When it comes to running a record label and gaining your particular slice of market share, you’d think that having worked for a major label would stand you in good stead. As Will Saul tells it, while his experience helped particular aspects of the running of Simple Records, it was chance that landed him success. Buying records from a disarmingly young age, his evolution towards that of mixing his tunes together was as sure as the passing of time. His first experience at a nightclub provided the catalyst for this, which in turn lead to his exploring production as well. It was a job at Sony though that pushed Saul into starting his own label. Disenchanted with the music industry as seen through the eyes of one of its major labels, he decided to leave and along with a few other employees gave birth to Simple Records. The plan was as plain as the label name suggests: to release quality music over and above any preconceived notions of genre. This initially meant Saul’s preferences at the time for breakbeat and jazz shone through, but within a couple of years, Simple was turning its sounds more towards house and techno. It was about this time Saul started Aus Music with Fink, a label that has in the past few years been capturing some of the brightest snapshots of club music coming out of the UK and beyond. Both of these labels have featured Saul’s own productions, often in collaboration with producers like Mike Monday, Tam Cooper, and October. Little White Earbuds sat down with Saul to talk about his labels, to quiz him on his new project, CLOSE, and to find out how winning an amateur DJ comp helped launch his career. He also mixed together our 166th exclusive podcast; truly mesmerizing and packed full of unreleased gems, it’s the perfect antidote for your weekend hangover.
Download LWE Podcast 166: Will Saul (89:41)
01. Cottam, “Lost In My Brain Fog” (Will’s Intro Edit) [*]
02. Grizzly Bear, “Sleeping Ute” (Nicolas Jaar Remix) [Warp]
03. Lukid, “Bless My Heart” [Werk Discs]
04. Reggie Dokes, “Black Thoughts” [Prime Numbers]
05. Linkwood, “R.I.P” [Prime Numbers]
06. Falty DL, “Stay I’m Changed” [Ninja Tune]
07. CLOSE Feat. Joe Dukie, “My Way” (Midland Remix) [!K7]
08. Lrusse, “Elevado” [*]
09. Youandewan, “What’s The Deal?” [Simple]
10. Aphrodisiac, “Song Of The Siren” [Nu Groove]
11. Bicep, “Courtside Drama” [Aus Music]
12. Andy Stott, “Luxury Problems” [Modern Love]
13. Move D, “To The Disco” [Electric Minds]
14. Appleblim & Komon, “Jupiter” [*]
15. Cromie & Sage Caswell, “Vines” (Kyle Hall Remix) [Peach]
16. Headless Ghost, “Roller” [*]
17. Lee Jones, “Not So Fast” [*]
18. Tiga, “Plush” (Âme Remix) [Turbo Recordings]
Glimpse, “True South” [Aus Music]
Shed, “You Got The Look” [50 Weapons]
19. Paul Woolford, “untitled” [*]
20. Sei A, “Take You There” [*]
21. Pearson Sound, “Crimson (Beat Ritual Mix)” [Pearson Sound]
22. Marcel Dettmann, “Landscape” [Music Man Records]
23. Walton, “Baby” [Hyperdub]
24. Bambounou, “Brim” [50 Weapons]
25. Dense & Pika, “Cartoon Heart” [Dense & Pika]
26. Leon Vynehall, “Step Or Stone (Breath Or Bone)” [3024*]
27. Minimal Man, “Consexual” [Guerilla]
* denotes tracks which, as of the time of publishing, are unreleased
I understand in terms of being a DJ, you’ve probably been doing it a bit longer than most.
Will Saul: Sadly probably true, yeah. [laughs]
Since you were eight years old, or something?
Yeah, I mean I’d buy records, in terms of cassettes, like when they were Jackson 5 or Rick Astley, or… my mum was really musical and made me try and play a lot of instruments. But I was saying to someone else recently that I didn’t have, like, a dad who was an amazing jazz collector or anything like that. I kind of got into music by recording top 40 and listening to the radio because there was no Internet when I was little. And I lived in the middle of the country in Somerset, and so until I was old enough to drive and get to clubs, there wasn’t really much of a musical world to immerse yourself in. I think one of the interesting things is that now everything is accessible by the internet in terms of musical history. Whereas when I was growing up, you actually kind of had to…
You had to piece it all together, didn’t you?
You had to piece it all together, you had to go to record shops, you had to sort of be there every week to be sure you got every record that came in that was of a certain type. It’s interesting now because I think, in many ways, it’s actually harder to get your own sound and niche because it’s easier to get everything, if that makes sense? So yeah, I got into it just by taping the radio and there was a record shop about ten minutes away. I grew up just outside Glastonbury, so it was full of prog rock and weird Vangelis soundtracks and stuff like that. So I was able to dip my toes into that quite early just through the accident of being in Glastonbury, near Glastonbury, where there’s a lot of people who listen to that sort of music and took it into the second-hand record stores that had listened to it, you know what I mean?
Yeah. So when did the notion of actually becoming a DJ come to you?
I guess not long after actually going clubbing for the first few times and actually seeing DJs and realizing that you could actually do more with music than just sort of collect it and listen to it. And that was pretty fascinating for me because I was like, wow, you can actually really combine music in that way and create more than just individual tracks. And so that was a revelation, really, at the time. I saved up enough money and got turntables, and not long after that, I bought a sampler and started figuring out how to make it.
So had you had any musical or classical training?
Yeah, I played piano for about seven years. Probably from the age of about seven. So I can and could read and write music on a very basic level.
That’s probably something that helps a lot, in some respects.
It does and it doesn’t, I think — to write. I really wish I’d continued playing the piano and got significantly better at it, but unfortunately, at age 13 or 14, girls and sport became much more interesting and exciting. And playing the piano wasn’t cool, so, you know, it’s one of my biggest regrets that I didn’t continue playing it throughout my teenage years. I’ve come back to it and had lessons over the years; I played the sax for a while, I played timpani, double bass. My mum was determined to keep pushing me into trying some sort of musical instrument. I don’t know really whether that has given me any sort of advantage in terms of the sort of music that I write, because it’s not overly complex, musically. Like, a lot of dance music isn’t, really, and a lot of the best dance music isn’t overtly complex. And that’s because you can write it quite easily on a few machines and the people that started writing it all those years ago weren’t necessarily particularly advanced, musically, in terms of their classical training.
So I did have some, but it didn’t last for very long and I’m not sure whether it has genuinely helped me to become a better producer. I think more you develop your own taste and sense of music in terms of what you like, and I think that shapes you as a person and a producer. I don’t know if I was a grade-A virtuoso on the piano whether that would mean I could write better.
Probably a lot more piano house, perhaps.
So you worked at Sony for a while, didn’t you?
I did, yeah.
So was that an after school job or after university?
During. During my degree, I did basic licking and sticking work experience at Sony for a couple of years. Between my second and third year, and then they offered me a job when I finished my degree, which I took and did for a couple years, and then left to start the labels.
For you, did that reinforce your love of music or work kind of the other way?
It was kind of the other way, actually. Yeah, it started to kill my love of music because it does become pretty much like any other product, with the major record labels. And that was part of the reason why I wanted to leave because I just thought this is really not what I had in mind, in terms of what I wanted. Don’t get me wrong, there is and always will be, I’m sure, a lot of passionate people that work within major record labels who are passionate about music. There are also a lot of people there that are there to make money and to do marketing in a context of whatever they are doing. So it’s not necessarily about a huge love of music. And it could have been any product, in many ways, to a lot of people that I was working with. So that and a psychopathic boss meant that I decided it was time to move on.
Did your time there in any way inform how you ran your label?
It taught me how to release a record, from start to finish, for sure. And also, because I was working at Sony International and you were taking UK products and releasing it all around the world, and you’re also taking records from other territories and releasing it in the UK, it kind of taught me the way the record labels build campaigns and promotion around a release. All of that stuff, so that was really valuable. And also I started the record labels initially with three other people who were all working at Sony at the same time. So again, I wouldn’t have been able to do it alone. We all put in a few grand, I sold my car. They were a bit older than me so they had more money, and I wouldn’t have been able to do that without those people involved at the start. So it was, on every level, invaluable in terms of enabling me to do the next thing I wanted to do.
So for you, what was going on in terms of production at that stage? Was Simple something that you were setting up because you essentially wanted to release your own music, or was there a wider vision?
Yeah, a bit of both, really. It was at the time when broken beat — I came from a hip-hop, broken beat, nu jazz sort of background. And it was very jazzy and I kind of hoped to maybe be able to take it more to the futuristic and techy level and yet still be soulful. And also take that rhythm a little bit more into the world of Detroit. But at the same time, we wanted to make it just a quietly eclectic label that was about releasing good music. So that was quite naive, in the sense that there wasn’t really a commercial thought behind that or whether it would work or not. And it didn’t, really, with the first five releases. And we were definitely about to go out of business, but luckily with the fifth release, we had an Australian act called Infusion remix it, and that sold really well and got a lot of licenses to compilations and kind of funded the next five releases, and that’s kind of how we rolled for the first 20 or so releases. You know, you get one really successful record and three or four that are much deeper.
Did that then become, like, a plan, to make sure that every five or so releases that there had to be a track that was going to…?
Sadly, I wish there was that much planning involved. No, it was always just about releasing whatever music we loved, and we often just had that lucky ticket, that record. And we did that every few releases, really. Only in the last sort of three to five years have I been able to plan it a little bit more in terms of having the experience to be able to get remixes to work on a commercial level and also work aesthetically. Also, you get to the point where you have a couple of good records in a row that people really connect to, then get the snowball effect of people wanting to release on your record label. And then, now we’ve got, with Aus, a really good group of artists who are all sort of blowing up in their own right. And that then creates an even bigger snowball of events and then just keeps rolling on. But having done it for quite a long while now and released a lot of records, that’s really hard to achieve. I’d almost say that it’s impossible to do it deliberately. You can get together a group of people that you like working together to begin with, and then the rest is luck. Not luck, but what will be will be. So it’s difficult to plan that, I think.
Who do you work on Simple with?
Simple has become pretty sporadic over the years, just because there’s only so much time I have to actually release music from other people, and we do about 10 releases a year. And if I tried to do 10 releases a year on both labels, I wouldn’t have much time to do anything else. So Simple has sort of been pretty dormant. Last year we released a few records by Sei A, Dusky, and October. This year we’re releasing an EP from a guy called Youandewan. And I think Aus has just become my focus over the last three years just because it sort of resonates with me as the sort of music that I like most…
But are the guys, the people you set up Simple with, are they still a part of the label?
Oh, no, no, no. I bought them out after maybe two years. Maybe eight years ago, yeah.
Oh, so it’s just you.
Yeah, and it wasn’t as conscious a decision as “Oh, I’m going to buy them out.” We just got to the stage where we probably released 10 singles, and we thought to actually take this to the next level, we would all need to put a little bit more time and commitment to it rather than releasing three or four records a year. That’s not enough to build that momentum, we realized. And they were all a bit older than me, having babies and had fulltime jobs when I was younger and wanted to do it full time and could supplement my living by working in record stores. And so at that stage, they were like well, why don’t you buy us out. Just try and give us the money back that we put into it, and that’s how it rolled.
And how about Aus, you set that up with Fink. How long does your friendship go back with him? Because he was actually working on some of your earliest material, wasn’t he?
Yeah, I met him at Sony, actually, before I even started the record label. So he was working across the hall from me, and we became good friends doing that, actually, just as he was literally releasing his first Ninja Tune album. So quite a long time ago now. And yeah, we just became good friends and have been really good friends ever since, actually. We set up Aus together in the sense that I wanted it to be his Sideshow stuff, which is his alter ego to Fink. But beyond that now, as his Fink career has taken off over the last five years, in terms of his singing, songwriting, and touring, he doesn’t really have anything to do with the labels on any level. He owns a little bit of the publishing company that sits with the record labels and publishes the music we release, but he’s never had anything to do with the A&R of the labels, other than being a second set of ears that I’ll send something to if I like. But he’s always been important to me, and I’ve always wanted to release his music, so he’s always been involved, loosely.
OK. With that, I mean you mentioned some of the releases you had last year on Simple. It seems like the two labels are kind of converging.
Yeah, not really deliberately. I guess partly, if I’m honest, I only have time to release enough from one label. But I also think that has more to do with the fact that as Aus started to take off with the early Appleblim stuff we’ve put out, Ramadanman, and that kind of stuff, the whole world of electronic music in terms of dance music kind of converged a little bit and all became a lot more eclectic — a lot of people doing different things within one genre. And it became a lot less genre specific, I feel. So kind of as a result of that, Aus was done for Fink and also Lee Jones, and it was always a bit more experimental and leftfield of Simple. And that was why I felt like it was the right home for the Appleblim stuff. But over the last three years, that has converged a lot more, and all of those guys that were writing that sort of music are sounding a little bit more house and techno. And the whole thing’s gone a bit like that. And it’s all house music.
Exactly. It’s almost like dubstep kind of happened for a bunch of dudes just so they could start making house music.
Yeah, exactly. So really we’ve just been lead by the way that the artists that we started working with have gone with their styles, you know? Like Midland, George FitzGerald, all those guys, we started working with them a few years ago, and as their sound has become a little bit more house-based, so has the label, really. So it’s not really a conscious decision, thinking this year we’re going to sound a little bit more housey; it’s just the way it’s taken shape.
You’ve collaborated with a fair few people. Your last one was October. How did that come about? That record is really cool.
Oh, thanks, man, I’m glad you like it. It kind of went a little bit under the radar, I think, for a lot of people, but that’s the way it goes. That came about through Appleblim, actually, because he’s one of my good friends, and I grew up in Somerset and moved back there two years ago with my partner. We had a little baby. And I just started thinking I’m 45 minutes away from Bristol now, and I started meeting people over there who he was friends with and sort of finding a social scene over there. I just hit it off with Jules [Smith], October, and said let’s make some music together and went from there, really.
OK. And your CLOSE project. When did that first start taking shape?
I think it started with my just thinking, right, let’s make another album. And in terms of it then turning into something that wasn’t just a Will Saul project, that kind of happened really organically over a long period of time. Because I’m doing the record labels, I can’t just sit down and go, right, I’m going to spend the next six months just writing music. I always spend at least two or three days a week running the labels in terms of all the admin that’s involved with that. So I think as the record started to develop and I started collaborating with people on that as well, partly I didn’t want it to be called a Will Saul album because I was working with other people and it didn’t feel right. But also, as it started to take shape, I didn’t want to release it on my own labels. I wanted someone else to release it. So maybe it could be a bit more ambitious and it was slowly developing and sounding a little bit more poppy at moments as well.
I wanted to send it out to other record labels, and at that point, I was playing around with the idea of calling it something else. I also thought, well, I’m sending it out to other record labels with no preconceptions and that it was not attached to me in any way to give it a completely fair shot. So why didn’t I call it something else? The name felt right, the actual name of the album, Getting Closer, came first, which was just because I was getting closer to a lot of different people during the writing of the album, in terms of collaborations and vocalists. And the name sort of, for me, felt like it touched on the sound of the album in terms of warmth, intimacy, soul, which is what I was trying to make it sound like. And the anonymous thing to begin with when I sent it out just came for exactly the reason I explained to you: I didn’t want anyone to have any preconceived thoughts about it. So then my experience with A&R kicked in; I was trying to create a little bit of an audio aesthetic around it in terms of doing a few remixes and giving it a little bit of a story and creating a website so that when I sent it out there was a little bit of intrigue. And that name also seemed to fit in that context, and slowly it kind of morphed into what it is now. But it certainly wasn’t a big, grand scheme. It just sort of developed into that, really.
In terms of the collaborations and the vocalists that you’ve got on there, you said you had quite a clear idea of what you wanted to do with the album and the feelings that were behind it. Did you have themes set out for the tracks? Like, guidelines for the vocalists to write their lyrics about certain things, or did you give them free range?
Not at all. We wrote sketches. Some of the sketches I wrote with Fink down in his studio and recorded his band, his drummer and bass player. That was how the early writing loops for a lot of the tracks started. We would then send out literally just drums, bass, and maybe a couple of chords as maybe a vibe out to vocalists, to Joe Dukie, to Charlene Soraia. And they would then send vocal ideas back. Sometimes we’d get, with Charlene, we’d get her into the studio. With Joe Dukie in New Zealand, that wasn’t such a possibility. Paul St. Hilaire, based in Germany, less easy. So with those guys, they would send it back, and we would then work on it further. But instead of working on it with Fink, I would take it into the studio in London that I used to share when I lived here with Tam Cooper because he’s a massive synth collector, and we’d get him to make the organic sounds a little bit more electronic. And we sort of developed it further at that stage.
I’d gotten to a point where I’d pretty much finished the album two years ago, and I wasn’t quite happy with it. It didn’t quite sound how I wanted it to sound. And at that point, it just sort of happened that my life was developing, moving down to Somerset, working with October on a couple of tracks. So it was almost like remixing tracks with other people. So that then got a fresh spin on a few of the tracks, which sort of made it feel right, made the album sort of come together. So it was a lot of layers of writing, changing, and tweaking, writing, changing, and tweaking.
Wow, so the album’s actually been a couple of years in the making?
Yeah, a good part of three years, actually.
Three years? OK, wow. So tell me about how the live CLOSE act works.
The live show has sort of been developed as a result of taking, as you now understand, a lot of disparate tracks, in terms of the way that they were produced and how they were produced. Me, then, setting that down into Ableton and kind of breaking them down and stripping it out and making it playable in a live context. I work with a drummer, a guy called Al Tourettes, who also releases as Al Tourettes. He’s a brilliant drummer. I’ve been working with him for a number of months to sort of reinterpret the tracks from a drum perspective. And then there’s a whole audio-visual show, which is me and him behind a huge gauze screen. And then there’s lighting behind us and in front of us and a lighting engineer. There’s an hour’s worth of footage filmed.
The concept behind that story was set in the future, the end of the world. A girl travels from Scotland to London via a weird, dilapidated bus through Sheffield, old arcades and ruins, so she’s trying to find some humanity left. That’s the narrative. It’s very cinematic, beautifully shot, and that is then brought to life so that with the lighting behind and in front, if you don’t light us from behind, you can’t see me or Al at all. If you do back-light us, you can see us, and we sort of come into the picture. And also, with the front and back lighting, a lot of it becomes kind of holographic, and things start to sort of move around in terms of your perspective. So it looks weird and futuristic and cinematic at the same time, which is kind of how the visuals guys listened to the album and that was their take on how they thought it should be seen.
What do you do, then, about the vocalists? Do you have anyone perform with you?
No vocalists yet as it is a bit of a challenge just because we’re working with people who are in different parts of the world, all got their own album or projects or stuff like that. So it’s difficult to get them to commit to shows. So I think we will do some shows with Charlene, just because she’s based in the UK and is the easiest to get a hold of. But hopefully it doesn’t necessarily need the vocals because of the show and the narrative and the story and the way it looks. You can kind of just go and look at it and hopefully be blown away by it in the same way that you would go and see a short film.
OK, cool. I was just wondering, you know, when I was a teenager and I was growing up, I used to religiously read Muzik Magazine, and I saw somewhere that you won their Bedroom Bedlam mix contest.
That must have felt like a huge achievement.
That was a big deal at the time. And that was really important, actually. Because at the time, that was when I was just starting to DJ. And it was really difficult to get a foot in the door on any level. And it was before I started the record labels. And yeah, it just meant that when you sent out a CD for promotion, whatever you could stick in that little bit of press cutting and they might book you for a warm-up show. And it actually worked in the sense that I got warm-up shows at Fabric and…
Yeah, because in that day and age, Muzik Magazine was a pretty big deal. Music magazines had big circulation, and if they could put Bedroom Bedlam after it, then kids would have probably seen it or heard of it. And it definitely got me gigs. I don’t know if I actually still have it, and I really wish I did. I’m sure I must still somehow, somewhere. But yeah, it was strictly on vinyl, so I practiced and played that mix and recorded it, and if you fucked up you had to stop it.
Stop it at the 45-minute mark, it’s like, arghhh!
The number of times I did that would terrify you. So yeah, I do remember that mix very well. In fact I can hear bits of it just popping in and out of my head right now. So yeah, it was actually a revelation when I started, again, when I became good friends with Fink, and he was really good on Cubase. So at the time, you could fuck up a mix, stop at that point, start from that point, and edit it together. But that Muzik comp was three or four years beforehand, when I hadn’t really gotten into music production. So it was one take, and that was it. I kind of miss that, in a way, actually.
In terms of establishing yourself with a name, were you part of a crew or a collective that were putting on parties?
I was putting on a lot of my own parties, just small things in and around Soho at the time. I ended up living in South London and commuting out pretty much from my second year at University onward. So then because I was doing work with friends at Sony, I was kind basing it around Soho a lot. So we would just do little parties at Bar Rumba for many years, just like an early evening thing on a Friday.
What can we expect from you over the next year?
From Aus, they’re just going to keep coming faster, actually. We’ve got one from Leon Vynehall called Brother/Sister, which just came out. Then I’ve got one from Komon, who records a lot with Appleblim in the past as Komonazmuk, a killer 12″ from him. And then into the autumn, we’ve got an EP from Krystal Klear and another one from Dusky. Then we’ll be back into the Midland/George Fitzgerald cycle. And then on Simple we’ve got more stuff from Sei A and Youandewan. So yeah, there’s lots and lots of stuff coming out on the labels. For the CLOSE project, there will be another single with Fink singing probably in September.
So do you see your CLOSE project as something that’s going to be more album based?
Exactly that, yeah. It’s not really me trying to re-brand myself in a Pearson Sound way; it’s just, I guess, my album thing enables me to collaborate with people and do more poppy stuff, vocal stuff. I’m kind of yearning now to write just some really tough, clubby stuff over the next six months to a year just because I spent the last three years going into worlds with reverb and deepness and home-listening vibes. Now I just want to write some really tough, uncompromising stuff. So yeah, that’s the immediate plan, in terms of in the studio. I might start doing some production work for other people too. I’m doing a few bits and bobs, hopefully, over the coming months, which I’m not sure I can actually talk about because they haven’t really been finalized, but stuff for Ninja, for some vocalists that they’re looking at working with. So I’m going to probably try and just start producing some bits and pieces for them. And I’d love to maybe DJ a little bit less and produce music for other people in the long run, but whether or not that happens or not, who knows?