DJ Harvey has never lost his punk spirit. Originally from England, he scored an early hit as the 13-year-old drummer in the Cambridge band Ersatz before discovering hip-hop and migrating to the DJ world in the early ’80s. Since then, his influential DJ sets have introduced the U.K. to breaks, disco and early house, and propelled him to a decades-long career that has included a stint as a resident at Ministry of Sound. Now in his fifties, Harvey is one of dance music’s elder statesmen. His latest disco-rock studio project, as Locussolus, has just dropped, so we caught up with the free spirit in New York by phone to talk about the new record and his storied history.
You’re well known for in-the-moment lifestyle I’m very lucky like that. I get to play records and be a traveling minstrel, as it were. Then I get to soak up all these lovely sights and smells and foods and people. I’m really…blessed is maybe the word.
I think it may be. Did you ever think playing the drums in punk bands would lead you here? It doesn’t matter where you go in the world; you’re always there when you get there. Going to Hawaii isn’t going to save your ass. You actually have to deal with your head first, then you can enjoy all these beautiful places. Being hungover in London is the same as being hungover in Hawaii. I do have this fantastic lifestyle and I can’t complain, but ground zero is your brain. If you can’t think straight, it doesn’t matter where you are.
Having been in this career this long, have you ever thought you’d need to switch gears professionally? I don’t really know how to do anything else. I’ve always been a musician or an artist. The only “real” jobs I’ve had have been jobs where you don’t have to have a skill, like a motorcycle courier or working in a plastics factory. That kind of work allows you to think and to dream and to plan. Work that takes up too much of your headspace doesn’t allow you to dream and fantasize. My DJ career as such has slowly gone from strength to strength. I’m probably in a better position now—25 years later—than I ever have been. It’s not like there was ever a backlash or a downturn or a doubting point.
You’ve had many milestones along the way. Are there any favorites? Every little time zone has its golden moments. I’m not a big exponent of the “not like it used to be” kind of thing. To me, right now is back in the day. In 20 years’ time, we’ll look back and this is back in the day. I don’t really hark back and say this particular moment was as good as it’s going to get because I’ve been pleasantly surprised. Things change shape and morph. There are the ebbs and flows of fashion or whatever, but in general I look to the future. I have had some wonderful times through punk and hip-hop and house and the various youth culture moments I’ve been around for to enjoy. I could say there have been golden moments but none have been defining moments in my life and it’s downhill from here on out.
When you think of Ministry of Sound, you’re not the first person who comes to mind. What was it like for you there in those early days? It was a fantastic place and it probably still is the best place in Europe. Especially in the first year it was a very special place. It was a juice bar, so it wasn’t all about making money on the bar. I was honored to be one of the first U.K. DJs to play there. And I went on to have a residency on Friday and Saturday night. I would do the 6 till 10 in the morning spot—the graveyard shift as they call it—and it was fantastic. Friday nights was more an English, tech-based kind of night, and Saturdays was more of a U.S., Jersey kind of sound—a tribute to Tony Humphries and the Zanzibar sound that was coming out of New York at that time. I was lucky to fit right in there. It’s a big toy to play with; it’s like driving the Titanic. To be captain of that ship was pretty amazing.
But slowly, it was hijacked by the people who put money into the club. At the same time, we used to really complain. The Ministry was known as the Misery; not the Ministry of Sound, it was the Misery of Pounds. That was in what I used to call the corridor years. We used to sit up in this corridor between the two rooms and you could hear both rooms pounding away. It wasn’t all disco glory, even though, back then we were saying, well, it isn’t like it used to be. And I’d say, well, no, this is back in the day. When this is gone we’ll look back and laugh at these times and that’s exactly what I’m doing right now, 20 years later.
Bringing things up to present, tell us about Locussolus. My project prior to this had been Map of Africa, which was really an exercise in songwriting. It was not necessarily designed for nightclubs. It was more of a bar, boutique, bedroom type of album, and I wanted to get back to the dance floor. Having only done re-edits and remixes for many years, it was a chance to do that. It didn’t have to be analog. I was quite prepared to use the modern technology with computers and plug-ins and synths and stuff like that. We’d start with a kick drum and go from there, and if it made us giggle, it made the cut. That’s basically it. Now I’m just waiting on how it’s received by the general public rather than journalists or DJs who want me to send them new music. The proof will be in whether the general public will show interest and lay their dollar down. At that point I’ll decide whether to put a live unit together and maybe take it on the road for some of the festivals next year or to make the next album or whether to just let that be a thing and start with something fresh.
The music fits right in with what’s bubbling of late. Are you finding connections with a younger generation of kindred spirits? Anyone under 30 now, they come up to me and go, “What was the ’90s like? It must have been amazing back then.” And then I think about it and the ’90s to these kids is like what the ’50s is like to me, something that happened 20 years before my time and holds a magical mystery fantasy world because they weren’t there. It’s interesting. I find at my shows there’re the old school and a completely new generation of people with a lot of energy and genuine interest in dance music. And to me, it really is just dance music. I wouldn’t want to be pigeonholed as a disco DJ. If you hear my sets, I go right across the board, there’s new, old, disco, techno, rock & roll, psych. I’m what you’d describe as a personality DJ. When I deejay, you get my personality, you don’t necessarily get a particular kind of music.
I think some people have pigeonholed me a little bit. You know it’s like, okay, Harvey re-invented the disco edit and he’s a disco DJ, and then he re-discovered cosmic music. Some people come with these preconceptions and then they say, “Oh, Harvey didn’t play enough cosmic rarities this time.” I’m like, if it wasn’t for me, you wouldn’t have even fucking heard of cosmic rarities. The people decide, I play to the dance floor and I’m an entertainer. I could disappear up my own ass playing records no one has ever heard before but there’s no point in that. It’s about having a good time, and I’m not necessarily playing to the beard scratchers holding up their Shazam and taking pictures of every record I play. I’m playing for the fat girls on the dance floor.
Do you still find a punk aesthetic in the dance scene? These days, everyone has access to everything. A friend of mine was just saying, “Look at you guys, you all look like Charles Manson. You’re wearing things like Suicidal Tendencies T-shirts and you’re disco DJs.” The most punk thing you could ever do in a straight-edge scene was listen to disco music. Even the hardcore punks were like, that’s a little risqué. Part of being a punk was to be contrary to any established form. The punk movement was one of my first revolutions, when I told my mom and dad I didn’t care what happened so long as I didn’t end up like them—and they’re actually very beautiful, honest, loving people. That first, contrary way of being, questioning stuff, has stuck with me in many respects.
You just have to be open to everything. To find particular kinds of books or music you had to work very hard, especially during the late ’70s and early ’80s when I was doing my digging and research. These days, my son will come to me and he’ll be like, “I found that break that Dr. Dre uses.” And I’m thinking to myself, he’s gone deep into New Mexico to a jukebox warehouse and uncovered a dusty 7” when in fact, he’s just downloaded it.
He googled it. Right, he googled the damn thing. He wasn’t wading around knee deep in fucking dog shit and straw and blood to unearth these illegal publications and records. There’re no excuses these days. If you’re not on it, you should be. Probably the real thing to do is throw your computer away and not be influenced by it. Just go and talk to trees or something, see what they have to say.
I get the feeling you have a tenuous relationship with technology. Yeah, a computer is nothing but a porn portal to me—which is probably what it is to most guys. It is an absolutely wonderful, incredible, fantastic thing, but I think I’m one of the last generation of people that is a little bit scared of computers. I remember my grandmother was scared of the telephone. She always had to turn the light on before she answered the telephone. They don’t have lessons in how to use computers in school anymore. When I was growing up I wasn’t scared of the telephone, it was just there and it worked. That’s how the computer is now. It does amuse me when you see a group of four or five best girlfriends sitting within a foot of each other not using their voices. They’re “twatting” or whatever it’s called. It’s all good. It’s modern and I’m sure it’s fantastic. I’m not going to condemn it just because I’m old fashioned.
DJ Harvey’s Locussolus is out now on International Feel Recordings.