Utah Saints Go Marching In (Again)
We wanted to be successful, sure, and were still ambitious now, though I think everyone is, to be honest. What we wanted to do when we started Utah Saints was to make a career out of music and thats an important distinction. We never thought we want to be massively famous and be recognised all the time, that was never something we considered but we did think itd be great if we can make music that makes people think about things.
Chatting down the line from his Leeds base, Jez Willis from Utah Saints is candid about his ambitions, both in the early 90s, and today.
With the Utahs people have always imagined we have some kind of a plan when in fact weve never had a plan, he laughs, Weve always gone along with whatever happens and thats more or less whats happened here.
The event hes referring to is Australian rock/ rave merchants Van She making a bootleg of the Utahs Kate Bush sampling early 90s hit Something Good, which is just about to come out on Ministry of Sounds offshoot Data Recordings, some three years after the band apparently quit.
Wed always had it in the back of our minds that at some point wed revisit the hits and see if there was life in them again then last February Van She did this bootleg which we heard, Jez recalls.
We were aware of them and dropped them a mail on Myspace saying this is cool but can you try and keep a lid on it (keep it hidden- Ed) because were doing our own remixes as well. Then in September their mix started taking on a life of its own then what really kicked it off was when Pete Tong made it his Essential New Tune, So we had to look at it and recreate the sample (for long complicated legal reasons) which we then sent to Van She for them to do an official remix and thats what has started everything again, he reveals.
Skrufff (Jonty Skrufff): Todays pop world is very different from 15 years ago, what do you make of the whole Simon Cowell, Pop Idol TV audition culture of today?
Utah Saints: (sighing) I think the Pop Idol thing takes away the mystique from music and it doesnt take into the account those people who have to make music. There are people who want to make music and others who need to, they almost have a compulsion. Once you get involved in the music world you find yourself irresistibly drawn to it and its got nothing to do with money, or fame or celebrity, or any of that, its more that there is some kind of soul connection with music. I think shows like X Factor discount things like that.
Skrufff: How do you view todays celebrity culture with the paparazzi and the prospect of being followed around town?
Utah Saints: That kind of happened to us the first time around because we said yes to everything so we ended up at lots of different events. What we realised from that was that everybody had a different perspective of us. We kind of had a foot in the industrial camp so we were involved in quite industrial things right through to full-on pop things like Top Of The Pops. I was cleaning out the attic the other day and found a video the other day of a TV program we did where we ended up on a bill of some Smash Hits Extravaganza in 1993. We ended up at Wembley Arena going on after East 17 and before Take That. I remember people being confused and wed say look, most people start their journey into music via pop. If even 95% of Take That fans hate out music, were still showing them that theres more to music than dancing boys. Thats not taking away from their music by the way, Im just talking about how theyre presented. We didnt have a particular pop sound, we made a record in a small recording studio and had no idea how it would be perceived.
Skrufff: Did you get into that pop star mentality at all, did you ever start to feel you were better than everyone else?
Utah Saints: I hope not, I pretty sure we didnt. We never considered ourselves pop stars, we just thought of ourselves as people who make music that people like. The problem is that sometimes peoples perceptions of you can be quite different from how you are. So you might say something completely off hand that doesnt mean anything but if someones looking to take offence at it, they will. Ironically though, I think that back-fired on us, I think people wanted us to pretend to be more important than we were. We always tried to treat everybody the same. The upside of that though is that people we treated the same back then are now doing pretty well.
Skrufff: You toured with U2 in the early 90s, how did you set about performing in front of 100,000 people?
Utah Saints: I remember this from when I first started out, the most nerve racking gigs are when you play before about twenty mates because when youre in front of 20 mates you cant pretend to be someone else.
The way I get my head in the right place usually is by pretending to be someone else, because if you just took me as a normal person and shoved me on stage Id be thinking wooah, dont look at me.
With U2 we got offered the tour and we thought its just an experience we cant turn down. When theres that many people there you have to hope that youre projecting somewhere in the middle and hope youre going to reach as many people as you can. Also youve got to bear in mind that I was singing on about half the tracks but the other half were samples, from Kate Bush, Phil Oakey or whoever. But thankfully U2 were in their Zooropa phase so the whole concert was about technology so we got away with the samplers.
Every now and again I still get emails from people saying I saw you at the U2 concert in Cardiff or wherever, I never heard anything like it. Its good for us to push ourselves, Im glad I did it but it was a weird experience.
Skrufff: Was it an enjoyable experience? Who did you visualise yourself as?
Utah Saints: I dont know if I can tell you that (laughing). Basically I was imagining myself as people in bands that Id seen that I thought were great. If I was really pushed Id say I was a cross between Jazz Coleman (Killing Joke), Freddie Mercury and Liam Howlett. Probably everyone thinks of Freddie Mercury when they get in a stadium because he was the master. Obviously I was nothing like any of those people. Id recommend going on stage to anybody, though to at least try it once.
I had two reference points. We did Top Of The Pops and Cliff Richard was there and we were both waiting in the wings to do our bit and I asked him if he got nervous before performing and he said no, I dont get nervous anymore. Then we did a record with Edwin Starr and he came and did Glastonbury with us and I remember asking him if he got nervous and he said yeah, every time. And hes been doing it for even longer than Cliff Richard. I think nerves are actually a good thing because they keep you focused. It might not be that pleasant but nerves and self doubt help you set your standards high.
Skrufff: You had a 7 year gap between your first and second album, was there a moment when everything suddenly went all wrong?
Utah Saints: Not really, no. Again its about perception. Your first single reaches number 4, then the next one number 8 and everyone starts to think ooh, are things going wobbly? Then when the next one reaches 23 youve got a full-blown crisis. People expected a lot from our second album, I think we did too. It took us two years to make it and we wrote personal letters to Chet Baker to see if hed do something for us and we wrote to Michael Stipe because he said our first album was his favourite dance album of all time and we got all these people onto the record. We also got a Metallica sample cleared and we were really proud of the second album then when it came out it sold around 45,00 copies which the record company perceived as a disaster. And that was because the first album from 7 years earlier had sold six or seven times that amount. The album came out around 2001 when people still had this mindset of is this cool or isnt it? whereas today I dont think people have time to make that decision. You have to make a snap decision today and move on; I like it or I dont. Theres too much music for cool to matter any more,
Skrufff: Youve also been DJs and run a club in Leeds in recent years, how are you prioritising, particularly in Utah Saints become big again?
Utah Saints: Weve always done both things, the first time round we were promoting even more than we do now, we were promoting four nights a week in Leeds, mostly at a club called the Gallery. We put on everyone from Moby, Oakenfold to Pete Tong. At that time most clubs were scared of putting on what was then known as rave music so everybody played for us. We had all sorts of problems with the authorities actually. Once we had to go to court 14 years ago because the police came in and spotted people dancing on a Sunday. There had been a big event in the park and all these people poured into Leeds in the morning, with nowhere to go, so we opened the club. A lot of them were quite, er, excitable, we put on some background music, not banging music and they all started dancing about. So we ended up in court arguing about what constituted dancing. The whole thing got sorted out in the end but my point is, its a lot calmer now. It should be easier for us to do both things.
The club is an important part of what we do, weve had Justice and Too Many DJs on recently- when we could afford them- ha ha, and we had breaks DJs on and all sorts of people. Well keep Sugarbeat up as well as the music.
Skrufff: Reading your Myspace biog you offer advice: no-one really knows the secret to making a living from music, or no-one we have ever met: I understand one of you was an ex-driver for the Henry Rollins band why did you mention that?
Utah Saints: The reason I put that on Myspace was to say music is music, what I mean to say is that people should be less obsessed about roles within music and what they do. I was in a band called Surfing Dave and the Absent Legends, a surf band, and the guitarist was from Washington DC and had been in a lot of punk bands and knew Henry from Black Flag. They kept in touch and when Henry left Black Flag, Chris joined him while I joined the Cassandra Complex. So when they looked for a place to record they all came over to England and none of them could drive so basically I had an old clapped out estate car and started driving them around, hanging out at the studio, learning as much as I could about production, just from eaves dropping.
Skrufff: What was Henry like then, was he already pumping iron?
Utah Saints: Yeah. The first time I met him he had long hair and a pool ball in his band and he was strengthening his grip. He was squeezing this pool ball all the time. I dont profess to know him very well and Im not sure anyone knows him very well, hes a very strong character with his own thing going on. Hes made some great records.
Skrufff: I was a huge Sisters Of Mercy fan in the past, what was it like working with Andrew Eldridge?
Utah Saints: To be honest, I was a huge Sisters OF Mercy fan too. Hes a lovely chap whos made some phenomenal records. His back catalogue has some amazing records. You can get away with Alice and Temple Of Love now too. Theres a common thread between Sisters OF Mercy and Detroit techno. They were using Roland drum machines, the 606, 808 and 0909s and those are all drum machines defined early house and techno records. The Sisters and March Violets and Three Johns were all Leeds bands and all using the same drum machines, just in different ways. It was interesting working with him.
Utah Saints- Something Good 08 is out shortly on Data/ Ministry Of Sound Records.
Jonty Skrufff (Skrufff.com)