Calvin Harris, Alter Ego

by John Dugan

Back in 2008, I sat down with Calvin Harris in Miami before taking in a modestly attended live band set. In 2012, Harris pulled in $42 million dollars as a DJ. 

Time Out Chicago, 2008. 

One of our missions at this year’s Winter Music Conference was to meet Calvin Harris in between the live sets he and his band played in Miami. The Scottish singer’s I Created Disco was our favorite crossover record of 2007—full of pop hooks, party-boy attitude and banging beats on tunes like “Acceptable in the ’80s” and “Colours”—in which the singer advises ladies against a monochrome palette. We figured that when we found Harris—who recently recorded with Kylie Minogue—surely we would be buried in an avalanche of babes, bottles and controlled substances.Instead, we ended up in a swag room in a hotel penthouse chatting with a polite young guy who likes the Sugababes. Could this really bethe Calvin Harris? Read on.

Time Out Chicago: There’s a sense of humor on your record—do you think the album will translate in the U.S.?
Calvin Harris: There’s two reasons I don’t think it translates. The album is not very focused; it’s all over the place and people like something that’s concise.… Also, I haven’t been here much. I haven’t had a chance to speak to anyone at great length. Hopefully I’ll right the wrongs with the second album.

TOC: You seem to have come out of nowhere. How were you discovered?
Calvin Harris: After many years of sending demo CDs and stuff, I gave up sending demo CDs. It was pretty much on MySpace—trying to meet a guy that wrote a song that I liked by the Sugababes. I was into [reaching out to] people that were in the music industry and making them my private showbiz friends, to get me on to people’s records and stuff.

TOC: Were you taking that approach as a songwriter?
Calvin Harris: I was thinking of myself then as a producer. It was only once I got signed to a record deal that things became a bit confused. When I got signed, I was a producer making backing tracks. So I added this guy, who works for EMI publishing—which was ideal—and he liked it, so that’s how it all started. They set about getting me a record deal and they did that with Sony and now they think I’m a artist. Within months, I was starting a band and being a frontman, trying to learn those skills.

TOC: So, this wasn’t your life dream?
Calvin Harris: Far from it. I was singing on the songs because I couldn’t find anyone else to sing on them. I guess it’s quite obvious why they would see me as a singer. It kind of got out of control.

TOC: Maybe what you do stands out because you weren’t intending for it to be the final product?
Calvin Harris: There’s no showboating; there’s no sort of Mariah Carey vocal gymnastics or anything like that.

TOC: You could do actual gymnastics…
Calvin Harris: That’s incredible, like Pink. She does that! I saw a video of her at Wembley Arena— she was up in the sky upside down singing on a trapeze.

TOC: Is there an autobiographical quality to the album?
Calvin Harris: It’s all made-up stuff. I’ve not done or thought any of those things on the album. It’s kinda funny.

TOC: What inspires your songs?
Calvin Harris: I try not to write funny songs, or things that are ironic, but I think they kind of are. Which is strange, because it’s not what I intended. I think my default method is to try and adopt somebody else’s outlook on life so that I don’t get found out. And nobody really knows who or what I am, which is bad, because I end up acting like a fucking idiot and people think I’m an absolute prat.

TOC: Can you give an example?
Calvin Harris: With the song “The Girls,” I thought it was so clearly made up and clearly not the case, you know. It just seemed obvious. I guess people who saw the video or heard the song thought, Who the fuck does this guy think he is? There are whole album reviews based around that one song. [They said] “He thought he could do this and this and this, mix it and produce it and it would still be good, well it’s not, it’s a one out of ten,” stuff like that.

TOC: Did you consider using a different name?
Calvin Harris: It isn’t my real name. I could tell you my real name, but I don’t see the point. It’s Adam.

I Created Disco 

is out now on Almost Gold.


Daniel Clowes / Modern Cartoonist

by John Dugan

I interviewed Daniel Clowes for Nothing Major, where I am editor. 


If there’s an artist one doesn’t associate with triumphant returns, it is Daniel Clowes. The comic book artist and graphic novelist’s career has been characterized by wry humor, a darkly underground viewpoint, and dramas that are far from life-affirming in groundbreaking comics such as EightballGhost World, and Mister Wonderful. The Chicago-raised Clowes broke into the mainstream with 2001’s Terry Zwigoff-directed film adaptation of Ghost World. But he’s not known for writing Hollywood endings. This week, however, he returns to Chicago a much bigger deal than he ever thought with a new exhibit, "Modern Cartoonist: The Art of Daniel Clowes" at the MCA, looking back on his career in more than 150 works dating from 1989. 

Organized by the OMCA in Oakland, "Modernist Cartoonist: The Art of Daniel Clowes" opens at Chicago’s MCA this Saturday and features two commissioned works resembling windows on a Chicago frozen in the 1970s of Clowes's youth.

Clowes and curator Susan Miller give an artist talk Saturday, June 29 at 1pm; tickets are $10.

We called up the cartoonist, now residing in Oakland, to talk about his early days, keeping the inspiration flame burning, and underground culture pre-Internet.

Nothing Major: This show has been touring for a little while. It started in Oakland, right?
Daniel Clowes: Yeah, I don’t know if it counts as a tour when it’s only in two places. It’s like two points make a line rather than a pattern or something.

I guess if you have to go sleep somewhere else that’s not your house it’s a tour.
I had to get on a plane to attend it, so I guess that’s a tour. 

Your work has been very much about sending up pretension, and now you’re the guy having the retrospective; you’re the one with your name on the marquee. Are you able to have a healthy appreciation for that success or does it make you uncomfortable at all?
I mean, I guess sort of the thesis of my early work was: Why aren’t these comics in the museum instead of this other stuff?—never actually imagining that would happen. Now that it’s happened, you get that weird feeling of like ‘Uh oh, can I make anything happen? Did I sign a pact with the devil and then have him erase my memory or something?’ It just seems so unlikely. I have no real response. I can’t accept it as anything other than just some weird quirk.

 Eightball No. 8. 1992.

Right, it’s like your worldview was shaped at a certain point, and even if the world’s completely changed you still have the same worldview.
Yeah, I just can’t even grasp the reality that something I would have imagined, this ludicrous possibility, could ever take place. 

Photo: Abigail Huller 

You went to Pratt, right?

You were probably around some people that were more ambitious to make it in the art world.
Yeah, everybody. I never thought of ever being in a museum or gallery, none of that. It never appealed to me in the slightest, I never ... the idea of being seen by only a few people in a gallery rather than dozens in print somehow didn’t appeal to me at all.

Was it a kind of a populism in that you wanted your work to be wildly available, or was it more like your image of yourself? They wouldn’t be interested in you, therefore you have to find a different audience that would be?
I mean, that wasn’t even a self-image. It was a world I never thought of as an outlet for what I was doing. I like the idea of ‘Here’s my comic; have one.’ It’s just something that anybody can read. You know, it would be out there in the world. This was certainly before we had the ability to send photographs of our genitals to strangers in other countries. You know, it seemed like having a pen pal or something. I just thought of having a comic that some kid in Omaha, Nebraska could read really felt like you were reaching out to the world

New Yorker cover. 2010.

In the ‘90s, whether one was a fan of indie comics or underground music, you really had to hustle to find it especially if you weren’t in a major city, and you'd form these connections, these bonds with these people because you’d actually have to write letters to get something.
Yeah yeah. I mean, I always think of the ‘90s as the golden age of that because there were certain worlds and places to aggregate that sort of stuff. When I was growing up in the ‘70s, we were all just alone. There would be you and one of your friends trying to find something about Sam Fuller movies or something and it was just so difficult and you’d never be able to see them. You’d just wait until they were on TV or you’d find some film book that listed them or something. You just had no idea. Then years later, you’d meet the other five guys who were like you, who were living in their cities and it just felt like ‘Oh my god, how did we ever figure anything out?’ It’s all stuff you can find in 30 seconds now.

Yeah, or you could watch the complete movie. 
Right, get bored with it.

Eightball 17 (cover), 1996. 

Eightball, if it came out now, people would find out about it on blogs. I’m wondering, does the way the discovery process has changed, does that pose challenges for you as someone who’s in publishing, just in terms of how you think about the final product of what people are going to get?
You know, to me, when I was growing up, the way I learned about everything was I would go to a used bookstore and I’d just look at all the spines and you’d have no idea what any of them were. You’d go to the humor section, which is where they put all the cartooning stuff, and you’d see this one kind of weird spine and something made you take it down and every once in a while, couple times a year, you’d find something that was ‘Oh my God what is this, I know nothing about this, this is something I’ve got to figure out what this is.’ That was always such a profound moment for me and I’ve realized that that’s not gonna happen anymore. That’s what I was always kind of hoping for was that my stuff would just wind up in used bookstores and some 16-year-old in 2018 would find it, and I realized that’s not going to happen. It’s hard to connect with some version of myself out there in the world. I don’t imagine myself actually going to used bookstores in 2013 if I was 16 years old. I can’t really envision the final aspect of the process of the reader picking up the book and reading it. 

Does the idea of presenting your work on the iPad or anything like that have any appeal? I know it sounds terrible but also, you’re also probably a realistic person on some level. This person that’s discovering stuff might be looking at it on an iPad.
I guess I don’t like the idea of it being too easy somehow. I don’t feel like I need everybody to read this stuff, I need people that are actually going to connect with it and really pay attention to it to read this stuff; that’s all I’m really interested in. I don’t like the idea of it being just like ‘Oh I’m going to try this. Oh I’ll read a couple pages and now I’m going to check my email and now I’m going to read this other thing.’ I’d rather, I don’t know, if there’s a way to make it so people who read stuff on an iPad really sit down and read the whole book at once... I don’t know. I’ve never read anything on an iPad. 

I haven’t read more than a page or two.            
Yeah, I'll read like my email or something.

The Death Ray (cover), 2011.  

Right. When I got into Eightball, one of the things, now that I'm a little more socialized is...
Good for you.

...there’s kind of an element of loneliness and alienation being kind of the raw materials in those stories that I related to. Now that you’re in a different part of your life, do you find that you’re writing different things and what are the sort of themes that have replaced those for you?
I’m not sure anything has replaced them. I’m still spending eight hours a day in a room by myself looking at a piece of paper trying to make sense of something. As you get older your anxieties expand to all different areas of your life, but I think the same kind of core emotions are there in some ways. I have a family, so that’s somewhat different than being an isolated guy in his little one-bedroom apartment in Wicker Park, twenty-some odd years ago.

Eightball 18, 1997. 

I was looking at some of the Mister Wonderful stuff and it’s a more grown up version of being very isolated.
Oh yeah, which is far worse too. When you’re young and isolated there’s always that hope, but when you’re middle-aged it’s not going to get much better 

Basically ‘This is what it’s all going to be like?’
Yeah, that Mister Wonderful story. I think young people read that as like ‘Oh what’s the big deal? If that date doesn’t work out he’ll try somebody else,’ and I think people, my age or older, who read that, it’s really almost like a horror comic where it’s like ‘Oh man, if this one doesn’t work out he’ll never be able to summon the energy to ever try that again.' You know what it’s like. 

A lot of what you’ve done is completely invert what DC comics or old Marvel comics were about, which was an all-powerful, gifted superhuman, dealing with things of major consequence to the world like the existence of the world.

Wilson, 2010. 

If you flip that around, it’s like barely acceptable guy on the fringe who’s just trying to get one lucky break in his life, right? That’s the complete inverse of it.
I certainly see that as occasionally a criticism of my work. ‘His work is just about the most downbeat losers and who wants to read about that?’ I often think that my charactersI think of them as just average normal people. And I’ve got to assume that more than half the people who make that accusation are probably far worse off than the character they’re talking about.

Right, right.
It’s like they’d love to be that guy. 

I was thinking more like they’re kind of unexceptional.
They’re self-aware or sort of intentionally not self-aware in some way, or they have something that makes them controlling in some way.

Do you think that’s still what interests you as far as subject matter, that’s not going to ever change? 
No, no, it changes all the time. I mean, I’m interested in finding characters that sort of keep me attached to them for a long time. There’s certain characters, that youthat seem like they’ll yield something and after a couple pages you think ‘ah I’m not really connected to this person.’ I try to kind of start with a character that’s really kind of like a bull in a china shop, like someone who’s really either self-destructive or has some quality that’s compelling, like you want to see what’s this guy going to do. Not necessarily to like the guy starting out, but just to feel like he’s going to be interesting and that, sort of through the process of the story, try to figure out what his, a way to like this guy, a way to sort of connect with his humanity in some way. That’s why often the stories start off really kind of reckless and funny and wind up a little more, I wouldn’t want to say sad, but with a slightly different tone than the way they began.

Your background could be described as Mad Magazine and punk rock, which of those do you think is more important to you?
They’re almost the same thing but I mean, Mad Magazine is in my DNA. That was literally how I grew up. Probably the third image I saw after my parents was Alfred E. Neuman’s face everywhere in my home. I feel like I know those, you know like the same way you would know what it’s like to walk around your old neighborhood where you grew up or something. They’re just all in the pathways of my brain. And punk rock, the way I sort of experienced it, which was not as a sort of political thing the way it was in England. To me it just seemed like this ridiculous sort of expression of ‘We hate all this idiot crap we’re stuck with here in late '70s culture.’ A certain number of us just did not respond to all that, what was popular at the time, and it seems like this great rejection of it. It really sort of started and ended with The Ramones for me. I was always just trying to capture that feeling I had when I first saw them. All the other bands I was interested in, they never would approximate that in some way. Nobody ever captured that same feeling for me. In the long run, that was sort of all I took away from it.

The Christian Astronauts, 2009.

That’s as pure as you can get then. Start with the best and finish it out. When I was reading Eightball I remember trying to picture what life was like where the author was living that he would create these characters.

Were you really influenced by where you were living at the time? Were the characters in Eightball drawn from people you would see on the sidewalk?
I’ve always tried to drawI don’t like to say draw from life or I don’t want to use sketches and photographs, although I used to back in those days sometimes. I want the world to look the way it looks when I’m just recalling something or thinking about something. I want it to have that slightly filtered quality where it’s as much of my own vision as possible because that’s what I like to see in other artists. So I’d spend all day walking around Chicago over in Hyde Park growing up or Wicker Park where I lived when I was in my 20s. That was absolutely the way I saw the world. When I look at those old comics, it’s just pure Chicago; it just hits me. They almost smell like Chicago.

Right, right.
It’s clearly what it’s all about. 

Photo: Terry Lorant

I've read about you being hyper-tense and almost hyper-anxious about the drawing you’re working on, and how that translates into the feeling that would come from the image at the end of the day. That would be hard to do all the time over the long run. Do you have to summon that feeling of anxietyor does it just kind of depend on the project?
It’s sort of the part of the process the anxiety gets placed on. It smooths down a line. It started out where just figuring out how to tell the story in panels produced the anxiety. How in the world do you do that? And then once I got comfortable with that it was how do I get these characters to look perfect and these lines to look perfect, and I was really struggling to achieve something that was in my head that was beyond my capabilities. And so there’s this tension between what I wanted it to be and what I was able to achieve, and then at a certain point I was able to hit that more times than not and then the tension becomes on all of these, like you’re trying to make it not look sort of comfortable. You want the images to always be exciting so you feel some kind of electricity when you’re looking on the pages, and that became sort of the focus. So there’s always some level of anxiety; it just sort of shits places. The thing I’ll say that makes me less anxious now is when I screw something up I know I can fix it. I don’t freak out about it because I’d be like 90 percent done with a page and I’d screw something up and I just couldn’t look at it and I would throw it away and start it all over. That’s a terrible use of your creative energy because you just dissipate all of your energy and you can’t get it back.

Christiane Amanpour on her new doc, Generation Islam

by John Dugan

TOC: One thing that you didn’t touch on, and I was sort of interested in was the kind of dollar figures you’re talking about. Because really, to build a school in some of these smaller places is probably on the order of the cost of a couple of laser-guided bombs.


Oh, much less, and your point is precisely correct that it costs very little comparatively to build a school and the reward is exponentially huge, and that’s why it’s such an amazing thing

Read More

Nick Lowe | Interview

by John Dugan

When my career as a pop star came to an end in the early ’80s, I knew it was coming because I’d been a record producer. I had one foot down with the artists and the other up on the 20th floor, yucking it up with the suits.

Read More

gdgt's Peter Rojas | Interview

by John Dugan

Published May 10, 2010

Social networking and gadget mania come together this week at gdgt live—a realtime gadget trade show that's open to the public where tech companies (Belkin, Boxee, D-Link, DivX, HTC, Logitech, Windows Phone, Groupon and many more have signed-on) bring their latest, greatest and about to blow-up gear and let us drool all over it. The brainchild of Ryan Block (former Engadget editor) and Peter Rojas (founder of Gizmodo and Engadget—as well as gdgt is about users sharing lists of gadgets they own, info about how to use them and fix them, and much more. Considering how much time and money—and emotional capital we expend these days on our gadgets, its a brilliant concept. I got Rojas on the phone last week for an epic chat which you read some bits of after the jump. Somewhere in the course of the conversation, I had to get Rojas to comment on the iPad, the hit new gadg for which I haven't found my actual need, only desire. Rojas says of Apple's iPad, "There are two things they got right with it: They made it really responsive. All the gestures and interactions happen really fast. And they scaled the user experience correctly. I've had tablets from other companies. Nokia has had tablets for years. They shrunk down like a PC desktop. I get it, its like a mobile computer. But if you don’t have that core experience out of the box, it doesn’t matter what it can do. The Slate, its running an Atom processor, which is too slow. If its just slow, it doesn’t matter for anything else."

gdgt live is Wednesday, May 12 at Gallery 233 at 233 W Huron at 7pm. R.S.V.P online for admission. Walk-ins are welcome, too. Rojas calls it a "really, really democratic" event, all-ages and open to the public, so feel free to bring the kids.

What’s the gdgt event all about?

Its kind of like a mini gadget trade show where we get a bunch of companies showing stuff that’s coming out. And regular people a chance to get hands on with this stuff. There actually aren’t a lot of consumer facing technology shows any more.

If you think about it, if you are in the tech press, a gadget blogger or whatever, you get to go to these companies, go to these tech events before launch. But the average person, they don’t get to do that stuff.

For us, what the site is about, it is more about the community and users, more of a bottom up site than a top down thing.

It made sense for the mission of the site, which is about connecting people with gadgets. We were like we should do this in the real world too, we should have a physical manifestation of what the site is about.

How long has gdgt been up?
We launched in July of last year.

Are you still building?

We’re still building. Were rolling out new updates and features to the site, almost every few weeks day. We’re not sleeping, and feeling that we have so much more work to do. But Ive been really happy with what we accomplished so far.

My background is the founder of Engadget and Gizmodo, and did more bloggy kind of things before that and was a journalist for a long time. Its kind of a challenge to flip everything around. Ryan and I, my cofounder, are just two users among everyone else. Its kindof recognizing the expertise, knowledge and authority of users and giving them a way to connect and share with each other.

Theres so much more for us to do, but Im pretty happy with what weve accomplished in ten months or so.

Do you like to create new concepts and move on? You’ve moved on to the new thing every few years.

Yes and no. I was with Engadget for a pretty long time and I launched other sites alongside doing that. Its sort of like everything overlaps. I wouldn’t necessarily describe myself as moving on all the time, but I know what you mean. I like the big picture stuff and I like the challenge of trying to conceptualize and address the big problems. How can you create a better experience than what is out there right now in terms of people owning, buying, discovering and sharing gadgets. We’re part of the solution there, so to speak.

What blows my mind is that this wasn’t already out there. It seems like such a natural thing, there's such a conversation happening anyway.

When we were working on it, we weren’t in super stealth mode or anything. We didn’t announce what we were doing, partly, because it evolving so quickly. But we were like Man, it would really suck if we wake up one day and someone has done the exact same thing we are doing. It does seem totally obvious. If you think about the way the web is moving–everything is becoming more social and crowd-sourced, you know, you have LastFM for music, you have foursquare for when you go out. Every kind of vertical category is going to have its own social platform. Anything that people are passionate about or want to be connected to other people through, there’s going to be something about that. People that are passionate about gadgets, they think of themselves in terms of the gadgets that they buy.

Tribalism isn’t quite the right word. People don’t think of themselves in terms of just one product. People who are very enthusiastic about this stuff, this is their pop culture. I kindof figured out with Gizmodo and Engadget, if you think about tech as pop culture, you have to write about it in that way. Then you realize, if its pop culture, its just culture and you have to create a social platform for that, too.

It seems increasingly tied up with people’s identity. Its not like a Consumer Reports thing, what can this do and not do. Its like who is this going to make you. People feel this power that they can do a lot more with these things now.

You know when a technology is really great when it recedes into the background. For all of the hullabaloo of the last twenty years, no one cares what operating system they run on their computer anymore. As long as you can do what you want, which is mainly browse the web and stuff like that, you don’t really care. So that’s why everyone is fighting over mobile OSes, because there is a really big difference now. You want to be able to do the things you want to do and you don’t care how it gets done. And theres sort of a seamlessness to things now that we didn’t have ten years ago. Theres been an explosion in the number of products a person will carry and have in their life now and that’s one reason we started the site. Ten years ago, Im not sure I owned a cell phone. Scarily enough, now, I have five within arm’s reach.

Now the average person owns a smart phone, a digital camera, a laptop, they might own a game console, they might own a blu-ray disc player and a flatscreen TV. Now all of sudden, you go from owning two or three gadgets to an average person easily having six or ten without even thinking about it.

The core, the nugget, of the site was lists. Just go create your list. You can do a social network and layer in all the discussions and news and tips and support, all the different elements of the experience—but it keeps coming back to the list—and the database. The database is user-generated. If you don’t see something on the site, you can just add it. We’re up to 17,500 products or something like that now. Its growing by about a 1,000 a month. Its going to start accelerating actually. Most of the obvious stuff is already on there. You see people digging deep—like what was that random TV I owned 15 years ago.

How old? Are people going deep?

People are going deep. You’ll find Sinclairs on the site and stuff like that.

I'm one of those people who can't get rid of my Mac SE. It's like No, Mom, you can’t throw that out, its going to be history some day.

Its like a Wikipedia, there is a core group of users who really care. We had one of our top users, a woman, go through and systemically added every Sony Walkman and other things. She’s like, you know what, I want this database to be complete. And I’m going to keep adding stuff.

Jamie Lidell | Interview

by John Dugan

I chatted with my old buddy Jamie Lidell for TIme Out Chicago, roughly 7 years after I first wrote about him.

The U.K. electro-soul crooner calls Nashville home now, but he hasn’t gone country.

We’ve followed Jamie Lidell from his days as a Berlin-based beatboxer to more recent turns with a full-blown soul band. Now, the U.K. native is back with a self-titled album of aggressively funky tunes recalling early ’80s R&B in the best way. We caught up with Lidell via Skype as he toured his new one-man show in Belgium.

After moving around you’ve settled in Nashville.
It was like a Sun Ra move, you know? Space is the place. We realized, my wife and I, that we just couldn’t afford to stay in Manhattan and grow as artists and a couple. A few people told me to check out Nashville—one of them was Beck, the other was Pat Sansone from Wilco. We’ve got a great place and we spend most of our time at home.

You record at home?
[The new album] was entirely recorded and mixed at home. I never left the house for any of it, which is something I’m pretty proud of because I think I got a decent sound for a home recording. It was a pretty serious undertaking. I don’t think it’s for everyone, working out of home, but it’s definitely for me. The empowerment is something that can’t be underestimated. It’s ridiculous.

The album recalls early ’80s funk and boogie. Is that what you were going for?
Living in Nashville, we got addicted to this radio station called 92Q. Michael Baisden puts on this amazing show, it’s become a huge thing for us, they play these amazing jams. It reminded me of these hidden gems that I grew up loving and listening to that I’d put to the back of my mind. Drum-machine funk. And, because I made a lot of this music on my own, starting with a drum machine made a lot of sense. That immediately put me back in the ’80s in a sense.

Did you have a crisis being pegged as part of a wave of soul revivalists?
When I did Multiply and Jim, I was heading down the road of the blue-eyed soul crooner. To sing like I did on those two albums, I’m proud of all that stuff. When I made Jim, to try to follow with what I thought people wanted me to be, some part of me was a bit dead when I did that. It felt like I was chasing the money. There’s some great music on that record, and I don’t regret doing it. It’s an interesting challenge to stay relevant, stay popular enough to tour and stay true to the music you want to make. You’re always going to shake people off if you take a heavy turn.

What can you tell us about your current tour?
It’s a one-man show, so sonically I’m presenting new material and old material in a made-over fashion. I’m taking people back to the early house days, which always seemed a good setting for my voice, my horn of a voice. I’ve been tapping into my inner diva. I’m just belting it out over house music at the end. I get everything lathered up and at the end we have a wash down. That’s why they call it a rinse. You check your troubles at the door and rinse it out.

Published April 4, 2013

Jamie Lidell

Jamie Lidell