Name: Pete Tong
Occupation: DJ, radio presenter
Current release: Pete Tong & Goom Gum's Signal EP is out via Renaissance Records. Built around a dreamy, slowly smouldering groove, an anthemic one-note-triplet and a sensual harmonic weave as weightless as butterfly wings, the track mesmerisingly circles the border between constant teasing and full-blown erruption for seven and a half magical minutes. It is a great example of the way DJs and producers can work together and complement each other: For weeks, Tong would play the first edits of Goom Gum's piece at his gigs, constantly suggesting ideas to the Russian duo, until he finally dropped the finished version at Tulum to maximum effect. Two remixes by Anja Schneider and one by Bora Uzer seague so seamlessly that the EP feels like one continous, expansive long-form composition.
[Read our Anja Schneider interview]
For Pete Tong, of course, this project is just one in a series of projects deepening, expanding and occasionally questioning the role and contribution of DJing. It is has made him one of the most widely recognised DJs worldwide and one of the few who have managed to take their talents to other aspects of the trade – such as co-producing, curating and presenting music on the radio – without it ever feeling forced. That said, despite all these “diversions”, he has never given up on the idea that DJing itself, in its purest form, is possibly as valuable as the compositional part. No wonder he refers to it as “the ultimate skill” here.
In this interview, he expands on his views on DJing and why it still feels so fruitful and exciting to him after so many years behind the decks. In the end, to him, there was ever any choice of doing something else: “I would do everything and anything to learn my craft, learn about music … I was all in.”
If you would like to find out even more about Pete's current schedule and activities, visit his official website or check out his profiles on Instagram, Facebook, Soundcloud, and twitter.
Tell me about your first DJ gigs, please. How did you approach them and how do you look back on them with hindsight?
My first DJshows were very humble, school discos and weddings. I would do everything and anything to learn my craft, learn about music, learn all the technical aspects of building sound systems … I was all in.
Eventually things started to fall into place when I ran my own parties and club nights and developed my own following and sound.
What were some of the artists, technologies and clubs/events that changed your perspective on what DJing could be?
Larry Levan opened my mind in terms of the impact a DJ and club could have at Paradise Garage in NYC and Danny Tenaglia took it to a whole new level when I went to his parties at Space Miami. The intensity and the length of his set came from another planet.
Going to Love Parade in Berlin and doing the first one in the UK inspired the idea that electronic music was a global force. The Internet made dance music a global phenomenon and allowed DJs to migrate and travel the world.
File sharing, Ableton Live, Logic, Fruity Loops, MySpace, Soundcloud, Beatport, Pioneer DJ, Native Instruments … all these companies have had a profound impact.
How would you personally rate the potential for expressing yourself with DJing compared to producing? What can be expressed through these two different disciplines?
Without question, while so much new music is getting made and released by so many more artists its easy to forget the pure art of DJing, curating music and presenting it in an engaging and inspiring set. It is still the ultimate skill.
Absolutely you can express your self as a DJ, look no further than Dixon, DJ Harvey and Ricardo Villalobos. Carl Cox is really more famous because of his DJ skills even though he makes a ton of music.
DJing has always – at least partially – been about presenting exciting music. In a club, however, people are dancing and in a community with other guests while they're listening rather than sitting at home or listening on earbuds while travelling. How does this change our perception of the music, do you feel? What makes the club experience unique?
It’s an interesting phenomenon to study right now. Streaming provides infinite choice and actually makes it harder to become a global phenomenon as the labels and radio have less influence. People, however, still crave communal experiences. Clubs and festivals provide that scene and setting, clubs are where the culture is born.
A record that moves a crowd will always take on a whole different life to those only experienced online. More importantly the people making club music are hugely impacted by what happens when their music is played in a packed club in turn influencing the music they make and where they go next …
Composers and songwriters combine notes and sounds. DJs combine entire songs. Can you tell me a bit about how your work as a DJ has influenced your view of music, your way of listening and perhaps also, if applicable, your work as a producer?
DJing is really the ultimate form of curation. The deeper you dive in the more profound the impact will be on the way you interact with music and the decisions you make. Clearly 99.9% of musicians are influenced by music that they have heard, the music that inspired them to make music.
So DJing has informed my choices as a producer, creator, A&R man, radio presenter, soundtrack composer and supervisor. Everything has been informed by DJing
What role does digging for music still play for your work as a DJ? Tell me a bit about where and how you're looking for music that excites you and music that will work in a set?
I look everywhere, I get sent a ton, I buy constantly on Beatport, bandcamp, vinyl stores, I network and exchange music constantly with other DJs and producers and A&R people … I’m always listening to other DJs' sets looking for the gems, I’ll do deep historical dives on youtube and my collection when I’m on a mission for something or preparing for a set or a film … it’s all-consuming.
Interesting how time can change your perception of music from the past. Something can sound ok, then 5 years later you go back to it in a new frame of mind and wow …
I've always wondered: How is it possible for DJs to memorise so many tracks? How do you store tracks in your mind – traditionally as grooves + melodies + harmonies or as colours, energy levels, shapes?
Thanks to computers and Record Box, Engine, iTunes, Spotify, iTunes etc it’s a lot easier to organise music. Back in the days of vinyl I would organise by different stages of the set and bpm and I also had a very good memory for sleeves and labels.
Things got a lot more chaotic during the CD burning era with endless books of CDs with messy hand writing and home made labels.
In the digital record box era its a lot easier to organise and tag music with the extra information on key and tempo and mood. I still put individual folders together for most shows which will include new music I want to play and recurrent faves and classics and specials.
Let's say you have a gig coming up tonight. What does your approach look like, from selecting the material and preparing for and opening a set?
I would want to know where I was playing. Is it a club or festival, inside or outside, daytime, night time, late night or sunrise? I would want to know roughly the size of crowd and who was on before and after me. All these factors are very important.
Personally I’ll always prefer playing to dance floors that encourage the experimental and where the crowd are into going on a journey with you. Places like Space Miami Terrace, Watergate Berlin, Warung in Brazil, Warehouse Project in Manchester, Fabric in London, Blue Marlin in Ibiza or Sound LA.
All have amazing sound systems and DJ booths and I really look forward to preparing sets for those spaces.
How does the decision making process work during a gig? How far do you tend to plan ahead during a set?
I usually plan the opening 20 minutes and then assess how the crowd are reacting / feeling. I think about the ending too, especially if it's a shorter festival set.
Fully planned out sets don’t usually work so I tend to avoid them unless it's a very specific show that might have some other production element that I have to sync with. In general I would say more planning goes into a festival set.
What are some of the considerations that go into deciding which track to play next? What makes two tracks a good fit?
I'm looking to keep a groove and a feeling going. I think my favourite DJs build a subtle intensity over time. Some of my favourite DJs that are used to playing longer sets are really good at this, Tenaglia was the master, Solomun & Dixon are really good at it.
When you are mixing two records together the ultimate mix is when the tracks you're bringing in just feels like a natural extension to the one that's playing, either building or releasing tension. Seemless.
Kode9 once said: "Many DJ sets go from drop to drop, so the biggest part of the track is always when it comes in. That kind of DJing I find pretty boring and that kind of DJing would be better done by a machine. I prefer to hear tracks in the mix together for extended periods of time, and I like to hear the tension between two tracks." What's your take on that?
Definitely the latter. For me a DJ set should be a journey not just a series of endless peaks back to back. The drop to drop style really is EDM’s evolution of the hip hop or mash up style of DJ-ing that evolved in the VIP clubs and VIP table scene in the late 90s to early 2000s. When EDM exploded in the USA and the gigs got bigger and bigger the pressure was on the DJ to keep the crowd in this peak state. Fun at the beginning but it definitely gets stale after a while.
Whilst I'm a huge fan of turntable wizards like Questlove and Mark Ronson when it comes to 4/4 rhythms, I prefer to hear two tracks mixed together over time.
Even if tension between tracks is not a goal for you, pieces can sound entirely different as part of a DJ set compared to playing them on their own. How do you explain this?
It's all about the context and the scene and setting at the time and by the simple music theory that laying one piece of music on top of another you are basically making one “arrangement” (1 track) far more complex by blending it with another.
In terms of the overall architecture of a DJset, are you looking more for one consistent level of energy or a shift between peaks and troughs – and why?
This really depends on where and when and for how long you are playing. But as a rule it's all about a journey with peaks and troughs.
It’s a little different in the pure techno world and I’m often in awe at how DJs like Richie Hawtin, Ben Klock, Chris Liebing, Nina Kravitz and Charlotte De Witte can keep their foot on full throttle for hour after hour.
Many DJs have remarked on collaborating with the audience. Others rather want to present their vision without external input. Where do you personally stand in between these poles?
I've never been a head down ignore the crowd, “I've come to play you this music so listen or leave” kind of DJ. Whilst new music has always dominated my sets I still want to “convince” the crowd to come with me and if it's not working I will react and try and fix that.
For me DJing is like surfing where the crowd are the waves. You want to be in harmony with the dance floor.
A DJ gig, just like an improvisation, is a fleeting experience which can not be repeated the way listening to a record can. How has DJing affected your view on life and death and the importance of memories?
Well I totally agree that a great night at a club or party either as a DJ or someone on the dance floor is a totally unique, one-off experience so you want to be fully in the moment and take it all in and get off your phone!!
While you could listen back to a recording of the night and relive those feelings they will never be as intense as they are in that moment. I think these are the lessons for life.