Many metres above my head, a woman hanging from a giant white cluster of balloons is performing a somersault in midair. It’s a fine somersault, fast yet graceful; she’s done this before, you can tell, her perfectly elongated body spinning like a prosecco bottle on a fresher’s kitchen table. The acrobat doesn’t drop; quite the opposite, in fact. After a few more rotations, she stretches out parallel to the earth below, extends her limbs like a starfish and floats away into the night – or rather, the balloon cloud floats away and takes her with it.
Normally such a sight would attract a fair amount of attention, more than a few exclamations of “did you see that?!” But this is a David Guetta gig in Ibiza, and therefore an acrobat cavorting in mid-air beneath a cloud of balloons, well, it isn’t mundane exactly; it’s still an acrobat cavorting beneath a balloon cloud, but there’s an awful lot else going on vis-à-vis pyrotechnics, both literal and cognitive.
There are two David Guettas on stage: a tiny, human Guetta, bouncing around behind a mixing deck, and a massive monochrome Guetta projected behind the tiny Guetta, whose movements (and presumably facial expressions, it’s hard to be sure at this distance) mimic those of the real thing. There are also dancers and strobe lights and jets of flame and all the accompanying sound and fury – well, sound and furiously insistent good vibes – you would expect from David Guetta playing Ushuaïa, which is basically the EDM equivalent of Roger Federer playing Centre Court or Mark Rylance playing The Globe or Bryn Terfel belting one out at the Royal Opera House – a fusion of performer and venue that elevates the former while simultaneously rubber-stamping the latter as The Place To Be.
Barely four hours earlier, Guetta – the human version – was sitting on the rooftop of the Sir Joan Hotel, tucking into a plate of chicken and rice while explaining how an underground Parisian DJ became one of the biggest artists on the planet. Ninety minutes before that, he was arriving for our photoshoot at said hotel. Thirty minutes before his arrival, I was undergoing the early stages of what felt like coronary thrombosis, trying to calculate how we could possibly fit styling and grooming, photoshoot and interview into a rapidly dwindling timeframe.
I never wanted to be underground. I wanted our music to be as big as possible
I needn’t have worried. Guetta runs on DJ Time, which is like a supercharged version of linear time, somehow compressing events that should really take several hours into a matter of minutes. It helps if you can combine two activities: so interview + dinner, or sleep + flying from Paris to Madrid on a private jet. DJ Time exists due to the relentless nature of the average DJ Day: which can encompass gigs played in separate countries, rehearsal and polishing of the latest soon-to-be-ubiquitous hit, meeting with label executives, meeting with potential collaborators, meeting with fans, interviews on every platform of 21st-century media, and hopefully, somewhere within this perpetual, peripatetic maelstrom, the opportunity for a nap.
“It’s insane,” says Guetta. How does he cope? He gestures to the plate in front of him. “I eat chicken and broccoli. No, for real.”
He’ll need plenty of both to sustain the energy while playing two weekly Ibiza residencies: Monday’s BIG at Ushuaïa and the celebrated F*** Me I’m Famous! every Friday across the road at Hï. At the latter night, which also features Idris Elba swapping the set for the decks, Guetta showcases his ‘Jack Back’ alias – harking back to his days as an underground electronic DJ in 1990s’ Paris. It was during that decade that Guetta established himself on the scene, first at the Broad Club, and then everywhere else. His star continued to rise during the noughties, before the 2009 singles ‘When Love Takes Over’ and ‘I Gotta Feeling’ saw Guetta go full supernova. He’s sold 40m records and he’s still going strong…
Jack Back is a return to your underground roots. What made you want to go there?
That’s how I started. I started to be successful when I started to play house music. I never wanted to be underground. I wanted our music to be as big as possible. We were underground because we had no other choice. But then I really, really crossed over when I started to make pop music.
I just want to be happy and have fun now, so it’s actually quite a nice position to be in – that I can decide to do something for the love and because it’s fun, and not think, ‘I need to be successful, it needs to be on the radio or it needs to be streaming a lot.’ This is music that I make for myself because I want to play it for DJs. It’s for the culture, you know?
It’s based on the music that you were playing at Broad Club?
Yes, and even later. I opened a club called Queen. It’s probably the most successful gay club in Europe ever.
Why did you open the club?
I was a DJ there, a visiting DJ, and at the Le Palace, Les Bains Douches, the Rex club.
I still love pop music, of course, but it’s nice to do different things. This is me going back to my roots a little bit as sometimes pop music fucks with your head because there’s so much pressure. Being an important artist comes with so many responsibilities for your label, for your team and all of this. For me, to be able to make a beat in my bedroom and put it out and not having to think…
Does part of you miss the 1990s when you were greatly respected in the underground scene but you weren’t this global star?
It’s not even about this. Honestly, I don’t do this because I’m like, ‘I want to be respected by the underground.’ I really don’t care about this. Actually, I think I am respected by the underground, the people who are making music. Anyone who is making music respects other people who are making music.
If a guy who is a bass player in a funk band meets a guy who is a bass player in a rock band, they’re going to be friends. They’re not going to be like, ‘I don’t speak to you because you play rock.’ That doesn’t make sense. It’s the same for DJs. We’re friends even though we play different music. It’s not a problem. Sometimes fans feel a different way but not us. Honestly, I have no strategic plan. I just do it because I think it’s fun.
What made you want to become a DJ?
I’ve been asking myself the same thing because I don’t come from a family of musicians. My parents are more intellectual, nothing to do with the nightlife. I was a teenager when the FM radios started. They were called pirate radios. Of course, when you’re 13 years old, everything ‘pirate’ is so fucking cool. It’s funny because those radios became the most commercial radios but, at the time, they were just club DJs. During the day they were playing whatever they wanted so they were mixing live funk before house music even existed.
I was like, ‘How are they doing these transmissions? How are they doing those remixes?’ I started to train at home and try to do what they were doing on those pirate radios. I was too young to be able to go to a club, and there was no internet and tutorials like now, so I had to figure it out myself.
At that time, I was listening to funk, and this was a statement against pop music. Even more when I started in house music. I was like, ‘I don’t want to hear that shit that they play on the radio, I want to be part of a scene, a family of something different.’ It’s funny, looking back, that I ended up on the radio myself, taking that scene to the radio and being in the system. When you start you want to be against the system, and you end up being the system.
I guess most people go through that transition. When you started, there wasn’t such a thing as a superstar DJ…
It didn’t even exist. Not even a superstar DJ – even the concept of a DJ being famous didn’t exist when I started. No one would pick this job for money because there was no money in the business. That’s why sometimes kids now choose to do this for the wrong reasons. It’s like, ‘I’m not the best at school, what can I do? Let’s be a football player or a DJ because that’s how you get famous and get rich.’ None of us started it for those reasons.
When did you begin to notice that you were becoming the star?
Some people before me opened the doors for me, like Frankie Knuckles and David Morales and Erick Morillo and Masters at Work, but it was still very underground. I felt the scene growing and growing and growing, and I became someone important in that scene and then I’m part of the elements that made our music cross over, especially in the US.
In life, there’s talent, there’s strategy, there’s work most of all, and also there’s timing and being lucky sometimes. It just happened that the world was ready for this music and the world was ready to embrace this culture. At that specific time, I was one of the biggest DJs so, of course, I was already on the top of the wave and the wave became so big.
What made you successful in the underground world?
First, I work harder than anyone else. I think a lot of people that are picking this life are picking this life for the lifestyle because they want to get girls, get high. I’m a Jedi on a mission. It’s different. I really feel like I’m on a mission on this planet and my mission is to spread love, unity and music.
That’s a good mission to have.
It’s different because, of course, if you’re going to go on ecstasy for three days, forget about Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. You need to sleep! I’m in the studio. I’m making music because my drive is to make music. I’m here for the music. That made a big difference,
I think. Of course, if you have three working days more than your competition every single week of the year, it makes a big difference.
Everybody has a different talent. Any successful artist has a talent but I’m just lucky enough that my talent and my taste is that I have quite a pop ear. It’s not that I’m trying to make it commercially successful: I’m doing what I like and what I like is what people like. Some people only like underground so, of course, they’re going to be loved by the underground audience. I respect any artist that is genuine. If you do what you love and you share it with people and people love it back, everybody is happy. This is wonderful.
If someone makes music I don’t love, I don’t go see them but I’m not going to hate on them. If that person is true and has a clean heart and people are loving it, that’s amazing. Why would I complain about this? I never hate on anyone. To answer your question, I think I just have a good ear for popular music. I like songs; most DJs, they only understand beats. I think that’s what made the difference.
First, I was like everybody else, I was only making beats, and then I started to say, “You know what, let’s write some real songs on top of those beats.” That was a turning point. All the first years that I started to work,
I would be making beats and the ones that were working and successful in the club, I’d get in the studio with an artist and try to write a song on top. I do it the other way now. I first write a song and then I turn it into a dance record. When I started to do it, it changed a lot. Most successful DJs are now doing this.
‘When Love Takes Over’ was your first huge hit, the single that made your name…
Maybe ‘Love is Gone’ but the first person, the first celebrity artist that gave me my chance, was Kelly Rowland. I was actually testing a beat that I made, I remember it very clearly. It was in Cannes, and she happened to be in the club. She asked me, “What is this record? This is the music I make.” I was so honoured.
She asked me if she could write something on it, and that was the first collaboration with a pop artist. Urban pop, which was very new. Before me, it was almost like a war between the people that liked electronic culture and the people that liked urban music. I was like, “I like both, what’s the problem with that?” I started with ‘When Love Takes Over’, then ‘I Gotta Feeling’ and ‘Sexy Bitch’.
The success of ‘I Gotta Feeling’ must have been life changing…
Completely. It’s one of the most successful records in the history of music. That’s really nuts, you know?
The simplicity of that song is genius…
It’s interesting: I wasn’t classically trained so, when I started, I was really playing with two fingers. My limitations were defining a style, not because I chose to, but because I had no other option. In a certain way, this was also the case for early house music – that would just sample a B-side of a disco record to get a vocal and they would play a bass and drum machine. You didn’t need to come from a very classically trained background.
It’s the same for me. Over the years, the more I learn, the more I understand that I really don’t know much. It’s really humbling because music is crazy. I’m always learning day after day after day after day but sometimes I feel like the more I learn, the more complicated it is, because then you have more possibilities. When I started I knew how to do only one thing and that’s what I was doing.
When you write a song like ‘I Gotta Feeling’, do you know it’s going to be huge?
In the case of this record, yes. The way it happened, it was really crazy. I had a record called ‘Love is Gone’ and will.i.am, who I didn’t know, was obsessed with it. He ended up texting me. He told me, “Oh my God, I love this record so much, can you work on the album with me for Black Eyed Peas? I want to have one record that sounds a little bit like this.”
I used the exact same guitar sound, the same cadence and we did ‘I Gotta Feeling’. I sent him the beat and one day he called me. He was like, “I think I have an idea for a chorus.” He was singing down the phone. I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is a monster! This is so big, you don’t know what’s going to happen.’
What was your first ‘holy shit, I’ve got famous’ moment?
It was really funny because I have a night in Ibiza called Fuck Me, I’m Famous and that night was a joke about famous people, it was never serious. It was never like I’m famous, for real. I was not famous when I started the night and then I became famous. People were like, “What do you mean? Are you seriously saying ‘fuck me [because] I’m famous’, or ‘fuck me, I’m famous’ – like I’m surprised?” I was like, ‘No, it was just me taking the piss out of that VIP system and the famous people and the girls around it.’ I ended up being that.
Suddenly you have a private jet...
Can you remember your first private jet?
Oh my God, it was such a big deal because the first DJ I saw with a private jet was Erick Morillo and he was really my inspiration. We were also friends and he would give me advice. I was like, ‘Oh my God, this guy!’ You don’t understand, at that time, I was playing four or five-hour sets, I would finish my night at 6am or 7am. Every day I would have to travel, and there was always going to be a connection so I was not sleeping in a bed at all.
I would sleep for two hours on a plane and then wake up, stay up for the connection for two hours and sleep another two hours on a plane. Nightmare. I did this for years. You’ve got to be really young to do this. The day I could afford to fly private was like, ‘Wow.’ Life changing – because then you can sleep a normal night, make music and fly to your show directly. It was amazing.
There’s a lot of talk about the burnout effects of a DJ’s lifestyle, especially for younger DJs. You got famous a bit later in life – did that help you cope with it?
Yes, because the thing for me was I was already an adult when I became successful.
I was already 30 years old so I never changed, really. I knew that this was a blessing, I knew this was not something normal because it was hard for so many years. Of course, when you’re 17 years old, or even 18 or 19, and you become extremely successful, your brain is telling you, ‘Well, this is normal life, I’m just a genius and that’s why.’
That’s a catastrophe, of course. There’s always going to be a point where you fall. It’s part of learning but when you think that’s what the norm is – to be always successful – then it’s like a bug in your head. Whereas, for me, I struggled for so many years before being successful that I’m saying thank you every day for the success to keep coming, and I really don’t take it for granted at all. I think that’s what keeps me balanced.
Would you ever push back if you felt over-committed?
I’ve been over-committed my entire life. At some point, you also ask yourself, why am I doing this to myself?
Why are you?
I love it so much. I really ask myself, should I just retire? I just love being a DJ.
What do you love about it?
First, I love music and I love sharing, so being able to share my passion with people is just so insane. The thrill of making a new record, testing it… I started Ibiza two weeks ago and the day of the party, I’m at home in my garden with a laptop and headphones working on a beat. It felt really, really good. I went to the studio to mix it and, on the very same day, I played it. No artist in the world can do that if you’re not a DJ. It’s crazy.
Also, because the technology has evolved so much, you can make a final version of a record on a laptop. I played a record and it’s insane, the biggest record of my set. This is better than any drugs. It is better than sex. It’s better than absolutely anything. It puts me on a high. I’m addicted to this.
Making a record, having the freedom to play it and see the reaction of the people… Of course, sometimes it’s not like this, sometimes I get a flop, but it’s so amazing. I don’t know.
I make people happy. This is such an incredible blessing to be able to share happiness with people. It’s crazy. They make me happy too. I took the decision that, not only am I not going to stop, I’m going to go even harder.
I’m working on tons of projects. I started Jack Back. I’ve started another project with a friend of mine, and we have a new sound that we’re going to develop together. Also, I’m making certain choices because I’m still going to make pop music but, for example, my new record ‘Stay’, with Raye, it’s David Guetta but it’s house music. I’m also less obsessed by having a number one record.
You were more obsessed in the past?
Of course. Every successful artist is in that situation because success is so addictive. To you but also to everyone around you.
Was there a time when you stopped enjoying life as a DJ?
Yes, a little bit. It didn’t last long.
When was it?
Maybe four years ago or something like that.
Why? Too much pressure?
It was just a moment that EDM became so big but then everybody was sounding exactly the same. I picked this world and this music because I wanted to be free and not have to obey a format, but then I felt for a minute that our music became even more formatted than pop music. That wasn’t a nice feeling.