By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
"I think as long as a track is produced right and done right, anything is open to an interpretation. I'm sure that old rock crowd won't respond well, but music is about evolution, and in life you've got to move forward. I just did a dark, funky remix for U2 [for "Beautiful Day," the first single from the Irish band's All That You Can't Leave Behind] and they're still here, with millions of fans, because they constantly change and improve. And that's what I'm trying to do."
A modest answer for a guy who not only started something of a musical revolution by producing the Happy Mondays' 1989 dance-rock breakthrough, Pills, Thrills and Bellyaches, but practically invented the rock remix, which he's done for the likes of The Cure, Snoop Doggy Dogg, and U2 (he even toured with them back during the Zooropa days). All this from a man who, as if to suggest that today's garage/basement is tomorrow's computer room, practices his mixes in the solitude of his home before ever letting them see the light of day.
There is, not surprisingly, a great story behind all this. While vacationing with his blokes on a then sleepy Spanish island called Ibiza in 1987, Oakenfold and Co. chance upon a dance club called Amnesia, your typical island nightspot, the kind tourists and locals hit when there's nothing else to do at 3 a.m. But it's midmorning, the sun is out, and the club is packed with sweaty revelers who've been on the floor since midnight and ain't going nowhere fast. Then there's the music, this strange hyper-intensive music being mixed, sort of like disco music with a kick...drum; he's told later it's called house, spawned from the then infamous Chicago dance club The Wherehouse. He's immediately overwhelmed by the beat. And a little drug called E.
Oakenfold had found his calling, though it took three years of education in the house/soul/Italian disco he was offering at London clubs like Heaven and Sound Shaft to rile the classes for the cause. But they came, his club shows got bigger (he helped launch so-called super clubs like Cream and Ministry of Sound, where audiences numbered in the thousands), and by the mid-'90s he had all but conquered Europe, playing to tens of thousands while his label, Perfecto, sold millions of records (it's still Europe's biggest dance label). The world--much of it, anyway--followed. And then he, like just about everyone else across the pond, tried to teach Johnny Reb about the modern dance.
The numbers speak for themselves: Shania Twain sold about 15 million records in 1998; Tranceport sold 150,000.
The Oakenfold of today, however, is far less concerned about taking America; he's decidedly more confident that we're manifesting an electronic music craze ourselves. Slowly, the club culture is growing in size and popularity, and homegrown artists like Moby are getting the kind of treatment here that the so-called stadium DJs of Europe (Oakenfold, Sasha & Digweed) do back in the Motherland.
"This is the most exciting place in the world right now for someone to play," says Oakenfold. "There's a changing force present: A new generation are all into the scene. And it's a global scene that Americans will catch up to. I mean, I wouldn't have flown from Ibiza, Spain, to London, waited two hours, then hopped an eight-hour plane ride to Chicago at the expense of my mental and physical health if I thought it wasn't going to be worth it."
Oakenfold used to worry whether we Americans were getting the depth of his live mixing, but has since taken on some flexibility, not to mention a particular American quirk: a penchant for big, sunny generalities. Asked about his evolution from the semi hip-hop-flavored house he concocted in the late '80s--you know, boom boom boom--to the swirling cosmic overtones of his dense, ambient sounds, Oakenfold strangely recoils on the labeling bit, even though he helped launch the aforementioned Tranceport series (hint hint) back in '98. "There was no switch for me: progressive house is part of trance. They're all just titles, really," he says. "The most important thing is that I play dance music, the best of dance music. There's no significance to the name. A good song is a good song, period. As long as people are enjoying themselves in a club, I'm doing my job."
Ah, but we Americans are fidgety folk. We want titles.
"So do the English," he laughs.
Of course, the English want his music; we're not so sure. Most folks here continue to think of dance music as solely involving high hats at high BPMs and cheesy Casio riffs, not as the multi-formated--sorry, Paul--genres that contain their own nuances and quirks. Oakenfold himself has faced some confusion in the American club culture for his use of vocal hooks--a technique most commonly associated with house or big-beat sounds--in a trance scene that is almost entirely instrumental ("It appeals to the female crowd that enjoys my music," he says), and he's almost never seen here as an original artist over a commissioned "interior decorator."
"I've always felt like I'm creating a new record when I do a remix," Oakenfold says, sighing. "If people look at the work I've done--whether it's U2, Snoop Dogg, or Arrested Development--they'll see that."