The celebrated punk-poet, provocateur and sometime university lecturer Saul Williams is quietly preparing to launch his third socio-political aural assault on the senses this summer, and the new protest culture couldn’t be more in need of an injection of his astute, intelligent and emotive sounds. The first track leaked from his hugely anticipated forthcoming album Volcanic Sunlight is “Explain My Heart”, and it has been causing feverish excitement among his legions of loyal fans. When Saul hit town this week to play a sold-out show in east London, he called us up to say that we could exclusively premiere the video. Understandably, we took some serious time out to find out why the idiosyncratic career of the man once widely known as Niggy Tardust seems to be on the perpetual rise.
Dazed Digital: How much does your new album reflect the ways in which you have evolved as a musician in the last few years?
Saul Williams: It’s a little more about the simple process of transferring or conveying energy. I used a lot of words in the past because I felt like I needed a lot of words to say what I was trying to say, although what I was trying to say was actually really simple. There is a lot of fun to be had when you try and fit as many words as you can within a three-minute song, but there is also a lot of fun in trying to get that message across in three words, or better yet when the music can overpower the words and convey something really pure and perfect that affects our psycho-emotional space.
Dazed Digital: Do you think there are certain things one can reach for in music that connect with us on a profound physiological and spiritual level?
Saul Williams: Yeah. It’s that spiral of sound that Plato talked about. If you look at the octave scale and the scale of the chakra energy centres, it is that same thing of going upwards. The oldest prayers known to the ancient Egyptians and so on employed music to take you through all these different energy centres, because different pitching and tempos cause different vibratory responses. In the past, one thing I was often trying to do was create really upbeat music for people to mosh to, or whatever, in the hope that they would then hear something in the lyrics – you know, the way a soldier in tank might be listening to it and hear something in the lyrics that makes him hold his fire. Now, it’s not so much about figuring out the alchemy of that, but celebrating the alchemy of that: it’s s as simple as wanting to lift spirits.
Dazed Digital: It’s interesting you make a military analogy as sonic weapons are very much being talked about in warfare...
Saul Williams: Fela Kuti said, ‘Music is the weapon of the future.' It’s true. There are soundwaves that can make the earth vibrate and respond the same way a piano cord would if you plucked it. If we have the capacity with technology to create earthquakes with sound, then we can have the psycho-equivalent of that in music – you can make someone laugh, you can make someone cry and you can help someone get it. You can flick that switch on that helps them look at their life in a different way.
Dazed Digital: Would you say that wanting to switch people on to something really drives you?
Saul Williams: In very subtle, humble ways, the most any of us can do is play our part. How big or small that part is something we have no real control over, but we should try and play it. When Obama gave his Nobel Prize speech, he said what we are witnessing in the Middle East and so on will not change in our lifetimes, but when I think about those things, I think, ‘That is something I would like to see change in my lifetime! In the same way that I saw apartheid end in my lifetime.’ I believe that what happens with Jewish and Palestinian people can change but the fact is that we can’t rely on politics to bring about those kind of changes. The responsibility is really on us to do it through art and music.
Dazed Digital: Sadly, most artists don’t share that conviction, even hip hop has become totally assimilated into the mainstream over the last decade...
Saul Williams: When hip hop happened it was a powerful bearer of identity, and I think the through line of hip hop is that it is about confidence: if you look at rappers they always seems to have to be a little boastful; they always seem to have to have a certain amount of braggadocio. That was important in the beginning, it allowed people that felt disenfranchised to stand up, do it and say I told you so. It fought to be accepted and it was accepted, but once it was accepted there came the cookie cutter way of doing it. It’s just a process of becoming pop, and there is nothing wrong with that, but I lost interest. Everything that came afterwards was a wave of purebred Americanism – the ingrained cultural thing of celebrating the wrong idea of the hero. That goes way back to the whole cowboy thing – we made all those cowboy films, and we were always conditioned to root for the cowboys, even though they raped and murdered and stole. Look at the rise of a George Bush and the rise of a 50 Cent and you are looking at the same paradigm – the rise of a cowboy, or the rise of a gangster.