HigherFrequency  DJ Interview


Pete Tong

"It's hard to find people that are actually prepared to do the traveling you do if they are not earning the same money as you are. I find so often now that I'm on my own or just with one person traveling around all these places you DJ in."

Chatting down the line from a West London recording studio, Pete Tong admits his day to day reality is far removed from the glamour packed lifestyle his superstar DJ status might suggest, with pressure rather than pleasure more usually defining his time.

"I think we all become work addicts and we are all very competitive and you always think in a still moment that you should be earning money or you are worried about what the next guy is doing," he muses.

"My big problem is when I've got down time; I start thinking 'I should be making music, I don't make enough music, I've got to do it before time runs out', but sometimes the rest period and the down time should be about watching a movie, reading a book or doing nothing. Literally sitting doing absolutely nothing is just as important as working every hour that you have got available."

Given that he remains dance culture's arguably most influential DJ (principally via his long running Radio 1 show the Essential Selection), he unsurprisingly has virtually no downtime anyway, though he admits these days he's finding it easier to cope with the pitfalls his jet set life style can also bring anyway, such as hangers on and their attendant troubles.

"I think a bit easier now than it used to be and weirdly enough for a DJ, I think having a good relationship really helps, and makes it easier to sidestep all the obstacles that are out there," he continues. "I've got a girlfriend that really is quite tough, in terms of trying to make sure that I take time out for myself."

Some of the other obstacles he's referring to are the kind that have caused Kate Moss so much trouble (and more recently Boy George- after the interview) and he's sympathetic to the supermodel's plight.

"I think it's sad to see someone hung out to dry like that, that's as disappointing or fascinating as the actual fact of the matter, if she has got a problem and everything that you read is true, then it seems that she's trying to deal with it and you can only wish her well," says Pete, "The whole witch hunt thing when you think about her life, has been quite incredible."

"Obviously supermodels travel as well, but supermodels travel in packs and that's probably one example of where everyone is running around in a gang the whole time," he points out.

"Whereas DJing is a bit more of a solitary kind of life and also, you do so much traveling that you are just too knackered to do anything. You can't be partying every day and fulfilling the schedule that DJs like myself have to fulfill. Maybe you can when you're twenty, but not when you're forty-five. Though having said that, if you go looking for trouble you'll find it anywhere in the world."

Lifestyle issues aside, the central focus of his life remains music, and today's chat has been arranged to discuss his next major project, his upcoming compilation The Essential Selection. Though he's done countless compilations in the past, most recently with Trustthedj.com and Fashion TV, his new one is with Universal, his first major label one since leaving Warners/AOL in 2001.

"If you'd gone to the Moon and were sick of going to clubs or dance music and came back now, you might actually be tempted again to check out what's going on again and that's kind of why I've done this deal with Universal, I wanted to be back with a big company again and I wanted to be back with a company that had a lot of clout," he explains.

"One that's able to clear tracks and market and distribute it well in still what is a difficult time for the record business. And also, distirbute it in a new way, being very savvy with I Tunes and everything like that."

> Interview : Jonty Skrufff

Skrufff (Jonty Skrufff) : You must have hundreds if not thousands of tracks to select from, how did you choose?

Pete Tong : When I started doing mix CDs in the 90s at Cream and Ministry, it was quite a simple process, essentially of picking the biggest tunes of the day, even if they weren't necessarily big hits, but because no-one else was doing it, it kind of worked. I then found myself trapped a little towards doing TV advertised hits orientated compilations which left me feeling a little dissatisfied and confused by the end of the nineties because I didn't have many CDs out there that reflected me as a club DJ, though they reflected my taste and what people heard on the radio.

This one is much more along the lines of those early Cream or Ministry ones; I'm looking in my box at what I'm playing out and I'm putting them together in a way that I think is both entertaining and enlightening. But I also don't want it to be too elitist or too underground. It's meant to be an album that hopefully can introduce the likes of M.A.N.D.Y and Hans Peter Lindstromm, Trentmoller and Bob Sinclair, newer nemes to a bigger audience. So that's the pitch with it.

Skrufff : what's your assessment of the compilation market right now?

Pete Tong : There's millions and millions of compilations out there some good ones including some very leftfield ones that are excellent , but I've done my research and a lot of them are selling between five and ten thousand copies over a period of six months to a year, taking in a global audience. They are good adverts for the club or the hotel or the DJ concerned in terms of a PR value, but they are not really taking the business forward. I just felt that now is the right time to do a big one. I remember the Fact albums that Carl Cox did -the big selling abums without really having hits on, yet they were hits to him, and at a time where his music was ready to be discovered by a much greater audience. A littlebit like Rennaissance at the start.

Skrufff : What do you make of this minimal trend that's going on at the moment?

Pete Tong : I'm really into it though I'm wary of the tag thing that instantly restricts it or makes it elitist though it's obvious that a lot of the music that was first pioneered by the likes of DC 10 and Cocoon is becoming more popular. That's the best way of putting it and that has a knock on effect to everyone else. I think the Nag Nag Nag, Erol Alkan, Soulwax, Too Many Dj's, more kind of New York punk rock , eighties Liquid Liquid type of influence is there still, and I suppose that always had an influence on the music of Berlin and vice versa, but I think what you are really seeing come through now is another level of that, a little bit deeper than before. This is really going back to the roots of house music and the roots of techno, and putting it together in a more musical way.

The interesting thing about minimal as such, is that the two most interesting aspects of what you might call a minimal record is a, they are tuneful, and b, they are kind of relaxed, not in your face too much, therefore they creep up on people and caress them rather than bang them on the head and drive them crazy. It's interesting what's happened with 'Body Language', which is without question one of my most played records of the summer and certainly I would say the real discovery of Ibiza this season. It's not the biggest hit, but it's certainly the most important record. No-one is tired of it, itnever got on anyone's nerves. Whereas say, something like 'Pump Up The Jam' which was genius in it's simplicity and appeal at the start, did wear pretty quickly.

Skrufff : How significant do you see the technological changes at the moment through programs like Ableton?

Pete Tong : I think it's massively significant and a very exciting development. Ableton is as important to dance music probably as Logic was when it first came along. It's a fantastic toy and it's now down to how people use it. A little bit like a guitar, you've still got to learn how to play it, just letting it put together mixes for you for the sake of mixing, it can still be done really badly, so the art of DJing, ie sequencing, knowing when to mix one track into another, knowing how long to hold onto it and all those things, they're still a very important part of it. In terms of making your life simpler in terms of traveling, accessing music from different people all over the world at one time and collating all your collection in a fantastic way that can be backed up and accessed via a server somewhere, that's all brilliant.

I travel so much, I'm so busy, that instead of being studio bound or office bound next to some turntables with a whole stack of vinyl, the fact that I can do so much work now while I'm travelling, in terms of listening to other peoples music and putting together the show is phenomenal. That in itself is probably for me the biggest significance of Ableton, that I can start to build mixes. We are using Ableton on the show, not just to do mixes for the sake of mixing, but to help us try and make the shows sound more exciting and make it flow better. That would probably be the most important way we are using it, as opposed to it's actual core use, which is to beat match. It's more about the fact that I can do it on my lap top as opposed to having to be locked somewhere where there are two turntables, a mixer and an amp.

Pete Tong Interview

Skrufff : Are you still using vinyl when you play out?

Pete Tong : Yeah, particularly because the Germans are contributing so much great music at the moment and it's quite difficult to get everything that comes from there on CD. It's quite telling, actually, when you watch DJs like Sven Vath or Tanya Vulcano you don't see them play many CDs. It's always quite fascinating watching some like Sven Vath, you think you have heard everything, got everything, bought everything and been sent everything, and he will sit there for two hours and play two hours of music you haven't got/heard/seen/nothing; and they all look like old records. I think that's great. It's fantastic, it's what makes the world go round.

Skrufff : Armin Van Buuren says in the latest issue of Mixmag that 'personality, entourage and following are more important than music for superstar DJ fame', what do you make of this whole side of the celebrity culture?

Pete Tong : I suppose the good thing about being around so long is you see the ebbs and flows of it. You see how people deal with it, you see how people are the most popular person one minute, and you see when they are coming down the other side. It doesn't mean their career's over, but it's interesting to see how they handle it. If you look at people like Oakey, Carl (Cox) and Sasha, they have all had that moment in time where they are top of the game. Jules even, I suppose, when he had that front cover of Mixmag, sitting on a white horse, he could have ruled the world it seemed. Tiesto right no is the same.

But the reason Carl is probably having one of his best years ever is because his enthusiasm for the job is so phenomenal. He's rediscovered himself, got involved in running a club by doing the Space residency and he just seems as excitable and excited and as exciting to watch as he was when I first met him when he was running around with a sound system in Brighton and South London. I think it's people's attitude to the job and people's passion for the job are what counts the most. Everyone is always going to have a pop at someone that is at the top of the tree and they are going to be looking for faults, but usually most people don't get there unless they are good at something. Some people have always said the technical ability to mix is obviously important, it's just a bit of a given for a DJ, but it hasn't stopped people that are not as good as Sasha from becoming very successful DJs.

They might have had the charisma, they might have been the king of the party, they might have been the best club runner, they might have just had the best taste, so there's loads of other things that go in to what makes a great DJ. It's taken as a given that you should be able to mix, but if some people can't mix as well as others it hasn't necessarily seemed to stop them doing really well. You can get a bit up your own backside focusing too much on somebody's faults and actually ignoring what makes them popular in the first place. Most of the guys that get to the top of the tree, you have to respect them because they are usually there for a reason. I can't think of many people that have blown up, become huge and completely disappeared.

Skrufff : You featured in the Sunday Times top 500 earners poll in 2003, and they estimated you got paid 300 pounds for every 30 seconds of a big set, was that an accurate assessment?

Pete Tong : It wasn't accurate.

Skrufff : Has the market changed for top end gigs with massive DJ fees?

Pete Tong : Definitely. I think the really, really big money that was maybe more common the late nineties is only dished out to the tiniest fraction of DJs , not including me. I guess some of the bands who DJ, people like the Chems (Chemical Brothers) or Basement Jaxx still earn those fees but I would be surprised if anyone is earning more then Tiesto at the moment because he is still putting bums on seats. My DJing is always a mix of 'yes it's nice to get paid', but I have to be doing the things that are important. If I go to a country, it's never been my thing to play to the highest payer - I always want to be in the hottest club. Sometimes you can't always get in the hottest club, they might not want you, but in general that's what I always try and do. And the hottest club is never going to be the biggest payer.

End of the interview

Pete Tong's Essential Selection is out now on Universal Records.

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