Nic Harcourt: Give me a break

A former punk from Birmingham, by way of Australia, has become a big hit in America. Edward Helmore talks to the influential Nic Harcourt
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The Independent Online

Seventeen years on and Harcourt is host of Los Angeles' influential show Morning Becomes Eclectic and the musical director of the show's parent public-radio station, KCRW. From his basement-studio lair in the grounds of the Santa Monica College campus, Harcourt's range extends from the Los Angeles basin to the high desert beyond to Santa Barbara, and, thanks to KCRW's internet streaming service and satellite relay, further still.

In fact, he's becoming a small-sized media mogul. Last week, he published his first book, Music Lust: Recommended Listening for Every Mood, Moment and Reason, essentially a compendium of Harcourt-approved music with descriptions and history. It's a mixed bag and it's meant to be. There's an essay about bands that have taken their names from cats and dogs and a chapter about the Rat Pack.

"I'm not saying if you don't know Songs for Swingin' Lovers you're an idiot," he explains. "I am saying if you want to explore this part of the musical heritage of America, then here are the albums from Frank, Dean and Sammy you should, in my opinion, listen to." In addition, KCRW is putting out Sounds Eclectico, a compilation of Mexican and South American bands performing live in the studio. Further, there are Harcourt-organised KCRW shows at the Hollywood Bowl and KCRW-endorsed showcases of new bands.

In New York recently for the annual college music festival, the 48-year-old DJ attracted a surprising amount of attention for a DJ on poor, non-commercial radio. "Nic Harcourt is the country's most important disc jockey" and "a genuine bellwether", recommended The New York Times. He is stopped in the street by young musicians offering demo CDs and courted by labels trying to get their acts the prestigious Harcourt endorsement.

Harcourt, it's clear, enjoys every second of it. In a very British way, he simultaneously puffs up and demurs at attention and praise. "Let's face it, it's fun being an English guy in America. I'm a lot more exotic than I was when I was in Birmingham." At the same, he says, "You still have to deliver."

Harcourt left school at 16 and soon enough became a singer in a post-punk, pre-New-Romantic band called The Red Cassettes. The band got as far as bringing some demo-tapes to London and no further. In Australia, too, he had a band, an avant-garde outfit called Kissing Frogs. His rock dreams lived on into the years in New York State's Hudson Valley, itself a virtual retirement community for has-been and never-will-be musicians. "When I arrived, the only thing I knew about Woodstock was that there was a festival there when I was 12," he says. "I found out when I got there that it wasn't actually there anyway."

It was in Woodstock that Harcourt's own frontman aspirations finally petered out when he got sober and started choosing other people's music to play on radio. Being a successful DJ, he says, is a very good alternative to being an unsuccessful musician. "Everyone in radio is a failed musician," he points out.

He came to KCRW in the spring of 1998. There he has become champion of what one rock critic calls the "semi-popular". In LA, the entertainment business listens to Morning Becomes Eclectic. Harcourt takes pleasure in the fact that he's very often the first to play music that becomes popular and, even if it doesn't become popular in the mainstream, wins critical approval. He was the first in America to play Norah Jones and Coldplay on the radio; he played Damien Rice, Sigur Ros, Jem and David Gray when they were unsigned.

One of the best examples of Harcourt's star-making is Dido. Her manager gave him a copy of her demo CD; he played it; the TV drama Roswell included one of her songs; Eminem heard her and sampled her for "Stan" and she took off. "There's something rewarding about being a part of her story," he says. "If I'm known for anything it's for helping British artists and for helping Latin alternative artists," he says.

Of course, there are always music mysteries: why Coldplay worked in America but Travis didn't; whether Americans will get James Blunt, ("I don't get it," Harcourt says) and what happened with Robbie Williams ("He's so English. I never saw him working here").

Same but different with Oasis. "Everybody in England loved that they were loud-mouthed drunks but it didn't work here. Nobody here's got the time. We're bombarded here with choices and options. If someone's going to be a dick and insult you, it's like, 'Next!'." As Morning Becomes Eclectic becomes an institutionalised stepping stone for bands on the way up, Harcourt doesn't much like it when bands he champions forget to credit him later. He's got the hump with Arcade Fire because they thanked his arch-enemy KROQ for helping to break them in America, neglecting to mention that KCRW championed them and played them in rotation for months before his commercial rock-orientated rival.

Harcourt has a lot to live up to. Radio is important in the City of Angels because everyone spends so much time in cars. He is positioned in a line of famous disc jockeys, among them B Mitchell Reed (who inspired Joni Mitchell to write "You Turn Me On (I'm a Radio)") and Rodney Bingenheimer, the English disco legend who launched Blondie, X and Hole among others. Nowadays, he has the ex-Sex Pistol Steve Jones on Indie 103.1 playing Mott the Hoople and, on strange days - at least for Americans - Benny Hill's "Ernie (the Fastest Milkman in the West)". "My show is really about the music and not about me," he says. "I'm the guy who plays the cool music and Steve's the funny, irreverent fucker."

For a media career that started at 32 with a knock on the door of WDST FM, Harcourt's trajectory in the media is enviable. And while the station is non-commercial - it survives on gifts and subscriptions - Harcourt takes jobs as a music supervisor on movies, including The Dukes of Hazzard, and television advertising campaigns such as Victoria's Secret. He has a reciprocal arrangement with Steve Lamacq on Radio 1: Harcourt sends him a 10-minute show on what's going on in music in America that goes out on Monday nights, and Lamacq does the same for him for LA listeners.

It's no wonder that Harcourt, who has maintained some aspects of his early Eighties rocker look, looks like the cat that got the cream. He's currently rooting for The Magic Numbers, who have met the singular and simple criterion for getting on the show: "I have to like it," Harcourt says.