It's safe to say that without Gavin, Robbie and Scott Hardkiss, the early '90s electronic music scene in San Francisco would have been very different. Coalescing as Hardkiss in 1991, the trio were merry pranksters spreading mayhem during the first wave of raves to take place on US soil, helping shape the whole culture of electronic music via their parties and eponymous record label, which put out scene classic “Raincry” by God Within (aka Scott).
Reunited three years ago to make a new album, Gavin and Robbie were rocked in 2013 when Scott unexpectedly passed away. In his memory, the duo revived the Hardkiss label with Scott's widow, and have just released their completed album, 1991, the title a tribute to the formative years the three shared together.
Filled with squelchy funk, such as on recent single “RetroactiveFuturisticPsychedelicFunkBump,” highlights includes the 13 minute unfurling of “Feeling Scott Through Romanthony” and opener/closer “Revolution,” a rallying call for change that bookends the album with two different mixes.
We caught up with Gavin and Robbie to share some of the experiences and memories that lay behind their latest work...
Can you tell DJ Mag what those early parties were like?
Gavin: “We're pretty outgoing, fun guys. So we just went out and made a whole bunch of friends and invited them to come out and hear the music we were DJing. People loved the music and the vibe at the parties. We made each one special and made people feel really comfortable. It was a real love environment.”
Robbie: “We definitely were on the first wave of raves in America. [At that time] there were just the first beginnings of parties that were like raves happening in San Francisco. Some of the British guys, like the Wicked crew, had moved here [around] the exact same time. So there was a little community that started doing it at the same time. Many of them are still here and still do it now. In fact, I was just watching video from Sunset's 20th Anniversary party from this past weekend that Doc Martin took. He was playing a Frankie Knuckles track and that place was going off in the sunshine! That community love energy that we had back then was really evident in those clips. I got chills watching it.”
A call with the longtime friends and collaborators shows a true camaraderie and sense of playfulness between them. Their kids are around the same ages and enjoy spending time together, continuing the family ties forged as Hardkiss so many years ago. Equally as inspiring as Gavin and Robbie's relationship is the optimistic outlook they've managed to maintain.
How do you feel about the direction electronic music has taken over the last decade or so?
Gavin: “I think it's fantastic.”
Robbie: “I'd say dance music is super healthy right now. A lot of people want to know what you think of the huge success of EDM. More dance music is better in my book. No one has to like every kind of music. There's plenty out there. There's more than ever to listen to.”
While they probably could have rattled off talented names for days, a few of their favorite producers at the moment include fellow San Franciscans Justin Martin and Pillowtalk, plus Lovebirds, Bondax, Psychemagik, Isolee, Jamie Jones, DJ Koze and Sleazy McQueen, the latter of whom remixed “Revolution.”
What made the two of you link back up three years ago?
Gavin: “I was horny!”
Robbie: “Ew! We tried to work on music long-distance but it wasn't working, what with family schedules and such.”
When Scott passed, you guys had already been working on the new album for some time. Was it hard to finish it at that point, or was it something you felt you really had to do, and owed to him to complete
Gavin: “You really hit the nail on the head. It was really hard, but it was also time to focus and honor his spirit in a way that would resonate in 2014 [with something] that people could enjoy now, and not for something that happened 20 years ago.”
Robbie: “When he died, it became way more important to finish the love letter, so to speak, to that era. We were still doing remixes of 'Revolution,' and Scott had been working on [one] when he died. That was a heavy experience. Just to be in his studio and hearing the parts that he was working on. They were so Scott. That's as close as we'll get to being in the same room as him ever again. He was there in the room with us as we finished that remix. That was particularly emotional. We really had to make him proud, do him justice, and make it a Scott Hardkiss remix. There were some tears in the studio for that one.”
I know the track “Feeling Scott through Romanthony” was changed quite a bit after he passed. How did that come together?
Robbie: “It was [supposed to be] more of a playful laser disco mix of the song 'Flowers Blooming/ Glow of Love.' It was time to finish it and I couldn't really do a laser disco song at that moment. Then [we] got the news that Romanthony died not long after Scott. We were still heavy in the Scott grief. We were just kind of like, 'What's going on?' Romanthony's song 'Feel No Pain' was echoing in my head as 'Feel the Pain.' It started there and became this strange 13-minute grief journey in the form of house music. [I had] never made a song like that before. I kept trying to change it to make it work better. What I did was just start and go where it led me. I was really feeling every moment of that song as it was happening.
“It all came together without a lot of orchestration on our part. We were working and trying to do something beautiful. But the way and the time that it all got completed and put out there seems bizarrely out of our hands.”
Gavin: "All the other songs were already written beforehand. All we had left to do was mix them. With Scott passing, the songs took on a whole new meaning. I can't escape the fact that a lot of people will be listening to the album through the prism of Scott's passing. Sometimes you make stuff that you're feeling, and you don't know where it's coming from while you're doing it. And then you finish it and it makes sense after the fact. That's definitely true of some of the songs here.
The album is a really fun, pop-fused listen. Besides wanting to capture the optimism and euphoria of that early '90s scene, are there any other messages or themes you are trying to convey with it?
Robbie: “There is the beautiful music and party scene that we were a part of. But it's almost more personal. We were three guys that came together and were committed to doing something. We were so optimistic and excited and just thought we could do anything. We decided we wanted to make music, and we did it. That feeling when you team up to fully commit to something and go all in is pretty amazing and liberating. Now that I'm quite a bit older, you don't get to experience that all the time. Practical concerns in your life take over. So that time of connecting with other people and just trying to create your own life.”
Gavin: “I like to just leave it open for interpretation, because I don't think everyone who listens to the album will have the same reference points of Hardkiss' history and what's happened the last year. I think it's vague and sincere enough for it to resonate in people's own being without having ever stepped foot in the '90s scene, or had anything to do with Hardkiss.”
Before wrapping up our conversation, Gavin and Robbie take a few minutes to regale us with some of their favorite memories of their beloved Scott, a “fun-loving, silly, goofy guy.” Robbie fondly recalls Scott regularly singing the lyrics of Bobby Brown's “My Prerogative” as “my pet frog Ative,” and eventually even getting a pet frog, whom he indeed named Ative. Gavin, despite not wanting “a ton of drug stories in print,” tenderly treasures a time the two of them ran around New York on acid, going from seeing My Bloody Valentine to Frankie Knuckles at Sound Factory, and enjoying the extremes of music that they were into together.
In putting together the album artwork, a collage of photographs of friends from those early days, they realized few photos with three of them exist, as camera phones had not yet been invented. They are more than happy with just their “fuzzy memories” though, as Robbie muses: “People these days are often so worried about missing the moment, that they miss the moment.”
Robbie and Gavin will continue to put out new productions on the now-revived Hardkiss imprint, and Scott is sure to be with them in spirit every step of the way.
words: REISA SHANAMA