Interview: Chase & Status
Published on March 28th, 2011 | Jonny Abrams
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Saul ‘Chase’ Milton and Will ‘Status’ Kennard have come an awfully long way from the teenage drum and bass heads producing tracks in their rooms and deejaying at modestly-sized venues. 2008 debut album More Than Alot took them to the top of the dance charts, if not into the UK top 40, but the intervening years have overseen a gradual rise to prominence which has now culminated with the huge success of sophomore effort No More Idols, a dazzlingly diverse record which features the likes of Dizzee Rascal, Cee-Lo Green, Plan B, Tempa T, Tinie Tempah, White Lies and Delilah amongst its impressive roster of guest vocalists.
On second thoughts, ‘culmination’ is perhaps not the right word in this instance; certainly, their forthcoming tours of Europe and North America (see chaseandstatus.co.uk for a list of dates), their burgeoning record label and the tantalising prospect of future collaborations with the likes of Jay-Z, Kanye West and Pharrell suggest that their evolution from talented scenesters to global phenomenon is not yet complete.Rocksucker caught up with the delightfully personable Kennard (Status, if you prefer) to discuss their dizzying ascent, the inevitable accusations of ‘selling out’, furrowing the brows of Rihanna’s management team, embarrassing himself in front of Beyonce, getting a MySpace message from Snoop Dogg and his fondness for camomile tea…
Were you guys surprised by how much you were embraced by the mainstream? Was that level of success always the target?
We were definitely surprised but it was definitely not really the target. We just came from an underground world, making music, deejaying in clubs and stuff like that. So writing music for radio wasn’t really something we’d have known how to do, or thought to do. Obviously that starts getting to your head – the more success you have, the more money the label put into the project, putting singles on radio – but we were very conscious of trying not to get too radio-sounding, too commercial-sounding, because then you’d start losing the fans that got you there in the first place. Our radio plugger was sceptical about our single ‘Blind Faith': “hmmm…I like it…I think I need to listen to it a few times but I’m not sure how radio is going to take to it.” A lot of people around us weren’t sure about that record when they first heard it, they just kind of went: “Yeah…it’s cool…a bit weird…Liam Bailey singing this great song…what the hell is it?” That sort of thing. So yeah, it was a lovely surprise. We thought it was a good track and it’s so nice when the mainstream cottons on as well and gives you that kind of certified success. But it’s always surprising, even you asking that question just now. It’s very weird because I don’t really think of us as a mainstream act. We still feel like these 18-year-old kids writing music in a small underground scene, playing in a club to like three hundred people.
The success of an artist can breed bitterness and contempt amongst fans. Have you had to deal with the kind of criticism that came the way of, say, Pendulum when they broke through to the mainstream?
Yeah, I think everyone does. We don’t really deal with it because we don’t read that stuff. It’s easy to find criticism about yourself online, whoever you are, and I think it’s stupid to read too much into it, especially if it bothers you. It’s funny, you can read a hundred comments that are positive and one that’s negative and that one puts self-doubt in your head, about yourself and the music you make. I also understand how kids can be very passionate about protecting an underground scene that they think you’re contributing to the downfall of. I used to be that sort of purist fan who was just into drum and bass, an ‘if you don’t like it then I don’t like you’ sort of thing, a little club for cool underground music that mum didn’t know about. The minute you hear that music on Radio 1 and your mum’s like, “Ooh, that tune’s nice,” then you do feel resentment towards that artist because you’re passionate about it and you feel like they’re taking away the magic of that world. Even though the song might be good, it’s the principle of it, so I can understand some of the nasty stuff said about us or anyone else who becomes mainstream. I understand where it comes from and it is what it is.
Did you see Rob from Pendulum’s quite brilliant response to criticism on the Dogs On Acid forum? (Quote: “if your genre was flimsy enough to be knocked over by ONE SINGLE RECORDING ARTIST who happened to – god forbid – sell some fucking records for the first time in about 5/6 years, then I’m glad it was us that got to drive the final stake through its stale pig shit heart – and good riddance”)
Yeah, I did see that. I’m good friends with those guys. Personally, it’s not something that I’d have done but I can understand Rob’s frustration; that’s him reading into that, spending too much time reading stuff on those forums and he got affected by it. I think you need to rise above all that and responding to those people maybe made them think, “Wow, we’ve actually got to him.” I tend to ignore that stuff. But yeah, it was hilarious!
How much of a say do you get in terms of where and how your tracks are used on television, in advertising and so on?
Pretty much none! It depends, actually; companies like BBC and Sky Sports pay a blanket fee to PR agencies and companies to use our music, which enables them to pick and choose what they want without constantly having to ask or request it. They wouldn’t have time to do that – it would slow down the whole process – whereas if it’s licensed to something specific like an advert, a movie or a trailer then we have a complete say, in case it’s something really horrendous. We’ve turned down something before; there was a loo roll advert or something ridiculous that wanted the license to our single but it would have ruined it so we said no, even though the money was quite good!
I’m trying to imagine what kind of loo roll advert would have a Chase & Status track on it…
I can’t remember if it was loo roll or not. It was something really bizarre, in somewhere like France, Italy or Poland.
Why did you decide that Liam Bailey was the right man to sing on ‘Blind Faith’?
We tried a lot of people on it. It’s a happy sounding track but a lot of people wrote songs over the top of it that just sounded too obvious, almost stupidly obvious and cheesy. We came across Liam Bailey from someone suggesting him as a cool guy anyway and we love his music: it’s soulful and slightly dubby, with a cool vibe about it, so we thought f*** it, why not? Usually we wouldn’t have considered him but we were kind of desperate so we thought let’s try someone different. Sure enough, he sung the first verse that he had in mind already and we thought, hang on, this kind of brings a different angle to the song, makes it cooler than singing about clouds and rainbows and the sun, that kind of cheesy stuff. So we’re really happy that we got him on the track.
You straddle a quite a few different genres. Would you nail your colours to the mast of any one in particular or are you happy just to be chameleonic/eclectic?
Our loyalty lies with drum and bass, I guess, because that’s where we came from, where we cut our teeth, if you like, and learned our trade. It’s the music that inspired us the most growing up and, whether or not the media depict it as this sort of hot ticket at the moment, it’s been around for so long now and it continues. We’re always in drum and bass clubs and it’s the kind of music that gets a bigger reaction and makes a crowd go more nuts than any other genre I’ve ever seen, really. So, yeah, that’s where we really come from.
How did producing for Rihanna come about?
That was initially through managerial contacts – our manager happened to know her manager – so we sent over our first album and bits and bobs. There’s a dubby kind of tune called ‘Saxon’ which wasn’t on the album but she heard it anyway – it has this kind of dancehall-y, soundsystem, Jamaican feel and obviously she’s Bajan so that kind of stuff was a big influence for her – and it blew her away. She was looking for a new angle for her next album and she just thought, right, this is it and called us up straight away – literally personally called us up! – and said, “I love it, I’m coming to London next week.” And that was it. We spent two weeks with her recording and trying out different stuff and it was great; I take my hat off to her for being open minded and wanting to try something different, it was very cool.
I read an interview with you where you said that she said: “Give me the grimiest music you’ve got!” Did you?
We did and she loved it but what was a shame – although kind of understandable – was that me, Saul and her were in the studio playing stupidly distorted bass lines, really aggressive music and all loving it, but there are so many people involved in her projects and certain people from the label heard these demos and thought, hang on a second, this is Rihanna, she’s going to sell eight million records around the world to all types of fans, like twelve-year old girls in Thailand. So some of the stuff we did at first wouldn’t really have been appropriate for someone of her ‘pop’ stature but we saw her quite recently and she’s still really keen to get some of those tracks we did with her on a record somehow and just work it. It was a funny process but there are so many people involved that it ends up changing direction as the project goes on.
I’m imagining a record exec nodding his head and saying, “It’s good, I like it…but why don’t we try this…”
Yeah, a phone call later saying, “Guys, there’s a problem: there’s no chorus.” (Laughs) Yeah, that’s basically the gist of it.
Did Snoop Dogg also get in touch with you personally about using ‘Eastern Jam’ for his track ‘Millionaire’?
Yeah, that happened just before, actually. He literally sent us a MySpace message saying, “Yo, it’s Snoop Dogg, dig…” and he signed it off ‘Chuch’! We checked it out and it was him and again it was an American style of working because the next day the manager calls up, sends a brief and the next day it was done, got the T-shirt, bish bash bosh, packaged song. That really got people over there – and here – talking about us, which was cool, but we never got to go over there and do it with him. That was a bit of a shame but it was still a massive thing for us, to be associated with Snoop Dogg. It’s hilarious.
Maybe you could hook up with him on your forthcoming American tour?
Maybe, yeah. We’re still in contact with him and his people. I don’t know what Snoop’s up to these days but we’re playing at Coachella so that would be rather special, if he jumped onstage with us!
Are future collaborations with Jay-Z, Kanye West and Pharrell still on the cards?
Absolutely, we’re still in touch with all those people. We’ve got a great relationship with Jay-Z and we spent some time with Pharrell as well. We made a conscious decision that we didn’t want to get caught up in the whole ‘American superstar’ thing and we were writing our album and we thought, you know what, let’s take a step back from this world, because it is slightly insane and almost not real sometimes. We were aware of trying to do too much and losing the direction that we have, so we thought we’d stick to what we know and conquer Britain, use British artists, artists that people like and can relate to here, get some new talent on there, exciting young British artists. I think the album’s got more of a cohesive sound [than its predecessor] even though there were still quite a lot of different sounds on there. Even the track with Cee-Lo, who is obviously American, has a very punky, British sound, and he’s talking about England on it so that worked. But now that’s done we’re heading off to the States for a few production and writing sessions and we’re going to team up with anyone cool and open minded – people like Jay-Z – who wants to do something a bit different.
It seems like a natural progression for you to roll out the big guns on album three, given the step up in terms of guest stars from the first to the second…
(Laughs) Yeah, roll out the big guns! Indeed.
In whose presence would you say that you’ve been the most star-struck?
Probably meeting Jay-Z and Beyonce for the first time. I didn’t know I was going to meet them – I was meeting someone else – so I wasn’t prepared for it. One of their business associates and managers is called Jay Brown and I spoke to Jay when he was in London at the Spa Hotel and he said, “Yo, come down man, come have a drink.” So that was fine; I’d never met Jay Brown but he seemed like a nice dude so I walked into the Mandarin Oriental in Hyde Park, which is a lovely, lovely hotel, and I was sort of ushered through security into the gardens.
I didn’t even know what Jay Brown looked like but I sort of had an idea so I was looking around the garden and I see the back of who I thought was Jay Brown’s head, but sitting facing me about two hundred yards away was Jay-Z and Beyonce sitting at quite a big table full of important looking people. I thought, “Oh my god,” and walked up to this table, ignored Jay-Z and Beyonce (laughs) and said, “Are you Jay Brown?”It was awkward enough anyway, walking up to them with sweaty palms thinking, “Play it cool, play it cool.”
They looked up and saw me walking towards them, probably thinking, “Who’s this random dude?” Luckily I got through it and they were very open and welcoming, which was nice: “Hey man, come in, sit down! This is Jay…” and introduced me to Jay-Z, who stood up with a big grin, shook my hand and said, “Yo man, I’m a big fan of your music,” which made me laugh. I thought, “My music?? F***ing hell, I haven’t done anything!” Then he said, “Oh, yo, this is Be,” and Beyonce sort of looked around over her shoulder at me standing over her and suddenly swung around and with this huge smile said (impersonating Beyonce), “Hello!” Her beauty, her skin and her radiance overwhelmed me and my voice basically went up about three octaves and I just sort of said (in a squeaky voice), “Hiii there!” I just laughed as I said it and really lamely shook her hand. She kind of laughed at me for being a bit of a weirdo and I was like, “F***!” which didn’t go down well. (Laughs) But I sat there and had dinner with them and they were great, really cool. But that was an awkward moment.
Where do you keep the various awards you’ve accumulated? And which one means the most to you?
We keep them in the office of our record label, not particularly well displayed. The Q Award we got for Best Video with ‘End Credits’, a song that we got a lot of stick for at the time from drum and bass fans, was probably the most prestigious. We’re proud of that. The first award we won was for Best Single at a BBC Radio 1 awards ceremony, for a track we did with Jenna G called ‘In Love’, which was the first track we’d ever done with a singer. For it to win an award and become a big track was amazing but they all mean something, and we’ve won Drum & Bass awards as well, which is really nice.
You’re touring Europe and North America soon. Do you get much time to enjoy yourselves when you’re out on the road?
Not loads. The ‘enjoying ourselves’ bit is the actual gig itself; apart from that, it’s quite hard work travelling around all over the place. We have a few drinks after the show and sometimes it gets pretty wild but we’re consummate professionals, very well behaved; it’s camomile tea and in bed by eleven, usually!
How is your label MTA Records going?
It’s going great. It’s very full-on at the moment, our real priority. We’re very proud of the Nero boys who are doing phenomenally well and we’ve got a couple of new acts that we’re working with. We’ve just been refurbishing our office. We’re very proud of it, very excited and it’s keeping us in touch with cutting edge music, we hope. We’re having to do A&R and be businessmen as well as musicians so we’re covering all aspects of the music industry. It’s exciting and we’ve got big plans for this year.
Any big tips in particular for 2011?
Half the people that featured on our album! Maverick Sabre is a particularly big tip for this year and next year. He’s actually signed to the same label, Mercury, as we are, so we have a lot of his stuff. He’s got an iconic-sounding voice and such confidence, such depth to his songwriting as well. He’s something special and I think he’s going to be massive. Also someone called Mali, who featured on our song ‘Let You Go'; he’s so young but again he’s got a unique-sounding voice and he’s a genius musician as well, very mature for his age. Delilah I thought was going to do well and she already is. Lots of people, really. All those on our album, hopefully! Liam Bailey as well. (Laughs)
Would you be able to name, as of this very moment, your top three albums of all time?
(After much um’ing and ah’ing) I’d probably say Substance by New Order; they were one of the first big electronic acts I got into. I would say Music for the Jilted Generation by The Prodigy. And a Stevie Wonder album, probably…Innervisions; tracks like ‘Golden Lady’ and all that stuff were just amazing.
Finally – and purely hypothetically – who do you think would win in a fight between a squirrel and a hedgehog?
Tough question. (Deliberates) There are lots of squirrels around my area but I don’t see a lot of hedgehogs. They’re quite slow moving, hedgehogs, but obviously they’ve got the prickly things. I’d probably say squirrel, really. Red squirrels are pretty feisty, actually.
I suppose the answer could vary depending on whether the squirrel is red or grey.
Will, thank you.