HARD Fest founder on Coachella, Guetta, pool parties
Of all the performance riders the Coachella team received in advance of this year's consecutive weekenders, you can bet that none were as meticulous as the one submitted by the Los Angeles DJ Destructo, a.k.a., Gary Richards. Not because Richards is especially finicky, but because as the head of Los Angeles' HARD festival, he is unusually expert in all things backstage. (Since he took HARD to the high seas with the Holy Ship cruise, he's also gotten up to speed on maritime issues, like what to do when your floating nightclub gets stuck on a sandbar.)
Usually, Richards stays behind the scenes, masterminding HARD events in Los Angeles, plus a growing array of tours and one-offs elsewhere, but his Coachella appearance reflects a rising onstage profile as Destructo, the name he DJ'd under during the '90s rave era; just recently, he released a new EP of dark, throbbing electro-house for Boys Noize's BNR Trax label. "I wear a lot of hats," Richards acknowledges. Hey — it worked for Daft Punk and Deadmau5.
I called up Richards at his office in L.A. to ask about his foray into the spotlight, the state of festival culture in Southern California, and where the S.S. EDM is headed next.
It's funny to me that the head of the HARD festival is also on the bill at Coachella.
It's exciting. I've been going to Coachella for years. I went to the first one. I was always trying to get a ticket, trying to get in. Then it was like, I just wish I could get one of my bands on the bill, because I managed bands and worked at record labels for a long time. And then here we are now, and I'm on the bill. I'm elated, you know. I'm blown away.
What kind of set do you have planned?
I think I'm probably in the afternoon, so I've come up with this game plan: I want people to bring their bathing suits to my set. I'm going to try to make a pool party vibe during my set at the Sahara Tent, a little more sunshine-y, afternoon, happy, fun, enjoy-the-desert-heat kind of vibe. I'm not at night, where I can just go bananas. We just did the Holy Ship thing, and I feel like that's kind of my vibe right now — being out in the sun during the day.
Your style is usually pretty dark, right?
Kinda. I've been DJing for 20 years, so I play everything. I try to play to the crowd and just get people to dance. But if I had my choice of where I could play anywhere in the world, I'd probably pick Berghain, in Berlin, at six in the morning, when everybody's crazy, going nuts. That's probably my inner speed. But I'm also playing this Saturday night at the Fonda with the Super Mash Brothers and Dirt Nasty. I'm going to play, like, moombahton, maybe some Lil Wayne — I'll play whatever makes the crowd go.
Do you feel like crowds are particularly open to that kind of variety now, in the places where you're playing?
I just played a week or two ago at Haze in Vegas, and those people, the bottle-service people, they don't really go for everything. It's got to be a certain thing. But when I play at HARD events or any of these festivals, you can play anything and people are open to it, as long as it's good. You've just got to have good taste, pick the right things, and put it together the right way.
I think both styles are doing really well, but I still stick to my guns, and at the end of the day, I think the one side will eventually fizzle out, because it's more of a pop genre. I kind of liken the Tiëstos and Guettas to a Kiss FM type of thing. It's pop. It's like a Britney Spears, like a Katy Perry type of thing. Then the Boys Noizes, these guys are, to me, like the Nirvanas or the Pearl Jams. It's a little more indie-alternative. And I think that, in the long haul, when people aren't as into dance music as a trendy thing, their music will last longer. That's just my theory. Maybe I'm totally wrong, who the hell knows. It just seems like everything under the sun keeps getting bigger and bigger, so I'm happy.
I thought it was interesting that Ultra Music Fest in Miami reached out to the underground this year in a way I hadn't seen before, booking people like Maya Jane Coles and Seth Troxler along with the big, mainstream names.
I think everyone in this world is looking for other things. There's only so many times you can book Tiësto and Guetta, as much as they're huge and everyone loves them. There's gotta be new stuff. My theory with dance music, if you're a true DJ, and you're DJing every week, you're always looking for the new thing. That is what propels DJ culture. If anyone who runs one of these festivals is smart, they're going to always look for the new and up-and-coming thing, and not just hang their hat on the tried and true. For us, you'll see on the bill for HARD Summer we're going to announce in a couple of weeks, we've got guys on the bill that are like my heroes. Just on a straight-up musical level — forget dance music or techno or whatever, just the types of people that we're booking, in the overall music scheme, are guys that are going to go down in history. Twenty, 30 years from now, you're probably going to be listening to their music. I'm just trying to give it longevity, you know? I don't want it to be a fad. My goal at HARD is to still be doing it 10 years from now. We don't have to be the biggest, but we want to still be doing it, and doing incredible.
You've been going to Coachella for a long time; what impact do you think Coachella has had on the state of dance music in Southern California?
I mean, it's huge. I think Coachella has been massive. The Sahara Tent has always come with the best electronic music. I kind of thought with HARD, we could be like the Sahara Tent, but then have four more of them going at the same time. We want to be like a Coachella of dance, all the different styles. But I think Coachella has had a huge impact on electronic and dance music in Southern California and the United States. We're so lucky to have that festival, and Paul [Tollett, co-founder of Coachella, and president of concert-promotion giant Goldenvoice] and his vision, right here in our backyard. Another person I give a lot of credit to is Jason Bentley, being on KCRW and playing techno music for so many years. He switched now; he's in the morning, and he's a little different, but for so many years he was on the radio, the 15 years I was at a record label, he was playing techno from 7:30 to 10:30 P.M. on 89.9, and that really helped keep it rolling.
Will you be doing anything differently in your two sets from weekend to weekend, or are you just going to play it by ear?
I wanted to do a different set each weekend. I wanted to do the pool party the first weekend and then maybe mix it up the second weekend and go a little heavier and crazy. But Paul [Tollett] said everyone's supposed to play the exact same thing both weekends.
Are you supposed to play identical set lists?
I mean, it's supposed to be very similar. I wanted to completely change it. A lot of these DJs that tour, they play the same set every night, but they just play 'em in different cities. For me, most of the times when I DJ, it's L.A., and every time I play, I have to play a new set. Which is kind of a pain in the ass. I've done a couple of tours now, and when you're on tour, after the fourth or fifth night on tour, you really figure out your set and how the crowd reacts. But I like to change it up all the time, just totally go different every time. We'll see! If the pool party goes down properly, I'll stick with it. Like I said, the point is to get everyone out there in a bathing suit. We're going to try to get people wet.
Will you be in a bathing suit?
Uhhhh… Something! I'm going to have one of those cocktails with an umbrella in it. I'm going to go the full nine, like we're at some hotel at a pool party, and we're just rockin', but instead of 50 people, there are five thousand.
You've been DJ’ing for 20 years, but it seems like your career is really starting to take off now, plus your production work.
It's kind of funny. My thing was, '91, '92, '93, I DJ’d probably once a week and did events. Rick Rubin hired me [as an A&R rep at Rubin’s then-Def American label], and I went into the record biz. I was in the record biz from '93 until 2006. During that time I would DJ, like, pool parties, friends' parties, parties at my house. But I wasn't like a DJ-DJ, where I was getting paid. But then, when I started HARD, I thought, well, I'll just start putting myself on there. And then people started seeing, "Hey, Gary's actually really good at DJing." I use this analogy, and it's kind of sad, but I kind of feel like I was riding the bench for 15 years, like I was on the basketball team, like, "C'mon, put me in the game, coach!" And nobody would put me in, so I had to put myself in.
I've been trying to make tracks for a long time. I've released some things over the years, but nothing that I was really too proud of. Then I met these guys called Oliver. They have a studio out in Silver Lake, and I went over there one night and we just started screwing around. We kind of made it a ritual — once a week we'd go in the studio and work on stuff. This track that we made, "Technology," Boys Noize started playing it and it just started picking up steam. He said, "I'll release it, can you make some more songs?" So we made more songs. Out of everything I do, it's the most fun. It's the most rewarding, to be at a club and hear someone play my song. That's what I've wanted to do the whole time, but for whatever reason, I took the business route. I was always behind the scenes, managing other people's music, or in the studio helping other people get their music together. I never really looked at it like it would be me.
It seems like Boys Noize is really supportive for a lot of emerging artists.
He's amazing. I just knew that I wanted to make music, and I know I have an ear for this music; I probably know this music better than anyone on the planet, from being involved in it for so long. And I knew that I wanted to make my own stuff, I just didn't really know how to do it. And then I started doing it, and I sent the song out to a few people, and they all picked up on it. Alex [Ridha, a.k.a., Boys Noize] started playing it in his sets, and he thought that it was, like, a big record that was already out. And I think everyone thought it was, like, his song. So he's like, "We should put this out!" Then the BPM radio, they picked up on it, and it just keeps growing. It's kind of crazy. A song, these days, it can take almost a year from when you put it out to get to where people actually get it ingrained in their heads. Because it's not like people are playing this shit on the radio every five minutes.
It's just different ways of getting people to hear the music these days. The other song I have, called "LA Funky," I put it on the Holy Ship trailer. So the Holy Ship trailer has been viewed 500,000 times, it's the first song. I never envisioned 500,000 people listening to that thing, in like a month, but it worked out. Now when people hear the song, they think of Holy Ship, so they've got a visual in their mind, which I think helps a lot.
Tell me about Holy Ship, how was that?
It was crazy, man, it was everything I had dreamed up and more. It was perfect. Everybody was well behaved and respectful, the artists were amazing, the setting was beautiful, everything about it was a ten. It couldn't have been any better.
Skrillex mentioned that the ship ran aground?
Yeah, that happened. [Laughs.] I'm not really a boat person, so I didn't know what was going on. My wife was like, "What's that noise?" I went and checked, and apparently there's a pilot boat that steers the ship when you come into port, and we went into a port that no one ever really uses. My partners thought it would be cool to come in to a different side of the island. And they took us, like, 3,000 yards to the left of the buoy, where we should have been to the right. We were on a sandbar, and they waited till the high tide, and they got these tugs and pulled it out. Thank God, everything was smooth. It didn't impact anything on the trip. We got lucky there was no damage to the boat or the reef.
What was the most memorable moment of the trip?
Probably just all the people coming up to me, hugging me and telling me, "Thank you." The whole experience was something I'll never forget, but literally, the response from everyone that went, any time I'd get on the elevator or go get food, they'd just give me a hug, like, "Oh my God, thank you so much for doing this!" I'm like, "Thank you for believing in it." We didn't sell it out. I was begging people to come — like, "You don't understand how good this is going to be." All those people took a chance on me, because all they saw were some words on a piece of paper. They didn't really know what I had in my head. Now that we've put up the video and showed people what it is, this year's already sold out, and we haven't announced anything. We have a waiting list of, like, 10,000 people. They know now! But in the beginning, it's like when we started HARD. The first HARD we did, it was Justice, Peaches, Aoki, 2 Live Crew, Busy P, A-Trak, and I thought, for sure, this is going to sell out, 10,000 people, it's going to be unbelievable, and we didn't sell any tickets. I'm like, "Why isn't anyone buying these tickets?" It just takes a while for people to understand what your brand is and to gain trust with people that are going to spend money — not only money, you're asking them to go on a vacation, take four days, and trust you on guiding them into something really cool. Now they know. But every time you come with a new idea, people want to make sure it's going to be good before they jump in.
In part, it's a question of timing. With HARD, it seems, you timed it right before the current upswing in electronic dance music.
That was the key, because I had never had good timing. I was on the Prodigy 10 years too early. I was always just too early. As cool as it is to be like, "I know about this really cool thing," if the climate or whatever else is going on in the world at the time doesn't line up, then you're screwed. But it's funny, Rick [Rubin] told me, "The cream rises to the top." It just took a long time to boil that pot.