Paul Oakenfold: Songwriting, Recording, 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.

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 creativity?

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 than Ibiza.

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 platform?

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 in mind?

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 latest tools?

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 future.

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 original tracks?

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 concept?

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.