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An interview with Jules Buckley, the conductor who is shaking up the BBC Proms

The conductor who is shaking up the BBC Proms.

Game-changing conductor, genre-smashing curator and musical pioneer Jules Buckley is on a mission to rid classical music of its stuffy image and outdated stereotypes. His Ibiza Prom in 2015, where he collaborated with DJ Pete Tong to transform the Royal Albert Hall into a massive dance music nightclub, was one of the most innovative musical happenings the Proms had ever seen, and introduced a whole new generation to the concert hall. Jules, who leads two international high profile orchestras, has worked with just about everyone who’s anyone, including the Arctic Monkeys, Basement Jaxx, Massive Attack, Stormzy, Dizzee Rascal and Quincy Jones, and has gained an unparalleled reputation as the ‘go to’ for innovative orchestral projects. For 2018, Jules was given carte blanche to create and curate two Proms evenings completely of his own choice, to craft ideas, selects music, guests, transcribe and arrange. We caught up with the busy musical mastermind while he was chilling in Berlin, which he calls “the calm before the storm”.

You are a regular at the Proms. What do you like about the festival and the Albert Hall?
I get a bit scared when then word regular starts getting used, but I suppose I’ve done more Proms over the last few years than some. What makes the festival really special for me, and I think for many of the performers is the programmes put together are often unique. My programmes for the Proms are usually one-off specials that will only ever be performed this once, so it always leads to a very electric and intense atmosphere in the room. And I love performing in the Albert Hall because it’s just such a beautiful space. You are really in the middle of the audience, they surround you 360 degrees.
As an audience member it also feels fairly casual, standing in the pit is just like a pop concert
Especially the last years, a lot of the concerts that I put together at the Proms have been different to perhaps the core classical repertoire. And perhaps people coming to see those gigs are expecting something a little bit different and that’s what I aim for.

Jules Buckley by Suki Dhanda
Tell me a bit about your two Proms evenings and how you curated them!
The first concert this year on 19 July is with Jacob Collier and friends. Jacob is a unique artist who hears harmonies in the same way that Neo views the Matrix. He is a one off. What we are aiming to do together for this concert is to explore his musical world, essentially, with this incredible ensemble from Holland (the Metropole Orkest) who has over the last few years worked with Quincy Jones and Lauren Mvula and the Grime artists from the UK. I feel like they’re an ensemble that have really grown to be loved by the UK audience.
And are really pushing boundaries! 
The work I’ve been doing with Metropole since I took over as chief conductor in 2013, is to really push them to the forefront of what is going on right now. It’s an aim of ours to demonstrate that not all orchestras are the same. And this orchestra in particular is standing alone compared to others. Often you see projects that I would almost describe as bolt-on projects - orchestras hire a couple of extra players in an attempt to do “the funk thing”, but they can’t do the funk thing because it is not in their DNA. With Jacob and Metropole, it’s a dream team match, they understand one another and they have a great love and respect for the history of the music that has brought them together. But fundamentally, people will hopefully see a 90-minute concert of a very young yet very mature artist and he will be exploring all the different corners of his musical world. We have some incredible guests, Hamid El Kasri from Morroco, Becca Stevens, Sam Amidon and Take 6, so that alone can give you an idea of the wide variety you will be hearing that night.

Jacob Collier (2016)

And your second night?
August 8, New York Sound of a City is something that Chris Wheeler from Heritage Orchestra and myself are super excited about, because I feel like this is a Prom which is really super bespoke, from the ground up. We really tried to explore essentially snapshots of NY right now and we have invited these incredible artists over to come and work with us. The nature of our work with Heritage Orchestra is always highly collaborative and explorative, so we got serpentwithfeet who is literally one of the most incredible singers I ever heard and is really doing something different. We’ve also got Sharon van Etten who is a brilliant singer-songwriter, guitarist and actor from NY. And we have Hercules and Love Affair, who will stitch the entire concept together. We may also have other artists joining us but some I’m going to keep quiet until the last moment!

serpentwithfeet at Radio 1's Piano Sessions

You were speaking about the musical DNA of the orchestra, can you maybe describe your own musical DNA? What did you like when you were young, where are your roots?
If I looked at it like a timeline it would be 0 – 9 all of my dad’s records. That was everything from Led Zeppelin, The Who, Steely Dan, it was a very broad collection of great music. Then from the age of 9, I picked up the trumpet and got into Miles Davis straight away and I think from then on I developed a love affair with jazz music. In my teens I got heavily into grunge music, picked up the drums, formed various garage bands and got into heavy metal. I wasn’t so much into classical music, to be honest. I didn’t really get serious about it until I was at college and decided to flip my interest away from the trumpet and into composition. For me it was almost like I had to get old enough and mature enough to respect it and fall in love with it. Then it became a massive passion for a long time and those three sides of music have come together and represent my knowledge base now. That’s probably why I do what I do now. I feel like I understand these different musics and how these musicians think, so I can connect a pop artist and an orchestra and make them both feel really good and most importantly, bring the audience into this connection.

The legendary Ibiza Prom in 2015

Best Proms memory?
I think my best Proms memory is sitting backstage before we did the concert with Pete Tong, presuming it was going to bomb and that my career was finished. And then when we got on stage, there was some crazy cathartic thing going on in the room where everybody went nuts. It was the best feeling of relief and joy. For someone who hasn’t been that much into dance music as a teenager, I realised that there were so many people who had a great passion for it, the same passion that other people have for other music and I grew to in an instant respect that emotion.
Jules Buckely will be conducting Prom 7: Jacob Collier and Friends (from £9.50) and Prom 35: New York: Sound of a City (from £10.50) at the Royal Albert Hall. Both Proms will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and on BBC Four.