Q&A with Paul Oakenfold

Paul Oakenfold
photo courtesy of MSOPR.

Paul Oakenfold is arguably the biggest dance music DJ and producer in the world. The closest thing to a household name that the hardcore dance world is likely to ever produce, Oakenfold has been a major force in electronic dance music for twenty years. Rising from a basement bar in Covent Garden at the end of the 80′s with an arsenal of Acid House and cross-genre Ibiza DJ stylings he went on to conquer the London nightclub scene and then the world. They simply do not make DJs bigger than Paul Oakenfold.

Oakenfold is bringing his Facelift Tour to the 9:30 Club on Tuesday November 23. He took some time out of his busy schedule to talk with me about his career and the current landscape of dance music.

Michael Darpino: Is there a large visual element to the Facelift Tour?

Paul Oakenfold: Yeah. I think the technical visual element is really important. There’s a large side to that with what we’re doing.

MD: How long did that take to develop the technology for the visuals?

PO: It took us 6 months.

MD: Is it public knowledge how much it cost, the visual set up, or are you keeping that close to the chest?

PO: Well, it’s near to half a million dollars.

MD: Different styles of electronic music tend to be associated with geographic locations. For example: Detroit, Berlin, Manchester. One of the things that’s always fascinated me about your career is your global approach to dance music and your ability to share your discoveries from different parts of the world with a mass audience. Like the Ibiza style or Goa trance. I was wondering, in today’s digital music age, do you feel that physically traveling the world to checking out new scenes is still necessary?

PO: I do, I mean, I’ve always been a part of, it’s a global sound, it’s a global community that are into electronic music. You know at the hotel I’m in at the moment, the bell-boy is from Serbia. He came to one of my shows 6 years ago. You know, it’s a global show, with a global reach. It’s important to do that. I have a residency in Las Vegas, at the Palms Casino, right. I’ve been doing it for two years. Vegas is like Ibiza. A lot of people from around the world come to America, they go to Vegas for a vacation. And you need these people from around the world. They’re really interested in what’s going on. You see that in Vegas, you see all these different people from different places. It’s really good.

MD: Electronic music is certainly one of the most global music forms.

PO: Yeah, it has a global reach.

MD: Going along with that idea, are there any particular global hot spots you are excited about right now? You mentioned Vegas is a great mixing bowl.

PO: Well, Vegas is the main spot in America and Ibiza is in Europe. I think Vegas is the most active spot in the world at the moment. More nightclubs, more things to do. A lot of DJs have taken residencies there. It’s really going to change the face of America next year, Las Vegas.

MD: That’s very exciting.

PO: You’ve got 6 main DJs in the world who have got residency there next year. There’s no other place on the planet, other than Ibiza that has that.

MD: I have a couple of buddies that have been trying to get me to go there for a while, so maybe next year…

PO: Brother! You’ve got to come, what’s wrong with you?! It’s great!

MD: I’d like to touch on just a few points, earlier in your career if that’s alright?

PO: Yeah, sure.

MD: England, late 80’s/early 90’s, your transitioning your career from working inside the music industry where you signed bands to labels, to becoming a performer in your own right as a DJ and club promoter. It is well documented that you rose from spinning in a basement bar in Covent Garden to performing at some of the largest dance nights in London at the time. I read that one of your regular gigs hosted over 2000 people every Monday night…

PO: Yeah, that’s right.

MD: How quickly did all that happen? Was it a pretty fast rise or….

PO: No. You know. It became popular quick Monday nights. It took six weeks to get to 2000 people because the scene was popular. But, I think that, generally, just hard work, determination, most of all, belief in what you’re doing. If you have that, anyone in anything you do, then that’s what’s important.

MD: People can find information about your success easily online, so I thought it would be interesting to learn more about the hard work period of your career. How many years would you say it went from..

PO: I’m still working at it.

MD: Well, of course.

PO: You never, you can’t really say there’s a certain amount of time, because, you’re always trying to improve. You’re always looking for how you can develop as a person or in your business.

MD: It must have felt pretty incredible though, at the time, to experience that rise in popularity of electronic music. I was wondering about you going from the smaller club to the more successful nights….I promote DJ nights myself occasionally…

PO: Oh Yeah? How’s it going? How’s your night going?

MD: I’’m on a bit of a hiatus right now. Focusing on my music writing. But from 2004 til earlier this year I’ve had several different nights in DC. Being there on a night that’s really clicking, where you have a good crowd, and the music’s really connecting, it feels great.

PO: Right.

MD: I was wondering if, in that early London club period, you had a moment where you realized “wow, we’ve really struck on something and it’s working.”

PO: Well you have your belief you know? You think you know what’s going on, it’s all about you, all you have to do is focus on what you are doing, not what other people are doing.

MD: Speaking of what other people were doing at the time kind of leads to my next question. While you were heavily involved in the London club scene in the early 90’s, were you also heading over to Manchester at the time or…

PO: No, I had a club in Manchester on a Monday night called Spectrum and I was producing and remixing the Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses. You know, London was where it was at. The scene was really in London.

MD: The reason I ask is because over here in America a lot of music fans and music writers kind of romanticize that Manchester thing, you know they dubbed it “Madchester”

PO: No, it wasn’t. It was London. In London was the big…I’m from London. See, we were playing the music that they were doing. In London they were playing them. There wasn’t clubs playing them you see, it came out of London, it’s just, that the BANDS came from Manchester. The MUSIC was being played in London.

MD: Ok, excellent. I think that a lot of American readers are going to be really interested in that distinction.

PO: Yeah, it’s a good point, and they should know that. The DJs were playing in London, not Manchester, but the bands came from Manchester. Were talking about Indie Dance right, not Acid house?

MD: Right, you had two nights going in London. Big nights in London. You had one that was more Acid house and the other was more Indie dance.

PO: Correct

MD: You’ve already mentioned them, the Happy Mondays. Most people know that you’ve worked with them. I was curious how was the experience working with the band? They are known as kind of colorful characters. Any good anecdotes about that period?

PO: That’s a good way of describing them…colorful characters.

MD: Yeah? Any craziness during the recording process that you care to share?

PO: Too much! Too much to mention!

MD: That’s fair. Now, moving over to your film work. I know you’ve been very active the last several years in scoring for film and television. With your residency in Vegas, do you consider your film work a kind of a sideline or a main focus right now?

PO: No, my film work is my main job. DJing has become a bit of the sideline. I flipped it over. I was looking at the future. I do a lot of film producing and then DJing apart of my residency… DJing is VERY important for me, but, I wouldn’t say that I’m solely a DJ no. Not at all. I haven’t been for a while. I’m not focused on DJing in terms of that’s my main job, you know? I have other things to do.

MD: I’d like to ask you about the use of a particular track of yours. ‘Ready Steady Go’ was used by Michael Mann in Collateral.

PO: Yeah, well, I worked with Michael Mann. I re-did the whole thing.

MD: I have a copy of the soundtrack. I know that it’s a different version than the album version.

PO: Yeah, so Michael called me, I went there to meet with him, we sat down and we spoke about it. I completely re-did it with new vocals and new guitar parts. It’s a total reworking inspired by that track for Michael’s film.

MD: Michael Mann, I feel, he’s one of the directors who uses music the best in film.

PO: Yeah, me too.

MD: He’s brilliant at that. So, of course, I’d like to ask how working with Michael Mann went. Did he show you the night club shoot out and then you got to working on the song, or were you working on it while they were shooting the movie?

PO: Yeah, so we sit down, we look at the scene. And then I start to re-write and re-work it.

MD: The images and the music went together…

PO: Yeah, they work, no?

MD: Yeah, I love it, it’s a fantastic scene. I’ve played that version of ‘Ready Steady Go’ several times at my DJ nights.

PO: REALLY?

MD: Oh yeah, it gets a big response too. I don’t know that people necessarily recognize that it’s the movie version, but they seem to find it a really exciting re-working of the song.

PO: Cool. Thank you.

MD: My last question is about another person you’ve collaborated with. Your collaboration with Hunter S. Thompson…

PO: Yeah (laugh)

MD: …on the Nixon track. How did that come about?

PO: I was a fan of his work. So I contacted him, I asked him if he’d be interested. I told him I can reach an all new demographic; play for kids, a lot of people that haven’t read him and are not familiar with him. I think it would be a good legacy for him to move forward. And he understood and got it. What a great man. So I was very lucky and fortunate to work with Hunter.

MD: Yeah, I know quite a few younger music fans whose first exposure to Hunter S. Thompson was that song.

PO: Well, that was the whole idea. I pitched the subject matter. We hung out, I recorded him, similar in some respect to how you’re recording me; but I was in the room with him. And we spoke for many hours over two days and I felt I had a subject matter which was the American dream which is something that can relate to young people around the world. You have dreams, go for it. Do it. Don’t give up on your dreams. It was a perfect and great example of someone that was, in my opinion, was a fantastic writer. So I felt that he could be related to my generation and generations of all ages, so that was the idea.

MD: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. I look forward to the show next week!

PO: Thank you. Good luck with the DJing!

Paul Oakenfold
w/ Chuckie & Nervo
@ 9:30 Club
Tuesday, Nov. 23
7pm – $25

Michael splits his free time between defending the little guy and championing the underdog. He has been haunting the concert halls, dive bars, and greasy spoons of DC for the last 16 years. His interests include live rock music, researching obscure military/political conflicts, and good hamburgers. He is a friendly grump, has wisdom beyond his years, and is on a life-long quest to attain music nirvana. Follow him on Twitter if you dare!

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