Lockdown FM: Gilles Peterson documents a year of pandemic broadcasting in his new book
Like many, there were all kinds of shifts and unexpected detours to Gilles Peterson’s life and routine during the spring of 2020, and the first wave of the pandemic in the UK.
The London-based broadcaster, DJ and label boss had spent the early part of the year touring, travelling between US and Australia, New Zealand and Asia, with a string of UK gigs also locked in. “Then came lockdown,” says Peterson in the introduction to his first book, Lockdown FM: Broadcasting in a Pandemic. “The prospect of no gigs for at least six months was sobering,” he continues. “I retreated to my studio to go through the record collection I’ve built up over the past 40 years.”
And that he did, among other things. Take his 80 Worldwide FM and BBC 6 Music radio broadcasts, the tracklists to which would go onto form the structure of Lockdown FM – a kind of abstract scrapbook meets diary meets academic reference book. It’s inspired by the books Peterson enjoys, and is comprised of images, poetry, celebratory odes to the likes of Dee Dee Bridgewater and Stevie Wonder, alongside moving tributes to the musicians and trailblazers who passed away in 2020. Ty, Andrew Weatherall, Tony Allen and Mick Huckaby among them.
While various themes weave across the 600-page book, the most poignant may well be the chronological timeline that pairs eerie shots of an empty London with regular Covid-19 updates, anchoring the book within the events of the year – be it the monumental moments or the relatably mundane. Edited by Paul Bradshaw (of music magazine Straight No Chaser), with design and art direction from Hugh Miller, the book documents Peterson’s life during lockdown, while also considering the last 12 months from a wider angle. Much of the book examines the importance of music during lockdown, and how it helped many muddle through a strange and difficult time. The likes of Jean-Paul ‘Bluey’ Maunick, Zara McFarlane, Louie Vega and Rob Gallagher are featured inside, as well other voices from the Worldwide FM crew.
Following the release of Lockdown FM, we caught up with Peterson to discuss the inspiration behind the book, brainstorming sessions in Clissold Park and what lockdown’s taught him about broadcasting.
Courtesy of Gilles Peterson
Hey Gilles! How does it feel to have your first book out in the world?
It feels great. I felt very relieved when it arrived because it was quite a long-winded experience. What began as a snappy little idea ended up becoming a 600-page [book] that kept on changing and shifting.
Let’s go back to that snappy little idea. Was there a particular moment or event in lockdown that inspired you, or was this an idea that had been brewing for sometime?
It was more the fact that I’d never done so many shows – in a short space of time – that I felt were significant all at once, at a time that we’ve obviously never experienced before. It was also a time where music suddenly became quite a strong healing or comfort [to people]. So, it was a personal way of logging and documenting that unique time for me.
How did you decide on a structure for the book?
Initially, it was just going to be tracklists and a few social media posts celebrating icons who had passed away. That would have made it straightforward and simple. I was basically inspired by the kind of list or academic music books that I tend to find in bookshops in Japan, more than something that was more [for the] coffee table, I suppose.
Courtesy of Gilles Peterson
Can you walk me through the book’s narrative?
It kicks off with how a normal year would have begun for me; taking into account the DJing, travelling, the production, the A&R, radio and organising of events. There’s an element of it which is similar to the Brian Eno book A Year with Swollen Appendices. I only found out about it recently, but that book was basically a snapshot of his life over six months. Lockdown FM is like a snapshot of my life. I’ve been talking to publishers in the last few years about a memoir, but I didn’t want to do the standard thing. So, this is a nice way of doing something more abstract about me, before you get into the more straightforward memoir type stuff. It was about setting the scene of how I went about my business. Then, obviously, it gets taken over by the daily occurrences.
What sort of occurrences take over?
There are various narrative lines going on: you’ve got your Covid-19 updates at the bottom of the pages every couple of days, so you can get a sense of what’s going on there. You’ve got a photo essay by Dobie – who is a member of Soul II Soul, and a really great producer – but started off his career as a photographer and a skateboarder. There’s this line of photography by him which goes throughout the whole book. Then, you’ve got this regular daily response to deaths in music; there was this continuous line of musicians who passed away.
Could you give some examples?
It starts off with Andrew Weatherall, and you’ve got all these giants of jazz and world music and hip-hop passing. You’ve also got the celebrations as well, [featuring] key musicians like Mary Lou Williams, Dee Dee Bridgewater or Stevie Wonder. Towards the latter part of the first lockdown, you had the George Floyd murder and that response. Every day, there was this sense of positioning and how to contextualise your role within a very hard-shifting social change in time, so we wanted to get that sense of vulnerability – as a broadcaster, as well. That’s why it was important for me to get people like Erica McKoy to really look into how she dealt with that radio show she did responding to it, too. It’s got all these different things: the social thing, the celebration thing, the regular sort of list thing, the tributes and then this constant Covid-19 information on a general level, so people can connect with the dates.
The tracklists are presented incredibly neatly. Are your personal playlists and music organisation methods as orderly as the book?
Some of these reference books that I like tend to be quite orderly. And, in a way, I suppose I’m organised chaos, personally. My creative process tends to come off chaos more than organisation! Equally, there’s a bit of me that does like order. If you look at my record collection, bits of it are well ordered, and other bits are chaotic. In a way, the book is the same.
It also flows nicely, like there’s a soundtrack to the book that we can enjoy without actually listening to the tracklists.
People might not have noticed this, but on the opening page there’s a link to a Bandcamp page where you can download all the jingles. It’s free, so you actually can get the music. Well, the jingles, but the jingles are really fun.
Courtesy of Gilles Peterson
You cover the Black Lives Matter movement in the book, which occurred in the first throes of the pandemic. Why did it feel important to cover the other major cultural and political moments from the last year, alongside the obvious Covid-related stuff?
The music scene that I’ve been a part of from the very beginning has always been politically responsive, and I feel that social matters have played a major part as to what we play and how we play it. From the day that I was fired on Jazz FM for playing peace records during the first Gulf War, I’ve always had a political element to play. It’s a very important ingredient in the overall sound of what it is that you’re emanating – that’s as a recording artist, a broadcaster or a club DJ. I think that we have to stand up and we have to make statements.
The other thing about the book is the fact that, on one hand, you are celebrating and remembering important figures, but a big part of being a broadcaster during this time was including, supporting and encouraging the younger generations; the new generations of music makers who didn’t have gigs, didn’t have an outlet necessarily to be able to get their music heard or played.
Tell me more about that.
Even more than normal, my show felt like it had a responsibility to make sure that we didn’t just drown in nostalgia. There’s such an incredible movement at the moment of British music and global music. Here in London and the UK, it is incredibly buoyant and there’s so much creativity from the jazz [scene] and from all the different elements of dance music coming through. So when Sault came along, with Untitled (Black Is), that was another important part of the book. There’s a real focus on the fact that I played the whole album from beginning to end on BBC 6 Music – not because I was making this statement, but because they were making a statement. They were probably the first group I can think of who made a really important creative work that responded to both the pandemic and, mainly, Black Lives Matter. That was another important dimension of the book.
Courtesy of Gilles Peterson
What has lockdown taught you about radio, and what it offers to people in a time without live music?
I think it’s really important. I look at what’s happened with Worldwide FM and NTS and all the other platforms that I’m in connection with, and they’ve all grown significantly at a time where people were maybe heading more towards playlists and Spotify. So, I think the relevance of community radio has had the light shone on it. That’s been a good thing, obviously, and the most important thing is that these platforms and radio stations, they’ve offered a sense of community – a place [listeners] feel a part of – just like pirate radio would have done in the past. In that sense, it’s certainly been a very positive year in the growth of online platforms. From a BBC 6 Music point of view, the sense of interaction and connection that I’ve had with the audience there has been unbelievable.
Can you elaborate on that a little?
I’ve always been a nighttime kind of DJ, a sort of specialist – or had been up until I joined BBC 6 Music eight or nine years ago. Then they decided to throw me on in the daytime, on a Saturday, so it was all new to me. I soon realised that it was an incredible array of new ears that I was reaching. Some people were dubious, but an incredibly large part of their audience connected and discovered a lot of music. I’ve been doing radio for 40 years, and this was almost like my pinnacle as a broadcaster. First of all, I wasn’t DJing every other day, so I wasn’t coming into the radio having had two hours sleep and I was actually in a good place in my head as a broadcaster. This is also why I wanted to document it. I don’t know if I’d have documented this five years previously, because my head might not have been in the right place.
Courtesy of Gilles Peterson
How did you find balancing the book with doing radio and running your label?
It was good. I’m very lucky that the guy I worked on it with edits a magazine called Straight No Chaser. He lives at the end of the road, and his name is Paul Bradshaw. So, already, he could come down and we could work closely together on it and meet in the park. Then, we were like, we really need to get a great designer. So Paul found Hugh Miller, who designed the book. The three of us were this little team, and between all my record sleeves, blogs and tracklists – and then lots of other stuff – Paul and Hugh made sense of it and took it to another level.
Where were the three of you having these brainstorming sessions?
We were meeting a lot in Clissold Park. There are lots of pictures of the park in the book, actually. That’s our local park. My garden here in the studio at Brownswood Road, too. We started kicking into the book properly in the summer. During the lockdown, the book hadn’t really kicked off yet.
Don’t worry, I’m not trying to out you as a rule breaker. I’m trying to picture how it all came together.
[Laughs] Basically, I spent a shitload of time with them and I got to know them very well. The thing about creatives is that they’re very close to their art. Sometimes we’d all disappear for weeks because there were so many things going on in everyone’s lives. We were losing friends and all kinds of madness was going on. This book was meant to be done for Christmas and then it kept on stretching. Hugh would disappear for a few days, and he’d come back and he had done a whole load of really lovely looking stuff. Funnily enough, we were saying that we wouldn’t have been able to do a book like this with a publisher. It’s like making records and being signed to a record label for an album and the record label says, “You’ve got 30k, you got three months, deliver the record.” What usually happens is that band doesn’t get it together, but they’ll get a couple of chances to stretch it out. With this, we had like six months of stretching out!
Courtesy of Gilles Peterson
How did you decide what to include and what to cut?
At Christmas there were 800 pages, so we had to cut 200! What was [left out] was some lesser interesting articles, a loadmore lists and record sleeves. We got the right balance in the end. It could have been a triple vinyl album, or it could have been like one of those hip-hop albums that has 40 tracks on it. The fact that we had time and a bit of pressure allowed us to cut stuff out.
Did compiling the book stir up any old memories with some of the artists, or from periods of time you’d forgotten about?
Yeah, that was one of the things that was great about broadcasting throughout lockdown as well, and doing a series of shows called The 20 where I focused in on a particular category and pick 20 tracks by that artist, or within the genre. Each time I did one of those, I was bringing back loads of thoughts. I have been pretty much fully committed to being a DJ and a broadcaster for 40 years, and lockdown was the first time [that] I put the brakes on in my life. When you’re always moving forwards with music and you’re not someone who lives in your history, this period of time made me go, wow. There’s a bit about a label I had called Talkin’ Loud. The book taps into a few of my moments in time with music, but not enough for it to affect something that I’ll write next.
Lockdown FM: Broadcasting in a Pandemic is out now via Worldwide FM