Q&A with Saul Williams
As a poet, actor, musician, screenplay writer and author, Saul Williams legacy in the public forum of the creative arts is without a doubt timeless. With almost a dozen films released, many books, half a dozen full length albums and scores of musical collaborations with the likes of Zach De la Rocha, Buckethead, Sage Francis, Nine Inch Nails, Thavius Beck, Nas and many more, Saul has defined a path unlike any contemporary artist. Saul Williams released a new full length in Volcanic Sunlight and already premiered what is his latest film in Aujourd’hui, a film shot in Senegal that depicts a fictitious small village and ones last day on this earth in the context of something very different than what you would expect in a last day type of situation. Saul’s path as a creative entity is unrestricted and only bounded to his own imagination. It was because of this endless amount of imagination along with an unlimited source of inspiration, we are very proud to present this exclusive and very lengthy interview with Saul about his new album, film, a book he is planning to release in September, his dream collaborations, old songs and much, much more.
Conducted by Erik Otis
Transcribed by Ramzi Jamal Shalabi
Volcanic Sunlight, in the context of your career, is a completely different approach to sound for you in my opinion, the biggest leap from any one album to the next. We always love to dive into the methods, approaches and environments an artists takes when constructing an album. How many instruments do you typically run through during a session?
SW: When I start working, I work alone. I love collaborations but for me the collaborative process doesn’t necessarily start from the beginning all the time. The musical ideas for the album came from me working alone initially. I don’t really play any instruments, I play with instruments kind of like a kid would play with an instrument. I can play it enough to get what I want out of it but other instruments I have no idea how to get a sound out of it. When I started making this album I was pretty clear on the fact that I was going to be dealing with tribal or percussive drums and horns. Those were the two elements I wanted to play with, horns and drums and some synth sounds as well. I sampled and programmed drums at first. Then I used synth sounds and then I used those same synths to create fake horn sounds. After the album was completely demo’d all like that, then I moved to Paris and started working with the other producer. Then we brought in real horn players and real drummers to replace or play with some of my sounds. With horns for example, we had three horn players but each of them could play 2 different types of horns. We had French horns, bassoon, tuba, trombone and a bit of trumpet. In terms of drums, we had one drummer and one percussionist and I also played a lot of percussion with the percussionist. We would spend hours just adding layers and layers of percussion to songs. There is a lot of percussion on this album. Usually it started with me just doing everything, even just programming drums off a keyboard and then after that is when we would bring in all the other instruments and instrumentalists.
Do you keep notebooks around your house to make sure you don’t loose anything and have you kept all of your old notebooks of rhythms and poetry since you were little?
SW: Yeah, I keep journals. I don’t keep them randomly laying around the house but I have a collection of journals. In fact, I started making my own journals now because I used to collaborate with a women from San Francisco who used to make journals for me. I love writing but I also pay close attention to what I am writing in. I used to have this friend who would make journals for me for years. Of course I had to buy journals as well and now I make them. I keep all of my old journals and I do go back to my old journals, primarily in terms of what I am playing around with writing. My journals are where I chronicle my thoughts and ideas in relation to words. In relation to music, my ideas are stored in hard drives. There are times when I have a musical idea, I don’t open up my journal, I go to my keyboard or drum machine, computer, bass or guitar and I work it out then and record it. My musical ideas stay in hard drives and my written ideas stay in the journals. Those are the only things I moved to Paris because it was too expensive for me to bring all of my books. The only thing I did bring was all of my journals.
On Volcanic Sunlight, there is a huge array of percussive styles and tones that underlay the layers of vocals and synth that you blend, how many percussion instruments do you use as opposed to beat machines and how much time do you dedicate to practicing different drum patterns and tones?
SW: Oh man, I max out on stuff. For instance, let’s take ‘Vacations’ for example, I remember making that drum beat on the drum machine and the thing that made it warm was when I played those synth sounds and put those layers of sounds up under it that just made it sound super warm and like a soundscape. Once I played with that soundscape, I must have played that literally 300 times, non stop. I never wanted to leave that sound and with that, then I’d pick up percussion instruments and start playing. What you hear on the recording is none of the programming that I did; you hear Renaud and I playing on top of it and getting lost in it. I love beats, and if the beat is amazing for me I would let it play forever and play with it with other instruments. I experiment with types of poly-rhythms and what have you, but I’m also a fan of making quick decisions. I might make something, keep it and I feel it’s great and then I’m just dancing to it and it’s not so much I’m experimenting with stuff on top of it. I might layer it a lot, like for instance when Renaud and I are playing tom toms. We’re both playing with two hands then we have another drummer playing with two hands, so that’s six drums and we must have layered that I don’t know how many times. There’s a lot of layers, there’s a lot of listening. I’ve listened to my albums probably a million times before they come out and after they come out, maybe I listen to it ten times. The fun I have with the music is before it comes out. That’s when I’m listening like crazy as I walk down the street, walking around the house and I might keep the mic on and run to the mic with an idea when I have it. I’m totally into listening and re-listening and re-listening and re-listening as part of the creative process. Everything is layered a lot and we try a lot of different instruments, a lot of different percussions, sounds and what have you. This album is all organic, it starts with me programming then I’m playing on top of that and eventually taking out the drum machine and just keeping the real drums.
We just wanted to say we love the amount of singing and vocal layering on Volcanic Sunlight, it’s a very defining element that gives the music an undeniable light and integrity. The piece ‘Diagram’ is one that we feel really shows your dynamic abilities. You broke the seal on the last album with the type of direction you’d be taking your music with the inclusion of singing and Volcanic Sunlight feels like the full realization of that reality. Did this bring a very fresh and unique feeling to the creation of the album or have you always been doing this without releasing it to the public?
SW: Oh yeah. I felt so excited making this album and sharing it with people. I made the music first and I refused to record vocals until pretty much a year and half after I made all the music but I had some of the songs. I remember with ‘Diagram’ I sang that song to a 1000 people, just friends. They would ask about my music and I’d play it for them and I’d sing it for them. I would only record the music, no vocals. And wow, when I was working on this album, like any other album, it was the sound that I wanted to hear. I listen to the radio, I listen to what’s out there and a lot of times I’m writing what I feel is missing. Like this is what I wish I could hear and ‘Diagram’ falls completely into that path void. It was written early in the process, very early. It’s one of the first three of four songs that I wrote. I was excited because I was clear on the fact that I was sharing a new part of myself. A part that I knew existed and was comfortable with but perhaps not everybody knew existed. The person I guess who was most familiar with what was happening was my daughter because she would hear me working on it and singing it. You know I’m on a good path when the day comes when she’s like “do you mind if I, um, take these songs off your computer and put them on my iPod?”. [laughs] That’s when I’m like, okay, she wants to hear them. My daughter is fifteen right now, so I’m dealing with the case where they usually say “that’s boring” and most of my music career has been gauged off of kids response. Like that’s a Grippowiz. The idea of Grippo comes from me and my best friend, we were both expected fathers for the first time, thinking what kind of music will our kids will listen to. Like ah it’ll be crazy, they’ll call it Grippo and it’ll be fast and crazy wild and we were trying to describe it. Then a few years later I wrote the song Grippo that’s on the Saul Williams album. I was like ‘this is it!’ and knew that because I wrote it one Saturday morning when my daughter was watching cartoons and we lived in a loft in Downtown LA and it came to a commercial and I turned down the volume of the TV and turned up the music. She got up and started dancing wildly. I was like ‘gotcha! I knew it!’. I was like ‘That’s Grippo!’ Anything while I was recording this album, especially like ‘Dance’ and ‘Triumph’, I was dancing and happy and happy that I had a way to share my happiness. Before I knew how to share my anger and my angst in several ways but I wanted to share something more than that. I wanted to balance the equation so if you were going through your playlist of my stuff it wouldn’t all fit in one category.
We truly feel like Volcanic Sunlight is your Electric Ladyland, the record that leaps very far into the future and shows everything that has come to that point.
SW: I will clearly say that, that is the biggest compliment I have ever received for this album thus far.
How long did it take for you to pick the final tracks on such a new project and was selecting the track order process easy for you or tough to birth?
SW: Oh it was easy, it was easy. You know when you hear about women talk about the first child was really difficult, the labor was difficult, the second labor was difficult, and the third, they say ah, it just popped out? That’s kind of how Volcanic Sunlight felt, it really felt like it popped out. I was clear on the fact of what I had. Every song that came when it came I was super excited, I couldn’t wait to share it with friends and I thought it was funny and fun. I just loved the process of writing it. Nah, it wasn’t difficult. There’s only one song that I wrote for the album that I didn’t put on the album. Why didn’t I put that song on the album, because it wasn’t fully realized. Because most of the songs that I had written were better developed when I started working with my producer Renaud and that was the only song that wasn’t fully developed yet so we decided to focus on whatever the fourteen songs I had and that was it, that was enough.
When I had first heard the track ‘Dance’ I was really excited as I have been getting into a lot of Kollywood, Bollywood and so forth and this track has that immediate groove and vibe. After getting the record I was really happy to see that you had used a sample from the great Bollywood composer Rajesh Roshan. With this being one of the few samples, what compelled you to choose it and would you say Bollywood has influenced your film career?
SW: Well obviously it has influence just based on the fact that I sampled it. However I came across that song because of a great friend of mine whose a DJ named Frosty who runs a site called Dublab. Frosty used to be our tour manager and sound engineer when we would tour and basically when we were touring the main thing we would do is share our music collection. Frosty had come back from India, Cambodia and Vietnam and he made me a mixtape, maybe seven or eight years ago and that song was the funniest song to me. It was just funny. One day, early on when I first started working on Volcanic Sunlight, this is to say while I was still touring for Niggy Stardust, that song popped on my iPod shuffle and I was just cracking up and I wrote to it immediately and I wrote ‘Dance’. I wanted to write how that song made me feel and I like that little ‘dance, dance, dance’. I liked that it brought out that weird unexpected approach. It was, I guess, a bit of an epiphany but really everytime I have heard that song I have wanted to do something with it. It was just really a great thing for me, it’s one of my favorite songs.
I wanted to dive back a little bit into my formal entry point for your career with the track ‘Ohm’ on the Rawkus Records Lyricist Lounge Compilation. When I finally saw the SlamNation version, I was deeply impacted by the way you articulated each section with the Ohm’s, beat boxing and poetry. With your music evolved into a new state of inner consciousness, do you still perform solo poet sets like this and the ones most have seen through Def Poetry Jam?
SW: Yeah, definitely. Poetry readings remain for me, one, probably my greatest source of livelihood and really it’s my kitchen, my sanctuary. It’s really the place where I hear and think and contemplate. I go through phases with it but I’ve definitely continually re-encountered these poems and these opportunities to share them and leave them as I go with a lot of excitement. Basically, I’ve spent years studying some of these things and writing new things and also studying that. I don’t understand everything that pops out when it comes everytime, it takes years to eliminate some of the things that I think I understood that I thought I was saying but it was more receptive of what I was going through and I realize now that what I was going through was leaking through the page more than what I thought I was saying. It’s a continual sort of learning curve and process that I go through as I recite these poems. They’re really like mantras for me, and yes, I do poetry readings all the time.
The first time I had experienced you perform live was in 2004 at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles when you came out for one song to The Mars Volta’s live set. If I remember correctly, you did a unique version of Coded Language. The performance was extremely uplifting for me, do you ever see yourself making a record with a group as sonically diverse as The Mars Volta?
SW: Oh please, I would love to do that, oh my god, that would be fucking crazy. Come on, that would be incredible, that would be a dream. I knew them when they were At The Drive-In, that’s when I met them and we became friends before they quit At The Drive-In and started this new thing. It’s funny, for instance, the first time I toured with The Mars Volta, Omar gave me six tracks that he wrote for me, just guitar and I still have them that I’m supposed to be writing to that I never really wrote to. The idea with collaboration was from the start, but those things they take shape and they form over years and over time and what have you. I’m a huge fan of At The Drive-In and him and The Mars Volta and those first two albums for me were life changing. They confirmed everything I believed in and everything I wanted to hear. It was the biggest gift of my life at the time to do be able to do the De-Loused in the Comatorium tour with them. The first 50 shows they did I was their opening act, you know, set the shotgun to the head. Man I watched every show, I watched every show and I felt like suddenly I understood what somebody else might of told me when they told what it was like touring with Nirvana or some shit. I felt it so strong, so that would be awesome [and] yeah I remember that night in LA.
Around the same time of this performance in 2004 I was shown K-PAX and was blown away. The imagery, concepts, question of human morality and the ending of letting the audience choose what had really occurred was beautifully orchestrated. I loved your roll as Ernie, the germaphobe, what type of preparation did you take to jump into this roll?
SW: KPAX was really great the way we shot that film because what they did is they built the asylum on the paramount lot in Hollywood and it was really shot on ensemble-like. I was there for siz weeks everyday like a patient. I’d put on my bathrobe and my pajamas and walk around like a patient. All the characters were there, we were all there the whole time, they kept us there everyday. Beforehand, the preparation that I had done was simply my imagination of how a character like that would be. Even when I auditioned for that piece, that audition was hilarious because I came to the audition in a surgical mask with gloves. I refused to shake the directors hand and I’m like, I’m Saul Williams, I’m not the character but I came in character. They wanted me to do an audition in front of the camera and I went through two minutes with them about whether the camera was clean and if there’s going to be another person in the room and is this person clean?, have they washed their hands?. I was playing with the character the entire time. In fact I wouldn’t let them record me and bring in another person into the room to record me unless they opened a window and when they opened the window I’m like “oh no close the window, it’s too many germs’. So the directors cracking up just the whole audition and I left like that, I refused to shake his hand. Of course I got the call the next day saying they want you. (laughs) That was my little lesson on how to audition.
What have been the strongest ideas, theories and new practices to film did you take from K-PAX that you could have never dreamed you would walk away with?
SW: What I learned about K-PAX: One, the writer of the book was there. I read the books and I loved the story and I got into the story way before we shot the film. I read all the books and so I was really happy to be able to sit there with the writer of the book beforehand and discuss how the ideas came up and all that buut the craziest thing that i got from that experience was really being there and playing chess with Kevin Spacey everyday and playing the guitar with Jeff Bridges. There’s one guy, the main character, the other dude, not Kevin Spacey, I can’t think of his name right now, he was in one of my favorite films Warriors. He plays my best friend in the film but he had been in one of my favorite films called the Warriors which is about gangs in New York in the late 70′s or mid 70′s. Me, I was just learning about people while I was there. I was learning about people and celebrity and how it affects some and doesn’t affect others. I was very self conscious when I moved to LA and when I was there. I really came from Brooklyn and New York with a lot of judgement like “what the fuck am I doing here?”. Mostly I went to LA to make music and I was repulsed kind of by what I thought I might encounter in the film world but I had because of my film SLAM, I had a lot of opportunity here. Some of it I liked and some of I didn’t care for too much and K-PAX was one of the first times where I said “okay, okay, okay, I’ll do this, I like this, this seems interesting.” It was really funny because Alfre Woodard was in it, who I had met as a person, in fact my film SLAM had won Sundance he was the juror that had read the huge speech announcing that we won. I was happy to be around here to sit back and talk with these guys and find out about who they were and what have you. Jeff Bridges was really a beautiful experience for me because you know he has a lot of down time, earned a lot of money through a little bit of work, right? With the crews fixing up all the lights and lenses and so forth, he has a lot of downtime when making a movie. So the question is how do you use that downtime? For me, it’s always been writing poetry and making music and here’s someone like Jeff Bridges who had his own camera that he kept off camera and as soon as they would take cuts he would pick up his camera and start taking pictures of what was happening on the set. This is someone who grew up with Hollywood, his father was in that. I’m watching him, just learning the different apertures of his camera and he’s shooting the entire two months that we are there, he’s shooting everyday whenever he’s not being shot. Then like a month after the film ends I get something in the mail from him and it’s a book: The Making of K-PAX. He’s makes a book called The Making of K-PAX and he pays in full and prints them up himself and writes little personal notes like “Saul, this is great”. He put together a book, a real book that he called the cable book that he just did himself. So me, I was really monitoring and watching peoples work habits and also that habit. That to me is also related to the film and to the story of all these people and in this institution and how they use their time. Whether they use it inebriated by fear and paranoia like the character that I had before he went through his script or in some sort of psychotic rage or open. That was my observation, I didn’t walk away from there with something solid. I walked away from there with just a really cool experience.
Do you find that when you make a film the characters you tap into become an influence with your writing and music?
SW: Sometimes yes, sometimes no. For instance, with K-PAX, I can’t say that it influenced my writing and music. It was a welcome escape from my writing and music at the time. However, I just finished shooting a film called Aujourd’hui which I shot in Senegal over the summer for two months. While I was shooting that film, before I even started shooting it, the director had written this script for me and it’s the story of this man that lives in this fictitious village in Africa where the dead come and choose one person to go back to the land of the dead with them. This sort of sacrifice happens once in a generation and that person is called the chosen and if someone is chosen during the course of this time it’s a huge celebration in the village because they get a new hospital, they get a new school, his family gets new houses and the kids get to go to college. It’s a huge sacrifice done for the wealth of the community, sort to speak. So it’s a big honor to be chosen. As opposed to a curse, it’s an honor. If you are the chosen, you find out on the morning of your death. You find out that morning that when you close your eyes that night it will be the last time. I play that character, essentially from the moment he opens his eyes to the moment he closes them, like what does he want to do with his last 24 hours. I knew I had this role for nine months before we shot it and right when I got the role I was mixing Volcanic Sunlight and I was scared. I was scared of death for example. One, I was like why did I get a role like this. Of course the writer is playing with the idea of looking at everyday like it’s your last day. So I began doing that and than yes, that influenced everything that I wrote musically, like hearing the percussion. The music, I was going to tell you, the director gave me to prepare for the film, the main thing the director gave me was music. Music from Mali and Senegal and the Congo. So for months while I was finishing Volcanic Sunlight I was listening to this African music and it was a beautiful, most beautiful transition from finishing my album with all this percussion into this real friendly, real realm of percussion that culminated it when we shot the film. I was surrounded by drummers and all this stuff and it was just crazy in Senegal, it was beautiful. So yeah, a character like that and a story like that, yeah, the fact that everything I did is still affecting me. I still return to that music, That music, it’s a part of me now. You know the stuff you want to play for people when they come by or what have you? I’m always playing that stuff and of course will affect whatever I do next musically.
As an artist who has deep seeded roots in music, poetry, hip hop, film, books and so much more, do you find that each of these disciplines requires a slightly different Saul Williams or have you generated enough experience and foresight to command all these energies into one organized and focused stream of how you process everything?
SW: Well the fact of the matter is I’m one person, and I don’t really look at myself as having a split personality. In a very simple real way, all of these things come from me. Let’s just say I can walk and chew gum at the same time. I keep journals, I keep instruments near by, I keep journals near by, I love reading, I love watching film. Really, I’m devoted mostly to love, I spend most of my times immersed in my love life and I come out every now and then and take a sip of poetry or wine, you know. Most of the time I’m looking for good music to play in my love life movie. [laughs]. That’s really what it’s all about. Some of that continual sense of inception and deception comes in a few poems, comes in a few songs and comes in a few ideas that might be filmic so to speak and so I keep paper, pen and computer handy and nearby so I can monitor those. I like being my own boss but I love the creative process. What I have learned with time is how to trust that process. I realize now there’s a time and place for everything, like I don’t get frustrated too much if it’s been a few days and I haven’t written anything. Maybe it’s not the time to write. Sometimes I sit down at the piano before I sit down at the desk and sometimes it’s more about the music and sometimes it’s more about the words and what have you. I kind of take it as it comes and I also take in a lot of things. I’m a huge student of film and literature. I’m always being sparked to watch something I haven’t watched and I’ll go on huge binges, like I’m on a Cassavetes binge or I’m on a Jarmusch binge. I go on huge binges of directors and musicians , Faulkner binges and all types of things and I entertain myself to those binges. I enjoy those binges, I allow myself to go off without knowing why, you know, like ‘Why am I into so much Bukowski right now?’. I don’t know, but, if I’m doing that and I’m thinking about writing I know that when I eventually turn back to the page with what I have learned from that is going to come on free. I keep on in that fashion basically and then it moves me in different directions. Right now I’m pretty clear on the fact that I’m thinking a lot about film. I have a few films I’m working on, I have a film that’s coming out this year. I have a film that I’m writing, I have a film that I’m acting in and another film I’m going to be acting in. To me, I’m really excited about that because that’s really what I’ve been waiting for. I really spent a lot of time writing poetry and making music to past the time. [laughs] I’m finally in a place where I’m really learning how to conceptualize film because the first time I did it I kind of lucked-up on it. My first film, I did it without really knowing how I did it. So after that it’s taken time to really bring it to the next level. That’s important to me, so I’ve been learning but yeah, all those different art forms, they come and go as they choose.
From all of your travels around the world through your music and your films, what has been the most prized possessions you have collected?
SW: I guess my most prized possessions are probably my journals. All that is is me collecting myself, me collecting my thoughts. My most prized possessions, I’ve given them all away, that’s the music and the poetry. Those are my souvenirs from my travels and it’s funny because in French souvenir means ‘to remember’. My souvenirs are in my writings. If you ask me about anything I could tell you where I wrote it. If there was some sort of location device connected to my songs or poems and what have you, that would probably be the most interesting part. You’d say, “oh wow!”. Like the amount of stuff I’ve written on airplanes. The amount of stuff I’ve written in a crazy bar in Turkey or in a hostel in India. There’s so many places where these things come from that you would never get from the poem. I’m talking about Brooklyn it seems like or whatever but I didn’t write it there. Those are my most prized possessions. That’s my way of showing them, is by releasing them to the public, that way I know I can’t loose them.
I love hearing quotes from artists about their dream jams, one that comes to mind is Hendrix speaking about Roland Kirk, Miles Davis and himself and getting together for a session. Do you have a dream set of musicians that you’d love to create an album with?
SW: Ah man, sometimes I have those dreams. I’m not really clear on that today. Shoot, if you put me in a room with PJ Harvey, Thom Yorke and Bjork, I’m sure I’d have fun but I’m not sure that I’d be saying anything. I’d probably want to just play around with percussion or something and let them handle the other shit. I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know. So that’s an idea. Who else, who else, who else? I know I had a strong idea the other day but I can’t remember it right now. I don’t know if I have an answer for that today. Sometimes I’m strong in that mood and other times I haven’t the slightest. Today is one of those days. I haven’t the slightest who I would love to vibe with. I’ve had some cool vibes. I was able to collaborate with Kayne, for example, when he was working on ‘Love Lockdown’. I was able to help him with that sound and that was fun. And to collaborate with Nas, Zach de la Rocha and Serj Tankian. For me to be in the studio with some cool people, Damian Marley and stuff [...] I loved being a fly on the wall. For instance, one time I was at a party at Princes’ house and we were in his basement and he was playing music. He had his friends band that was playing there with him and he’s like, “Saul, come up here, come grab the microphone.” and I was like, “No.” [laughs]. “No thank you.” I honestly didn’t feel like playing. I didn’t feel like it after he announced me. I don’t have that thing where it’s like ah, you know what would make this better? Me. [laughs] I don’t really have that thing, I hear something great, it makes me want to shut up. That’s really the theme of Volcanic Sunlight, that’s why the phrasing and everything is so minimalistic is because I don’t want to get into the way of the music. if I was loving sounds of the music itself, I just really wanted to add to the music, I didn’t want to detract from it by bringing in my voice. So I just shut up most of the time. That was my whole approach with Volcanic Sunlight was don’t let the words get in the way. That’s why also in terms of artists that I love; artists that I love I don’t always necessarily want to collaborate with them, I just want to hear them. I’ve been able to have a few cool experiences like being in a living room with Erykah Badu and she sits down at the piano and sings and you’re like, “ah, thank you, thank you, this was cool, wow, wow, wow.” Janele Monet or something and there’s tons of those people and that’s enough. Most of those moments I didn’t say shit. The only times where it strikes me and it’s hard to say but in that sense I’m more of a hip hop head. If I’m in a place where the beat is wild then maybe I might start dreaming of stepping up and grabbing the mic from whoever has it if it’s really really moving me. That’s actually when the New Yorker in me steps out but otherwise I’m just happy to be in the room and I’ve been in the room. I stay quiet, I remember being in the studio in Electric Ladyland with D’Angelo when he was recording Voodoo and not once did I have the inclination of being like, oh you know what this song is missing? Me. (laughs) My main thing was I just wanted to hear. I’m just wishing that I could squeeze my thumb and index finger together and my eyes and ears could record so that I could play it back later. I’ve been through some beautiful experiences like that and in most of those situations I had no desire to do more than being on the table or get my feed. In most cases like that I become a percussionist.
I wanted to ask you about a collaborative track you did for Blackalicious called ‘Release’. I have always loved the visual imagery that the wordplay in Gift of Gab from Blackalicious and yourself bring to that song. My hairs stand up as your verse slowly winds in and boils to a heated finish lyrically and musically. I feel this piece is one of the best (of many) moments in modern poetry through sound. Do you go back to these old recordings and poetry that stems from it and recollect?
SW: To me, the track that I go back to the most is probably ‘Talk To Strangers’. I haven’t gone back to ‘Release’ in a long time. I can’t remember the last time I heard that but I do hear people people tell me that they love it and that’s how they first heard me or something like that. For me, yes I do go back to some of these tracks, some of them, but my favorite in that sense is ‘Talk to Strangers’ and maybe that’s because it was sort of a mystical experience for me. I was in the studio, finishing and mixing my second album and Serj Tankian did not know I was in the studio doing the finishing touches. He did not know that the night before I was thinking that the only thing I need now is an introduction, just [for] me to write an introduction. I was thinking about that night and I woke up the next morning to a phone call. It was Serj from System of a Down and he said “Hey Saul, how’s it going man? You know I was just thinking about you last night and I wrote this music on piano for you and I have really no idea, but really I was just building a new studio in my house and I was just trying out recording for the first time but I was thinking of you and I recorded this beautiful piano thing and I had a friend over whose singing in the background a little bit and I was just wondering if I could mail it to you.” I’m like don’t mail it to me, let me come get it. I drove to his house and I picked up the CD and I knew it was going to be my introduction before I heard it. I put it in my car and heard the piano start and I was like, holy shit. I went back home and I just wrote. I just wrote about what I wanted people to feel when they listened to this album which is I wanted them to feel open. So that’s why I went to an open space because I know you wouldn’t see it, no one could see me do it and nobody else could prove it and I tried to write from this simple place. I was super moved by it, I was moved by the experience. I knew, I alone knew that I had spent the night before wondering how I was going to find an introduction and it just appeared the next morning. I wrote it that afternoon and took it the studio that night and recorded it and the album was done but it’s hard for me to listen to some stuff. I’ll try ‘Release’ again, I haven’t listened to ‘Release’ in years honestly but I remember writing it. I totally remember writing it and I remember recording it. I had two days with that song before I recorded it. They had contacted me through my manager, I had never met them and they were recording at Mario Delgado’s house who had produced for the Beastie Boys, and they’re like meet us at Mario Delgado’s house. I drove there and I had met Zach before but Zach De la Rocha showed up right when I showed up, and they played us the music. He was like we want to record it tomorrow and so I took the music home and everything that I’m describing is what was on the wall or on the floor of my house as I’m sitting on the floor in my bedroom looking around the room. That’s what was there, mandolin cased in glass was a gift that someone had given me from India that I had just had framed. Everything I was describing was there and even more than that. So many things seemed to be made of wood it overwhelmed me, oak and elk and me. I was literally surrounded by these things and I wrote a very detailed narrative on everything like if I had just made a song about myself, what I thought.
We wanted to talk about the newest film projects you are involved with, what can we expect to come forth in the next few years and have you been actively writing scripts in this phase of your life?
SW: One, we have my film Aujourd’hui which means ‘today’ in English. It’s coming out this year and premiers at the Berlin Film Festival Berlinale competition at the Berlin Festival. Next month the film premiers February 10th then will come out in theaters. I don’t know when though, but sometime during the year. After that, there are three other films that I’m working on right now but I won’t really talk about that. I don’t want to get anyone in trouble. That’s really where my head is at right now, mostly film, but I’m also just finishing this book that comes out in September, September 4th which is called Chords. What that book is, it’s a literary mixtape. It’s kind of like an anthology but a little bit different. I put a call out through social media that I wanted 100 poems to make a book with. I ended up getting people responding from facebook and twitter. I ended up getting 8000 [poems]. I hired two co-editors and we choose 100 poems and then I took the poems and I put the titles on one side and just kept the poems on another, no title. I tried to find a theme in the story-line and make one story, one continual poem. 100 different poems with the titles leading in the back like song credits. There was no distractions, just between the words and the stories. That’s why I call it a literary mixtape because it’s more of me trying to blend and find one true story-line as opposed to the idea of here’s a 100 poems, here’s a 100 titles by a 100 different authors. It is that but it’s not presented in that way. That comes out on September 1st, so I’ll be touring with that and inviting those 100 poets from all over to appear in whatever cities they’re in with the book to do readings and they can initiate readings. My whole goal with that is I wanted to find a way to creatively introduce 100 new poets to the experience of being published.
We really wanted to tell you how much we truly love Volcanic Sunlight. You have stated in many interviews that this album is a representation and embodiment of the underground rising and a shift of consciousness. The record cover immediately interjects me into this shift, how much of the packaging to your releases and specifically Volcanic Sunlight do you have a hand in with being on a major label?
SW: Oh Always. I’ve always had most of my hands in the packaging. The only thing that I’ve gone through is that my ideas are always too expensive. I remember for my first album I wanted a twelve page booklet inside and they’re like you have enough money for six pages. Okay, okay, okay, I don’t want it in a plastic case, and they’re like you can only afford it. Each time I get closer to being able to do what I want. I spent probably a year trying to figure out what I wanted to do for this album cover. I knew at the end of the day that I wanted to keep it simple, I wanted to keep it super simple and I saw that this did it.
I love that your lyrical presentation reflects a joy and the rhythm of cultures of dance for me in the name record, I really feel good when I listen to Volcanic Sunlight. When I listen, the sounds of the words and how the nuances and approaches of each word really feels beautifully in the imaginative sense of how the tones string together from word to word. I really feel the love and internal illumination that springs forth on this record with the vocals. Do you approach your vocal parts like Billie Holiday and the other great vocalist where spontaneous and composed vocal melody is the center piece to how the songs transform and mold into shape or do the lyrical song concepts in the poetry become the root in how the music will be directed and constructed?
SW: No, in terms of Volcanic Sunlight particularly and most of my music in general, especially the later albums, it’s the music that determines what the words are and where they go. Even in terms of singing, I keep it super spontaneous and a lot of times I’ll sing as I’m making the music or the chord immediately after. It’s just gibberish and then I’ll try to find the words that fit the gibberish because as I’m playing with gibberish I may know where certain phonetic sounds should repeat or not repeat. So I’ll just find words that match my gibberish. The singing is spontaneous and that’s how you know where words go or don’t go. I think for the most part, the words are more important to the listener than they are to me. I find that because I hear a lot of people say but we can’t understand what you’re saying. I’m like who cares, it’s not about what I’m saying but how I’m saying it. [...] I’m singing and playing around with sounds and melodies before the words.
What have been some of your favorite albums, books and films from the last 5 years or so?
SW: Probably my favorite books that I’ve read this year [...] well I’m reading Faulkner right now, I’m reading Wild Palms, but before then I read a book called Habibi by Craig Thompson, a graphic novel, and that’s probably one of my favorite books of 2011. I also read a book called The Ninth Circus last year which I really liked. I’ve been reading a lot of old books as well, I always feel like I have a lot of catching up to do, you know. I know a lot of the America classics and now I’m learning a lot of the French classics that didn’t get across here in the states. There’s always old stuff to be read so I draw a melange of old and new. Music-wise I would say last year the album I probably listened to the most was PJ Harvey’s England album. Caribou, that was huge for me, the Caribou album. It was exactly what I wanted to hear. I like the The Age of Adz by Sufjan Stevens. I liked Lil Waynes The Carter IV a lot. It was pretty clear to me that it was his first ‘written’ album, meaning I knew that he was in prison writing, not like just free-styling off the top of his head and I could feel the energy that comes from being in solitary confinement in prison. I really enjoyed his sharpness on that album. I was doing a lot of listening online to like Jay Electronica. I had a lot of fun dancing and listening to Lil’ B. The hip hop group called the Death Grips. At the same time as all this I’m going through old PJ Harvey, I’m listening to Patti Smith, a lot of Serge Gainsbourg. A lot of old stuff I’m listening to too. New films, I had a bizarre extreme experience that I ended up liking this film Melancholia. I also liked Tree of Life. I saw Inception a few times and I had to see it a few times because I kept falling asleep, not because I didn’t like it but because I would close my eyes and listen to the music and I really love how the music works in that film. A film called The Separation, that’s a good a French film. There’s another film called L’incendies that I liked, that’s French-Canadian. With film I’ve been mostly going through old stuff, like this past year if I looked at the name I’d say its been the year of Cassavetes. I’ve watched so much Cassavetes again and again and again this year it’s crazy. The past week has been a very type of Jarmusch week but more so than that I’ve been going to French films, watching a lot of French films. I was also been watching a lot of Pasolini, Andrei Tarkovsky; the guy who wrote The Mirror. [...]
Saul Williams ‘Explain My Heart’ Official Music Video (Volcanic Sunlight)
All photography by Andrew Gura / andrewgura.com