“Everything, everywhere, at the same time”; This is how Paul Woolford describes his early days immersed in club culture in the North of England, a “subconscious training” for the decades of creativity - DJing, producing and experimentation - that then followed. From the clubbing public’s perspective, Woolford’s career has been defined by a series of transcendent club records rinsed across scenes. There was, of course, Erotic Discourse, a rubbery, psychedelic banger that began as an experiment and proved so successful that Woolford once spent a night dashing across Fabric, lending a white label to different DJs to play out. When Dense and Pika remixed the track ten years later and were awarded DJ Mag’s ‘Remix of The Year’ award, they humorously collected the prize acknowledging that it “wasn’t as good as the original.”
Then, in 2013, there was Untitled, a turbo-charged house anthem that took the bassweight aesthetic of post-dubstep techno and introduced Woolford’s now signature blend of piano house chords and wistful vocals to the mix, soundtrack weeping eyes and gurning jaws with rare bliss. More recently, Woolford hasn’t simply been delivering such moments on occasion. Instead, he’s been executing them like clockwork, both under his own name and under his wildly successful Special Request alias, which, since 2014, has injected the influences of jungle, hardcore and other pirate radio sounds that informed Woolford’s youth into his already pristine productions.
Woolford has been releasing music on Houndstooth for the past six years, beginning with Soul Music in 2013 (which also featured two agreeably inescapable anthems in the form of his remixes of Lana Del Rey and Tessela’s almighty ‘Hackney Parrot’) and spanning until 2019, as Woolford prepares to release his upcoming fourth LP in one year as Special Request following the ultra-high-velocity VORTEX, the more introspective Bedroom Tapes and most recently, Offworld, as spacey but soulful concept album that imagines, “what if Jam and Lewis had signed to Metroplex?”
As you might have guessed, Woolford’s got more ideas than there are hours in the day. With that in mind, Phantasy were delighted to have him agree to be the latest subject of our Forum artist series. Conducted with John Thorp via email, Woolford reflects candidly on the difficult legacy of having a monster hit, spanning scenes and sounds, defying expectations and well, everything, everywhere, all the time.
In preparation for this interview, I recently listened back to a Resident Advisor Exchange interview with you, dating back nearly a decade, to 2011 (in fact, it's one of the first dozen or so they ever did). You discuss the then-more-recent pressure of following up on Erotic Discourse, and your commitment to move on immediately from that sound, rather than make a follow-up in the same vein, and presumably with the same potential for impact. You've had several huge club records since then. Have you stayed true to that approach since
Hello John. “Erotic Discourse” is a one-off - there were a handful of records after it that took the idea and presented it in more standard surroundings, but if you listen to it again today, you’ll hear that nothing else properly sounds like it at all. It’s still out there on it’s own. It’s my own unicorn. I think the power of is that there was nothing else there aside from the kick and “the noise” — no embellishment, no concession to anything else, no attempt to frame it into any scene. And accordingly, various scenes took it on and embraced it, bizarrely. I found the whole success of it shocking because it’s so extreme.
The simple fact is, it’s impossible to follow up a record like that. Nothing you do will make as much impact, so you are better off moving left, which is what I did at the time.
Moving on through time and we had records like Untitled on Hotflush which was a modest club hit. It was a very rough proto-type of some of the things I make today, one of the earliest batch of those types of tracks. I see the piano tracks as part of a never-ending series. It’s the polar opposite approach to Erotic Discourse. Piano house, when it’s executed properly, can be super-unifying to a dance floor or room, but not only that, it can serve as a vessel to carry many different types of songs. So it’s a more pliable form. If you think of Erotic Discourse as abstract expressionism, the piano house records are like large scale colour field images. Or if you think about all those screen-printed Warhol images of people that are super bold. A never-ending series. That’s how I view them. I know that probably sounds wank, but it’s the best way to illustrate the differences. I love colour, and I love boldness, and I’m using the piano records as carriers of songs these days rather than instrumental club tracks.
When you first began attending Back to Basics, where you would soon find yourself as resident, the club was enjoying a sustained peak and really put Leeds on the map as a rave pilgrimage. There were other clubs such as The Warehouse operating in parallel. How did the atmosphere and scene in the city compare to those across the pennines, such as Manchester and Liverpool? Was it a similar energy or something else entirely?
You are talking about 25 years ago when I first started going to Back to Basics, but the other places I attended in Leeds like the Warehouse, The Gallery and the raves at the University all had totally different feels to them, even if some of the music overlapped. I can’t comment on Manchester and Liverpool from that time period as it was a couple more years until I ventured out of the city for clubs, but what I can say is that the energy in that time was something brewing underneath society in a way. You might see someone walking down the street that you’d seen in the club, and you might exchange a knowing nod with them. Because they knew what we were involved in. It was a subculture rather than a mainstream pursuit. Today clubs and these huge parties are totally mainstream events. So the energy was different. I’m not saying it was better or worse, just different. When I started to go over to Manchester to Sankeys and Bugged Out in Liverpool, obviously I saw it in different ways again, it was a couple of years later and things were growing at pace.
I know that was a heavy-duty period for you, in terms of both your initial musical outpourings and your youthful commitment to partying. Basics aside, what were your other regular haunts, clubs or otherwise? I (very briefly) lived in Leeds and had a show on KMAH for a couple of years. I always got the impression that Leeds history in UK rave culture was somewhat underwritten, so feel free to drop as many names or share any reflections as you please.
My time was all spent this way: Crash and Jumbo records every Saturday morning waiting for the new imports and stuff off the vans, and then subsequently Eastern Bloc records when that opened up later on. Occasional trips to E-Bloc in Manchester (becoming more frequent as time went on). Every day I was at Art College and then home and recording stuff off pirate radio or making tracks from 5pm until about 3am through the week. Saturday nights out to The Gallery/Basics/Warehouse/various parties in people’s houses etc. It was all totally focused like this and it’s only now looking back that I see that I was almost training myself subconsciously for the routine I have now. Through pirate radio I became aware of the networks of DJs operating across the North and became exposed to everything from dub reggae through to the most full-on hardcore and so this influenced me as much as hearing Shut Up and Dance next to Italian piano house screamers, Detroit techno, British rave hybrids, proper deep New Jersey garage, hip house, and whatever else. Pirate radio was the original melting pot of dance music in the UK. Everything, everywhere, at the same time.
In terms of “the scene” - I held back from it a touch, because I was creating something in my head constantly and secondly due to shyness. This changed in later years but I’m glad my earlier times were spent in this way, as now I realised I was incubating things, however unwittingly. One thing that was a funny coincidence was that I did work experience at Crash Records in Leeds when I was 15, and then subsequently at the age of 30 or so, I rented a house from one of the co-owners of Crash, a guy called Gerry Gallagher, and we became friends, so things went full circle. The studio I built in that house threw out the first Special Request album Soul Music, Untitled and then I stopped using that room, and moved my monitors into the kitchen every day and made the entire Special Request Modern Warfare project on XL Recordings on the breakfast bar in that room looking at this beautiful cherry blossom tree we had in the back garden. It drove my Mrs nuts coming home to her kitchen full of wires every day. That was when I started to cotton on to using different environments to create. I needed more stimulation, more visual information to push it all along. All the time there was tons of partying going on but when I got to 30 I became totally focused on creation in an obsessive way. It took years, but now I have an equilibrium with the studio that’s finely balanced.
You've never been afraid to wear many hats, dabble with aliases and live an almost parallel life as a producer. Even in that aforementioned interview with Resident Advisor, way back in 2011, you comment on how image and association focused Djs and producers have become. All these years later, this isn't a trend that's died down. And yet, here you are, releasing hardcore-indebted records on Houndstooth as Special Request, while sharing the decks as Paul Woolford with the likes of Solardo. I even heard a rumour that you wanted to turn in a remix of Fisher... Question being, does keeping different crowds, different scenes on their toes keep things interesting for you? Are there any difficult lessons you've learned along the way, or does transcending expectations and popping up in unexpected places keep things interesting for you? In short: Who is this Paul Woolford?
I think most people in dance music edit themselves down to a really simple version of themselves that can be easily digested, but that in the background, most people who are true fans of music, listen to all sorts. I just indulge all my interests completely. In one week you could find me working on the Special Request project on Monday, a collaboration with somebody like Diplo on Tuesday (this is forthcoming), experimental music for film on Wednesday, recording a vocalist in a different studio Thursday, or whatever else. It’s the same for my DJing. In a week I could play an event like EDC in Vegas and then go play at Panorama Bar.
There’s no riddle there, no code to be deciphered, I just do exactly what I want, all the time. The rumour you mention about Fisher - he’s a mate and if I’d asked to remix something he’d have sent me the parts, but it’s not true. It’s telling the way you are asking me this question, it’s almost as if you find it impossible for someone to exist in more than one permutation. Most people are conditioned to view things from certain perspectives so I understand it, but I don’t care at all about what others think. Last week I saw a video of Timbaland working with Martin Garrix, and good on them both. We can all learn from everyone else in some way. I don’t want any limitations on my potential due to outside perception or concern about what somebody might think. It’s irrelevant. I think if you create from the perspective of seeking approval from the press or a scene, then you have a shelf-life that they control. I float outside of scenes and have done from the start so in a way I’m in a different place.
You returned to Resident Advisor recently for an extensive edition of their production series, so I'll leave that to the gear heads and keep this here about the 'culture'. I must say, even as someone who doesn't produce, it was great to read how enthusiastic you are about the process, but also, how open you were. It's a spirit of generosity that is still sorely lacking in certain quarters. Who have been the producers or creative people in your life who have been most encouraging, either on a technical level or just in terms of sheer encouragement?
Thank you, I’m glad you appreciated it. The creative people in my life that have encouraged me - it’s a long list, but my first art teacher, Mrs Barhum back at High School in Leeds, she was a very firm person but she really encouraged me and the rest of time at high school was pure aggro. The tutors at Art College were really persevering with me, even though I fucked about all the time there as well. I met Howie B at Basics many years ago, we became friends and he gave me a lot of belief in myself, as well as telling me the maddest inspiring stories like U2 paying him for his work with them in the form of a huge Warhol original. That blew my mind.
From the pirate radio days, Tantra from Dream FM in Leeds was super-inspiring and empowering. She was playing all the UR stuff and super high-quality techno from across the board as well as playing european raves alongside people like Jeff Mills & Steve Bicknell back in the early to mid 90s. We were hanging out loads and she signed me to my first record deal on her label Blue Basique.
One of my best mates is an artist called Mat Playford, highly skilled keyboard player, he gave me tons of encouragement and made me realise how negative I was at the age of 19, that was a key moment in my life. I saw Goldie at Dekmantel recently and he came up in between mixes and said “where’s me fuckin’ EP?” which was just a real moment, because obviously he’s been one of my greatest influences. I only want to give him a classic. I’ve worked on various things and not felt them to be of the standard they need to be, but it’s coming. I don’t want to give Metalheadz a standard release. It has to be fucking outrageous or nothing. I could keep going for days on this one.
In the past, you’ve talked about being shy when you were younger, as well as being made to see what a negative person you were emerging from your teens. How much confidence did you gain from the opportunities that came with DJing? And how far do you feel that can take you?
I think much of the confidence I took from DJing took years and years to build, and that the travelling and everyday aspects of it were actually more beneficial to building that. When you start travelling the world at the age of 21 you are forced to confront what’s out there. Previously I was open minded, but I had no real experience of people, beyond my immediate circle and the people I met in record shops, so I can’t overstate how much the travelling opened me up to people. I absolutely relish the small things in life, the most simple things give me pleasure and I think this is the key to happiness in many ways. The kind of confidence you gain from DJing is performance-based and is way more complex.
You've released four LPs in the space of a year for Houndstooth. That's a beyond Beatles work rate that's almost unheard of in the current musical climate, and that's not even including your work under your own name, or whatever else you've got cooking. Did you choose to work with Houndstooth in part due to them allowing you this kind of freedom? A break from the cycles of mystique and hype that artists now have to bow to, I suppose? Also, is this a work rate we can expect to continue?
That’s right, number four is being finished up right now. The reason is because I wanted to disrupt this whole thing and also because we have a responsibility to ourselves to make sure that we are heard. Would we be doing this interview if I’d done one album this year? I would guess not. Each time an artist releases an album, the press say “so here’s where X is at sonically now” — and then you have to wait a year or two for another, if they make another — but this would do me a disservice because I work on different styled projects from week to week. So all I’m doing is exactly what I feel, all the time. I don’t want to be restricted by outside factors whatsoever, and I’m building structures that enable this more and more. The people I admire did their own thing relentlessly and the world had to pay attention to it, and that’s what I aspire to. I’ve been working with Houndstooth for 6 years and they’ve always indulged me creatively which I treasure.
Your most recent LP, Offworld, poses the question; “What if Jam & Lewis signed to Metroplex?” It's an interesting proposition (and made for a great record), but the idea made me think about futurism and trends in dance music. You've been very heavily invested in the scene for decades, and if I may pay you a broad compliment, have managed to evolve while sound like yourself. You could argue that the Special Request is taking 'classic' ideas and blending them with modern production and arrangement, or at least in the case of Offworld, finding unexpected links between scenes and sounds. Do you think we can create innovation by reimagining our rave heritage? Are you bothered about innovation at all?
There’s innovation all over my recent album, Vortex, but because I didn’t dish out some half-baked thesis in the press release people won’t pick up on it. You have to put big fucking obvious arrows saying “innovation here” using quasi-academic language if you want to be seen that way. I deliberately took the piss out of all that. I see through it all. Here’s the tunes, some of them sound fucking mental.
I built a dedicated synth to make the sound of Vortex and only used it on that album, and yet people still say “SR is so nostalgic, blah blah blah”. It’s happening right in front of you on occasion. I read somebody talking about a new techno record the other day saying how fearless the sound design was — was it fuck, it was another banged out bit of racket with the same old structure. Sounded good, but innovative? Do me a Colin Favor.
The people that style themselves as innovators in the press get called it, even if what they do is not. I don’t operate like that at all. I just give you the tunes, fucking loads of them done properly and you go and do what you want with them, get completely off your tits, or listen to them when you are alone, or dj them, or whatever. I’m having a fucking laugh making everything, and that’s what other people will get from it, and occasionally some of them will bend your head sideways. I don’t need to point it all out because when you hear the mad ones in a setting with other people it’s obvious.
Your comments on innovation are interesting in the light of the (brief, twitter-focused) controversy following Simon Reynolds' reflection on ten years of 'Conceptronica' for Pitchfork. Do you enjoy academic, political or conceptual approaches to dance music? Even if you yourself are admirably keen to offer, as you put it, "tunes, loads of them." (great double LP title that, I reckon).
As much as I take the piss out of conceptual takes on it all, I’ve always enjoyed all of that stuff — I love world-building, which probably goes back to when I used to play with Lego as a kid. I love to get wrapped up in someone’s ideas if they are juicy enough. I’m really nosey, so I sometimes I want more from it all than “here’s the tunes” And as much as there’s been some proper nonsense theorising over audio-collage over the last few years, hey, do your thing, whatever that might be. I’m looking for the music to hit me in the heart, gut and mind at the same time if possible. And that comes from the combination of the sound, the visual and whatever information you have to hand. Or the lack of information, so the mind fills in the blanks. Lately I have felt that I can say more with one sentence in a press release than I could with 3 paragraphs, and I tested this out properly on the Offworld album. People connected more with that than anything yet on a personal level, so it demonstrates to me that a press release is basically performative cladding that enables journalists to write about your project. This can be helpful, but I hold no hierarchy in my view of the audience. I treasure every listener.
As a follow-up; how precious are you about your rave heritage? Do you feel you owe a debt to your youth and your influences, and if so, how do you honour that without the risk of marinating in mere nostalgia?
I’m not precious about anything in creation. I have absolute love and respect for the genesis and history of everything I’m involved in, and that’s the springboard for the things I create but precious? No fucking chance.
John Thorp, October 2019.