Music Interviews

Interview: Paul Oakenfold

In the 1980s, Paul Oakenfold redefined the role of DJ.

Bringing the Balearic beats of sunkissed Spanish islands back to the UK, he was instrumental in the birth of Madchester, producing the Happy Mondays‘ Thrills’n’Pills and Bellyaches and DJing at Spike Island, the rave generation’s Woodstock.

He’s worked with U2, New Order, The Stone Roses, Justin Timberlake and Madonna. As an A&R man, he discovered Will Smith and Salt’n’Pepa, promoted the Beastie Boys and Run DMC.
He’s played the main stage at Glastonbury and the Great Wall of China, scored movie franchises from James Bond to The Matrix, was the first remixer to win a Grammy and Q magazine named him as one of the 50 Acts to See Before You Die.

And if that’s not enough, this month sees the release of A Lively Mind, the second album of his own original material, following 2002’s Bunkka. Also planned for this year is a remix of Sorry for Madonna, scoring at least three films and promoting a host of new bands through his own label, Perfecto. Bloody hell! With so many offers constantly coming his way, how does he choose which projects to take and which to turn down?

“First of all, is it the right thing to do?” he explains, from the lush interior of a private suite at Claridges – an indication of just how successful he is. “Do I want to do it? Can we fit it in? Is it cool? There’s a lot I turn down to get to the point of taking something but I’m enjoying [being so busy], I’m relaxed about it. There’s a lot of promotion to do, but then I’ll just jump into the next album, the next film score.”

It’s three years since the last album of his own material, so how does he decide that the next project should be one of his own, rather than an advert, or a remix of someone else’s tunes?

“Naturally how I feel, for me, when the time’s right,” he says, though he explains that the timeframe is an important factor. After the last album, which he toured extensively, he felt burned out. “I didn’t want to go near making any music,” he admits. “I wanted a year off from worrying about making a record. After that, I spent a year finding singers, finding a lot of new talent and then a year making the record.”

This process, of seeking out new talent and helping to nurture it, is something he enjoys as much as the actual recording and producing. He still sees himself as part A&R man, part promoter; this side of his work is “absolutely” a part of who he is.

“I enjoy playing the big gigs, but now and then it’s nice to play really, really small shows. If I got the opportunity to play to 250 people all night long, I’d probably jump at it.” – Paul Oakenfold, getting Club OMH’s hopes up

“I’ve always enjoyed that process,” he explains. “I like the idea of finding new talent.” This is something he continues to do through his own record label, and while none of the collaborators on ‘A Lively Mind’ came from Perfecto in the first place, “I ended up signing two of them.” He says. “Two of the acts on the album, Spitfire and Bad Apples, I’ve gone on to sign for my label.” When he comes back to the UK from his current base in LA, he still likes to check out new music. He’s been record shopping that morning (he singles out Editors and Red Hot Chilli Peppers as the bands who are exciting him at the moment) and as for clubs, “I enjoy Terminals in London, God’s Kitchen in Birmingham,” he says. “There’s a couple of places I look forward to going.”

He’s remarkably modest about his past achievements. When asked what it was like touring Zooropa with U2 he claims he didn’t set out to reinvent them so dramatically. “I looked at the role and thought what was right for them, what was right for the job? That was the idea, anyway. It wasn’t so much trying to change them as doing what I thought was right for the overall show.”

Despite, or perhaps because of, the stellar history behind him, he considers it important that music should constantly be moving forward. When asked about his feelings on the upcoming Spike Island extravaganza, he’s curious he hear that it’s happening again, but also says that he’s moved on. He did it the first time. “If the Stone Roses got back together, and they played Spike Island, I’d do it just to watch the Stone Roses,” he adds playfully. “But … move forward Ian, move forward.”

“Do I want to do it? Can we fit it in? Is it cool?” – Paul Oakenfold on his project selection criteria

Looking back on everything he’s done, he claims there was no well-planned strategy to change to musical landscape.

“I did it in Spain and I liked it,” he shrugs. “There was no plan to work out exactly how to do it. It was just a case of enjoying it. Me and my friends, we just thought, let’s do it in our little club in South London with 300 people and that’s what we did. It’s what I enjoy.

“The strange thing was that although it started in London, it was Manchester that picked up on it. Even now some people think I’m from the North of England, but we were playing it here, in London, in a club called Project, a club called Futures. That’s why I ended up being asked to produce that kind of music – the bands all used to come down to London. The Happy Mondays, The Stone Roses, the Inspiral Carpets all came to the club, but they were obviously all from the North. The London bands at that time weren’t into that scene and the bands who were – they weren’t London bands. There was the Roses, the Mondays, Inspiral CarpetsThe Farm from Liverpool. Big Audio Dynamite, who were from London, weren’t in the scene. So it was strange, the way they all kept coming down and I ended up working with them.”

“I like the idea of finding new talent.” – the superstar DJ, producer and artist is also an accomplished A&R man

I end by asking him what his ideal festival line-up would be. Not so much in terms of what bands would play, but how he would structure it. “DJ, band, DJ, band, all in one tent.” He replies. “One tent holding 15,000… no, 10,000 people. Three bands, three DJs.”

A relatively small festival then? He nods. “I enjoy playing the big gigs, but now and then it’s nice to play really, really small shows. If I got the opportunity to play to 250 people all night long, I’d probably jump at it.” Really? Club OMH has been informed…

Should he ever play such a gig, there’s little doubt that the crowd would be equally quick to jump at the chance. In the meantime, he’s not going to let us go hungry as he finishes one project and launches straight into another. He’s got three films to score, new bands to promote, and an album to tour. It’s clear to see that he’s loving every minute of it.

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