Saul Williams Talks 'MartyrLoserKing' and David Bowie's Influence

Saul Williams Talks 'MartyrLoserKing' and David Bowie's Influence
Photo: Geordie Wood
With the impending release of his sixth studio album MartyrLoserKing, Saul Williams hasn't lost a step. The 43-year-old is a few years out from his 2004 hit "List of Demands," but remains focused on speaking truth to power in his own inimitable and genre-agnostic fashion.

To say the project — a bit of soul, funk, rap and punk — is politically charged might be an understatement. But that's par for the course with Williams, who always delivers raw and unapologetic social commentary, no filter or filler.

Due out Friday (January 29) on Pirates Blend/Fader, MartyrLoserKing is based on a graphic novel and play he developed, Williams tells Exclaim!, around the concept of a young hacker based in an impoverished nation who is concerned with a social and political revolution. The concept of hacking the consciousness and developing a new way of thinking about the self and the systems we are subjected to is heady stuff; Williams wouldn't have it any other way.

It's not about the music reaching out to an audience, he explains, it's about the audience coming to the music. "That's the thing about beauty, it doesn't have to be challenged. It attracts. So that's part of the thing that comes quite simply [to me] — honing, nurturing, and adding those layers of richness and texture to enhance and bring out the beauty that is already there. It creates a sort of magnetism.

"You can embed the music with code. It's about touching people with music. That's the idea in terms of attraction. I have a lot of fun trying to speak to the times. I think it's fun in terms of creating those little shocks and trying to find a way to affect and enhance aspects of culture. Things are there to be played with in a sense."

The 12-track album took about "three or four" years to complete, he says. "That's pretty much my cycle, about four years on a project. It's only because I approach it casually, like you might approach a wild animal. And also because I like to have a lot to pull from. There are so many more songs than what's been shared."

The recent passing of music legend David Bowie greatly affected Williams, prompting him to tweet, "Rock and Roll is Dead" on social media.

"The first time I ever paid attention to Bowie was living in Brazil as a teenager. I would always hear these songs from Ziggy Stardust sung in bars, every bar that you go to would have someone on guitar and percussion singing songs like 'Starman,' for example, in Portuguese," he says.

Bowie was hugely influential in shaping his musical mindset, Williams says. The Trent Reznor-produced The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust! that Williams released in 2007 was an obvious reference to Bowie's 1972 album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars; Williams cites "Subterraneans" off Bowie's 1977 Low LP as his favourite track.

"Honestly, what's to be said?" he says. "For me, after Bowie, I can't think of anyone from that generation currently living who [rocks]. Granted there are folks like George Clinton, for example, but those types of characters are so few and far between. Bowie was so, so amazing as an artist, and his impact on my life personally and so many people, it is just beautiful to see. It's a testament to art itself and to his genius."

MartyrLoserKing is a statement on modern life and the need to question the world around you, he offers: "Parables and scriptures come from ideas that are simplified in some way that just make perfect sense and perfect fit," he says, adding that's what he was aiming to accomplish this the album.

"It's about streamlining sensibility and short circuiting wavelengths so that people can grab onto ideas — new or old ideas — in ways that simplify their existence or more humanity itself," he says. "We try to create little shocks."

The next single and video for the album will be "The Noise Came from Here," he notes. Much like album cuts "The Horn of the Clock Bike," "Burundi" (featuring Emily Kokal of Warpaint), and "Down for Some Ignorance," the single aims to challenge and entrance at the same time.

"Maybe we can trick and trip the system," Williams muses. "Because when we can, we do. We have fun trying to play with the idea. I'm a hip-hop head but I have a punk spirit with an experimental imagination."

Listen to "Burundi" below.