A damn good chat with the incomparable DJ Harvey
Midday on a Tuesday is not the time most people enjoy the company of DJ Harvey. When inthemix calls up the cult hero of house and disco, he’s in his Melbourne hotel room following the first weekend of his Australian tour. Instead of monitoring a dancefloor, he’s got a careful eye on the overeager hotel cleaning staff.
“They don’t wait for you to say fuck off, they just walk straight into the room,” he says wryly. “I’m sure they’ve seen everything, but they’re going to see a little more if they don’t ask next time…”
While 9-to-5ers are slumping into the working week, DJ Harvey is in a pretty chipper mood. The tour has been a success so far, starting with Goodgod’s Vivid LIVE party at the Sydney Opera House (“It was really fun to play there – the kind of thing that makes your Mum proud”) and Freedom Time Winter Festival in Melbourne. In fact, DJ Harvey’s demeanour seems preternaturally sunny. After several decades playing music for dancers, he’s still “travelling the world and having an absolutely wonderful time of it.”
Next on the itinerary is his first-ever trip to Hobart to play Dark Mofo and Red Bull Music Academy’s Transliminal event. “It should be very interesting indeed,” he says. “Tasmania seems to be a pretty remote place, but I suppose rave culture is everywhere. I’m sure we’ll have a whale of a time.”
“Throughout his many evolutions, one truth about Harvey has remained uncontested: he’s one of the best DJs to ever do it.”
By now the DJ Harvey biography is well documented, with myth and hazy memories filling in the gaps. With punk and hip-hop in his musical DNA, the Harvey mystique began in earnest with the rise of acid house. He defined his style with the roaming TONKA Hi-Fi crew and inside London’s nascent Ministry of Sound, before establishing his storied Covent Garden club night, Moist.
Harvey’s been a British expat in LA for 17-odd years, where his Sarcastic Disco parties earned their own notoriety. Along the way he’s turned out coveted edits as part of the Black Cock Records team and original productions as Locussolus. A few years back, he even recorded a woozy psychedelic rock album as Wildest Dreams. Throughout his many evolutions, one truth about Harvey has remained uncontested: he’s one of the best DJs to ever do it.
2017 finds DJ Harvey in a good place. After a blur of festival bookings in recent years, he’s now focused on residencies at some of the world’s best clubs, including Berghain, Ministry of Sound, New York’s Output and Lisbon’s Lux Frágil. He’s also embraced the sober life, which ensures he’s sharp for those open-to-close sets.
Read on for more from the master of good times.
Do Australian crowds feel a particular way to you, or is a Harvey dancefloor pretty consistent around the world?
I think crowds are quite consistent these days. I feel the world is quite globalised. It’s not so much particular to countries, but scenes. If I’m playing at the International Mr. Leather in Chicago, it’s going to be quite different to an earth mother yoga convention. But it doesn’t matter what part of the world it is – Mr. Leather in Melbourne could be quite similar to Mr. Leather in Chicago.
Has it always felt global to you, or is this an internet era phenomenon?
I think 30 or 40 years ago, scenes were very localised. So you had the punk rock scene in London, which really would’ve [initially] been a group of about 50 people. The scene had time to develop before it was discovered by the media and spread out into the world. It had a foundation in something. It’s the same as hip-hop, which had a foundation in the Bronx in the ‘70s before there were even hip-hop records made. When the records were made, there was then a foundation to step off.
“I actually do give a fuck. I want things to go well. That concern, especially before a performance, manifests as nervous energy.”
These days, things tend to be globalised rather than localised. The moment something happens, it’s exploited, rinsed out, people get bored with it, and it’s over. But luckily dance music has its foundations in something that’s being going from, as far as we know it, the late ‘50s and ‘60s through to the modern day.
Do you bring any records with you all the way to Australia?
No. I take great care digitising records. I still buy and like records. I carried crates of records around for a good 30 years, so I can’t be accused of not doing that. Records, or CDs, or computer, or USB stick, or whatever medium you may choose, I don’t really think it makes much difference these days. I think the skill is in how loud you play them and the order you play them in.
I do bring my computer, which has thousands of records on the hard drive. I take between 100 and 200 tunes on a USB stick, which is actually very similar to what I would carry in records. Honestly, 100 records is about eight hours of music, and rarely do I play longer than that.
I read a few years ago that you get nervous before you play, which for some reason surprised me. Is that still true for you?
Yeah. It’s a strange kind of nervousness. It’s just that, unlike so many other people, I actually care! You hear people say, “Oh, I don’t give a fuck, blah blah.” I actually do give a fuck. I want things to go well.
That concern, especially before a performance, manifests as nervous energy. You know, butterflies. But very quickly, as soon as I’m in the spotlight, that’s turned into positive energy. I can use that to play records for eight hours with a smile on my face and look cool.
“Trump is by no means the first fucking idiot that’s been President of America. I’ll be happy to see the people who voted for him suffer.”
How has the sober life been for you as a touring DJ?
I would say it’s now easier. Excessive drinking and drug taking can definitely leave you with a hangover, so if I have to travel the next day, it’s a lot easier if I’m sober.
I still get high from the music and the situation. It’s an emotional pursuit, playing music. I still get tingles down my spine and a lump in my throat and throw my hands up in the air with a big grin on my face. That’s in a completely drug-free environment, personally. Everyone else might be high as kites.
Does California feel like home for you now?
It’s definitely home. I’ve lived in Los Angeles for like 17 years or something. I’ve been round and round the world many times, and I’m always happy to get back to Southern California. The sun shines 300 days a year, we’ve got the tech industry, marijuana, pornography; all the good things…
Just with a troubling political mood over the country right now.
I don’t think it’s troubling at all, I think it’s hilarious. My grandmother used to say to me in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, “You can’t walk down the street, there’s all these drug dealers and people with blue hair!” I’d say, “Grandma, you’ve got blue hair as well, and when you were my age there were two World Wars, infant mortality was one in three, and the Holocaust was going on just down the road.”
It’s much better now than it’s ever been. Trump is by no means the first fucking idiot that’s been President of America. I’ll be happy to see the people who voted for him suffer, because he doesn’t represent them. It’s a huge joke. Payback is a bitch, as they say.
To return to DJing, I’m curious how Larry Levan influenced the way you play.
Larry was a very colourful character, and obviously the resident DJ at the Paradise Garage. He had a wonderful stage on which to purvey his art, with a great sound system and a great crowd. I never actually attended the Paradise Garage, so I never had a bad night there. So it’s perfect in my imagination.
I did get to know Larry on his visit to London during the setup of the Ministry of Sound. We became friends. He actually ended up playing my records, because he didn’t have any music of his own with him. He definitely had a way of putting records together that was special. He could play them at a particular time and in a particular way – and by “way”, I mean at a particular volume or using the EQ to enhance certain parts of the record or lyrics.
It appeared he was talking to you through the music, and that’s something I try to do in many respects. I don’t play the lyrics to records that don’t adhere to what I’m trying to say in that moment. I won’t play Get Down Friday Night on Saturday, which I hear people do. I definitely picked up the lyrical narrative through a set of records from Larry. He could do it as good, if not better, than anyone.
There’s also this notion of the feeling being more important than a perfectly executed mix.
Well, you see, here’s the thing that people fail to grasp: the Paradise Garage used Thorens TD-125 MKII turntables. There are a few masters, like Danny Krivit or Kenny Carpenter or Tony Humphries, who learnt their craft on Thorens turntables. Now, in this modern age of quartz lock turntables and digital beatmatching and quantizing, it’s all very easy to say Larry wasn’t very good at mixing. Larry was great at mixing.
“Remixing is a strange phenomenon. Very rarely do you get a very good record being remixed.”
Thorens are a belt drive turntable, which are actually in a constant state of flux, so beatmatching can be quite difficult. Larry wasn’t about to let the mix get in the way of a selection. Many DJs won’t play a record because they feel it won’t mix, but I feel that shouldn’t be a barrier. I think if the right record for next isn’t going to mix, then let the other one stop, or play a sound effect, then play the next record.
You’re back in Ibiza this August for the Mercury Rising residency at Pikes Hotel. Was there ever a time when you didn’t see the island’s appeal?
I only think in the early ‘80s, as someone who was listening to dub reggae, post-punk and hip-hop. I wasn’t quite so into the Europop sound, but it wasn’t so much the music. Although I turned out to be wrong, I felt the island was populated by English and German soccer hooligans and Eurotrash. I suppose it actually is even to this day, but I was unaware of the hedonistic, progressive, grown-up side to the culture there.
I resisted going until the late ‘80s, and then of course when I got there I discovered you could engage in a long-term lineage of hedonistic behaviour. And that’s what I’ve done for the last 30 years in Ibiza, and I’d like to think we’re still on it.
When I spoke to you back in 2010, you were pretty ambivalent about remixing. Is that still your attitude?
I really don’t have the time for it these days. Remixing is a strange phenomenon. Very rarely do you get a very good record being remixed. It seems a way for artists to associate names with their project. I virtually never accept remixes these days, and I don’t have the time or energy. If I had time available to go into the studio, I would produce my own original material.
A final question: What does an ideal party look like to you?
Oh god! [Laughs] An ideal party is where the majority of the people attending have a nice time; it’s as simple as that. Love is the message, celebrate life, jump up and down, eat some good food, and fuck your friends.
DJ Harvey plays Dark Mofo & RBMA present: Transliminal at Hobart City Hall on June 9. Limited tickets available on the door; follow Red Bull Music Academy for updates. He also plays Freedom Time Winter Festival in Perth on June 10.
Jack Tregoning is a freelance writer based in New York. You can follow him on Twitter.