In the world of EDM, they don't come much more influential than veteran DJ and radio personality Pete Tong, who has spent 20 years hosting shows on BBC Radio 1, introducing new electronic music artists to the masses. But guess what? Now he's in L.A.!
In fact, he just arrived. But he's no stranger to the city, and has been coming here for the past 15 years for gigs. More recently he made the city his temporary post during Coachella season. “That got me more comfortable with the idea of basing myself out here full time,” he says.
Last year, he jumped on board with Clear Channel to launch the online dance music station Evolution, and corresponding terrestrial stations in Boston and Miami, where he DJs Mondays through Fridays. We asked Tong about his move to Los Angeles and his assessment of the local dance scene.
What prompted your move to Los Angeles?
I think it's very inspiring creatively. It feels like it's become a bit of the center of the universe for my world, dance and electronic music. It's an inspiring and exciting place to be that takes me out of my comfort zone, so to speak. I'm very established and set up with deep roots in the U.K. and Europe. I just thought for this stage in my career with everything I've done and achieved and everything I've learned, I thought that this is the best place to be for the next year or so or maybe longer.
It's funny, when I was a kid, almost first starting out, I came to America and got all the initial inspiration, in a way, for my whole career, in terms of shaping what happened to me and getting involved in dance music. We took all that inspiration and took the story to the U.K. and exploded it from there. The U.S. market has flirted with its love for electronic music and dance culture over the last 20 years, but it's finally kind of got it in such a big way in the last four or five years. It's been uncharted territory in America. Opportunity is coming along now that people from our world never had before. Now is the right time to be here. Maybe I should have been here a year or two ago.
For a long time, it seemed like L.A. was an afterthought as far as internationally recognized dance scenes go, but that's been changing. What do you think was the turning point?
I think that the scale, for a start, of what has been able to be achieved in L.A., that's what really put it on the map. When I came here and played as a DJ, anytime during the past 15 years, Los Angeles has always been on the circuit as a place to come and play. But, thinking back to the '90s, it wasn't considered to be as essential a place to play as New York or Miami. For everything that New York had — and, certainly, Chicago — with those kind of legendary early clubs, the club names that everybody quotes in any dance music story, whether it be Paradise Garage or Twilo or all these great clubs. New York's fame has always been about clubs and Miami's, to a certain extent, was always about clubs as well until Ultra came along, and the Winter Music Conference. L.A. has taken a bit of both of those and made its own contribution. I think the early, giant, kind of one-off events — I don't really want to call them raves — but those early one-off events… that's really what put Los Angeles on the map, the ability to take everything that was going on and actually do that on a professional scale, that started to resonate around the rest of the world.
Who are some of the artists that you found inspiring here in L.A.?
It's funny in Los Angeles. It's always been a very creative place, when you think of all the great Hollywood stories, the great writers and the great television writers. In the '70s, there was the rock story. The classic pop writers. There's always been something about the creatives in Los Angeles. That's another massive draw for me in the sense of why I want to spend more time here. I think that's become the attraction for many DJs and many electronic artists. They found this sort of great place to come and be inspired and do great work and make great music. There are so many people based here, it's mad. So many people from Europe based here as well. Some of the Swedes, people like Steve Angello. In terms of the local story, I think it's amazing to see what Steve Aoki has achieved from quite humble beginnings. It's a very L.A. story. Skrillex as well, what he's been doing. Kaskade isn't from here, but he's moved here and made the West Coast his own, from the Mexican border up to Canada. A lot of the guys are involved in movie soundtracks. That's another reason that I want to be here and get closer to that world.
See also our cover story: Steve Aoki: The Neon Punk of EDM
What's your perspective on how L.A. DJs are being received in places like Ibiza and throughout Europe and the U.K.?
One of the things that I said recently in an interview that I want to be doing out here is probably getting a better representation of what's going on here on the ground and helping to sell that story to the rest of the world, And, equally, finding new ways of introducing some of the most cutting edge music that's coming out of the U.K. and Europe and finding an even better way of transforming them over here. They are quite different at the moment. What's the mainstream of the electronic music scene in the U.S. — as much as California and L.A — it is quite different from what's considered to be mainstream in the U.K. I wouldn't say that it's been that easy. A lot of guys who are huge on the scene out here aren't huge in U.K. and Ibiza. There are exceptions at the top of the tree. Even people like Aoki and Kaskade are still finding their way in terms of getting the same kind of recognition and impact that they have here outside of the U.S. Skrillex probably is one of the most successful, actually. His clout on bills in the U.S. is probably similar to what he has in Europe and the rest of the world.
The world is a big place and America is a very big country. Somebody could spend their whole life working the American market and never have to really look beyond. Some of them care about it. Some of them don't.
Could you tell me about your shows [on U.S. radio]? Is it different from your BBC work?
Radio is a massive part of my life. BBC is an amazing station. It's a public service station, so it doesn't rely on commercials or satisfying advertisers. It's mission has always been about satisfying the youth audience and championing new music. I've had two shows on there on a weekly basis for 20 years. It's been a fantastic, consistent platform for electronic music.
The opportunity came along last year to start working with Clear Channel and reinvent an electronic music station from the I Heart platform. We started that in October of last year, 24 hours a day station a day online called Evolution. They took the format and established what did and didn't work and took that format to a terrestrial station in Boston and went 24/7 there. We rolled one out in Miami during Winter Music Conference this year. Those two experiments have been very successful and they're looking to identify more markets. Possibly L.A. Possibly Vegas. Possibly New York, to take the format from the online app and put one on a terrestrial radio station. I've done something I've never done before in my career. I'm on every day of the week, two hours a day. In Boston and Miami, I'm on about six hours a day, Monday through Friday. It was all about creating a new brand in the market, establishing a platform that could build an audience to a considerable size that could start to make a difference and start to break records. That's what I'm always about. I don't want to be on the radio playing the safest, lowest common denominator choices. That's the obvious thing. That's what everyone does. I want to create a brand that actually means something and has credibility in the market. That's the mission.
Pete Tong launches his North American tour at Sound tomorrow, September 20.
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