Orchestral performances of dancefloor hits have been something of a phenomenon in recent years, none more so than Pete Tong’s Ibiza Classics which began life at the BBC Proms in 2015 and is now in its fourth year of touring the nation’s indoor arenas.
The concept’s long-term viability has surprised even the DJ who has been the voice of Radio 1’s dance music programming since 1991.
“I never thought we’d be still talking at the end of 2019 about the same thing,” says the 59-year-old, who is now based in Los Angeles. “It was a job, it was an appointment, it was a challenge, it was all those things back in 2015.
“I was actually invited by the Proms to do this, they asked Radio 1 and Radio 1 asked me and we thought it was appropriate and a pretty amazing thing to do to celebrate 20 years of Radio 1 going to Ibiza. So I met with Jules [Buckley] and the Heritage Orchestra – we hadn’t worked together before, I knew about them, they came highly recommended – but that took about six months to plan and prepare and that one magical night in July when we did it, onstage me and Jules were looking at each other thinking, ‘This is too good, we’ve got to try and find a way of doing this again’, and there were are.
“The reason we’re here is because of the audience. The audience participation in those shows is the magic that I think we’ve got a lot of repeat customers and we’ve got a lot of new customers. I think it’s one of those shows where it’s about what happens in the room on the night, you can’t bottle it and that’s why people want to see it come out again and again.”
As well as appealing to one-time clubbers who are now middle-aged, the Ibiza Classics tours have also helped introduce a new generation to ’90s dance culture. “I think it works on both levels,” Tong says. “Predominantly it’s a very refreshing and energising way of celebrating this amazing music.
“In our lives now people stay younger in their minds for longer and they grow up a little bit slower and I think just because you’re 40 or 50 and you’ve got kids and jobs and responsibilities it doesn’t mean you stop loving the music that shaped your life in your youth and your 20s. That was a massive boost for us in the beginning, it kind of got that generation back out and coming to see an orchestra in an arena, it finished at 10.30pm so you can get home for the babysitters.
“That was the first thing, that was a big tick on that box, but I think the second thing is also even if you were continually going out and you never stopped or you’re a bit younger then you’d never seen your favourite music played like this before, so I think that was another successful aspect of this idea. And then the third thing, I think if you’re 18 or 20 years old now and you’ve heard what your parents did, it’s drummed into you, you know there’s this world of clubbing out there that’s been going on for a very long time, then I think equally it’s something refreshing to see an orchestra doing it.
“If you’re not embedded totally in DJ culture then you’ve got a more open mind and you think it’s just a mad day out to come and see us. I think we’ve been turning a lot of people onto that when we do the summer shows and the festivals where it’s not so much of a hard ticket but we’re part of a bigger show and we seem to win fans whenever we perform at those things.”
The preparatory work involved in Tong’s tour and three albums with Buckley and the Heritage Orchestra is, he says, “pretty phenomenal”. “Now I look back over the four and a half years it’s the accumulation of the work that has given us such a rich toolbox to dip into.
“The arranging of the songs is the longest part. Me figuring out what we’re going to do and how we’re going to perform them and then getting together with Jules and letting him figure how he wants the orchestra to play the tunes, that’s the longest part and then when we actually go and record them, it’s not a cheap process recording an orchestra so that a whole other thing. Then once we’ve done all that legwork then we’ve got the instruction manual then and that’s the real IP in terms of what our show is.
“The first year we had 20 songs and now we’re talking about definitely north of 50, if not 75 different tracks we can pull from, that’s why we’re constantly tweaking the live show so if you come and see it again it won’t be exactly the same as when you saw it the first time.”
Guests on this tour include Beverley Knight and Robert Owens. Tong says he wanted “from day one” to involve a varied choice of singers in the project. “For me at the very beginning when we did the Proms it was like, we’re going to do these old classics tunes from the house and techno storybook but to give it a fresh twist I’m going to ask Ella Eyre or John Newman to sing one, it was always about juxtaposing the old with the new, but equally, as the project’s evolved, then the idea of bringing out Jamie Principle, a house legend, like we did a couple of years ago to sing his song or to bring Robert Owens out now to sing something, that adds a sparkle to the show.
“Then with Beverley she’s such a powerhouse. She was involved more in the UK urban and soul scene then she went big into the theatre but she’s such a talent that she just adds a real vitality to the show. I think she’s got a lot of respect out of it, without her being a big name in the dance world but she’s such a show woman. Basically we’re asking her back because she smashed it last year, we don’t think we’re done yet.”
Tong’s new album with the Heritage Orchestra is called Chilled Classics and involves the likes of Chicago house producer Todd Edwards, Boy George – who Tong has known from the early days of Culture Club – and Swedish pop star Zara Larsson. “The first one was called Classic House, the second one was Ibiza Classics, which was very much what the theme of the live show is, and the third one we wanted something a bit different. It was through the approach to the adaptations of the songs that we recorded that gave me the idea that it had more of a chilled vibe.
“Chilled doesn’t necessarily mean meditative library music, there’s tracks on there that do have tempo, there’s even Greece 2000 on there. It’s chilled in the sense that it’s music I might play at Café Mambo or back in the day at Café Del Mar during a sunset, so you work through loads of different tempos and you really have your chilled moment when the sun finally disappears into the sea. So it’s a slightly gentler approach but the inspiration for taking a track like Every Heartbeat which was an uptempo house song by Robyn back in the day and then redoing it as this sunset extravaganza with Zara Larsson in a downtempo way, that embodies the spirit of the album, really.”
One of the highlights is grime artist Wiley’s take on Underworld’s Born Slippy. It was a song that Tong had long had on his radar to cover. “That was a song that was meant to be in the first ever show that we did at the Proms,” he explains. “There’s great classics and then there’s what I would call the platinum A-list classics and I think when you reach into that box you’ve got to be very careful in terms of the way you do them because they’re even more untouchable than any of the others. I wanted Carl [Hyde of Underworld] to come and sing it at the original Prom and he kind of went along with the idea for a while then he wanted Rick [Smith] to do it with him and it just got too complicated and then it didn’t happen. From the very first show it was on the agenda and then since then when the album recording time’s come around every time we’ve looked at it and thought how are we going to do it justice and do it in a different way. Then it was really through getting more confident about how we were adapting the tunes as we were recording them, and getting a little more swagger, that I had this idea that we’ll try and do Born Slippy as almost half-tempo, almost like a drum ’n’ bass or a grime song. I’d never programmed a beat like that before then I was flying in the original song over it and I thought, ‘This is quite interesting’.
“Then I played it to Fraser T [Smith], who I go way back with, who’s become the king of grime in terms of producers, he produced Stormzy and Dave and Kano so he knows what he’s talking about in that world and he really liked it and thought it could work, so that gave me even more confidence and then I sent it to Underworld and said, ‘This is a barking mad idea but what do you think about it?’ What I sent them was what you hear on the record but without Wiley on, the foundation of that, and they loved it. Carl was sounding so good on a sample I said, ‘Why don’t I just leave you on it?’ But he said, ‘No, I don’t want to do that, you go and redo it and take it to the next level’. That’s where we came up with the idea of the choir to do the chorus which was led by Vula [Malinga] who’s part of the Heritage Orchestra.
“Then the final thing was if we’re going to get someone from that world, who would seem appropriate that fits with Pete Tong and fits with Ibiza and we went through the list, the obvious ones like Stormzy and Skepta, and as much as I’ve got huge respect for them I don’t have a natural link but Wiley had played Ibiza and he had dabbled with that world and I asked him. I didn’t want him to come up with any old lyrics, I wanted him to talk about Ibiza and he said he’d try it out and the rest is history, we did it.”
As for the current state of dance music, Tong says: “I think it feels in 2019 like a changing of the guard again in the sense that, particularly in the UK, it’s been hugely reinvigorated by the new generation. I live in LA now and I come back to the UK regularly but I feel there’s a real excitement in the air again.
“The UK always had it but obviously when it’s on a high year after year the high eventually wears off, but I think the UK in particular has really got its mojo back. There’s so many DJs that are making amazing music and playing well and entertaining the crowd in a good way, just to reel off CamelPhat, Salardo, Michael Bibi, Patrick Topping, and there’s a lot more underground guys as well and a lot more leftfield electronica artists. The most important thing is it’s exciting again for the younger audience who really shape the scene ultimately. All those names I just mentioned as turning on their peers and their generation, that’s why the scene feels so buoyant and I’m still, as a kind of grandee of the scene, happy to be watching it and involved in it from a slightly different perspective. But I think it’s in a really healthy place.”
Pete Tong and the Heritage Orchestra play at First Direct Arena on December 6. Chilled Classics is out now. www.petetong.com