Gilles Peterson: the interview

The DJ returns to Tokyo for another Worldwide Showcase

Gilles Peterson: the interview

Gilles Peterson is the man. When Time Out's recorder conks out during our first interview with the British radio DJ, tastemaker and record label boss, he promptly reschedules another one for the following morning. 'Are you better?' he asks with a giggle when we call him at home in London for the second time. 'Have you got your tape recorder working properly today?' And then he's off again, reminiscing about formative teenage jaunts to the Caister Weekender.

That's the beauty of interviewing radio DJs: they're seldom, if ever, short on things to say. Now approaching his 48th birthday, Peterson has been surfing the airwaves for three decades. Long before he became a regular presence on BBC Radio 1 and Tokyo's own J-Wave, he was involved with the London pirate station Radio Invicta, who gave him his own show at the tender age of 17 in exchange for use of his transmitter. 'That was my formative era,' he says. 'That was my learning period.'

Those were the days when he was using his teenage wiles to get into the legendary Weekenders, soul-centric club nights that were (and, in fact, still are) held in a resort town in Norfolk. 'I was going to those when I was 16, 17 years old, so it was all a bit naughty for me,' he says. 'I used to go there and sneak in and just be wide-eyed, looking at this adult world – dancing away to great music – and seeing quite a multi-cultural crowd going to it as well. That was another kind of eye-opener for me, at the time.'

It was an ear-opener, too. He recalls hearing John Coltrane for the first time at a Weekender, when DJ Bob Jones bust out the jazz saxophonist's signature tune, 'Giant Steps'. It's because of Trane that we're speaking now, in fact: Peterson is heading to Tokyo later this month to helm an event that's part tribute to the late saxman. Subtitled 'Love Supreme', Worldwide Showcase 2011 is being held on the 85th anniversary of Coltrane's birth, and will see performances by Japanese jazz groups Soil & "Pimp" Sessions and Masa Sextet, plus tap dancer Kazunori Kumagai and British producer SBTRKT.

Peterson organises the events every year, each time with a different theme. 'They're really exciting nights,' he says, describing them as 'a celebration… of this unique situation which I have on J-Wave, where I get to play these records in the afternoon on this massive commercial station.' His Worldwide shows – 15-minute bursts during the afternoon from Monday to Thursday, followed by a longer late-night show on Friday – have been broadcast on J-Wave for seven years now ('which I find incredible,' he admits).

The shows offer a chance to showcase the sounds he loves, which run from jazz to the likes of SBTRKT and of-the-moment producer and singer James Blake. Throughout our first conversation, Peterson insists that this has been the best year for new music in a long time – so much so that he now only devotes a fraction of his allotted time to playing older material.

Does he still feel the same sense of excitement when he hears something new, though? 'Yes, I do, but it's a different kind of wow factor,' he says. 'I think that now I'm so much more involved in it all, I can probably move that music around more – I have more influence. Maybe I get excited by [the thought that], "Oh yeah, great, I can play this. I can help it." I don't know if I get the same wow as, for example, the first time I heard 'Just a Touch of Love' by Slave or 'Love Injection' by Trussel, when I was 16 in a club. I mean… you know, you're not going to forget that.'

Radio aside, Peterson has found other ways to champion new music. He was A&R for the influential Acid Jazz label in the late '80s, then broke off to start the similarly inclined Talkin' Loud imprint at the dawn of the '90s. After a long hiatus from the record business, he returned to the fray in 2006 with a small indie label, Brownswood Recordings, which has since released artists including Jose James, Soil & "Pimp" Sessions and Mercury Music Prize nominee Ghostpoet.

Peterson's events in Tokyo, too, are a mere aperitif compared to the Worldwide Festivals that he puts on in Singapore and Sète, France. The lineup for the latter, which was held in early July this year, ran from scrappy rock duo The Pyramids to Congolese kalimba ensemble Konono No. 1 to club-friendly electronica producers such as Flying Lotus and Jamie XX. Pretty eclectic, in other words.

'It gives people a kind of subtle entrance into the same world,' he says of the event. 'People will come to the Gilles Peterson festival or something because they'll understand the connection between James Blake, The Pyramids and [hip hop and Afrobeat DJ] Rich Medina. And some other people might not get that – quite a lot of people who come to the festival probably won't get it – but they'll get it by the time they've left the festival.

'I think you still need to work on making people feel that they're part of something special to them,' he continues, contrasting the current music scene with the one in which he grew up. 'What was great about that time was that it felt like you were a member of a secret club, and that nobody else knew about it. There was something quite exclusive about it, which was quite important – not necessarily elitist, but exclusive. That's something which I think we always want to try and retain in what we do... because I think that belonging to a movement makes it that much stronger.'

As record stores die out, he says, it's becoming more important to preserve other community hubs, including dance clubs. And that brings us to another fine piece of Petersonian wisdom:

'If I was a 20-year-old DJ or a 30-year-old DJ, I would make sure I was doing a regular residency,' he says. 'I think that there's been this slight obsession with becoming a superstar performer-producer-whatever, and a lot of the young DJs and producers think they can just live off guesting, rather than remembering to lay down the foundations by having their own club. All the best scenes have come out of small clubs. Whether that's dubstep, punk music, whatever. Everything.'

Gilles Peterson appears at Worldwide Showcase 2011 at Liquidroom, Ebisu on Sept 23, then at the Air 10th Anniversary in Daikanyama on Sept 24

By James Hadfield
Please note: All information is correct at the time of writing but is subject to change without notice.


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