DJ Harvey: the interview

Eight hour DJ sets? ‘That’s what I do,’ says the disco veteran

DJ Harvey: the interview

When people ask Harvey Bassett about his DJing, he doesn’t mess around. ‘I'm like: Look, I'm a personality DJ,’ he says. ‘And what that means is, when I DJ, you get my personality. I’ve got all the records that were ever made at my fingertips, and I choose to play a selection that conveys how I feel, and how I would like you to feel.’ On December 31, Tokyo clubbers are going to get a hefty dose of that personality as DJ Harvey plays an eight-hour set at Freaks NYE 2011-2012, a warehouse party where he’s the first – and only – guest of honour.

Born in Cambridge, Harvey got his start in music when he was recruited as the drummer for a local punk band – still barely into his teens. An affection for the emerging hip hop scene led him to start DJing, and his blend of house, disco and garage would later earn him a residency at the newly opened Ministry of Sound nightclub in London. By the early ’90s, he had acquired a strong following in Japan, while his series of disco re-edits released on the Black Cock label with Gerry Rooney are now cult collectors’ items.

A move to the US in the wake of 9/11 became rather more long-term after he outstayed his visa, and Harvey is now a green card-carrying resident of Venice Beach, California, where Time Out called him on a typically gorgeous day in December.

When we saw you do a three-hour set at Freaks Music Festival in May, it left us thinking we’d like to see you do three hours more. And now here you are, doing an all-nighter…
‘Yeah. I think it’s a very different dynamic at the kind of festival-type thing. To be honest, I don’t like it very much.’

‘I’m a nightclub DJ, man. I think festivals are for bands, really: disco doesn’t work if you’re up to your knees in mud. I mean, I’m a pro, I can play anywhere, but I would rather be in a club or a warehouse than in a tent or on a stage at a festival. I just think DJs aren’t very entertaining to look at: it’s like everyone’s standing there, looking at this guy that looks like an old lady making pizza. It’s fucking ridiculous. I think stages are for bands and pyrotechnics and strippers and stuff – not really for DJs.’

What do you think of the DJs who attempt to inject some visual element into what they’re doing?
‘I think it doesn’t work. It’s actually very hard to watch something and dance at the same time. If you’re going to concentrate on a movie, you don’t really want to be spinning round and round and rolling on the floor – which is how I dance.’

This is going to be the first time you’ve actually done an all-night set in Japan, isn’t it?
‘Um… yes and no. I remember going to... I think the club was called Picasso, in Shibuya, many years ago, and it was 10-o’clock at night, and I’m like, “What time do you want me to stop?” and they’re like, “Oh, 10-o’clock.” I’m like, “No, not what time do I start, what time do I stop?” and they’re like, “Yeah, 10-o’clock in the morning. Twelve hours later.” I’m like, “Oh! All right…” The Japanese will definitely put you to work. I’ve played many extended sets. On the last couple of tours, it hasn’t been the very, very long sets, because the tours have been intense: there would’ve been no time for sleep or travel if I was to play from midnight to midday for 20 days in a row. It’s impossible to do. I wouldn’t say this is the first time that I’ve played all night in Japan, but the first time, probably, in recent times.’

The lineup for Freaks NYE 2011-2012 looks downright spartan compared to some of the other events in Tokyo. Do you think it’s quite bold to say: one room, one DJ, one night?
‘No – that’s what I do. I suppose I’m honored that people would let me do such a thing, but in many ways that’s how it should be done. If you’re a well-rounded professional DJ who’s played records for 30 years and can throw down, then that’s how it should be. I’ve got plenty of music to play and I can string ’em together in a half-decent manner, and to sort of break it up with personality changes every hour or something would, I think, take away from the night.’

Do you think that DJs who’ve grown up accustomed to one-hour sets might struggle with an all-nighter?
‘I don’t know: I don't listen to any DJs. For me, if I only had an hour to play, that’s like five records. It’s like, “Oh… oh dear.” And it’d take me 45 minutes to sort of get my shit together, so they’d only get 15 minutes of me in the moment... I think to ask someone to dance solidly for four hours – that’s a long time to be on the dancefloor.’

But then it does feel a lot easier when it’s at 120 BPM…
‘Yeah, but during a long set, I’ll go through all sorts of tempos. Maybe a little of the skill in being able to play those longer sets is knowing when to inject energy into the set and when to give people a rest.’

Apparently Larry Levan could point at a group of people who weren’t dancing, and be like: Okay, I’m going to make those guys dance. And he knew exactly what record to play.
‘Yeah, definitely. The Garage had a large dancefloor, and there would be different factions on the floor, so you could probably see a particular group of queens that you knew were gonna jump up and down to Diana Ross, whereas the b-boys at the front are gonna react to James Brown. So I’m sure he could see down onto the floor and totally control particular areas of the crowd, let alone the whole crowd.’

Do you find that Japanese audiences are particularly clued-up about what you’re playing?
‘Yeah – I think in Japan, in general, whatever it may be that they’re into, they’re very into it. I call it The Mania, where they’ve done their disco homework, and know about various scenes and records and stuff, and are very, very into it. You can walk into a record store in Japan, and there’ll be a section of like, “DJ Harvey played all these records last week,” and next to that, there’s a section of, “DJ Harvey’s gonna play all these records this week.” And I don’t even know that! They’re really on it.’

There’s a Japanese nightlife website called Clubberia that voted your 1989 Garage Groove mix as their favorite mix of 2010.
‘Really? (Laughs)’

How do you feel about stuff like that?
‘I think if anyone feels my stuff is good, that’s all good for me, that’s great. I dunno how on earth they got their hands on that – they were some tapes that I used to sell in Camden Lock market back then.’

Do you feel any attachment to mixes of yours that were recorded decades ago?
‘No, not at all. I did listen through that Garage Groove, and it was interesting. I remember, actually, a lot of those tapes that I’d made, they were made specifically to sell. Those tracks that were on there were tracks that were very popular at the time, so it wasn’t necessarily me being extremely creative or digging out my deepest, darkest, rarest garage tracks... I’ve done very few mixtapes and recordings and things like that, and that hasn’t stopped the bootleggers and the burners and the blog droppers pumping out as much stuff of me as they could find.’

Didn’t you reissue some of the Black Cock stuff yourself because the quality of the bootlegs were so bad?
‘Yeah – not necessarily the quality of the bootlegs, just that someone else was really just using me to make money, you know what I mean? And that’s really annoying. There’s so many records: why couldn’t they just edit up their own record? I suppose it’s demand and supply: they were rare records, people wanted the records, so some enterprising arsehole bootlegged them and sold them. In many respects, the Black Cock records themselves live in a grey area of publishing – to be blatantly honest, they’re virtual bootlegs in themselves – but it was never a business deal. We made no fucking money out of that stuff: all the distributors went bust with the copies. Me and Gerry [Rooney] had sushi dinner once off the back of Black Cock. But the bootlegging side of it was a pure cutthroat business proposition by someone that doesn’t even fucking like music. So yeah, they’ll get theirs.’

Last of all: what are the nicest and nastiest things anyone’s ever said to you?
‘Oh God… I don’t know. I think, probably all in the same comment. Once this girl came up – rather attractive blonde girl – in Brighton, and leaned way over the front of the DJ booth and said, “Would you put pegs on my nipples and fuck me up the arse while I’m doing a line of coke?” And I thought that was the nicest and the nastiest thing anyone had ever said to me.’

Did you take her up on it?
‘I think my reply was, “I’m sorry love, I haven’t got that one with me.” (Laughs) And then five minutes after that, some dude came in and was like, “Oi, mate, have you seen my wife? She’s this kind of attractive blonde chick…” She’d just been kicked out of the club. Fucking hilarious.’

DJ Harvey plays at Freaks NYE 2011-2012, December 31, Differ Ariake

By James Hadfield
Please note: All information is correct at the time of writing but is subject to change without notice.


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