Interview: Pete Tong of BBC Radio 1

Interview with Pete Tong in conversation with Samantha Howard.

Pete Tong’s impact on dance music around the world has been huge. He’s a seasoned veteran and one of the most recognised electronic artists, with a huge following from his ongoing work on BBC Radio One. He’s had a mad contribution to the industry in Ibiza and even been appointed as a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for his services to broadcasting and music.

He’s been around for a while and it seems everything he touches turns to gold. Most recently, BBC signed Tong to a major project which blends electronic music with a traditional orchestra, and saw him taking a sell-out show down under. We spoke with Pete Tong about this project, the movement of electronic music across the world and broadening connections within Asia.

Sam: Firstly, I’d love to talk about your recent performance with the Heritage Orchestra in Melbourne where you blended electronic music with traditional instruments. I know that you used to play drums a little bit when you were younger. Do you think that the orchestra was something that was always coming? 

Pete: No, not at all. It was a fortuitous incident. The opportunity sort of came along and I jumped at it, but I never harboured the idea of performing with an orchestra. If you had asked me if I would have liked to have been performing with a live band ten years ago then I probably would have said yes, but I didn’t think about an orchestra until the opportunity came up. It’s funny the twists and turns that life takes.

Sam: How long were you working on the orchestra to get that idea and envision it?

Pete: I was asked in January 2015 whether I’d like to curate or organise a concert at The Proms, which is a famous series of classical concerts that the BBC had been involved in for many years. The Proms have been going for around 110 years at the Royal Albert Hall and is a celebration of orchestral and classical music. They wanted something more contemporary that would engage a younger audience.

They asked Radio One and they asked me and we came up with the idea. I got introduced to Jules Buckley and in turn, the Heritage Orchestra who was his weapon of choice, and they were a progressive younger symphony orchestra who didn’t really play much classical music. They would enjoy being an orchestra that was much more forward thinking. It took about six months to plan the set and organise it all and we went and did the show in July.

At that point it was the job we had to do and obviously was a great job and we really enjoyed the performance on the night. There was a special atmosphere and electricity in the room and the reaction of the crowd really took us by surprise. It kind of snowballed from there. It was beautifully shot by the BBC and it had a good audience on social media and it helped to build up steam over the next few weeks where people were talking about it and asking us to do it again.

They were asking friends why they weren’t there and we being asked to travel around the world with it. Eventually we got together to do three arena shows in the UK, which went better than we had ever dreamed of. We sold out three huge arenas including the A2 in London, which is 18,000 people. By then, the real work began like last year where we developed a show around it, our own production.

We went and recorded the first album and the album went to number one. We’ve finally been able to take the show down to Australia which was so much fun and so inspiring and it’s the first proper country we’ve been able to take it to apart from Ibiza this summer, but it was almost like playing a home match there. Now we’ve played in the Hollywood Bowl and the new album has just come out. Then we kick off our new run in the UK on the 11th of December where we have five arenas back to back including two major arenas that have been sold out. So it’s been a mad two and a half years.

Sam:  So you’ve done a lot of travel around the world during your time, travelling from region to region and city to city. Do you notice that some areas of the world are more passionate about specific sub-genres of dance music than others? 

Pete: I guess so, traditionally. Certain places have always been leaning more towards the underground. Having said that, when the EDM explosion happened in 2007-2008 that kind of skewed the map a little bit because for a moment, bar a couple of places, that was pretty popular. In general though, South America have sort of tended to favour underground music, and Berlin of course and parts of Eastern Europe. So the map has changed a lot in the last couple of years.

Sam: Do you think that’s a product of the culture within the area in itself or because of what the area is exposed to? For example, disco is quite popular here in Melbourne and more popular than other areas of Australia. Do you think that’s because of what we are exposed to and we love disco or do you think there is something about Australian or Melbourne culture that has led to us just loving disco? 

Pete: (Laughs) I think Carl Cox and Eric Powell have influenced disco. Carl loves to go out and play his old record collection. You know, you’re the first person in the world that’s ever said to me that disco’s popular in a particular city since probably the late 70s.

Sam: What about the rest of the region of Asia? I know with the International Music Summit, your conferences focus on increasing initiatives, discussion and dialogue between people involved in the music industry.

Pete: China is very different. DJs have gone to China and played groundbreaking gigs going back to the 90s. Paul Oakenfold played the Great Wall of China, for example. China is a novel place to go because it’s so absolutely huge and it’s a place that not homogenised and the same as everywhere else. China is an exciting market but it’s fought with issues to do with the government and how parties are run and how much non-Chinese content they can have.

They’ve tended to go for what is the most popular thing at the time, so EDM and trance and that kind of more commercial sound is a lot bigger there. Having said that, I’ve gone and played underground parties there. But then Japan is a champion electronic country for 20-30 years and they always fell in love with the original New York underground heroes like Frankie Knuckles and they had a purist approach to techno. Then they’ve got more extreme stuff like Guetta and Swedish House Mafia.

I’ve played Japan quite a few times and it’s not my biggest market because I’ve always been somewhere in between. I always wasn’t underground enough or purist American enough for them or commercial enough for them (laughs). Then you’ve got other places in Asia that have been in the market for a long time, like Bali in Indonesia, Thailand, Taipei and loads of other places that listen to both underground and more commercial dance music.

Sam: What are some of the main objectives you hope to achieve out of the International Music Summits?

Pete: It was always about trying to put the brightest minds in one place together for two or three days to discuss the issues of the day or try and improve, expand and innovate a business. That was the original purpose. When I was growing up, there were a couple of conferences that I attended when I was just starting out in the record business and as a DJ, that had a huge influence on me and helped me a lot.

One of them was the old music seminars that ran in New York in the 80s and then the other one was run by the late Tony Wilson who ran Factory Records in Manchester and you would go and hear people talk and learn, there would be amazing figure heads from the industry and inspiring characters to go meet and it became a phenomenal networking space. That’s something that I really wanted to create.

Find Pete’s new album, Ibiza Classics here: