Trance Syndicate

Practice make Perfecto: Paul Oakenfold and his European label have sold millions of records overseas. In the United States, they're lucky to sell thousands.

Paul Oakenfold has no band, no instrument to play, and nothing except two turntables in front of him--OK, three--but right now he is a Rock God. High above a sweaty Chicago crowd at the legendary Crobar, the clever Brit darts, weaves, and jukes between deep cuts of spacey beats with the poise and persuasion of a legend, a rock star without the rock. And the people below fawn at every turn of the vinyl.

Right now it's hard to deny the artistry of transition, the progression of emotion on display; here, as on record, Oakenfold makes epic, heart-stopping breaks, using multiple records and dance beats to build a song to its highest, most hysterical level before cunningly feeding into the next track.

His audience, unlike a typical rock concert crowd, demands such intensity: Hardcore clubbers have a specific desire to tune out the music, and it's up to the spinner to provide sensory overload in steady doses for the better part of four hours. Needless to say, some preparation is in order.

"Arrangement is everything," says Oakenfold a few days after the show. "When you're mixing it has to feel right and it has to make sense; you just can't move from the Dead Can Dance to an underground track to Led Zeppelin without a lot of preparation."

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In other words, another man can write a tune, but it takes a mixer of Jimmy Page-like ability to make it sound classic. And in that sense, you won't find a bigger star-as-DJ than Oakenfold, an international icon trying to infiltrate America (again) with a new record (Perfecto Presents Another World) and some help from Buffy Corp (Warner Bros. subsidiary London/Sire).

A double disc set from a DJ is hardly an egotistical gesture, unlike pop music; it's quite the norm for the mix community, actually. What puts Perfecto, Oakenfold's 10th remix record, in the rare company of any ambitious, grandiose effort (much less a mix CD) is its almost mind-numbing depth of content--a sprawling two hours of continuously engaging music from a variety of sources, swathed in keyboards and angelic vocals that build up and slow down to such an intensive degree that it feels like a live club mix, engulfing you in frantic shards of sound. The painstaking process of translating his live mixing to tape is more than obvious; it's almost a window into an artist's transition, as Oakenfold documents his progression from big, uplifting trance--as on 1998's Tranceport--to darker, groovier substances. Quite a thrill, especially for music you thought you already knew.

"I wanted this to really be a follow-up to Tranceport and give people an idea of where we're going with the music," says Oakenfold, "a two CD journey through different types of music that inspire me whether it's Dead Can Dance or Vangelis' Blade Runner soundtrack. When I go to record stores here in England, all I see are like 101 dance remix albums with the same beats in the same style; it's the same as when I go to the clubs and hear the same pounding mixes. I think classic records give a lot more depth and originality to the music, so I went through my own collection and was inspired by my own tastes."

Um, but Led Zeppelin's "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You"? And where's the damned guitar?

"It's always been one of my favorite Led Zeppelin tunes, and it was the one I got permission to use," he explains. "The guitar in particular didn't fit the musical direction I wanted to go toward. If I wanted big, uplifting trance--like I was doing on Tranceport--I would have used guitars. But I wanted dark and groovy, not uplifting; that sound is pretty much over in the U.K. I'm on to playing more funky but still melodic tracks; the Tranceport sound has been reproduced a hundred times over--it's quite old, really."

What might be new for Oakenfold is some, shall we say, vocal response from the classic-rock crowd--there's some serious sacrilege on "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You," as Oakenfold strips everything but Plant's vocals (and even that's reverbed to hell) and sends the icons on a stairway straight to the dance floor. Like all of the tracks on Perfecto, the original composition is but a template for the mix's exploration, and the Brit slathers washes of synths and hyper percussion over the vocals, toying with the dynamic of the song by carrying it to its logical, trance-induced conclusion. The track might be Zep's, but the atmosphere, the groove, and the vibe are all Oakenfold.

That said, it might surprise you to learn that the man on the 1s and 2s, the spokesperson for "club music," refutes the notion that he was purposefully out to desecrate the rock temple. "It's quite the opposite intention, really," he says. "More than anything else, I respect the integrity of the artists I am commissioned to remix. You sort of have to in my position anyway: They get to decide whether your work is satisfactory or not. It's not as if the track is unrecognizable; it's just given a new form, a new direction--which is what the artist wants anyway.  

"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."

Then again, Oakenfold's been through much worse--he had to launch house music in England pretty much by his lonesome, after all--and two decades of deejaying have taught him that if he can't directly change other people's views, there's always much to be learned to make his own experience behind the tables that much better. "I finally feel really comfortable in terms of being in charge of everything: I have the experience, the knowledge I didn't have before," he says. "And I'm understanding that it's my role to balance between education--breaking new records and sounds--and entertainment--playing the tracks people want to hear. Trying to achieve that balance is what I've been working on for so long...

"And now I'm starting to really enjoy it."

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