“Tell him to meet me at (insert name of hotel here) at 7:00-7:15 p.m. and ring my room,” the Saturday morning message read.
So, I arrived at the Chicago hotel, 4.5 hours away from my apartment, a little before 7:00 p.m. I entered the lobby admiring the decor, and the fact that there would be no way in hell I could ever afford even to hang out here!
I sat on a contemporary looking couch in the artsy lobby, people-watching until 7:00 p.m. rolled around. When it was time, I stood up and walked to the front desk. There, I was greeted by a nice young lady who asked, “Can I help you?” I replied, “Can you ring Paul Oakenfold, please? I’m Erik from Trance Farm.” A moment passed as she made the call then hung up the phone after smilingly saying into the receiver, “Thank you, sir.”
“He’s in room (insert room number here). Take the elevator up, and it’s room (insert room number here)”. Stepping out of the elevator, I quickly noticed that the rooms were not laid out like a typical hotel. The doors were very widely spaced, almost like apartments. I walked and walked and walked, almost in a circle it seemed, until I found the room, the only one with a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door handle. As I leaned into the door, I could hear dance music coming from the room.
“This is it,” I told myself, out loud. I knocked heavily on the door so the people inside could hear it over the music. A second or two went by, and when the door opened, to my surprise, there stood Paul Oakenfold wearing tennis shoes, camoflage pants, an off-white, long-sleeved long john type shirt with his signature gold hooped earrings in his left ear while chatting on his cell phone.
I was fully expecting….well, to be honest, I didn’t know what to expect. A bodyguard to frisk me? A room full of people? No, Paul was alone. He waved me in, casually underhandedly shook my hand, and finished his call as we walked the length of the suite to the living room area to look out the window to several HVAC units on top of the adjacent buildings. It wasn’t a great view, but it’s downtown Chicago. Everything is in close proximity.
He asked where I was from as he took another quick call. I said I was originally from Kentucky but live in Cincinnati. “Oh, the Kentucky Derby. I played there. The Derby was today, yes?” Paul asked. “Yeah, I heard on the way up here that the winner was disqualified,” I replied.
“No shit! Is it on? What channel is it? Let’s watch this,” Paul said as he reached for the remote. To our luck, the coverage began again right after a commercial as we found the local NBC affiliate on the TV. We saw the interference from “Maximum Security,” and both agreed that like auto racing, you have to maintain your line.
We then settled down on a small couch with a glass coffee table in front. I immediately noticed that Paul’s dual Pioneer CDJ 2000 Nexus Multi-Players and Pioneer DJM 900 Nexus Mixer were neat atop the dresser in front of us with heaps of CD’s next to them. He was preparing his set for the first of his six residency performances at Sound-Bar much later that evening to begin a year-long celebration of the club’s 30th anniversary.
“You know, I really don’t call this a residency,” Paul admitted. “A residency is playing every week somewhere like I did at Home at Leicester Square back in the day. They want me to play classics while I’m here, but I want to play new music as well. But, I love playing here! The sound system is just enormous!” Paul refers to Sound-Bar’s Dolby Atmos sound system that has made the club a favorite for many international DJ’s.
As our casual conversation continued, Paul reverted to the light-hearted, almost sarcastic question I had initially opened with before our attention was diverted to the Derby, “Look, you’ve done it all, man. I mean, what’s next, hook up with Elon (Musk) and take a rocket to space and play a set there?” I asked.
Paul began his answer by reminding me of the historic journeys he has taken in recent years. “You can round and round in circles playing the same clubs around the world, and it’s great. But, you come to a point in your life where you begin to look in and ask yourself, ‘What inspires you, and what motivates you?’ For me, it’s the challenge both physically and mentally to do something that no one has done, not necessarily as a DJ or an artist, but as a human being.”
Paul continued by asking, “‘Can you bring the right awareness to what I want to do?’ I’ve done shows that have brought great awareness to children. I’ve done shows in London where I’ve donated my salary to music schools in England because they’ve cut the budget for that. That kind of pisses me off because growing up in London, I went to music schools. It’s terrible what they’re doing.”
“Then, I played Stonehenge which is a wonder of the world, where we brought awareness to English heritage which is another close situation for me because I love history. And, believe it or not, they’ve cut the budget for that because of Brexit so they can’t make people aware of that now!”
“Next came the Special Olympics in Abu Dhabi, which was incredible. The athlete’s will and determination just shed light on the good because there’s so much bad in the world. It was great to see.”
Paul went on to say that these events, which have never been done before, were challenging to pull off. “There’s a lot of moving parts with permits and permissions. ‘What, you want to do a rave on a mountain top?’ No! We want to bring awareness and give respect to the mountain climbers before us and after. There have been 11 climbers that have died since we played Everest.”
He concluded his answer by circling back and saying, “In a nutshell, I’m still playing Creamfields and EDC (Electric Daisy Carnival), and I’m very lucky that I’m continually being asked to play, but at the end of the day, I’m looking at a much bigger picture, and you’re not that far off!”
With my imagination instantly going bonkers, I had to refocus my attention to the fact that Paul didn’t really answer the question. But, to be fair, did you really expect him to?
Paul is now 55, and I must say, he looked and acted as youthful as the first time I saw him perform in Cincinnati many years ago. I asked if he feels that he can continue this current pace and was quick to say with a sly smile that, “Yeah, I think you’ve got to be born for it. It’s your will, determination, love and excitement as a traveler. If you’re not born to do it, it becomes a slog, it becomes hard work.”
“There are colleagues of mine who hate flying and would rather produce music and not tour. It also takes a strong individual because it can become lonely, it can be many things. But, for me, I’m very lucky. I’ve worked incredibly hard to get to this point to choose what I want to do, you know? Maybe I want to take a weekend off, or maybe I want to play three shows in a weekend like I’m doing now because I like the venues. It’s fun!”
Our conversation shifted to his label, Perfecto Records but his next thought was interrupted as he rose from the couch, like he would many times during our hour together, to put a new CD into the CDJ. “We have a team at Perfecto where the (demos) music goes through all of us. Everyone comes to me with the tracks they like, I listen to them, and if I like it, I’ll say, ‘Yeah, let’s sign it.’ But, if someone comes at me with a track they really like, I’ll say, ‘Go ahead and sign it.’ There’s no pressure. We’re the oldest (27 years) independent label out there, so we’re very much a team.”
Discussing some of the new talents on Perfecto, and Paul couldn’t stop mentioning Danny Stubbs’ name. He even played his new track as he gifted me a couple of CD’s to take home.
Paul admitted that Trance is nowhere near as popular as it once was. “The strange thing I find with Trance is that a lot of the progressive music that House DJ’s play is Trance – it’s melodic music. They’re taking classics like, “Adagio For Strings” and “Grease 2000” and doing 122 b.p.m. mixes on it and it’s still melodic. I play it, but I speed it up.”
“This style of Trance is traditional,” as Paul references a track he begins to play. “But, I started to get fed up with all this because it was cheesy – it all went Dutch, as we say in England. And, I don’t mean that disrespectfully, it’s just the sound. Every country has its sound, but I lost interest in this style of Trance. I like more melodic, progressive, emotional stuff that’s a bit deeper.” Paul went on to say, “The House guys are all touching on this. It’s just a merge, but the weird thing is that they don’t see it as Trance.”
I then asked where the line is drawn to determine what a particular track should be classified as and whether Beatport was to blame. Paul stated, “The line has to be drawn to make it easier for the consumer. If you just had Trance on Beatport, you would have to sift through so many songs that it would turn into a shit show. There are different sounds, so it helps to categorize them as such for the consumer and for the DJ’s. Note: Beatport releases approximately 25,000 songs per week on its platform.
Paul then talked openly about how technology has taken the real art away from how and where DJ’s started. “When you start to DJ and tell a story through music on vinyl, it’s not easy,” Paul adamantly stated. “That’s why some of the greatest DJs all came from that time and why technology has made this right here (pointing to the sync button) the art of DJing that much easier. And, no disrespect to the new class, but some of them aren’t the best DJ’s, and you can tell because they’re not doing this (sliding the mixer controls) and they have a laptop. Everything is pre-recorded a lot of the time. Now, saying that, that’s ok. That’s a different form of DJing, and there’s room for this and room for that. Again, it’s not blame, you embrace it and say, ‘Ok.’”
Getting back to the storytelling for a moment, it seems to be all the rage nowadays with artists proclaiming that their music does just that, tells a story. But, hasn’t that been that point of DJing from the get-go? Paul was cheeky in his response, as you could well imagine, but was quick to add that the job of a DJ has become increasingly difficult with social media and the amount of music that is available. “Look, that’s where we are now, and it’s our job at Perfecto to guide these young people. You have to listen and play the music to get where you want to be. There’s no money in streaming – none. You have to tour, and you can only sell merchandise if you tour. No one wants a T-Shirt from a producer, they want one if they see them DJ and do it well.”
Paul openly touched on his own successes and credited his humbleness to his parents. “I was raised to treat others as you would want to be treated,” Paul said. “I’ve seen my success to the level that few will match in their lifetime, and I’ve learned from Lenny Kravitz, Madonna, Radiohead, and U2. They’re all really down to earth people.” Paul says he talks a lot with his colleagues about this subject and they all agree that everyone gets their 15 minutes in this day and age, but it’s how they respond to it. “We always say, come talk to me in 20 years, and if you’re still at the same level, then you’ll get the respect.”
Asked how he’s stayed successful and Paul immediately said, “Stay current. You don’t have to embrace or like certain things, but you have to be aware and understand it.” He then returned to his point regarding the model of the modern DJ as he walked over to the king size bed to retrieve his headphones and cord from his luggage. “There are moments they do which I like actually, and there are other moments where my experience and knowledge come through because I can DJ. When you hear a DJ play, and they share their craft by taking you on a journey through their arrangement, keys, and even the drop, you fucking know it, man. You know it!”
And, when the subject of almost being lost in the EDM explosion came about, we talked about his residency in Las Vegas from 2008-2011 and the backlash he took from the industry and media. “When an artist moves to Vegas, they’re perceived as ‘Done,’” Paul said. “I was playing 3-hour underground sets to 3-5 thousand people every Saturday night because Palms (Casino Resort) was the only club there, really. Then, everything started to change with EDC and more clubs opening because the EDM explosion came about and it all became about bottle service, money, and the commercial music being played on the radio. At that point, I was so over Vegas. I did my time there, and I was desperate to get out!”
As our time came to a close, I circled back to my original question of bucket list items and where he would like to play for the first time. He would only say, “I like a challenge. I like to play my music in a setting that will bring awareness to things that are important to me and to the industry.”
A few more moments passed, and our time came to a close as he had another appointment at 8:00 p.m. He thanked me while again underhandedly shaking my hand while giving me a hug as he walked me to the door. He then pointed me to the exit as I looked like a lost puppy trying to find my way home. “The exit is that way, mate. Cheers!”
And, for bucket list items? Well, that was one for me.