Interview – Getting to Know Gilles Peterson

Gilles Peterson, broadcaster, DJ and record collector extraordinaire, started out as a kid playing with radio transmitters. He is now renowned throughout the world for his eclectic tastes and his incomparably extensive knowledge of music.  In light of his set at Canal Mills on the 24th, ‘In The Middle’ caught up with the man himself to talk roots, records and radio.

 First and foremost would you describe yourself as a DJ, Radio Presenter, Record Collector or promoter? 

It’s funny, I suppose I’m a combination of all of that because when I first started kind of in this career (if you want to call it that) you couldn’t survive on one of those things alone — you had to do everything to kind of just make a living. I haven’t let go of any of it. But I suppose I can finish off as a radio guy, I think the way I look at it is radio is something I can retire happily in to. I think I’ll always do radio. The other bits I can take them and leave them.

And that’s what got you noticed in the first place, so tell us a bit about how you got involved in radio and why it appealed to you so much at the time.

 Well…I think I was just quite a sad young boy at one stage, I mean, all that I was interested in was picking up signals… [laughs] picking up signals off my radio that would open up doors to these beautiful, musical worlds that I hadn’t discovered. So I spent too many hours listening to FM frequencies of these little radio stations that would pop up in London — one of which was called Radio Invicta — that was the Holy Grail. If you fell upon that one, that was the one that really was incredible. It was really on at odd times — they kept getting busted in those days by the home office. But I became so obsessed by pirate radio, and the music that went with pirate radio, that I managed to get hold of the person that built the transmitters. I got myself a transmitter and then eventually Radio Invicta got busted again and they’d heard that this young boy in South London had got a transmitter, so they got in touch with me and they said could they borrow my transmitter! I said “on the basis that you give me a radio show!”

How old were you then?

I was at school actually. I was doing my A-Levels and I remember that I was playing for the football team. I joined late, whatever, I was a bit of a new boy, and I was in the sixth form, and in the football. I was still introducing myself to people — you know how you are when you’re joining a new school. Then in half time some guys asked me what kind of music I was into and I said I was into soul and jazz and funk and stuff and I said that I was on Radio Invicta — one of them had heard of Radio Invicta and that gave me… immediate…

Immediate cool points

 Yeah immediate cool points! [Laughs] So I suddenly noticed a difference – it gave me some status I suppose. Ever since then I was really into pirate radio and was part of a lot of the different radio stations that were kind of coming up at that time in London.

Did it happen quite quickly… obviously you were then on Kiss FM and Jazz FM? 

 Yeah, before Jazz FM came (when I was about twenty or in my mid-twenties I think) I was on four or five different pirates, up until the government started giving licenses out. Jazz FM got the first license, and I was actually a director weirdly enough. They were a bunch of old blokes who really had a lot of influence and at that time they needed a young person to make it look like they weren’t just a bunch of old jazz gods [laughs]. So they got me in and made me a director, but I had no idea what that all meant at the time. From the moment I played — the first song I played on my show was Public Enemy ‘Fight the Power’ — and from that moment onwards I was the enemy within Jazz FM. They didn’t quite like my… shall we say ‘untraditional’ approach to jazz. So eventually (I’m sure you’ve heard this), when the gulf war started I told everybody on the radio to go on the peace march in Hyde Park and then I got sacked the next week for being political on the radio. And then I joined Kiss FM, which was much better for me. And then I went to Radio 1 and all that stuff, but now I’m really happy. I think I’ve landed in a nice place at 6Music.

And at that time were you also DJing? A big part of what you do is translate jazz into a club environment – were you doing that at the time or did radio sort of bring that opportunity to you?

No, I was always DJing. I was DJing even before I was doing pirate radio really because I had my decks. I remember organising under 15s discos, under 14s discos, you know, when I was 15. The money that I’d earn from that would go straight to buying records. Without the records, back then – even now to a degree, but definitely back then – the DJ would make his name because he had the right records. Whereas nowadays you can download anything more or less, back then you had to go and get those records in special shops. I was lucky because at Sutton market there used to be a guy who used to bring in American imports and Japanese imports. They used to get white labels, – they got all the good stuff. It was really important for me that I had a place close by, and then every penny – to be honest with you every penny I earnt from the age of 14 til the age of at least 30 – I spent on records.

Where do you stand today on the controversial digital vs. vinyl debate, do you see any perks on concentrating fully on digital music?

You know what, I do it all, I’m into all of it. I still buy a lot of stuff on vinyl because if you’re in the right club with the right sound system it still sounds the best. Unfortunately most clubs don’t have good enough sound to play vinyl – you need to have it digitally as well. Like if you’re gonna go off and play at a festival, suddenly you’re on stage after… I’m on after Bonobo in Glastonbury or something, I dunno, whatever. You turn up and you put a record on and suddenly you realise that the decks just ain’t happenin’ – you get this horrible feedback and everyone gets really depressed [laughs]. So basically, you’ve got to make sure (I try and make sure) that I’m covered on all angles. I’ve had too many nightmares where I’ve turned up with records, and they just sound crap. But anyway, thats it, I just take any format really. But it has to be good quality digital for me, you know I can’t be playing with rubbish – you know even iTunes is rubbish, quality-wise. So its got to be at least, you know, a WAV or whatever.

What kind of music do you find the most technically challenging to mix? I read that you don’t like to be controlled by the beat – and obviously with the kind of music you play, quite an eclectic mix of music, its not always guaranteed to be seamless in the same way that techno could be mixed.

You know what, sometimes I’ll be so bad, I’ll do terrible mixes. And I tend to do bad mixes when I’m actually mixing house. House is the easiest thing to mix, but for me its almost the most difficult thing to mix [laughs]. The only thing I can say on that subject is that, with me, I tend to get better as the night goes on. I tend to get good after my second hour really, or, well, I wouldn’t say good, but decent or… just about bearable after my first hour, and then I can be quite interesting — I mean I have done some quite interesting stuff. I think jazz is great because, well, what’s right and what’s wrong? You know what I mean? I just love it, it’s all good.

And you obviously enjoy playing all those different types of music – how do you fit that to different club settings? You played a carnival set at Dilation in Leeds last year which was enjoyed by basically the whole university.

Ah yeah that was fun! I mean the thing is mixing’s obviously quite important. I think that over time you inevitably get better at things, but at the end of the day selection is really important, and the audience is really important. I remember the Dilation party was really good because there was a really great spirit. The people who were coming were into music. I think there’s been a great club culture and some great promoters in Leeds over the last few years. I did the vinyl thing for Pearson Sound last year, and I just played jazz records there, that was a bit weird, but it was fun. It’s just about individuals who really have pushed the scene and music and educated people really well. So for me, when I turn up at a place like that and the crowd is as friendly and into it as they were, then its really easy to have a good time and to play what I want and to mix it up the way I want it.

Definitely — and have you had any other ties with Leeds? What have been your other experiences with different collectives and venues in Leeds?

I’ve been going to Leeds for over 25 years now, and it has always been a great. Of course Leeds is such a musically based student city, and there has always been so much interest in music from so many musicians, so it really is a top destination for me. It is quite a different scene compared to Manchester and Sheffield even though they are both quite close, which is funny.

We are all very excited about your upcoming event with Bonobo; tell us a bit about your relationship with Simon Greene and how it began? 

Simon Bonobo? Well he’s done well hasn’t he! He got ‘Album of the Year’ at the Worldwide awards a few years ago and loved it, but it didn’t strike me as a record which would immediately have made him successful. He basically just grew and grew, and then suddenly he was really big! I just turned around and suddenly Bonobo was everywhere and everyone really liked him. Girls really liked him… He reminded me a lot of Nicolas Jarr, in a good way. He pushes the music out and I think he’s a really good DJ who makes great records, a really good flag waver.

I came to the North Borders all-day event where you played in 2013 at The Roundhouse, it was a really great venue and generally quite a special day. What makes a good venue for you, do you prefer them to be more intimate or not? 

That day was interesting because the smoke alarm went off didn’t it? I was accused of setting it off, I was having a cigarette but to be clear I was outside at the time! Most people still believe it was me who set it off. That was definitely a great venue but for me the best venue in the world is what I play for my festival.

Not just trying to plug my festival but I do one every summer in Sète, in France. We do gigs Monday through Wednesday in an amphitheatre which looks over the Mediterranean and it’s an absolutely amazing sight! When the bands finish we turn the stage into a dancefloor, and either a guest or I DJs from above, so it kind of reverses. It really is the best, best place.

What did you have in mind when you set out creating Worldwide Festival?

For the festival I really wanted to get people from all over the world to an event for this music which I sort of championed, shall we say. The crowd is also a combination of the best people in Europe: you get a really good dosage of English people who kind of ‘bring it’ because they are a bit more clubby, and then the French people also bring their own thing. The festival is over seven days in three different sites, with the beach underneath the lighthouse and the amphitheatre.

My idea for the festival was to be able to present all the music that I love, from African music to techno, from live bands to DJ culture, and to put it on so that everyone involved feels comfortable. I’ve noticed that festivals are either rubbish for DJs and great for live bands, because old rock guys are looking after the sound but have no idea how to set up a DJ, or it’s the opposite and the DJs get treated really well but the bands don’t. I wanted a festival which would be good to everyone, especially the people who have come to listen. We spent all our money on sound, I didn’t care about sponsors because I didn’t want any of that rubbish which I see everywhere is music now, littered and polluted by horrendous sponsorship and horrendous affiliations. I wanted to do a really pure festival with amazing sound and an amazing crowd. So that is what we did, and this year is going to be our tenth anniversary so you’ve got to try and come!

You also have another Festival in Leysin, in Switzerland, which also looks beautiful. Are you intending on staying in these two locations, or would you like to branch our to different landscapes and different countries?

We’ve done it in different parts of the world like Shanghai and Singapor. Asia is quite keen. Otherwise we might do it in Brazil, that’s the only other place we were thinking of doing something this year.

There was a screening of your film about the ‘Brasil Bam Bam Bam’ Compilation a few months ago for the Leeds Film Festival which went down really well. What was it like assuming the role of a producer for the album?

I did a sort of warm up by producing the record I was doing in Cuba but I am more knowledgeable about Brazilian music which made it a bit easier for me. It was really great, such an incredible experience and it’s a shame the record didn’t do better really! It did do well but it’s difficult these days because the music industry is so fast. I worry that people thought that it was created for the World Cup, that it was more of a marketing scheme than a piece of music. But what is great about the record is that I am really proud of it

I am going back to Brazil in the autumn to do part two of the project. We got asked to perform at ‘Rocking Rio’ this year, which is essentially the Glastonbury of Brazil, but I couldn’t make it unfortunately. Hopefully I can do it next year though.

[Harriet Shepherd and Maddie Davison]

Photo: ‘That’s Right, That’s Right, That’s Right’

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