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“The human race has no chance. We are inconsequential in the grand scheme. So go full-pelt and let’s just see what emerges.” Things get deep as Kristan Caryl meets Paul Woolford for a chat about his varied musical output, production techniques and motivation.
On Friday, as Special Request, Paul Woolford releases his entry into the Fabriclive mix series. It will kick start what is sure to be a busy year that promises not one but two new albums, amongst other things. These alternating periods of calm and fervent activity have often defined the Leeds man’s career, as have unpredictable releases that cover plenty of ground from house to techno to jungle. It’s a bold and brave way to work that often puts him at odds with the zeitgeist – and occasionally with his own fans – but is a long game strategy that means he is arguably even more vital and interesting an artist now than he was when he debuted in 2002.
In a long conversation in his hometown, we touch on myriad things from his unpredictable musical nature to the influence death has on his work via pirate radio, piano bangers and the pitfalls of management.
Attack: I wanted to talk about how you seem to go through a lot of career cycles very quickly. You’ve done piano bangers for Hotflush, elegant techno for Planet E, jungle as Special Request, and all in a couple of years.
Paul Woolford: Everything overlaps. I think you could think these are all different things, different scenes at different times. But they’re all just alternate sides of the same coin. A lot of people view engagement with music from a media narrative perspective. We’re told by websites what to expect over the year, and what is passé. People allow themselves to be dictated to. We’ve all heard people say, ‘Well, this is in now, then in another year it’ll change and I’ll play something else.’ Why not just make and play whatever you like, from any time, in the best way you know? Do it your own way.
A lot of people view engagement with music from a media narrative perspective. We're told by websites what to expect over the year, and what is passé. People allow themselves to be dictated to.
Everything I do – and the different things you have mentioned – are purely things that I feel. I still produce plenty of techno that I use in gig situations, and plenty of more esoteric stuff, but I don’t release everything I produce. Far from it. Jungle is only one part of what Special Request is, and I’ve been into that since it was developing rapidly from hardcore. And hardcore itself, before that change, and the predecessors of that. Techno is a part of everything that I do, in its own way, and it’s the same with house music. Hip-hop is right at the centre as well.
They all intersect at different points. I know people like to identify with something specific, at a specific point in time when the media throws up arrows at the sound du jour, and I understand that. But my relationship with it is not that I see things, labels and scenes and want to be involved with them because of that, I‘m just doing what I feel at all times.
Hard to argue with that. If anything, you joined Hotflush, for example, after its popularity peaked.
It’s funny how people are about those records. The Hotflush releases caused havoc. Very few things are as effective as the archetypal ‘piano banger’ if they’re done right. And I mean effective on both a club and emotional level. The reason I make them – and some of them bring tears to my eyes – is because of records like ‘Sueno Latino’ and DFC Records, an old Italian label. And records like Neil Howard ‘Indulge’, ‘To Be Or Not To Be’ and lots more. The piano is an incredible instrument. For reaching a certain level in a DJ set, there are few other things that work in such a way. But they have to be deployed sparingly.
They’re an instant injection of euphoria.
For sure, and there’s a place for everything. I could play the darkest music for hours and hours, and really enjoy it, but there has to be some light eventually. Those records are so direct.
How do these leftfield link-ups come about? Do you often tout your finished records around?
I try not to. I have a small circle of people that I trust and I tend to keep within that. Occasionally I have conversations about projects with various A&Rs and that is also part of keeping my ear to the ground generally, so it’s not always within the context of signing something. All of the people that I rate and communicate with regularly do what they do incredibly well. There’s actually very few record labels that can properly put a record away. And by that, I mean release it, work it properly on the PR side, and if it gets real traction, move it further along in the correct manner. Those labels are few and far between.
I guess Carl Craig is one of them.
Carl Craig is someone I always wanted to connect with. I bided my time for many years after making a connection through a mutual friend. I waited until I had something I thought he would be into, and the first one I sent he took six hours later, which blew me away. Then I sent him another 12 and it was over a year until he signed the next one. The process nearly broke me mentally because I had to work through every possible self-doubt during that time. It really helped me out in the long term. Carl is basically my mentor in many subtle ways. Our conversations have influenced me for life. I constantly have one ear in permanent Planet E mode in case something comes out that is a close fit.
Carl Craig is basically my mentor in many subtle ways. Our conversations have influenced me for life.
Ultimately, you just have to do what you think is right. People aren’t going to like it all the time. They’ll come in and out, but if what you do is from the heart, then fuck what anyone else thinks. Most experts in any field, say science, they have to come from a position of authority to pass judgement, yet in music it’s just anyone who can write. You can be on the end of reviews from people who know nearly nothing about it that really throw a spanner in the works. Look at Richard James, on the release of Drukqs he got slaughtered. But it was an incredible album. It was almost his familiarity that put people off. They were all asking where the innovation was. Are you joking? You have to be kidding. It still is an incredible album. An internal world. Really, he retired from the public realm after that for many years.
That’s the classic dichotomy: having an identity vs evolving your style.
But look at Warhol. Look around you [we’re sat in the KMAH Radio studio, half of which is used by local artist Nicolas Dixon], all this work is undeniably him. They are all versions of what he does, but nobody else’s work looks like that. How can you get away from that? Look at Rothko. It could only have been him that made those paintings. People want you to develop but they don’t at the same time. They want you to change to a degree that is just right for them. But fuck them, you can do what you want. You can establish an identity, evolve it, destroy it, resurrect it, alter it, obscure it, decide you want a second, or a third, and do whatever you like. Nobody is in charge but you.
If the criticism is justified and factually correct, then fine. But somebody wrote about a record of mine called ‘Mother & Child’ with a sub-text that accused me of being cynical and creating something big and emotional purely as careerism, but the truth is that record is about my adoption. It could not possibly have come from a more personal place. I’m in a place in my life where I’m taking stock. I’ve been surrounded by death, so what I’m doing is looking at what’s important. I’m looking at how much time I have left with my family, I’m weighing up that every time I put something out I don’t want it to be obscure and disappear, I want it so that in 15, 20, 30, 50 years – and hopefully beyond that – people will look back and say, ‘That is a great record.’ If I was a sculptor it would be much easier – you go and work in bronze or something like that because it can’t be destroyed. But we have to create something that will last beyond the ideas in your head. I love bonus beats and DJ tools and I’ll always do them, but I also want to make things that will make other people feel the hairs on the back of their neck stand on end. Goosebumps.
Does being surrounded by death impact you in the studio? Do you try and cheer yourself up by making happy music, say?
If anything, it goes the other way. Things come out darker. It makes me more introspective. It made me retreat into myself. Part of the reason I’ve been quieter recently is that I’ve been doing these two albums, but the biggest part of it is that I just stopped communicating with people on a visible level. That has changed recently, but the indulgence of making an album is a luxury, yet it can be very isolating as well.
So has music making been good therapy, or just a way to pass time?
When you make something you feel you’ve been trying to make for 25 years, it’s elation. But it’s therapeutic irrespective of if you get to an apex like that. You go, ‘Ah fucking hell, of course,’ and that’s a weird feeling, but I have managed to get there a number of times. The first time was four years ago. It’s an elusive moment that is the most perfect point in the process. After that point, when it’s released, it’s not yours, you have to forget about it.
Only four years ago? So ‘Erotic Discourse’ wasn’t one of those moments, despite the fact it still does the business today?
That wasn’t something I was trying to do. It just happened. It was an accident, I was just muting channels on a remix. I read a lot of books about artists, musicians, film directors and so on and one thing I have started to spot regularly is that there are people that try and conceal their good fortune in creation, and try to spin it as though everything is part of the plan. Those people end up looking like bullshitters, because every last one of us, we are all just trying to make as much of a difference as we can whilst we are on the earth for such a small amount of time.
every last one of us, we are all just trying to make as much of a difference as we can whilst we are on the earth for such a small amount of time.
The human race has no chance. We are inconsequential in the grand scheme. So go full-pelt and let’s just see what emerges. And if we, by some accident of chance, create something that sounds or looks great, well it’s a touch. Francis Bacon would have a painting almost 80-90% finished, get back from being on the piss all afternoon, throw a blob of paint at the canvas and in that split-second, that would decide the fate of the piece. Sometimes the act of throwing the paint would land on the canvas in such a way that it completed and locked in the form. Most of the time it ruined the painting and he then destroyed the canvases. To take such a chance means that he is looking for something else, something out of the ordinary. You only find things out of the ordinary by keeping up the process of work. So as much as I say it’s an accident, the conditions were designed and in the right place. What’s the expression? Inspiration finds you working. You’re not gonna get anything done if you’re not in the room trying.
The press release for the Fabric mix says: “The success of [‘Erotic Discourse’] led Woolford to question the structures and significance of the music industry, and the outcome of this questioning was a fevered period of recording that has not stopped since.” So the questioning came about because your biggest break came by accident?
The questioning came from observing how management use opportunities from multiple angles. Making the most of a situation is a good thing, but all managers are working for their primary bread-winner first, and everything is considered through the context of being funnelled towards that act. You become a device in a wider situation where there are benefits, but there are also drawbacks because your own hard work is co-opted into different realms. You find yourself pushed and pulled. These type of situations can be extremely limiting because they shape perception, so you have to be in control at as many of the first points of contact as possible. Even now, that record, it doesn’t sound like anything else. That’s the maddest thing. Records come out that sound different initially, then rapidly they get normalised and in years to come they sound quaint or they become a novelty. That one didn’t. It’s still bizarre. So stark. Maybe once a year I might play it on one of those insane gigs…
Are you free from management now then?
Yeah, I resist because you don’t know what conversations people have. They say all the right things to you, then what they say to other people to get the things they want is totally different. These things can often be at odds with your view, so you are a pawn in someone else’s game. I did start to have some interesting conversations about it over the last few years, and with people I respect, but I need somebody that has real weight but that is not compromised by their other work.
So the Fabric mix.
Yeah, a long time coming, and something I’m really proud to have contributed to. They had floated the idea to me last year, and we discussed it in vague terms. At Christmas they said let’s do it, you’ve got three weeks. So then it’s panic stations. It was pretty much done live with a tiny bit of post editing. And you can hear that – at one point I just pulled out of the record then banged it back in. I think people are over wanting everything to be perfectly mixed by a computer these days.You want to actually feel the human touch.
Did you have the club in mind when you mixed it?
Yeah, I don’t think you can get away from that. I was thinking about Room 1. That booth is fucking awesome, you’re just cocooned in there and it feels cosy. Room 2 is great also, but for sheer comfort, that booth in Room 1 is something else. But even more than that, the silver tins [the CDs come in] with the embossed artist name really mean a lot to me. It’s an artefact, something in your hand.
Do you still listen to pirate radio stations?
They do exist, but it’s more on a community level now. PCR was the first one I heard, broadcast from Bradford. Midweek between six and eight they had an Asian community show. What blew me away was the ravey shit, but then they had stuff that was totally community-minded. It was like local radio, Radio Aire but for a different community. How ironic and stupid that when these places got raided, they confiscated the transmitters and then gave people community service. Those people had been serving the community all the time.
How ironic and stupid that when pirate radio stations got raided, they confiscated the transmitters and then gave people community service. Those people had been serving the community all the time.
When did you first hear it?
I went into the kitchen at my parents’ house, I’d had Radio 1 on upstairs, Jeff Young I think, and I wanted it on in the kitchen. I was re-tuning the dial and just found 104.9FM and thought what the fuck is that? I raced upstairs to put a tape in and record it. I was running round the house, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was just so energetic, these kids smoking weed and playing records on +8 and mixing them in breakneck fashion. When you’re a similar age, 15, 16, you can feel how much energy there is and you can tell they’re doing something outside of authority. The power and drive from that is something I can’t… it blows my mind.
Does anything inspire you like that now?
Occasionally I’ll hear someone in a club. Actually, the last time I got really blown away by something it was a 400-year-old painting. It just makes me think that we’ve got to make our mark. Everything we do… life is so fragile. Tomorrow you might not be here, so everything you do is so important. That makes me more and more determined. It’s important to get out there and engage with culture, and not just relate to the structure of our scene, you have to look outside of that, and not just replicate what you already know.
So where is that line between revivalism and revolution? Is that a part of your thought process when making music?
That’s a constant. You’re always aware that you don’t wanna just replicate something, but then at times you have to forget that, because ultimately there is nothing original, anywhere. All we’re doing now is combining, but still you have to try and do something else. There is a lot of sensory pleasure in just creating something that gives you a certain feeling. It’s useful to switch off your thought process as much as possible and just flow.
Does that mean there might be a natural end point to Special Request?
Not at all. I think it would be easy to think that if you see it as purely some kind of revival thing. Special Request is about many different strands that meet in the middle, not just jungle. That’s where some people have got it wrong. There were tracks on Soul Music that were way beyond that, and also on the Modern Warfare material on XL. I even had someone emailing me complaining about one of the remixes not being a jungle track – the fucking nerve! Although I did say to the guy that I respected his passion. The scope has opened up way beyond what you have heard already, and in tandem with that, so it’s grown into something wider, and heavier. The sound goes from everything you have heard already to way more. You’ll hear that on new EPs and the next album, and on another project that’s a collaboration.
With that broadening, does it mean Paul Woolford and Special Request might converge?
No. Some of the SR things coming this year are so radically different from even dance music. Sonically, they are in a different world. There’s still many things borne from the references that people will know already, but the soundtrack-edge things that were on Soul Music, like ‘Descent’, have been expanded into their own realm.
So what, in your mind, defines Special Request material?
It’s quite a dark, illicit place. It’s a certain thing I can’t articulate.
I have some questions about how you get the Special Request sound. Are there new technologies that do the classic, vintage sounds better than the old technology? Did you have to go by the original gear?
I was using the E-mu samplers and old gear before Special Request anyway. I’ve been using them and Akais since the 1990s. But then, the jungle side, it was about technique, learning how to make things in the certain way that those old tracks were made. There is a technique to that. Everyday you’re learning, even just wiring stuff up wrong, you discover other things. I try to be open to every possibility every second of every day.
Why use that gear at all?
Having a bit of hardware in the room gives you a bit more vibe when you’re using it. Also, when I used the E-mus I don’t use them hooked up to editors. Right now it’s hooked up to a Maselec MLA3, a Manley EQ, three compressors, the desk, then I just fire things through it. I use it to colour things I put into it. You can’t get that colour any other way really.
on the new Special Request album, some of the recordings I did when I was 17. My parents had the tapes stored and going through some of them, a lot of it is rubbish but occasionally there is some great stuff.
Are there hugely inefficient workflows with this old gear that are still worth putting up with?
Definitely, but I have to be in a certain state of mind. Sometimes I can spend a whole week and never create an end point. Just days of patching and plugging shit in and recording it all. You record hours at a time, pause it then come back later and start recording again, then the week after you have an archive and its about constructing from that.
Actually on the new SR album, Belief System, some of the recordings I did when I was 17. My parents had the tapes stored and going through some of them, a lot of it is rubbish but occasionally there is some great stuff. One of them made itself the centre of a track on the album. It’s demented. It’s a Yamaha CS5, a drum machine and some other bits, all through the internal filter on the CS5 and into a four-track. At the time I was failing to make what I wanted. It was really frustrating, I was just pissing about but listening back years later, some of it sounds incredible.
Sampling them and rebuilding them now is weird, it’s like fucking around with your own musical genes. Like re-editing your past. When you first hear house music and start to make it, you want to sound like Chicago or Detroit but as the years go by, you want your music to be about the here and now, your surroundings and where you live. Listen to Aphex and it’s Cornish. Look at Warhol and it’s New York.
So what is Leeds?
Whatever you can find in it. I’ve done a load about [north Leeds suburb] Adel’s history. It’s where I live now and I used to knock about round there as a kid. There’s been some weird shit going on there in the past.
How does that feed back into the music?
The titles, the atmospheres in them. One new EP [on Houndstooth] will be called Stairfoot Lane Bunker and the cover is a picture of the bunker. There are a lot of conversations about what the bunker there has been used for. It’s Ministry of Defence land and we went in as kids. It goes down a few levels. Apparently it was a document store during war time, but now it’s blocked up and alarmed, which suggest there is more to it. Online you can research it and people say there are tunnels that lead from there to the Civic Hall in Leeds so all the bigwigs could fuck off out the way when the air-raids started.
In another part there are woods and Adel crag. We used to see all types of weird shit there on a Friday night. People in robes having fires. When you’re that age, it seems serious and sinister, and if you take acid up there it really does. So I can listen to pirate radio until I’m blue in the face, but that’s only a starting point for Special Request. After a certain point, music about other music is boring, it becomes an exercise, so I’m looking for external things.
Finally, how do you feel about your music being used in fashion shows?
Anything that shows a record has cut across a cultural context is a good thing in my book.
Is it stuff you make for them specifically?
Not yet, although I’ve had some interesting offers. Music has its own life outside of the context it was intended for. You cannot protect it from this fact, it has a life that its creator is not in control of once it’s released. Fendi used one of my recent records for their SS17 women’s collection during the runway and at the end, Karl Lagerfeld did his turn at the end of the catwalk right at the climax of the record. Pretty surreal. I watched a live stream with my mum and dad. I was like, “Fucking hell, did that really just happen?”
And it’s a way of earning money when not much is about, right?
It is. There is money in syncing and in remixing. And it’s important to say that there is nothing wrong with that. People need to accept that. The age-old cliche of the starving artist is something that is a useful tool for keeping artists from asking. How many times have you read those words “we can’t offer you any money but it’ll be great for your profile”? Tell them to fuck off. We have an industry that has been pulled apart by huge corporations taking our content and monetising it for themselves at pathetic rates for artists, so we have to find other ways of funding our endeavour.
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