Interview: Saul Williams on giving it away


interview and photos by Jim Beckmann

Bands who give away their music for free have been frequently discussed on the KEXP Blog. In 2005, Harvey Danger did it, last year Joseph Arthur did it, currently The Crimea are doing it (since last April), and there are a handful of other, lesser known artists now offering free downloads of their albums. Of course, Radiohead made the biggest stir when they allowed fans to pay what they wished for In Rainbows, even if they choose to pay nothing at all. While not exactly the pioneers that they’re often labeled, Radiohead is certainly the band with the largest following as of yet to attempt such a stunt. In their wake, followed Saul Williams, the actor, spoken word artist, and musician, who made his third full-length, The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust, available online with two purchase choices: fans could either download the album for free or pay $5 for a higher bitrate version. As you might guess, most fans opted for free, and while Trent Reznor, who co-produced the album, was disheartened by the results, Saul Williams was more optimistic. What remains to be seen is if a new business model has formed that musicians of all means might follow or if the past infrastructure will remain intact.

Before his sold-out performance at Neumo’s last week, I had a chance to sit down the Saul Williams and talk about about his own experience with the album and how he came around to giving it away for free.

KEXP: What prompted you and when did you decide to make this album available for free?

SW: When I first started working with Trent, he had the idea, and these are his words, “I really wish that we could find a creative way of releasing the album. Maybe give it away for free.” And I think he was saying that for several reasons: one, because of the state of the music industry; two, because we both found ourselves putting a lot of work into a project that very possibly could not see the light of day, not only because the state of the industry as regards to record sales, but also because of an industry that hasn’t necessarily be ready for this sort of alternative approach that someone like myself might bring to the table. Executives want to assume that there’s no way, and ask, “Who will this audience be? Does he have good credibility? Will he need that? This isn’t Europe. Bloc Party won’t work here.” You know?

KEXP: Did that problem come up with the first album, the self-titled album?

SW: Yeah, definitely. I was on American Recordings, Ruben’s label, which was on Columbia at the time. And they pretty much said, “This isn’t hip hop,” and they sat on it for two years. Luckily, the people at Sony Europe heard it, particularly Sony France, and put it out immediately and were like “Fuck America, if they don’t get it. We get it.” And it did really well in Europe, which is crazy. And Sony US was still like, “I don’t know…”

However you may feel about the album, I’m actually not really excited about my first album. I can hardly listen to it. I never really could listen to it. Those are the first songs I ever wrote. And it was difficult, but it was what I was trying to do. I have always been proud of my student status, of the fact that I’m still learning. I always figured that if I was to be in the spotlight I would have to find a way to continue to grow with the public because artists that I watch stop growing in the public. The spotlight is not an incubator. You have to give some people the idea. Whatever it takes for Erykah Badu to take off her headwrap even though she may be afraid her fans may not recognize her. What does it take for that sort of thing? I just want to figure out a way to keep growing, regardless of the fact that I might regret a decision, like something I wore in the eighties or whatever.

But either way, I thought that Trent was out of his mind at first, only because whereas Trent is a successful artist, I considered myself to be a struggling artist. I thought that after I found a way off that label, through a loophole when they changed majors, and I put out my second album independently, I thought this might be my chance to kind of get a nicer advance with Trent attached, so I didn’t know. I thought, “I might want to milk this one, Trent. I don’t know if I want to give this one away for free.”

And that had to do simply with me not having enough courage or faith in the possibility, in the actual chance that I ended up taking. But then, the more I got into the music and the more I started feeling the power of what I was doing, and I really got into it even before we really got into the recording. As I started performing my second album, I entered a state of greater confidence as an artist. It had been difficult to call myself a musician for a long time. My background is in theater, and I wasn’t even really certain I should be making music. I wasn’t sure if that’s what God or the universe even wanted for me. I’ve had a lot of doors open for me through poetry, and I wasn’t sure if music was just a release of my ego, that I really didn’t need to cater to.

KEXP: How much of the work for the album had you completed before you started thinking about giving it away?

SW: I was just working. I hadn’t conceptualized the album, but I had a lot of songs. Before I connected with Trent I already had “Scared Money,” I had “DNA,” I had the beginnings of “Tr(n)igger,” and I had conceptualized the idea of Niggy Tardust. “Black History Month” had also already been on the table. And more songs than that, some that ever made it on the album or just parts of them. I already had most of “What the Fuck” or “WTF” as well.

I had a lot, but still, music was just something I was doing in my spare time in my bedroom, but like poetry, it began slowing hijacking my life, taking up a lot of my time, and also providing a means for me to perform, which is the thing I like to do. But it started making sense as I started gaining confidence and realized the power of what I was doing, and not just because of what I was saying, but that I realized the power of the sound. I was like “Oh shit! This really does sound different. This is really is something necessary.” I guess in some ways I felt how Barack Obama may feel in some ways. I started thinking, “Wait, I really do have a shot. There’s a gap here. And no one’s doing this. No one’s saying this. How come no one’s saying this? This seems like it’s the big fuckin’ elephant in the room. And of course this music sounds like it belongs as much to hip hop as it does to punk or rock. This is the sound. Where the hell is everybody?”

I just needed something to dance to too. I started realizing that I was dancing the most to the stuff I was making, and that hadn’t always been the case. It wasn’t this ego-centric thing where it was like only my music moves me. It was just like, “This is a groove that I have not found.”

KEXP: Do you think that result would have happened anyway, whether you still were on a label or not? Or was this something caused by a new sense of freedom?

SW: It definitely would have the sound. Some things Trent brought to the table are irreplaceable, like his spirit, his energy. Even though I talk about stepping into this sense of confidence, he brought a lot to the table because as I entered this zone through performing and touring the last album and then started working with Trent, every idea I brought to the table, he got super excited about and would always be like, “That’s fucking amazing. You are making me feel bad.” He had this thing when I would record something, and he would say, “Here’s one-take Saul, once again showing me that it doesn’t have to take four years to make an album. Thanks, Saul.” He had this really sarcastic, but funny, complimentary tone about everything I would bring to the table. And I would be like, “Wow, this dude’s really a fucking fan and it’s making me feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.”

And I just ran with it and just kept on bringing more shit to the table, and he just kept on confirming it and that brought more confidence to it too. By the time we had a chunk of stuff and it was time to meet with people like Jimmy Iovine, you know, I didn’t feel the nervousness or the whatever, I was able to look these cats in the eyes and say “What’s up? You see what I got.” The first song I played for Jimmy Iovine was “Tr(n)igger” and he stopped the song and was like, “Whoa, that’s a fuckin’ powerful song, that’s the new gangster, man.”

KEXP: That’s the one with the Public Enemy [“Welcome to the Terrordome”] sample, right?

SW: Yeah, and by that time it was over. By that time I knew we were onto something. And, soon after, Radiohead made their announcement and that was amazing because Radiohead has been my bread and butter of inspiration for the past ten years. What I mean is that whenever a Radiohead album would come out was right when I really needed it. And whatever the single or whatever I hear on that album was the thing I needed to hear at that time. I get that all the time through poetry, too. People would say, “I feel like you’re talking directly to me.” I can relate when people say that to me because I get that from Thom Yorke and I know a lot of us do, where it’s like, “I know what you mean when you sing ‘women and children first.'” So when they made their move, and seconded it by what Trent had been talking about all along, we knew that, quite frankly, whoever did it next would be able to take all of that press, it was a window, a narrow window, but we got to do it now. We decided in a week’s time, we got a bunch of lawyers and asked, “can we do this, can we do this, can we do this? Boom, let’s do it.” It went from an idea that we had in October, for a February or maybe April release, to “no, fuck that, let’s do this in two weeks. It’s done. Why not?” It was that quick.

KEXP: There are labels who are doing that too. For instance, there’s a band called Stars, whose album was about to leak, so the label released it digitally immediately. The Raconteurs are basically doing that right now.

SW: I feel like that’s what we did. We put a price tag on the leak. That was our business model, put a price tag on the leak. The leak is the first single nowadays anyway.

KEXP: When you released the numbers [of downloads and payment] publically, which Radiohead didn’t do, you and Trent seemed to have a difference of opinion.

SW: I can’t say really had a difference of opinion. What I really think we have is a difference in the way we express our thoughts and ideas. It’s very rare for you to hear me speak negatively or disappointingly just because the Tao [Te Ching] says, “the master has faith in the way things are.” I’m just pretty clear on the fact that even if things could have worked differently, the way things are working out, the organic approach, is going be for the best. I’ve had a lot of experience with that. The release of my album that was produced by Rick Rubin did not turn out the way I expected, but there was this sort of grace that came from being this sort of underdog. There’s a grace, a sort of credibility that came from working through the ranks, from not having this instant success that some would say is privileged and unearned. I had the instant success of being able to get Rick Ruben’s attention and get him to sign me, but it didn’t work out the way I imagined it would. Then I left the label and had to work and find it and find it and find it, and so it could have worked differently. It was hard when Sony sat on my first album for two years and released it by the time I had already written “List of Demands” and “Grippo” for the second album. And they released it three weeks after 9/11.

But there was no real disappointment then because it just seemed like everything was happening like it was supposed to. The idea of 1/6 of the people purchasing it didn’t come as a surprise to me. For a lot of people, I’m brand new, and for a lot of people, because of whatever hype, at least this time they’re listening to it. Quite frankly, that’s been my goal. Maybe it’s because I’ve been more about the message than the dividends. For a long time that was the most important thing to me. I just want people to hear it. When I first started writing poetry and had the idea of putting out a book, I printed up little business card sized things that just had a poem on it and a website address. I lived in New York at the time and just went out on the subway, like the deaf people handing out those little cards, but these had little poems and an email address for people to respond to the poems. It was just because I just wanted people to read it and to know what they thought. I wanted some feedback. I haven’t really lost that. The fact that I speak at schools, and publish, and all this stuff — I feel pretty confident that that although I haven’t earned a tremendous amount of money that I still have quite a privileged lifestyle, and it’s been fun. So [the numbers] didn’t disappoint me, and I also knew that the stage has been set for the shows, and much of the tour is very close to being sold out. That’s really all I wanted, to perform.

KEXP: You are going to be releasing the album officially, right?

SW: Yes, through Fader, this spring with bonus materials. There are songs that Trent and I did, like 5 or 6 songs, that haven’t been released yet. We’ve saved them for that and it will have artwork.

KEXP: Which a lot of people still want.

SW: Yeah, exactly.

KEXP: One of the things you’ve mentioned before regarding race, because you were having these issues with labels who expected you to perform in a particular genre or style, that the internet sort of erased some of that.

SW: It’s not that people didn’t know that I was black. It’s not that. It wasn’t the people. It was the executives, the executives of the old existing infrastructure. Even though Living Colour has existed, and TV on the Radio now exists, and Bloc Party exists, and Dragons of Zynth exists. So many people exist. What I felt as a kid was just different from what they felt as people in suits. And they just looked at me as having lofty dreams. And there’s the other side of it: they were just saying, that at the time I had no “hits.”

KEXP: It’s interesting because this album is actually pretty outspoken; it’s not trying to erase race in any way, and may be even one that would have gotten some push back from a label.

SW: Possibly. I have no idea. It definitely is outspoken. The goal of if it was to essentially, in the same what that Bowie used Ziggy to heighten issues or questions surrounding gender and sexuality, here to raise the idea of race and identity — but also the idea of self-imposed limitations, based on that. Barack [Obama]’s speech the other day, he was talking about the idea of acknowledging the source of pride of where you come from, and acknowledging the oppressor, but not trying to live up to the idea of being a victim. I think that’s the final frontier. For me, as an African-American, when people say “minorities” I never associate that with me. I see the whole planet, and I know who the real minorities are, so I’ve never accepted that term. The idea of thinking of oneself as a victim just seems like a self-defeatist attitude. That is what this album is about too: the inevitable rise and liberation, the inevitable rise and liberation of one’s consciousness beyond the idea of race and acknowledging it as a social construct.

KEXP: Do you think you would have made the same choices had you not been linked to Trent? Do you think it’s easier now for a band who has a built-in support system to try go the route of doing it more on your own without the assistance of a label?

SW: There’s a series of choices in my album linked to Trent, not that he gave me any ideas but when you create a think tank, when an artists decides to collaborate, decides to say, “Not my ideas alone,” that’s what I did. This album hasn’t only been a collaboration with Trent, there’s an artist I’ve worked with by the name of Angelbert Metoyer, there’s a designer I’ve worked with by the name of Melody Eshani, there’s CX KiDTRONiK, there’s Thavius Beck, there’s Atticus Ross, and they were all there while the album was being created; like the artwork for the album was being painted, sometimes in the studio while we were working. The jewelry was being designed for me to wear in the vocal booth and play around with the idea of this character while we were working.

That sense of collaboration is extremely empowering. I don’t know if I would have released the album the same way if I’d done it like I was doing my self-titled album, which I did permanently alone in my bedroom. I don’t know if I would have had the sense of confidence that comes from having so many like-minded individuals in a collective space sharing a common vision.

I guess my answer to your question is no. But I think it’s kind of lopsided if you just say Trent, only because there is so much, and so many, that played a part in creating this experience.

KEXP: What I’m trying to get at is if this might be a way that more bands can follow. For instance, one of the other bands who did this sort of thing is called The Crimea, and they released their album Secrets of the Witching Hour for free, well before Radiohead did. They got a bit of buzz when it first came out, some internet chat. They self-released the album because they got burned by a major label. They’re still trying to work around the system. What I’m wondering is if you think more bands will to try to do something similar now that the door is opened.

SW: As an artist, as a poet, as a musician, as an actor, I’ve learned a great deal about packaging. Packaging can be anything from how you look, to what you wear, to how you wear it, to how you carry it, your swagger. What title you choose. The book cover, the shape of the book. You look at my books, most of them are not an average shape which means they don’t stand on the book shelf regularly. They’ll have to stand out because they’re 7″x7″. The titles are not your average title. They’re intended for you to look and say, “What is this?” Packaging is a huge part of this.

For me, the reason why I think our digital release worked in this way was one, of course, Trent’s association, but two, because the album sounds like it’s something that would have to come through the ethers. When “Black History Month” comes through your iPod or your sound system after you download it, it doesn’t sound like something that should be unwrapped from plastic. It sounds like it came from the walls, like it came exactly the way that it came.

The release method was for us as visionary as the music. If it sounded like everything else, I don’t know… For other bands, it would probably depend on the sound, probably depend on every aspect of the release. When we download the new Radiohead, for example, Radiohead always sounds like the latest technology in music. It always sounds like this is where we can go, like an imaginary escape, like this is the flatscreen of sound. People expect that of Radiohead. As a result, coming through the internet seems like, “Yeah, that makes sense because we don’t know where they’re going next.” It’s like Spielberg and “A.I.” and you’re just like, “What the fuck’s he going to do now?” So it depends on the band and their sound and all of those things that they’re linked to. Some bands may do it and it may not necessarily have the same effect. Why? It has to do with all these things converging at once to make it the right time. It’s not just the state of the market, but it’s also the state of their career, and the state of people’s interest, and the state of their sound — all of these things gelling at the same time. I’m sure that other people will find success in this realm, just as other people will continue to find success in the existing infrastructure. That is why I think it’s important to go back to the mentality of staying positive, but really, staying focused, being realistic, letting truth prevail.







Saul Williams, Neumo’s, Seattle 3/19/08
photos by Jim Beckmann

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