Pete Tong on twenty years at the BBC, relaunching FFRR and returning to Pacha
Pete Tong (due at Beta this Saturday, October 15) has had a ridiculous year: In commemoration of holding down a slot at BBC Radio 1 for twenty years, he took over the station for twelve hours, plus he re-launched his Pacha residency in Ibiza and started a pool party residency in Vegas. We caught up with Tong to ask him about all these accomplishments, and he also told us about what he thinks of Beta.
Westword: Can you talk about the significance of twenty years on the BBC spreading music?
Pete Tong: I don't think there's another radio station on the planet that quite has the impact that Radio 1 has, an international station that still desires a huge audience. And I think in all my experience traveling all over the world and listening to radio stations -- although there are some good ones -- I count myself fortunate to be part of BBC Radio 1. To end up being there twenty years is something really special.
From my earliest memories of a kid, that's what I listened to. It came off the back of the success of the pirate stations in the '60s; that's why it was invented, because there was such a demand in the U.K. post-Beatles for a non-mainstream radio station. And that's why Radio 1 started, and it always had a kind of dual purpose. It had its daytime programming with the masses and playing the popular music of the day, but also dedicating so much time and energy into supporting new music and giving people what they didn't know.
And over the years they attracted the leading experts in the field of rock music, like John Peel with alternative music, and myself, and soul music before me, and the whole era of house music and electronic music and, beyond that, hip-hop. It's an incredible station, there's no station on the planet as dedicated to breaking new music. It's a special feeling.
What's changed in your own show throughout your years at Radio 1?
The music's changed a little bit, because obviously, the music made now is different, but the actual ethic, the reason to be, is pretty similar. It's always been about trawling the electronic world of music in the broadest possible sense. My thing's always been about bringing what I feel is the next wave from the underground into the mainstream.
If you imagine a fishing scenario, I'm always looking 25, 50 meters below the surface. You can't super-specialize and please everybody. If I can pick the right things at the right times, I feel ready for a bigger audience. I don't turn water into wine, I just speed up the process. Some people say "Nothing happens until you get played on Pete Tong" -- I don't believe that. I'd like to think that I've got a bit of a cone, I can blow it out and get it to a bigger audience.
You travel all over the world playing music. Can you tell us what your perspective of the American electronic-music scene is like these days?
It's, without question, in my lifetime, the biggest explosion there's ever been in America. I think it's fair to say it's bigger than disco now. Disco was the last time dance music had such a grip on the mainstream of America, and then it died a horrible and very public death with America turned against disco, all those images of twelve-inch discs being burned in baseball stadiums.
The floor-to-floor rhythm has moved hip-hop out of the influence of pop music, from the most commercial ... it's had a huge effect, where the pop stars of the day are turning to dance producers and dance writers to supply the ammunition for them to keep evolving in their career. So on a level of impact, it's never been greater.
But over the years, I've seen America flirt with electronica, get quite interested and then move away again, back to the time of the Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers, when they got embraced and put on all these festivals, but there weren't roots. It wasn't very sticky.
The difference is there are real roots now, the festival circuit has been getting to a level of popularity that has surpassed that of Europe. If you look at Electric Daisy Carnival and Detroit Electronic Music Festival and now Electric Zoo in New York -- I could go on and on -- they're all serious festivals bringing in serious numbers. It's not necessarily pop-driven; it's not like they're all booking the Black-Eyed Peas. It's got an awful lot more below the surface. I think that's why America is leading the world in terms of business and turnover and size.
And the third thing I would say, there's now a consistent conveyer belt of new names coming through, whereas it was dominated by Europe and England. With Skrillex and Kaskade, there's a lot of new talent coming from America, and it's exciting. I was having a conversation in Vegas a couple of weeks ago where maybe the next stage is we'll start to see a bigger influence on the rest of the world from American artists for the first time in a long time.
What was it like co-hosting NPR's All Songs Considered this year?
It was a lot of fun. It was slightly bizarre, because I never met the guy we were talking to, and we both had to meet in this remote studio and do it, but it was the most eclectic crazy program that I think I've ever done in my life. It was quite a serious, in-depth interview, person hosting it, but the dots we were joining was completely bizarre.
Can you talk about your decision to re-launch FFRR at Warner music.
Well, partly because of what I just said about America, it's an exciting time, and it feels like another revolution's started. I think I've had a long enough break from the grind of the day-to-day to feel free and inspired enough to do it again. What started out as this completely naive ... working in the record business in the '80s was a very sexy place to be, probably the most fun, creative business to be in. I was just turned twenty and involved in running a record company signing up.
It was crazy time, but getting toward the end of the '90s it started to grind, the whole business aspect of it. It was a very big company and then you had the whole Napster thing changing how music was consumed. It was a difficult time, and I just felt my DJ career was taking off, it was time to concentrate on my deejaying. So that's why I stopped, and it's been almost ten years. People have offered me opportunities before, but it's interesting I'm going back working with people I've known for a long time; they want me back, and think there's a contribution for me to make.
Where we're at now, a kid in a bedroom can do it themselves for quite a long time without even needing a record company. I think back in the day, you always needed money to do anything, and that's long gone now, you can do most things by yourself and certainly get yourself noticed by hook or by crook -- Deadmau5 blowing up worldwide -- number one ticket sellers before they even have a deal. I think they're going back to the old values, right phone book and right experience,
You've really had a huge year by any standards; what would you say was the highlight of 2011 for you so far?
Celebrating twenty years on Radio 1, being basically in control of the whole station for 24 hours -- I was a guest on everyone's show that day and took over for twelve hours that night. That's something I'll never forget. It has to be the number-one highlight, but pretty close behind was returning to Pacha this year and taking over the Friday nights again. I did five years there, and I felt I couldn't really push it any more, I wanted to do more of an underground thing, and they didn't want to do that. Sometimes change is good. I got another opportunity, decided to do something completely mad and bring something to a part of the island that never had anything.
But I feel like I took that as far as I could go without a major investment. And I ended up getting the offer to go back to Pacha, and it seemed to be the right place and the right time. It's a really competitive club, they've got a lot of nights, but I felt that musically, there was a great big hole I could fill. They're still humble enough and present enough to say they never replaced me truly, so we went back in there and slotted back in really well. I just finished nineteen weeks, it's a huge commitment, and I still manage to do Vegas.
What are you looking forward to for the rest of the year and in 2012?
I think developing FFRR -- I signed one band, the Paper Crows; [I'm] working hard on them. They're an electronic band but not a dance band, a bit of Erasure meets Depeche Mode, really. Already planning Pacha next year, and making more music. I really want to make more of my own music, partly for this kind of soundtrack world and TV world, but also music to put out there and have on Beatport. I think it's the thing you have to do now in the modern era, keep putting things out about what you stand for and what your sound is. Some of us old, established DJs didn't make albums; we didn't get to associate with making music like the new guys. But it's something that I enjoy doing, it's relaxing as well as fun.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
Beta is one of the most amazing clubs in the world, and no one gets there till twelve. I always joke with the owners that it's the most intense two hours in the world, all that infrastructure and amazing space and sound systems, and it effectively runs for two hours. Denver, stay up late, at least for Saturday night!