“I never said that. That’s the last thing I’d want to do. Fuckin’ Ell!”
Paul Oakenfold reacted with amusement and seemingly genuine shock when I mentioned a rumour that I’d read online about him planning to sing on his new tracks.
“I don’t even sing in the shower that’s how bad I am. That’s the last thing I’d want to do. Fuckin’ Ell!” Well, I suppose that’s what you get for using Wikipedia for research. Let this be a lesson to us all.
We were sat in the Ascott Hotel, an exclusive Mayfair hotel just off Hyde Park. It is not one of the grander, showier affairs on the park itself, but its discreet entrance indicates an understated elegance. We were in the basement, in a conference room where Oakenfold had spent the day answering questions, apparently mostly about the Big Brother theme – the only cultural context within which Middle England understands him. His assistant left us alone, and despite the size of the room we squeezed ourselves into two chairs close together at one end of the mahogany conference table.
He asked me whether I wanted a cup of coffee, and indicated a pot on the far side of the room. Without thinking I said ‘yes’, and a moment of awkwardness followed. I wanted a drink, but I couldn’t get to the coffee without squeezing uncomfortably past him. Either I asked a man who’s sold over five million albums, without including his countless remix sales, to go and get me a drink, or I stick my ass in his face.
Noticing my hesitation, Oakenfold rose to get me my coffee, apparently without thinking anything of it. Thank fuck for that, I thought, but then realised I’d have to say something to break the silence before being waited on became too weird. “Sorry to come at the end of a day of interviews – I’ll try and think of something original to talk about. ”He flashed a wide grin back at me from across the room. “Good Luck!” he chuckled, with the air of a man who has been dealing with the attention of journalists for twenty years.
In that time he’s gone from playing tiny provincial clubs to selling out the Hollywood Bowl. But now, strangely enough, he’s going back. “I’m really looking forward to the tour. I left the UK five years ago, so it’s been a long time. I’m excited to be going to the likes of Swansea or Hull, and playing small venues in Manchester.”
It was in Manchester, of course, in which Oakenfold first made his name producing the Happy Monday’s seminal ‘Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches.’ I ask him whether this tour feels like a homecoming. “It doesn’t at the moment, but it will. I’ve got bunches of friends all over the country, so I’ll be meeting up with them, going to dinner – I just spoke to a friend from Liverpool who tells me they’re tearing up the city at the moment – road works and that. You always notice the differences. I haven’t played in some of these places for 10 years.”
By his own admission, Oakenfold is not the sort of person to spend time looking back. He describes his biography, on which he collaborated with Richard Norris, as a “long process”. “I’ve always thought the past’s the past and you can’t change it so let’s move on. I’ve never kept a diary. But people are interested. The question I get asked most is ‘How do you do it?’ So the book tries to answer that. I went back and spoke to people, and I think we’ve built up a pretty good timeline of how it all happened. Maybe it’s not the specific day when I did this or that, but its close enough.”
Even without his music, Oakenfold has a presence which fills the room. His tattooed forearms are in perpetual motion, and he has an expansive grin, especially when he’s talking about having a point to prove on the forthcoming tour. “I love it. I’m playing to a whole new generation of kids who’ve never seen me DJ. They maybe know the name, but they’ve never heard me play so it’s like ‘Who the fuck are you?’ I enjoy that challenge.”
You get the impression that it is also an opportunity for Oakenfold to prove to himself that he’s still got what it takes. More than anything he hates the idea that living in LA, where he moved when he scored ‘Swordfish’, might have taken his edge off. “DJing isn’t my main job any more. I’m living in Hollywood – which is the last place I thought I’d be. I never thought I’d move to the States. But I was offered the chance to score a film and I thought, ‘A door’s opened here, and if I don’t take this opportunity I’ll regret it for my whole life.”
As well as the DJing, the film scores and the remixing, Oakenfold has produced two of his own studio albums. His most recent album, last year’s ‘A Lively Mind’ featured vocals from the likes of Brittany Murphy and Pharrel Williams, but his debut, 2002’s ‘Bunkka’, featured an even more eclectic mix of guest vocalists, ranging from Perry Farrell to Ice Cube.
Crazy Town’s Shifty Shellshock featured on the single ‘Starry Eyed Surprise’, which was omnipresent upon it’s release, but surely the strangest collaboration was on the track ‘Nixon’s Spirit’, featuring the excess scarred growl of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. How on earth did that come about? “Well, I was a big fan of Hunter’s work, so I approached him and said ‘Look, I know you’ve never done anything like this before, but I can introduce you to a whole different demographic to the people who read your books.’ I got the idea from the fact that three or four different clubs were using his quotes on flyers at the time. He agreed to it and so we got together for a couple of nights, two sessions of six hours. We became friends, we drank a few beers and partied. But I learnt a lot. I learnt a lot about American History. And the idea for ‘Nixon’s Spirit’ came from talking about growing up. The younger you are the stronger your dreams are. And that’s where that twisted lyric came from. The fact that we had both grown up with these dreams and that we were both living them. And with Hunter you were never going to get a straight message from him, a ‘Believe in yourself and you can achieve your dreams’, but we wanted to do something that would connect with young people, because it was dance music, and that would say that if you wanted to be a fireman or whatever then you could be. And that’s where Nixon’s Spirit came from.”
At this point I asked Oakenfold about the connection between drugs and dance music. Moving from Hunter Thompson to recreational drugs seemed to me like a natural segue, but Oakenfold curled up defensively in his chair, sliding a foot underneath his thigh, and that illuminating smile switched off. I feel I have stepped onto a subject that he is bored of discussing. “Drugs are society’s problem, not dance music’s. You don’t have to take drugs to listen to dance music and you don’t have to listen to dance music to take drugs. I think it’s a shame if you associate the two, and its plain naïve to blame drugs on dance music.”
What he is happy to associate with music is his love of travel. From the journeys to India which produced the ‘Goa Mix’, his 1994 set which was massively influential in the rise of trance, to his more recent sojourns in Ibiza, Oakenfold has always been adept at selecting the best of what the world’s music scenes have to offer.
“If there’s anything good, then share it. The whole idea is to share. That’s what DJing is all about. But not just DJing; the internet, travel. I mean, I’m dyslexic, so I suffered at school. Everything I’ve learnt I’ve learnt by experience. It’s about giving something back, smiling at people, opening doors for people and giving two pounds a month to charity. The society you’re in is the whole world and you’re a fool if you don’t think you are. I used to believe, wrongly, that one person couldn’t change the world. But I saw this television programme about a National Geographic photographer. He was off taking photos in Bumfuck somewhere, I dunno where he was, somewhere in Africa. But the government was oppressing its people. This one guy took photos of what was happening, and they put these pictures on the cover of National Geographic. It brought all this awareness to the situation, and so the UN put pressure on the government and they stopped fucking with their people. One guy did that. One guy changed the world. So hopefully I can do my little bit. It’s just laziness otherwise.
People used to think things weren’t their problem, but times have changed. It is your problem.”
Originally published in the LSE’s The Beaver, 9 October 2007.