Originally published in Mixmag
Most DJs just walk into a booth. Not David Guetta. He strides through Pacha flanked by two burly friends, his gold and black satin Adidas jacket glinting in the lights. Head down but ears tuned to the rising hum of the crowd, he looks like a bantam weight fighter marching into the ring. Outside, the words Fuck Me I’m Famous flash Vegas red in the warm night air, a gaudy invitation. Stepping into the booth Guetta shakes himself, loosening up. The minders hang back, looking down watchfully as David steps up to the decks. Shrugging off the satin jacket he raises his fists in a boxer’s salute and the crowd – recognising their contender – sends up a throaty roar.
This is pure Fuck Me I’m Famous. High-octane showmanship, glamour, the elusive splash of sex, style and stardom that has turned Guetta into a worldwide celebrity. Watching him work the crowd it’s easy to fall under his spell. He has the savvy and highly polished charisma you’d expect from the man who scored a top three hit with a canny (but nerve-grating) re-edit of someone else’s remix (David Guetta Vs The Egg, Walking Away), and who – in the manner of A-list athletes, rather than DJs – starred in a global campaign for cosmetic giant L’Oreal.
What you don’t expect is him to pile down a dusty Ibicenco side road in a red Peugeot van emblazoned with the logo of a Spanish cleaning service. Nor do you expect his driver to be a middle-aged housekeeper in checked trousers and a black apron. In shapeless camo shorts and metallic sneakers he looks like an overgrown skater boy (albeit one sporting a heavy, expensive black Rolex diving watch) and he apologises for his tardiness as profusely as a waiter standing over a plate of undercooked chicken.
This is the other side of David Guetta, the one that doesn’t make the billboards, the adverts, the society pages of France’s gossip magazines. Two years ago Mixmag sipped champagne with him in Pink Paradise, the high-end strip club he owned with his PR/designer/entrepreneur wife, Cathy. Now, he offers us pasta which we eat off our knees while the cleaner Hoovers the next room and his three-year-old son Elvis giggles with the nanny. It’s a deliberately domestic, unprepossessing setting in which to discuss his new album, Pop Life. But reinvention is very much on the Guetta agenda.
Having worked his way onto the celebrity radar, and into the consciousness of pop culture, Guetta seems to want to tear it all down. Or does he? “I am not trying to be a pop star. I’m a DJ. I have a pop lifestyle, but I am not a pop person,” he says, firmly, if not entirely believably. To the contrary, he’s the only DJ at the moment making serious waves in both clubland and planet pop. Like other big shot DJs, he runs a very successful night in Ibiza and has an exhausting gig schedule (“I get planes like I used to get the Metro” he says). Unlike other DJs, he’s opened for George Michael at the 80,000 capacity Stade de France and Madonna on her Confessions tour. The Queen Of Pop has even plugged Pop Life on her blog (“I couldn’t believe it, so crazy!” David chirps, though he did send her the album, so he can’t have been too surprised). And Pop Life’s title? Borrowed from a Prince song. A tribute, not a declaration of intent, he says.
The initial transformation from “just a DJ” to his current society status started in 1989 when he spotted a pretty girl one night, when he was spinning. Digging into his bag of tricks he started chopping up tunes, scratching, spinning back records, anything to get her attention. “And it worked,” he grins. She was the bartender, Cathy, and it was the beginning of a romance and partnership that would transform both their lives.
When they arrive at KM5 – a plush outpost of Eurotrash girls and leathery men with mullets – for a quick meal, pre-Pacha, Cathy sweeps, St. Tropez tanned, and dripping gold, David all but invisible behind her. Seven months pregnant and imposingly stylish in black, her force-field personality is only amplified by her regal bump. She kisses everyone, dispensing greetings in three languages. Next to her David looks like a pale, tow-headed kid, the same shy boy who impressed her with his vinyl juggling.
The way he tells it, he always wanted to be a DJ – no more, no less. Cathy, on the other hand, made quick work of moving from bartending to PR, to running celebrity-packed nightclub Les Bains Douche with David, to launching her own-brand perfume (with David DJing at the parties, naturally), to running their joint venture restaurant and lap dancing club. She’s smart, ambitious and charismatic. David is happy to pass her off as the mastermind of his celebrity image. More than once he refers to “Cathy’s world” (meaning Cristal-popping VIP events) and “my world” (meaning clubs).
He doesn’t want people to think, despite those bare-chest- and-heaving-bosom, Fuck Me I’m Famous promo shots, that it’s all about the image, or that he’s interested in being A-list. “I came up with the name Fuck Me I’m Famous to take the piss out of the whole celebrity thing,” he insists. If the name – as strung across the entrance to Pacha in bright red lights, and splashed across his chest in gold lettering – is a dig at Brand Guetta it’s so subtle as to be imperceptible. Certainly none of the rich Americans and C-list celebs (former Kiera Knightly paramour and Bodyrocker Kas James has a noisy group of friends in the corner) watching him from the VIP area seem to be in on the joke.
David, though, is visibly happiest and most relaxed behind the decks, shuffling through CDs or turning around to pull silly superstar DJ poses for the in-house photographer. He says there’s nothing he loves more than dropping some surprise tunes, though none are in evidence tonight. He plays the first Pop Life single, Love Is Gone (“it’s about a crisis I had with my wife,” he says, though as relationship meltdown songs goes it’s no Love Will Tear Us Apart), bopping along as the kids below the DJ booth wave their hands in the air. Miss Kittin’s Silverscreen Shower Scene, and Shakedown’s At Night and even Snap’s The Power are aired between mixes of his own tunes. So far, he hasn’t played anything that would sound out of place at a bar mitzvah, but the crowd is swept up in the moment. As much as anything, it’s his genuine enthusiasm; his unselfconscious glee at dropping records your mum might consider old hat but which create chaos in the maelstrom of bodies beneath him.
Yet he insists this isn’t the real David Guetta. Fuck Me I’m Famous, he says, isn’t me. I’m different. To prove the point he and Cathy sold up the restaurant and strip club in Paris. While his wife has publicly stated she was sad to see her “babies” go, for Guetta this was the beginning of a new life. “When you own something, you’re also owned. Success doesn’t necessarily make you happy – success at what you love makes you happy,” he says, explaining his decision to sell off his money-spinning businesses.
Instead of being an industry heavy, he wanted to be a jobbing disc jockey again. “I was very successful with the clubs, and when you make a lot of money it’s hard to stop. You never know if music is going to make money,” he says. But it was a risk he was prepared to take.
David characterises his work of the last two years as “door to door sales” – going around the world with his record box knocking on the gates of clubland. This is his preferred pose, the David Guetta he wants the world to see through the gleam of his public persona. While he has certainly worked the clubs – playing nearly 250 gigs during that time –it is impossible to imagine he’d have anything near his current international profile without the ritzy Fuck Me I’m Famous parties and his tenure as the worldwide face of L’Oreal Studio Line hair gel. (Not that there’s anything wrong with using your looks to get ahead, but – as any woman could tell you – it does make it harder to be taken seriously.)
The larger obstacle to the DJ credibility David craves is, well, the music. Playing party music is one thing. Dropping House Of Pain’s Jump Around in the main room at Pacha is another. “I’d be bored to death if I had to play minimal techno,” he says. Yet he doesn’t exactly take full advantage of the vast range of music that falls between ‘minimal’ and ‘cheese’.
Unusually, for a DJ, record shopping isn’t much a part of his life. There’s the odd excursion to Beatport but he complains “It’s hard to find music other people don’t have.” Instead of hitting the shops he relies heavily on an informal record swapping club involving Pete Tong, Erick Morillo, Steve Angelo and a handful of others, trading new tunes and edits. (This, he says, is how The Egg remix worked its way into the light of day. “I just gave a copy to Pete, as a friend.” A friend, of course, whose Radio 1 show is the most influential force in mainstream UK dance music.) If he finds the variety available on Beatport stale, sourcing records from just half-a-dozen or so close friends is a paradoxical solution. It’s like borrowing your mates’ clothes for fear of showing up in the same outfit as someone else at a party – you might not look like anyone else, but you’ll sure as hell end up looking like your mate.
Apart from his DJ pals, the person David counts on most is, of course, himself. At KM5 he’s twinkling with excitement over a new edit of Love Is Gone, impatient to test the club’s reaction. He is full of confidence as a producer, saying Pop Life is his best album yet; that he thinks it has songs that will go the distance, not just club tunes. It’s a line straight out off page one of DJ/producer promotional catechism, and Pop Life is equally riddled with clichés. Musically, it’s more Time & Envy than Ministry Of Sound, with the likes of Tomorrow Can Wait and Everytime We Touch a blurred onslaught of by-numbers funky house. And the lyrics, like so many in commercial dance, don’t bear close inspection. Safe to say, nothing here is going to trouble the underground clubs Guetta professes to respect so highly.
Pop Life is another baffling piece of the Guetta puzzle. Who is he, really? And what does he want? He talks enthusiastically about playing afterhours clubs with Tiefschwarz, but at his own parties he plays wedding disco music. As a producer he sticks to formulaic commercial house, but pays homage to the innovations of Daft Punk and Depeche Mode. He says he doesn’t want to be a celebrity DJ, but he happily poses with his socialite wife to promote Fuck Me I’m Famous.
Ultimately, it’s hard to tell how conscious he is of these contradictions. Playing at Pacha David looks like a kid in a candy shop. There is no doubt he sincerely loves what he does. Perhaps he really sees himself as part of the electronic pantheon he continually name drops, like DJ Hell and Depeche Mode. On the other hand, he’s an incredibly astute operator. While he’s not running Pink Paradise anymore the sharp business brain that made it such a success isn’t resting. Underground is cool, yes; but being the highly marketable, commercial face of dance music (and being endorsed by Madonna) makes a lot more sense in terms of career progression.
Maybe the key to the riddle lies in David’s recollection of his early years as a DJ. “We were treated like shit. I was the number one DJ in Paris at the end of the 80s and I remember playing in the basement, in a little hole. Sometimes I feel like this is all a big joke and I’ll wake up and be back in the basement,” he says. Perhaps he’s just trying to stay out of that basement, by any means necessary.