Monday, November 14, 2011

Niggy in Paris: Saul Williams drops Volcanic Sunlight, from France, with love

Posted By on Mon, Nov 14, 2011 at 4:27 PM

  • Sony France

As Kanye West would say, Saul Williams is definitely in his zone. For the last two years, the prolific wordsmith and occasional rock star has been residing in Paris, where he completed his latest studio album, Volcanic Sunlight (Sony), co-produced by Renaud Letang. Released in Europe last year, the follow up to his Trent Reznor-produced industrial epic The Inevitable Rise and Fall of Niggy Tardust dropped stateside on 11.11.11, and it’s the avant-gardist's first flirtation with danceable pop.

But don’t get it twisted. This ain’t “Niggas in Paris." Rather than wax poetic on material excess and black excellence (see: Watch the Throne), Williams has crafted a simple but unorthodox love affair that’s less spoken word treatise than trance-inducing treaty.

In Part 1 of our interview, the Morehouse College alum talks about raising his daughter (a former student at Atlanta’s Inman Middle School) in Paris as a single dad, giving record labels the middle finger, and France's hottest socioeconomic commodity: love.

When I heard you were living in Paris, I immediately thought of famous black expatriates like—

Saul Williams: James Baldwin … Richard Wright … Nina Simone?

Exactly. Obviously they were motivated to leave America by the kind of racism that doesn’t necessarily exist now, but do you see your move fitting into that tradition at all?

Naw. I can’t say that I do. Although, it’s not a bad list of names. My coming to Paris was kinda random. I’ve never really dreamt of living in Paris. And I pretty much came here, one, because there was a producer here that I wanted to work with, that’s Renaud Letang, the guy that ended up producing [Volcanic Sunlight] with me. I’ve been a fan of his work for years. I could’ve just come to record the album here, but when I started having that idea, I was looking for a place in L.A. where I was living, and I bumped into a friend in Paris while I was on tour. He showed me a place that cost the same thing that I was paying in L.A., and that’s when it hit me, like, “Oh shit, I can live in Paris for the same price as what I live in LA? Then why the fuck am I in LA?” So it was really more of a practical thing.

What are your days and nights like there? What do you do in Paris? What’s your lifestyle like?

First of all, I’m here with my 15-year-old daughter, so I’m a single dad in Paris. So when I’m not on tour living the rock star dream, I’m home saying, “Why are you asking me to help you with your homework?!” “I didn’t ask my parents for help!” Or I’m like, “Aww shit, I gotta cook dinner.” That’s what I’m on, first of all. I’m like, “Aww shit, go to bed so I can have some alone time.” I’m dealing with a 15-year-old daughter whose straight-up American, who moved here two years ago when she was 13 and goes to a French public school, and has learned French, but has also had the opportunity to sit in her class in Paris and have the kid sitting on one side of her from Afghanistan and on the other side from Iraq. [One day] her friend from Afghanistan, his cell phone goes off in class, he looks at the cell phone and starts crying and says, “Oh my god, they just got my uncle.” Now she wants to sit with him at lunch to convince him that she’s not that kind of American and that she’s sorry. You know, these are the experiences that she could not have if she was at Grady High [in Atlanta]. Yeah, my daughter went to Inman Middle School. But she’s here with me now. And it’s been amazing.

So one, I’m a parent. Secondly, I’m testing a lot of wines [laughs]. I’m learning the difference between a good red wine and a good white wine. I’m learning that Champagne is a region. You know, I’m getting cultured. And the other time, if I’m having a slow day here, I might go the Lourve and look at the Mona Lisa for 10 minutes — just on some shit like that. The galleries and museums here are real. Art is not some underworld, it’s the over-world, it’s everywhere. Every night I’m being asked, “Hey you wanna go to this dance performance with me, you wanna go to the theatre, you wanna go to the gallery? Like, it’s normal.

I got the email blast from you via your record company the other day titled “It’s Getting Harder to Maintain. One of the interesting things you talked about in it was the state of music and the news and having this feeling of not fitting into what’s going on. I imagine it’s a disconnect you’ve probably always felt as an artist?

I didn’t feel that at first. When I made my first album coming out of the poetry scene in Brooklyn, and I signed with Rick Rubin and Slam was coming out and their was this whole fanfare around what was happening with poetry, and I had this vision of this new music and all this stuff — I felt like I more than fit in. I felt like I was stepping into something that was tailor-made for me in that moment. And what I felt in response, not from people but from executives, was this sense of, “Nah, people aren’t ready for that.” I felt like executives were trying to speak for people.

When you think of all the albums that people could have out there if there weren’t executives in the way saying, “Nah, people aren’t ready for that.” People like Betty Davis — Miles Davis’ wife who he divorced because she was having an affair with Jimi Hendrix — Columbia shelved her album 30 years ago cause they thought people weren’t ready for it. I wonder what would happen if some of the shit that was shelved — like Biz Markie’s album before his All Samples Cleared! album — came out and demanded attention. Where would that take music? What would happen? Those things are interesting to me, because on the one hand I feel like our appreciation of music grows organically, and on the other hand I feel like we’re kind of spoon-fed and led by the corporate structures: This is what you like now, this is what’s hot.

Did that kind of corporate/label pressure have anything to do with you choosing at this point in your career to attempt your version of a pop album?

No, not at all. In fact, I lost all sense of pressure by the time I did Niggy Tardust. Niggy Tardust was my idea of a perfectly designed middle finger that was … to everyone who was to say, “You belong in this category.” After that, I felt free and I continue to feel free. I say that Volcanic Sunlight is like a pop album, one because I always was playing with the idea of Niggy Tardust being followed by Niggy Pop [laughs], and also because I was amazed at how music was coming out of me. By the time I was finishing up Niggy Tardust, the way that I was writing songs was different. I aim to be influenced, and Trent [Reznor] influenced me. What I wanted to learn from that sort of, like, mentorship was how to approach the song format in a stronger way. And that’s something that I’ve been wanting to approach from the beginning.

When I did my first album [Amethyst Rock Star], and I’ve said this before in interviews, Rick Rubin handed me the Beatles’ White Album and said, “Saul, you’re a great writer. This is songwriting. Learn the difference.” And what he was talking about was song structure. I fell in love with the singer Jeff Buckley, for example, and I remember turning to Rick Rubin and being like, “Yo, what do you think of Jeff Buckley?” He was like, “I like his voice; I don’t like his song structure.” And I remember having no idea what he was talking about, and that bothered me so I really wanted to examine song structure.

Trent was important for me because Trent, before he was this industrial artist, he was a classically trained pianist. So what he’s famous for really is putting these abstract or industrial sounds in a classic song structure. And that’s why [Nine Inch Nails] was able to get as popular, because the structure he placed those abstract sounds in were something we were used to.

So in terms of the content, how much does the love theme have to do with the fact that you recorded this in the City of Love?

My revolutionary spirit is obvious, but I think at the crux of that spirit is a really deeply entrenched love of humanity. Most of the time, like on the song “Triumph,” I’m trying to explain what I feel when I feel love because I’m not certain I’ve ever explained it, explored it, expressed it clearly. Just the idea of what that means when it’s not pointed at a particular person or an individual, but pointed in the idea of this compassionate whole, humanity, life. What does it mean to love life, does it mean “Oh, let’s pop some bottles?” How does it move you?


I remember, for example, being in Atlanta during the Rodney King thing [in 1992], and we convened in front of the library at the AUC and we marched downtown. And I thought that I was really important and I marched with everyone, and then when we got downtown I remember seeing people pick up trashcans and bricks and hit businessmen in the face. And I stood in the middle of the street crying, “No, no, no, no, that’s not what we need to do.” Because even though there was a white man coming out in a suit, there was no way I could look at that man whose politics I didn’t know — all I knew was that he was at the wrong place at the wrong time — and say, yeah, this dude deserves to be hit in the head with a brick. I feel too much compassion or empathy for that individual.

And it’s the same thing that happens when I look at the news. I can’t always just root for the police or the army or the so-called good guy and go “good riddance” to the bad guy. When I hear my country has murdered anyone, whether they called him a dictator or not, I’m not happy. I’m not happy with the idea of murder, I’m not happy with the idea of war and bloodshed in that sense. And to me that is also deeply entrenched in the idea of love, like another man in Atlanta, Dr. King.

So I’m talking about more than a love of pussy or a love of Hennessy or weed. I’m talking about love in its most profound sense. But if you were to ask me what is the main difference between the French culture and American culture, from my observation I would say, it seems to me that ambition trumps love in America. Here it’s socialist, so everybody’s earning essentially enough, everybody has a certain amount of days off and time to spend with their family, and everybody is going to receive unemployment if they’re not working, everybody’s going to be taken care of. So the idea of [a woman] leaving her man because he’s not earning enough doesn’t really come up. So here the lawyer can fall in love with the plumber and it’s OK, she can respect him as the plumber.

Tomorrow, Saul Williams discusses his hopes for the Occupy movement, the financial benefits of signing with Sony France and cashing his checks in euros, and why Lil B and Lil Wayne sound better blasting out of speakers in Paris.

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