Many DJs are respected, but few have the same kind of cult following as DJ Harvey. The British expat has a 30-year history as a disc jockey and party-thrower, with an astounding career that's involved such highs as a weekly residency at the original Ministry of Sound in London, forming the influential early-'90s Tonka Soundsystem rave crew in the U.K., and inspiring the recent cosmic disco revival with his marathon warehouse parties in downtown Los Angeles, where he lives. Throughout it all, his style has remained the same, incorporating humor, masterful DJ chops, and beautifully obscure music into sets that can run as long as 11 hours. He's playing Public Works this Friday, so we decided to call him up and see what makes him tick.
You're behind some of the best parties on the West Coast. What advice would you give someone trying to throw a party from scratch?
The most important thing is the bathrooms, the toilets. If your toilets are no good, your party's no good. Those conditions mean a hell of a lot. Second would be your security, they have to be polite and protect your people from idiots instead of threatening your people and being idiots themselves. Thirdly, try to get a good sound system.
What about the atmosphere? At your parties in L.A. or when you're guesting up here, you have a very specific, inviting kind of feeling that you convey. How do you go about creating that?
I think, really, less is more — maybe a mirror ball, a couple of lights, and some strobes. It's a natural thing that you have to let develop instead of force it. I mean, we don't have firework displays, a light show, or a particularly brutal sound system.
How important to the vibe is the narrative-driven, long-form style of playing that you have?
Not hugely. I don't map out my whole set or anything like that. I mean, when I DJ for six, or eight, or 10 hours, there's room to do an awful lot with the music. You can start ambient, then slowly build up to several peaks during an evening. When I'm in control I can also cleanse the dancefloor — give people a break or a breather and then bring them back, and do that several times throughout the night. Then, if it ends early, you end on a high note. If it ends late, you let them out easy … and by late, I mean 7, 8, 9, 10 in the morning.
You've played with so many respected DJs over the years as one of the residents at the original Ministry of Sound in London. Are there any DJs in particular that have influenced your playing?
Yes, but really it's the people I didn't hear, the ones that are still perfect in my imagination. Like, I never went to the ['80s New York institution] Paradise Garage, so I never had a shitty night there. I imagine it as just this perfect nightclub. You know, Larry Levan plays Dr. Buzzard's Original Savannah Band's “Sunshower,” and turns all the sprinklers on so it rains in the nightclub, and everyone's crying and having sex. But at the same time, I'm not a great believer in [the phrase] “It's not how it used to be.” I wouldn't want to look back in 20 years' time and say, well, actually 30 years before 20 years ago was when I had my old-school.
I've heard you say that before, but you still obviously look back to the past. How do you feel the present differs from the past?
One thing that I've noticed that's odd in recent times: You play a really good record, and instead of everyone or a certain amount of people actually losing themselves in the track, they stop dancing and start Shazaming. It kind of ruins what the record is supposed to do. It's like, “This is so great, I'm going to stop dancing and Shazam it.”
Haven't you had your fair share of trainspotters in the past?
Yeah, I mean it used to be five deep. Before the Shazam thing they'd hold up their phones and record sections back to their answering machines. People ask me, “Does that bother you?” And no, it doesn't. That's how [those people] have a good time: by scratching their beards and Shazaming tracks…. But, to an extent, I love looking at those frustrated faces looking up from their Shazams, because it's either too new or too obscure to find out what it is. I'm like, “Haha, shoulda just been dancin', mate!”
Not going to lie, I've wanted to ask you about some of those tracks before.
Well, the easiest way to do it is come and ask me, “What was that record?” If someone wanted to know the title of a track, I'd be quite happy to give it up, if they make the effort to come up to me. You know, dance to it at the time and ask me after the show. I'll let you know: “It was number four, off a CD that some dude gave me in Japan, and I have no idea what it is.”