DJ Harvey: The Man, The Myth, The Legend
A blast of motorcycle exhaust rips through the air as DJ Harvey peals out of the parking lot of the Rose Café and Market in Venice Beach, California. The DJ/producer, who has made his home in this neighborhood for the last 13 years, does not need a motorcycle to make him look cool. He is the very definition and just brushing up against him makes you automatically cool—at least for that moment. The 50-plus-year-old Harvey Bassett is in a self-proclaimed 10-year-long mid-life crisis and loving every minute of it. He is slim and tall, his jeans fitting him just right, his leather jacket an extension of his shoulders, and his blazing orange T-shirt promoting a local surf company. His face has some lines, but they come from grinning often and from squinting at the sun and the ocean where he spends a solid amount of time surfing. His hair is somewhere between long and short, between curly and wavy, and is slicked back allowing his eyes, a bright, open blue to shine. He has maintained his cut-glass Queen’s English and is sharply articulate—even if at times he looks like a deranged dude and when he’s got his reading glasses on, you might suspect him as a child molester—his words, not ours. But he’s a happy guy and simply being around him brings the mood up—a good thing, too, as that is kind of his job.
Venice Beach is a long way from his hometown of London, England, or the cultivated university town of Cambridge, where Harvey he went as a young teenager. Starting his musical ride as a child drummer, he was recruited to the New Wave group Ersatz at 13. In the late ’70s and early ’80s he performed with Ersatz—the other band members were a good six years older than him—going as far as getting their music played on John Peel’s influential Radio 1 show on the BBC. A self-proclaimed punk, he frequented reggae sound systems, as British punks were wont to do, and in the process got exposed to 12-inch singles and the DJs that played them.
A mid-’80s trip to New York in the pursuit of graffiti—which Harvey wasn’t that skilled at—started him hanging out with the Rock Steady Crew and the Fat Boys and frequenting the Roxy and Studio 54. The breaks and beats of DJing appealed to the drummer in Harvey and upon his return to the U.K., he started frequenting parties thrown by the Wild Bunch, Soul II Soul, and Mutoid Waste. He got involved in the Death Tone Krew, a hip-hop/reggae/electro sound system playing in between bands and at the afterparties. Things got real when a fellow called Tonka Roberts purchased a turbo system and a marquee, morphing Tone Death Krew into the storied Tonka Sound System. The cutting and mixing style Harvey was developing allowed him to blend different genres and set him apart from his peers—a skill that is serving him to this day.
DJ Times: Although “disco” is the term that ascribed to you more than any other, your sets run the gamut of styles.
DJ Harvey: I wouldn’t want to be lumped into one thing like, “Harvey is a disco DJ, a deep-house DJ, a techno DJ.” I’m a personality DJ. When I DJ, you get my personality, and that includes everything. To my mind, it’s what is the best record at that time to suit that situation? The people decide, in many respects. Some DJs have a predetermined set you get whether you’re at a sunset party in Tulum or at FYF Fest, the same 25 records. They are a two-hour, one-trick pony, whereas I can DJ for two days and play everything from Dolly Parton to GG Allin.
DJ Times: How does your set differ at a festival versus a club or warehouse gig?
DJ Harvey: When there are more than 1,000 people in front of me, the set will become more sonic, more extreme, and the common denominator lowered to cut across a larger group of people. As a DJ and an entertainer, my mission is to have the majority of people entertained and hopefully, happy. I try and do whatever that takes. There’s no point standing in front of 5,000 people getting on the mic and saying, “If you listen to the lyrics in the second verse, they’re really profound, and I know this hasn’t got any bass at all, but don’t worry about that. It’s a little album track, it’s going to feedback a bit, but don’t worry about that either.” I get on some brand new German techno track, bang it out, and everyone loves it. At a bigger gig, like a festival, it tends to be more new music; at a warehouse gig, it’s a combination; and at a smaller gig, it’s more old music.
DJ Times: What’s your ideal DJ set-up in the booth?
DJ Harvey: I take records and CDs. Sometimes, when I’m setting up my own party and booth, I’ll bring my Alpha Recording System, who hand-make mixers and make the best, to my style, of the new-school recording pre-amps. My tech rider is: two or three Technics 1200s turntables—that haven’t been used as computer stands or drip trays for beer—and a matching pair of CDJs. The standards are Pioneer CDJ-2000 and CDJ-2000NXS—their controls do very different things and it’s a brain-scramble when you have to read which model it is before you start messing around with it. Plus, I require a half-decent mixer—not set up on top of the bass bins. Sometimes if I’m really showing off, I’ll bring a reel-to-reel tape recorder, Technics RS-1500 ¼-track, which I use for analog echo, or if we’re getting really fancy, I’ll play some edits from tape. But that’s a very rare occurrence these days, as no one seems to care.
DJ Times: The dance scene in America is very different from when you immigrated here. What’s your take on it?
DJ Harvey: The EDM thing has very little to do with what I do. The whole festival thing is odd to me. I don’t really consider myself a festival DJ. I do it, but I’m a nightclub DJ and a warehouse DJ and a party DJ. It’s great because ultimately, a few kids might filter down to me wondering, what is the great granddaddy of all that stuff. Maybe they want to hear a longer groove in between the build-up and the breakdown, something they can actually dance to because they don’t dance, they jump up and down when a sonic thing happens. It’s not what the scene has become, it’s that something else has happened. It doesn’t challenge what I do, as it has very little to do with discoteque and DJing, which is the realm I exist in.
Harvey creates his own realm. He did so during his Tonka days. He did so while he ran his Moist nights at the Gardening Club in London. And he certainly did so as both the Friday and Saturday resident at the world famous Ministry of Sound. Prior to moving to Los Angeles, he did so for the Wax parties and, after moving to L.A., he did so for DJ Harvey’s Sarcastic Disco, a recurring party he did with Paul Takahashi that’s become part of clubland lore. It grew from a core 500 attendees for almost a decade to a 2,000-person event in its last few years, becoming too big for its ethos. In the process, however, the underground reputation Harvey brought Stateside grew to fabled proportions around the continent, making him an in-demand entity. Interestingly, his lack of legal residency, which kept him landlocked for a decade, made him an in-demand entity abroad. For a while, Harvey went off-continent, establishing the thirtyninehotel club in Chinatown, Honolulu, on the Hawaiian island of Oahu.
A couple of weeks prior to this interview, he threw a free party (sponsored by Red Bull with an open bar) and DJed for six hours straight in a turned-out warehouse in Downtown L.A. where the queue to get in was wrapped around the corner for the duration of the event. A real mixture of ethnicities and ages, Harvey’s backdrop of podium dancers summarized the crowd: a bendy African American gay boy in a makeshift toga and a chubby, micro-mini-skirted Latina chick, both of them giving it the big, fabulous attitude.
DJ Times: The Red Bull event was astounding, with such a diverse crowd, especially considering it wasn’t promoted at all.
DJ Harvey: If everyone in the crowd was my age, or older, it would be a geriatric disco. With EDM, one thing that’s happened is the rise of what I call “hipster house.” People in tight black jeans, beanies like a nutbag, black leather jacket with a hoodie underneath and maybe denim sleeves on the leather jacket, and a beard. People who all of a sudden like this thing called “deep-house.” I’m really into shallow house at the moment, but it has been productive for young, stylish, educated, bright people to get into real dance music. I don’t know where they’re from, but they’re discovering disco and, for someone like me, it’s great, because I’ve got all those records.
DJ Times: What happened with your Sarcastic Disco parties?
DJ Harvey: It started very local Los Angeles, heavily Hispanic and Asian, which for me coming from London, is very exotic. In the last five years, it crossed over into a younger, more fashionable crowd who, if you’re there because you think you should be there, you’ll soon leave because it’s not for you. Some of that music can be a little bit challenging. It’s not entry-level stuff. It encourages abandon and if you’re shy or not prepared to enter into it, it probably won’t do anything for you. We were drawing too much attention to ourselves. It’s very difficult to be clandestine when there’s a line of 2,000 people down the street. DJ Harvey parties in Los Angeles have taken a duck and a weave to the left and doing things slightly differently, but just as good and just as happening.
DJ Times: You had a run at doing your own club from scratch with thirtyninehotel in Hawaii. How was that experience?
DJ Harvey: That was fun while it lasted, seven years in all. I was involved for five years. It didn’t last long once I’d left. We had David Mancuso’s sound system from The Gallery. [Mancuso] had put it together from the mid-’70s through to the mid-’80s. There were components that had been serviced by Rosner Custom Sound—Alex Rosner being the first guy to build a commercially available DJ mixer—Mark Levinson ML-2s, and original Klipschorn speakers. Because those cabinets were designed in the ’50s, they’re not built to handle modern music. They have a very sweet mid-range and treble, but they don’t have the umph that’s required for modern music. I went to Larry Levan’s supplier, Gary Stewart, for Bertha bassbins and tweeters to augment the Klipschorns. I had Isonoe customize my turntables, a UREI mixer, and a beautiful DJ booth built. I never finished the acoustic treatment of the room and that’s half of it. You can put the best sound system in the world in a church, and it sounds like you’re in a gymnasium. We were getting there, but it never reached its full potential.
DJ Times: Would you want to create a club from scratch again?
DJ Harvey: I enjoy showing up and playing records. I don’t enjoy worrying about if we’re going to get sued because the security has beaten up another guy and thrown him down the stairs and he’s got a fractured skull, some girl’s ODed in the toilets again, there are no light bulbs or toilet tissue in the entire club, the bar manager’s stealing all the money—everything that comes with running a club. I would love to be a musical director of a club and help install the sound system and be a resident DJ. It’s the kind of work I know how to do. It would be nice to do the “one DJ/one club” thing. When I used to go clubbing, I didn’t go to see DJs, I went to the club: the Roxy, Devil’s Nest, Latin Quarter, Paradise Garage. I didn’t know who the DJ was or where they were in the club—I was too busy dancing. They would be in a tiny slit, three stories up, magical and mythical.
Harvey’s myth has elevated to such proportions that unlike today’s producers-turned-DJs, he doesn’t need to put out any music, ever, to maintain his packed gigging schedule. This is not to say that he doesn’t make music. In fact, he doesn’t stop, but he doesn’t put any pressure on it either. He established Black Cock Records with Gerry Rooney in the early ’90s where, along with his friend Simon Lovejoy, they put their imprint on many records via their famed disco edits. He has his techno disco band Locussolus and his dormant Map Of Africa project with fellow Tonka DJ, Thomas Bullock (A.R.E. Weapons, Rub N Tug), plus Food Of the Gods, and Rwandan Ice Cream Project, to mention a few.
Although it was completed two years ago, Harvey’s latest project, Wildest Dreams, was timed perfectly for this past summer. A psychedelic-rock project he put together with the L.A.-based funk band, Orgone, it came from the ashes of the never realized second Map Of Africa album. Wildest Dreams taps into Harvey’s early musical influences. After rock-n-rollers from his mother’s record collection like Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Gene Vincent and Jerry Lee Lewis came British blues-based rock like Cream, Deep Purple, Yardbirds, Graham Bond, Peter Green, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, and their drummers: Mitch Mitchell, Ian Paice, Ginger Baker, Harvey’s heroes. Besides playing drums and a bit of guitar on Wildest Dreams, Harvey also sings, which he did on the Map Of Africa album as well. His lazy drawl has a come-hither quality dribbling atop the wandering throwback keys and hazy guitars. With titles like “Rollerskates,” “405,” “Pleasure Swell” and “Last Ride,” and sentiments to match, Harvey has created the soundtrack to his laidback SoCal lifestyle.
DJ Times: The psych-rock of Wildest Dreams is not the type of sound your fans would automatically associate with you—even though they know your tastes are broad.
DJ Harvey: I wanted to make music that is played by humans rather than sequenced by humans. The Map Of Africa album took four years and $100,000. I took my ideas to Orgone and made the album in four weeks.
DJ Times: How did you convey your ideas to Orgone?
DJ Harvey: With musicians that can actually play, you don’t have to rehearse, it’s all eye contact, especially the blues. I played them records and very simple chord structures on the guitar. We would jam around it, live jams so everything was recorded together, I would write poems over the top, then guitar solos and vocals were overdubbed. The guys are really talented musicians. I think playing rock-n-roll rather than funk was refreshing to them. We recorded the album in a week and it was mixed 10 days after that.
DJ Times: What did you use to record?
DJ Harvey: Sergio Rios in the band was the recording engineer as well as the rhythm-cum-lead guitarist on the project. He has a beautiful TASCAM 8-track, ¼-inch tape recorder, which we recorded the music on, and a couple of ribbon microphones on the drums. That’s why it sounds authentic—it’s traditional music recorded in a traditional way. It sounds quite raw. Some bits of it are too raw, but that nudges it into a punk realm that music doesn’t have today. There are a lot of new bands making so-called psychedelic music that’s very polished, with no mistakes. Everything is so edited and refined and perfected, all the rawness has been ground out of it. The majority of the takes on this record were first takes.
DJ Times: How do you feel about singing?
DJ Harvey: I don’t think you have to be very good at singing to be a singer. If you look at modern pop music, people who can’t sing to save their lives become famous and make lots of money, but are soulless. I would like to think that I can’t sing, but I’ve got soul. Someone like Shaun Ryder from the Happy Mondays isn’t the greatest singer in the world, but he gets the message across in a fantastic way. Same with Shawn McGowan of the Pogues, who coughing through his toothless chops somehow gets the message across. Those are the guys I use as inspiration. If they’re not scared, why should I be?
DJ Times: Despite the different musical projects you are involved in, you’ve managed to bypass the requirement to constantly put out music to stay relevant.
DJ Harvey: I’ve been lucky enough and at it long enough that the ripples coming out of my DJing are entertaining enough that I don’t necessarily have to release a track every month. I would probably find that difficult to do because I don’t have the umbrage to achieve as far as production goes.
DJ Times: That’s impressive and not something many DJs can say.
DJ Harvey: You have to work to build it up. America is not somewhere you can just impose yourself. I had a small reputation from Europe, but I worked at it. I’ve got a history, I’ve got a story to tell, I’ve got the best records in the whole world, I can put them together alright, I’ve got something to offer, people are responding to that and everything is going from strength to strength.