For British DJ and producer Paul Oakenfold, 2022 was an eventful year.
After nearly a year and a half forced off the road amidst pandemic, Oakenfold made his return to clubs while performing in larger American venues like Madison Square Garden and the Hollywood Bowl alongside New Order and the Pet Shop Boys as part of “The Unity Tour.”
Following performances in recent years at iconic locations like the Great Wall of China, Mount Everest and Stonehenge, Oakenfold, one of the most successful DJ’s of all time, became the first to perform within the mountains of Argentina, spinning at Patagonia this past August.
Oakenfold typically has his hands in a number of projects at any given moment and 2022 was no exception, the DJ kicking off the year with his latest album Shine On followed by the recent release of his second book, Ready Steady Go: My Unstoppable Journey in Dance.
Last month, Oakenfold offered up a collaboration with Australian rockers Sick Puppies, launching ESPN’s NHL coverage via a reworking of “Ready Steady Go.”
And 2023 is already busy too, Oakenfold prepping a 30th anniversary celebration of his Perfecto Records as well as the opening of his first venue in Park City, Utah.
“I think, for me, I don’t want to go and just do straight dance records. It doesn’t bring anything to the table by doing that. I like to challenge myself and I like to see if I can take singers from different genres and work in my space but have it work well,” said Oakenfold. “I used to be in the studio all of the time with everyone who was making a record. I am very rarely in the studio now. Because it’s all collaborations with people around the world where they just send you things and you listen to it and you have your ideas. Times change – that’s how we do it now,” said the DJ. “Dance music is everywhere now – it’s in film, commercials, games. So it does live outside the club.”
I spoke with Paul Oakenfold about the inspiring tale at the heart of his new book Ready Steady Go, getting back on stage, his cinematic approach to the Shine On album, the importance of storytelling and continually exploring new ways to push the music forward, ensuring it lives outside the club. A transcript of our video call, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows below.
What’s it been like for you after the the last two years getting back on stage in front of actual people again?
PAUL OAKENFOLD: Really wonderful. For 17 months, I didn’t get on stage – didn’t work. I found it, toward the end, really difficult. So, once I managed to get back on the road, get out there, play, hang out and meet people, it was amazing.
I played two shows at the Hollywood Bowl [with New Order and Pet Shop Boys]. I live in Los Angeles and I got tickets for my friends. As you know, I play before both acts. So I would go out in the audience and sit with them and watch the shows. And the feeling I got – just to be around friends and family and other people that I didn’t know – the vibe was just so great.
Obviously, people are excited to see both bands but just to be a part of that and be out having fun, it really was a wonderful moment for me.
That tour was a unique endeavor for you in crafting unique sets to precede each act. What was that tour like?
Oakenfold: It was really enjoyable. I’m constantly moving tracks around and changing the set – adding new tracks, old tracks, new productions of familiar songs, remixes that I’d done. Different tracks work in different cities. In Chicago, I played more of an old school house set. In L.A., it was a few more classics. It moves around musically depending where I’m playing.
I know that with the book it was important to not make it a kiss and tell per se and to actually tell your story in terms of overcoming dyslexia and inspiring people. How did you go about crafting that narrative?
Oakenfold: Yeah, when I was approached to do the book I was like, “I really don’t want to do a kiss and tell. If that’s what you’re looking for, forget it.”
It’s a book based on a kid who struggled through school, and who still struggles with being dyslexic, and finding a way out. And, through music, I’ve found that way out. I’ve sort of seen the world through a box of records.
And that’s really the message behind it: that you can do it. Whatever your path is in life, don’t let anything hold you back. Struggling in school, and finding it hard in school, I didn’t let it hold me back. Because music showed me a path and gave me a chance.
These are uncertain times – turbulent times. With the book, you’re trying to inspire people. There’s certainly a positive element in your music. How important is it to strike that chord, especially during times like these?
Oakenfold: Yeah, absolutely. It starts with self-belief. In the world, generally, you have to make it happen yourself. If you sit back and expect other people to do things for you, it won’t happen. That’s basically the message. Just believe in yourself.
It’s your life – and you’ve only got one. So enjoy it. Be in the moment and try your best. That’s all you can ask of anyone. And, certainly, it starts with yourself. If you’re not doing your best, you can’t expect anyone else to if you’re working as a team.
So, I come from that school of thought. And I’ve always worked within that area of thinking that way.
Obviously, across two books, there is an element of storytelling that you’re good at. But I feel like people underrate just how important the idea of storytelling is to what you do in your music. When you’re on stage performing, you’re putting together music and the set tells a story. When you’re working for film, certainly you’re affecting the story. How important is the idea of storytelling to you regardless of the project?
Oakenfold: The process of writing the book was weeks and weeks at different times of me telling stories – taking those stories, going back and being asked more questions. Fleshing it out. There’s a lot that’s gone on over the time. So, it’s remembering it, rethinking it through, pondering on life and where I am and coming towards the end of my career.
The title of your latest album, Shine On, sounds like an optimistic tone despite the times in which the album was completed. What was sort of the feel there in terms of putting together this particular batch of music?
Oakenfold: The album title is what it is: it’s a thought behind words. And that is positive. It’s a positive thought behind the title. So, you’re right there.
The album features some familiar names. But all of my records, I tend to, apart from those familiar names that I’m a fan of and that have agreed to collaborate and work with me, I’ve always looked for new names – artists that have really appealed to me.
And there are a couple on that album. A track called “Pray For Me” is my favorite on the record, which features a young, new artist from Phoenix who now goes under the name Velvet Cash. He’s amazing. Some of the old school artists too – Eve I worked with, CeeLo. But certainly the likes of Velvet Cash is more where I’m at because it’s new music, young music and it’s moving forward.
You worked with a 75 piece orchestra on Shine On. And the album has a very cinematic feel. Was your work in film an influence on the Shine On album?
Oakenfold: Yeah, I love working in that space. For me, it’s one of my favorite places that I want to be.
It’s very cinematic this album. I worked with Harry Gregson-Williams the composer and conductor. Craig Armstrong. I touched on the film world. And my friends helped me in respect of making this record and working with the orchestra and getting these sounds.
I think when you put a real orchestra on any record, it just sounds amazing. It’s rich and full of life. It’s a collaboration, it’s a story – it’s wonderful. I loved it.
You mentioned CeeLo Green. And he appears on the closing track “Falling.” How do you go about approaching a collaboration like that?
Oakenfold: Yeah, that segment we worked on a while back. It was just the record that I loved. And I freshened it up – as you do when you keep moving forward in music. And it ended up being a drum and bass record. I’m a fan of drum and bass. So I was like, “Well, why not end it on something like that?”
You were the first DJ to perform in the mountains of Argentina. What was that like?
Oakenfold: I played at Patagonia in August, yeah – the highest point. That was pretty cool. Because I got to ski as well and hang out. I always end up doing these very interesting shows – which become a challenge! But I don’t think dance music has to necessarily live in a nightclub.
When people approach me with whatever it is – the Great Wall of China, Mount Everest – I usually put my hand up first and then think, “Oh f–k, what have I done?!” Then I have to work out for six months and start hiking and training. But I enjoy it.
With all of these different things that you do – be it a book, an album, a tour, Patagonia or anything else – how important is it to continually find new avenues, try new things and push everything you do forward?
Oakenfold: It keeps it fresh for me. And it’s more than going and just playing in the club.
It’s a big moment. Patagonia – to play there and see if we could pull it off was as big of a moment as playing Madison Square Garden was. They are moments that you will remember for the rest of your life.
Don’t get me wrong – clubs are my heart. I’ve lived in clubs all my life. I play in clubs. But clubs come and go. Iconic moments like Patagonia or Madison Square Garden will live with you for the rest of your life.
You’re getting ready to open your own club…
Oakenfold: Yeah. It’s a venue. It’s not really a club – though there will be club music. It’s a venue in Park City, Utah. It holds a thousand people. It’s on Main Street and it will be called Marquee Park City. Hopefully we’ll have it ready for Sundance.
You’ve spent a lot of time in clubs. Whether it’s something to drill down on or something to avoid entirely, what have you learned over the years that’s applicable here as you start building your own?
Oakenfold: I probably had some of the best moments of my life in clubs – some of them I can’t even remember! But from opening Ministry of Sound in London as the resident or Cream, which was one of the most iconic clubs in Britain. Zouk in Asia. Some really iconic places. Even some smaller venues actually too. I did five nights at the club on Sunset, Johnny Depp’s – Viper Room. I’ve done stadiums with U2 and Madonna. Venues with New Order and Pet Shop Boys.
If you asked me would I prefer a venue or a nightclub or a small, little venue, you know where I’d go? To the small venue. Small and intense, great sound system and let me play for a long time. That’s how I’ll probably go out.