A figure of British clubbing folklore, Harvey is returning to the UK for the most anticipated DJ sets in years.
Some guys have all the luck: Harvey Bassett’s one of them.
Born in Cambridge, Harvey’s first introduction to the music business came through his time spent as a teenager in the punk band Ersatz. This was followed by a spell in New York where he hung out with the Rocksteady Crew, started graffiti bombing, and came back with a passion for hip hop and the realisation that records could be used as rhythmic replacements for the drums. Soon after, he found himself throwing parties in Cambridge and later Brighton, where he was adept at combining a burgeoning passion for house and garage with his already-instilled love of rare groove and hip hop as part of the TONKA Hi-Fi collective. With Harvey being Harvey, things didn’t stop there. He soon found himself with a residency at the Ministry of Sound alongside long-running nights at other clubs. During this period he also found the time to release the now seminal Black Cock disco edit 12”s with Gerry Rooney, remixed countless tracks, built a reputation as a master of his art, and a few years after that, moved to America.
Having been approached by the titular Japanese clothing company, his Sarcasticdisco mix changed everything; despite the original pressing stretching to a mere 1000 copies, the mix’s abstract, wonked-out, unrepentantly trippy combination of obscure disco cuts, out-there Balearic, slow-mo electro and ethereal ambient, ushered in a new era of cosmic disco exploration that gave birth to the likes of Lindstrøm, Prins Thomas and Todd Terje. The highly exclusive, invite-only Sarcastic Disco parties followed, and stage two of Harvey’s career went into overdrive.
Now he divides his time between living in Los Angeles and playing marathon sets – sets encompassing the outer reaches of a devout record-freak’s extensive, seemingly flawless collection – all over the world. After an initially self-imposed, and then government-enforced, stay in America, DJ Harvey is finally set to step up to the decks on these shores for the first time in over a decade. With Red Bull Music Academy as the catalyst, he is playing all nighters at the Bethnal Green Oval Space in London, and as part of the Warehouse Project series of parties in Manchester.
Ahead of two of the most anticipated nights in British clubbing for years, Crack was gifted the privilege of talking to a man who’s not only one of the most sought-after DJs in the world, but an unfailingly polite, charming, erudite and funny bloke. When Crack put the call through to California, it was staring out of the window at a rain-sodden carpark on a cold Monday night. Harvey, on the other hand, was up in the hills of Hollywood, soaking up the sun, giving us live handclap-reverb tests, musing on the best place for fish and chips on the Pacific coast, relaying his thoughts on the legions of arms-folded-down-at-the-front dudes at his sets, and much, much more.
Where in the world are you right now, Harvey?
Right now I’m in Los Angeles, Burbank, the other side of the mountain from the Hollywood sign, and I’m busy scoping out a venue for the next Sarcastic Disco. The weather’s absolutely gorgeous out here and I’m really excited because the venue is un-fucking-believable. It’s massive, amazing. We’re going to have a serious party in here.
Excellent. So, why the UK and why now?
All the ingredients have finally come together. I was unable to leave the States for almost ten years because I overstayed my visa, but I’ve actually had a green card now for a couple of years and I’ve been touring the world. I’ve done tours of Japan and Europe and all the rest of it and I really wanted to do the right thing in England and that make it super-nice. You only come back from ten years away in your career once, and I wanted to make it special. I was looking for the right sponsorship and the right venue and the right dates, the right soundsystem and logistics. The stars have aligned and it’s finally all come together for these upcoming dates. Red Bull Music Academy are helping with financing and such for the venue and the soundsystem and the promotion, and that’s allowed me to put on such a high-end production, basically.
In your time away from England, was there anything you missed about the culture, anything you wished you’d had with you?
First off, I would say no. I used to think in England the weather was bad and the food was bad and the people just moaned all the time, but in general, since I’ve spent all this time in America, I’ve realised how fantastic English food is, and how fantastic English weather is. And in America they don’t have much of a sense of sarcasm or irony or stuff like that, and that sense of English eccentricity, which I missed. That sense of humour. When I speak to my buddies back in England that’s what I miss the most: the eccentricity and sense of humour.
Do you ever feel like an Englishman abroad?
I do a little bit, when I’m misunderstood. As I mentioned before, there’s no irony or no sarcasm out here. People take stuff at face value. And a lot of people are quite paranoid, so I might just come out with some little quip and the next thing the guy wants to shoot me. ‘I didn’t mean it like that mate, I was just taking the piss!’ They don’t have that. Taking the piss doesn’t exist here: it’s all or nothing really. [Adopts New Jersey accent] ‘Hey, you bustin’ my balls?’
How did you go from being Harvey Bassett, drummer in the Cambridge punk band Erstatz, to becoming DJ Harvey, everyone’s favourite cosmic DJ?
In a nutshell: I played drums in bands in the mid-to-late 70s as a youngster, and then started to get a little disillusioned with that, because being in a band is like having four girlfriends. And then your girlfriends get girlfriends and it’s a disaster. Then in the early 80s, hip-hop started coming back from New York. I got interested in that, in realising that I could be a kind of one man band, and that beat-juggling and breakbeats were an extension of drumming, just playing with rhythms. I got a bit of an understanding about DJing through hip-hop and rare groove and reggae. But then in the mid-to-late 80s, there was a shift and hip-hop was becoming rap and it wasn’t really touching me as much as a party music – it got too serious. There was this new electronic music coming though Chicago and Detroit, and the Balearic stuff coming back from Spain and Ibiza after the holiday seasons, and that really appealed to me. The music was heavy but the attitude was good and I started to focus on dance music. I think I was in the right place at the right time in the late 80s and early 90s, with what became known as the TONKA Soundsystem. I got noticed and taken onboard to residencies at Ministry of Sound and the Moist parties and the Zap club, and that really ran through the ten years of disco that was the 90s. That started to fade a little towards the turn of the century, and shortly after 9/11 I moved to America – I got the cheap seats. That was the start of a kind of new life. I had this opportunity to DJ all over the world, to live wherever I wanted to, so I moved to the States and built my reputation in New York and Los Angeles, started the Sarcastic Disco parties, and the parties at the Passerby Bar with Eric Duncan and Thomas Bullock of Rub’n’Tug. The rest is history really. The whole cosmic/Balearic thing kinda kicked off with the release of the Sarcastic Disco CD, which changed the face of modern dance music in many respects by putting the focus back on the European, old school sound. Right now, with my visa and everything all in order, everything’s in great shape. I’m taking it back to the world again with tours of Japan, Europe and East Asia – the more the merrier. I’m coming back to England for some glorious parties.
Going back a few years, your Late Night Sessions mix (part of the Ministry Of Sound’s after-hours CD series) and other Harvey-artefacts from that era feature jazzier, deep-housier stuff than we’ve come to expect now. Do you pride yourself on confounding expectations?
I like to think I move with the times, being a man of the moment, and I feel that I’ve always played classic and modern dance music; if you take the Late Night Sessions, that was the sound of then, the cosmic-revival Sarcastic CD was the sound of then, and that’s twelve years old now. I think the shows in London will have a little bit of everything: there’ll be some stuff people can remember from their early days of clubbing, maybe in the late 80s, through to some very modern, progressive, technological based music from today that could be played at any nightclub frequented by young people in their late-teens to early-20s.
With Sarcastic – the mix and the parties – is there an overarching ethos?
It’s all about a serious good time really. Sarcastic is a very traditional warehouse party. It’s clandestine, we party all night long, the venues change every time, we have a good soundsystem, a great set-up. It’s an opportunity to celebrate life through dance. There’s no sort of real cult doctrine. It is very special; I’ve DJed all over the clubbing globe, and the Sarcastic Disco parties are the best underground dance party in the world bar none – and I’ve done most of them. Everywhere from Berghain to parties in Ibiza, from festivals to warehouse parties in Detroit to Reykjavik. I’ve been from Perth to Kyoto, so I do have a pretty good view of what’s going on, and Sarcastic ranks pretty much number one. We do it on our own terms, and that’s really it. We’re not really adhering to any sort of rules or regulations other than our own, and we have a really wonderful mixed crowd of old school and new school, black and white and green and yellow, gay and straight and everything in-between, with me trying my best to play a great selection of all the great dance music that’s available to me, which is an awful lot. It’s very simple in many respects.
Do you allow yourself to be placed in the lineage of the great DJs like David Mancuso, Larry Levan etc?
I’d like to think that maybe I’m holding the torch for the disco Olympics. I’ve put in my time in the trenches, as it were, and I totally show respect and honour to the people who’ve come before me and my peers as well. There’s a select group of people like Levan and Mancuso and Nicky Siano – those DJs that have made a contribution to the scene. I’d be honoured to be a legend, and if people are telling stories about you, then you are legendary. I’d like to think that one day people’ll say, ‘Oh yeah, when Harvey was alive man, back in whatever-it-was, those were the days, we had some fantastic parties.’ People usually look back fondly and think of the good times. It would be nice to be in the disco DJ hall of fame in years to come.
You’ve been on the scene for decades, does partying still have the same appeal as it did? Do you go out and see DJs?
Not by design. I rarely ‘go out’, as such, because it’s my work. But from time to time I’ll find myself almost accidentally in a situation where I’m listening to a DJ, and I love to dance; I do a lot of bedroom dancing, which I find the most satisfying actually because you can do embarrassing things without being embarrassed.
Got any tips for a non-dancing dance music lover?
Drink half a bottle of Jack Daniels and find yourself a dark corner. You’ll soon get the courage up. I’m sure drugs help – I wouldn’t want to promote drugs but I think they’re part and parcel of many forms of social interaction, or at least a catalyst of some sort.
Related to that, what are your current vices, if any?
I used to do absolutely everything, from intravenous heroin, to smoking crack cocaine, I was an alcoholic for a good 20 years. But as we speak, I’m completely fucking sober, and have been for six months. It’s been pretty odd really. It’s like an alternative reality which is actually reality. It’s not all bad, it’s not all good, but neither is taking drugs. Over the years I’ve indulged in pretty much everything and there’s been ups and downs and sideways. As we speak, I don’t smoke cigarettes, I don’t drink alcohol, or eat pills, or sniff powders or anything like that. All I’ve got left is steak, cake, and violence.
I think things that are life threatening are quite stimulating. Whether it’s driving my motorcycle at 150mph, surfing good-sized waves, skateboarding, making sort of bigoted comments to minority groups – there’s a certain form of adrenaline rush to these and it’s a buzz.
Do you have a stance on the rise of laptop DJing and the move away from physical formats?
It doesn’t really bother me at all. I still play records as much as I can and I’ll play CDs of things that don’t exist on vinyl, whether it’s edits, or mixes, or new material that hasn’t managed to reach vinyl yet, but if I can possibly find a vinyl copy I still will. I think that it still sounds better, given a soundsystem that will reproduce it well. Vinyl still sounds pretty damn good compared other formats. I think ultimately a good party or a good DJ will transcend all formats. But personally, I don’t think that staring at a computer is very glamorous. To have those discs in hand still holds a certain magic.
Club crowds seem to be dominated by dudes staring intently at the DJ; do you want eyes focused on you, or do you want the dancefloor to concentrate on itself?
Firstly, the rows of trainspotters staring at Jeff Mills or me, or whoever, are having a really good time. It’s just that that’s how they do it. I think they may be a little bit frightened to express themselves physically, especially in front of a group of their peers. To show some form of physical abandon is quite a daunting task for a young man of the straight persuasion. Dancing is such a wonderful release, it’s one of the best feelings you can get and you can get into an amazing sort of trance and you naturally … listen, you don’t need drugs, you might need a couple of whiskeys to get you on the dancefloor, but once you’re up and running the endorphins start flowing and you get very high from just dancing. I would say that the trainspotters, they’re studying and they’re there. They don’t have to be standing there; they could very easily be at home masturbating or whatever else they do. I would generally prefer a crowd of people who aren’t really staring me but at each other and getting off on staring at girls wiggling and dancing. In general, DJs are actually very boring to watch, especially DJs that DJ via a computer – there’s not very much to see at all.
What’s the status with Locussolus? Can we expect an album-length follow-up to the Berghain/Telephone 12”?
There’ll definitely be another album. I’m working on the follow-up to the single, and I’ll probably do three single releases, so six tracks, then a few others, a couple of remixes, and then a CD release. I really enjoy it. It’s exciting to get in the studio and get some grooves going and work on them and think about how other people might enjoy them.
Do you still have the same passion and drive you did when you first began playing out? Is it still a pleasure for you? Or has it become ‘just’ a job?
It’s more than just a job: it’s a fantastic job, my rent gets paid for doing what I love doing, which is living in the realm of art, making music, or playing records or whatever. Sometimes it can get a little tough on the road, it’s not all glamour, but in general, it is all glamour. Few people get to get up and go surfing and DJ their nights away, so I consider myself lucky and I try to do it justice. I try to put on a good show and entertain people so they get their money’s worth.
Final thing: what’s coming up for DJ Harvey after the homecoming?
I’m really busy in the run up to the end of the year, though as we speak I don’t yet have a New Year’s Eve gig lined up. I’m pretty much everywhere: a gig in Amsterdam, playing in Mexico City, another Sarcastic Disco, I’m doing a regular gig at Santos in New York, stuff in San Francisco – just keeping on keeping on basically.
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DJ Harvey plays the following dates for Red Bull Music Academy:
Oval Space, London| October 19th
Warehouse Project | October 25th
Words: Josh Baines