Saul Williams gained notoriety when he starred in the 1998 indie film Slam – winner of the Grand Jury Prize for a Dramatic Film at Sundance that year – which tells the story of a young man from Dodge City balancing his aptitude for poetry with the harsh reality of the social strata he lives in. The multi-faceted poet, musician and actor has since published five books and released seven albums, the latest of which is Volcanic Sunlight. Prior to his upcoming gig in Montreal (a city Williams has a fondness for), he took the time to talk with Rover about his life as an artist, the meaning of time, and his future hopes for Lady Gaga.
Rover Your 2007 album The Rise and Inevitable Liberation of Niggy Tardust! was kind of a game changer as far as music distribution is concerned. It was released on the internet for free, with the option to pay for a higher quality download, prior to being released on any physical format. What was your experience of releasing an album independently in this manner?
Williams At the time of Niggy Tardust I think I was probably amongst the first five artists to put out an album that way. It was perfect. It was perfectly timed and it also matched very much the idea of the music in that we wanted a sound that didn’t fit a box: a completely experimental approach to making music. It was great to have an experimental outlet as far as sharing it as well. So it was amazing – it was an amazing experience. Since then, I would say maybe a million groups, literally, have done the same thing. So I don’t know what the experience would be like this time around, but at the time of Niggy Tardust, it was tremendous.
Rover Do you think the success was largely due to the timing, or is this something you’d consider doing again?
Williams I would definitely release something independently again. Yeah, definitely independently. Of course. Would I give it away for free? I do that all the time. Me, I think that giving it away for free was a gesture. We only pay for what we want to nowadays, and that goes for albums that aren’t given away for free, we all know that.
Rover You have a background as an actor, performance poet, musician… Has being multifaceted furthered your career in each of the aforementioned, or do you feel that dividing your time has slowed you down or made things more difficult?
Williams Overall, I would say that it’s helped and I would also say that the facets are not so different. In acting class I remember doing a lot of improvisation, and I feel like those improv exercises have led to my career and I’m kind of making it all up as I go. I think anyone has the capacity to write. I was given an opportunity to publish a book. From that came other opportunities to publish. And once you’ve figured that out and how to do that, [you get] a clear beginning, a middle, and an ending and all that stuff. That applies to everything: If you’re making a film, making an album, it’s all about clear beginnings, middles and endings. And in terms of music, me, I’m just picky. If there are things I want to hear then I can’t rely on other people to create them, because if I do then often times I’m disappointed and really want to hear those things. So I’m stuck making music sometimes just to satisfy a craving. Which is no different from how a self-made chef operates when they really have a taste for something and can’t find it anywhere. Or they want it fresh, so they learn how to make it. That’s how I am with music.
Rover Are you aware how large of an influence the film Slam was on a generation of spoken word artists?
Williams I think through travelling I’ve been made aware by a number of young poets around the world who have surprised me at poetry readings by knowing the words to poems. It’s not something I think about a lot. [But] I guess I could say I’m aware of that.
Rover How was your experience of Nine Inch Nails audiences when you toured with them as opposed to your own?
Williams The cool thing about opening for Nine Inch Nails was essentially that we knew we’d have to win them over every night and we got kind of competitive. Me and my man CX KiDTRONiK, it was he and I who did that mostly and that was fun. That’s fun to be put in that position. I went through that touring with Rage Against The Machine as well, it’s like, fuck, I think Rage had harder fans than Nine Inch Nails. I think it was a fun challenge. But overall I felt like most of the fans were open. I enjoyed it.
Rover Are there any artists you’ve yet to work with that you’d like to?
Williams There are a lot of people who I think are cool. I think I would mostly get in the way of people that I think are cool. I don’t want to mess it up. I love PJ Harvey a lot. I would love to be a fly on the wall when she works – I don’t know if I need to work with her in order to do that. Same thing with Thom Yorke; same thing with tons of people. I love how they work, or at least their output, and I would love to see how they work. Same thing with poets. Actors are great in terms of collaborating. I’ve never really had a collection of “I can’t wait to do something with this person’ people. The only time I think about that is with directors and producers. I like music producers. I like all their little signature sounds. Anyone from a Nigel Godrich to Farrell. There’s lots of interesting producers.
Rover What was it like working with Rick Rubin?
Williams That was tremendous. That was a childhood dream come true. Rick Rubin produced pretty much the soundtrack of my childhood, and so when I had an opportunity to record with him, I was super-intimidated by him. Because I knew, with Public Enemy and Run DMC, that was enough for me to be intimidated. It was surreal. But at the same time it was interesting because Rick pretty much left me alone to work, and then I would show up with an idea and he’d be like, “That’s not really a song, that’s a chorus. Come back to me when you have 20 songs.” ‘Cause that’s what Rick did. He told me, “You’re a great writer,” then he handed me The Beatles’ White Album and said, “This is songwriting. Learn the difference. When you have 20 songs, we’ll go into the studio.”
Rover Time seems to be a recurring theme in some of your early work. Why is that?
Williams My birthday is on a leap year. You can’t be born on that date without becoming a student of the calendar and that’s why it’s like that. That’s my fascination with time. I just turned 10 this year. Everybody else on the planet experiences having a birthday every year, not every four years. I could celebrate every year, but I don’t have a birthday. So you start to see through time and think, “What does this mean? Who created this? Ah, Pope Gregory. what’s the Gregorian calendar? What’s the Catholic Church have to do with how we practice time? Oh, what does it just mean to be 2012 years since the death of Christ? Does time start at the birth or the death of Christ?” It raises a lot of questions to be born on a date that doesn’t exist most of the time.
Rover Yoruba also seems to be an influence on your work. What introduced you to Yoruba?
Williams That’s just one of many things I’ve stumbled upon. Like any other thing. Like great writers. I stumbled across Yoruba the same way I stumbled across Kafka. My father was a Baptist minister, so religions also stand out. If you grew up in a household where your parents were religious and they start telling you that only people in this religion are going to heaven, if you’re smart you’re going to think, “Oh wow, my parents are crazy. What the fuck is wrong with them? Why would they think that only people on this side of the street would make it to heaven, and what the fuck is heaven? And does that have something to do with Pope Gregory and that I don’t have a birthday?” So, Yoruba, like Hinduism, Judaism and Islam are all religions that I’ve looked at and said, “Oh, what’s this about?” as I’ve dissected my reality and encounters.
Rover Have you learned any good lessons from people you’ve worked with?
Williams As a performer, aside from the act of performing itself, you learn many lessons all the time. My biggest lesson came from a painter friend of mine. Right around the time that I was finishing up Niggy Tardust, my friend was telling me about this painting he had sold. He was telling me that when people met him, they didn’t want to meet this super-nerdy practical guy that he was – they wanted to meet the eccentric painter that they thought he was when they looked at his paintings. So that’s what he was when he met them. So he could place that price tag and they’ll say, “Of course we’ll help.”
I was meeting with Jimmy Ivy and he was like, “Yo, remember that every business meeting that you go on as Saul Williams is a performance.” And you know what? That changed my whole relationship to meetings. I started having a lot of fun at the business side when I started thinking of meetings as a performance too.
Rover Just how big of a fan are you of David Bowie?
Williams I’m a fan of Bowie and his music. I’m even more of a fan of his swagger and how he shook the music world. How he transformed himself from folk singer to David Fuckin’ Bowie. I think that’s really interesting. I like the idea of how one can play with media. It’s the same thing we’re talking about, that idea of performance stretching beyond the stage. That’s performance art. Bowie’s a performance artist.
Rover Some of your work is very political. Over the years, pop culture seems to have moved away from embracing works that are overtly political. Has this made it difficult for you to persevere as an artist?
Williams I’ll say this as a citizen of the United States. I know that in terms of US/American culture that I’m not a big fan of popular culture, of what’s happening right now, per se. I see celebrity love. I see people in love with the idea of celebrity more than I see people in love with the idea of art. I see and hear stuff that doesn’t sound original in any way and I try to figure out why people like it sometimes. And I think people like it because they know it’s a famous person singing. Sometimes I can’t figure it out. The culture feels watered down, and maybe it’s partially the reality TV thing and the quest for celebrity, and the lack of social education beyond what you’re exposed to; what they put on the news. Look at something that’s popular in America, like the Huffington Post website, and the thing that stands out if you go on the US version is that the world news is hidden in the “more” section. It’s not one of the main bars on top of the screen. You have to search on the side to find world news, which freaks me out. That’s what happened when AOL bought it, which to me says everything. I don’t know what attracts or detracts people from my work. I don’t keep count of who’s listening, who’s paying attention, who’s buying and who’s not, fully. I do concerts and I’m aware of when it’s a full house and when it’s not, but I think all of that goes in cycles. But even the thing that I’m saying I find distasteful – I find goes in cycles. I think we’re on the downshift of a pretty gross cycle.
Rover Some artists have managed to take that celebrity worship and turn it on its head into art. Lady Gaga comes to mind as a politically-minded artist and talented pianist.
Williams I’ve seen her in concert and she killed it. It’s clear that she is amazing on the piano and I also saw her play upright bass. I loved her in concert. I became a fan in concert. However, when I think of innovative music, I think of Björk way before. When you talk about how much attention Gaga puts on her appearance, I really wish she’d put that much attention on her sound. I’ve yet to encounter [innovation in Gaga’s music]. If we were talking about MIA then I’d be like, “Hell the fuck yeah.” There’s a big difference between MIA and Lady Gaga. If I’m looking for really innovative new modern music, not the image of it but the sound, I have 8,000 songs on my iPod I’d have to listen to first. I like her, don’t get me wrong. I like her a lot. I like what she represents. I like that she found her niche in terms of what she wants to represent politically, and her image, and her voice, I really appreciate all that. I’m just being honest: I wish I could appreciate the music on that level. There’s tons of artists that are really pushing the envelope musically, especially in Montreal. Let her play the piano with Colin Stetson or something over there. That would be fucking crazy!
Rover What was different in your approach to recording Volcanic Sunlight?
Williams This album sounds completely different. The goal of it was to not write anything out of anger, which was a big thing after Niggy Tardust.
Rover So it’s the polar opposite of Niggy Tardust?
Williams It’s not the polar opposite of Niggy Tardust. There is no polar opposite of Niggy Tardust. Niggy Tardust was Niggy Tardust. This one is “Niggy Pop.”
Rover Speaking of innovative artists: Iggy Pop.
Williams Hell yeah. Listen to the sound of his songs. You know what I’m saying? Raw.
Rover Raw Power.
Williams Why doesn’t Lady Gaga listen for a year to Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, know what I’m saying? And come back like Amanda Palmer from Dresden Dolls. You wanna talk about a piano player who’s killing it in innovation? To me, that’s awesome. That’s exciting. There’s tons of examples of people who’ve sat down at pianos and killed it. Trent Reznor is a piano prodigy who turned that into Nine Inch Nails. And maybe people listen to Nine Inch Nails and say, “Maybe he’s ripping off Skinny Puppy”* or something, I have no idea.
*Trent Reznor has accused himself of ripping off Skinny Puppy.
Saul Williams, with Spoek Mathambo, at La Tulipe (4530 Papineau), 7 pm, March 24
Tickets: $18.50 + service charge in advance, and $21.50 + service charge at the door