“Technology these days allows anyone to make music with minimal resources and that’s led to a glut of average material for DJs to wade through. Actually, you can’t manage to wade through it all and it’s becoming more and more important to rely on recommendations from trusted sources.”
With his spare time currently filled studying for a Masters Degree in Digital Media, acid house pioneer Pete Heller is unusually well qualified to discuss today’s fast changing media landscape.
“Understanding the media is becoming ever more important to any artist who wishes to maintain a career,” he continues, “And a savvy DJ who has the right mindset and who is prepared to relentlessly promote his (or her) self can really make up for a complete lack of talent.”
Starting his career 20 years ago warming up for Danny Rampling at London acid house Mecca the Shoom Club, Pete next helped establish Boys Own (alongside Andy Weatherall and Terry Farley). Going on to produce mega successful early 90s pop/ dance acts the Farm and Primal Scream, he went on to have his own massive crossover house hit with Big Love in the late 90s, throughout maintaining a status as an A List international DJ and producer, His latest acid house tinged track Sabotage has been snapped up by John Digweed for his label Bedrock though as Pete points out, making tracks is no longer enough to guarantee success.
“In the early days there was very little press of any kind covering dance music and obviously the Internet didn’t exist yet - the scene was way outside of the mainstream and you really had to go out of your way to find it,” he recalls, “Now of course, we are bombarded by a vast array of competing media channels and it’s impossibly hard to keep up.”
“For my part it’s been quite a hard shift to come to terms with, but really you have no choice,” he admits.
“You need the website, Myspace, Facebook etc. You can’t rely on physical sales of music for an income now; that’s gone. Like the rest of the music industry, it’s all about touring now and it’s fully globalized so the web and media are essential to helping you to connect with an audience.”
“Before I could just noodle about in the studio and making of tracks would be enough to get you noticed, but now you have to spend almost as much time keeping everything up to date,” he continues.
“Of course, some would say that you don’t need to worry about any of this stuff and there are plenty of successful DJs around now who don’t have any web presence. But I suspect that they are fast becoming a rarity,” says Pete.
Articulate and intelligent he’s keen to point out he doesn’t view today’s musical environment entirely in gloomy terms, stressing ‘there is definitely an upside.
“What you have to remember is that we really are on the edge of a new era in terms of the media and technology, kind of a new information Wild West,” he suggests.
“Everything is up for grabs and the ride will be bumpy, but once we get there, the possibilities in terms of artists being able to connect with their audience in a more meaningful way than the last bullshit-rinsed 30 years, will be amazing,” he predicts.
Web 2.0 issues aside, he’s chatting to Skrufff today to promote new single Sabotage, a groove driven house track that’s both current and simultaneously retro, created quickly and easily when he started noodling around with a Roland 303 acid sound over a dub track, in between studying for his degree.
Skrufff (Jonty Skrufff): What prompted you to start messing around on the Roland 303 again (was it an analogue 303 or a plug in?)
Pete Heller: “Well I do own a genuine, beat up, old 303 which apparently at one time belonged to A Guy Called Gerald, but for this track I was messing around with a plug-in by a Swedish software company called Audio Realism. I used to collect old analogue synthesizers and when soft-synths (software synths) first started appearing I was a bit sniffy (dismissive) about them. But that was a long time ago and now I barely use the old ones, except maybe the Minimoogs, which seem to malfunction in a particularly musical way that you just don’t seem to get with the virtual ones. Anyway, I put the plug-in through some old vintage kit in my studio and to be honest, I don’t think I can tell the difference from the real thing.”
Skrufff: The UK Sunday Times talked recently about a ‘middle aged club revival . . . happening across the country’: how much is this a trend you’re conscious of? Or been inspired by?
Pete Heller: “Well in my ‘neck of the woods’ (area) I’ve been seeing ‘Back to 89’ billboards and posters for years, so if that’s what they mean, then I guess the people who go to those events are just getting older. As far as Sabotage is concerned, I really wasn’t trying to tap into any revival thing, but I think it’s true that if you listen to some of those records from the late 80s / early 90s, they do retain an almost timeless quality while being very much of their time. I can’t quite explain it other than that they were just brilliantly made, so in a way I’m trying to capture some of that spirit with this record.”
Skrufff: You’re currently studying for a Masters Degree in Digital Media: what prompted you to return to education?
Pete Heller: “Actually, the thought of turning into a 60 year old DJ was one of them. But honestly, I needed a break from the sometimes trivial world of clubs and I wanted to know if I was capable of using my brain again. I was partly inspired by my friend Matt Roberts from King Unique who had decided to give up the DJing to study graphic design. So I went along to open days at a couple of universities in London and at one it turned out that the course tutor had heard of me and offered me a place there and then. So it was a combination of chance and wanting a new challenge.”
Skrufff: Your acid house peer Danny Rampling retired, then reconsidered soon after: is retirement from DJing/ making music something you’ve ever seriously considered?
Pete Heller: “Well I have given it some thought yes, I mean as I said, I can’t see myself being a DJ forever and I’ve definitely had occasion to question what I’m doing. I mean, far from the popular conception of the glamorous life of the superstar DJ, the reality for most of us is usually far more mundane. Don’t get me wrong, at its best, it’s an amazing job, but a lot of the time it’s just travelling to hotels and airports and hanging about on your own. One thing’s for sure though, when I do retire, I doubt I’ll be doing it with too much of a fanfare even if a lucrative ‘farewell tour’ might appeal.”
Skrufff: You’ve been DJing for over 20 years: Have you ever had to struggle with losing confidence: or depression?
Pete Heller: “Not with depression, no, but I have been known to be a bit grumpy on occasion. I did have a bit of a difficult period after the Big Love thing - ironically probably my most successful period in terms of gigs. By the time that record came out I was kind of bored with that sound, the whole disco sample track thing, it really didn’t reflect the darker stuff I was into. Consequently, I alienated a few crowds with my Sound Factory inspired musings. I found that the more commercial the club, the more conservative the crowd and it just became a bit mind-numbing that people only wanted to hear one type of sound all night and I did rebel a bit. But I think, as a DJ, you have to present what you are into or it all becomes a bit of a muddle. You have to entertain for sure, but within your own remit. Otherwise I think you just become a jukebox for hire.”
Skrufff: What exactly does doing a masters degree in digital media entail?
Pete Heller: “Well ‘Digital Media’ is a pretty broad and vague term but as far as I’ve been concerned, I’ve been studying a range of web-based technologies: HTML, CSS, Flash etc and critical and theoretical approaches to applying them. It’s been fairly time consuming, which hasn’t helped the music production side much, but it’s been really good to stretch the brain muscle a little. Increasingly and especially in dance, music is staying almost entirely within the digital domain, from production through distribution and delivery to final use, so it’s been quite useful to look at the whole picture from a more academic perspective, if you like.
My dissertation is a discussion of issues relating to the future structure of the music industry and the research I am doing has really opened my eyes up to some of the really cool stuff going on at the fringes of the industry now and likely to move into the mainstream.”
Skrufff: And what doors do you hope it opens? (eg To become a professor or teacher?)
Pete Heller: “I don’t think I’m cut out to be a teacher – I just don’t have the required unlimited reserves of patience that really good ones seem to have. But I definitely would like to combine some of my new skills with the experience I’ve picked up over the last 20 years. I’m going to finish the degree first then take a look around. But there are definitely some amazing companies making some wonderful music software that I would be happy to work for.”
Skrufff: What has your course taught you about the way print magazines such as Mixmag and DJ operate?
Pete Heller: “Well it’s not really an area I’ve looked at in my course but all the print based media are struggling to come to terms with this new digital era. I have friends who work for big national news titles and they are all looking over their shoulders at the moment. There is a lot of fear in the industry and that doesn’t lead to good journalism. When resources are tight, there just isn’t the time for quality well-funded journalism and what you are increasingly seeing is stories copied word for word from PR handouts. It’s really not healthy for good investigative journalism or democracy for that matter.
As far as the dance press is concerned, I would say that this is magnified tenfold as the standard of journalism there is pretty piss-poor to start with. Which is not surprising, because the wages are terrible. So it seems to me that a lot of it is just about editorial with very little reporting as such, and the magazines are consequently filled with a whole load of PR guff linked to various artist campaigns. Of course, I have to be careful not to bite the hand that feeds me, so let me also say that they are all incredibly talented people doing a difficult job!”
Skrufff: In your last interview with Skrufff in 2005 you talked about New York City becoming a city for rich people, what’s your take on the banking crisis? What impact has it had on you personally? What do you expect it to have on dance/ club culture?
Pete Heller: “I guess you mean ‘will a good recession help liven up those kind of places that became so sterile in the face of relentless property speculation?’ My hunch is that New York, at least Manhattan, is too far gone for that. But from my experience, recessions do tend to release a wave of creative energy – either people seem to have less to lose or they are less satisfied with the status quo and feel the need to shake stuff up. Let’s hope so - stuff definitely needs to be shaken up. Personally, it’s too early to say, but I’m sure it’s going to have a downward effect on wages for everyone.”
Skrufff: What advice would you have for someone out there just starting to produce tracks?
Pete Heller: “The same as always; try to be original. It’s easily said but the amount of identical sounding demo tracks I get sent is scary. It’s easy to make music now and that’s not necessarily a good thing. For me, making music can be a difficult process and it helps to appreciate this - it does sometimes pay to be a bit of a perfectionist. Any good writer tries to try to write for himself first and worries about what everyone else thinks later. Also a good groove is just as good as a big club anthem in my book. That’s all really.”
Pete Heller: Sabotage is out now on Bedrock Records.
Article by Jonty Skrufff
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