So let’s talk Dirty. Let’s talk about three club faces who went into the studio just to see what they could do together and came up with ‘Days Go By’, a lush song about love and loss they thought might have underground potential, but little more: ‘No one was playing tracks with vocals then.’ So it came as a surprise when Pete Tong played it on his Radio One show for 12 weeks running. When Parlophone not only signed up the single but wanted an album to follow. When the song crashed the UK top 30 in May 2001. When Mitsubishi Cars picked up the track for their influential advertising campaign in the US and suddenly it was being played on every TV channel, every local radio station across America. It’s a fairytale story of overnight success. It’s every band’s dream. Except, at first, Dirty Vegas weren’t really a band at all.
Paul Harris, Steve Smith and Ben Harris are three lads from Kent and the South London suburbs with very different musical backgrounds, united by a shared passion for house music and for that brief, heady time after the acid house explosion when all the old barriers came down and musically, almost anything seemed possible.
Paul started clubbing in his early teens. He built up his record collection, bought some decks, and taught himself how to mix when that was still a rare skill in British clubs. In the early 90s he met DJ/promoter Nicky Holloway talked himself into a residency at Nicky’s infamous Milk Bar, playing alongside Pete Tong, Dave Dorrell, Paul Oakenfold and Danny Rampling. Paul was 17. ‘It was just before the whole thing exploded. DJs were just starting to earn more than £25 a night. I played the Milk Bar and the rest of the “Balearic network” – clubs like Venus in Nottingham, Most Excellent and the Hacienda in Manchester. It was the best of times.’ He gradually began spending more time mixing and making records than playing them, but has continued to be successful as a DJ, playing at Ministry and Cream, at the parties organised by his friends Meg Mathews and Fran Cutler, and more recently at the kind of small, word-of-mouth events where grown men who should know better end up dancing on top of the speakers.
Steve Smith had played percussion at school, competing with Alan White (later of Oasis) for the only drum kit and often ending up on the bongos instead. After the rave explosion, he began playing live percussion in clubs, earning more in a weekend than he did the rest of the week in his job in the print trade. ‘It was great. I was in a club with my mates, I had a guest list – and that was all that mattered really.’ By the mid-90s he was playing in a band called Higher Ground. When the singer left he reluctantly stepped in, discovering with some surprise that he had a fine voice. The band fell apart in 1999, around the same time Steve split with his girlfriend, so he went to Ibiza and began writing songs on his acoustic guitar, exploring new directions. Soon after returning to the UK, he was booked to play an event in Switzerland and bumped into his old friend Paul Harris at the airport – also bound for the same event. ‘We went out there and we had a right old ding-dong,’ recalls Steve. ‘Paul said, "When we get back, we’ve got to make some records." He told me he was working with this bloke by Tower Bridge who’s a wizard in the studio, and it turned out to be Ben.’
Ben Harris always wanted to be a guitar hero. Until his indie rock band Fluid did their first studio demo, and he saw the engineer behind the mixing desk. He began working as a tape op in a Camden studio, ‘got bitten by the dance bug’, and as the technology advanced, realised that he no longer needed a big studio to make the music he loved. For a while he and his brother ran a specialist dance record shop in Bromley, using the profits to build up a studio set-up of their own and starting to produce records. ‘It was mad. The first thing we did, under the name Bullitt, started a bidding war and got signed to Virgin.’ After a few years of success as a producer and remixer, he approached Paul and they began together as Hydrogen Rockers. A few weeks later Steve came in to play some percussion: ‘And once we met, it all happened quite quickly.’
So quickly that, the night before they were due to sign their deal, the band didn’t even have a name. They were going to be Dirty Harry, but Time Warner made it clear that it wouldn’t make their day at all if these punks took the name of their film franchise in vain. In the early hours they ended up drunk in a West End casino (this is nothing out of the ordinary for these boys; what was unusual, they say, is that for once Paul was winning). They wanted to stay Dirty by name as well as nature, and as they stood watching the wheel spinning, one of them came up with Vegas. They all agreed it had a suitable sleazy glamour, and Dirty Vegas signed their contract the next day.
Then came the hard part. ‘It wasn’t like we were a band who’d been together for years,’ says Ben. ’We’d been thrown together by the success of one song. We had to find out if we could actually work together.’ At first, they began churning out a by-numbers set of ‘Days Go By’ soundalikes. With all of them pulling in different directions – and two of them partying rather hard – tensions mounted, eventually culminating in an angry afternoon when ‘we were pretty much going to kill each other’. They were barely talking let alone working, yet somehow created ‘Lost, Not Found’, a furious rant against party excesses set to a softly seductive beat that surprised them all. It was a turning point.
‘After that track, we were on fire,’ says Paul. ‘We bonded, and it all went off.’ They stopped fighting, stopped trying to make clones of the single or even dance records, and instead began blending all their influences into heady new cocktails. The end result is a nightclub confessional, an album about getting messy and coming clean, about making mistakes and losing the one you love. Music made from the heart. ‘Everything there is something that happened to one of us or to someone near and dear to us,’ says Steve. ’It’s about us, our emotions. All of our personalities have come out within the sound of the album. Paul’s underground club stuff, Ben’s rock guitar thing, my love of songwriters like Neil Young or James Taylor.’
There are straightforward club tracks on the eponymous album, sonic sculptures you long to hear thumping out over a serious sound system. But there are also strong, well-crafted songs and a genre-bending list of influences ranging from Pink Floyd and Santana to Kraftwerk and Turin Brakes. ‘One of us will pull out an old album from like 10 years ago, and one of the others will go, "I’ve got that! I love it!"’ says Paul. ‘We tried to bring all those influences into it. That’s why we’ve hopefully got something a little bit different. It’s not your usual dance record.’
Dirty Vegas are a proper band now, a tight unit looking forward to touring their music live. ‘We can’t wait to do it!’ says Steve. ’They’re our songs. And the idea that there might be some kid on a skateboard in Arkansaw right now hearing “Days Go By”. How great is that?’