Harvey Bassett is a deadset legend. After drumming in a Cambridge punk band at age 13, he decided to fly to New York in the eighties in search of hip-hop. He was then instrumental in bringing US house and disco culture back to England, where his Tonka DJ crew became renowned for their eclectic musical offerings (not to mention their debaucherous three-day parties). In 2001 he moved back to the States where he has since immersed himself in an array of projects, including Map of Africa - a collaboration with Thomas Bullock of A.R.E. Weapons, and Black Cock Records, a label so good that it has a record store named after it in Japan (which was VERY hard to find, you try Googling 'Black Cock Japan'). Without Harvey, electronic music would be in a very different place to where it is now. I spoke with a very stoned Harvey over Skype for Oyster issue 91, and then met him for a beer (or four) when he came to Sydney. Here is the interview in its entirety, along with some unpublished pictures from the shoot.
Ariane Halls: Did you grow up in a musical family? You started drumming when you were very young?
DJ Harvey: Not really. I mean, my mum's really into music. Her record collection was my introduction to music. My dad only had two records - he had The Best of the Beatles and The Best of Helen Reddy, which is pretty cool. It's not so much that I had a musical family, but [rather] that they didn't stop me from being as musical as I liked. So I'd be banging about on the kitchen pots and pans, and they'd buy me a drum kit. I was allowed to be creative, rather than it being genetic, as it were.
How did you end up moving to the States from the UK?
I was DJing in clubs here and there, doing my own thing, up until the turn of the century, I got a whole row to myself on the cheap flights shortly after 9/11, which was perfect. So yeah, this is my home. It's not perfect, but nowhere is.
You only got your green card last year. Was it frustrating not being able to leave the States?
No. The States is huge. As far as climate is concerned, it's got it all. There are lots of weird and wonderful and lovely and horrible people all over America, so you could spend the rest of your life wandering around the States and not get bored. It's nice to be free now. I can go, "Well, I'll think I'll pop over to Uganda tomorrow afternoon and go and have a beer," which is quite astonishing actually.
Do you have any opinion on the immigration laws in the States? There's a lot of upheaval about it now.
You shouldn't have to die for a green card. I've been through minor issues to get my green card, but Mexican children are shot to death before they reach the fucking border over here. America is obviously built on immigrants. England's population is built of immigrants. I don't understand the implications of opening or closing borders. I think very few people do. I think it's very difficult to make a decision. It's like monetary policy - who actually understands the consequences of a tax? Who can do the math and say, "Yes, this is going to have this effect on the economy." It's very, very hard to determine. With immigration, of course it would be nice to let everyone in, and all have a party and a good time, and I think if America were to legalise the illegal immigrants, there would be a hell of a lot of money to be made for the country. But it's a huge issue, which we could talk all day about, and I should be more up on it really; more up on the news. It's hard for me to make a hard opinion. I'm ashamed of myself. Viva la revolution! But I'm not into revolution, because revolutions are circular by their nature. My politics are 'small change for the better'.
You own a club in Hawaii. What's the music scene like over there?
Hawaii is very musical in general. Everyone plays the guitar and sings and there's music in the air everywhere, but it's not exactly cutting edge. It's in the middle of nowhere and there's no real motivation to lock yourself in a dark room and get creative and make cutting edge music, because you can just go and surf off your hangover. There's no reason to wear a particularly stylish outfit, because how stylish can a Hawaiian shirt and shorts be? Actually, they're pretty stylish...
It's a shame, because I can imagine a new and amazing genre of music coming out of there. Like 'aloha house' or something...
Well, the nearest thing to that is something called jawaiian, which is Hawaiian reggae music, and it's probably the worst thing you've ever heard. I'll probably be lynched for saying that. Sorry guys, but it's some pretty scary music. It's a watered-down, happier version of dancehall reggae.
Like Bob Marley with ukuleles, or something?
It sounds terrible.
It's scary stuff. There's a lot of traditional, local stuff that can be amazing, and there's tiny pockets of rebellion, you know - a little punk scene, a goth scene, stuff like that. But there are not quite enough hipsters to tip the balance into a really going concern. There's not the nucleus of gay Puerto Ricans, or whatever it may take, to create a scene.
So you think you need hipsters to make a scene?
Yeah. You need progressive, artistic young people to make a scene, to take stuff and change it and make it new. I don't know; I don't want to put the whole thing down and say that Hawaii is a cultural void because it's not; it's anything but. But as far as the kind of stuff that might turn you and me on, like cutting edge fashion and music, and things that really matter, like shoes and bags for crying out loud, and glitter - you need people from a weird and wonderful urban utopia type thing to make that happen. But anyway, there is wonderful talent to be had in Hawaii, and some great music and, on occasion, enough people to have a really good, serious dance party.
I heard ? and this may be wrong ? but I heard that you do specific drugs in specific countries. [Laughs] I asked someone, "What do you think I should talk about with Harvey?" and that's what he said.
Well, let's see. I only do cocaine in Nepal?
- only do DMT in Sydney...
That's insane! Is there a chart somewhere?
I'll make one for the magazine! What a great rumour though.
Ah, let's get us some drugs! No, I've actually been sober. I'm trying recreational drinking.
Rather than continual drinking?
Rather than habitual drinking.
What are your feelings on detoxes in general?
I think you should think about it when you get to the point where you actually can't walk, or you can't think. When it becomes - whatever your poison may be, be it chocolate or biscuits or I don't fucking know - when it gets the point when it's detrimental to yourself and those around you, then it might be a good idea to check yourself before you wreck yourself and maybe detox for a minute. It's a strange, alternate reality. It's a euphoria thing; like, kind of feeling OK. That was really weird, waking up and thinking, "Oh my God, I'm ok."
It's hard as a DJ, because you're always getting free drinks...
It can be hard when you socialise for a living. But you want to pace yourself and you do want to be on a little bit of the same level as the people ... I did decide to take a little while off the sauce because I had some studio stuff to finish, and before coming to Australia. People enjoy drinking in Australia.
What was your connection with Leigh Bowery?
I met Leigh. I don't think we ever did a party together as such, but he would always attend The Beautiful Bend, which was a party I did with Sheila Tequila and Donald Urquhart, who is now a famous artist. Nice one, Don! But yes, Leigh would come round and Leigh was fantastic. He was absolutely spectacular.
What was the premise behind The Beautiful Bend?
I would come up with some sort of idea, some sort of scenario that would exist in the 'straight world', like somebody's daughter's wedding, or maybe a party onboard a Zeppelin; something like that. Then Donald would go away and write it. It was fantastic; it was like a small book which had the story of the occasion, and the story would inspire your costume for the night. So say there's a story about a party onboard the Hindenberg before it crashed, then we were all wearing nasty uniforms and ball gowns and stuff like that. There would also be stuff from the theme, so, say, German art, and speeches from famous German diplomats going on for the whole night. This is Mexican Coca-Cola by the way [drinks from a bottle of Coke].
Made with real cane sugar?
Oh yeah. It's so good! So yes, it was basically a big celebration; very gay, very costume-orientated, lots of sex, lots of fucking crazy stuff going on. It was quite mixed too, which made it exciting. The queers would show up with the straights. It was absolutely wonderful and it just sort of collapsed for some reason, I dunno.
Have things changed since then? Do you think it's still just as fun?
Yeah, totally. I'm not a great believer in 'it's not what it used be'. I hope I'm partying for another 30, 40 years. This is 'back in the day' right now, you know what I mean? I mean, it was great then, but it's great now.
We've only got ourselves to blame if it's not spectacular, really.
I can have a good time in the most boring of places, and a bad time in what's supposed to be an exciting place. Quite often you'll hear, "How was it?" "Oh, it was great; it was packed!" Whereas sometimes I'm like, "It was great! It was completely empty, but it was fantastic."
You've been there since the beginning of dance and disco. The scene has changed a lot. What do you think has been the main catalyst? Technology, or people's changing attitudes?
To be honest, I don't think anything's changed. It's really very simple - people go out to clubs to dance to the music of the time. It's all quite similar in many respects; it all goes boom-di-boom-di-boom. The technology changes and allows you to create a slightly different thing through a slightly different medium. There are moments where dance music becomes fashionable in the charts. But the hard core of dance music, or the scene, I don't think it really goes anywhere, particularly. Maybe a new generation of people just comes of age every few years. I think, the scene changing and stuff - It just sort of ebbs and flows.
Do you have any opinion on the de-vinylfication of DJing? Or do you not really care either way?
I think good DJing will transcend all mediums. It's like having the iPod shirt or whatever it is, you know - that one? [Traces circles around nipples with each hand]
It's a shirt, you have an iPod in each pocket and DJ like that.
I wish I had taken a screen shot of that.
[Laughs] It doesn't always help. You may well have access to too many songs and low quality files and stuff like that. I don't know; it [the demise of vinyl] doesn't bother me in the slightest. I think it would be fun to show up with one of those chip things and be like, "I'm here!" Or what's that Johnny Rotten quote? There's a Johnny Rotten quote where he goes, "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" It's not necessarily that. It's how you put them [the tracks] together, and what you've got. In fact, there are no excuses now. You can't be like, "Oh well, I couldn't get my hands on any good music." You can get your hands on anything. There are no excuses for not playing fucking incredible music because it's all there to be had.
So what do you consider to be a good DJ then? Is it the ability to take the crowd on a journey? Is it the track selection?
A night where the majority of the people have a nice time; that's a successful fucking DJ. It doesn't matter what, where, when, how; whether it's Ti