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Lunch With
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Lunch with Gilles Peterson at Primeur, London

17 September 2015

The DJ, broadcaster, label boss and record collector emerged from the Acid Jazz subculture of the 1980s to become a stalwart of BBC Radio. We spoke to the veteran tastemaker over an early dinner at London’s Primeur.

It’s 11.30am, and I have just received an email from Gilles Peterson’s manager and the co-founder of independent label Brownswood Recordings, Simon Goffe, explaining that Peterson is “really busy and stressed” and asking if we can reschedule our dinner (the restaurant Peterson has chosen, Primeur, near his home and Brownswood Recordings HQ in North London, is only open for dinner on a Thursday). I explain that, unfortunately, we can’t. Deadlines are looming.

Six hours later, at 5.30pm, the scheduled time for our dinner, the friendly waitress at Primeur receives a telephone call. “Gilles says sorry, but he’s going to be five minutes late,” she calls from across the empty restaurant. “So polite,” says Primeur’s owner, Jeremie Cornetto-Lingenheim.

As promised, Peterson, wearing black trainers, comfortably baggy tan chinos and a rumpled white shirt, untucked, strolls into Primeur a few minutes later, moseys over to me, hand outstretched, a smile broad enough to wedge a seven inch record through and a look of slight befuddlement on his face, shakes my hand and says in his familiar soft voice: “Gilles. We have a thing, I believe?”

Before we get down to our “thing”, every jazz head and rare groove fan’s favourite BBC Radio presenter says hello to Cornetto-Lingenheim and hands over three CDs he’s brought as a gift (he hands me the same three albums, produced by Brownswood Recordings, a few moments later). “He smiles with his eyes,” the friendly waitress points out as Peterson poses comfortably for photographs. She’s not wrong. In fact, he doesn’t seem to stop smiling. And, despite Goffe’s earlier email, I am convinced that Gilles Peterson has never been stressed in his life.

Primeur is housed in Barnes Motors, a former garage not too far from Emirates Stadium, home of Peterson’s beloved Arsenal FC. The original floor-to-ceiling sliding doors open onto the pavement creating a cosy synergy between the restaurant and the outside world and the late summer sun soaks the white-walled interior in light as Cornetto-Lingenheim expertly fills the chalkboard with the night’s “modern European” menu.

“This is the second time I’ve been here this week,” Peterson says as he sits down and proceeds to fire questions at me. “I’m interviewing you,” he says with a chuckle.

Peterson is all but 51-years-old (he celebrated his birthday on September 28), but despite a good measure of grey in his full head of hair and the almost silver stubble on his chin, he doesn’t look it; he could easily pass for 10 years younger. Stressed? No. Busy. Definitely.

Most will know Peterson as the authentically gleeful yet indisputably cool host of the weekly radio show on BBC 6 Music billed as “Joining the musical dots – soul, hip hop, house, Afro, Latin, electronica, jazz and beyond”. It is three hours of whatever he wants to play from his vast collection of vinyl, from jazz visionary Miles Davis to hip hop artist Mos Def, interspersed with regular interviews with music legends; recent interviewees include jazz-funk pioneer Roy Ayers and former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne.

He also has a packed schedule of global club gigs; runs Brownswood Recordings; and curates and hosts two annual instalments of his Worldwide Festival, a summer festival in Sète in the south of France and a winter festival in the Swiss alpine resort of Leysin. Then there is the annual Worldwide Awards, a celebration of the best music showcased on Peterson’s show, all manner of other projects besides. He also has a wife and two teenage boys, Oliver (18) and Luc (14).

“I think I’ve got it quite good, really,” says Peterson. “A lot of people say, ‘Oh, you can’t spend that much time with your kids’, but compared to your average nine-to-five dad, I probably spend a lot more time with them. I’m at home a lot.”

Last month, on Friday September 11, he boarded a train to Paris at 2.30pm, DJ’d at an Arte TV event from 7pm to 8pm, checked into a hotel and slept until11.30pm. He then manned the decks at Concorde Atlantique from midnight until 4am on the Saturday morning, hit the hay at 4.30am and got up in time to catch a 12.30pm train back to London, arriving in time for his radio show. He was on air from 3pm to 6pm, and then on the Sunday, spent the day at the On Black Heath festival, where he curates his own Worldwide stage. “I love it, and you learn to get the right balance, I think,” he says.

“I thought I would give up [being a DJ] at 40. I was convinced. The one thing that is difficult to let go of is the club DJing, because that is really where I started.” He likens giving up his life as a DJ to a musician giving up playing live. “For me, doing the radio is a reflection of being a club DJ. Part of what makes my show work is that I’m not just a bloke who compiles records at home, I am actually playing it out and it’s all connected to an overall scene. I reflect that in what I do.”

Peterson was born in 1964 to a French mother and a Swiss father in Caen in the Normandy region of France, where his grandmother ran a hotel, but the family – he has an older brother and sister who moved to Switzerland since he was in his late teens – relocated to south London when Peterson was still an infant.

His parents and siblings were not vinyl junkies. Instead, he traces his relationship with music to the moment he transferred from a French lycée to an English-language school. “I realised that to fit into the English way, I had to fit into some kind of tribe,” he says.

Peterson became a soul boy, “totally obsessed by jazz, funk, American imports and anything with a white label”. When he was 14 his parents went on holiday. “I used to have an electric railway set in the garden shed, and when they came home that was gone and I had twin decks instead,” he says.

He started DJing at school discos, listening to Radio Invicta, a pirate station with the slogan “Soul over London”, and schooling himself in the history of jazz courtesy of Sutton Library. He started his own pirate station, Civic Radio, but soon managed to finagle a show on Radio Invicta by offering them use of his transmitter when theirs was confiscated by the authorities. By the mid-1980s, Peterson, then in his early twenties, had a show on BBC Radio London and was a key figure in the burgeoning Acid Jazz scene, launching his first label, Acid Jazz Records, in 1988.

He co-founded Jazz FM in 1990, the year he launched his second label, Talkin’ Loud, and then spent eight years on Kiss FM before joining BBC Radio 1 in 1998, where he built his reputation as an arbiter of good musical taste during a 12-year stint, moving to BBC 6 Music in 2012.

“I was really fortunate to grow up at a time where it was all so primitive in the sense that there wasn’t immediate internet access to what was going on and the scene was able to develop,” he says, shortly after we have ordered three sharing plates to start. “Everything took longer but was deeper, in a way, and it created a foundation that we’re now seeing has quite a long legacy in terms of the music and the culture.”

Peterson’s own longevity is primarily a result of his profound love of music, especially soul and jazz; his respect for its roots; and his desire to delve ever deeper into global musical cultures and subcultures. This latter trait is exemplified by several collaborations with Cuban cultural initiative Havana Cultura, 2014’s Sonzeira, an exploration of Brazilian musical heritage, and most of the 100 or so releases bearing the GP stamp of approval.

The DJ famously had to move his family out of their three-bedroom house on Brownswood Road, just around the corner from where we are now enjoying a zingy plate of cuttlefish, lemon and capers, two fat grilled sardines and a bowl of spicy sweet corn, because his cache vinyl records, multiplying like Gremlins in a rainstorm, were taking over.

The Peterson family’s former home now houses Brownswood Recordings, as well as that legendary record collection. “I’m probably up to 45,000 records,” says Peterson, before confessing to having just bought a rare 1958 pressing of the “unofficial Brazilian anthem” Mas Que Nada by Jose Prates for US$2,000.

Peterson explains that he became obsessed with hunting down the record when he visited Brazil to record Sonzeira – Brazilian music is his latest passion – and eventually found “a really good, clean copy”. “I’m recording in Rio in November,” he adds. “It will be an updated version of that record. It’s sort of Jose Prates in outer space, Sun Ra meets Jose Prates for the electronic generation. So I had to get it, just because…”

A colossal record collection is not enough to explain Peterson’s success, of course. He has built such a reputation for himself as a musical “tastemaker” that he is in an extremely rare position of having “totally free reign” on a major radio station with a large global audience.

“I have three hours and I can do what I want with it,” he says. “I don’t know many people in today’s world or radio that have that. So I don’t want to ruin it. I feel the responsibility for those three hours that I represent all that music that needs to be heard.”

It’s not just the music he plays that attracts a loyal following of serious music lovers. It’s the fact that Peterson’s listener’s can tell how excited he is to be doing what he’s doing. “If I look back on it, I’ve met so many interesting people,” he says. “When I’m around those people, I’m still a massive fan. I don’t feel like I belong at that table. So if I’m with Mos Def or Pharrell or Nile Rogers I’m like, ‘Oh’.”

Thinking back to how Peterson first wangled his way onto Radio Invicta, I suggest that he must be a savvy businessman as well as one of the world’s most passionate music fans.

“I don’t know if it was business in terms of a financial game plan, because it never really worked for me on that level,” says Peterson. “I was always on to the next thing. But yes, there is some sort of subliminal business sense in running a record label and organising parties and club nights. I did all of that.”

Somewhere along the way we have ordered two mains: several thick pink cuts of beef rump and two portions of grouse, also served pink to retain its deliciously rich gameyness. As we enjoy the meat – the conversation meanders, and we discuss topics ranging from marathon running (“Running for me is absolutely essential. That is what saves me”) to places we simply must visit (“Never been to New Orleans, gagging to go”). Peterson loves to ask questions and listens carefully to the answers, always responding with genuine interest, often with great enthusiasm.

The mains done, he excuses himself and wanders off to the bathroom. “I’m going to have to go in a minute. My wife’s playing basketball and I’m supposed to be taking over at home at eight o’clock,” he says when he returns. But there’s time for one more question, so I ask the unavoidable: how has the music industry changed since you first got involved back in the 1980s?

He believes the industry has changed “massively” but for the better. He paints a picture of the “decadence” prevalent during the “mad eighties”, the glory days of the major labels, when he worked in A&R for “rich guys, horrendous, the worst type of human beings”, before asserting that the major change he has witnesses is artists taking control of their own careers.

“Before they just signed a contract and let it all go. Now there’s so little money you have to be wise to know how to make a living as an artist, so the artists that are succeeding are those who are smart enough to create their own platform, find their own audience, do their own gigs, deal with their fan base and not be affected by some idiot A&R guy who has no idea. And, in a way, the music has become more original.”

I suggest that this path to success is very similar to the one Peterson himself has travelled.

He seems to agree. “For me, on the radio, I’m not being told what’s good by record labels, I am having to go out and find what’s good for myself,” he says, before going on to praise the BBC and the chance the corporation has given him. “You don’t get well paid at the BBC, but it’s not about the money, it’s about the platform it gives you and the reputation it has and the doors it opens and the people that you meet within it. It’s special.”

He explains that the festivals are not-for-profit (“I make no money”). “For me it’s about doing what I want to do, still being interested in the music, loving the music, loving the lifestyle, running and having a nice family,” he says.

And being able to buy the odd US$2,000 record?

“Exactly, that’s exactly it. To some people that’s a family holiday, but to me… I’m going to have to go.”

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