DJ HARVEY’S WILDEST DREAMS: TOO HEAVY
DJ Harvey is perhaps best-known for being a famous dance/electronic DJ who contributed cheerfully to many a person losing their mind in public, but the Englishman-turned-California-surfer-dude also has a soft spot for what he refers to as ‘California folk music’-—which to him is psychedelic rock, some adroitly funky beats, and songs that start with ‘Move over honey / I think I want to drive.” His Wildest Dreams outfit is him and an as-of-press-time-nameless band, and Harvey himself joined us while recovering from the effects of a bad kale smoothie. He performs at FYF Fest this Saturday night. This interview by Kristina Benson.
If you were trapped in a lifeboat from the whale ship Essex with three other musicians of your choice, who would you cannibalize first?
I’d say the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and I would eat Mitch Mitchell so I could do all the drumming.
Why so into the story of the Essex?
It’s just a wonderful story. I’ve attempted to read Moby Dick on numerous occasions, and it’s just a difficult book to read. I like the idea of these wild men of years gone by who went through unbelievably tough situations and rose above and survived—and they’re awfully eccentric and wacky people, too—when the world wasn’t completely mapped out. I mean, it was probably a much worse place than now. You got a toothache and you died! But it’s just a fantastic story. It puts the whole thing in perspective. The Japanese didn’t eat all the whales, the Americans burnt them all. The Essex had to go to the Pacific cuz they killed all the whales in the Atlantic. The Japanese weren’t traveling to the Atlantic to eat whales. The Americans had burned them all cuz before oil was discovered in Texas, the oil that fueled America was whale oil. And baleen was used for French corsets—hence whalebone corsets. And the fat, the good stuff, was used to make lipstick. We rub whales all over our faces and then set fire to them—but we blame it on the poor Japanese fishermen! Poor old whaley! It’s pretty sad stuff … but whales still taste good! I’ve eaten a lot in Japan. I don’t seek it out but it’s like a cross between tuna and beef. It has a long grain. Lots of different cuts. It’s a big fish! They should farm the whales and then it’s all good. I think whales are actually better off now than they have been in the last 400 years—I read a book about Greenpeace needing a figurehead for people to associate with them—
They needed an adorable animal cuz no one would care about saving some bug?
Exactly—no one cares about codfish. Which are dying off cuz no one cares. They renamed another fish cod. When I was a kid, you did not eat tilapia. Tilapia was thrown away. I think Alaskan cod and black cod aren’t cod. They’re something else. What can you do? Eat it while there’s some left.
Speaking of the Old World—you are in England right now to play a gig. Did you have a chance to do anything fun or was it all work?
I did go to the British Museum to check out the sarcophagi—the British stole all the best stuff around the world and put it in their museums. Most people who had an empire stole cool shit. But we have the Rosetta Stone, all these mummies—they must have desecrated so many burial sites! But I really love the stone sarcophagi. The Egyptians really seem like … sorta stone Cadillacs in which to reach the afterlife. Some are sports versions, some are SUVs. It’s mind-blowingly cosmic stuff.
How did you make this Wildest Dreams album? Did you mind-control some band into doing what you wanted?
I kind of put this band together—they were a funk band who were nameless at the moment, and I told them they should play rock ‘n’ roll instead of funk. I had a little bit of a concept and they were a ready-made band. We listened to some records and we’d come up with some simple chord structures, and then we’d jam around those, and I’d sorta write some poetry and make verses and the chorus and then dub some solos and … like that!
What were those records?
Probably something by Captain Beefheart, something by Can?
You’re kind of a shredder—why were you hiding that? Shouldn’t the world know Harvey can knock out some amazing psychedelic guitar?
There’s two of us who play on Wildest Dreams—maybe the more accomplished stuff isn’t me! It’s funny—if you asked me to play that stuff I couldn’t do it. But sometimes it just comes out of my hands. It’s a thing that happens with drums all the time. You kinda go beyond what is humanly possible. And when you lock into that force, it takes over and you can do things that aren’t possible! I played guitar for many years, since I was a kid at school, but I was never any good at it. I always wanted to be, but I was never any good. But with the modern age and computers, you only have to get it right once. I dunno if I could sing and play on stage. I could sing and drum, do the ol’ Phil Collins thing, but when I play guitar, I’m hunched over like Robert Fripp, sitting in a chair with a little prop for my foot and it’s all up high and not very glamorous at all. But it sounds okay.
Why did you end up making this specific kind of music? You must have some of every type of record ever made in your collection. How come Wildest Dreams ended up sounding like a 60s or 70s psych band? Is this your default setting?
It’s definitely what I grew up with. The first-ever music I got into was my mother’s collection of what I call ‘real rock ‘n’ roll and jazz.’ By ‘real’ rock ‘n’ roll I mean Jerry Lewis, Bill Haley, Gene Vincent, Johnny Cash, that stuff on Sun Records. Basic real 50s rock ‘n’ roll. My mum had nice jazz music, too, and I remember my babysitter playing me some Jimi Hendrix and saying, ‘This’ll be too heavy for you.’ But I didn’t know what heavy meant! And when I heard it, I was like, ‘I dunno what this HEAVY is, but it’s amazing!’ Then I got into what I suppose now is traditional rock ‘n’ roll in many respects—the English blues-based rock ‘n’ roll, Cream and the Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, Peter Green and Fleetwood Mac, all that stuff. And psychedelia at the same time. Then punk rock came and that was a real teenage revolution—a real hark back to original rock ‘n’ roll with attitude and everything, and I felt that was more ‘mine.’ I was 13 or 14 at the time and thought, ‘This is the first time this has ever happened!’ Then I started listening to the Stooges and the MC5 and California psych and all that … I dunno, it’s a massive story! And then hip-hop is the next thing after punk, and in the 70s disco was all around. And to be a real punk, you listened to disco cuz you weren’t supposed to! Like being a real satanist—you do things you’re not supposed to! You contradict yourself.
What do you think is next in the great pop culture recycle cycle?
Who knows? There’s an early 90s revival happening at the moment far as I can see with dance music. Kids making this almost proto-house sound. The next way to go as far as dance music is … gospel house? Overproduced gospel house meets late-90s dance? As far as techno, gabber and overtempo—maybe a drum ‘n’ bass revival? You never know what kids dig up. As far as rock ‘n’ roll, it seems like it’s all been done two or three times. You just get a new injection of energy, and then talented people come add a little flavor and you have a leap forward in technology and then a step back—now everybody’s all about tape! It’s difficult to really predict the future. Hopefully someone will find the 13th bar of the 12-bar blues and we’ll have a complete rock ‘n’ roll revolution. It’d be great!
Was 68 to 74 the peak of psychedelic dude music?
There’s incredible music being made right now. It’s probably at its peak somewhere with some kids who threw their computers away and are living in a hole in the desert and we know nothing about it, and it’ll be discovered in years to come. And it’ll be an amazing thing cuz they went off the grid and it was allowed to mature and develop. If I was a younger man, I’d jump up and down on my computer and go live in a hole in the desert with a bunch of crazy, young, disaffected middle-class chicks and make the best music since the Beach Boys.
When you made these songs, were you accessing your internal encyclopedia of music? Like, ‘Oh, this would be cool if it was like Twink but more of an Easter Everywhere sound, and then put out on Harvest’?
I describe the album as California folk music—very traditional and simple.
When you say California folk music, do you mean like the Mamas and the Papas?
It is like the Mamas and the Papas, just the singing’s not as good! Maybe I shoulda spent more than four days on this?
That’s it? You’re so lucky to just go so fast. I get nervous if what I’m making is good.
It doesn’t matter what you think, it’s what other people think—you just have to put it out there and somebody will like it. Do something—maybe lots of people like it? I don’t worry about that now. Lots of people like things I don’t like. So if I don’t like it, it’s got nothing to do with whether lots of people like it or not.
So … do you like this record?
It’s not too painful! I’m more about the initial spark of creation, rather than wallowing in how fantastic it is afterward. There’s nothing too complicated to blues and psychedelic chord progressions. Usually three or four chords, played with feeling and heart, and that’s where the magic comes.
How scared were you that first time you DJed in front of a lot of people?
I’m happy on stage—I’m an entertainer. That’s my realm. I’m always nervous before I go on, no matter what. But within a few minutes that turns into power when I’m on stage, and I quite enjoy it. I’m nervous cuz I want to do well, and I care what people think! I’m not one of those people who doesn’t give a fuck. I think anyone who says they don’t give a fuck, they actually really do an awful lot.
You said earlier that you don’t care if people like your record—you don’t feel the same when you go DJ a party?
No—interesting you should say that. It’s a different form of performance. I don’t approach DJing like that. When I’m DJing, I do consider the people and try to make them happy, cuz they’re right there in your face! When I produce music, I dunno … it’s not like there’s an audience right there instantly … that could walk away! Although with a record, they have a chance to listen to it before they pay for it. With a DJ performance, they paid for it before they get it.
You said having a band is like having four girlfriends—is Wildest Dreams like that?
I haven’t spent enough time with them! That was from when I joined my first band at 15 or 16. You all go to school together and hang out or live in the same apartment and travel around in the van, and you have very close love-hate relationships. And then your girlfriends get girlfriends who start to determine they don’t like you being heavy metal and want you to be a hair metal band! The state I’m in, we’re a little more mature. We’ve got wives and children and mothers-in-law and mortgages—a slightly different take!
What’s it like partying when you’re sober?
I don’t go to bars—bars are somewhere you go to drink and I don’t drink so there’s no reason for me to go there. I’m lucky cuz my profession puts me in a social zone, which I like. So I party for a living, not for recreation. Whereas most people do some job for a living and party for recreation—I’m the other way around! Although I actually do absolutely nothing for recreation and party for a living!
Do you still surf?
Yeah, and ride my skateboard and eat nice food and listen to music. It’s changed, but for the better. I found that 35 years of doing this—when I was a drunk—that every sort of three or four months, I’d do something really mentally stupid and it was only a matter of time before I woke up next to a dead girl.
That didn’t happen, did it?
That didn’t happen … but it almost did, or I could have woke up and I was dead! So you get that out of the equation. And owning firearms isn’t quite as dangerous as it was.
You’ve really assimilated if you own firearms. Are you into guns?
Yeah! I suppose it’s a little bit wrong, but I see them as sexy and glamorous, which I think few people would admit to. Apart from that, they’re fucking useless. Apart from being a fantasy item for sex and fantasy violence. If you take them into the real world and use them for what they’re meant for, which is … what’s the word? Attack. I don’t think they’re very good for defense, which is an excuse for a lot of people. I don’t think they’re very good for that at all. If someone’s shooting at you, most people are bigger than guns, so they’re hard to hide behind. In the real world, guns are horrible things. But in the fantasy world, they’re sexy and glamorous.
Do you shoot or just collect? Have you been taught to use a weapon correctly?
I have—I was trained as a child soldier by the British government back in the mid-70s. They called it the Air Cadets. I was an 11-year-old kid … people get all upset about 10-year-old children in Africa taught to murder people, but I was that and so were many other people. They probably do that in America, too. That’s child soldiers, right? So I know how to use firearms. And I also grew up in the English countryside, where firearms were just lying around—you’d walk into your friend’s house and there’s a shotgun and a few dead rabbits, and we had access to that stuff. My dad enjoyed target shooting and we had a gun cabinet in the house. And I have a very, very healthy respect for them! I know what they’re capable of. If you watch what I call the Hitler Channel … it’s now called the American Heroes channel, changed from I think the Military Channel, and now they just show nothing but stories about Hitler, which I find quite interesting, too. But anyway—they very rarely show the result of these weapons. ‘Here’s a liquidized family!’
When you went shooting, did you dress up in those Downton Abbey tweeds?
Not really—as an Air Cadet, I’d wear a uniform, and if it was muddy, you’d wear Wellington boots. But I never got into English shooting fashion, which is quite hilarious, really—deerstalker hats and tweed leather-elbowed jackets. It’s almost as bad as golfing fashion!
English people seem like they love changing clothes. They have different outfits for everything.
I had sort of an idea of wearing extreme sports clothing rather than actually engaging in the sport. Like mountaineering, you get all sorts of carbiners and ropes and belts and tight shorts and strange rubber shoes and all this chalk to play with and fun stuff like that. It’d be fun to wander down to CVS in that gear—hanging out in the footcare department dressed in mountaineering gear. It’d be quite entertaining.
Which is more of a challenge to make entertaining—a band or a DJ set?
Unless you come from the shoe-stare school of indie, [a band is] probably more interesting than a DJ to look at. Maybe you got funny clothes, a blond wig, glittery pants? The more entertaining you make it, the better, right? People come to be entertained. I went to see a KISS show some years ago and the guitar turned into a rocket and flew across the stage, and Gene Simmons flew into the air and there were all these flames going. I can’t say I ever liked any of their music, apart from ‘I Was Made for Lovin’ You,’ but for pure entertainment, they’re fantastic!
Does every band, no matter how big or bad, have one secret good song? The Osmonds have a psychedelic song I love.
Every band has made a good song at some point. The Osmonds made a really good record called ‘I, I, I’ which is a cosmic disco classic. Which is hugely unknown outside that circle. I’m an Osmonds fan, actually—they’re creepy and preppy and deranged. When you perform, your job is to entertain—not to educate or teach. You’re there to put on a show and make people happy or whatever. I just recently watched some GG Allin YouTubes and he’s a WONDERFUL entertainer! He’s inciting the audience to kick his ass. I don’t think I’m gonna shit in my hand and throw it in the crowd, but there’s a lot to be said for getting naked and running around and shouting and hitting yourself in the head with a bottle.
That’s kind of a credit to him—people still remember him.
He could walk the walk but couldn’t really talk the talk, bless him. He was never like Johnny Rotten. Johnny was an intellectual who’d speak the truth, and GG just sorta shouted a bit too much.
Are you friends with Johnny Rotten? Isn’t he your neighbor?
No, but I’m sure he is. The girl who took the photos was like, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna move to London,’ and I said if you wait long enough, all the great Englishmen move to California. The English are great Americaphiles. So many things English people look up to come from America. For me, whether it was William S. Burroughs or Charles Manson or the Beach Boys or hot rods or dragsters or skateboarding or porno history—all the things I like! Hollywood Babylon, all the really fun things that are so right and so wrong at the same time. America is a very attractive proposition to the English, so when people have the opportunity, they move here. I’m sure East Coasters would beg to differ, but I think L.A. is much darker. Paradise lost, you know? The plastic people. It’s not supposed to be, but it is and it isn’t at the same time. New York is too cool for school. L.A. is shit and we love it!
What exactly do you look up to about Manson? I guess he was pretty good at motivating people.
He speaks the truth! Charlie is pretty good with lyrics. He talks pretty sensibly. I’ve never really had anything wrong with anything he’s had to say. As far as I’m concerned, Helter Skelter was just a prosecution case by Bugliosi. People take it as the truth, but it’s just how he managed to get his conviction. There’s so so many things that are left unknown, untold and doubtful whether this or that went on. he Family is a little more close to the truth, and it doesn’t attempt to answer many of the unanswered questions. I don’t think Charlie is a particularly nice guy, you know? But that’s okay. James Brown made good music but he wasn’t a very nice guy either.
I struggle with that. I try and buy ethically, but what if I like an artist who turns out to be a shitbag? Does it matter?
That’s a big subject. I wouldn’t like to have to answer that in a moment. Generally, art and religion and politics are monster subjects. I’d have to think, including whether or not Charles Manson’s actually cool—he’s a pop icon, and a lot of people have done an awful lot worse. If you kill one person, you’re a murderer. If you kill 25 people, you’re a star. And if you kill a couple hundred thousand, you’re a president. It’s all pretty odd stuff.
DJ HARVEY WITH FOUR TET, CARIBOU, SLINT AND MORE ON SAT., AUG. 23, ON THE ARENA STAGE AT FYF FEST AT THE L.A. SPORTS ARENA AND EXHIBITION PARK, 700 EXPOSITION PARK DR., LOS ANGELES. 10:35 PM / ALL AGES / SOLD OUT! MORE INFO AT FYFFEST.COM. DJ HARVEY’S WILDEST DREAMS IS AVAILABLE NOW FROM SMALLTOWN SUPERSOUND, AND NEW LOCUSSOLUS REMIXES AND MUSIC ARE COMING LATER THIS YEAR. VISIT DJ HARVEY AT FACEBOOK.COM/HARVEYDJAY.