"It would have been in 1984, or 1985, no, definitely 1984, on a college campus in Vermont. It was legal back then." Harvey William Bassett is telling me about his first pill. "It was classed as a designer drug. It was definitely a pleasant experience…"
You probably know Bassett better as co-owner of seminal re-edits label Black Cock, or as proprietor of the legendary Sarcastic parties, or as one of the brains behind the legendary Tonka Hi-Fi crew, or as part of swamp-rock demigods Map of Africa, or maybe, just maybe, as DJ Harvey, one of the finest selectors to ever step up to the platters. You probably also, by now, know the DJ Harvey story. You know about his early days as a teenage drummer in a punk band and his wilderness years in mid-80s New York. You know about the warehouse raves the bled out onto Brighton beach and the hangout spot in Hawaii. You know about all this because everyone knows about DJ Harvey now. Which isn't bad for a lad from the Fens with a penchant for playing super obscure disco records you definitely didn't know about.
"It's funny because I don't consider myself famous, as it were, but it seems that I can't go anywhere in the world without being recognized," he tells me down the phone from his perch at the infamous Pikes Hotel in Ibiza, where he's getting towards the end of a Queen inspired summer residency, Mercury Rising. "I don't know if I have a particular look or if there actually are millions of Harvey devotees out there. They'll be walking down in the street in Jakarta and stop me and say, "hey, It's DJ Harvey!" Even in London, New York, Tokyo, these massive cities where you'd think you'd be able to blend into the madding crowd and people come up and ask for a photo with me. It's actually a good feeling. I like to be liked. So that's good."
It's arguable that October 2012 marked the second coming of a DJ who, let's be honest, has a touch of Christ about him. After a decade in America — peppered with regular jaunts over to Japan, a country that seems to be perpetually in the grip of acute Harveymania — Bassett finally sorted out his Visa issues and the prodigal son of far-out clubbing experiences returned to British soil. Since that night in East London, Bassett's become a bit of a homeboy — late last year he hopped onto a bus for a whistle-stop tour which included a sensational session Thursday night session at Fabric and a few months before that he absolutely destroyed the Southbank with a beyond belief disco-only set — and a regular on the festival circuit.
Just last weekend he rocked up in Amsterdam for Dekmantel. Now, obviously the festival season is a godsend for DJs and their bank accounts, and we all love being able to see so many acts in such a convenient manner, even if our wallet feels as blue as we do the Monday after, but it comes at a cost. A metaphorical one. We're not still sore about dropping a fiver on a can of lager the other day, honestly. For Bassett, the festival experience boils down to one thing and one thing only: cold hard cash.
"The rise of the festival is an interesting phenomenon. They must be good for business because there's lots of them. 25 years ago they used to be called illegal acid house raves and were clandestine affairs," he says. "Now they seem to be state and corporate sponsored events. Which is all very well, but personally, I'm a nightclub man. I come from the realm of nightclubs and warehouses, so to be playing on stages and in tents in fields it's a different dynamic. Over the years i've got used to dealing with that environment and it's sometimes quite difficult to dance when you're up to your knees in mud. I still enjoy it." It can't be easy though, can it, to spend a summer on the road, I ask. "If you take the last three months for instance, I've done thirty gigs. Thirty days are spent actually doing the gig, thirty days are spent sleeping and thirty days are spent in airports. It can be a little tiring, this life on the road. But if you do it gracefully…I've learned to enjoy waiting. When I got my head around that it made life a lot easier."
When you mention DJ Harvey there's one word that often pops up: legend. The legendary, we theorized, is a double-edged sword. On one hand it infers that the subject is deserving of such a title, that their work elevates them above their peers and places them in a kind of super-special category that hovers above us mere mortals. On the other, there's an element of consigning things to the past. To call someone a legend is, in a way, subtly suggesting that their best days are behind them. Harvey — who tells me that, "I'm not quite sure what people mean when they call me legendary. I don't know what they've heard! It's probably all true…" — doesn't agree that legends are literally things of the past.
"I think there are modern legendary things going on. I don't know what the legends are. I'm happy to be legendary because the people I consider to be legendary are heroes, or whatever, people who've done cool things. I'm happy to be considered legendary I suppose. I'd take it as a compliment. Legends don't pay your bills, I'll tell you that. Fame isn't a means to an end. You can be famous for being a serial killer but that doesn't mean you're cool or happening. I'd like to be thought of as quite a happening DJ in the modern age."
Bassett entered the truly modern age of the DJ last month when he made his debut for the live-streaming giants, Boiler Room. "I basically tried to make it a little more visually interesting than Joe Schmoe in a hairdressers in Sidcup with the lights on with some nosepickers and texters in the background," he tells me, and it showed. Harvey was in typically fine fettle and treated his Milanese audience to a characteristically luxurious set of star-spangled cosmic disco, NYC boogie blasters, percussive workouts and an absolutely next-fucking-level edit of Petula Clark's cover of "I'm Not in Love" (yes, you read that right). It was everything you could have asked for from a DJ Harvey Boiler Room set. He even got on the mic to wish Suzanne Kraft a happy birthday at the end. Oh, and the former Ministry resident dropped Gene Wilder's "Pure Imagination", straight from the Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory soundtrack.
In many ways, that audacious move is typical DJ Harvey — he's never been one to steer clear of schmaltz when it's absolutely necessary. There was no ulterior motive, no attempt at smartarsery when he decided to play it. "To me that's a natural thing to do. Come with me to a world of pure imagination! When I DJ I communicate through the music. I talk through it." He's aware that people like myself are prone to reading too much unto his selections. "People might interpret things that I had no idea were going on," he says. "That goes back to the legendary stuff, you get the third hand stories and whispers that become views and ideas of things that may or may not have happened. I'm sure someone like yourself sees or hears things and you wonder why I did certain things. The Willy Wonka thing wasn't hugely contrived. I just thought that it's a beautiful piece of music and it'll make people pay attention. It's a little way to pave the way into changing the tempo. That's all." And there was me thinking it was a moment of divine intervention from a disco deity.
Boiler Room's use of new technologies to recalibrate our concept of the clubbing experience led to to ask a question I'd sort of been dreading asking. Bassett is the same age as my father. Does he ever, I gently enquired, feel old? "I'm not old! It's as simple as that. I know DJs in their 70s. A man is as old as the woman he feels. So that makes me 23. I like to say that my life at the moment is not the end, and it's not the beginning. It's the end of the beginning. It's not the beginning of the end. It's definitely the end of the beginning."
Tenuous, I know, but we've all got beginnings. We've all got to start somewhere. I put forward the idea that clubbing is for the young, that it's 20 year olds who get the most out of it. Again. Bassett disagrees with me. "When I was a teenager it seemed to be that disco was for people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s. It wasn't a young person's pursuit. True nightclubbing is a middle aged pursuit. The kids are basically getting to grips with it. That gurning, rolling around kind of thing is level one, the introductory phase. Look at photos of Studio 54 and there's not a teenager to be seen there. There's probably no one under 35. The modern age of clubbing, ushered in by acid house, that was a means to an end. People put on parties to dance to music and celebrate life. Then they realized that they made a few quid and it became a business." He then goes on to tell me that he thinks that, "an awful lot of clubbing is what I'd describe as an industry. It's just a commodity. It doesn't matter what it is. It could be a box of washing up powder, and the board of directors have their product to sell, which is a party. You could approach those same directors with a new brand of cruise missile or landmine and tell them they could make a lot more money off that than they do throwing parties and they'd do it in a second." In the interests of fairness, I should point out that DJ Harvey's tours have been bankrolled by large corporations in the past. He's willingly and knowingly complicit. Then again, aren't most of us?
We end where we began: Pikes Hotel. Pikes is an Ibizan institution and a world renowned site of bacchanalian excess and debauchery. You'll recognize it from the "Club Tropicana" video. For the last few weeks, Bassett's taken over for six or so hours on a Monday night — "a dream come true," he tells me. It's easy to think of Harvey's Ibiza as some kind of mystical, hippy-dippy, yoga'n'acid take on a mythical "authentic" experience, but Bassett's keen to stress that while Pikes, and Mercury Rising are one specific take on the island, the cheap drinks and cheaper chicken of the West End are equally valid. "The thing is, two pound pints on the strip in San Antonio is just as authentic as Bianca Jagger ordering quaaludes on room service. It's all a bunch of young people getting faceless on the white island. It's just that one set happens to have more money than the other. It's another facet of what's always been here. There's always been the exotic and the hedonistic and you can't have one without the other. Think of Wham's "Club Tropicana"— that was as much of a West End anthem as it was a Pikes one. I don't go a week without playing that record because it's part and parcel of the whole thing."
I leave with one final question. Does Ibiza deserve to be lionized and romanticised quite so much? "Yes. You can't roll up and expect it to save your life, though. It takes two to tango. People hold different positions within the scene. There are legends and stories that go back to the Roman orgies through to the beats scene to the early balearic scene to football hooligans…you're responsible for the experience you have in Ibiza. Ibiza is a wonderful canvas to paint your experience onto."
Mercury Rising, he reminds me, comes to a close in a few weeks. I tell him I'm trying to make it over, but time and money are against me. "Well, try! Ask your bosses to pay! You need to be on the ground, over here, doing the foot soldier work! If you don't come down then of course, next year's wont be as good, and it'll drift into legend. There are things going on in Mercury Rising that I can't actually talk about, but if you were there you could maybe experience them and write about them…I'm not gonna dish the dirt but if you were there then you might not be able to talk about it either because you wouldn't wanna ruin the natural, organic celebration of life that's going on…"
I tell Harvey William Bassett that I'll try and make it over.
DJ Harvey's Mercury Rising takes place each Monday night at Ibiza Rocks House.