British dance music icon Pete Tong gets deep for Las Vegas

Evolution not revolution: Tong can’t create a “Berlin techno thing” overnight, but he can still push sound in Vegas.

Unlike most of EDM’s top brass, BBC dance music guru and globetrotting DJ Pete Tong has witnessed the evolution of Las Vegas’ megaclubs firsthand. During his first visit in the early 2000s, he spun actual records at Luxor nightspot Ra (now LAX), during a midweek industry party called Pleasuredome. He went on to play Frogger up and down the Strip in regard to gigs, but the most recent lilypad he’s landed on is SLS’ Life—where he once again plays to locals. This time, he’s hosting the Vegas variation of his All Gone Pete Tong party—and bringing with him some of the biggest house and techno (read: not EDM) DJs in the world.

During the All Gone Las Vegas October 5 debut, I had a moment of genuine dancefloor discovery. Just as Cirez D (aka Eric Prydz) appeared in the Life DJ booth, Tong closed his set with a soaring vocal track that was hardly house or techno, but didn’t fit the EDM bill, either. Unbeknownst to me (until I Shazam’d it), it was remix of London Grammar’s “If You Wait” by one of my favorite dance producers, Jacques Lu Cont. I might never have heard that track in a Vegas nightclub had it not been for Tong—who I spoke to a couple of hours before my little transcendent moment.

You’ve seen a lot of nightclubs in Las Vegas and all over the world. What do you think of the place? What advantages does it have over competitors? I think it was a challenge for the SLS to ask themselves how to come into the space and not be just another club. I think they’ve gone about it in an intelligent way in terms of the size of the venue and how they’re going to fit into the city and offer something different. The fact that they’ve arrived when they’ve arrived, I don’t think they could have succeeded just repeating what’s come before—that wouldn’t necessarily be a winning formula in such a competitive market with some fairly established clubs here already. So I think the whole attitude—and I think the same goes for opening a casino in this town—you want to offer something different. The whole SLS brand is a younger, more welcoming environment for the younger crowd. That’s the overwhelming feeling I got being around opening weekend. It wasn’t dominated by the casino. It was an easier place to get around and find the clubs. Obviously the model of a lot of the big hotels is they’re these vasy kind of cities almost you walk into. That’s what people got used to, so I think this more boutique atmosphere is great. It’s very encouraging.

In the club itself, it’s two-thirds if not half the size of a lot of other established clubs. And that encourages and allows a more adventurous music programming, especially if you want to start talking about anything other than EDM. I’ve always said, for that kind of music to flourish in America, it’s needs environment. It’s not necessarily howitzers off the stage and pyrotechnics. You’ve got to create environments that people can lose themselves in without having to wait for the next drop all the time ... Life encourages that.

Did you see it before inking the residency? I hadn’t done a walk-through of the finished thing, I’d [seen] 3D mapping and seen all the modeling and they can show you. I have a bunch of people around me that I trust and they felt that this was the right opportunity.

What made you think Las Vegas was ready for this—especially as some of the clubs normally associated with EDM have been veering more toward open format and Top 40? It’s funny when you say Top 40, because I thought a lot of the EDM DJs were Top 40. You’re suggesting [the clubs] are going backward.

Sorta. I think a number of factors come to the table when you’re coming up with a music strategy for a new venue. … The SLS has got a set of brand values, the whole SBE thing with the restaurants and everything. I think they want to come into the city and do something different. I would like to think from my standpoint that championing a different sound is part of that strategy. I’m not naive though to the fact that it’s a convenient strategy that aligns with people trying to find a way into Vegas. I’ve been playing off and on in this city since 2000, when Ra was at the Luxor. I think the city is so big and expanding so fast—it’s one of the biggest cities in the world from an entertainment standpoint—that there’s got to be another way. There’s got to be something different.

It’s one of the reasons this is suited to being on Sundays. Where do the locals go? I remember those gigs at Luxor. Actually part of the inspiration to coming back to [Vegas], one of the things I thought about those early years was I really felt it was 10 or 20 percent real locals—we’re the barmen, we’re the doormen, we’re the chauffeurs, the dancers, the strippers, whatever, we make this town work and this is our night off, this is where we come to hang. I really like that element. There’s not many places I’d say...over the proceeding 15 years [that had that]. Maybe Drai’s Afterhours had a bit of that. I felt like we had a little of that when I was doing that residency at Encore [Beach Club]. … But some of those people got to get out somewhere to let their hair down, and they’ve seen everything happening every night. So that can actually be a very attractive core to build another night around.

The other thing: There’s only one Calvin Harris, one Steve Aoki, one Avicii, and this is very competitive town, and you can’t have the same DJ on the same night. So someone’s got to break out and go, we’re gonna do something different. We’re not gonna have the watered-down version of Calvin Harris, we’re going to create our own personality—at least that’s what I hope (laughs).

Has the Vegas club scene evolved since it first really blew up with DJs four or so years ago? Or have we still been slow to diversify? You need to create environments to support that kind of musical programming. You need a regular crowd and locals. You need a core in the room to drive your philosophy. You’re not going to get it from who’s in town tonight and the tourists. I think that’s too much of a challenge. You might be able to get away with it, but you’re more likely to succeed with the former.

I’ve got great respect for what they’ve done at Hakkasan, and Neil Moffitt’s an old mate and Calvin [Harris is] obviously a big fan, but I don’t think locals necessarily go to Hakkasan. That’s like a full-on, top-notch, five-star [nightclub]—it’s like a David Copperfield show. You’re in town, you get your tickets and you’re going to see Calvin Harris. When you take off every night and every week, this city seems to get a few blocks bigger. So there’s got to be a place that’s a bit different than what everyone else is doing. They’re like the Cirque du Soleil version and we’re something different.

How often will All Gone Las Vegas occur? Once, maybe twice a month.

How are you deciding the DJs? They’re some of the leaders in their field who don’t necessarily have a right fit yet in Vegas. [Life] is being just as bold in their booking policy on the [Sundays] I’m not here. Jamie Jones was here, Apollonia [was] here, so they’re trying to get a level of consistency—and that’s important as well. I think the project’s stronger for it.

What will be the differences between regular Sunday nights and All Gone nights? We’re working in conjunction with the venue. We’ll see tonight how successful we are. One of the reasons I wanted to do the opening, it was like a dry run for me. There were five things that were great about the night and five things I wanted to fix. It’s like any restaurant or business opening ... you don’t get a club completely right from the minute you open the door. I think in the broadest terms, it’s the night that’s not going to be about the drop and the explosions (laughs). It’s about the groove and the feeling, maybe a bit more of a European vibe, pulling from Ibiza, a little more from Germany. It’s more about the rhythm of the night.

There’s EDM and then there’s everything else. People go on about the underground, but it’s basically everything other than EDM—that’s what the program policy is. Again, nothing against EDM except that’s what everyone else is doing.

Do you learn a little bit more about Vegas every time you play here? Are there any sort of lessons learned from your last residency here? Where I feel you can be successful in Vegas is evolving rather than a complete revolution. We thought long and hard about the look of the night and the guests we want to book. I can’t create some sort of Berlin techno thing in Vegas overnight (laughs). I can’t leap too far. So it’s kind of being smart with it. There’s music out there that’s very mainstream in the U.K., for instance, but it’s only starting to find its voice in America. But because it can’t find a place on the mainstage, it hasn’t got that sledgehammer mentality. Disclosure would be a good example. They’re kind of big now, but they would have been a perfect act if I was doing this last year. They need an environment to do what they do; you can’t just plunk them on in the middle of an EDM lineup. I think it’s being respectful to people’s sound.

Do you have a goal to help move Vegas a little more left of the dial, so to speak? That’s why I’m here. This city is so big and expanding so fast. I want to meet the local DJs and the musicmakers of the city. It’s about bringing the local community forward, and then it’ll get some stickiness and some legs—and identifying the players on the ground. There’s someone out there making deep house or aspiring to do something different just like [other] generations … in the U.K., it’s scary how fast the EDM thing disappeared—not necessarily Calvin [Harris] and Avicii, but everything else in the middle is gone. If you’re 14 or 15 in England and you want to make club music, the last thing you want to do is make something that sounds like that. You’re more likely to make something that sounds like Duke DuMont or Disclosure or Gorgon City or something.

I hate to make the comparison, but Richie Hawtin once told us that Ibiza, another tourist destination, was once slow to go deeper, too. How does a party town evolve toward subtlety and the unfamiliar? Does it take a cultural shift? Yeah, I think with the greatest respect to the American history of dance music—and it was all pretty much invented here in the beginning and then the English kind of took it and invented a culture around it, aside from the history of NY and Miami and Chicago and Detroit—I think obviously 95 percent of what’s going in America now is all really relative to the last five or six years of EDC and Ultra getting bigger and bigger, and that kind of candy raver generation growing up, and then David Guetta making a record with Will I Am and changing the face of Top 40 and everyone else following, like the Swedish House Mafia.

I think the interesting thing is the vast majority of the people interested in dance music in the last couple of years, a lot of them have just heard Swedish House Mafia on the radio or seen their video on Youtube, and their first interaction with their new heroes has been on a state-of-the-art stage at a state-of-the-art festival and they’re holding a camera in the air. That’s their entry point. The British entry point, or the German one, was entering a club in the ’80s or ’90s, and you make your choices then and find your favorite DJs and your favorite clubs, and the festival bit of it was almost at the end of the cycle—like, this is the celebration. Creamfields came after 10 years of Cream, not the other way around. That’s to say, a lot of people’s initiation into the [American] scene is going to Electric Daisy Carnival on the West Coast or Ultra if you’re in Florida. If you take a million or two people as your new audience, half of them will probably get married and never go to a rave or club again, but you hope that some of them gravitate to something more sophisticated and stick with it—and their tastes will change.

All Gone Las Vegas with Pete Tong and Seth Troxler October 26, doors at 10:30 p.m., $25+, locals free, Life, 702-761-7617.

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