eight months you had to have the cash flow to effectively pay for them all because you didn't get paid until one month or two months after releasing a record. In those days, where you're manufacturing about 2,000 records, you're going to be between eight and ten thousand pounds in the hole before you get paid for your first release.
So by the time we got to our fifth record, which was one with me with an Infusion remix, we were like, "Well, let's enjoy this because it's pretty much going to be our last record," and luckily our Infusion remix was a huge success and got a lot of compilation licenses and that 12-inch sold very, very well. That enabled us to be able to do what we're doing.
By the time we released that 12-inch I was just working in Kubla, which was the record shop before Phonica, and had just been introduced to loads of house and techno, and I was getting influenced by all of that and wanting to release records that represented my newfound interest and love. So I've always just been keeping in touch and digging into lots of other scenes and getting involved in terms of listening to other stuff, and that's definitely influenced the way I A&R.
Aus was started as a leftfield label that was going to be an album home for Sideshow (Fink's alter ego) and Lee Jones, who are two of my oldest friends. And we released albums from those guys, and the Sideshow album was kind of a digidub album, and Lee Jones was very much Lee Jones and definitely not specifically aimed at dance floor and a very listenable album. So they were never supposed to be big dance records by any stretch of the imagination.
Someone told me I should check out Laurie's [Appleblim] Tempa CD [Dubstep Allstars: Vol.06], quite a bit before that came out. And I listened to that and was blown away by it. And I met up with him and shared a lot of music and got along really well and I became good friends with him. And that was my introduction. I was aware of dubstep and obviously had listened to it, but I was never into it until I heard what those guys were doing with it—the early Martyn stuff and the Ramadanman and Appleblim and that really sort of turned me onto that scene. Aus then just seemed a natural home because it was always a leftfield, slightly more experimental label that wasn't aimed at the dance floor.
Yeah definitely a fair point, and that's just the way the musical landscape has shifted a little bit over the last year or two. I think it's really interesting that a lot of the guys that we're working with have fundamentally started sounding a lot housier. I've always just tried, on both Simple and Aus, to work with artists that I really rate and respect and hopefully give them the space to develop as they want. I never really try and push a certain sound or get them to write in a certain way.
I'll often give feedback to tracks sent in, and I'll let the guys do what they want to do. And it's interesting that a lot of guys have come from backgrounds that aren't necessarily house and techno; they're garage, they're drum & bass.
Who do you see as being integral artists to the labels at this stage?
The last six months to a year have been so much fun for me in terms of running the labels and seeing Midland, George FitzGerald and Dusky and Bicep all develop into really significant acts that have huge fanbases. And that's wonderful for me to see those guys have all become good friends doing so well. And on Simple we've got October, Youandewan and Sei A. Those three guys are super talented, but to be honest with you, they could kind of all release on either of the labels now.
Are you able to devote much time to giving artists feedback and trying to develop their music?
Yeah I mean with Harry [Midland] and George I've always given them feedback, and I've known them for quite a few years now and hopefully helped them to develop as producers, and I'm sure they would agree with me—I hope they would [laughs]. I've given them a lot of advice and help, especially with George, on labels and the label's perspective and how you run labels and do that sort of thing. Bicep less so because their tracks come to me fully formed and finished and, in my opinion, don't really need anything. With Dusky, again, their tracks don't really need much by the time they get to me.
Are you able to listen to many speculative demos?
Sadly not. I wish I could, but it's just me that does the labels. And I just don't have the time. The thing is, as a one-man operation, I know I can only really release six to eight records in one year because I don't think anyone wants any more than that from one label because they get bored of it, and that's physically all I can do in one year. Any more than that and it starts to become a bit much if I ever wanted to write any music of my own or do anything else.
I try and add maybe one act a year into the label fold, but beyond that, I've made a commitment to the artists I'm working with that I'm going to release their music in that year, and that means that I could probably only release one more person.
So you almost have to work a year ahead of yourself?
Exactly. If I get sent a demo that I like I have to think to myself, "OK, is this still going to be relevant in 12 months? And it makes that process very, very difficult for listening to demos and signing things, because… you've committed to a release schedule way in advance.
I read that you were potentially going to become involved with a bigger label, who would help you with some stuff, but you didn't specify who it was. Is this coming to fruition?
Yes I think it will be. It's currently with lawyers and we're just trying to hammer out the deal so that it works for both parties. But I really hope that that will happen and that really should enable us to release albums going forwards.
What would the arrangement look like between the two of you?
That's what the lawyers are figuring out at the moment. In terms of the labels, finally, I wouldn't have to do any of the admin. And the other thing with the label is I'm quite meticulous when it comes to the accounting for all the artists. And as the catalogue grows and the number of artists grows, I probably end up spending six weeks to two months of the year accounting. And that also means that you can't write music and you can't do much else for that period. So the bigger label will do all of the accounting, they'll do all of the product management, they'll do all of the admin for the releases.
Do you feel as though there is a comfortable middle ground where everybody can get what they want in these types of arrangements?
Yeah, I mean the label I'm working with, they're not a major label; they're a decent sized independent label that will very much give me complete freedom to keep doing what I'm doing only there will be an infrastructure for me to plug into. And yeah, that infrastructure will allow me to release a little bit more music and work with some of the artists that we work with on albums, and other acts that we're not working with, and approach them potentially to do albums. So that's really exciting for me as someone that loves doing A&R and keeping ferociously in touch with new music.
I just wanted to finish up by talking about some stuff in your personal life. You mentioned that you'd moved to the countryside in the last couple of years, that you've had a son and that you're getting married. Has this changed your approach to the industry and the way that you think about things?
That's an interesting question. No I don't think it has. I mean, I am aware I've got a little one to support now and obviously that's a much bigger responsibility than I've had before. But I think I've been lucky enough that things have sort of taken off with the labels and for me… I had a very quiet year on DJing last year and the year before last, and I was worried about whether I'd be able to support my family fully. But the lead up to where we are now, and the last year and a half or so, has been very good for me, in terms of playing a lot of shows. And I've not had to worry so much about whether I can keep doing what I'm doing and still support a family.
I think my decision to sell part of the label, or combine with the other label… that's actually come from me looking at what I'm doing and thinking, I don't want to keep running a record label anymore, in the sense that I love doing A&R but I actually want to devote my time to making music, and I don't want to spend two months of every year accounting, accounting [laughs].
In other parts of my private life, I'm starting a little business with my partner that is nothing to do with music whatsoever, so I am actually doing things that will hopefully safeguard the future of my family.