With the release of Harlecore, the musician and producer gives us a glimpse at utopia – here, he talks defying industry conservatism, shining a light on hard dance heroes, and the post-PC Music era of hyperpop
This week on Dazed we explore the high octane, utopian dream world of musician Danny L Harle, his debut album Harlecore, and the magically immersive digital club space of Danny and his fantastical collaborators.
It’s 12 months into lockdown. Nightclubs are closed, festival season has been cancelled for a second time, life has slowed to a crawl. Outside, it’s horror; inside, monotony.
You let your mind wander. You are at the rave. You are dancing to the hardest, fastest, loudest music you have heard in your entire life. You are experiencing joy for the first time in months. Not just joy, but euphoria, pure euphoria, an emotional and spiritual ecstasy so profound you can feel every cell in your body vibrating. You are absolutely off your nut and you are loving it, mate.
This is no fantasy. You are at Club Harlecore right now.
12 months into lockdown, nightclubs might still be closed, but behind the doors of Club Harlecore, the rave never ends. Three years ago, Club Harlecore existed only in the mind of UK producer, DJ and songwriter Danny L Harle. Today, it’s a real place – depending on how you define ‘real’, of course. Designed to accompany Harle’s debut album, Harlecore is a virtual nightclub, an online party where the rave never ends.
“I’ve always liked the idea of an album compartmentalised into different rooms you can visit,” says Harle, speaking in the slightly more down-to-earth setting of a Zoom call (his background filter is an enormous spinning 3D silver rendering of his own head). “Club Harlecore is a shared dream on an event horizon. You can experience the way I hear and process this rave music and, hopefully, experience a sense of euphoria with me.”
The album that Harle is promoting is also titled Harlecore. It’s inspired by rave genres like happy hardcore, gabber, and mákina – music with dangerously fast tempos, extremely gnarly basslines and moments of breathtaking joy in between. These genres are quite silly by nature, which has led to them being ignored at best, derided at worst, by the UK’s critical cognoscenti. Harlecore is quite a silly album, made even sillier by the oddball sense of humour that Harle embeds throughout, but it’s certainly not ironic. “A lot of this music was relegated to a joke,” says Harle. “It became associated with Jez from Peep Show and Kevin & Perry Go Large. It has damaged its reputation as a beautiful and important part of the culture of the UK, and I think it made a lot of people ignore the cultural richness of this stuff.”
Growing up, the classically trained Harle was an acolyte of ultra-technical music – free jazz, contemporary classical, baroque – but he eventually fell head over heels for pop’s simple pleasures. The result of this Damascene conversion was his debut single, “Broken Flowers”, which became an instant classic when it was released by his childhood friend A. G. Cook’s then-brand-new label PC Music in 2013. Harle’s subsequent career has seen him travel the world, navigate the byzantine major label system and collaborate with pop music’s most inventive and forward-thinking names, from Caroline Polachek to Charli XCX and Rina Sawayama. There have been huge bangers as well as some truly weird music along the way, but Harle’s taste for the euphoric and the extreme links it all.
Certainly, Harlecore is among the producer’s most euphoric and extreme releases to date. The concept dates back to 2017, when Harle worked on some happy hardcore-inspired tracks with Hudson Mohawe at the Scottish producer’s studio in Los Angeles. When HudMo found himself back in London, the pair hosted the first Harlecore party together at The Waiting Room in Stoke Newington, and more nights followed across the UK, Europe and USA. As the brand grew in popularity, Harle started putting out tracks under the banner, with “Dreaming” (a collaboration with Lil Texas) and official remixes for 100 gecs and Ed Sheeran among them.
Harlecore is a supercharged take on these sounds. The album features collaborations with a variety of (often uncredited) guest writers and vocalists, but there are four names that pop up repeatedly across its runtime. The first is DJ Danny, AKA Harle himself, the lord of the rave and the 160bpm beating heart of the album. Then there’s DJ Mayhem AKA Hudson Mohawke, who previously used the ‘Mayhem’ alias while playing hardcore DJ sets. The third is MC Boing, alias PC Music’s Lil Data, who longtime fans will have first heard on the track “Dance Floor” back in 2017. Finally, Caroline Polachek turns up on two tracks as DJ Ocean, having stepped in to play a Harlecore night in New York when Harle was unable to find guest DJs who ‘got’ the concept back in 2018. (As with all of their collaborations, it came about “with very little words shared between us”.)
“I was a nerd when I was young. I did not go out to parties, I did not go out to raves, I was not part of the very important times in rave culture” – Danny L Harle
These four artists bring their own distinct musical flavour to Harlecore. In the interactive digital environment of Club Harlecore, they each host their own room where they play their specialist genre. DJ Danny plays euphoric hardcore at the centre of the rave stadium; arms raised to the heavens, he takes the ‘God Is a DJ’ maxim to its logical conclusion, surrounded by rings of CDJs that resemble Old Testament angels. DJ Mayhem’s gabber mixes are brutally punishing; residing in a basement dungeon, he resembles some kind of demon dog creature and wields a giant hammer (or ‘skelper’, to use its technical term). DJ Ocean plays balm-like ambient music, and appears as a jellyfish in a bioluminescent chillout lounge. And MC Boing, a little blue lad wearing a giant pair of headphones, ricochets around a zero-gravity dome as he raps at the speed of light over bouncy mákina music.
The idea of Club Harlecore makes a lot of sense in the current pandemic context, where Zoom DJ sets and virtual raves have become legitimately accepted alternatives to the real clubbing experience. But it’s also the sort of bizarre, ridiculous, high-concept idea that you’d expect a PC Music-affiliated artist to come out with anyway. Indeed, the idea of a virtual club had been kicking around in Harle’s head since he started on his Harlecore journey three years ago, but the pandemic has normalised what might have been a strange concept. “I’m not having to introduce multiple ideas simultaneously to people,” he says. “Before all this, I was prepared for it to be an interesting but ultimately weird avant-garde project, in terms of its ambition and size. But people wanted to write about an online club – imagine that three years ago!”
The club was designed with digital artists Sam and Andy Rolfes, an ongoing working relationship that has previously seen Sam work on the “Ashes of Love” video and perform as ‘DJ Fuck’ at a Harlecore show. The cohort of club characters were designed by CGI, VR, and AR artists NotReal_Virtual, and then animated by the Rolfes. Harle also worked with Chinese art director and graphic designer EG Huang on the album – who, despite the language barrier, instinctively grasped the idea behind the record. “The word ‘euphoric’ doesn’t translate to Mandarin directly, which was an issue, given that it’s my main descriptive word for the entire project,” says Harle. “But he got the vibe, and it’s all about the vibe. I said it has to look the way the music sounds, because this music sounds the way I feel.”
Harle is keen to stress that he’s no figurehead for this euphoric rave music, and doesn’t have long-standing roots in the scene – he’s merely an enthusiast putting his own spin on it. “I was a nerd when I was young. I did not go out to parties, I did not go out to raves, I was not part of the very important times in rave culture,” he says. “The experience I had was very much between myself and some headphones. It gave me this inner world, and this project is my expression of that relationship to this music. If anything, it’s an opportunity to shine a light on the people who influenced this record, rather than this record itself.”
Some of those people include superstars like The Prodigy’s Liam Howlett as well as less celebrated producers and MCs like Jason Brown, MC Finchy, DJ Movin, and MC Mental. The harder northern rave scene proved to be particularly inspiring – a loose rule in UK rave music is that the further north you go, the faster, louder, and more extreme the music gets, “and anybody who knows me knows I like music as fast and loud, or as slow and quiet, or just as extreme in any regard, as possible,” says Harle. One influence that Harle cites more than others is Scott Brown, a three-decade veteran of the happy hardcore, hard trance, gabber and bouncy techno. “Listening to his back catalogue, there was something in his brain that really tapped into what I wanted to hear – his relationship to harmony, melody, and narrative emotion in sound is just exactly on my level.” In 2018, Brown DJed at London’s FOLD nightclub for the fifth Harlecore party. “One of the peaks of my life,” he says. “True euphoria was achieved that evening.”
While Harle is obviously enthusiastic about this music, it hasn’t always received the same reception critically. These scenes were popular enough that compilation CD series (usually with names like Clubland or Euphoria) were advertised on primetime British television, yet they’ve not been canonised in retrospective books, compilations or art exhibitions like the wider rave movement, despite running concurrently to it. There are many theories behind that, ranging from notions of class and ‘good taste’ (the music is often dismissed as tacky, and not coincidentally tends to be popular in working-class areas) to simple facts of proximity (with so many cultural institutions being based in London, serious or continued press coverage is rarely granted to movements beyond southern England). Harle also says the UK has a tendency to ignore things happening on its own doorstep: “It often takes the UK a long time to recognise its own musical greatness. And, embarrassingly enough, it often takes America to tell us our own music is good. I’m specifically thinking of Kanye West saying, ‘Yo, Skepta’ and the UK saying, ‘OK, let’s put grime in the charts now.’”
Harle grew up in north London, the son of internationally renowned saxophonist and composer John Harle. Harle Sr’s musical world sounds like it should be miles away from Danny’s, but in fact, his CV is equally diverse: on the one hand, he’s a professor of saxophone performance, on the other, he’s worked with pop stars like Paul McCartney, Marc Almond, and Elvis Costello. Harle has a close relationship with his father, often talking about him on social media and even remixing his theme music for the BBC crime drama Silent Witness – but what does John make of Harlecore? “He loves it,” beams Harle. “He’s obsessed. He’s always been so supportive – especially emotionally – of my work. It was Dad who initially pointed out that the sillier side of what I do actually hides the most serious thing that I do. I basically didn’t understand that for 15 years.”
“It often takes the UK a long time to recognise its own musical greatness. And, embarrassingly enough, it often takes America to tell us our own music is good” – Danny L Harle
Harle jokes that, because his dad exposed him to so much inspirational music, he’s to ‘blame’ for making his work so hard to pin down. Another important figure was a man named Tim Winter, who Harle worked with at Harold Moores Records, one of London’s last classical record shops, for two years. “He was a fanatic about contemporary and baroque music, and he loved Wagnerian opera – but he also absolutely loved pop music,” says Harle. “He had absolute freedom in the way that he listened. He’d often get sent a bunch of CDs by a PR person and put one of them on in the shop without looking. Sometimes it’d be a drone from a guitar pedal for 30 minutes, sometimes it’d be the new Saturdays single. I grew to understand that having preconceived notions about what music is ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’, high culture or low culture, has nothing to do with music. It’s to do with social status and tribalism, which I’m not interested in.”
Unfortunately, such open-mindedness doesn’t usually sit too well with the record industry’s conservatism when it comes to marketing new acts. When PC Music partnered with Columbia Records in 2015, the first single they released was a beefed-up version of “Broken Flowers”. It made inroads in the UK’s pop and dance music mainstream, and if Harle had released a similar follow-up, he could have capitalised on this momentum. But he had no interest in repeating himself. His next two singles saw him work with Caroline Polachek and Carly Rae Jepsen – both excellent songs in their own right, but stylistic left turns from the sound he’d already established.
After PC Music’s relationship with Columbia came to an end in 2016, Harle became more active as a collaborator, working with Charli XCX, Clairo, Tommy Cash, Rina Sawayama, Superfruit, and plenty more besides. This is before mentioning his more unexpected team-ups, like working with Nile Rodgers on Chic’s comeback album, or recording an EP with harpsichordist and historical keyboard specialist Pawel Siwczak. But despite his presence in the industry today, Harle is pretty modest about the idea that he might have had any impact in shaping the sound of pop. He doesn’t personally buy the theory that Clean Bandit’s monster hit “Symphony” was influenced by him (its plinky-plonk synths and melancholy-tinged euphoria do recall Harle’s own “In My Dreams”), but he does love the song – he sampled it in his Against the Clock video for FACT. And while PC Music is often described as an influence on the ‘hyperpop’ subgenre (not necessarily a scene with a specific sound, but certain shared sensibilities between artists), Harle says the genre “has become its own thing that’s nothing to do with me. It’s amazing to see, and completely outside of anything I could have conceived, but it’s turned out different”.
In terms of influence, Harle says he’s simply making the music that he loves using ideas that are already out there. “A lot of principles that were seen as ‘avant-garde’ in the early PC period were already prevalent in this rave music, as much as they weren’t presented in this experimental context,” he says. “I think if there was more awareness of this music, maybe all that PC stuff wouldn’t have seemed so weird.” Pop culture, he says, is “like a dog eating its own vomit”, moving forward by revisiting ideas from its own past.
Still, there are distinctively ‘Danny L Harle’ ideas that recur in his own music, from “repeating patterns that never fully resolve, like a musical zoetrope” to “certain combinations of notes and voicings of chords” that often turn up. “That’s why my style fits well with rave, because it has these repeating patterns,” he says. “But then you look at the history of pop music and it’s completely made up of that stuff. Baroque music is made up of that. One could argue that these repeated patterns offer a vision of perfection and order in what appears to be a chaotic world. You get a glimpse of utopia through it.”
A vision of perfection, a glimpse of utopia – from Harlecore and its virtual club and beyond, that sounds like Harle’s musical mission distilled. “I’m interested in just a few things in music, and those things are apparent in everything I do,” he says. He ponders this for a second. “It’s weird, fundamentally, that certain combinations of sounds ‘sound’ emotional. No one has quite worked out why sounds without words associated with them make you feel a certain way. I’m eternally investigating how to get those feelings out of sound.”