“I'm not actually interested in music,” Danny L Harle announces over Zoom, a silver animated 3D model of his own head rotating in the background like a logo on top of a luxury car dealership. It’s a strange thing for an artist in the middle of promoting a debut album to say, made even stranger by the fact that, to some, Danny L Harle is basically the Fellini of pop production, bringing his distinctive avant-guard sensibilities to collaborations with the likes of Carly Rae Jepsen, Tommy Cash and Caroline Polachek, as well as his own work. “I thought I was,” he continues, “but studying music made me realise that I wasn’t. I was interested in the way music makes me feel, and it’s what I live in pursuit of.”
Since emerging in the early-2010s as part of the London-based PC Music collective, Danny L Harle has occupied a space of his own. With an academic background in classical and jazz and a vested interest in pretty much any kind of music that delivers euphoria – whether it’s Max Martin-helmed pop songs, Stravinsky or Scooter – Harle’s wheelhouse is one of simplicity and extremes. Arguably the most mainstream-friendly PC Music affiliate, he’s produced, written and remixed for a wide array of artists, from 100 gecs to Ed Sheeran to Nile Rodgers & Chic, while his own 2015 single “Broken Flowers” scaled the Billboard charts and made it onto Radio 1’s A List. His sound, though, is unlike anything else in the charts. You could use any number of adjectives to describe it, among them “rubbery” and “insane”, but it’s probably best summarised by the one that thunders ahead of his name in his producer tag, declaring: HUGE.
By contrast, Harle is an unassuming character in many ways; usually wearing some black rimmed glasses and a button-up shirt like any 30-something found knocking about a Zone 2 coffee shop. But there’s also a mischievous streak that suggests he knows something you don’t, like a professor who’s just asked a trick question, or a children’s TV presenter biding their time before they gunge the guest. As a teenager, he was an introvert. He spent most of his time in his bedroom, on the computer. He didn’t go out, he didn’t party, and the first time he experienced the kind of club music he’s interested in, in an actual club setting, was in his late-twenties at an event he threw himself. As a result, Harle’s take on things is rooted in imagination, and that’s ultimately what defines his music. Whether it’s the pop smash “Super Natural” with Carly Rae Jepsen or a more industrial banger like “1UL”, his sound has a surreal quality that combines the melancholic euphoria of 00s trance and hardcore with the depth and immensity of modern production. He takes something dream-like, and makes it feel tangible.
“It’s a very mysterious thing, euphoria. It’s quite elusive. It’s kind of like trying to go to sleep, it sort of creeps up on you,” he says. “Because my experience of music is largely between me and headphones, it's often about [things like] playing the right song at the right time. It just captures something.”
The hyperreal, hyper-manufactured nature of PC Music aesthetics – which initially saw each artist grilled under suspicion of irony – has proven to be incredibly fertile ground for world-building. It is, perhaps, no surprise that the late icon SOPHIE, who quite literally built a new world of sound from scratch, found herself at the helm of modern pop at a time when reality itself has felt simultaneously chaotic and boring. Escapism has always been the modus operandi of pop music, but what if it wasn’t just a method of transportation available on Spotify, on the radio, or in a club between the hours of 12 and 6AM? What if it was a literal destination – something you could experience anywhere, anytime?
For the last four years Danny L Harle has been working, in one capacity or another, on Harlecore – his long-awaited debut album, released through Mad Decent and accompanied by an interactive virtual club experience. Manifested in collaboration with the digital performance and image studio Team Rolfes and commanded by four resident DJs – DJ Danny, DJ Mayhem, DJ Ocean and MC Boing – Club Harlecore is an eternal rave, set in an alternate universe, held at the only venue able to accommodate it: the internet. Doors are open 24 hours a day; there's no kick-out time; everything in its four rooms is happening constantly, forever. The project is rooted in Harle’s love of hardcore, rave and makina music, and revolves around a specific sentence that expresses the "immediacy" that connects him to it all: this music sounds the way I feel.
“I came to a conclusion at the end of my studies that the music I make should actually just be a collection of the things I think sound good all in a row,” Harle explains. “Which sounds really stupid, but it’s getting to grips with how simple music really is, and how thinking about it too much – just for a second – kind of damages the experience. I got so bogged down in the making of music that I forgot it’s not even about music, it’s about feeling, and music being the method of transport on which you get to a location. When somebody else makes a thing that expresses a thing that you feel, it’s like a form of communication.”
Harlecore, then – as an experience, as well as a collection of songs – is also his very own language. “It's such a personal expression of what I like. It's literally a scavenger’s combination of all these influences with other stuff from the past and my own takes on things,” he says. “This project is so uncompromisingly exactly what I want to hear.
The world today is a very different place than it was in 2017, when the Harlecore seed was planted. For one, the ongoing pandemic has shut down the entire night time economy and turned everyone into an introvert by law, which, unsurprisingly, hasn’t had much of an impact on Harle’s day-to-day. He’s been spending most of his time doing what he was doing anyway: playing Call Of Duty (“for my sins”), making music and hanging out with his wife, Poppy, and two-year-old daughter, Nico. ”The pandemic has kind of forced everybody to live in their own inner worlds much more, but there are certain types of people, like me, who are used to doing that anyway,” he says.
One way the pandemic has had an impact, however, is by normalising the concept of an online rave on a global scale. For the past year, Zoom parties like Club Quarantine and DJ sets on servers like Discord have been the only opportunities for people to engage with music en masse in real time, making that one element of a fairly high concept project that needs absolutely no introduction.
“I'm all too familiar with releasing stuff that is either conceptually or aesthetically new to people, and it kind of being relegated into a ‘weird’ category because the world didn’t have context for it at the time,” Harle explains. “Imagine I'd come to you with the idea of a club that exists in a kind of Event Horizon world, which isn’t quite in our world, before any of this. Maybe more nerdy people would’ve been into it, but I don’t think it would’ve resonated in the way that it currently is.”
It is a pretty mad idea, to be fair. Harlecore’s four DJs take the shape of: a jellyfish (DJ Ocean, who flies around a bioluminescent forest on the roof of the club, known as the “Ocean Floor”), a sentient bouncy ball (MC Boing, who zips around his zero-gravity “Bounce Room”), a swole pig man (DJ Mayhem, the true spirit of ‘beast mode’, who resides in a dungeon he constantly smashes up with a hammer), and DJ Danny – the embodiment of euphoria, who acts as a “divine conduit” and looks like Danny L Harle if he were one of the ghostly trio in Brad Silberling’s Casper. On top of that, the entire concept is based on Danny L Harle’s emotional experience of music, while Danny himself takes a backseat.
“If anything, I’m the janitor,” he says of his own position in the Harlecore universe. “No, the fact of the matter is I’m not actually there at all, because it’s not [in this world]. It’s a kind of shared space for everybody to meet at this temple of euphoria, and the way in which people meet there is not as themselves. It’s all about an individual experience there.”
The first notable genesis point for Harlecore was at a Hudson Mohawke show in LA. During his set, HudMo dropped a track by Scott Brown – the pioneering Glaswegian hardcore DJ who has been one of the biggest influences on Harle’s own work, alongside The Prodigy’s Liam Howlett. Afterwards, he DM’d HudMo on Instagram asking if he wanted to collaborate, and got a response straight away.
“I knew that hardcore would mean the same to him as it does to me, which is this specific trance influenced post-happy hardcore era of music from the 00s,” Harle explains. “We started making this music that really related to the rave stuff that I'd been making, but it had a whole new take because it had HudMo’s drums at the centre. So it had this beast mode fury with a euphoric stamp that we both really responded to.”
This collaboration between Harle and HudMo led to a series of club nights under the Harlecore banner. Harlecore One took place in September 2017 at The Waiting Room in London, featuring DJ Mayhem (a moniker HudMo had already been using for his hardcore shows in Glasgow), MC Boing (a pre-existing character, influenced by makina, that was a product of Harle and fellow PC Music member Lil Data in the studio), DJ Danny and the Italian artist/DJ Gabber Eleganza, among others.
“That was an important moment, because it solidified DJ Mayhem, DJ Danny and MC Boing,” Harle says. “It became clear that there were these different styles of music that were all achieving the same thing, under the moniker of Harlecore.”
The club nights continued in different iterations, including a collaboration with event organisers / fellow euphoria-chasers Planet Fun (run by DJ Fingerblast, Count Baldor, Peggy Viennetta and Trancey Beaker), a late night take-over of Southbank Centre and, at Harlecore Five, a set from the legendary Scott Brown himself. With immediacy at its heart, Harlecore is intended to be as organic an experience as possible. “I often write music just before I go on stage, especially rave music, so there’s no doubt that the music that you hear inside Club Harlecore is the music of Club Harlecore. You’re hearing music being generated in its home state, like that is where it lives,” Harle explains.
Rave as a social and political movement had already peaked by the time Harle, now in his early-thirties, was old enough to appreciate it. After facing widespread public condemnation under Thatcher, rave was stigmatised socially and increasingly criminalised through legislation such as The Entertainment (Increased Penalties) Act, which allowed fines of up to £20,000 for hosting illegal raves or parties, and the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, which gave police the powers to target gatherings of over 100 people listening to music at night. By the 00s, what was once considered to be the biggest youth revolution for decades – the second summer of love – had been reduced to a caricature, an easy punch-line for people who focussed on the drug culture above all else.
“I think it's still regarded a little as a curiosity, when perhaps it deserves to be taken more seriously as an important development in UK music culture,” says Jack Armitage, aka Lil Data, whose own experiences of clubbing took off when he moved to Leeds for university in 2009. While there was little in the way of rave/hardcore happening then, it was boom era for pioneering nights like Hessle Audio and Cosmic Slop, with their roots planted firmly in dance music history.
“In this project I've been accessing hardcore through childhood memories, and combining it with the energy of those early club experiences,” he continues. “People my age seem to be into UK Rave Comments, watching old videos of people throwing shapes and gurning, and hearing the stories of wild goose chases with the police. But there's clearly a lot more to it than that, in terms of cultural and political rebellion, the impact it had on ravers' lives, and the network of labels, events and venues that held it together. I'm willing to assume there's a lot of untold histories too, particularly from women and minority voices in the scene, and I think this is a good moment for those to start being told.”
Commercial crossover artists like Scooter, DJ Sammy and Darude were getting plenty of time on radio, music video channels and compilation CDs throughout the 00s, but rave culture itself had fallen out of the zeitgeist. For all its cultural significance and symbolic victories, the music at the core of the movement never got its flowers. As always, though, it never disappeared – it just evolved, moved elsewhere, went deeper underground. “Many of the young adults around me in south east Manchester were blasting Wigan Pier CDs in their cars, and sharing their mates' MC freestyles on their phones (in extremely poor quality!)” Armitage remembers.
“It’s a historic British thing to be very flagillistic about our own acts and culture while constantly making pioneering world class stuff,” Harle adds. “Embarrassingly enough it often takes an American to come here and tell us that we're culturally significant, which is actually the opposite of how most British people think the way British culture works.” Here he also points to grime – one of the most significant developments in UK music history, which went largely unrecognised until Kanye West smuggled it on stage at the Brit Awards in 2015 – as an example. “Until Kanye said ‘Yo, Skepta…’ we were actively trying to get rid of it,” he says.
A big motivation behind Harlecore was to bring rave and hardcore music back into a collective environment. “People didn’t play that music in the south of England, or in London at least,” Harle tells me. “But my dad is from Newcastle so we go up there quite a lot, and you see adverts for Clubland compilations being advertised on TV. That was definitely something I recall having an effect on me when I was young. My brother explained to me once the further north you go, the louder and faster the music gets. I really like the thought of that.”
Incidentally, it wasn’t until they took Harelecore to America that the project began to take its full shape. Without the specific historical context of UK and European club culture, the crowd reaction in the US was enthusiastic, but very different, which prompted Harle to start thinking about it in a different way. “I was always thinking about a way of presenting this music that would show its context and express the way it makes me feel, and express the dream way for it to be consumed as music, rather than it just being something that I wrote that’s streaming on Spotify or whatever,” he says. “But I didn’t want to write a long essay for people to have to read. So the challenge was to show people what this music is and how it is to be listened to, rather than tell them.”
And so Harlecore – a club night, an album, a virtual experience – became a way for people to fully immerse themselves not just in this kind of music as filtered through Danny’s imagination, but in the social and cultural history of it as well.
When it came to putting the album together, Harle had distilled his writing process into three distinct “channels” – each of them defined by how much time he’s willing to wait, and how much time he’s willing to assume the listener is willing to wait, before euphoria is “achieved.”
The third channel is an avant-garde, classical space, (“where there’s absolutely no pressure to deliver everything up front”), the middle channel is what he would consider to be his poppier Danny L Harle output (“where there’s slightly more time to wait, and some things that need to be established before the moment of ascension”), and then there’s the first channel: Harlecore.
“Harlecore delivers the euphoria in the fastest amount of time, using known formulas for delivering it,” he reasons. “It’s kind of like the sweets or the fast food of this experience – and that’s no disparaging term, I’m a big fan of sweets and fast food, but that’s very much what this us: giving up the goods immediately. A fast-track to euphoria, is what it is.”
Thirteen tracks of jumbo synths and adrenaline, Harlecore is the sonic equivalent to being at a pop-up fairground and having a go on every single ride, over and over again. MC Boing whips you around, DJ Mayhem knocks you about, DJ Ocean gently sways you from side to side, and DJ Danny is the air hitting you in the face and the gravity making your stomach flip throughout.
Opening with “Where Are You Now” – a pounding hard trance track that sounds like falling in love and having your heart broken at the same time – and ending with “Ti Amo”, a menacing Italian gabber take on “Golden Brown” by The Stranglers’, Harlecore hits every single tastebud at once. There’s no shape or climax to the album, because it’s climaxing constantly, serving everything from rushing trance to punishing hardcore, ethereal ambient to manic makina. Like the rave music that inspired it, simplicity is its strength, with each track revolving around a particular melody or phrase. MC Boing’s songs, I’m told by a reliable source, are written in less time than it takes to actually listen to them.
“If you think about a rave track it’s basically just drums and one other thing most of the time, so the other thing’s gotta be pretty good if it’s going to sustain you,” Harle says, attributing the appeal to two characteristics: a “really human, primal element”, and a serious riff. “I feel like Liam Howlett and Scott Brown are the two best riff writers the UK has ever seen. When one of [Scott’s] riffs comes out on one of his tracks, I’m just like ‘there it is, there’s that feeling’.”
For a long time, Harle put rave music in a category of its own. “I thought my job was going to be doing this serious classical stuff, as it were, and that the ‘fun’ stuff was just personal. It took me about 12 years to realise that it's actually the other way around. That the thing that people are interested in is the fun stuff, and using the word ‘fun’ is just a way of protecting myself from being vulnerable in front of people,” he reflects. His dad, the celebrated composer, saxophonist and producer John Harle, apparently told him this very early on, but it took a long time to get there. “This quite cynical idea I had, that you can make music disingenuously, was increasingly dispelled throughout my career.”
Turning Harlecore into its own universe brings it back to something that ran through the original rave movement in the late 80s and 90s, which was a powerful sense of collectivism. In the video for lead single “On A Mountain”, the viewer ascends with DJ Danny on a mountain that shoots up through the club. You reach a euphoric plain, visualised in the video as a sort of Ministry Of Sound take on 2001: Space Odyssey’s Stargate Sequence, before descending back into the club. Then you look around and see mountains everywhere, because ravers all around you have had the exact same experience. Individual, but together.
“The type of euphoria that I experience is kind of like an escape from reality. I guess this club is where I escape to, and it’s letting everybody into this place so they can experience the same thing as me, and see it, and not require anything to be explained,” Harle says. “People liking this concept and resonating with it will mean that there is a very clear shared outlook and experience that’s being communicated that wasn’t there before. For me, that’s a very comforting idea. Just this feeling that you’re not alone, basically. As much as it seems obvious that we’re not, from an emotional stand-point, it’s quite an amazing feeling to know that you’re not,” Harle says.
“The different artists in Harlecore are all trying to achieve euphoria as well, and they all have their own ways of doing it,” he adds. “No matter what’s happening in the world, with all the inconsistencies and unpredictability, the eternal rave is always happening.”