Interview: “Sometimes it’s good to fly in the face of what outside perceptions of ‘good taste’ are, and just do what the f**k you want…” 909originals chats to Paul Woolford

Paul Woolford has been pushing musical boundaries since the turn of the Millennium.

Under pseudonyms such as Special Request and Bobby Peru, as well as under his own name, the Leeds native has built a reputation one of dance music’s true chameleons, capable of crafting house, minimal techno, speed garage, 1992-era hardcore – you name it – with passion and dedication.

He’s also nothing if not prolific – last year saw him put out four (yes, four!) Special Request albums – while also rocking dancefloors on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as in Ibiza, with which he has a longstanding affinity.

Woolford’s latest release, Looking For Me, sees him team up with Diplo and Kareen Lomax for some soulful summer grooves. The track can be purchased here, while you can check out the seriously trippy video below.

909originals caught up with him.

Hi Paul, thanks for talking to us. First off, how was the lockdown for you? Has it been a particularly productive period?

It’s a pleasure. Lockdown for me was initially lazy — I took a full month of getting out of bed at 3pm. Proper lazy settings.

I realised I’d had just three weeks off from global travel in about 20 years. I was exhausted, and I now know truly how unhealthy my schedule was previously, so overall it’s been life-changing. Now I can make music during the day and then actually sit down with my family for dinner every night. I don’t take any of that for granted.

What sort of dance music industry will emerge from the coronavirus period, do you think? What will have changed?

In terms of the music — it feels like the quality is rising across the board. That goes for everything from the more underground material of various genres, to house records we hear on weekend radio.

I think a lot of people have realised that club-fodder without strong musical elements won’t cut through now. The music we make has to have relevance to people actually listening in their homes as well as dancing, so I’m hearing a lot more effort going in.

In terms of the actual industry, there’s a lot of hierarchies crumbling and I feel that now is the time for a whole new generation of producers, promoters, and instigators from all backgrounds to emerge and pick up the mantel.

Basically, I don’t think anyone established can be complacent when there are incredible new, or in some cases, not new but previously-ignored by the media, artists coming though with excellent music, fresh ideas, and strong dividing lines on what is right and what is simply outdated. 

You’ve been closely associated with Ibiza for over a decade. Do you think things will go back to the way they were next summer, or is the current situation going to lead to an re-evaluation of the Ibiza clubbing model?

Many people will be forced to re-evaluate their relationship with Ibiza purely because of the costs of being there, but I also doubt that we’ll see the big clubs changing their business models.

Ibiza will always have it’s unique magnetic pull, although the clientele of the place has vastly changed. It’ll be interesting seeing what happens.

Other locations like Croatia have started to become attractive propositions to many, so there are alternatives out there. But with a global pandemic still ongoing, and despite many in denial, I wouldn’t want to make any predictions really.

One of your latest releases, Spectral Frequency, sounds like it could have been released in the early 90s (like much of the Special Request output). How do you find the balance between putting out tracks that are both a homage to that period and are also up to date?

It probably does on the surface, but there’s technology used on that record that wasn’t available in the 90s, so it’s a bit of a wolf in sheep’s clothing really.

The balance is instinctive now, but for many years I would wrestle with myself mentally about what was too much — what was and wasn’t appropriate and all of those types of questions. 

Ultimately, I’ve lived through those times, so I’m lucky enough to see the picture with a lot of detail, but even so, sometimes it’s good to fly in the face of what outside perceptions of ‘good taste’ are, and just do what the f**k you want.

The Spectral Frequency EP was released on R&S Records, your first release on the iconic label. As someone with one foot very much in the history of rave culture, that must have been a proud moment for you?

Yeah, I’ve wanted to release on R&S for about 30 years, so that’s pretty much a lifetime ambition really. I’d had many discussions with their A&R department over the years, and it felt like we were on the same page properly, finally, in March this year.

I knew I wanted an original version of the sleeve design as well, and that had been part of the discussion. Asking Virgil Abloh to get involved was a very impulsive thing, and I’m so glad he did because his vision of the classic sleeve was perfect. I know for a fact he had way more pressing, important things to do.

To have the dream come true, but in its own unique way, has been extremely satisfying. 

Spectral Frequency, released on R&S Records (and featuring label artwork from Virgil Abloh)

Special Request had a particularly prolific 2019, with the release of four albums in one year. What drove you to put out so much in such a short period?

That was because I was tired of being told by record companies and press agents that you can’t do these things. I wanted to completely disrupt that. There comes a point in everyone’s life where you want to stand up and be counted properly, and that was a part of it.

The previous Special Request album, Belief System [released in 2017], got slated by the media, but it was a huge undertaking — as many songs as all four albums last year, and then we used the Rodin ‘Gates Of Hell’ structure on the cover as a political comment about Trump getting into power.

All that was lost on many, so I took the view of ‘f**k ‘em, I don’t make music for them anyway’. It used to get right on my tits that the media would review an album and say ‘so this is where x artist is now’ —they’d say these things and then complain the following year when the artist released something different.
But overall, releasing the four albums last year was just fun. Realising those records and designing them, to having the finished product in my hands, was a wild experience. I love them all, they are my children. 

Of the four, the Zero F*cks album was self-released (and was arguably the most experimental of all your Special Request releases). Why did you keep this one away from the labels?

I needed to connect to my audience in a more grassroots way, and directly from artist to the end-listener is the most direct and authentic manner of doing this.

I also did not want to impose a fixed-price to this album. It was not about money, people had already bought three of my albums in one year, so I wanted to give it back to them for free, if they wanted. They could pay whatever they wanted from £0.00 upwards. 

It’s fitting that it was jungle-focused as well, because that’s one of the key components of Special Request, whilst not being the full picture. Ultimately, I don’t want my music to only exist in certain contexts.

Cutting through cultural red-tape is possible and should be done wherever it can be really. I want the music to exist in as many contexts as possible.

You also recently put out a vocal house track with Diplo and Kareen Lomax, Looking For Me. Do you find it challenging to flip between styles so frequently?

Nah, it’s a f*cking top buzz. Plus the record happened 100% organically, artist to artist. Nobody in the middle managing the process creatively, we all just went for it ourselves. For anyone reading this, I thoroughly recommend making whatever you want, at all times.

Don’t edit your influences to suit other people’s agendas. Make exactly what you want.

You have long turned to various aliases to release different styles of music, Bobby Peru for example, dates back to 2000. These days, so many mainstream DJs are associated with a particular ‘sound’, both when playing live and in their releases. You decided long ago that you didn’t want to play that game?

It went in phases, I had to play that game at times in order to work out that it wasn’t for me. If we look back to 2004-2009 — that whole era was the power of the DJ-led record label/brand. 

During much of that period, the media paid attention to artists based on what collective they were affiliated with, over everything else. I never wanted to either play any gig or work on any record without the booker or label wanting ME.

Certain sections of the music media only woke up when I started working with Carl Craig in Detroit, but previous to that, between Erotic Discourse and then, I could barely get arrested in some eyes. I always wanted to earn my success rather then be accepted due to affiliation. 

This is why it’s been a long game for me, and in fact, for anyone serious, let me make this clear: it is a LONG game. It will take your audience as much time as it takes you to fully realise your vision.

It’s a lifetime’s work, not a five-year plan. Remember that when the people around you are saying ‘give it a go for a bit then f*ck it off if it doesn’t work in a year’. A lifetime’s work.

Erotic Discourse was released in 2006, at the height of the minimal techno boom

I read an interview with you recently where you spoke against people overanalysing your music – that for you, it’s more a case of putting out banging tunes for people to enjoy, nothing fancy or intellectual. With that in mind, do you think a lot of producers take themselves too seriously?

That was from the Vortex press release last year. I was taking the piss out of record labels asking ‘so what’s the concept?’ whenever album discussions happened.

Also Simon Reynolds had just published his article Conceptronica, that related to these quite academic approaches to what was basically sound-collage. I was completely taking the piss out of that, although in actual fact I enjoy plenty of that music as well.

For example, I love Lee Gamble’s music and he has a laser-focused vision and fine eye for subtle nuances of this. 

But overall, I think taking the piss is not only important but vital. That’s not to say you can’t be deadly serious about the music.

The Offworld album was a concept album in many ways, so there’s a prime example of blatant piss-taking right there. I said ‘fuck all that’ and then released one. There you have it. I could have dressed it up in loads of academic thesis but you can apply whatever you want to it, should you want to. It can be whatever you want.

We spoke to A Guy Called Gerald recently, and he said that when he went through his back catalogue, each of his productions reminded him of a particular time and place, both in terms of his music and what was going on at the time. Do you agree – for example, something like Erotic Discourse could ONLY have been made in the mid 2000s?

I would broadly agree with that. The background of that minimal scene made it possible for the audience to not dismiss what was – and still is – quite a challenging record.

Timing is everything.

What is the most essential piece of musical equipment in your arsenal?

I used to say it was the sampler, but these days I think the most important thing is what is in your mind. It’s not what equipment you have. If you know what you want, truly, then that is the most powerful thing of all.

If you know what the end goal is, then you can find a path to that. You could have all the equipment in the world, but if you don’t know what you want to make, it’s all useless information.

MomaReady, AceMo and DJ Swisha are among the up and coming artists Woolford admires

What up and coming producers do you particularly admire and why?

Loads! MomaReady, AceMo, Anz, Violet and her Naive label, Logic 1000, Ciel, DJ Swisha, Cromby, Turtle Bugg, Al Wooton.

Chicago’s Savile has been around a while and never really had the credit he deserves, also Alex Jann is making killer records. There’s tonnes.

You’ve been making music for more than 20 years now – what inspires you to keep exploring new sounds and pushing the boundaries?

Good old fashioned passion. I love it. It’s as simple as that!

[Thanks to Paul for talking to us. His latest release, Looking For Me, alongside Diplo and Kareen Lomax, can be purchased here]

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