Interview: Damian Harris - Another Damian you need to know about
This one runs Skint, the label that (via a Sony mega-deal) is set to take British dance music to the world
Sunday 25 January 1998
We are here because Skint has signed a deal with Sony, and has become, in one leap, a hot and expensive property. The label-home to Bentley Rhythm Ace (aka BRA), Fat Boy Slim (aka Norman Cook, once a Housemartin) and the Lo-Fidelity Allstars has become part of the giant Japanese corporation's portfolio, and its mega-clout will soon be marketing Skint's feelgood, dance-based acts to the world.
The deal is a measure of the current confidence in small British labels, and the global thirst for dance music, which the Americans call "electronica" or "digi-rock". And Harris, an affable chap who looks not unlike a young Mel Smith, is pleased that a year and a half of talks have ended so fruitfully. The Skint schtick, based around a core of warm, slightly wacky dance music, is now to be plugged from Oregon to Osaka, with bawdy old Brighton as its nerve centre.
Harris comes to the music industry as an enthusiast. He has been in Brighton nine years, since he left his hometown Whitstable to attend art school. "I did a fine art course called Alternative Practice," he grimaces. His degree show was nine record players in a room, deliberately stuck on the run-out groove, incredibly loud. "My dad came, thought the records had finished and put them back to the beginning. Very funny."
Armed with a third class degree ("misunderstood, you know"), Harris started to deejay at parties and clubs, and continued working in a specialist record shop, which was clearly the making of him. "Quite a few of our artists have worked there over the years, including Norman Cook. I miss things about it, like the little fights about who's going to put the next record on." Indeed, Harris found the Nick Hornby book Hi-Fidelity, with its record shop assistant character "scarily personal": doubly so, as he is a big Arsenal fan. "Football and music are those two things that you can get so passionate about. In the great scheme of things they mean bugger all. But they make for great pub conversations." Encyclopaedic knowledge about music has always impressed him, since he listened to his brother rattling off the personnel of obscure Sixties bands. And as record shops are full of genre freaks, poetic justice clearly demanded that Harris have a genre all of his own.
For Skint are not only suddenly global; they are also suddenly in charge of a musical style. Big Beat is the tag that has grown up around the Skint stable's acts, a name which stems from a Brighton clubnight, Big Beat Boutique - its name in turn nicked from a Fifties American shop. Loosely, it refers to an unstuffy dance sound with kitschy samples and a strong crossover appeal to rock fans. Naturally, the snootier dance fraternity dismiss it. "Musical purism fascinates me, and I admire that hardcore approach," says Harris. "But Skint is anything but purist. I don't mind pissing some people off. Anyway, I've always disliked the genre trap. Look at Britpop, which is now considered vaguely naff."
While at the shop, Harris also wrote a bit of dance music journalism. Then, after a couple of years, local record label Loaded asked if he wanted to come and work for them. He learned indie lessons, including "how to keep it really tight, moneywise. As independents you can take risks, but if you over-extend by trying to get a big hit, it can cripple you. The outrageous amount of money it costs to get people up into the charts is disgusting."
After a year and half he formed Skint - "I was really skint at the time"- as a sister label which would not have any of the house music that was Loaded's speciality. The acts arrived, several of them local, some by post. Both Bentley Rhythm Ace and the Lo-Fidelity Allstars were snapped up from unsolicited tapes. Good reviews came in, followed by advances from major labels. The bidding became frenzied. "We had a mad month where I ate out every day," says Harris. "I finally went to Brighton's nicest restaurants. There I was, having the salmon, with these people laughing at my jokes."
He was unimpressed by the more business-minded industry bods. Harris's role models were people like James Lavelle of Mo Wax, for whom music was an "obsession and a hobby, not an exercise in balancing books". And of course Alan McGee, Creation supremo, populariser of Oasis and burgeoning public figure. Before signing with Sony, Harris went to see McGee, who supped mineral water and offered reassuring and cautionary advice - particularly relevant as Sony owns a large slice of Creation.
After McGee's example, one wonders if Harris could become a part of New Labour's Creative Industries Taskforce. "God knows! I'll see. Everyone will be cynical, particularly as there is disappointment about Labour at the moment. But if it could do anything half-decent, like get the laws on marijuana changed, or speak about clubbing laws and restrictions, perhaps. But I'm no great ambassador."
Harris, now a richer man (he won't say by how much, except that it is "not a huge fortune") is going to recruit a couple more staff members, and buy a place in Brighton. "I've been in a horrible flat with a couple of mates for five years. It sounds really bad, but I still live like a student. If you could see my bedroom - well, don't. It's disgusting." He is also gratified that he can now buy his friends drinks. "I've been so long poncing drinks off people. That's one of the best things about having money; being able to get the round in."
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