Electronic dance trio Dirty Vegas is made up of Paul Harris, Steve Smith and Ben Harris. Their self-titled debut was one of 2002’s most provocative and popular releases. The collection landed at #7 on the Billboard 200. Driven by the Days Go By, Dirty Vegas went on to sell close to a million records worldwide.
When South London trio Dirty Vegas won the Grammy for Best Dance Single last year, the cameras panned across Robert de Niro, Aretha Franklin, Simon and Garfunkel and Stevie Wonder in the front rows to reveal…..three empty seats.
The boys, of course, were in the bar. It’s not that they didn’t respect America’s most prestigious music award, more that despite three nominations, it never occurred to them that they might win. “We were on the sauce all day,” explains singer Steve Smith, “and they wouldn’t let us take our drinks to the seats.”
So they had to run down the centre aisle of Madison Square Gardens to pick up their award, visibly panting. “We didn¹t know how to react,” says Paul Harris. “We all went a bit strange. It’s great, but it is a bizarre thing to have on your mantelpiece.”
Paul Harris, Steve Smith and Ben Harris from Kent and the South London suburbs. Paul Harris started clubbing in his early teens and got his first professional DJ gig when he was 17, just before acid house took dance culture mainstream. He began spending more time mixing and making records than playing them, but has continued to be successful as a DJ.
Steve Smith gave up his job in the print trade during the rave explosion when he realised he could make more money playing live percussion in clubs at weekends. By the mid-90s he was playing in a band called Higher Ground, and when the singer left he reluctantly stepped in. A chance meeting with Paul at an airport on the way to a club event led to a wild weekend, and the idea of making music together.
Ben Harris (no relation to Paul) played guitar in indie rock band Fluid until they did their first demo and he saw how the engineer worked the mixing desk. He got a job in a recording studio, “got bitten by the dance bug”, and ended up running a specialist dance record shop in Bromley with his brother, using the profits to build up a studio set-up of their own. After producing a string of successful one-off club tunes he began working with Paul, who a few weeks later bumped into Steve and invited him to join them.
The first fruit of their collaboration was Days Go By, a track that became a surprise hit in the US when it was picked up for a Mitsubushi TV ad and people began calling into radio stations requesting it. As a result their debut album Dirty Vegas went into the US charts at number seven. “And then we didn¹t stop for the next 18 months.”
It was a baptism of fire. Their first live TV appearance, for instance, was on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno to an audience of more than six million. They toured the States with Moby, the UK with Groove Armada. They played festivals from V (where the tent was so packed that security had to turn people away) to Coachella in Los Angeles (where they held their own against the White Stripes and Primal Scream on the other stages). They played at Kid Rock’s stag night in Las Vegas before his marriage to Pamela Anderson, and caused mayhem onstage and off everywhere from Singapore to Serbia, Moscow to Milwaukee. This constant touring paid off, ‘Dirty Vegas’ sold over three-quarters of a million copies.
As befits anyone with Vegas in their name, these boys are born entertainers and they love to tell a good tale. Sadly, few of them are printable here. “We¹ve had a few ding-dongs,” says Paul without a hint of regret. “A world-wide trail of destruction.”
Unlike many bands with roots in club culture, love playing live and rock with the best. “The live gigs have been the highlight,” says Ben. “By the time we came to the Astoria at the end of the UK tour, playing back in London felt like a home-coming, with all our mates packing out the place. That was class!”
After the success of success of their first CD, there was a certain amount of pressure when it came to making the second album. They wanted strong songs, and they wanted a sound that was closer to their live shows, but they had trouble getting it right. “We stopped and started so many times,” says Paul. “We all wanted to make it work, but we went off in all kinds of different directions.”
Then they remembered that making music was meant to be fun. They filled a van with studio equipment and set off on a 14-hour drive to a beautiful old stone cottage overlooking the sea in the far north of Scotland where they could work with no time restrictions and no distractions. “From then on, the album just came,” says Steve. “The boys would be working on a track, I’d bang it on the iPod and go for a walk round the loch, and by the time I came back I¹d have the lyrics. We did more up there in a week than in four months in London. Looking out of the window at trains and cranes isn¹t that inspiring.”
So they found a similarly remote cottage in Cornwall and did it all again. And with a few weeks polishing and recording in their London studio afterwards, they had an album they called One, “because it feels like a new beginning”. For the last album they wrote just eleven songs; for One they had more than 40 to choose from. It shows how they’ve matured as a band after nearly two years on the road. The tracks on the first album started out on the computer and grew out from layers of samples to become something more rounded and interesting. But after playing them non-stop for nearly two years the songs had evolved, and everyone preferred the way they sounded live.
So the guitars came out from the start with the new album, and instead of using synthesized string sounds on lush tracks like Save Me and Human Love, they used a real eight-piece orchestra. “We started putting samples down again, but it sounded sterile,” explains Ben. “As soon as we set up the drum kit and started using loops of our own drums, there was more life in it. A lot of things here were recorded in one take.”
“You can still take those live sounds, put them in the computer, screw them up and make it a bit more low-fi,” adds Paul. “So it doesn’t sound like a traditional rock band or a club act, but some sort of weird hybrid. It’s a big step on from last time.”
It’s not the sound of three lads messing about in their home studio any more. One is an album made by a real band that has toured the world, partied hard and learned a lot in the process. “We may not take ourselves seriously, but we’re very serious about the music we play,” stresses Steve. “We were extremely lucky, but we also work bloody hard. There’s always somewhere else to go with it a better song you can write, a better gig you can do. We enjoyed the shows so much, we can¹t wait to play the new songs live. We just want to go out there and do it again!”