Pete Tong’s name is as synonymous with club culture as dance music itself. Starting out as an artist booking agent (he was one of the first to book a then-unknown Culture Club to play a venue), Pete then moved into artist and repertoire work (A&R) with London Records, and ultimately DJ-ing.
As well as having played virtually everywhere that matters on the international club circuit for the better part of 40 years, Pete has become one of a handful of go-to music producers that has kept up with the times, as well as a master compiler of some of music’s greatest compilation albums.
Now he’s doing something different in collaborating with England’s prestigious Heritage Orchestra to present classic club songs in more of a symphonic guise. Having successfully toured the full orchestral production right across the globe, including recent concerts in Sydney and Melbourne, Pete has now released some of those songs in symphonic guise in the form of the album Pete Tong with the Heritage Orchestra: Ibiza Classics.
The album features classic tracks rebooted with a symphonic bent, with vocals taken care of by alternative artists. Massive Attack’s Unfinished Symphony, for example, is broodingly delivered by Samm Henshaw; Moloko’s Sing It Back is delivered in brilliant new guise by singer Becky Hill; and Armand van Helden’s You Don’t Know Me is effortlessly revived by Craig David.
“I didn’t want this to be seen as a covers album,” Pete tells Cream from the get-go. “This is not that.”
Indeed, the new Ibiza Classics is like something you’ve never heard before, in the worlds of club or classical music.
Interview by Antonino Tati.
Transcription by Chris Prindiville.
Going right back to the beginning, what was the very first record you bought?
With my own money? I think it was Children of the Revolution by T-Rex. I was always around records, because my dad liked to collect them, and my cousin collected Motown tracks, so I was always fascinated by vinyl 7-inches and LPs. I used to love the local record shop, where I used to hang out all the time.
Eventually you got into DJ-ing…
Yeah. I started DJing because I was a shy guy that couldn’t dance. I was the nerdy kid in the corner [just listening to] the music. When I was a kid at the clubs, the famous people, the real ‘faces’, were the dancers, not the DJs. Being a DJ was about being part of that world. Even at the beginning of the acid house and rave scene, the DJs were kind of anonymous. That term ‘superstar DJ’ first emerged when the scene really took off in the mid ’90s. Then DJs started appearing on the cover of magazines.
You were one of those ‘superstar DJs’. How did you cope with that attention, as someone who was somewhat shy by nature?
Funnily enough, I always talked because I was the one they put on the radio. Even in the clubs, I was the one who talked over the records more than anyone else. Along with guys like Carl Cox, I came up through the early hip-hop era, where people did talk. We were breaking new ground. We didn’t know at the time, but we were constantly creating firsts and breaking records.
As a record producer and DJ, what skills do you think are needed to successfully cross over in those two areas?
There are two types of DJs in the modern era: the early DJs who became famous because of the music they played and the way they played it; whereas in the last 10 years, it’s been about the music you make. The big superstar DJs of the present day have got there through the music they create. Some of them engage with the Top 40 and mainstream pop, and manage to do it consistently over a period of time; people like David Guetta, Avicii, and The Chainsmokers. The people who have those skills – where they can write a tune or be part of a writing process – ultimately rise to the top. Then you get amazing underground artists who write their own music who go on to win awards, too.
Are you listening to a lot of that underground stuff?
I do. My Radio One show is all about new music. My whole career, whether it’s being in a record company, A&R-ing for an agency, being on the radio, has always been about finding and promoting new artists. I still do that.
With dance music, there’s been a move towards creating orchestral arrangements. You yourself have been involved with the Heritage Orchestra. What has drawn you to this approach to music-making?
For me, it came about through an invitation. In Janaury 2015, I was asked if I wanted to curate a concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London. The Proms is a series of classical concerts that have been going for about 110 years, and the BBC is heavily involved in it. They wanted to do something contemporary, aimed at young people. I came up with the idea of making the show about the music that was played and celebrated at Ibiza. The whole thing went viral and there was this incredible demand for us to do it again. This year we came back with 15 new shows, including two recent ones in Australia, in Sydney and Melbourne. It’s become a retrospective of the last 30 years, really.
You don’t often look backwards in your career.
I know. In fact, it’s the first time in my career where I’m looking backwards, and I get to reinterpret these songs which mean so much to people. I think the reason it’s so popular is that people are crying out for something that’s different. If there’s anything that’s been lacking in the last 10 years, it’s been good live [dance] acts. In the ’90s, we had this amazing era of acts like The Prodigy, Chemical Brothers, Groove Armada, Basement Jaxx – so many. Not since Daft Punk, to a certain extent, has there been a great new live act.
How would you describe your latest album, ‘Ibiza Classics’, recorded with the Heritage Orchestra?
I’ve tried to apply all the best principles that I have learned over the last 30 years in the business. We’ve gone about it as if we were a band. The way the tracks have been conceived and built is in the same way a group like Coldplay would’ve done it. We started in the studio with some electronics; sit down with a song and decide on how we are going to redo it: turn it back to front, make it longer, make it shorter. If it’s a male vocal, should we flip it to a female? If it’s an instrumental, should we make it into a song? When we’ve got the foundations down, we then bring in the core members of the Heritage Orchestra. It’s like a normal band, really, with keyboards, bass, drums, and they kind of jam on it for a day. Then we edit together all the best bits.
The album and your shows with such a variety of artists must lead to some interesting conversations with peers in the industry. What do you think Roisin Murphy would make of Becky Hill’s take on ‘Sing It Back’, for example?
Well, it’s very important to say this: I didn’t want it to be seen as a covers album. When I was kid, you could buy a Top of the Pops compilation album where a group of musicians would copy the original songs with a session singer, and you could get it at half price. This is not that. We sat down and we’ve realised we’ll never make a better record than Sing It Back, but we can complement the original version and come at it in a different way.
Are you hoping that DJs in the clubs will try and weave in some of these new takes into their sets?
We can do remixes which might make it easier to play. I played out Sing It Back and Promised Land for a good few months; secretly testing them. I was surprised at how well the crowd connected to them. I think the tracks on this album are much easier to play in a club than those on our last album. Funnily enough, in Australia, where disco has been having a bit of a revival, I think they get played a lot more.
Rounding things off now, I’d like to play a little word association with you.
First off, club culture in the ’90s?
Excessive and brilliant.
Club culture today?
Still exciting, if you know where to go.
The British Government?
What about the concept of drugs being inextricably linked with club culture: myth or fact?
It’s not a myth. They are. So, fact. But they’re a part of a lot of other areas of life, too. It’s unfair for the clubs to take all the blame. It’s endemic throughout modern society. In a funny way, clubs are some of the safest places to go.
A lighter question to finish things up: if Pete Tong wasn’t making music as a DJ and producer, what would he be doing with his life?
Cycling or climbing a mountain somewhere. It’s quite healing for me to be outdoors.
‘Pete Tong with The Heritage Orchestra presents Ibiza Classics’ is out through Polydor / Universal Music.
For more information and links visit www.petetong.com.
WIN! One of 10 copies of ‘Pete Tong with The Heritage Orchestra presents Ibiza Classics’ on CD!
Cream has 10 copies of the CD to give away. To try winning, email your name, address and the Subject heading ‘Pete Tong’ to firstname.lastname@example.org by 5pm AWST, Monday 18 December. Please tell us in the body of your email, too, the title of one of your favourite club tracks!