"You Forgive a lot of Things on the Dancefloor": An Interview with DJ Harvey
DJ Harvey on jet lag, cosmic disco poseurs, and "breakdown culture."
Photo courtesy of Mike Selsky
DJ Harvey's gone through a lot of phases. He was a teenage graffiti bomber, seminal member of Tonka Sound System, buddies with Soul II Soul and Larry Levan, creator of the cheeky, Foghorn Leghorn-adorned series of Black Cock edits. Now, he's famous for his sets at The Zap Club, Ministry of Sound, The Blue Note, and Sarcastic Disco parties in LA where he'd play 12 hour sets—parties so full that Beyoncé once got turned away at the door.
Adored by fashionistas, queer folks and grizzled vinyl diggers alike, Harvey is coming to Toronto's Foundry festival on March 22. I spoke to him about the death of disco, the Japanese mafia, and the "erectile deficiency music scene."
THUMP: Hi Harvey, how's your day so far?
Harvey: Just fine, I actually caught some damn fine waves this morning. Due to a mess up coming back to Australia, a first class one-way ticket ended up being a Melbourne to Sydney to Singapore to Hong Kong to San Francisco to LA jaunt that took about 30 hours. I didn't really sleep much last night, so I decided to hit the ocean at about 7:30 this morning and surf my jetlag off.
Oof. Do you find yourself in the studio much these days?
Most definitely, working on the new Locussolus album as we speak—hard at it, making disco history. I think we might have a new girl on the team, but she'll be a surprise when all that comes out. Hopefully by the middle of the year I'll have some kind of little act to take on the road if we can make it entertaining, which is all that really matters.
I remember at the Meredith Music Festival, you famously smashed $10,000 worth of equipment because you felt like you weren't doing a rockstar image justice. I'm curious, what you think about this new wave EDM-associated DJs who are doing backflips into the crowds during their sets?
It had to go that way, because it's not very entertaining to look at a DJ. Hence, you get the so-called "erectile deficiency music scene"—people arriving in spaceships or with fireworks to try and enhance the visual aspect of the whole thing. I can't understand how you can play a record and backflip into the crowd. I mean... maybe you've got on a long one. I actually have no idea why people stare at DJs, I'd rather just watch whoever's dancing around me.
Over a decade after its creation, you've re-released your left field disco mix Sarcastic Study Masters. What was the impetus for putting it out again?
I think there was a lot of people that haven't heard it and were claiming things like "cosmic disco," so I thought it would be nice to sort of put that out again and let people realize... I mean, in a narcissistic way, to just be like... "Look guys… you want to know who…"
Started this shit?
[Laughs] I'm trying not to toot my own horn too much but I can't escape that fact.
I love the pauses on that mix, and I feel like DJs don't ever use silence anymore. Could you talk about the need for pause in DJ sets?
That particular mix was recorded in one take; I wanted to "keep it real," as they say, so it was on Thoren's Belt Drive turntables, the TD 125 turntables that were used at the Paradise Garage, Zanzibar, Studio 54 and places like that. I really wanted to have an O.G, true-to-the-original-artform type of mix, as it were. It's actually quite a difficult skill to mix with them. They only have three percent pitch control and you have to know your records very well.
But beyond the mix, I think that selection trumps everything else, and often today people put too much emphasis on the mix and not necessarily the selection. You should select the record you want to play next, and thinking about the mix should be third or fourth reason down the list as to why you selected the record. And if it's not going to mix, there's no point in trying, so why not leave a gap in between for people to applaud?
And take a few seconds to ground yourself.
Also, with what I call "breakdown culture," you often have these records where there might not be a rhythmic section to the track, and I often say to people "Well, think of the gap between those two records as actually a breakdown," and it allows all sorts of new things. Silence can be a very loud thing, and you can make an impression. If you're scrambling for the next record, that might not be such a good look. If you have the situation under control, you can make a lot of impression with a silent moment.
There doesn't seem to be much of sense in trying to smash two different things together.
Especially if it's particularly out of key, or out of tempo, or sometimes, vocals, once pitched beyond two to three percent it starts to sound quite strange. But then again, going back to the cosmic disco movement, mixing was actually quite important for guys like Beppe Loda—he'd play a record like, Enola Gay, at the wrong speed, which would sound like an unintelligible demonic noise. Of course, back then you'd get these English tourists coming up to the DJ booth like "Wot're ya doin' mate?! Sort it out!" but for guys like Beppe, it was all about getting it in the mix.
On that mix, one of the pauses is spelt "poz", which reminds me of an interview where you talk about digging for records in warehouses that had stuff from a lot of folks who died in AIDS hospices. It really places a traditionally lighthearted genre in this historical context full of intense loss. When you think of disco, is the music extractable from the political context?
For me it is. It's a complete escape from politics in many aspects—it's like, all the factions can dance together and you forgive... you forgive a lot of things on the dance floor. I think disco music particularly is very hedonistic and escapist, it might've been given a political aspect with the whole kind of Stonewall thing, and the "death of disco" and all that. But that's how I see it. I mean, there's the agony and the ecstasy and the tragedy of it all in there, but you're lifted up through that. The ultimate thing is that it's a celebration of life, even if there might be a foundation of political unrest and tragedy. It's like the blues, the blues came from a broken heart, but it's uplifting.
So, a bit more about the politics of dancing, when was the last time you were in Japan?
About a year ago, I usually go out about once a year.
Have you heard about these new club laws trying to ban dancing?
Yeah, they're not new club laws at all. They're actually very old club laws that are dug up every time a new mayor wants to make his presence known or clean up the town. They're not really dealing with the actual issues like human trafficking, drug problems or gangsterism. It's like, "Oh, we're going to stop some hipsters dancing"—what the fuck? Basically, the law came just after the second world war, and it's something to do with Geishas.
Yeah, a lot of the venues with sex workers used to have dances; so anti-sex work laws kind of became anti-dancing laws too.
It's major bullshit really. Japan, like everywhere else, has a thin veneer of sensibility. It's a country that revolves around sex, drugs and violence just like America and under the surface of that bowing, submissive Japanese thing, it's a very potent place. Hopefully the law will blow over. The hipsters will just have to learn to deal with the mob or something.
In a few weeks you'll be playing Foundry in Toronto, have you spent much time in Canada before?
I've been to Canada a couple of times. In Vancouver I played small parties in a pilates studio, which was fun, there were a lot of fit young ladies there. But I don't really know much about club life in Canada, I thought there was actually some good clubs there. It's a bit of an enigma really, I mean, it's a big place with lots of people, so I imagine they want to dance. I'm looking forward to Foundry, it should be a bit of an interesting event. Fill a room full of people with some bang bang bang, bleep bleep bleep music and I'm sure we'll have a whale of a time.
Your sets make a lot of people desperate for tracklistings. Any memory of tracks you've heard but have never been able to acquire?
No. You can get every record that's ever made: You either wait for it or pay for it. There are very few rare records I know that I haven't managed to track down—by rare, I mean like, between three to five copies. I want records that I don't know exist.
The first time I heard "Berghain (Darkroom Mix)," I hadn't been to Berlin. Now, after finally experiencing it firsthand, I have more of an appreciation for that track's madness. I'm curious if you have any Berghain stories?
Nothing I can say here really, ha. I think the first time I went there I DJed at the Panorama bar upstairs, and just went downstairs, decompressed, and spent a couple of hours being anonymous instead of the centre of attention. Like, to actually be one of the boys on the dance floor, and I had no idea who or where the DJ was, and just had a little shimmy on the floor. A little four hour shimmy on the dance floor.
You can follow Brendan on twitter: @brendan_a