When we arrive at the studio of Tim Garbutt and Jez Willis, who together make up Utah Saints, it quickly becomes apparent that this studio is quite a treasure chest of dance music tech history that the boys openly admit to ‘not being used that much’.
There’s lots of rackmount gear surrounding the main workstation and underneath their DJ setup at the side of the room is a graveyard of Atari ST computers and monitors. Tim tells us about the duties they used to perform: “We’d have one connected to a Steinberg Midex + interface, which would add an extra four MIDI outputs. With 64 MIDI channels we could have all of our hardware constantly wired up. All of the audio would be hard-wired into our 48-channel Studiomaster desk so it would all be instantly available to use.”
We spot Ableton Live running on their main Apple Mac tower, so we ask if they have the same type of setup now in the virtual world. Jez replies: “We have a self-destruct-button approach, meaning that we don’t use templates or anything resembling a specific setup. We reset everything when we start a new track as it’s rare that we’ll do two tracks of the same type one after the other. I don’t know why it is, but we’ve always liked doing a complete mixture of stuff – drum and bass one minute, then down-tempo stuff with big strings the next. I’m sure that if we did use templates and so on we’d create a more coherent sound. One of the things that has definitely held us back in the past has been that nobody knew what we really did or what to expect. We had three big hits when we started which sampled from well-known vocals like Kate Bush and so on, but then the next track was quite different as it sampled the guitar riff from Slayer’s War Ensemble. So quite a contrast.”
It’s obvious that Jez and Tim aren’t shy of sampling heavier sounds, and it’s the second album, Two, that Jez has proud sampling memories of: “As far as we know, we’re the only act to get clearance for sampling Metallica’s Enter Sandman, and the cool thing is that it was during the time when their drummer, Lars Ulrich, was very publicly opposing Napster for letting users share their music. At the same time, Chuck D, of Public Enemy, was pro-Napster, and the track Power To The Beats, from our second album, had samples of both Metallica and Chuck D on it, which we thought made a nice statement.”
So it’s no surprise that Jez is currently quite excited about the recent collaborations of Korn and Skrillex, but it seems he might want more when he tells us: “I don’t think there’s enough sampling of metal. I feel like we come from a similar place to where Skrillex is coming from now, and we’d possibly be doing similar stuff if we started out today. When we originally started I was into my metal and industrial music and Tim was into his hip hop. It was the chaos of Public Enemy where we kind of met in the middle, really. We wanted that chaos mixed with the mischievousness of the KLF. The Young Gods were a big influence on us too. They sounded like a metal band but had no guitarist. They had vocals, drums and a sampler. They were loop metal!”
Jez goes on to say: “Because of our DJ mentality, we’ve always started with the instrumental track and then tried to find the main sample to fit with it, as opposed to getting the main sample hook first and building the song around it. Although it might seem a bit backwards, it seems better if we find a sample that works over a track that’s already got something about it than the other way round.”
Tim adds: “We find it hard to take someone else’s hook and make it ours. We prefer to take something that’s not a hook in someone else’s track and turn it into ours. I can hear it in a lot of sampled tracks when you can tell that the instrumental goes around the hook. I like the fact that we have to experiment with chopping and time-stretching to make the samples work with the existing track we’ve made.”
When we ask the guys about their approach to writing tracks they again refer to previous influences. Between them they answer: “We’ll spend four or five days throwing stuff at a track and end up with 40 or so tracks and a big noise. Going back to the influence of Public Enemy, we remember in an interview that they said they’d just keep throwing stuff into a track and maybe end up with only four bars of usable stuff. But that would end up being the basis of a good idea. So this is the way we work: creating a cacophony of stuff to weed things out from or grab a part of to use. It’s not a time-efficient way of doing things but it lets you explore different paths.”
At the time of writing, the latest remix of the Saints track What Can You Do For Me is getting regular radio play under the artist title of Utah Saints vs Drumsound & Bassline Smith.
Tim tells us how this came about: “The creation of that track has been going on for quite a long time. We already knew the guys and asked them to remix it without any labels involved and they sent us back their initial remix last summer. It was great, but was more of a club track that we actually played in our DJ sets. We’d also done a version and we proposed both of them to Ministry Of Sound. They liked certain bits from both but thought neither was strong enough on its own for a single. Although we’ve never done this before, we asked Drumsound & Bassline Smith for the stems of their remix so we could remix their remix of our original track. Then we spent a couple of weeks working on it, adding some strings, piano and so on.
“We also added the whole tempo-change element of it, really just to make it more of a Top 40 track and fit it into the shorter format. Then we went back to Ministry and they thought it would work, so that’s why it’s titled with the ‘versus’ as it’s not really just them doing a remix, it was a mixture of us both. It’s done really well on some of the specialist radio stations and Radio 1 have supported it too. I think it still might just be a bit too hard-sounding for the local stations to play in the daytime.
“It’s weird, as the kids today can happily hear a drum and bass record next to a Justin Bieber record and not think anything of it, whereas the older generation, who might also still be in charge of programming at some radio stations, still think drum and bass isn’t daytime radio music. It’s the same with dubstep, really.”
Although the guys are still very active in the music industry, we couldn’t resist asking them when the next Utah Saints album might appear… Tim smiles and replies: “It should be this year, but every day we’re in this studio during the week and then DJ’ing every weekend. We’ve also got the Sugabeat label that we run and we’re involved with the Bombstrikes label too, which just won two awards on Beatport for hip hop and funk track of the year. Labels alone are pretty much a full-time job and we’ve just signed up Drumattic Twins and Rory Lyons. But the plan with Utah is to get a third album out. We’re aiming to get between five to ten things together and then approach the labels.”
Jez interjects: “It’s a really good time for us right now, even though we’ve been going a long time we still feel like we can be part of creating music that’s interesting. Technically, we could always have gone for a more commercial route, and it may be stupidly idealistic but we’ve always wanted to just do stuff we’ve wanted to do. We’ve been stockpiling ideas for some time and today we’re in a position where people are a lot more broad-minded about music, which means we can now make an album with some tracks being loosely in a drum and bass style while others are in dubstep-style four-four and so on.
“The music we’ve been making for a long time will finally be able to slot in more easily now. What’s more, we’re also now on a great label – if we were on Ministry Of Sound ten years ago I’m sure we’d be a lot bigger now than we are, just because they are so pro-active and not reactive. They’ll also take risks, like they did with the current remix, as a lot of drum and bass stuff doesn’t go anywhere near the Top 40 –although, saying that, DJ Fresh has just had the first drum and bass number one and he’s on the same label.”
To get an idea about the newer tracks we ask if the new material is going to be as heavily sample-based from other people’s tracks as their earlier releases. Jez tells us about their current outlook on things: “Well, the singles have always been heavily sample-based but we’re trying to cast the net a bit wider now. You used to have to go to somewhere like HMV and spend money on almost a random selection of CDs, which is how the whole first album was done. You were kind of reliant on the person buying stock for the shop as they acted as an initial filter for you. But now you have everything online, so you can go a lot deeper on sources to sample from. We’ll still be heavily sample-based, but expect the sources to be a lot more obscure.”