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In Their Own Words

All Guns Blazing & A Heart Full Of Love: DJ Harvey In His Own Words
Joe Clay , October 18th, 2012 06:34

At the end of the week DJ Harvey is DJing his first two UK shows in over a decade. Here he gives Joe Clay a run down on the history that's made him one of the world's best DJs

Harvey Bassett, aka DJ Harvey, enjoys a cult status that the superstar DJs would kill for. Properly, effortlessly cool, Harvey is, to borrow a phrase from tQ’s own John D, “pure dude”. Mention his name and men (it is mostly men) of a certain age and musical inclination go weak at the knees. To the “Disco Beards” Harvey is God. A pathological sense of adventure and an uncanny knack for being in the right place at the right time has seen Harvey present for nearly all of the epochal moments in dance music history. He doesn’t just crate dig, he divines for records and can tell what BPM a track is by the reaction on the dance floor. Famed for his epic 8-hour sets Harvey, now 50 and a resident in LA (he flew over on the post-9/11 cheap seats and never came back), is preparing to play his first DJ dates in the UK for ten years. The Quietus enjoyed an hour on the phone with one of dance music’s greatest provocateurs, in which he gave us a potted history of his colourful career and also talked about clubbing now and then and what we can expect from his forthcoming DJ sets in London and Manchester.

I was playing drums from the age of about 10 or 11. I started out knocking about in the kitchen playing pencils on the cooker, that sort of thing. My Mum and Dad always encouraged me to do what I liked. They bought me a drum kit and I started playing drums in school bands. I lived in a small village outside Cambridge and my buddies were farmers’ sons. We formed a band called Black Blood and we used to rehearse inside a hay stack. It was great, except we couldn’t smoke cigarettes. We ran in a power supply and the acoustics were fantastic. But if you wanted to smoke a No 6 you had to pop outside.

When I was 13 I responded to a “Drummer Wanted” ad posted in a local music shop by a band called Ersatz. I’d been to couple of auditions before, but Ersatz were happening. There was a punk band called Eater at the time and they had a 12-year-old drummer so it was kind of cool to have a baby drummer, so I got the job. I was what could be described as good for my age. I was kind of cute – I looked at a photo of myself from that time recently and I’m the spitting image of Justin Bieber!

Ersatz: Smile in Shadow

We’d do PTA gigs in village halls and we played at the Duxford Air Museum for a bunch of war veterans – weird little things like that. The first proper rock & roll gig I did was at a pub called The Alma in Cambridge. The other guys in the band were like 18 and 19 – really old – and their girlfriends would look after me, which was wonderful. I was being looked after by 18 year old chicks who looked like Cher when Cher was 18, not like she is now. And they would buy me little bottles of orange juice and then when nobody was looking they’d slip the vodka into my orange juice and then I’d have my Dutch courage and I could really give it some. I was into Ginger Baker, Ian Paice, John Bonham – classic English rock drummers. But when punk kicked off I loved Rat Scabies, the drummer in The Damned. I modelled myself on his style. Ersatz were initially more of a New Wave band. We were releasing records between 1978 and 1983. We had our own independent label called Leisure Sounds and John Peel was playing our stuff, which was fantastic. To be played by him on the radio was obviously really cool.

Why did I become a DJ? Well, my friend’s toilet was full of all the records we hadn’t sold! And being in a band is like having four girlfriends, and then your girlfriends get girlfriends and it’s a fucking disaster. I was into punk, and the Clash liked reggae so punks liked reggae. And reggae had sound system culture so the punks would hang out in reggae pubs and learn about the culture. I went to a youth club sponsored dance in 1978 or 79 and that was the first time I’d seen 12” singles. My good friend’s older brother was a DJ and we danced for 24 hours. That was the first time I’d stayed awake all night, under the influence of orange Fanta and Players No 6.

Style Wars Trailer

A friend of mine called Choci, who is famous now as part of the Team Robbo graffiti crew, bought me a ticket to New York in 1985. You couldn’t write your name on a train by then as there was no room and you didn’t want to go over anyone. I toyed with graffiti, but I never developed a style. It was very competitive. I was prepared to put the time in to go bombing 24 hours but I didn’t have the talent to do those monster beautiful pieces. But I hit the layups with Mare and Seen in New York City and rode on the back of the trains and did my fair bit of damage. We were hanging with the Rocksteady Crew and the Fat Boys at the Roxy, we went to Studio 54. And being a music head, DJing was the thing I got into. I had a bit of natural talent for it and there was an instant appeal to being able to provide a one-man entertainment service. I could relate to the rhythmic part of cutting up breaks and beats – it was almost an extension of drumming.

I’d been DJing a bit before I went to New York, listening to all the hip-hop coming in from the States and getting into sound system culture. Warehouse parties were big in the early 80s before the whole rave thing took off. There was actually a scene called raving but not as we know it. It was the soul/rare groove music scene. Black Londoners in Avirex leather jackets driving Triumph Stags and smoking JPS and listening to Teddy Pendergrass rarities. Alongside that there was the Mutoid Waste and Westworld scenes and also the Blues parties – an underground reggae house party. So I was into all that, toying with DJ’ing at the time, playing reggae. I was in between Cambridge and London at that point. Squatting in Cambridge and sleeping on people’s couches in London. I was hanging out with the Wild Bunch and Soul II Soul – people like Nellee Hooper and Jazzie B. So many home-grown London artists were emerging from the scene who are big to the present day.

I was involved in a couple of sound systems in the early 80s. The Tone Death Krew was a hip-hop/ reggae/ electro sound system collective modelled on the reggae sound systems like Java Nuclear Sound and Young Lion. We didn’t have much of a sound system. I just had a very small PA. We started out playing music in between bands at gigs. Before that, you’d get the sound engineer sticking on his Kenny Loggins tape or his Yes album and boring the fuck out of the young punks. But we had all this hot new music, so we took that slot and then we’d go and do a squat party after. Then that morphed as this guy called Tonka Roberts bought a marquee and a turbo sound system and we became the Tonka Sound System. We really went for that collective sound system identity. The DJ was always the one who got all the props because they were playing the records, but people didn’t realise that there was someone who drove the van, carried the amplifier and speakers, put up the marquee and had to tidy up afterwards. So with a group identity everyone could wear the T-shirt and get the credit for contributing and making the party good.

Harvey/Tonka Sound System, Zap Club Brighton 1990

The acid house-era was very liberating. I was going to warehouse parties in 1987 and I’d have my shoes and my weed taken from me. But by 1988 I was going to a party and somebody would give me their shoes and their weed! That was the difference. We’d been mixing Chicago acid music with uptempo rap so it wasn’t like night and day with the music. I’d been hanging out in Groove Records in Soho and I’d hear the latest Jazzy Jeff record and the latest Adonis record and my brain was going, ‘Can I mix these two together’ and I thought, ‘You probably can’, and I probably did! My skills as a scratch DJ – cutting and mixing – held me in good stead when the dance music scene came up. It really worked when playing acid house music. I didn’t have to think twice about mixing two beats and adding some effects or an accapella – that definitely made my style shine a little bit.

Harvey Presents Locussolus – 'I Want It'

I enjoy the process of making music and doing remixes so it’s not by any design that I’ve been sporadic with my own stuff. That’s just how it’s been. I’m always involved in some musical project, even if it’s just in the conceptual stage – meditating on something. I do a remix every two or three months. I wish I’d been a massive success and I could retire to the South Pacific. People always say to me, “Harvey, why didn’t you sell out?” It’s not like I haven’t tried! Fucking hell! [Chuckling] I just don’t know how to. I try to make my music as commercially viable as possible, but it hasn’t worked out. But I do consider myself successful – I get to surf off my hangovers in paradise. I live in Venice Beach, on the edge of LA. I’ve been here for almost ten years. As an Englishman it’s a pretty amazing place. The sun shines every single day, there are dolphins in the ocean and loads of exotic creatures we don’t have at home, like rattlesnakes and mountain lions, and that’s just on the doorstep. There are palm trees and good food and progressive-thinking creative people…

I haven’t DJ’ed in England for ten years. Initially it was because I overstayed my visa in the States and if I left I couldn’t come back. And I was having such a nice time over here that I stayed. But a couple of years ago I got my Green Card and now I can travel, but it’s taken two years to sort out the gig. I needed to find the right venue, the right sound system, the right date, the right sponsorship – all that. Sponsorship is very important these days. It’s expensive to put on a party. To rent a venue, stock the bar, hire the sound system, sort out the lighting, pay the staff… it costs close to £30k just to put on. So it really helps if you can find someone who is happy to have their name on the flyer in exchange for production costs. I’d have fucking Marlboro on the flyer if I had to – I don’t give a damn. I’d draw the line at the National Front, though they’re probably fucking desperate to land some parties! But Red Bull have supported the music industry through all kinds of ventures, including artistic stuff like Red Bull Music Academies. They’re not bad. They understand what’s going on.

DJ Harvey at A Club Called Rhonda, SXSW 2012

I’ll be playing a nice selection of classic and modern dance music, but it takes two to tango in the party. I’m gonna be there giving it everything I’ve got to make the people have a good time. And I think people should come along aspiring to have a good time. There’s no point in standing there with your arms folding saying, “Come on then, save my life.” Save your own fucking life and the music can be the soundtrack to that. What’s a classic? [Deadpan] 'Rock Around The Clock' by Bill Hayley. I might play it. Look, I DJ like I’m a sushi chef. I present one piece to the crowd and how they react to that determines the next thing I play. I have a reasonably limited selection in my box. I still carry vinyl. I’ll have a couple of hundred records and a few CDs with re-edits and remixes that aren’t on vinyl yet. I don’t have a link to the great SoundCloud in the sky with every record ever made. That would actually make it fucking impossible to decide what the next record was going to be.

It’s all about the DJ now. There are very few proper sound system parties any more. The Criminal Justice Act and clubs opening late killed that. The clubs now tend to be quite corporate. Nobody’s thanking the toilet cleaner any more, and the promoter doesn’t want to be known because he’s making so much fucking money. The spotlight is on the DJ and he masks the nastiness that’s going on – the angry security and the money grabbing promoters and the watered-down drinks… all the nasty shit that comes with big time clubbing. Though having said that, I don’t really think the scene has changed at all. We always think the grass is greener, but people still go out and dance to music. I did my Sarcastic Disco party in LA recently and it was fucking epic – as good as anything I’ve ever done anywhere. A thousand people, everyone happy, dancing till 7 in the morning, me playing my favourite records of the moment… it was as good as the Paradise Garage, or Amnesia, or the Music Box, or the Sanctuary, or Shoom, or any wonderful night that you could ever think of. We just had a night as good as that. So long as time and care and love is put into the party, you can still have something that is as good if not better than it’s ever been. I want that to happen at Oval Space and Warehouse Project – I’m coming with all guns blazing and a heart full of love.

Red Bull Music Academy Presents DJ Harvey at Oval Space, London on Friday 19th October and the Warehouse Project, Manchester, on Thursday 25th October. Tickets available from