Interview: Special Request

Throughout his lengthy career, Paul Woolford has worn many hats, adopted many aliases. Perhaps the best-fitting and longest-lasting of these has been Special Request. When it first surfaced, Woolford was releasing techno on labels like Hotflush and Planet E. Special Request was an avenue for more raucous material inspired by pirate radio, specifically the sounds of jungle, drum and bass and rave. Over the past five years he’s released a glut of music under this moniker, from special 12″s and EPs and a debut album on Houndstooth to a triple-release pack with XL and, earlier this year, an explosive FABRICLIVE mix CD. Earlier this month he released a second album with Houndstooth, Belief System, which covers an impossibly broad range of styles – from mind-bending techno breaks and emotive floor tracks to rattling percussive monsters indebted to ’90s rave sounds. The album’s second half explores a sort of widescreen neo-classical sound, more OST than IDM. Many albums would buckle under the weight of such a massive undertaking, but Belief System makes it happen. We caught up with Woolford to discuss the ongoing excursions of the Special Request sound, the state of SoundCloud and the impact of his native Leeds on his music.

For the first album, it was announced that it was “built almost exclusively from vintage hardware and boosted by industrial-strength EQ and an FM transmitter” – is that still the case? “These days I’m using pretty much anything and everything I can get my hands on. For so many years I used an EMU sampler as the central workhorse with a few other things, and there’s still tracks across these sessions that are done that way, but as soon as I get stuck into one method, I get other ideas really quickly and re-route the gear and go again. Really, I should be working across three or four rooms, which is part of the plan, but that needs time… I’m still obsessed with the heavyweight style of that production method; a sampler at the heart and go from there – and for a certain type of track it cannot be beaten, but for Belief System and for a lot of the more subtle things I’ve been working on recently, I’ve needed to widen the net and change some of the methods quite radically. Setting out the stall of Special Request required a concentrated approach – now the only way for it to move forward is by stretching that out radically.”

This album contains source material from your tape archives going back to 1993. What was it like going back in time, not just creating ‘false memories’ but updating the past? “Wild… There’s so much stuff that I forgot about that sounds pretty mental today. I was tempted to do an album solely of archived cassette tracks from the four-track days, but that’s probably something for much later on. A lot of these tracks were things that were frustrating to me at the time, because I couldn’t get the required amount of madness, or the right amount of ‘bang’ (or so I thought…) out of the machines I had. Listening back years later, there’s some proper unhinged moments. It’s easy to be dismissive of your past, and not to give it the respect it deserves, but the path through any artform is paved with so many moments of realisation. You view the same things differently in contrast with what is happening in the present moment, and that can be revealing. How many times do you hear someone play a record and you think, ‘I never heard it played like THAT’? Sometimes I’ll be working on something and I realise that it’s something I’ve been trying to do for 20 years… That’s one of the greatest feelings. The more open you are to any possibility, the more likely you are to find something that is out of the ordinary. Nothing is out of bounds.”

One thing I’ve noticed about Belief System it is that it draws on the various elements of your sound, including the ’90s-indebted jungle and rave aspect, the bouncy, squelchy house, as well as the more straight-up euphoric piano sounds. Is the title reflective of that? A belief system in all the above? “That’s one reading of it, and there’s a lot of truth in it. I’ve felt for a long time that, as artists, why should we underestimate the sophistication of the audience? You often hear people say, ‘I could do a track like that, but then it wouldn’t be me, and it would confuse people’. Audiences, now more than ever, are ready for multi-layered albums that can be re-visited year-on-year and reveal different things. In every other form of art and entertainment we have the most complex and interesting images, stories, and ideas, so why is it that we feel audiences cannot relate to a two-hour album if they can watch eight seasons of The Sopranos or Game Of Thrones? There’s a certain type of person that wants to indulge in things completely. I want music to blow my mind, I want albums to absolutely knock me for six. I don’t want to get through an album and think, ‘Yeah, that was alright…’ Time is the most precious thing we have, and we are losing it second by second, so we should be going all out to create things that are as interesting, audacious and bold as possible.

“If you make an okay album… It will be forgotten in five seconds the way the modern attention span is. In fact – even if you make a good album, that might stretch to five minutes. They have to be fucking proper. We have the responsibility to endeavour to take things as far as we can.

“Going back to the title – a belief system is what anybody needs in order to do anything. We have to believe in medicine, we have to believe in our bodies to breathe all the time, we have to believe in the everyday tiny things that all add up to the greater picture. We are told these things work. We have to believe. The power of thought can change our brain chemistry. That in itself tells you how powerful belief is.”

The FABRICLIVE mix followed a similar pattern in a way, darting between ravey sounds from the likes of Richard D. James (in various guises), electro from 214 and Claro Intelecto and then transitional sounds from Aleksi Perälä, Abul Mogard and ASC, not to mention the exhilarating stretch of dnb. Was it a challenge to fit that all into one CD? “That was a really unusual situation where the whole mix seemed to be really rapidly sticking together from the start of the process. Rarely does that happen! I spend a lot of time thinking about how to transition between genres during club and festival sets – and there are very few SR sets where the focus is all one genre – maybe playing for Metalheadz and these types of gigs. Beyond that, nearly every SR set is multi-genre, so it’s perhaps not as much of a stretch as it might seem. Boomkat actually nailed it with something in their description of the mix – they said, ‘You get the impression he’s been waiting to do this for some time.’ That was exactly the case, so when Rob Butterworth from Fabric asked me, and basically said, ‘You’ve got three weeks to get us the tracklisting,’ I was already mentally involved in the idea, so it was a case of drawing for the combinations that would spark off the most excitement in that moment. It was all fun – the only difficult thing was having to let go of an Underground Resistance track in the end because I couldn’t get hold of Mike Banks in time. Everything else worked out – we even had Richard James personally license “Cordialatron” because the Rephlex rights reverted to him. That was a mad one. I was bricking it because it’s the first ‘main’ track in the mix that shapes the first section, after the ambient intro. I actually had no fucking idea what I would have attempted to replace it with. There was no backup plan. In my mind it was just, ‘He’s gonna a license it, because there is nothing for that moment.’ Thanks Rich!”

On the opposite end of things, I notice the tag for your Special Request FACT mix reads, ‘who cares’ – is that a middle finger to such definitions? “Pretty much. People can get so hung up on genre, but really? You hear bods moaning in clubs about somebody playing something out of the ordinary… it’s like, for fuck’s sake, there’ll be another record on in five minutes, nobody’s gonna die, are they? I find those views bizarre. Nobody goes home and ONLY listens to one type of music. Nobody eats one type of food. Imagine if you only ate chicken pies. Absurd. ‘Oh, did you see John came in eating a sausage roll yesterday, what’s he playing at?’”

To go back to the album, there’s a whole CD of widescreen sounds, ambient, classical, beatless, whatever you want to call it. Do you think that will surprise people? “I signposted it earlier this year with a couple of the tracks on the Stairfoot Lane Bunker EP – but I’m sure there will be plenty of people that don’t expect it. I’ve been working on music in this area for many years, but I didn’t want to release an ‘ambient’ album as such – or certainly not at this stage. It became clear that the way to work it into Special Request was through contrasting it with the heavier stuff, so I wanted the album to feel like it takes you right up into the intensity, and then you are suspended for the rest of the duration. Take away the drums and you’re dangling there…

“You could take it as two separate albums in themselves, but I think the weight of the material is heavier with the contrast between the two sides. Listen as one album and it will make even more sense.”

I loved the #woolyleaks SoundCloud dump – what was the impetus for that? Did it provide catharsis? “It seemed like SoundCloud was going to disappear – and I think it’s almost become its own context – so much so that releasing something on there can mean getting it out there without necessarily making the grand statement. Every time a record comes out with your name on the media view it as a statement. Sometimes not every record actually is, so I wanted to get those tracks released without them being reviewed or seen as ‘the direction Paul Woolford is going in now’ or whatever. I wanted to do tons more but that’s again something for later. One of those tracks was actually due to come out on Running Back but Gerd Janson was very understanding about it. I had been in wide-ranging discussions about three of the others for over a year as well, but it was time to drop it and move on. One of the Special Request tracks – called “No Phone Calls” – is on the new six-track Curtain Twitcher EP that we are releasing alongside Belief System, so in that case SoundCloud almost acted as a testing ground. It’s a really valid and direct medium.”

I was particularly taken with “Pterygota”, which along with “Triadophlebioptera” is a group of winged insect. What do these titles mean to you? “For a period of time I was convinced I was going to start keeping butterflies, but it was completely unrealistic. I love ’em and so during that time every track title was related to it. Some of the ambient stuff still ends up with titles relating to it all. The natural world absolutely blows me away.”

Likewise “Carex Vesicaria”, which is a kind of sedge or grassy plant. These are not the standard tropes of club music! “Carex vesicaria is the main plant in the Eccup reservoir in the locality of my house in Leeds – we used to hang out around there as kids and there’s a lot of farmland and woods around there that provided years of fun. I could knock out a concept album about the gravitational pull of the moon but let’s face it, Jeff Mills has space colonised off for himself. Also – your question references ‘club music’ but we are long since departed from club music with that particular track. The tracks on Belief System that don’t have drums in them are not ‘dance music’s version of ambient’ – they are coming from a different perspective, although there will be some elements that overlap. As far as club music tropes go – I love to fuck around with them, even the well worn things occasionally – there’s a pressure that I relish with using things that have been rinsed out and presenting them through a certain lens. The stakes are higher with a well worn idea or sample because it must justify its inclusion double the amount. It’s like painting a vase of flowers. The ultimate cliché. It’s been done to fucking death, and way better than most people will ever do it.. and yet somebody, somewhere, eventually will do a killer version. The tracks “Brainstorm” and “Make It Real” are both dealing in absolutely rinsed-out elements, but they are super-effective. This is a challenge to myself. How far can I go? How much is too much? Why should I hold back according to rules that an invisible audience in my mind might dictate? Why should I give a fuck about that? I want to confront these questions. If you did 23 tracks like “Brainstorm” it would be so boring, because there would be no contrast. So the power is in what you edit in and out.”

On the subject of titles, there are tracks on the new album called “Adel Crag Microdot”, “Scrambled in LS1”, “Cheyne Stoking”, and before that “Stairfoot Lane Bunker”. How important is Leeds to your sound? “Vital, really – it’s the environment that I’m in, and I have a connection to it that is stronger than anywhere else. It’s not the Leeds that is known for nightclubbing or anything along those lines, it’s something way more arcane and disconnected from any music scene or city-focused view. The track ‘Adel Crag Microdot’ is about a pagan sacrifice spot that I used to hang around when we were kids. I only found out that it had been used for that many years later, it was just a mad place in the woods that seemed to attract strange characters. There’s many an odd tale about that place.”

Can you tell us about your relationship with Houndstooth? Modern Warfare came out on XL but for this album you’ve returned to HTH. What’s it like working with Rob Booth? Modern Warfare came out of an offer of doing a 12” for XL Recordings. I kept sending them tracks and so it developed into four 12”s (eventually). The thing for me was being able to have a handful of those classic XL 12” bags with my catalogue in them. It was actually a teenage ambition, so it was insane bringing this to fruition about 26 years after buying my first XL record. In terms of Houndstooth, they are super open and receptive to my ideas – we’re pretty much at the stage where I can propose nearly anything and they will consider it, so for any artist this is a good place to be. The two Robs [Booth and Butterworth] have a lot of enthusiasm, which is vital and necessary for any label. A healthy, child-like enthusiasm drives us all at the heart of things.”

What was the last thing that made you dance? “Young Marco Sterk last week at De School in Amsterdam. We did a seven-hour back to back, few stones left unturned during what was quite an unorthodox one. That’s an environment purpose-built for indulgence, shouts to all the De School crew – and especially their kitchen!”

Special Request – Belief System is out now. Buy here.

Aidan Hanratty

Dublin ...