Paul Oakenfold Talks Music, Plays Webster Hall On Wednesday

Walking in stride with Paul Oakenfold to Eminem’s Shade 45 studio isn’t my typical, run-of-the-mill Monday afternoon activity. But yesterday, the Sirius Satellite Radio office was buzzing with action. There were live bands, artists, and DJs everywhere. En route to the studio I was quickly introduced to former Hot 97 DJ Whoo Kid, who now hosts the Saturday time slot on Eminem’s satellite station. Then Paul and I sat down to chat about where our paths had crossed previously. I told him that in any healthy debate about the world’s greatest DJs, his name would inevitably come up. I also explained that while there might be heated debates about the top tier DJs, there is little debate about the worst DJ in the world – I’ve got that one locked up. Out of this interview came Paul’s confident proclamation that Las Vegas, long considered a cultural wasteland, is now the electronic music capital of the U.S. of A. He described it as America’s Ibiza. We talked about his upcoming album – tentatively titled Pop Killer – and the Facelift tour, which will hit Webster Hall on Thanksgiving Eve. He will spin with superstar DJ Roger Sanchez and three young artists – Chuckie, Sidney Sampson, and Nervo – who he describes as the next big things in electronic music.

You are playing the day before Thanksgiving, Wednesday the 24th, in New York at Webster Hall. That’s a big club. In New York there’s Pacha, Terminal 5, and very few other large places to spin, while the rest of the world embraces house music in far bigger, and more numerous venues. Why is that? I’m asking you. When you’re DJing, what are the differences you see in New York and the rest of the planet? If you want me to answer the question I think it’s because hip-hop is far more popular here, the mixing of cultures here is far more profound than it is in Europe, and the dollars aren’t there for house clubs. Yeah. And I think that we embrace rock and roll here very strongly. It’s strange ’cause, as you said, we’ll be self-starting house music. There have been some absolutely amazing clubs over the years in New York City and, as an Englishman, I always used to look at New York and kind of put it up there. That was the kind of pinnacle of music—electronic music. But over the last few years I think it has lost its way. I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault necessarily, but there are no big clubs. There are in LA, there are in Vegas, there are in Miami. It seems in terms of what’s coming out in New York—electronic music—it doesn’t seem like there’s much coming out of New York that there used to be. I don’t think it is one of the major club destinations now, apart from I suppose Pacha, which is in our scene, and everyone knows Pacha, but apart from Pacha there doesn’t really seem to be another club. Now if you go to LA, I mean you have three massive clubs all competing on a Saturday night – and these clubs hold two, two and a half thousand. And the club I do in Las Vegas, we put five thousand in there. Rain Night Club in Vegas. Yeah. Speaking to friends of mine, they’ve said its got a lot to do with people wanting to shut clubs down in New York City and not allowing people to go out and have a good time and dance all night long. It seems to be, I don’t know, is it the mayor? Well it’s many people, its real estate interests and community boards. New York, it’s an island, and people are now living in every nook and cranny and neighborhood– nobody wants to live next to a club. Even Pacha was very close to getting closed down last year by what seemed to me to be trumped-up charges. I went to the trial and it was really unbelievable what they were saying. The evidence was minimal and charges ludicrous, and yet Pacha was almost closed. You are playing Webster hall tomorrow night, which is a big club and has been there since the 1800’s. And it’s very hard hard to do a club although a venue like Terminal 5— What’s Terminal 5?

Terminal 5 is where Exit used to be. It’s a concert venue, but they occasionally do large dance events, it’s not a club. And yes, there is a difference between a venue and a club. Webster Hall is not a club though is it?

Webster hall is a club, it is run as a club. They do have a lot of concerts, but they run it as a club on Friday and Saturday nights. In fact, every day of the week they’re open with something going on. You’re right, in 1987 and 1988 and ‘89, when I was running clubs, house music was the main floor, and it was the big DJs like Frankie Knuckles and Dave Morales It’s hard to find something like that. The music has been constantly evolving Danny Tenaglia, Junior Vasquez. God, I mean you know music, it’s pitiful. Well they just opened District 36, which is a thousand person venue dedicated to house music, with big sound system. Where is that? It’s on 36 street near 6th Avenue. It also has to do a lot with the fees. DJs like yourself are now six-figure DJs—you’re getting a lot of money. The international circuit DJs are getting paid a lot of money, and at the clubs in New York, the crowd—the house music crowd— doesn’t spend a lot of money like they do at the open format joints, where bottle service and that kind of revenue stream pay the bills. A smaller club like Avenue or Provocateur, those kinds of clubs where they’re getting $8,000 dollars for a table actually book big name DJ’s now. I played Provocateur. They can afford to pay you some money, because it’s a promotional one off for them, a big DJ, playing the little room. It tells their elite clientele that they are serious about their music. They have more of a capability to generate money, or turn a profit than a big club, by selling tables. People don’t want to pay $40 or $50 to get in to the large joints, but they must, as that’s what it takes to pay for you guys. The cost of doing business, say for a Pacha, makes it difficult to support multiple places. Anyway, Your upcoming album called Pop Killer, is that it? Yeah it’s a working title. It’s just like to me, I feel its kind of a sexy name. How about the other name, the name of your tour is Facelift? The Facelift Tour, yes. I hadn’t toured for four years on my own. I mean, I’ve toured with Madonna as a support artist, and I’ve done a couple of spot gigs, but I took a residency in Vegas and I’m mainly working films. So it’s the first time in four years I’ve been on a bus and I’ve been touring. The idea behind Facelift was to bring something fresh, new and different. There’s a lot of money spent on production, it’s a visual experience, and in terms of the screens, the front of the booth the background and the big backdrop of LED screens—a massive LED wall—and we have these new fresh talents from the Dirty Dutch Boys, which is the new sound of house at the moment coming out of Holland. So there’s Chuckie, Sidney Sampson. Roger Sanchez mentioned them when I interviewed him last week. Roger was speaking very highly of them. They’re like the hottest kids at the moment: everyone’s on their case. And then there are the two girls, Nervo, who wrote and produced one of David Guetta’s big songs. They’re now also DJing and they’re from Australia. And there’s a big buzz on them. So, the idea for me is to support young and fresh DJs from around the world. There’s Kenneth Thomas from Detroit, who is an important guy in America, a young American DJ. Then there are the established names like Roger.

I saw in your biography that you worked with Red Hot Chili Peppers, you worked with Madonna, you worked with Cee-Lo. These are hip-hop artists, rock artists, pop artists. Is there going to be a time when house music encompasses all of this, to a point where the house heads say, recognize other forms of music? House-heads, at least in NYC, only recognize house. They discount every other genre of music. Although you guys borrow licks and beats and sounds from all these genres, is there a time when your set will include a Nirvana song? It already does. I’ve never really put boundaries. I think its something just, generally in life, you shouldn’t put in front of you. You can do really what you want to do. And in terms of music, I’ve always incorporated different genres of music. I mean, I’ve worked with Ice Cube, I’ve worked with Hunter S. Thompson, who was a writer, I’ve worked with U2, Chili Peppers, they’re a rock band, I’ve worked with Madonna and Nelly Furtado, in pop. Do it all as long as you’ve got integrity there, and you retain who you are, and what you do. On my New Artist album I’ve got a lot of collaborations and some of the big names. I wanted to take that element of great, great singers, with great songs, and put it on cutting edge house beats. Which is what I’ve been doing.

Are you sharing your music with the other DJs on the tour, are you getting feedback with them, is it a evolving album, is it changing as you go on tour? Are you producing on the road? Good question. I am road testing a lot of it, I’m getting feedback from the crowd, and the DJ’s. We all get on very well, which is really refreshing because right now we’re talking about all doing a track together, and putting it out there. There’s feedback from whenever, And good constructive criticism if it needs to be there. I think that’s important. I mean the Nervo girls are singer/songwriters, and producers before they’re DJs. Jackie you know he did a collaboration with “I’m In Miami Bitch,” which is now a worldwide phrase. I was in Miami last weekend, and everyone’s got these T-shirts. He’s very fresh. Point-being, he comes from a completely different action than a lot of the old school DJs, which I kind of find really refreshing, because he keeps you on your toes. He’s very out there, and he’s got a lot of energy, and I liked his ideas in terms of how he sees whats going on. Steve: What do you use? Do you use records still? I use CD because I don’t want to lose the art of DJing. I don’t personally want to be staring in to my laptop while I’m DJing. I like the connection with the crowd, I like the movement of touching and playing which comes from that old school approach. Nervo is great looking at the laptop, doing what they do. Chuckie just turns up with two sticks, puts them in scrolls down the CD player, turns up— I mean he’s even further down the road. He just brings his headphones and these two USB sticks, and puts them in and you can scroll through—have you seen that? You just scroll down and he’s got it all there. I like that idea, and I actually may go that fa,r but then you lose the whole essence of what it’s all about.

I think that leads to the question: you don’t know the first song or track you want to put on on Wednesday, night do you? I do. See most guys tell me no, they feel the room. But with the CD thing…I know when I DJ, I don’t always know the first song, I may have an idea, but after that, I’m looking at the crowd, I like the feel of searching through the records. I mean, I understand that, but my set is a little bit more arranged than that. There are parts of the set that are big movers in terms of key changes, so I would say I know the first records, I know the second record, and I probably know two others towards the end. The rest of it I don’t know. I totally agree in some respects. You’re looking at the crowd, but someone has to lead. If you suddenly let the crowd lead, then it’s like anything, someone’s got to be in charge otherwise it all falls apart. I believed in my choice of records, I believe not every record I play everyone is going to like, of course, but I think they come to hear your sound so they want you to play your music. Not dictate, not be dictated by what they want to hear. They may want to hear their favorite song. If it’s one of mine, then I play a lot of my own music. There is always new music. I’m always about playing new songs, always want to, and always will. I think people come to hear new music. For the first time they hear it, rather than expecting the same stuff all the time. When I used to book DJs, back in the old days, back in the Fred Flintstone days, there was a thing when DJs graduated or moved to producing, there was a time when they actually became less good as DJs because they pigeon-holed themselves towards a certain sound. They played records that sounded like their music, if not just their own music. How much does Paul Oakenfold have to step aside and look at music from a different angle, from a different view point, and see what the other guy is doing, and say ‘I want to go in that direction too’? In England, we’re very aware of change. We embrace new sounds and new scenes every six months. In the last year, we’ve had Dub Step and Dirty Dutch—that’s two completely different scenes that are established now, and are big sounds. You have to move, you have to develop, otherwise you get left behind. You know, there’s some big old school American—New York—DJs that you mentioned earlier on, who have been left behind. It’s because they wouldn’t embrace change. If you want to stay on top of anything, you have to embrace change. Don’t be scared of it. You don’t have to necessarily follow it, but you should embrace it, you should be aware of it, and you should understand it. You know, if certain production lends itself that way, then don’t be scared to do it. Because, you as a producer, it’s different from you as a DJ, or me as a remixer. I’ve just finished remixing Chris Brown, Usher, and Take That. Now I’ve done them strong house, keeping the integrity of the song, but would they fit in my set? Probably, maybe in the early part of the set, but no, I mean I play a lot of trance. You wouldn’t want to do an Usher track that’s trance, it just wouldn’t work, so you keep the integrity because you’re being hired to do a remix, and you’re looking at the bigger picture rather, than just this small, “I’ll do it for me.” Brian Ferry once sang these lyrics something like “With every idol a letdown, it brings you down.” In other words, you and I, probably you more than me these days, meet lots of famous people. And sometimes, they’re not as dynamic, or as wonderful as the papers say, or as you expect. I don’t want to talk about the negatives – but who has been a surprisingly wonderful person? You meet them and you’re like, Oh my God, this is a God? Bono. He was that. He’s just a great guy. Nadeska Alexis: You do play a lot of trance, is it going to be like that, or is it more up tempo? It’s all up tempo. I have a residency in Las Vegas at the Palms Casino, so what’s really great about that is I get a chance to do a mix in the studio during the week, and play at the club on the weekend. That way I can see what’s working and what’s not. Then I’ll go back, change it up. So I’m really testing all my music before it comes out to see what works and what doesn’t. Nadeska: Do you think Vegas is a good representation of the general population? Because you are also on tour right now. So are the people in Vegas receiving it differently than in cities across the US or is it kind of the same? No, I think that Las Vegas is the capitol of Electronic music in America. There are more nightclubs in Vegas than in any other city. There are five major DJs next year who all have residencies. It’s a 24-hour party, have you been to Vegas lately? People get there and they go straight to the pool, and they hang out by the pool and they’ve got Kaskade DJing. Then they’ll go to a club, and they’ll have one of the big DJs playing, and then you’ll go to the after hours where there’s another big name DJ playing. It literally just goes and goes. It’s the only place that reminds me of is Ibiza—it’s America’s Ibiza. Not just domestically but internationally; a lot of people come for Vegas. And at the moment, it’s a real healthy scene. It’s certainly somewhere if you’re in to electronic music, and you live in America, you should go and see, because it’s the only place where every night, you’re hearing all the best DJs. The only other time in America that that happens is for one week during the Winter Music Conference, where by the pools there are DJs, and in the evening: all the DJs playing. Steve: That was the single most profound endorsement of Vegas culture that has ever happened, and I think you’re right. You just said something that I don’t think has ever been said. Vegas is no longer the tacky, silly place in the desert, the place where you hide your love away. It’s really become an important music town. Nobody has said what you just said. Its refreshing. I mean Vegas really wasn’t the place I thought it would happen. Look at New York, look at Miami, look at Los Angeles. The west coast has an incredibly healthy electronic scene. I don’t know if you are familiar with Electric Daisy? It is a two day festival: only electronic music, only DJs. It’s held at the Colosseum, which is a huge venue, and they have 75,000 people per day.

Nadeska: Is this like Electric Zoo which happened recently in New York? Yeah, but bigger. And it’s people from all over the world who travel to that event. Electronic music, in America, is very healthy and you’re going to see a lot of changes in the next five years.