Saul Milton of Chase & Status: The So What! Interview
BY STEFFAN CHIRAZI
I had enjoyed Chase & Status’ work for some time, but it wasn’t until I saw them at Glastonbury back in 2014 that I found myself fully invested. It was 2:00 am, and we (that is, the Lars Ulrich Glastonbury Committee) were – as I believe I documented in the So What! magazine about the festival – burning the midnight oil into the sunrise. I knew Chase & Status were doing a “secret” set at the Blues Stage (a massive made-to-look-ramshackle wooden structure), and I knew I was going to check it out. Actually, a few of us did. The stage sat at the bottom of what felt like a bowl, one which was occupied by many thousands of people. As Saul Milton and Will Kennard wove their thumping, grooving, grinding, and hypnotic tapestries, my body forced itself further into the bowl, the throes of writhing humanity swallowing us up. It was sensational. I was hooked. So when I saw that Chase & Status had contributed “Wherever I May Roam” to The Metallica Blacklist, I was obviously excited. But what’s more, I saw it as an excellent opportunity to help a few of you out there (who might not ever touch them based on genre-tagging) find a way “in” to checking them out and seeing just how goddam cool they are. And finding out that there can be a similar power and energy in electronic-based music.
Milton and Kennard are from London, where they became friends. After both attended Manchester University, they found themselves putting Chase & Status together in 2003. Since then, they’ve released five studio albums and worked on countless remixes and collaborations/production work with some heavy-hitting artists, including Rihanna, Plan B, and Snoop Dogg.
Do not, however, be fooled.
Milton loves guitar. When Chase & Status do their arena shows, they unfurl into aggressive and energetic affairs, complete with a live drummer and MC/vocalists. In these sets, you’ll likely see cuts like “Smash To Pieces” and super-charged covers like Rage Against The Machine’s “Killing In The Name.” I was therefore delighted to speak with Saul from his North London digs about Chase & Status and Metallica. Furthermore, how they not only found each other via “Wherever I May Roam” and The Metallica Blacklist, but the link they’ve shared through this track in the past.
Steffan Chirazi: What sounds interested you as a kid? I know it sounds weird, but sometimes a really loud drill or church bell can catch a young ear, so was there a sound that interested you as a kid? And how about some early acts you liked while we’re here?
Saul Milton: That’s a difficult one. Sound? It’s hard to say what’s outside that would’ve resonated. From a very early age, I had a set of bongos, so I would assume there’s something rhythmic in that. But then again, which kid didn’t have a set of bongos?
And the music as a kid? I think one of the first songs – I was very young, I must’ve been about eight – that made me realize, “fuck, man, music’s pretty special” was Duran Duran’s “Ordinary World.” Around the same time, I was on a school trip, and I remember hearing “Rhythm Is A Dancer,” SNAP, “I’ve Got the Power,” The KLF, and C+C Music Factory. Another song – again, we’re talking when I was eight, nine years old – was the Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker.” It was in a Levi’s ad at the time, and obviously, I watched TV and adverts.
As for sounds [from early childhood], that would probably be the low sounds coming out of my sister’s stereo through the wall. And that would always sound interesting, be it “the R&B artist we don’t talk about now” or early breakbeat hardcore coming out of her room. All sorts, really.
SC: So your sister was listening to early breakbeat. Is that the first that you’re really hearing of electronic music?
SM: Oh, yeah, in terms of what I do now, 100% it would’ve been from her. She would’ve been going to the raves that I would’ve dreamt about going to. There’s no denying it; lots of the early rave stuff would’ve definitely been heard straight out of my sister’s room, just by chance, really. She was 100% formative for me in that sense. I’m very grateful.
SC: Good, good! I’m also interested in your love of dancehall and proper Jamaican “roots” music. When I was a kid, we would listen to Motörhead one night and Tommy Vance on BBC 1 Radio, and then the next, we’d be listening to Prince Buster on Judge Dread’s show, or The Specials. So I’d be getting two feeds which were ska and metal/punk.
SM: Well, I had the same sort of thing. When I was growing up – I’m now gonna fast forward to not being nine – I was religiously listening to Kurt Cobain/Nirvana and Pearl Jam. At the same time, Wu-Tang, Snoop, and Dr. Dre were part of my listening too. It really was an eclectic mix and mash-up of all kinds of cultures and sounds, but fundamentally, it’s all black culture and all black influenced music that we’re [Chase & Status] from.
But Metallica were one of the first bands I got crazy into. The Black Album is where the whole Metallica shit begins for me. I was actually staying abroad somewhere at someone’s house on a school trip, it was around 1993, and that’s when I got a whole lot of Metallica albums. I found The Black Album; you find the one that’s got the bigger appeal, and then you go backward. And, by that stage (12), I’d just started learning to play guitar. I just wanted to be a guitarist. That was the dream, and so we learned by learning everyone else’s stuff, and then you start to write on your own.
So Metallica 1993 was a big entrance, and it was so different from the other guitar music I was hearing and stuff like grunge. So for a young kid learning to play guitar with all that going on, it was mind-opening.
SC: It’s fascinating. The Black Album is where Jason [Newsted] was in a sense emancipated and given the license to be a bass player and find those grooves. Is that what you were locking into? Did you see a similarity between The Black Album groove and other stuff you were into? For example, I’ve often felt a definite link between metal music and drum and bass music in certain areas. There is a groove in there that maybe wouldn’t be apparent to some people.
SM: Well, there is a similarity as in talking about BPMs. There are many similarities between songs off The Black Album and the tempo of hardcore and early jungle records. So I know you know about “Saxon”…the tempo is what really made that happen in the first place.
SC: And just to say, for our readers, Saul is not talking about the Barnsley Big Teasers who liked to enjoy a mug of tea and play “Heavy Metal Thunder.” He’s talking about a cut Chase & Status created called “Saxon,” which is actually the true genesis of this “Wherever I May Roam” cover.
SM: Yeah, I’ll get into it. It was in 2009, and we called the cut “Saxon” because we used a sample from the legendary Saxon sound system. It’s a mishmash of Metallica, dance hall, and dubstep. Lots of things we love but set to the original tempo of “Wherever I May Roam,” which is basically very close to 140 BPM. I wanted to use a Metallica sample or riff, but without it sounding so straight off the Metallica record. I actually heard a bluegrass cover album of The Black Album, so it’s like lots of twiddles on the left, and there’s some strummings on the right. I used that version to inspire me to record the riff, and so we sampled that, put some effects on it, and that became the mash-up, country-sounding, sitar-like track which is “Saxon.”
SC: Wow. So that’s the version you used for influence, a bluegrass version of “Roam.”
SM: I’d advise anyone who’s a Metallica fan to find this bluegrass cover because it’s incredible. [I believe Saul is talking about the Fade To Bluegrass album featuring Iron Horse. – ED]
SC: So this was obviously a connection point with this project...
SM: …there’s more [Saul smiles]. So we’ve found ourselves working a lot with Rihanna. In 2009 we co-produced her album Rated R, and there were two songs of ours that she cited that made her want to work with us. One of them was called “Eastern Jam,” and the other was “Saxon.” And she was desperate to get “Saxon” on the album, but we just couldn’t make it happen. Anyways, fast forward a couple of years, and on her album Talk That Talk, a version of “Saxon” is on the deluxe issue called “Red Lipstick.” It’s basically a “Saxon” instrumental with her singing on it.
SC: Unbelievable. This is becoming one of these six degrees of Kevin Bacon stories regarding the artistic reach of “Wherever I May Roam.”
SM: A hundred percent. So when we got the call to say, “Hey, Metallica are doing an album of covers of The Black Album, is there anything you want to contribute to it?” For me, it was a no-brainer.
SC: There are some pretty significant differences between “Saxon” and this version, especially with the vocal track where you’ve used BackRoad Gee. For people who don’t know, and again I don’t want to put people into shoeboxes, but for the sake of easy definition, he’s considered a grime rapper.
SM: He’s just a rapper, and he’s a very versatile and exciting talent. Will and I are always excited about new talent and looking for that new sound or new vibe, and he’s so fresh and exciting. There’s so much energy. I remember thinking I’d love to get in with this guy, but I don’t fucking know him. And I didn’t know anyone who knew him. So with just getting a bit older and COVID, plus being slightly out of the loop, I couldn’t figure out how I was going to find him. I don’t normally use Instagram because I’ve deleted the app off of my phone, but I went on Instagram, and there was a DM from Backroad Gee saying, “Yo, let’s link up.” Bish, bash, bosh, two days later, we’re in a studio with a whole lot of stuff and had a really good vibe together. I said to Will, “It could be really interesting to do ‘Saxon’ with him through the Metallica cover. We’re obviously not doing our own lyrics. Let’s see if this kid’s up for it because it could be really interesting.”
We did a beat nothing like we’ve done ever before, it’s basically a drill beat, and we’ve never released anything like that before. And we wanted to see if he’d be up for it. And BackRoad Gee was right there and into it, doing whatever, man. And when someone’s got that much energy and is also keen to work, it’s like, let’s just try and get the best we can.
He wasn’t familiar with the song before, and the lyrics are pretty fucking nuts. It took a while to get them fitting in the correct place within the record, you know. And for someone who doesn’t know the record, you give ’em these lyrics, and they’re like, “Where do these start? Where are the commas? Where’s the new line?” Because for flow, you might go into the next sentence and then start with the wrong word because that just feels better. But as a listener who knows all about all this cut, it sounds a bit skew-whiff. So it was quite a lot of work to try and get the flow right.
And actually, it was a punt. I said, “Look, we’re basically gonna do a punt. We’re gonna send out this mental drill version of ‘Wherever I May Roam’ and hope we don’t hear back from them saying, ‘This is garbage, guys. Don’t ever send us music ever again.’” We were prepared; that’s the gamble. And we got the call that they loved it. We were over the moon.
SC: One thing our readers should know is that Chase & Status are every bit as much a live act as a studio act. Your gigs are really dynamic and energetic. In fact, they feel like rock shows in the sense that the dynamics of a great electronic show can be just as intense and just as heavy. There’s the bottom end, there are drops, and if you’re feeding into it and allowing your body to go with it, things can get super intense.
SM: Up to the lost 2020, we had done shows pretty much every weekend for the best part of about 18 years, nonstop. It was a way of life, and we’ve always been DJs, performers, and guitar players who wanted to play out and perform and smash up a crowd. And one of the great things about playing live is being able to try out new songs and mixes live to see if they work. We can go out, play a new song, and after 30 seconds of it, know how we feel about it. We’ve got the read from it, and if you get a great reaction, it inspires you to get back and work on something new.
SC: How do you and Will work as a duo? Who takes on what?
SM: Will and I have been together for roughly 20-22 years. When we were younger, I think we were very similar, but as you get older, you get quite different. We fill in the gaps that would be between us. I’m lacking a bit of “this,” and Will’s a bit more measured, or Will’s a bit too laid back, and I’m a bit OTT. And because of that, we’ve made a decision that’s really worked; it all kind of spins together. We used to write music side by side, for many, many years. As you get older and don’t live in the same walking distance of each other’s houses and so on and so forth, you learn to do it very differently. You know, certain things we may or may not agree on, but the thing we most invariably agree on is our music, the direction of it, and how a song would be best served. We’re not precious with each other, we’ve always had a great relationship in that regard, and we’re on the same page. And right now, we’re in a really good place; we’re all tuned in.
SC: Let’s round it off with something that I think could be helpful for some of our more adventurous readers. Would you recommend some music and acts to help a hardcore Metallica fan cross over into worlds they maybe don’t normally get into? Let’s stick to the drum and bass arena, if you will. Are there three songs off the top of your head that you can think of that you would suggest they listen to as crossover songs?
SM: I would say “Pieces” featuring Plan B. There’s a song by Nightbreed from a long time ago, can’t remember the name, though. Pendulum are great; if you’re inclined to any kind of dance music and you’re a Metallica fan, you have to check out Pendulum, of course.
SC: I will add “International” by Chase & Status to your suggestions…
SC: Great choices. They sit somewhere west of The Prodigy (“Smash TV” has a G N’ R sample), but well within the Chase & Status remit too. Great stuff, and thanks again for your time.
SM: Thank you.