Blade Runner, digging deep and the story behind one of the albums of the year.
Paul Woolford has mastered the art of not being pinned down. Throughout his career, the Leeds artist has had a number of big moments, from the surprise wonky hit ‘Erotic Discourse’ via festival slaying anthems like ‘Untitled’. Then came Special Request, a project indebted to the jungle, rave and breakbeat sounds he grew up loving on local pirate radio stations. Any one of these could have defined him as an artist, but they haven’t. Instead, he has always quickly moved on to the next thing. And so it is with Belief System, his latest and greatest album, and one that takes the Special Request sound in brave new directions.
There is still a visceral power to many of the tracks, and every single sound feels sculpted with the meticulous precision of a brain surgeon, but there is also a new, drum-less element of sound design that plays out like an imaginary movie. In part inspired by work done for the Blade Runner 2049 movie, it is another new direction in Woolford’s ever evolving discography. Few artists could release on labels as diverse as Hotflush, Aus Music, Planet E, Houndstooth, Edible and Hot Creations, but Woolford is confident and idiosyncratic enough to be one of them.
Ibiza Voice: Once you finish an album as epic as Belief System, does making the next move feel overwhelming?
Special Request/Paul Woolford: If I'd have stopped working, yeah. I took a few days but then just carried on, continuing to record with the same energy as before. The trick is to not sit on your arse and think, 'oh I can just come back to it in a few months’. If you do, you lose the momentum. The whole process has just lead onto so many things and new avenues that I'd be an idiot not to explore them in as much detail as possible.
Would they be Special Request things? The album feels like it could almost be a final chapter if you wanted it to be.
It's funny, at one point after Soul Music I could have shut it down, but if anything it's the other way: now what I want to do is really drag it forward kicking and screaming, really push the different sounds and bend them and stretch them. I'm already thinking about the next album.
Did you always know this one was going to be a 100 minute opus?
Yeah. I had a double album in my head, I knew it was going to be mental. I probably gave the label enough for a triple, but decided to edit it down as much as I could. When I listen to it, it's three movements: the way up, the rave intensity, then the drums get taken away and you feel suspended. But you can listen to the beatless things as a separate record. If you're going to give people that much music, it's good to approach it in a different way so it isn't always the same ride.
The length of the album pretty much goes against the current thinking that in the internet age no one has a long attention span, that shuffle rules and everyone just streams singles on Spotify.
If we as artists allow the market to dictate what we do all the way, where is it going to end up? With five-second tracks? People are more and more busy, smart phones fire more and more shit at them by the second, so people's attention spans are going to be so tiny that we have to combat that.
One thing that sticks in my mind is boxsets. If people's attention spans are so short, how can they watch seven or eight series and keep going back to it? I think the reason is the effort that’s put in. If you make the production and storyline super engaging, then people can deal with things that are way more in-depth.
I spoke to you in March and you seemed in a fairly nihilistic place. Are you still?
We absolutely have to go all out. I try not to read the news, but you can't help but absorb what’s going on in the world. It's fucking terrifying. It's worse than ever. As much as music is escapism, it has to grab you by the balls and be an experience that's worthwhile. People have less time now; more distractions, so if they read a book or listen to a record, it has to be fucking brilliant, or what’s the point?
What did you learn about yourself in the process of this latest album?
That's a hard question. I think I've learned that I can now realise maybe 60% of the things I want to be able to do, and I have never felt that before. And luckily, without sounding too dark, the closer I get to death, the more ideas I'm having.
So if Special Request is the sound that most represents you, why did you not start off by making this sort of stuff?
I've been delving for years, but it's not been released and has stayed on DATs and cassettes. I've always liked mad fucking synths. It just takes years for you to slowly build confidence and work out that it's OK to say exactly what you want to say, and that what you want to say doesn't have to fit in with what everyone else says.
Most artists have an insecurity about where they will fit in. [They're] very cautious and over careful sometimes, about association. Some people end up ruining relationships because they are so worried about the perception of playing gigs with this person or releasing a record with that label.
It must be a dangerous path to walk?
It can be quite crippling and I see it all the time. People send me tunes and I ask if they have more like that and they say they do, but it's not what they want to be known for. Fuck what you want to be known for, just send me the tunes. I want to hear every side of you.
More often than not, people wonder about where they fit into the market of the day. They make a few tracks and want to be on whatever the label du jour is. I get it. A lot of people make records for the sake of their diaries, but for those of us who make records because fuck everything, this is what we want to do and because we can’t do anything else, then to develop that confidence, you have to forget about perception and all that other shit and trust your own voice.
The people who have been the most innovative and impressive are people that have always gone to that extreme. The people who go, you know what, fuck everything else, this is what I want to do and I'm doing it. Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder, Richard James, Francis Bacon, Prince - they all started off in a place of fitting in to a greater or lesser extent, and then gradually became entirely their own force and the rest of the world didn’t matter.
Is that where the title, Belief System, comes from?
The main thing is that everything we do, if you don't believe in it, it isn't going to happen. That even extends to medicine. We put all our faith in medicine but you can change your brain chemistry with how you think, as placebos prove. If you don't believe in something and you think it isn't doing you any good, then there is a good chance it won't. The power of the mind is baffling. So the album's called Belief System because if the human race doesn't have belief then we're fucked.
Do you believe in anything outside music?
I believe in art. I believe in my family and friends. And that's about it.
Let's talk about the sound design you did for Blade Runner.
It was on the first trailer. I had an approach from a company in LA and it’s something that’s always been in the plan at some point, although I never thought they would come to me. I did a few bits they really liked and eventually it lead to Blade Runner 2049. I pitched for the full trailer itself, submitted loads of versions of something and it didn’t quite hit the mark for them. The day before the trailer came out, I woke up to an offer email that said, 'if you want to be included with this part, sign off on this or we'll get it re-made anyway.' Insane.
So what is next?
There's no stopping. There’s a full score for a film next year, and I’ve two or three Paul Woolford records to go now. One is coming out on Hot Creations. And another Special Request album simultaneously.
In a discography full of bold moves, Hot Creations seems a surprise home for your music?
It could be seen that way, but Hot Creations is the best home for this track even though it's different to everything they've done so far. The easiest thing to do it just exist in a certain safe way. But if you do that then you're allowing outside factors to dictate how you continue. I just want to entirely indulge every creative whim.
Special Request 'Belief System' is out now. Click here to listen/buy.