The lightning conductor: Jules Buckley is the go-to man for acts who want orchestral punch
You might not know the name, but the chances are that you've heard his music.
A non-classical conductor, composer and musical director, Jules Buckley has collaborated with some of the country's biggest artists, from Arctic Monkeys to Basement Jaxx and Professor Green, reworking their most famous tracks for orchestral gigs, tours and albums. Last year, the 55-piece Heritage Orchestra, which Buckley co-founded while in his final year at the Guildhall School of Music and started as a club night in Shoreditch, toured with the comedian Tim Minchin. "The idea from the start was to max out Tim and see how big we could make the show. He's a total legend; you could have a pint with him and you'd get on like a house on fire," he says, fresh from a Downing Street reception and looking incongruously dressed in a smart navy suit and bow tie when we meet in a tatty pub on Whitehall. "If the thousand tickets are bought by Tim Minchin fans and not for Heritage Orchestra, that's fine. You're getting all those people to watch a live orchestra, which is a good thing."
Buckley is on a mission to bring in new audiences to orchestral concerts and give artists an inspiring platform to expand their work, which is exactly what the forthcoming Urban Classic concert at the Barbican Centre in London is aiming to do. Buckley will be conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra as it's paired up with Mobo award-winner Ms. Dynamite, Fazer from N-Dubz, grime artist Devlin and MC Skepta. "It really is a culture clash and for me, that's what the project is about. Taking artists from different musical worlds and putting them together with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and saying, 'let's get cosy, let's make some music'. What you have to remember is that for artists such as Skepta, whose whole sound started out as one man using a laptop to make these fat grooves, hearing a 90-piece orchestra realise his string quartet ideas is pretty cool." The orchestra will be mixing things up, playing non-urban pieces, too, and the concert is being broadcast live on Radio 1. "Boom," he enthuses, brushing his floppy hair out of his face and undoing his top button to loosen the bow tie. "You can't get much better than that."
At 32, Buckley has already achieved an impressive amount. These days he splits his time between his role as principal guest conductor of the Metropole Orchestra in Holland, The Heritage Orchestra in the UK, and Berlin, which has recently become home. He grew up in Buckinghamshire, listening to his dad's "kick-ass record collection" and harbouring dreams of becoming a jazz trumpet player. But when he got to the Guildhall School of Music, he soon realised that writing music and leading ensembles interested him more. He switched courses to do a degree in composition, setting up the Heritage Orchestra on the side as an outlet for his own music. "We were all a bit sick of the formal traditions of concerts, such as not clapping between movements, so Chris Wheeler, an artistic producer and I, decided to set up an orchestra to play non-classical music in a club. We wanted to throw the balls up in the air."
Within a year, they'd caught the attention of Radio 1 DJ Gilles Peterson, who invited them to play a session at the Maida Vale studio and go with him to the Montreux Jazz Festival. Then, as well as playing Buckley's own compositions, The Heritage Orchestra (their second album, due out later this year, will be "more industrial and a hell of a lot darker than the first") found themselves in demand by other artists. Both the Heritage and Metropole orchestras have a similar vibe – the Basement Jaxx and Professor Green hook-ups were both with the Metropole – but the main difference is that The Heritage Orchestra is a freelance ensemble, so it can pick and choose projects to work on. "Heritage's aim is to say to artists, 'we understand your music, let's chuck the formalities out of the window. Then, when it comes to gig night, we'll rock out like no other orchestra'," he explains.
Rocking out is something that Buckley does well, whether it's with The Heritage Orchestra performing Massive Attack's soundtrack to Blade Runner at the Southbank's Meltdown Festival as he did in 2008, or conducting the Metropole alongside Basement Jaxx last year. "People think that if you take an orchestra and slap a beat on top of it that it's really cool, but it's just obvious and clichéd. What we wanted to do with Basement Jaxx was to take their dance-based ideas and put them in an orchestral context," recalls Buckley, recreating the beat for their "Bingo Bango" song across the table. "We made it into a Viennese Waltz for the simplest reason: why the hell not?" So in Buckley's hands, "Red Alert" became a mock-Hollywood piece and the New Orleans Mardi Gras groove in "Do Your Thing" was transformed into a big band belter.
Along with wanting to do all he can to move away from any kind of orchestral formalities, Buckley is also passionate about volume. "When the Metropole did the Basement Jaxx gig we amped up every instrument on stage and pumped it through a massive sound system. Felix and Simon from Basement Jaxx mixed alongside the orchestra and what you got was the gig that audiences had been waiting for an orchestra to do from the beginning of time. You need to get proper volume, so you boost it right up; then you've got a show." And although he briefly considers his ideal world as "sitting on a rock writing my own stuff," he also says that he loves the craft of going into the studio with an orchestra and the challenge of having "three hours to get a track nailed."
A self-confessed music obsessive, when he isn't buying or listening to music or going to concerts, he's happiest playing football and supporting his beloved Manchester City. He comes across as easy going yet infectiously enthusiastic, so it's easy to imagine how he might put both an orchestra and an artist who is out of their comfort zone, at ease. He names many of his experiences as highlights, from working with Beardyman to Jamie Cullum ("you could definitely go out and get trashed with him") and there's much more in the pipeline. The Heritage Orchestra are preparing for a Joy Division gig at the Brighton Dome in May. He's also partnering with Brit group Fink on a concert with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam in April and is starting work on Paolo Nutini's next album imminently. His list of upcoming projects sound exciting, if mildly exhausting. Are there any other artists in his sights? "I'd like to do something really earth shattering with David Bowie in front of the pyramids. If you don't ask, you don't get, right?"
Urban Classic, Barbican, London EC2 (barbican.org.uk), 3 March
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