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Avataar

Calvin Harris

10 Minutes in the Shitter with Calvin Harris

Only 25 and this UK DJ giant has already worked with Kylie Minogue, DizzeeRascal, Cathy Dennis and one of the men behind the Spice Girls.

By Scott Wood

The bouncer moves reluctantly aside to let me backstage. I spot my interview immediately: Calvin Harris is tucked away in a corner chatting up three lovely dancers. I am sweating—not just because I will be interviewing international DJ great Calvin Harris, but also because the opening DJ has already started and the room is pulsing with the beat. I think to myself, “What am I gonna do with all this definitely un-recorder-friendly background noise?

I talk to Harris’ people. They don’t want him to go out into the alley for our chat. A security risk. And I think to myself, “Wow. A ‘security threat’ in the alley behind Granville?” Most of the time, I interview bands who no one (outside of the music industry and intense music snobs) knows about (yet). Security threats? Handlers? Sweet!

For those who don’t know, Calvin Harris was the surprise international dance floor success story of 2007. His first album, I Created Disco, had two unforgettable singles, “The Girls” and “Acceptable in the 80s.” Seriously great tracks—check them out. Fellow UK indie rockers Editors did an awesome cover of “Acceptable in the 80s” and you know a dance track is really solid when it can survive an acoustic rock treatment. All this success lead Calvin Harris to producing tracks for UK superstars Kylie Minogue and Dizzee Rascal. His second record, Ready For the Weekend has spawned at least two hit singles—so far—“I’m Not Alone” and “Ready For the Weekend.”

Funnily enough, the only place suitable to do the interview is the backstage washroom. So I rip Calvin away from his giggling female admirers. He stands up to follow me and it is impossible not to notice that Calvin Harris is a giant. He towers over me and I am 6 feet tall. (DJs are usually tiny, skinny-jeaned guys.) The door to the washroom closes. It is me, Harris, a bouncer and the tour manager all crammed into a very newly refitted shitter.

I feel I can speak for us all when I say I am very glad that no air freshener is needed.

Calvin Harris didn't find a song like "The Girls" changed the way females interacted with him: "People that know me already know that it is a fictional song. I didn't write it about my life. At the time I wrote the song, I was working in a shop and living with my mum and dad. It couldn't have been any further from the truth."

Scott Wood: Your mega-smash “The Girls”—when you sing a track like that, does it alter how females interact with you?

Calvin Harris: No. People that know me already know that it is a fictional song. I didn’t write it about my life. At the time I wrote the song, I was working in a shop and living with my mum and dad. It couldn’t have been any further from the truth.

He pauses. I say nothing.

Calvin Harris: And it still applies. 

Scott Wood: At this point, you are a successful international-calibre DJ and you have the opportunity to meet new people—people’s perceptions of you can change.

Calvin Harris: They can. But I do all that I can to realign them properly.

Scott Wood: You’re from Scotland. What Scottish stereotypes exist in you?

Calvin Harris

Calvin Harris: I guess I wear kilts.

He pauses for a time.

Calvin Harris: I rear livestock.

Scott Wood: Music used to be your hobby when you had a day job and now music is your day job. Have you developed new hobbies?

Calvin Harris: I don’t have any hobbies. This is the only thing I am working on. I had a brief thing for darts when I was younger, but it never took off for me. I never really had great aim, hand-eye coordination [He slurs his words a bit] so I stuck to music. [More slurring] Yeah.

Scott Wood: I was reading this really interesting interview with you—back when you first broke—about how you were doing well with “scamming” the music industry a little. Can you talk about your latest scam?

Calvin Harris: I don’t know what that means.

Scott Wood: Well, you were talking about record company advances and the industry and, perhaps you were joking about, how you had managed to take advantage of this.

Calvin Harris: No. I’ve never said that. In fact, I am quite the opposite. I am one of the very few artists that got signed, for not very much money, that have actually made hit records and made people money. I am the opposite. I’m one of the good guys. I have never scammed anyone out of money. Not anybody.  

I try to go on to the next question and he cuts me off.

Calvin Harris: I mean anytime I have been paid for anything, I’ve delivered the goods, whether it be a record, a DJ set or a live show. I’ve never scammed anyone and I never would.

How does Harris figure out if a track is for someone else or himself? "Usually, I look at things that I make, and I think, "Will I get away with singing on this without ruining the song?" If I can sing on it and it doesn't sound bad, then I will use that for myself, but if I think the track will benefit from someone who can sing really well or whatever, I will try and keep that track for somebody else. It doesn't always work out, but I try."

Scott Wood: Good. I am not trying to paint you as a bad guy. It was just an interesting quote. I would love to see you work with Jamiroquai and bring him out of retirement.

Calvin Harris: He is working on a new album at the moment actually.

Scott Wood: What would you say if you got the phone call?

He pauses for a prolonged period of time. I let it lie. And finally he answers.

Calvin Harris: I think he’s doing fine on his own. He doesn’t need me.

Scott Wood: Well, as a fan, I would love to see a collaboration. So, you are a DJ, a producer and a remixer. Which one is the most you?

Calvin Harris: I like producing. I like locking myself in a room and getting on with it. I enjoy making music that’s why I am here, I suppose.

Scott Wood: I was reading a quote of yours where you said you weren’t enjoying the performer aspect of what you do. Is this still true?

Calvin Harris: No, I definitely do. I definitely do. I love playing live. I love DJing.

He pauses for a time. I decide to pick up the slack this time.

Scott Wood: You are DJing here in Vancouver tonight. How many of your own songs will you work into the set?

Calvin Harris: I am going to play five. Well, one remix, so on a technicality it is five. Four productions and that’s about as many as you need, I think. It strikes the balance.

Scott Wood: Which ones do you feel like playing tonight?

Calvin Harris

Calvin Harris: I will play “Acceptable in the 80s.” It is a nice contrast with what is going on now, so I’ll play that. I’ll play new ones, mostly new ones.

Scott Wood: You’ve produced pop artists (Kylie Minogue) and hip hop artists (Dizzee Rascal). What’s the difference producing those two genres?

Calvin Harris: Everyone that I’ve worked with has wanted things that sound like me, so I haven’t really changed anything about how I would make music as such. Dizzee Rascal, for example, he wanted a pop record, so I kind of just stuck to what I’d usually do and Kylie wanted a very similar sounding record as well. It was more about learning things from different people. It was good fun.  

Scott Wood: What’s the difference between a Calvin Harris track and a track made for someone else?

Calvin Harris: Usually, I look at things that I make, and I think, “Will I get away with singing on this without ruining the song?” If I can sing on it and it doesn’t sound bad, then I will use that for myself, but if I think the track will benefit from someone who can sing really well or whatever, I will try and keep that track for somebody else. It doesn’t always work out, but I try.

Scott Wood: Can you talk about a track on the record where you thought it might be risky for you to sing on?

Calvin Harris: No, because I made those decisions with full confidence.

Scott Wood: Really? Because I was reading another interview where you said that you were tempted to use other vocalists on this record. Is this true?

Calvin Harris: Yeah, initially, but I wasn’t really sure what I was doing at first. The second album I didn’t really know what to do. It took me a while to work out what I should do.

Scott Wood: What other vocalist(s) could have sung the songs on this record?

Calvin Harris: It wouldn’t be my lyrics. I would let them write their own lyrics, I think. 

Scott Wood: I was also reading where you said that at this point in your career, you didn’t think you could work with anybody. You are 10 years into your music making career and only 25, do you still feel this way about collaboration?

Calvin Harris: Working with other people in what respect? 

Scott Wood: You were talking about in terms of production and using other people’s ideas.

Calvin Harris: I don’t think so for my own stuff, but I am always up for working on production with other people for other people’s records, if you know what I mean? Like me going in to play a bit of keyboards or something like that. I’d love that. It’s good insight to see how “the professionals” work.

Scott Wood: Can you talk about a time when you have done this?

Calvin Harris: Yeah. On the Kylie record, I worked with a guy called Biff Stannard who did all these Spice Girls songs—a real pop music legend. It was just interesting to see how he worked, you know? Also, Cathy Dennis, I worked with her on one of Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s songs. It was a very friendly, but an incredibly businesslike approach, which was quite interesting.

Scott Wood: Can you compare this “friendly business” approach with the Calvin Harris “I Created Disco” approach?

Calvin Harris: Well, I tend to take longer over things. I don’t really work to deadlines that well. They do. That’s what they are all about, so they’re good at that kind of thing. You kind of need to get in the zone, get in the loop and be used to that kind of thing. Writing sessions for me are so sporadic, so I don’t really get into the swing of things, which I think is good for me, because the last thing I want it to be is like a job. That would be the worst thing in the world. 

Scott Wood: You’ve remixed a lot of big artists, since this is Canada, can you tell the story of the Dragonette remix for us?

The difference between performing as a band and as a DJ: "The band allows for more of an egotistical approach. Being on stage, you can put your hands in the air and be confident that if everyone's going off, it's because of you. DJing, I find it more different to take the glory because I am playing other people's records predominantly. It's slightly lower key in a way. I'm not trying to do the Fat Boy Slim, David Guetta thing. I am not trying to be the big superstar, I'm just trying to play some good records."

Note: During an interview with blog, Pop Justice, Harris talked about a remix he did for Canadian dance act Dragonette, where they called him (while he was on tour) to tell him that the remix was shite and that they wanted him to redo it. Since he was on tour, he told them, “No” and to “FUCK OFF.”

Calvin Harris: Nah.

Scott Wood: Uhm. Ok. I ask because they are a Canadian act who are known on the international scene...

Calvin Harris: It’s just a shite story.

Scott Wood: Alright. How did you feel when they covered your song “The Girls” and turned it into “The Boys?”

Calvin Harris: I felt good. I felt bad that they asked for some publishing (money) because they changed the word “Girls” to “Boys.” I thought that was a little cheeky. But that’s all good.

Scott Wood: When you get remixes of your own stuff back from other remix artists are you ever surprised?

Calvin Harris: I’ve been a bit surprised, yeah, because I’ve always been quite involved in picking the people I want to remix things, my favourite producers and stuff. Sometimes you have an idea of what you think it’s gonna sound like and it comes back and it’s slightly different. I have never had a bad experience. I’ve never been disappointed by one.

Scott Wood: Which remix of one of your tracks made the song new for you again?

Calvin Harris: Mr. Oizo’s remix of “Merrymaking at My Place.” One of my favourites, definitely.

Scott Wood: Tonight you will be DJing, but you have toured with a full band before. What is the difference for you?

Calvin Harris: The band allows for more of an egotistical approach. Being on stage, you can put your hands in the air and be confident that if everyone’s going off, it’s because of you. DJing, I find it more different to take the glory because I am playing other people’s records predominantly. It’s slightly lower key in a way. I’m not trying to do the Fat Boy Slim, David Guetta thing. I am not trying to be the big superstar, I’m just trying to play some good records.

Scott Wood: When you perform with a band, there must be a lot of pressure to be a rock star.

Calvin Harris: It’s less that. It’s more that you don’t want to seem that you are kind of shy or embarrassed that you are on the stage in front of all these people because it kind of just rubs off on them. If you are really energetic, and you are really into it, then I find it is really easy for everybody to get into it as well.

Tune in to the interview show with host Scott Wood for more interviews with your favourite indie acts. Find us at www.cjsf.ca (Vancouver, BC, Mondays @4:30pm), www.radiocfxu.ca (Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Fridays @11pm-12am), www.cfru.ca (Guelph, ON, Tuesdays @3pm) and www.umfm.com (Winnipeg Winnipeg’s Hit Free Radio, Tuesdays @8am). You can also listen to and download both new and old shows at www.winniecooper.net.

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