Harold Heath plays the long game

Harold Heath’s self-deprecating book Long Relationships tapped into the innate slapstick that has always been present in club culture. Pitched somewhere between knockabout comedy and quiet tragedy, Heath manages to surf perfectly between the two and, as he points out in the interview, shows just how close these two emotions actually are. We asked him just how he got from semi-successful DJ to semi-successful writer.

interviewed by Bill in London, 16.11.22

What I loved about your book obviously was the humour, but also underneath that, there are all kinds of little lessons for DJs. I think anyone starting out would get an awful lot out of it about what could go wrong and what to avoid. There’s something very real about your experiences.
Honestly, there was no plan to make it like that, but looking back at it, a few people have said it’s kind of like a guidebook. I was so obsessive about DJing and parties that I just had this big store of things I thought were worthy of sharing. I had this huge sheet made out of A4 paper taped together, full of different ideas and I’d draw lines between them. It was like a crazy man’s map of what the book was going to be. All the things that go wrong, man, they’re a huge part of the story. They’re the making of every DJ. Things going wrong is funny.

Given that 95% of people’s professional musical experiences end in failure, there are very few books about it. I know that you’re a real fan of another book which is about failure, James Young’s Nico, Songs They Never Play On The Radio.
Such a wonderful book.

That’s the epitome of failure, that book. It’s hilarious, it’s really sad, and it’s brilliant. Why do you think there are so few books about failure in music? There really ought to be more.
Yeah who cares that you were successful? It’s great reading about the crazy adventures in hotel rooms for a while. But I think tragedy and hilarity are really close. For me, as an autistic person, sometimes I get quite confused between those two extremes of emotion, the tragic and the hilarious Sometimes they blend together into this whole weird thing. And those two extremes of emotion, the way they exist in dance music at the same time, the sublime and the ridiculous, right? The fact that it’s a really important thing for us all, it can be really transformative, but also quite ridiculous. I love the contrasts, the conflicts.

When did you first have the idea for a book, and did you have an idea before you started that the book that you finished was the book you were going to write?
The answer to the second bit is no, I didn’t at all. I started writing the book around 2016 or 2017. All that happened was I used to fart around on Facebook quite a lot and I used to really like getting lots of likes for my funny little statuses, and I realised I kind of had this knack to write little funny DJ things that resonated with other DJs. Then I wrote a piece for Vice about this awful DJing job I had – in Los Locos in Covent Garden – and that went down really well. So I thought, there’s something here and I really enjoy talking about this stuff, it comes really easy to me. So I just started writing recollections of funny DJing stories and the book just came together organically. There wasn’t a general plan for it to end up how it did. It was essentially just a collection of funny stories, really. Then I realised I needed to link that together with stuff, so I put in everything I’d ever thought about DJing, which I then had to edit it down until just the good bits were left.

Can you tell me a bit about the period between your DJ career slowing down and you starting to write?
There was a chunk when I got quite ill, and I was a bit confused. I wanted to work in and around music, so I thought I would train as a music technology teacher. I did two years part-time at a college with 16 to 18-year-olds who hadn’t had a good experience of education. I started the two years thinking, ‘I can make them all stars’; they’re all going to be famous. By the end of the two years, my goals had been lowered just to seeing if I could get them to come in the room without starting a fucking punch-up. If I got that done, I’d won the day. hat whole process really wore me down. I got one teaching job after that. I got made redundant a few months later and I never went back to teaching. I never thought of it ever again.

But you had to do loads of written work when you trained to be a teacher, and it really ignited my love for writing. And my poor tutors, man. I used to turn in these fucking essays, they were like four times as long as they needed to be and I’d done this amazing research and they were beautifully crafted. I was top of my class all the time. I was a proper nerd. I won an award for my fucking work. It was ridiculous. So it really ignited my love of writing while reinforcing the sad truth that I was not a good teacher.
I was quite ill for a while. I had chronic fatigue syndrome, which is probably now I would say related to an autistic burnout and ADHD issues. Then I just started writing freelance. Russ at iDJ, I think he’d seen some of my funny Facebook posts and said, ‘Why don’t you do a column for me?’ He was the first person who gave me a job writing online. I did columns for him for years, and from there it just kind of grew. It takes a long time to get taken seriously as a writer, I found. I was lucky that I had a family that were happy to support me during those tough times. I still feel I have quite a lot to do, a lot of goals to reach in terms of writing. It still feels like it’s early days.

How important is humour in writing, particularly in dance music where a lot of people take themselves quite seriously?
Our thing is sublime and ridiculous at the same time. So you’ve got to embrace both of those things. So for me, it’s phenomenally important. I think it’s fine to take it seriously. It’s really important. It’s been the centre of mine and your life for our entire lives. It’s a really important thing, and I do take it really seriously. But I also think it’s really silly and it’s fun, and I think we should be having fun because we’ll all be dead soon. We should just have some fucking fun, right? I think people who find the funny in dance music and performing are providing a really important public service in our little scene. Keeping everyone grounded. Having fun is a really important thing.

Did you learn anything about the craft of DJ while you were writing the book?
I re-evaluated the whole thing a bit, and by the end of it, possibly because I’d got a couple of years older, I was a little bit more at ease with the fun approach to DJing and a little bit less obsessed with being a serious DJ. So getting all that stuff out about the pride and the passion, but also the silliness of DJing and club culture. It didn’t specifically change anything. Maybe it just made things a little bit more balanced in my head. I’ve always been a person of extremes, but maybe by the end, I had a more balanced idea of what DJing was.

DJing is an instant high. When you’re playing you know whether you’re fucking it up or not. But when you’re writing, you’re doing it in a vacuum, and I’m wondering how you cope with the difference in that?
It is very much a vacuum, and you never know when it’s gone wrong, but you do know when it’s gone right. I think those moments when you write something and it’s like, “Oh, that’s really fucking nice. Where did that come from?” You get that straight away. That’s the writing equivalent of the crowd going crazy, I dropped the right tune. But it’s horrifically lonely, and you’re plagued by self-doubt the whole time. I had terrible self-doubt about my writing, but also I have a secret confidence in how brilliant it is as well. I go between the two. You have to overcome that whole imposter thing and just have a bit of self-belief, while still completely doubting that any word you’re writing has any fucking brilliancy at all.

Where does that self-doubt come from?
Other writers. I read other writers. I read a lot of books. I like books. And I often read other writers’ books and I’m like, ‘Oh, you cunt’. There’s something I read the other day. I’m not going to tell you, because I don’t want to big them up, but someone else had written something beautiful that I read and I just thought, ‘I wish I’d done that’. I think those kind of things, comparing yourself to other people, that can derail you.

Good writing is really about reading, and it’s certainly where my inspiration came from. What was your journey from reader to writer like?
All these books definitely I would say have created the writer that I am. There are some writers who I’ve literally looked at their structure and been so knocked out by it, I stole some of it. I might’ve mentioned this to you before. David Simon wrote that book, Homicide. He’s the guy from The Wire and there’s a passage that is just so brilliantly punchy, the way he just drives the narrative on, it’s astonishingly good prose. I nicked it. I just nicked his style. I nicked the size and the shape and the feel of it. Wholesale. Much like a sample, and just interpolated it in my own words. I used to do that with my productions as well. Now I do it with books. It drives you to have self-doubt, but also for you to be better because it’s inspiring, isn’t it? Have you read Night Moves by Jessica Hopper?

Tiny little book, and it’s just about a woman who rides around on her bike and goes to gigs and DJs. It’s just a collection of these vignettes. But it’s fucking perfect and even just reading that, it’s kind of inspiring and you think if you can just get a bit of that. But also, it broadens what you think is a suitable subject. I’ve had loads of lovely times riding around on my bike, going to parties, listening to tunes. Never really thought that would be a subject that you could make a whole little book out of. Books like that help you rediscover the magic of writing. It’s finding something to write about that you didn’t think had value and then something comes from doing it.

The thing with writing is you have to sit there and write in order for the good things to come out. You start the day having no idea what you’re going to say or what you’re going to write, but it’s only by following the act of writing that suddenly things come out of you that you didn’t know were in there.
It’s funny you say that, because in all the interviews I’ve done since I did my book and people ask me, ‘What is your tip for writing?’, and that’s my tip. Never ever wait for the idea. You’ll spend your whole life waiting for it. It’s pointless. Soon as you sit down, there’s something about that process, right? Little things just happen and it’s inexplicable, and they never happen unless you’re just doing the job. I get commissions and think, ‘I don’t know what to write about this’. And I procrastinate, waiting for that opinion to crystallise. Don’t need to do that, ever. Just start the thing and there it is. It’s the strangest thing. It’s like writing unlocks something that you didn’t quite know was there.

Senior Airman Heath pilots the 45s.

If you could go back in time, is there anything that you’d change about your DJ career?
I don’t know. Sometimes I think I’d change everything about it and sometimes I think it was perfect as it was. I spent a lot of time in the book having a bit of therapy with myself and coming to terms with the idea of success and failure and what it meant, and how much I actually got out of it. But I say in the book, if I’d been a slightly more sociable, approachable person, I might have been a bit more successful, because that networking side of things is quite important. It became more important to a DJ’s success, I think, as time went on, and it’s something that hasn’t always come naturally to me. Were I to do that, though, it would involve changing my personality.

I would’ve liked to have taken more chances. When you’re in your mid-twenties, you feel like there’ll always be more opportunities, so you’re quite blasé about things that come and go. I think when I was researching the book, I went right back to the very start of when I was using email and I was looking at the very first records that I was getting signed to other labels and stuff. And my mate, Fannah, who’s in the book, was acting as a manager for me kind of thing. And there was all sorts of really interesting ideas coming through at that time about people I might remix or where I might go and DJ. And we were just like, ‘Yeah, whatever, we’ll come back to that.’ And I think now as I approach a much older age, I feel like I would grab stuff more.

Which do you prefer, DJing or writing?
Which do you prefer? DJing, you can get really fucking pissed, can’t you?

They’re such contrasting activities. The effect of writing doesn’t happen until much later. Sometimes it’s years and years later. Whereas DJing, you can’t deny that that instantaneous thing is such a buzz that it’s very difficult to replicate that with anything else.
I guess I don’t get anxious before I start writing. I don’t really need a pee before I start writing. You don’t have a crowd of people going fucking mad when you write a good sentence, either. I guess DJing is more instantly fun, isn’t it? It’s like comparing do you like sleep or do you like donuts? I like them both.

What’s really weird about DJing is that it must be one of the most precarious jobs that exist, because if you work for a company, you go in on a Monday and you work till Friday. DJing, you’re playing on a Friday and a Saturday, and in a couple of months you can go from being really busy to being redundant, irrespective of how good you are, how old you are, how venerated you are. Why would anyone do it?
I don’t even know if I answered that question in the book, and that was what I started out to address. It was like, why the hell do we try and do this? Why do we go through so much? Why are we in our thirties and forties with rooms full of records with one gig every two months, still calling ourselves DJs? Why are we doing this? Stop the pain. We just keep walking into the pain all the time. I don’t know. There’s no answer to it, is there?

Do you think it’s purely about musical passion? I think the thing that drives my interest in it all is, on a Saturday, you’ve got all these new tunes that you’ve discovered and you want people to know about them.
It was the same when I was a teenager. I would buy a record and then I would invite people round and play them the record. They could look at the cover and I’d be like, ‘What do you think of that? It’s good, isn’t it?’ And if they liked it, I could play them another one. And whatever urge that is, that just grew to exactly what you say. It’s just some essential excitement, a joy from showing, ‘Look at this fucking brilliant thing. This is great. You’re going to fucking love this.’ That’s an unbeatable feeling, right? There’s an inherent joy in the sharing of a beautiful thing. That’s always been the reason why I did it, and I love it. Who doesn’t love it when you’re going out to a gig and you’ve got that new stash and you know it’s going to just be killer? It’s the best feeling in the world.

When I was a teenager, before I even knew what DJs did, I was making little pause button compilation tapes and giving them to mates and girlfriends and forcing my opinions on them with my musical taste. Really, all we’re doing now with DJing is that, but in an even more megalomaniacal way.
That’s a brilliant way of putting it. I’ve never thought of it like that, but yeah, that’s exactly it. I would also buy them records for their birthdays, like records that they didn’t fucking ask for: ‘I know you’ll like this.’ And then I gave them mixtapes: ‘You have to listen to that.’ And then you finally get to do it in public and get paid for it and you’re like, HA HA HA, finally you will listen to me.

Even though a lot of the fun of your book is about the things that go wrong, I think in a lot of ways, anyone that manages to live their life without a proper job is triumphing in some important way. You’ve managed to get to this age without really doing anything that could constitute being called a job. Is that a source of pride?
I can’t agree enough that being a bohemian is winning in this fucking society. I actually did do a full-time job for maybe three years at the end of the ’90s. I worked in an office. It was horrific, and I abused drugs every day to get through it. So I don’t know if that really counts or not, because I wasn’t really doing the job properly. But yeah, aside from that, I have definitely lived that particular lifestyle.

Are you pleased with the reception of the book?
So, so pleased. I’ve read maybe one weird negative review on Amazon, and I think everything else has just been perfect. I couldn’t be happier, really. I didn’t even know it was going to be received like it was. So the affection that people have held it in is nice. It’s weird, isn’t it? When your book’s released, it kind of gets away from you. People put their own slant on it and it becomes their book. I never imagined that happening, but that whole process has been really fucking lovely. I really liked it.

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton

You can buy Long Relationships here