The legendary DJ talks about updating classic dance tracks, embracing a traditional songwriting process,
and the state of EDM
PAUL OAKENFOLD’S DJ/production CV is
as thoroughly charged as his self-styled
“full-on fluoro” sound, an energetic
bombardment of big-room electronic
dance music anthems, underground bangers, and filmic swatches. Whether
bringing the Balearic sound of Ibiza to
the UK clubs or bringing the sound of
UK clubs worldwide while touring with
Achtung Baby-era U2; whether A&R-ing
’80s hip-hop, remixing new-millennium
Madonna, holding a pioneering club
residency in Las Vegas, performing with
the Boston Pops, establishing his Perfecto
label, or headlining the new breed of
festival, Oakenfold has racked up the
accolades as he racked up air miles.
In 1994 he compiled a two-hour
Essential Mix for BBC Radio 1, commonly
known as the “Goa Mix,” a blend of synth
melody-led dance music and film scores
so legendary there have been offers to
persuade him to re-create it live with an
orchestra. Now, 20 years later, he is still
revisiting ways to recontextualize “trance
music” on an upcoming album, Trance
Mission, which features covers of seminal
tracks reworked for a contemporary
audience who were introduced to dance
music more through pop music than in
clubs. At the same time he’s working on
his third artist album, Pop Killer, a record
more grounded in traditional songwriting
than past efforts.
In regards to Pop Killer, Oakenfold says, “I grew
up on songs, I like the idea of collaboration with
musicians, and I’ve been going more that route
for a while. It’s not a traditional DJ route, so that’s
probably why I’ve found it a bit more difficult. It’s
a blank piece of canvas and you come up with an
idea, and fingers crossed, it starts with a great idea
and doesn’t end up a good idea or average idea.”
While all that sounds like it would keep a
person infinitely busy, Oakenfold found some
time to speak from his home in Los Angeles
about personal milestones, industry shifts, and
the evolution of dance culture infrastructure.
You’re currently developing two album concepts
simultaneously while continually touring;
do you ever feel distracted and find the
need to look for new forms of inspiration?
There’s no bucket to go pull from that’s full of
inspiration. Inspiration comes from everyday
situations and it doesn’t come every day. It
could come from reading an article, from
hearing you talk about something … you tell
me: Where does inspiration come from? Have
you got a bucket there I can borrow?
No, though I have some walls I like to bang
my head against.
Well, can I borrow that wall? [laughs]
If we were discussing your output in the
early- to mid-’90s, a lot of people would
cite a direct influence from the the beach
resorts of Goa [birthplace of a psychedelic,
pulsating trance style, influenced by
EBM and acid house]. Is there a modern
equivalent, a specific place that sparks your
Not at the moment, but that’s a fair point.
And a valued point, as at that period of time
it was very inspiring to BREAK down those
frontiers that weren’t musical that became
such a part of the music. Why the hell would
a beach on the west coast of India become a musical, inspiring place to a lot of people and
a sound that still lives today? Maybe it was just
a bunch of creative people coming together
in one place and from that inspiration comes.
And from that a lot more people travel there
looking for it.
Some would say that Las Vegas is the new
version of at least the clubbing destination
side of that.
That’s a fact; there’s no disputing that. Over
the last four years it’s become the hub of
electronic music in America, is more popular
than ever with the electronic community, one
of the biggest electronic events is held there
annually—God, the list goes on and on. It’s not
replacing Ibiza, it’s just great that the scene
has other options.
Does it play the same part in influencing
production? There are entire compilations
that are Goa or Ibiza “classics”; can the
same be said of Las Vegas?
I’ve put out two Las Vegas albums, and I
picked tracks that fit with a sound that’s more
commercial. Las Vegas is far more commercial
Production-wise, where do you start in the
physical process to achieve an “EDM” sound?
People getting in the room, that’s where it all
starts. We get in the room, put a piano line
down and see if we can build a song.
Are you establishing guide tracks through
MIDI controllers, so you can concentrate
on soft-synth sound design later, or are you
sitting at actual hardware synths?
It used to start with me sampling records, and
then it went to sequencing a track, meaning an
instrumental piece of music, and now it’s really
got to the traditional way of songwriting, which
is a piano or guitar and building the song from
that. I’ve tried all three. When I produced [along
with then-studio partner Steve Osborne] the Happy Mondays’ album [1990’s Pills ‘n’ Thrills and
Bellyaches] it was all based around samples and
rhythms, and moving on to clubs, it was all mainly
instrumentals and putting a top line on that, but
now I feel you can’t beat the traditional way of
writing songs. I haven’t found a way to better that,
because it plays to the strength of the melody.
For me, I’m all about melody, and then the
content of the lyric. I try to stay away from the
obvious “let’s stay up all night, drink tequila, and
party in the nightclub” content. I’m looking for
something a bit more meaningful, and I suppose
that comes with experience, knowledge. I grew up
listening to songs. That’s the wonderful thing about
growing up in England: You have a radio station
that plays all kinds of music, with Radio 1. You
don’t listen to one particular sound; you hear rock
next to hip-hop next to drum ‘n’ bass next to pop.
Wanting to do something more than just
tell folks to have a good time and drink a
particular brand of liquor, do you compose
with a narrative in mind?
Because my background is nightclubs, a
meaningful lyric that may touch you might
not be what you would expect from me, but
that’s what I’m looking for. To get there,
though, I’m finding that the fewer barriers
you put up, the more you’re in the moment
and allow it to flow with nothing more than
the plan to make a great track, it generally
works better than going in any one set
direction. Also, what’s really key: If you’re
collaborating, keep in mind the person or
persons you collaborate with–plan to their
strengths. I’m certainly not going to sit here
and say I’m a great songwriter, but I will sit
here and say I have learned from some great
songwriters, so I’m going to encourage them
and get the best from them and let that help
get the best from me.
Who are some of those collaborators and
inspirations right now?
I’m not sitting in one genre; I’ve been working with many songwriters across the board, from
urban to pop to rock. My new artist album is
nothing different than my last two, as those are
also built on songs and collaborations pulled
from different genres and brought together with
melodies that come from my roots, which is
electronic dance music. What’s changed is that
I used to be left of center, but now electronic is
mainstream, so my album may not be perceived
as more mainstream. But nothing has actually
changed. You listen to pop music, and a lot of it
is electronic-based now.
Up to a certain point, a lot of
your electronic composition
and sequencing was done
with Cakewalk Sonar X1.
I did some of that, but I’ve
moved around. I’ve had
various different setups. I
think when doing club music,
it’s completely different from
where I’m trying to go now.
It’s a very interesting process,
when you have a bunch of
musicians in a room and all
reach deep to find something
that works with all of us but
keeps the direction you’re
trying to go into.
So do you have a preferred
Not at the moment. Where I
am with the album is the writing stage, and I’m
putting a lot of pressure on myself in respect to
songs. That’s 100-percent songs. The next stage
will be sounds. We all have a lot of access to the
same sounds, and in my world once you come
up with a sound that works tomorrow there are
500 copies of that sound. So, you have to dig a
lot deeper to find a unique sound, and I haven’t
gotten to that point yet.
For the Trance Mission album, do you have
a specific production chain, since that’s a
completely digital affair?
No, but that’s a strange one, because that
record came about when I went on the first
leg of the Trance Mission tour and the older
heads were coming out and asking me to
play classic tracks, but I didn’t want to play
them. The tour is about new music presented
in a different way, stripped down, no big
production, just DJ, music, and crowd. And
it was quite successful. But I was thinking,
if the current generation isn’t aware of these
classic tracks, what about if I do a cover of
them, not a remix—and we don’t usually do cover versions, just remixes, as you know. The
idea behind it was to take 10 of those records
from back in the day and do a 2014 take on
them with a new sound, replay some of the
lead lines, though honestly it’s easier said
than done. I realized I needed to make them
drastically different, or else what’s the point,
but I also have to make them work. To top it
all I have to come up with fresh sounds that
are not being used. It’s not been as easy as I
thought it would be.
I’m sure stems exist for a lot of these songs;
why go to the trouble of re-creating parts?
Do you have specific timing or tonal tweaks
Both, and I’ll tell you why. It was a good BREAK
away from trying to write songs and hitting a
wall—I still need to borrow your inspiration
wall—and I thought, I could just get the stems
and remix it, but what’s the point. I’ve made a
lot of original club music, so I don’t need to do
this, but the challenge sparked me. It was the
challenge of taking something from back in the
day and doing the cover, which is not normal
in our world, and then giving it a real current
production sound. That appealed to me.
One of the covers, “Café del Mar” by Energy
52, came out in the early ’90s during
a wave of affordable digital polyphonic
synths. When you say you wanted to update
the production sound, do you go directly to
contemporary synths, or are you playing
to the classic by processing sounds drawn
from gear or emulations of gear from the
original track’s era?
You keep the line, the integrity of the track, the
hook, but then there’s no formula, no set way.
With a remix you get the stems, nine times
out of 10 you change the drums and bassline
and keep the musical line of the original
and there’s your remix with some bells and
whistles, maybe a new top line that coexists.
With a cover, you start from scratch. How do
you make it different from the remix? Maybe
you play the lead in a different sound, maybe
you f*ck with it. You’ve got to pull it apart,
find what tempo it will be at,
determine what arrangement
you will do, find the build, the
structure of the song, find if it
needs something more than it
originally had to drag it into
this day and age. All these
things have to go into it, how
to make it different from the
original, which is a classic.
So does any part of the original
gear play a part?
None. It’s absolutely nothing to
do with old gear. That’s exactly
the point. You’ve got to find
new sounds, work in a different
way, push the envelope. I think
across both albums—Trance
Mission and Pop Killer—it gives
you a balance so you don’t do
too much of one thing.
Do you ever use classic gear or emulations,
or do you exclusively concentrate on the
I’m not interested, never have been, in going
back. It doesn’t do anything for me, across the
board, in everything in life. I don’t see why. I
think it’s about now, in the moment, and the
In terms of both albums, is there a particular
tool, a sound of the future, you like to
use to update the classics and start off the
I think the secret is to find it, because there’s
no one tool. It’s about walking into a situation
in the musical realm with no boundaries.
It’s not a situation of going to one place and
saying this is what I’m going to be using;
it’s finding that moment. Look at the “Café
del Mar” track: I’ve put a voice on it, deep
pitched to make it sound really strange,
because it sounded really good at the time.
But the comments that have come back have
sometimes been, “I don’t know about that
voice.” Well, okay.
How much live tracking do you do in the
studio? Are you jamming, recording it, and
editing it down, or just conceiving ideas
then drawing in notes?
The way I usually work, I’ll dive into the
composition first and once there’s the song
and the idea of someone who will sing it is …
Now, everything is so disposable, the turnover
is so fast that, from a DJ’s point of view, you have to have cutting-edge music. That’s the
fine line, because what’s the point to record
it now and it comes out in March 2015? It’s
dated, over. So until you get your song and
singer, it’s not even worth thinking about
how. All you need is an outline, whether from
keyboard or guitar, and then with a singer I
leave it to the last minute to go in.
A DJ is a modern traditional artist, but
it’s a different ballgame. DJs have music
out all the time. It’s not a traditional way of
three singles, album and tour; that’s rock ’n’
roll, pop. We’re at the forefront, the cutting
edge, out seeing what happens and changes
every weekend, globally. We’re not looking
to traditionally do songs and have them sit
there. That’s the difficulty, what people don’t
understand in the record companies. The
turnover is so fast for us.
Does that ever make you want to skip the
album completely and do a series of digitalonly
EPs, or some other immediately distributable
Well, our albums have primarily been
compilations, track-driven, but every DJ wants
an artist album because then we’re taken
seriously by maybe our peers, the community. Do they sell? Well, some do, some don’t. But
traditionally our albums are compilations.
You have taken the traditional route before,
such as when you promoted your debut artist
album [2002’s Bunkka] by touring bandstyle,
complete with a bus and support. How
are things different on the circuit today?
That was what was right at that time, but the
way you stay current is to embrace change and
move with the times. That was a successful
tour, it worked, and from there I went out
with all the production, two trucks full of
equipment, went that route. Now it’s not
where it’s at. The live side is hugely important,
as important as the record, and I’ve always
spent lots of money on production, changing
shows up. But right now with the Trance
Mission tour, it’s been me as a silhouette
[against a continuously cycling video
backdrop] letting the music do the talking
rather than taking people on the road.
Tony Ware is a writer, editor, and soccer
mom based outside Washington, D.C.
Twenty years ago, however, he was a devout
clubber and may have briefly considered
wearing JNCOs socially acceptable.