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Sunday Life

Pete Tong: I thought playing Ibiza dance hits with classical music was going to sound pants

The Radio 1 legend is still at the vanguard of dance music today

By Ralph McLean, Sunday Life

Pete Tong is a proper superstar DJ. With more than four decades of experience in the club scene, he is - in dance music circles at least - a tastemaker, a trusted guide for millions of music lovers the world over.

He's been at Radio 1 for more than two decades and jets off around the globe to do his DJ thing the way most of us scoot down the corner shop.

He's so famous his name is even ingrained in English parlance. "It's all gone Pete Tong", a neat bit of rhyming slang for "It's all gone wrong", which was coined by his old DJ pal Paul Oakenfold in 1987, is used casually in conversation by millions of people every single day. Now that's proper fame.

In person, the 58-year-old is initially shy and unassuming, a million miles away from the brash and flashy image people in his profession usually project.

In Belfast on a flying visit to promote his Ibiza Classics show, which arrives at the SSE Arena on the November 25, he's good company.

His passion for the project, which filters 20 years of dance music favourites through the sound of the 65-piece Heritage Orchestra and a selection of guest vocalists, is undeniable.

Kicking back over a coffee in the rooftop bar of The Grand Central hotel, he tells me how the project first came about.

"I was called up by Radio 1 in January 2015," he says, "and they said, 'The Proms want to do something, do you want to get involved?' Straight away I said yes."

So, the idea of combining dance with classical music, something very different at the time, didn't worry him at all?

"Maybe 20 years before I might have said no or scratched my head and asked too many questions," he says, "but I've learnt in life that sometimes it's just better to say yes quickly to things like that."

Working alongside conductor Jules Buckley, the DJ swiftly prepared a show for a late-night Prom at the Royal Albert Hall in London that reflected Radio 1's relationship with Ibiza down the years. Initially, he had his fears about the whole thing.

"I was nervous about not doing the songs justice," he admits. "I was concerned it was going to sound pants.

"I wanted to make a real heavyweight statement about the music by playing it with an orchestra in the Royal Albert Hall. It was adding gravitas to the whole scene, so I wanted it to be great. I trusted in Jules and he really delivered."

Rave reviews of that one-off gig led to a stadium tour that saw Tong and company sell out the O2 in London in just a couple of hours and even bag a record contract into the bargain. Making the jump from the Royal Albert Hall to full-blown stadium performances wasn't exactly easy, though.

"At the Proms we just kind of walked in and plugged in. We had to turn this thing that was like a concert into what it is today, where it's like a kind of immersive theatrical show. I'd never done anything like that before."

To date, the show has wowed arena audiences from Sydney to the Hollywood Bowl, with guest artists like Candi Staton, Seal and Craig David lining up to get involved. Despite the success, Tong still feels the need to quash the myth that it's just a guy pressing a few buttons on his laptop.

"The orchestra aren't playing along to a record," he says firmly. "Everything is 100% live."

A passion for real music has served the DJ well down the years. An early pre-teen fascination with Radio 1 saw the future dance music guru making tapes, cataloguing records and feeding his obsession relentlessly.

A Saturday job in a record shop gave him further access to all the pop music of the time and he devoured it all.

"When I started DJing, I realised that records by Funkadelic and James Brown made people jump around more than when I played Stairway To Heaven, so I got into dance music that way."

Those early experiences left a deep impression on the future radio presenter. "I was just transfixed," he says of first seeing a DJ in action in his school gymnasium.

"First it was me and my mate doing it, me and a guy called Nigel Burns, and the reason I had a DJ duo is because I had one turntable and he had the other."

It's that down-to-earth attitude that has helped Tong navigate his way around the often dangerous world of modern dance music. The suicide of fellow performer Avicii earlier this year is a good example.

"It was a real wake-up call," he says of the death of the young Swedish producer. "That's one that everybody watched happening but didn't do much about. Hopefully it will never happen again.

"He never really had a normal life. Suddenly he's a world-famous DJ, travelling on jets everywhere, not because he's being flash but because it was essential for him to fulfil all the work commitments.

"I think, even if you're a resident DJ in a pub three nights a week, it's hard being that life and soul of the party. You can easily get lost in the party. I was lucky. I always had a day job, so I couldn't go on two-week benders. I always had to come back."

Does the thought of slowing down a little ever enter his head then?

"I constantly look at it," he says, smiling a slightly weary smile. "I crave it to be simpler, but other times I look around and think how fortunate I am to be doing something I like and still here talking to you. I'm fairly at peace with it all."

Pete Tong Presents Ibiza Classics performed by the 65-piece Heritage Orchestra is at the SSE Arena, Belfast, on November 25. Tickets from www.ticketmaster.ie

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