Music interview: Utah Saints on Big Disco, Leeds

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It’s been billed as “Yorkshire’s biggest ever party”, an event in Leeds intended to climax with 25,000 people simultaneously dancing to a single song chosen by a public vote.

Now, with the countdown to Big Disco on, anticipation is high.

Among those instrumental in bringing the event to the region are Tim Garbutt and Jez Willis, the Leeds-based DJs, musicians and producers otherwise known as Utah Saints. Leading figures in the 90s rave scene who scored international hits with their singles Something Good, Believe in Me and What Can You Do For Me, they’ve gone on to run their own SugarBeatClub nights and curate festival stages.

Garbutt says the pair have had “quite a lot do in terms of helping out” with the varied bill of DJs who will play at Big Disco’s main site at Duke Studios in Sheaf Street. They include Craig Charles, Alex Metric, Mighty Mouse, Justin Robertson and Boe & LX.

“Me and Jez used to have a club night in Leeds for quite a long time that we used to do at the Elbow Room and we also curated a stage at Beat Herder festival so basically, just through doing Utahs for years and years, we built up quite a lot of contacts,” he says. “When we got in talks with Laura [Wellington] and James [Abbott Donnelly, from Duke Studios who are organising the event in collaboration with Yorkshire Festival and NewSubstance] they asked were we up for helping so I booked all the other acts.”

Many are people he’s met “on the circuit” over the past 25 years. “They’ve all been in the game many years and I’ve got a lot of respect for them all as well.”

Utah Saints

Utah Saints

Garbutt also approached several artists and DJs to try to persuade them to nominate a track for an online public vote to decide which song is played at the main event at the Big Disco site and at corresponding Little Discos that will be staged throughout Yorkshire. Among the tracks in the running are Let’s Dance by David Bowie, I Feel Love by Donna Summer and History Repeating by Propellerheads.

A crowd of between 5,000 and 6,000 people is expected at Big Disco’s main arena, which will have as its focal point an enormous disco ball, two and a half times the size of a double decker bus. Music will start there at 3pm and continue to 11pm. The main event is scheduled for 7.20pm.

“The idea is that everybody has a party at that time of night,” says Garbutt, explaining how communities are being encouraged to register via the website to stage corresponding events of their own. “Say if you have a party in your village and you register on the website that you’ve got 50 people coming then that counts towards the number of people [participating overall].

“It won’t be 25,000 people in the centre of Leeds, I think that would be roadblock, but that’s the general idea. Although we’re encouraging people to come down you don’t have to be at the [main] event, you can run your own little party then you tune into the radio and everybody dances to the same track. It’s an interesting concept.”

It’s quite a bizarre idea but it’s great to see it’s finally come together because it’s been in planning for quite a long time. The logistics of putting a big disco ball into the centre of Leeds is quite a big deal.

The event has been talked of as a celebration of community. “It’s cool because it’s a good thing for Leeds,” says Garbutt. “With Leeds’ big for [European] City of Culture coming up it’s good to do more varied events and really good to get involved and meet the Yorkshire Festival people as well.

“It’s quite a bizarre idea but it’s great to see it’s finally come together because it’s been in planning for quite a long time. The logistics of putting a big disco ball into the centre of Leeds is quite a big deal.”

Over the 25 years since Utah Saints’ formation, Garbutt says he’s seen at first hand the evolution of the dance music scene in Leeds.

“It’s kind of gone full circle,” he says. “The main thing that I think is harder to do now is if you’re a club promoter it’s harder to do weekly events. Back in the day a lot of club nights used to do big line-ups every weekend and if you look at the big nights now they do one every six weeks and they really go hard on the promotion. It’s not so many flyers any more and you don’t see as many posters around, it’s more about you put togetehr an event then you market it on Facebook.

Utah Saints

Utah Saints

“I just think unless you’re a die hard clubber you don’t go out to an event every weekend whereas back in the day you used to go out every Saturday regardless. Now one Saturday you might go out for a meal or you might go to a bar the next one, clubbing is more of an event now and you get big line-ups now every four to six weeks.”

At the same time, he says: “I still think Leeds’ club scene is really healthy, there are a lot of interesting things going on and there’s a lot of little underground events. I find generally the bigger events are fewer and far between but when they do happen they happen on a lot bigger scale.”

Looking back over Utah Saints’ quarter of a century, Garbutt says one of his fondest memories was from the early 1990s.

“I remember right at the start we used to promote a night which was called Gallery then it was called Pleasure Rooms, it was on Merrion Street, it was just back at the height of the rave scene, I’ve just got really good memories of doing that on a weekly basis, there were big crowds queuing down the street and it was just really exciting.

“At that time we were doing that night then me and Jez put or first record out which went top ten – that was a big moment for us.”

After the release of their first album they were invited to support U2 on their Zooropa stadium tour. “It was not a big deal when you see DJs playing stadiums now but back at the time it was a big deal. Even though dance music was exploding it wasn’t on a big scale like that. At that time U2 were the biggest rock band in the world and we were a dance act so that was a big deal. I think the genres of music have broken down a lot more now and people are just into everything but back then you were either into rock music or you were into dance music but they didn’t really mix so much.”

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It’s 16 years since Utah Saints’ last album. Last year their work in progress, Swansong D’Amour, was played in BBC Radio 1 but it seems it may be a while yet before another album is ready.

“It’s always on the cards,” says Garbutt. “One thing me and Jez have got to do is just sit in the studio and focus. We get involved in so many projects. Sony PlayStation are bringing out a virtual reality headset so we’ve been doing music for a game on that, we’ve doing the music for the Yorkshirre Festival trailer and we’re trying to get into doing soundtrack stuff. We do a lot of projects.

“You might not hear of us putting out Utah Saints’ records but we do a lot of things that are off the radar, but one thing we have got to focus on is doing some Utahs’ music. I don’t want to put a date on it but we said to ourselves after the summer’s over we’re going to focus on our own music. Hoepfully we’ll get a new track out this year.”

Utah Saints play at Big Disco at Duke Studios, Sheaf Street, Leeds on Friday July 1. For details visit http://thebigdisco.com/

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