Calvin Harris: How the non-dancing, foul-mouthed, anti-social Scot became the 'Caledonian Justin Timberlake'
He's a dour teetotaller, seems to have a running battle with half the music industry and couldn't care less about his image. So how has Calvin Harris become the toast of the dance-music world? Craig McLean finds out...
Sunday 02 August 2009
A beachwear face-off is going on in the parched, dusty hills above Ibiza Town, around the swimming pool of a plush villa. Girls one feels obliged to describe as "dolly birds" totter around in make-up, gold bikinis and high heels, doing their best to evoke "classy" Balearic glamour. Blokes strut by, all surf shorts, muscled upper arms and/or paunchy love handles, suggestive of Ibiza's more "madferrit", ravey present.
In the midst of this sexed-up thong throng are pop stars past and present. Dizzee Rascal is dressed in his best summertime clobber. That is, blinding white suit and canary-yellow shirt with wing collars. A topless and exuberant Goldie, the 1990s drum'n'bass star-turned-classical conductor arriviste, makes some noise as his cacophony of jewellery rattles and glints in the sunshine.
Calvin Harris is making an effort to get into the holiday spirit too. Relatively speaking. He's wearing a nondescript T-shirt, ho-hum jeans and clumpy trainers; there's no sign of the bomber jacket-cum-cagoule that constitutes his stagewear. His hair springs up from his head and he hasn't shaved. Cocktail-lubricated poolside bonhomie doesn't exactly radiate from the 25-year-old hit-machine responsible for songs by Dizzee, Kylie, Sophie Ellis-Bextor and – via 2007's "Acceptable in the 80s" and "The Girls" – himself.
At 6ft 5in and skinny as a rake, Harris is a lurking, very Scottish presence at this Ibizan pool-party spectacular. You wouldn't peg him as the creator of two of the biggest ' number-one dance-music smashes of the past year – he and Dizzee's collaboration "Dance Wiv Me" and his own "I'm Not Alone". He certainly doesn't seem like the Caledonian Justin Timberlake, a talented writer/producer/artist/DJ/ vocalist, which is how many in the music industry see him.
Calvin Harris & Dizzee Rascal - 'Dance Wiv Me'
Not that Harris cares for such epithets. "I'm not good at interviews, I'm not good at dancing, I'm not good at looking like I'm having fun," he will mumble. "I never will be, I don't think. Unless I go to a life coach."
Thus, Harris is finding it somewhat difficult to get into the Ibizan swing of things this afternoon. To be fair, there's a lot of nonsense going on. This secluded and luxurious villa is hosting a video shoot for the new single by Dizzee Rascal. It's called – guess what? – "Holiday", the music was written by Harris, and – of course – the video is redolent of that year-zero vid for summertime tunes, "Club Tropicana" (which was also shot in Ibiza). The background noise is even that of the Wham! classic, the insistent thrum of crickets.
The mid-afternoon Mediterranean sun is blazing down, but there are two huge and hot spotlights trained on the gyrating Dizzee. The bikini girls and Goldie, who for some reason is making a cameo appearance in the video, dance around, even though there is no music playing. "Plenty of energy in the background!" shouts one of the video crew. "Vibey vibey! Keep it going, guys, hands in the air." There's still no music playing.
"I'm somehow gonna be incorporated into one of the shots," explains Harris as he watches the stop-start action. "And it keeps changing cos the light keeps changing. That's what they're telling me anyway. I think perhaps they just don't want me in it. But, yeah," he says dryly, "it's an experience."
The music starts and Dizzee does some miming. The music stops. The music starts again. Harris is called over. It's time for his cameo. He has a shirt to put on. He lopes off. A few minutes later, he lopes back. He's not wearing the shirt. He looks upset. "I am upset." He grumbles that he wasn't allowed to wear his trademark fly's eye sunglasses. He was told it "would detract from the look of the video". To which Harris asks, "Have you seen that shirt he's wearing?" He says they wanted him to dance in front of the cameras for a few seconds. "I'm not a dancer. So if it's a choice between being in it and dancing, and not being in it and not dancing, then I'll pick not being in it."
So he's not in the video at all now? "Well, I couldn't be arsed to be honest. It's not my video."
Nor, originally, was "Holiday", Dizzee's song. "I wrote it for The Saturdays," says Harris of the young five-piece girl group. "But they didn't like it. Or their A&R guy didn't like it. But Dizzee liked it." He grins and shrugs. "It happens."
Calvin Harris picks up his sports bag and readies to leave. He's wasted a whole afternoon hanging about in the Ibizan hills. He could have been preparing for tonight's gig at the Ibiza Rocks hotel in San Antonio, the island's biggest party town, at which he's to unveil tracks from his imminent second album, Ready for the Weekend. Or preparing for the 3am DJ set at the after-party – titled "Reclaim the Dancefloor" – in the Eden club. Or finessing "Off and On", the tune he's written for Ellis-Bextor – it's scheduled to be her next single, and her label are eagerly awaiting Harris's latest mix. Not that she's the first person to have a go at that tune, either. Harris originally wrote it for ex-Moloko singer Róisín Murphy. She rejected it and the occasionally mouthy Harris called her an idiot in print. They've since made up. In any case, "Róisín was right. The original version was shite."
In pop terms, Calvin Harris is a breath of fresh air. Not in the look-at-me-look-at-me manner of Lily Allen or Lady GaGa. In a world built on spin, smoke, mirrors and Botox, he calls a spade a rusty spade. He's the dancefloor Andy Murray, hilariously dour and scathing about the dog-and-pony show ridiculousness of pop promotion – he rants about an item he did for ITV Online in which the interviewer asked him to open a jar of jam that was evidently glued shut. Three times she asked him to perform the "trick". He told her: "This is the worst feature I've ever seen. In fact, this is the worst day of my life." In a fuming and somewhat satirical response, Harris has launched his own Jam TV show on his website.
Calvin Harris - 'Ready for the Weekend'
He has also had an entertaining ongoing spat with the NME: in the wake of criticisms of his music from the weekly magazine, Harris used his blog and Twitter to post a series of grumbles about the indie bible. These solicited ripostes from the magazine's editor, Conor McNicholas. Earlier this summer, Harris upped the stakes. He printed up a bunch of T-shirts that bore the legend "Conor McNicholas: Editor of the NME". His plan was to take the T-shirts around the summer festival circuit and have "celebs" pose in them. "I started at the Capital FM Summertime Ball and got Lionel Richie," he says, evidently chuffed. "Although Lionel thought I was Conor McNicholas." Then McNicholas left NME for Top Gear magazine, ruining Harris's plans. He can laugh about it now.
Harris is happy to reveal the joins and jiggery-pokery that go on behind the scenes in the music biz – who rejected what song, who was second choice, and so on. He says that Ready for the Weekend is very last-minute, much to his label's frustration, as he's pickily approving everything. He didn't like the way his tunes had been mastered – "there was no groove or vibe" – and called up the engineer to tell him so. "I said it was kinda like I was stood in a star shape with my hair blowing back and making a face like Cherie Blair – 'Oh, make it stop!'"
Did the engineer understand that visual representation of sonic upset? "No. But I just kept rambling until he saw what I was trying to say. Which was 'punchier drums', essentially."
A supremely motivated sole trader – he's never touched drugs and has been teetotal for a year, the better to have a clear, creative mind at all times – he writes, produces and mixes all his own music. His 100,000-selling debut album, 2007's ironically vaingloriously titled I Created Disco, featured tracks he'd made in his bedroom at his parents' home in Dumfries in southern Scotland. After his elder brother and sister went off to university, Harris had squirrelled himself away in his bedroom on his brother's old Amiga keyboard. Aged 14, he began making dance tunes. When all his schoolfriends were heading off to university, he told his biochemist dad and housewife mum that he would take a year out to work on his music. In 2003, he moved to London to try to "make it". It was a disaster, and within a year he was back home. But via assiduous use of MySpace, he managed to get his home-made music to the attention of EMI publishing and then the label SonyBMG. Recognising his talents as a writer as well as an artist-in-waiting, EMI farmed out their new signing to Kylie Minogue – he wrote "In My Arms" and "Heart Beat Rock" for her 2007 comeback album X.
His tunes are technically brilliant – he was nominated for an Ivor Novello Award (for Best Contemporary Song), and won a Music Producers' Guild Award (for Best Remixer) and an NME Award (for Best Dancefloor Filler) – but cannily, unabashedly straightforward: sing-along floor-fillers that sound as good on daytime radio as they do at rock festivals and in Ibizan megaclubs. A former shelf-stacker (Safeway, Marks & Spencer) and fish-factory worker (mini fillets a speciality) from a geographically isolated small Scottish town, it's as if he wants to make music to appeal to his former co-workers on High Street, Anytown, UK. And, in an industry greased by primping platitudes and cod-artistic puffery, he isn't afraid to say so. "There are a lot of mindless moments in my tunes," he blithely admits. "In fact, 80 per cent is mindless – I like fantastic big riffs. But I figured that given I've already been put in this pop bracket, I should not make serious dance music but make party music instead."
He has no snobbery or desire to appeal to London trendies or industry insiders. Even his adoption of a stage name – his real name is Adam Wiles – is less about celebrity artifice than a minor bit of rebranding to give him a bare minimum starry topspin. Thus, the groovy-ish but still innocuous Calvin Harris rather than, say, MC Wilesky.
Still, last summer he hit number one with "Dance Wiv Me". The collaboration with Dizzee Rascal made for one of the biggest-selling singles of the year. He was suddenly a bona fide pop star. A strange time? "A bit," he says in his flat Scottish mutter. "It wasn't that surreal. I've said things were surreal before and they weren't really. It was all pretty standard stuff; it wasn't like I was in space. But it was good for me because I didn't have any sign of any album stuff coming out in 2008." Indeed, last year Harris told the newspapers that his baggage had been lost in the chaos surrounding the opening of Heathrow Terminal 5 and, with it, the mastertapes of his second album. He later admitted he'd lied about this to buy himself more time from his record company. (In reality, he'd abandoned a bunch of new tunes that he'd recorded in "a small purple room" that was his home studio in his Glasgow flat – "they were too jazzy" – and started all over again.)
"But the fact that the guy who did 'Acceptable in the 80s' did a record with Dizzee made me slightly more credible to the outsider," he continues, acknowledging the Mercury-winning east London grime artist/rapper's status as one of the most innovative artists in the UK. "So I guess from that slightly cynical marketing point of view, that was good."
Does credibility matter to Harris? "Aw, no. As soon as I put out my first single, that disappeared. I don't make that sort of music. I'm not one of those people trendsetters like. I'm not really sure how it works for me. I just like making tunes." He says that the "credible" people he's thinking of are spiky-but-rhythmic London singer-songwriters Jamie T or Jack Peñate. "But I'm not really of that persuasion. I'd sooner make a tune you can hum along to, and have people say I'm a dickhead."
Accordingly, Harris has no fears about his involvement in an upcoming, European £50m ad campaign for Coca-Cola. The ad features Gremlin-type creatures grooving to a new Harris song called "Yeah Yeah Yeah, La La La". He was tasked with writing to that six-word brief by the agency and duly decided that an artist such as Prince or Parliament would have such a title. "So that's the kind of tune I did." And Bob's your £50m uncle.
"I was well surprised when I saw that [figure for the budget]," he chuckles. "I was right on the phone to my manager wondering where it was all going! Nah, it was good, it was a nice opportunity to get a song played all round different countries. The first album was a disaster in most countries other than the UK. It was kinda the label's fault – I know it's easy to blame them – but it took quite a long time to come out, and by that time I was already in my purple room in Glasgow."
Jack White, infamously, received a heap of criticism for taking the Coke shilling. Is Harris concerned what the corporate gig will do for his image? "Nah, cos Jack White has a much higher profile and again, he's already got that credibility. He's a purist. That's why it didn't fit with his character. Me, no one really cares. I can do that and if I get any shit, I wonder who it'd be from? I don't have die-hard fans at all. It's 2009, it's pop music. If I release a shit record – or one that just doesn't do very well – people move on to the next thing."
That night, Calvin Harris – bomber-jacket-cum-cagoule hanging off his skinny shoulders – springs on to the stage of Ibiza Rocks with his band. He's right, he's not good at dancing: his elongated arms flail like a collapsing windmill. But he makes a decent fist of whipping up the crowd. The stage is set within the huge courtyard of the hotel of the same name, which hosts gigs by bands all summer. The residents – sunburned and boozed-up British youth to a (wo)man – bounce up and down in front of the stage, or hang off the surrounding room balconies. They sing along lustily to "The Girls" and pogo to the plinky-plonky pop-house of Ready for the Weekend's title track, which is his next single. At the set's end, the crowd jump into the Ibiza Rocks swimming pool (the only time this has happened before was after a set by The Streets). As bouncers try to fish out the soggy holidaymakers, toilet rolls rain down on their heads from the balconies.
A few hours later, Calvin Harris is possibly the only sober person in the house at Eden as he plays his 3am DJ set. As at Ibiza Rocks, the dancefloor reaction is rapturous. There is no hint that any of these delirious fans will be "moving on to the next thing" any time soon.
But Calvin Harris might be. "I'm not trying to be a celebrity, Justin Timberlake kinda guy," he had insisted earlier. He said he had something of an epiphany last year when he and Dizzee Rascal promoted "Dance Wiv Me" at regional radio stations. "I mean, Dizzee's on all the time. Me sitting next to him would amplify my uncomfortableness even more. That was when I really decided there's no way I can do this for much longer. That's when I thought I'm just gonna be a producer."
How many more albums as an artist does he have in him? "This is probably the last one. I don't see what else I can do. For me to sing all the songs, it seems like that's done now. This'll be news to the record label but I think this is a line for me." Even if he goes to number one again? "Nah, I'll probably change my mind!" he smiles. "Nah, I dunno." He says he prefers working with other vocalists – for his all self- confessed unsociability, he thinks he's good at it; and it looks as though he'll be contributing songs to the next albums by Kylie and Katy Perry. That said, this dance-music spod and lover of the mainstream claims that he aspires to the world of David Guetta, the superstar French DJ-producer who recently had a huge hit with Kelly Rowland, and is about to have another with Black Eyed Peas. Guetta has his own club-cum-brand, F*ck Me I'm Famous.
"If I'm ever gonna make a proper leap into David Guetta territory I'm gonna have to do something. Whether it's taking loads of drugs or drinking again. And if I have to, I will." Calvin Harris, a man with a sense of humour so melancholy it's almost comatose, pauses. "That's a joke."
Calvin Harris's album 'Ready for the Weekend' is out on 17 August
Harris's potty-mouthed tweets
YouTube have now removed the ORIGINAL mix and video of 'Ready for the Weekend', due to a 'copyright claim'. It's my song, you bastards (12.46am, 23 July)
There are videos up there that other people have uploaded of the same song, and they haven't been removed!? But mine has! (12.50am, 23 July)
It's the fucking BPI [British Phonographic Industry]. 'The BPI' what have you ever done for anybody you useless shower... (12.52am, 23 July)
'Cheryl Cole wants a bigger bum' – well stop the press... get out your bed Jon Snow, this one could run all night (2.45pm, 22 April)
Good lord, just saw you can get ['I'm Not Alone'] at Tesco's for 57p! 57p!! That track took me 2 years! No wonder music's on its arse (4.50pm, 6 April)
Piers Morgan interviewing Richard Branson asking him how much is a pint of milk, really insightful journalism. I hate ITV (2.53pm, 1 March)
I'm glad Kate Nash is getting married, imagine all the material she'll have for next album, buying a dress, doing your hair, eating a cake (4.17am, 25 February)
I remember when the NME gave me a live review, said I didn't known any of my 'hired' band members.
I really should of gotten to know them over those 12 years at school, eh, you posh twats (3.56am, 25 February)
Daniel Craig is the most boring cunt I've ever seen interviewed in my life (7.58am, 12 January)
Girls Aloud are boring as hell, I don't care if their songs are 'expertly crafted' or 'impeccably mixed', they are not amazing(3.08am, 12 January)
Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boymusic
Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Rape threats, death threats and a police investigation after video poking fun at an Islamic Party in Malaysia goes viral
- 2 Katie Hopkins attacked me on Twitter — so I reported her to the police for inciting racial hatred
- 3 Gamers confess the worst things they've done in The Sims
- 4 6-year-old writes ice cold Valentine's card to his stepmother
- 5 Syrian child photographed 'surrendering to camera because she thought it was a gun'
Sweeney Todd, theatre review: Emma Thompson returns to London stage after 25 years in absurdly deluxe ENO production
Tidal launch: The most pretentious lines from Alicia Keys' valedictory speech
Tidal: Jay Z's Spotify rival criticised for making wealthy artists even richer
Top Gear live to go ahead: Jeremy Clarkson to join Richard Hammond and James May... just don't call it Top Gear
Tidal: Madonna insists Jay Z's new streaming service is 'not about consumption and greed'
Katie Hopkins attacked me on Twitter — so I reported her to the police for inciting racial hatred
Street preacher quoting from the Bible fined for calling homosexuality an 'abomination'
Woman filmed launching racist tirade against men on the Tube for speaking in 'own lingo'
David Cameron calls Labour 'hopeless, sneering socialists' while announcing 7-day NHS plans
Revealed: Putin's army of pro-Kremlin bloggers
Katie Hopkins reported to the police for race hatred by Labour MP Simon Danczuk after tweet about Pakistani men