When the operator connects the BRAG’s call with Ben Woolner, lead singer of rising stars Safia, the first noise that comes rattling down the line is not a voice, but the crash and bang of several things being knocked over. Then there’s what sounds suspiciously like the thumping of a hammer, followed swiftly by the clanging of metal, the tearing of something that might be cardboard and then, finally, Woolner’s sheepish apology. “Sorry,” he says, “I’m currently out here, setting up a new studio. I’m just doing some building, which is fun.”
It’s a fitting introduction, really. The kind of alien ordinariness that kicks off our call – the sound of just about recognisable objects being divorced from their source, and the mundane being made strange – is, after all, the driving force of Safia. The band might have had their pop hits, and they might have once featured on a song performed by commercial heavyweights Peking Duk, but they are at their heart experimenters, and their songs have always paired poppy hooks with the kind of fizzing imagination more usually associated with bands like Kraftwerk or Liars than Top 40 hitmakers.
Not that you’d get that sense talking to Woolner. The band’s frontman talks about his music-making with a disarming lack of pretence: you get the sense he’s not interested in asserting his band’s position as one of the greats, or unpicking their back catalogue as though he were a historian tasked with unravelling his own legacy. No. He’s just a dude who has somehow found himself doing what he has always wanted to do.
“We’re on a break from touring,” Woolner says, his voice winking down the line. “We’re writing a lot, and we’re always in the studio making things. It’s kinda fun, actually, not having to stay in one place and worry about getting up and getting early flights. We’re all just enjoying the cooldown, I think.”
The band have been hitting the road almost non-stop for the last three years, so it’s little wonder Woolner and his compatriots are relishing the opportunity to put their feet up and have a bit of a breather. But there’s parts of life on the road they miss as well – Woolner describes it as a “grass is always greener” type situation. “Touring is a lot of fun. When you’re kind of in a position that we’re in, and music is your whole living, when you’re at home you have to learn about the things that give your day structure. Whereas when you’re on tour you have that all set up for it.”
Indeed, one gets the sense that Woolner is a person who struggles when life forces him to be idle. Hence, he admits, his tendency to take on odd jobs like building a new studio, or diving headfirst into fresh, unexplored aspects of the business. “We’re all very hands on,” he explains. “We try to divvy things out and try to work on improving different aspects of us as a band, whether it be boring admin stuff, or merch, or thinking up art and video concepts, or making sure things are moving forward with new music. So there’s a whole array of stuff we try to be involved in – not just making music and writing the songs. There’s enough to do to keep us busy.”
For Woolner, the key is all about synthesising his band’s brand. He doesn’t ever want it to come across as though Safia are making up things as they go along, or as though they don’t have a master plan in mind. And sure, maybe sometimes they don’t – maybe there are times when they are adapting, and growing, and learning – but it’s important for Woolner that it never seems that way.
“Obviously the music is first and foremost in our minds – it’s the reason why we want to do this. But I think when you’re in a band and you have this opportunity, you can really try to make sure everything complements everything else. So it’s always fun to branch out into art and video and promo and try to tie it all in together and make it one singular vision.”
For this reason, Woolner has been eagerly taking notes from Compton’s own son Kendrick Lamar. He sees the ‘Humble’ rapper as a perfect realisation of what it means to be an artist – a musician playing chess while his contemporaries are playing checkers. “Every aspect of what Lamar is doing is thought out to the final degree,” Woolner says, a little awed. “He has a reason for everything, and a reason for every choice. It’s not like he goes, ‘I’ll pitch for a video and see how that works out.’ He’s got something to say in every single little thing that he does. And he’s using his art to further himself.”
Not that Woolner has fooled himself into thinking what Lamar does is easy, or that it requires nothing more than a keen eye and the willingness to make it work. He knows that it’s a struggle to play the game the way that K Dot has – that it “takes time, and sometimes money, and having the ability to get all these plates spinning in the air at once.” Woolner takes a breath. “But if you do have the time, and if you can work it, then man, it’s really worth it.”
It’s not hard to imagine that Woolner and his bands will get there someday. Safia might never become K Dot, but they could easily become a startlingly efficient creative machine: a streamlined group of artists able to synthesise the disparate creative fields of songwriting, visual art making and writing into one beautiful package. After all, one need only look at how far the band have come, and how much ground they have covered in how little time.
Woolner is aware that the further along the band get, the more people will start wanting things from them: that the blueprint they laid down last year with their debut album Internal will only become more important to fans; that every single from here on in will be tested against the preconceived notion audiences have about what the phrase ‘Safia’ now denotes. But Woolner isn’t allowing that to tie him down. He is, in the words of his hero Lamar, not stressed.
“We’re trying not to give ourselves many boundaries or to pigeonhole ourselves when we’re writing,” he explains. “We try not to think, ‘Oh, our music is this, so we’ll write like this.’ We try to just write what we’re feeling and it goes from there.”
That, Woolner explains, is what makes Safia who they are; not their chart position, or their commercial success, or even the whims of outside forces like their label and some of their fans. Safia is what happens when the band write what they’re feeling; when they let themselves be themselves. “No matter how different the songs start out, something about how we write songs – whether it be my voice, or my lyrics, or the way we write chords – it always brings it together in the end. It always makes it sound like us, even if the songs are different in terms of genre, or style, or whatever. It always is us.”
Safia play Snowtunes which runs from Friday September 1 – Saturday September 2.