There’s something almost surreal about speaking to a living legend like Pete Tong, particularly when he’s stuck in traffic.
With a career spanning over thirty-five years, Tong is widely recognized as one of the most influential radio personalities in the UK – and possibly in the entire world of dance music.
“I want to authenticate this music, and am grateful for the opportunities to do that have come in different ways in my life – from being consistently supported by Radio 1 to do what I do, and the BBC, or to get involved and dabble in film and television,” Tong shares over the phone, as he begins the drive home from WME’s headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard and readies himself to plunge into the city’s infamous traffic.
With a cockney accent that’s been smoothed out by over thirty years spent on the airwaves, Tong is approachable, enthusiastic and effortlessly cool when we speak late on a Monday evening in September. In a way, he’s the embodiment of what you’d hope from someone who has perhaps, without hyperbole, seen it all in the music industry.
Tong is enjoying a short pause back in Los Angeles – a city he has called home for the last couple of years – as he prepares for the next leg of his Fall tour: Shanghai, Vancouver, Chicago, Amsterdam, and London, all in short order. And despite his storied career, Tong doesn’t seem to be slowing down anytime soon.
“I am very proud of what I’ve been involved with in my life, and what this culture represents. Maybe us lot have a chip on our shoulder, but it somehow feels like the public at large think it’s just a party and not a serious art form. Any opportunity I get to change that perception – I want to do that.”
Pete Tong is playing at The Mid in Chicago on Saturday October 15, 2016. Classic House is coming out this November on UMC, and is available for pre-order here.
Brightest Young Things: Despite all of your success, you’re still out there touring the US every fall. What keeps you motivated?
Peter Tong: Well. [Laughs] It’s obviously enjoyable to play, and that’s where I came from, what started it all – playing music for people, and turning people onto music. Creating environments and situations that make people happy, and that’s the first thing I ever did. It’s always been the roots of what makes everything else work in my professional life, and I still enjoy doing it. There are always new challenges in going to new countries or new markets, and you learn a lot. I’m not sure if it’s an addiction, or maybe a game for me, DJing – but it’s all about trying to put together the perfect set at the perfect place for the perfect crowd. I’m not a surfer, but I liken it to surfing: always looking for the perfect wave. When you find one, it’s so amazing you want to find another one and it might take you a few years. [Laughs]
I was lucky enough that in the 90s I was so busy with the record company and Radio 1 and a young family that I never really traveled to America that much when the whole cult of the super DJs becoming superstars really happened in the mid 90s; I guess I sort of caught up a bit more in the 2000s, but I was never one of these DJs that could come to America and spend six weeks on the road continuously and tour like a band.
Although it might seem like I do a lot, never did those really long tours where you go from city to city – it was always a dash over here and a dash back, cover what I could and go back to the UK. Now I live here, and touring in America has taken on a whole different meaning. In a funny sort of way, I’m probably more successful in the US right than I am at home. I spend a lot of time here and I’m working the country in a different way. After three years of living here it’s resonating on a different level, and I’m playing the music I want to play, curating the lineups I want to curate, and pushing a new sound, new music, and new DJs. Seeing that work is another inspiration to keep going, you know.
BYT: You’ve made references in the past to the UK having a bit of a higher bar or maybe being more discerning audience when it comes to the threshold of acceptance for new electronic acts or dance music more broadly. What do you think is the main difference between British and American dance music audiences? How do you account for these differing sensibilities in your programming and what you are working towards?
PT: Good question. I mean, historically the culture of clubbing is what really took off in England. All the music in the late 80s came from America, but it was ostracized at home by the country at large because it was black, gay, edgy, druggy, house music – whatever it was – it wasn’t acceptable to the United States at large. It was coming out of Chicago, Detroit, and New York and it was really being consumed and loved and influencing the UK.
The UK created the cult of “club culture” we know today. I think the UK got that in a different way, and for a myriad reasons – and Radio 1 was a massive part of it. It was a radio station with a national audience, and it really spoke to them. It was able to put what was considered to be “underground” music in the US, and put it on daytime radio, fanning the flames of the whole explosion of the dance music in the 90s. I think that’s changed a lot now.
The audience is more discerning, in a way, but that’s a very generalized term. In the cities of the UK like London, Manchester, Glasgow we still have very discerning audiences who move the needle, but I think the media at large in the UK still are much, much, much more adventurous, especially radio – and Radio 1. That still has a huge impact in breaking new music, and you look at someone like Sam Smith or Disclosure – [they] couldn’t have really happened without Radio 1. That speeds up the process and eventually, it actually affects the US. So, I still think that Radio 1 in particular has a huge part to play in how the artist development cycle works. Obviously, Spotify and Soundcloud and the whole new world we live in have effects in terms of things going viral, but if we look back over the last five years, Radio 1 is still really significant.
And don’t get me wrong – audiences are very discerning in the US; there’s more hunger than there’s ever been for something other than that mainstage, lowest common denominator, biggest EDM star, or biggest Skrillex or Diplo or Major Lazer or Chain Smokers or whatever – I mean that’s huge, but I think that the desire for the underground is bigger than its ever been in America since cycle of EDM since 2008. I mean, it’s happening everywhere – we do Output in Brooklyn with Seth Troxler and the Essential Mix, one-off parties in New York are bigger than the main events for these kinds of things.
BYT: I’ve seen this kind of thing happen in D.C., with a couple of venues that book primarily “niche” electronic music bringing some great artists each week – Flash, and U Street Music Hall.
PT: I played Sound Check last Thursday, and I played what I wanted and the audience was super responsive. I mean, it’s healthy in America on that score. It’s a bit harder to find the environment to enjoy the music like it’s enjoyed in Ibiza, but it will come, even if it’s in a different way.
BYT: What’s the criteria for who gets invited to perform on the Essential Mix? Is there a science behind this, or are you hand-picking people you’re excited about?
PT: Well, it’s a mixture. It’s me and the producer – this guy Hugh Gordon – we do it together. It’s a combination of people we feel that have earned the right to do it as well as established artists who come back to play it again, which might coincide with a new album or release they’ve got coming up in any particular year. When it comes to earning the right to be there it could be that someone’s been consistent with putting out new music that moves the needle and matters to a larger community, or someone’s club brand has got to a certain level and they’re just killing it on a live basis. It’s not just about making music – we really do look for DJs who can really DJ, you know? And sometimes it needs to be both. It’s obviously oriented towards the next big thing and definitely skewed towards the underground.
After a while, we don’t really argue that much between us, me and Hugh. If someone’s been making music for a couple of years it seems to be obvious that “so and so needs to make an Essential Mix”, you know? [Laughs]
BYT: What tools do you personally use to stay in touch with what’s new and emerging in terms of acts? Which recent acts are you most enthused about working with at WME?
PT: I check everything, really. And personal contacts – you either go see people yourself or depend on your trusted people. But I talk to my peers and my fellow DJs and club promoters all the time, and the most trusted, high-level network will always be other DJs that I respect. I use it all, and we are constantly calibrating the new systems to see what they actually mean. We were discussing it at WME this morning: what does it mean that someone has a million plays or whatever? What it meant two years ago on Soundcloud or Spotify is very different today – the tentpole has drawn everybody up, as streaming services have become that much more popular. Anyone who is in the gateway business of signing, representing, booking, or playing new talent – everyone is trying to get their heads round what these metrics mean.
In terms of acts I’m excited about at WME I think that they’re all fantastic. Yotto is a really interesting act we’ve just taken on with huge potential; the Hymn; Thomas Jack – he’s been with us for a while. He’s sort of underachieved on records but overachieves live. [Trails off momentarily]
You’ve put me on the spot now. [Laughs]. The Martinez Brothers are at the tip of their potential; Kolsch had an amazing year. There’s loads and loads.
BYT: You recently wrapped up work as producer and music supervisor for Netflix’s original film XOXO. How did this opportunity come about? How was partnering with Netflix different to working with other studios?
PT: It came about through my partners at WME – it was a real collective effort and something we’re really proud of. It was a real proper package from top to bottom, from the producer, the director, the writer and getting the whole electronic music department heavily involved, all pulling together to make it happen. It’s not easy to do that, and it hasn’t been easy to get an electronic music original content property financed and getting it made.
Two years ago, if you’d asked the director if he wanted his movie to be on Netflix he would have run away by a mile, as everything he’d learned to that point in his life would dictate he’d want to see his work or his art released in theatres and on the big screen. But in 2016 his view changed quite radically – it was still a bit leap of faith in many ways – but we can all see that releasing a niche film like that with a relatively low budget was a much safe environment to be releasing into.
Netflix is all about planting the seed and letting it grow into a flower, or into a bush, a field, or forest, you know? And they’re very patient, and it takes time – but you get that time. It’s global from day one, and amazing at that level. At the theater, you get your ego stroked but all it takes is one bad weekend and you’re out if you didn’t hit the numbers. For the size and scope of this project, Netflix was the dream partner and so supportive from day one. I hope we can do many more films with them. Their investment increased four times from the day we started with them to the day the film was released on their service.
We did Steve Aoki for them in the same month – I was involved with that at arm’s length – but the fact that we got two EDM films with them in such a short period was a massive achievement.
BYT: I think it speaks to a sea change in the levels of interest in this country as to dance music and the surrounding culture.
PT: Yeah! I had a complete identical parallel in the UK when we released Human Traffic and It’s All Gone Pete Tong. They were both theatrical films that suffered in the theatre and initially looked like box-office flops, but in the years that followed then VHS, Blockbuster, DVD, and television really came in and turned those films into the cult films they became, but it took years. Years!
It’s incredible how many people now, almost fifteen years later, quote those films as being so influential and so great, yet at the time they were very frustrating projects to release into theatres.
BYT: You spoke to my colleague Marcus Dowling a few years back about wanting to see a movie that captures the feelings around dance music in the same way as Saturday Night Fever did for disco. Do you think this XOXO achieves that?
PT: [Pauses, laughs] It’s definitely in the right galaxy! I think the story of XOXO is very specific to the Southern California experience, so I don’t know if it would resonate internationally in the same way Saturday Night Fever did about disco. I don’t think we had the budget or the major studio money, or the Bee Gees, or any of that.
For me – we’ve still got to tick that box and do that. I don’t think Human Traffic or It’s All Gone Pete Tong did that either. They were both great films and I’m very happy they exist, but it’s not 8 Mile. Hip-hop culture has definitely had it, and between 8 Mile and Straight Outta Compton, hip-hop has hit that point multiple times – also thinking about what Spike Lee has done. But electronic dance music hasn’t gotten there yet. Right now, the equivalent of that would be Christopher Nolan making a film about it with Daft Punk making the soundtrack. Or maybe Spike Jonze, if you really think about it. [Laughs]
BYT: You’ve got a couple of shows coming up in the UK this fall for the second edition of Pete Tong Presents Ibiza Classics. This will be your second time performing with Jules Buckley and an orchestra, but this time it’s much larger. How will this change the scope of what you guys are trying to do?
PT: I want to create a legacy for our theme, and that’s in vein with wanting to have our own Saturday Night Fever.
This is another opportunity to do that, and that’s what excited me about the prospect of it. Initially it was just let’s show up at the Albert Hall in this legendary series of classical concerts – the Proms – that have been going on for 125 years, and prove to people that our music actually matters to a generation that doesn’t often get acknowledged in that way. Punk rock actually had a much, much shorter shelf-life, but resonated more in a way. People respect The Sex Pistols and The Clash more than they respect dance music culture, which has been going on for so long and is so global.
The biggest success of Classics is that it resonated in the most modern way you can in 2015 – it went viral. We only had four or five thousand people at the Albert Hall that night, but it was viewed by millions of people around the world, and allowed us to play two sold out shows in Birmingham and London.
So, yeah. A lot of doors have opened. [Laughs]