Arts, Lifestyle & Events Hong Kong

Interview: Sonar headliner DJ Gilles Peterson on why Spotify can’t compete with human curation

Gilles Peterson is no stranger to Hong Kong. The soft-spoken British DJ says that his number of visits to the city must be in the double digits.

Best known for his eclectic BBC Radio 6 program Worldwide, Peterson’s vision of club culture is inspired by music from Brazil to Cuba to Germany, topped with a dash of “British decadence” and “punk rock attitude”.

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Gilles Peterson. Photo: Sonar.

Now, together with his trusted soundman, he is ready to “add a bit of schwizzle” to the crowd at Sonar Festival’s debut in Hong Kong this Saturday.

Among the treats in store, Hong Kong will be the first to hear some of his new mixes from his ongoing Sonzeira project, which delves into Brazilian music.

 

But the London-based music curator said he’s also excited to check out the other acts during Saturday’s festival, including Hong Kong’s very own Blood Wine or Honey.

He says he’d like to “have a bit of a dance” himself, though he says most DJs, including himself, aren’t very good dancers.

“We’re more of the voyeur,” Peterson said. “So being a DJ is great because you can be in it without being in it. So, you’re in it and you’re creating, but if people come and talk to you, you don’t necessarily need to respond because you’re working.” He chuckled.

Aside from rummaging through record shops, which he calls “a form of therapy”, Peterson also feeds himself music via online channels, such as Amsterdam-based Red Light Radio, which he says are curated by “really intense music collectors” like himself.

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Worldwide Festival 2013. Photo: Wikicommons.

But he says he does not have time for arguably one of the most popular platforms of the moment – Spotify.

“Apparently there’s quite a lot of Gilles Peterson playlists on Spotify that I don’t even know about,” Peterson laughed, adding he appreciates how “incredible” Spotify is.

Spotify’s popular Discover Weekly playlists are almost universally acclaimed. Quartz called it a weekly feed of “30 songs that feel like a gift from a music-loving friend”. As a human playing the “most un-algorithmic” and most popular show on the BBC, but perhaps facing some competition from the machines, Peterson seemed unfazed, certain that computers wouldn’t be able to put DJs like himself out of a job quite yet.

“In the end, you can just end up in this echo chamber,” he said, referring to computer-generated playlists. “I think someone like me, having been joining the dots over the however many years I’ve been doing it, I have built a sort of a network of memory in my mind which can put people together that I don’t think computers can get to yet.

“You can play a track from South Africa by a bunch of Zulu musicians, and you can connect that to a Jamie xx track. I don’t know if computers have got to that stage yet.

“I’m sure that’s gonna happen soon, but not yet, so I’m enjoying this sort of virgin water that I’m still floating on,” he laughed.

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Sonar venue, Sha Tin’s Science Park. Photo: Sonar.

In a world celebrating the erecting of walls and closing of borders, Peterson agrees that his role in bringing cultures, music and people together is now more important than ever.

But would he go so far in his mission to bring people together to play at, say, a Trump rally? Peterson said it’s unlikely, but imagined it could be similar to playing at Ibiza, which he’s been asked to do before.

“I kind of like to find myself in these difficult situations with the music that I play because I always imagine out of the 1,000 people in the audience … maybe 990 will be, ‘let’s just go to another room, this guy is too weird’, but maybe these 10 people will have this experience that will change their lives.

“I’m sure everybody who follows me would be shocked and absolutely shocked and devastated if I go to a Trump rally, but the other side is… I could shift their mood a little bit.”

But, at the end of the day, he says it’s not a gig he would accept.

“I do think music is kind of one of our final places of peace, and it’s kind of like, it subtly cuts out all the bullshit, and it can really open up people spiritually.”

Gilles Peterson is headlining at Sonar Festival this Saturday. Tickets available from HK$780 via Ticketflap.

Additional reporting: Maggie Tan.

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Interview: Sonar headliner DJ Gilles Peterson on why Spotify can't compete with human curation