Omagh-born DJ and presenter Phil Taggart talks about his days at Radio One, his popular podcast and his delight at being back home fronting a new dance music show on BBC Radio Ulster
After 10 years in the pressurised world of BBC Radio One, Phil Taggart would be forgiven if he decided to take a well-earned break. But not a bit of it. The 34-year-old is still pedal to the metal with a new slot on BBC Radio Ulster, a weekday drivetime show on American-based station Sirius XM and a weekly podcast of chill out tunes and special guests. He’s also got itchy feet to return to the local club scene.
I first encountered the indefatigable Phil in the mid noughties when the current crown prince of the airwaves was playing in an indie band called Colenso Parade. Back then, the Omagh native was relentless in his pursuit of success and wasn’t behind the door when it came to regularly badgering yours truly to write about the group in the Belfast Telegraph and elsewhere, any time they had a show or single in the pipeline.
While over the decade plus to follow, the world has seen a variety of changes such as the creation of social media and witnessed even more fads come and go (farewell Fidget Spinners, we hardly knew ye), one thing has remained constant and that’s Taggart’s drive to be at the top of his game.
As we sit in a south Belfast coffee shop, Phily (as he’s known to us in NI) says he credits his salad days with Colenso Parade for his never-ending hunger for success.
“Back when we were doing Colenso Parade, during that whole time I was constantly hustling,” he says of the band who fizzled out in the wake of his big break on Radio One in 2011.
“That’s where I learned my work ethic and drive — from the band. I never felt we were owed anything, and I still don’t think I’m owed anything. I basically was constantly talking to the press to get featured because I thought we were great, and people should know.”
In March 2021, after a decade living in London and then Brighton while serving as Radio One’s Swiss Army Knife (meaning he could do any role at the iconic station) the versatile broadcaster left England behind and came back to Belfast. And while he has many fond memories of his time there, he tells me he’s happy to be home to start a new chapter.
“The plan was to go to London like many of my forefathers before me did and work there for as long as needs be,” offers Phily with a grin.
“For me, finishing up at Radio One was a bit of a relief. It was time to move home and start a new chapter. You can’t just do one thing forever.
“I started in 2011 and I hit the ground running. I felt like in no time at all I got a nomination at the Sony Awards in the DAB Rising Star category [in 2012] and then I got to do my favourite show. Like where do you go from there?
“My favourite show on the whole network was the 10pm slot. Colin Murray did it, John Peel did it and I got to do it. I almost got it too early in my career though, I was too raw. I think it was too much too soon, but that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it.
“After that I moved around the schedule, doing every slot they had, then got given the Chillest Show on Sunday at 10pm. It was so popular it was moved to seven pm and I did that for five or six years.
“It’s funny, because they had the most tightly wound person in Radio One fronting the Chillest Show, but I think it was really good for me. I think it helped my mental health and helped with my understanding of other people’s mental health. So, in a weird way it worked!”
For 10 years Taggart was the voice of Northern Ireland for many Radio One listeners and his likeable style and down to earth approach earned him many fans and indeed plaudits. He also gained a reputation for his ability to put celebrities at ease.
“When you know it’s your job, you’re too busy to be starstruck,” he says. “You’re too busy thinking about what you’re going to ask them. Or you’re trying to figure out how to make them comfortable before the interview. There’s a psychology to it.
“Interviewing Thom Yorke from Radiohead and Liam Gallagher were huge highlights for me as I’m a massive fan, but I was too focused on making sure they liked me and were at ease to be caught up in the glare of their star power.
“I didn’t want to do the whole Wayne’s World, we’re not worthy thing.
“Blur was another big interview for me,” he continues.
“I loved them when I was a teenager and getting to meet them was brilliant.
“I had a big session with [Blur singer] Damon Albarn and [bassist] Alex James about five years ago at the music festival Primavera and we were backstage for about four or five hours drinking whiskey and they were telling old war stories. They couldn’t have been any cooler.”
I interviewed Phily when he first got the job on Radio One and he confessed that he didn’t want to move away from Northern Ireland, but knew he had to, to further his career at the time.
When Radio One reshuffled their broadcasting team as part of one of their infamous shake-ups last winter, Phily’s name wasn’t on their list, and he viewed it as a sign to come home.
“Presenters on youth stations should have a lifespan. I would never want to be past it and be on a station like that,” says Phily, who is a doting dad to his dog Rebel.
“The idea for me was to get 10 years out of it. Colin Murray had done something similar. The last two or three years I was there I was massively homesick.
“I’d moved to Brighton in an attempt to get that feeling of community back that you get in Northern Ireland and while Brighton’s a lovely town, I didn’t get that vibe you get here.
“The day I moved back to Northern Ireland I literally bumped into three people I knew in Ormeau Park and sat and chatted with them. Six months would’ve had to have gone by in Brighton before that happened there.”
As if right on cue, Phily spots musician Tony Wright, who performs as VerseChorusVerse, crossing the road outside our coffee shop and excitedly gives him a wave.
“London or England was never going to be home,” he says.
“I think some sort of primal drum goes off in your body when you hit 30 and you’re either going to stay wherever you are for the duration or come home.
“The last few years I was coming home more and more, and I felt like I was missing out on all the craic.
“Whether it was friends getting engaged and married or my mum’s or cousins’ birthdays, I wasn’t there for it.
“You can go on Facebook as much as you like, but it’s no substitute for actually being there. It was like I was a bystander at the time.”
And while some days it may not feel like it, Northern Ireland has come on in leaps and bounds over the years since Phily left these shores and he tells me he’s excited to see Belfast and the rest of the country thriving.
“It’s mad how different Northern Ireland is now. I remember when I was DJ-ing in Belfast and doing club nights and it was a real struggle getting people out the door, but now if I go out on a Wednesday it’s rammed. There’s bars everywhere and there’s been a huge investment into nightlife.
“It’s great to see. Well, apart from those awful booze bikes that are popular on hen nights. I’d happily cycle every one of them into the Lagan. They’re a massive panic attack on wheels.
“I get back to Omagh a lot too,” he adds. “I love going back to see my ma and get a few pints in McCann’s bar. Omagh’s got a totally different vibe to 10 years ago. It’s doing much better. They’re bucking the trend, which is great to see.”
And on the subject of clubs, the last 19 months has seen many across the world closed for long periods of time.
How did Phily cope during the pandemic while the music industry and the world as a whole pressed pause?
“I have a fairly fatalistic outlook in life and I’m a bit of a hypochondriac. So, when this all came out and no one knew what it was, I thought, ‘Well we’re all going to die, I may as well do all the stuff I’ve always wanted to do anyway!’
“So, I started writing a comedy sketch show with my friends which I can’t say more about just yet, and I built a full studio from scratch in my house in Brighton.
“Apart from not being able to see family and friends, there was a sweet spot during the first lockdown of where I was just relaxing for the first time in years.
“I’m used to doing stuff all the time, so the idea of sitting doing nothing was almost petrifying for the first couple of weeks, but I got used to it.
“I never underestimated Covid-19,” he continues. “I knew it was pretty serious. I was in Costa Rica in February 2020, then in Norway at the end of that month and I was feeling really edgy about it even then.
“I actually got really sick in Costa Rica and had to miss a flight home. I was laid out in bed for a week, and I was convinced I got it then.
“I was in this gorgeous part of the world; it was the most expensive holiday I’d ever been on, and I couldn’t enjoy it.
“I was terrified at the beginning of the pandemic. I thought everyone I loved and knew was going to die. I was following daily updates to a worrying degree as well. After a couple of months, I calmed down about it.
“Now I don’t feel hindered by it, and I follow the protocols and just get on with it. I didn’t care when club shows dried up. I wasn’t enjoying doing them at the time. I was getting sick of organising them and DJ-ing. I’m lucky as that’s not my bread and butter, but I’ve got itchy for it again now. I want to start something in Belfast. I want to DJ in clubs again.”
Which takes us to the present. Right now, Phily has his metaphorical fingers in many pies and can currently be heard presenting the House Party on BBC Radio Ulster every Friday night, presents a daily show on America-based station Sirius XM and hosts the podcast ChillDaBeats on streaming platform Spotify.
“ChillDaBeats is the show I started the day after I left Radio One. I felt like I built something from scratch there and I wasn’t finished with it, so I went on and sculpted it into the thing it is now.
“I get to pick the guests and the tunes, and it’s been growing steadily. It’s a completely grass roots thing. A lot of people think there’s a big team behind it but it’s just me, and that’s refreshing.
“ChillDaBeats is the best place to go to simultaneously find new music and relax at the same time. If you’ve had a big weekend or maybe you’re feeling anxious during the week, it’s a little oasis you can visit whenever you want.
“I got offered the job at Sirius XM at the start of the year. It’s a drive time show, Monday to Friday, 4pm-7pm, and I get to play loads of records and chat an immeasurable amount of crap.
“It’s very different doing a show for the US market as opposed to the UK and Ireland. They get really involved in it. They’ve lots of opinions.
“The American audience is definitely an audience that likes to be heard. I enjoy that though. You’re not allowed to have a bad show.
“I’ve also got the House Party on Friday at 6pm. It’s a dance show that is Radio Ulster’s offering to Friday evenings. It focuses on dance music and club music over the last 30 years, and we want it to be the biggest rave in Northern Ireland. Hopefully it’ll start everyone’s weekend in style.”
For Phily, he views getting his own show on Radio Ulster as another career highlight and he’s thrilled to be back on the station that gave him his first break.
“I got my foot in the door at Radio Ulster thanks to the dole. It was due to a steps to work scheme which doesn’t exist anymore.
“I was unemployed for ages, and they were going to cut my dole off. They said, ‘Right, you’ve got a degree [in media studies], you’re doing nothing, you’re doing the steps to work scheme’.
“I started off in Across The Line. I was at gigs all the time, every night of the week, so when I got the opportunity to present on it I ran with it as I knew what I was talking about as I was in the middle of it all.
“Coming back to Radio Ulster has been the plan since I left for London.
“I never really had my own show on the station. My first radio show was actually Radio One.”
As I leave the broadcaster, DJ, promoter, former record label mogul (Hometown Records R.I.P.) and author of the book Phil Taggart’s Slacker Guide to The Music Industry to get back to nursing his sore head (caused by Tyrone’s recent All Ireland win), I ask him one final question before I head out into the Belfast rain. Will the inboxes of music journalists across the country be bombarded with emails announcing the return of Colenso Parade in the future now that he’s back home?
“I can’t see that happening, no,” he laughs. “Colenso’s story is like a straight to DVD movie — four friends from school start a band and never make it.
“I have to say, writing and releasing stuff with your mates was such good craic though. You don’t realise how enjoyable it is until you look back. We’re all still good friends now of course. That never changed.
“Supporting Richard Hawley in the Ulster Hall was one of my favourite shows we did. We played the Mandela Hall a lot too and had a residency in Whelan’s in Dublin after midnight that we loved, but no, I don’t think I want to stage a comeback. I could barely put two notes together at this stage!”
The House Party with Phil Taggart kicks off at 6.05pm every Friday night on BBC Radio Ulster