TNT talks to Jez who makes up half of iconic 90's dance act Utah Saints
Utah Saints have been making music, DJ-ing and playing gigs around the globe since the birth of House music and are made up of Tim Utah and Jez Willis.
The world-renowned duo have released 9 Top 40 UK hits, 4 of which hit the Top 10, they have sold over 2 million records worldwide, sampled a huge range of artists from Annie Lennox to Slayer, supported U2 on a UK and European tour, set up and promoted award-winning and legendary club nights The Gallery and SugarBeatClub and have recorded and presented shows for radio stations such as Radio 1, XFM, Galaxy, Kiss and Ministry of Sound. They have rather precariously walked the tightrope between genres and also between the underground and the mainstream, Utah Saints' list of achievements is huge and they are continuing to add to it, 24 years later:-
Utah Saints are still very much at the top of their game hosting their SugarBeatClub brand at various Clubs and curating festival stages, putting on an eclectic range of nights from MistaJam to Justice, Zane Lowe to A-Trak, and have played alongside everyone from Take That to Erol Alkan. They have now put on over 1000 nights and DJ’d themselves at another 1000.
We talk to Jez and find out more -
Is there anything that particularly stands out as something you're particularly proud of?
I think when the whole thing kicked off we had been promoting clubs since 1989 so we were right on the edge of the rave scene kicking off. When the Utah Saints kicked off in '91 we had probably put on around 100 events over a couple of years with the people who are now massive names Pete Tong, Paul Oakenfold, Carl Cox - all played at our club night in Leeds. For two or three years we were promoting, DJ-ing and producing we really felt in the epicentre of things, certainly up here (referring to the North of England). It's only when we took a step back and realised we were part of something much bigger across the country. We look back on those days most fondly as it was a big movement and everyone was going in the same direction and it was all music driven. I think there were many moments, you just felt part of something special. We were running a club night with 1200 people capacity and that felt very special to be full of people all there for the music primarily and pushing in the same direction.
The whole scene had a feeling of being something quite new, a fresh music revolution of the 90's. Utah Saints also felt like something quite different and unique. You were one of the first groups to transcend genres of dance music rather than specifically a techno, house or trance producer etc. You actually started to mix those genres together which wasn't very common back in those days and not only that had significant success in doing so. Were you aware of what you were doing at the time? Did you plan to create a niche for yourselves that would be popular or see a gap in the market?
No, Thanks for asking that question, it's something we're particularly proud of and don't often get asked. We set out to really mix things up and try and destroy genres which became a little too limiting. I'd come out of playing industrial music and metal and Tim came out of hip-hop and early house. I know this is a real cliche but good music is good music and now people don't care what sort of music they listen to as long as it's good music. It was much harder back then to cross genres. We set out not because we spotted a gap in the market, but to say that music can be good where ever it's from. So we sampled people like Kate Bush and Annie Lennox but we also sampled Slayer and tried to get harder sounds in there and make it a bit more exciting. It was a deliberate strategy to not get tied into a particular genre, unfortunately, that did go against us a bit, as a result, we didn't get fully embraced by any particular genre at the time.
Were you also doing other things back then, producing different music and collaborating with others?
We tried to do as much as we possibly could. but it's always hard once you've had a hit because everyone immediately expects you to have another hit and if something isn't a hit it's perceived as a complete failure. That kind of really messes with your process of making music and it starts to alter the pressure on it.
Dance music had a very short lifespan back in the days with the record shops distributing vinyl to a small catchment of DJ's, there wasn't that mass market transition. There was also a load of political stuff going on with illegal raves and things like the Criminal Justice Act so radios weren't giving dance music the airtime either. It was only really people like John Peel who went against that and brought underground music to mainstream radio.
No you're right, John Peel is a really good reference point in terms of not really bothering too much about genres. I listened to him a lot when I was a kid and I would hear a punk track, then an electronic track, then a rock track, he didn't really distinguish and as long as it kind of had something about it, he'd play it. I guess he was the early trailblazer breaking down all the boundaries for everyone.
Have you ever gained any recognition for paving the way for artists like Daft Punk and Chemical Brothers, who surely must have had some significant influence from your work?
I don't know, no not really. Occasionally we will get people come up and say really nice things to us. I was really humbled when Gareth from Pendulum came up to us in Australia and said some really nice things about when he'd seen something good and also about the genre-crossing that you referred to. I've also watched in awe at Pendulum because if we had had the technology that they have and use so brilliantly, I always wished we had the same technology that they have now. Things would have been so much easier back in the early days. Other than acts that came really quickly after us we didn't really know if they were influenced by us or not. We took massive influence from people like the KLF and Public Enemy, the kind of chaos of their samples and stuff. You kind of hope that in the way you seek influence from others, you also influence other people and pass it on.
Tracks that you created like What Can You Do For Me and Something Good were iconic tracks and even people who don't know you directly will know one of those tracks and have experienced it somewhere at some time.
Thank you that's really nice of you to say that!
Coming back to what you were saying about the technology, things have obviously come on a long way since the days of Cubase and Atari STs and Akai samplers. You're also still involved and have a studio up in Leeds and are producing music. Are you a studio who retains the old technology and analogue synthesisers? Are you purists or have you embraced the new?
We're not purists at all and you clearly know your stuff citing the STs and Akai. We're not purists at all, we have no nostalgic ties at all in terms of old gear. In fact, there's really no love lost between me and old analogue synths. They were always going out of tune and if you looked at them funny, they would bin all the stuff you'd spent hours working on. They were so temperamental and cumbersome to take around with you. Now it's all on a laptop! We've always been interested in technology, which is why we got started in the first place, we got the most cutting-edge technology we could get which sounds ridiculous now like a one-megabyte computer that forgot everything you did on it when you switched it off. We really embrace technology and it's going to be really interesting to see how it develops. I'm a little sceptical of artificial intelligence but we'll see!
Can we talk now about festivals and I know you guys are avid Beat-Herders who curate a stage and have done so for many years.
We curate a stage a Beat-Herder and we have done for 11 years now. Almost since the start, they've been going for 13 now I think. It's gradually become more developed. We started off by playing it, then bringing a few acts along with us to it. It's an independent festival created by six guys who basically wanted to throw a free party and it started off as a free party in some woods just for 150 people. It's grown organically since then and it's still fiercely independent and as a result, it's got real soul which not everything has these days. The guys are heavily involved all the time, and they're really creative souls who really care about it and it's come together for them which is fantastic. We've played quite a few different festivals over the years and this one just resonated with us, and the people involved and we just wanted to be more involved. As a result, we've booked a stage area called 'the ring', there are lots of jokes about that name, but we don't indulge any of them any more... Over the years we've had loads of people play a real eclectic mix. It's DJ based but we've had some great acts like MistaJam, Drum Sound and Bassline Smith, lots of different acts. This year we've got Redlight finishing it off, which is going to an interesting mix of music for us. On Sunday afternoon we even have two hours of Charleston lessons and we give away free tea and cake in the vintage style and it's really nice homemade cake! It's very laid back, then you roll back a few hours and it would have been absolutely pounding drum and bass.
That's something that I've seen first hand at other festivals, that it often becomes very genre specific and somewhat relentless in set stages with very little crossover. It all seems to be a bit full on. Even looking back to the early raves I went to, even those that went on for two or three days, it didn't feel quite as relentless as that with just one type of music playing.
You're absolutely right, in the early days of rave it was eclectic you'd have stuff like Moby with chilled pianos and then, well it wasn't called drum and bass then, but just fast breakbeat stuff, then you would have people at the other end like Boys Own pushing 100 bpm music. You would get a real sense of music journeys which is great and an important part of things.
What are your thoughts from a welfare perspective with the most recent deaths at Mutiny Festival down in Portsmouth allegedly caused by taking high strength pills. I know every generation seems to have a story about their drug consumption being better back in the day, but I think nowadays with the ease of availability and things like the dark web connecting sellers and buyers. People are now able to acquire high-grade MDMA and E's and even stuff that didn't even exist back in the day. This issue now of people now taking very strong drugs and partying for a long time, perhaps even longer than people used to back in the 90's!
A couple of years ago we put on our own festival near Peterborough and we had to do a lot of safety advisory group meetings and stuff like that and the general vibe was that the drugs were tested and were a lot-lot stronger now than they were twenty years ago. It's higher grade and more concentrated, and the information still hasn't kept up with it. We're still not having the debate in this country that we should be having about drugs. There are some interesting initiatives now like The Loop doing testing at festivals and things like that. Without getting into a debate about if drug testing is good or not, at least there's more information and certainly in my direct experience of 25 years in clubs, a lot of the time the problems are because people don't have the right information about drugs and they don't really know what they are taking. That's where people get into issues with it. I'm old enough to remember when acid house took off, there's a lot of people thought that it was directly associated with the drug acid and people got into lots of trouble around that. I really wish there was just more debate and more information available.
We digressed a bit there, and I agree that common sense and safety should prevail over politics and lives can be saved with better insights and education. Back to music, and specifically Beat-Herder, can you tell us a bit more about it?
This year we've got Orbital on, and we go way back with them as we were signed to the same label. It's always fun when they turn up. We always tease each other, I get on well with Paul who's the real synth head and he always drags these huge synthesisers with him and even has a guy who comes on stage and re-patches his synths to make a different sound. I just like what (they) are doing - going through all this pain when you could just have a computer and press a button to change the sound, this thing which is going to get overheated and go out of tune. He's a real purist.
Are there any other festivals you're going to be doing this year?
Yeah we're doing a few, Audio Soup and Green Meadows come to mind. We're doing a Yorkshire bands festival with the Wedding Present which we're looking forward to. We are just back in the studio doing some Utah Saints stuff. It's been a while since myself and Tim have sat down and focussed on Utah Saints stuff.
Do you find it easier or harder nowadays?
We do work a little faster and more efficiently nowadays. We do find that some things can come together quite quickly and certainly with new technology like Ableton, we can get samples together and try them out really quickly where it used to take a few days to try and get something to sit right. I think also post-production isn't such an ordeal and it's easier to get a nice sound and the mix right.
One thing I noticed with lots of your early work is that the production values were really very high. Was that something you worked hard at to achieve?
I don't know! (Laughs) Actually, one thing we avoided was compression. When you're working with samples it's already been tightly compressed and if you squeeze it any more you start to get all the stuff that's not supposed to be there coming forward. The rule of thumb was to avoid reverb and compression. As soon as you've got synth sounds they're pretty pure, so once you've got them to sit where they fit you don't really need to overprocess things. I think a lot of modern music gets rather overprocessed, but things are getting less loud and the production values are returning.
That brings me on to my last question, what you're listening to at the moment?
There's so much new music it's impossible to keep up with everything. We do spend a lot of time on SoundCloud and YouTube. I still listen to a lot of radio like Radio 1Xtra. High Contrast is playing at Beat-Herder this year, not on our stage but we have booked them before. He always brings high-quality drum and bass. There's some great one-off underground dance music coming through SoundCloud and we try to book people off the back of that. There's a guy called Will Easton from Leeds who's a really good producer. There's some quality northern stuff. It's a really exciting time for electronic music right now, and to be honest we've rediscovered our love of house music again which we fell out of love with for quite a while. When we DJ we try to cover a lot of bases.