LA’s dance dissident Gary Richards on HARD, Destructo, and everything in between
“You ever heard this song?” Gary Richards asks as I arrive, reaching across his desk to crank the volume.
An ululating instrument ascends from the bowels of Live Nation’s Beverly Hills office building, phased and twisted into an acid-like lead above pounding drums. I haven’t, but I immediately wish I had.
The track is an early Aphex Twin cut called “Didgeridoo,” courtesy of Richards’s – aka Destructo’s – 1992 mixtape. The HARD boss spins his sticker-plastered laptop around to show me the cover art, a mock-up of a cassette tape with the A-Side marked “Hard” and the B-Side labeled “Medium.”
“Why did you call it Hard?” I ask.
“Because this side was more banging,” he replies without pause.
I’ve long been fascinated by the founder of HARD. From rave DJ to recording artist, from A&R executive to kingpin event promoter, Richards is an inspiring shapeshifter who has worn more hats during his lifetime than most industry actors could in three. Upon meeting the man in his inner sanctum, encircled by the framed lineups for HARD events he assembled, it’s clear that there is a consistent ethos about him that intertwines each of his varied roles.
The man has an exceptional ear for music and he trusts it above all else, ignoring the industry’s constant background blather to showcase the artists that fit his aesthetic, irrespective of their present popularity. The same ear for effective tracks that earned him his DJ following as Destructo made him an undeniable asset in the recording industry. And it’s that same ear that brought Bromance from France before they blew up and now routinely constructs eye-popping lineups of artists who are as divergent in sound as they are consistent in quality.
“I’m equal parts business dude and artist, and it works,” Richards says. “If I’m at a record label, I can go hang out with the groups and they don’t think I’m some lame company guy, but I can also sit down with the finance guys and explain how much it’s gonna cost to make the record and how much we can project it. Most people who produce festivals are just looking for names that will sell them tickets, but for me, I just thought well what could make a cool event? Because I’m a DJ, I’m always listening.”
Rewind to 1990, when Richards’s long road through dance music began in the doorway of a dingy downtown Los Angeles warehouse. While he had come of age listening to Kraftwerk and hip-hop, Richards didn’t know why their sounds appealed to him until he walked inside, where he received his first indoctrination into dance music by English electronic interlopers 808 State and their seminal track “Cubik.”
“I called the record store the next day and hummed them that riff and was like ‘do you have it?'” says Richards, blasting the jagged electro bass line over his office speakers. “They were like ‘yeah, I’ll hold it for you.’ When I got there the manager gave me a whole stack and was like ‘if you like those, check these out.’ I bought all of them and then I got home and realized I didn’t even have a record player.”
After rectifying that small detail, Richards soon found himself hooked to the scene and drawn into DJing, building Destructo’s name through a 6:00am Sunday morning after hours show called the Sermon. The budding performer/promoter spent two years launching underground dance events like Midnight Mass and a water-park rave called Holy Water Adventure before hanging up his parody priest robes to enter the record industry. He was hired by legendary producer Rick Rubin to head up Def Jam American’s electronic music A&R post, where he worked from 1993 until 2006, when Napster and the shifting sands of music consumerism forced a moment of career clarity.
“I was like what am I gonna do? The record business is all I know,” says Richards. “I was like maybe I’ll go back to what I originally know, how to DJ and produce an event, because people can’t download that for free online.”
Unimpressed with the trance acts that were dominating Los Angeles’s scene at the time, Richards once again held his ear to the ground and began familiarizing himself with a new breed of less-heralded acts that fit his aesthetic. He also rejected the rave trappings of yesteryear, banning pacifiers and kandi bracelets from his events because he felt they were a delegitimizing distraction from the music he sought to showcase.
The inaugural HARD show took place on New Year’s Eve 2007 in LA’s VIP Warehouse and featured a line-up that was years ahead of its time, including such latter-day success stories as Justice, Peaches, Steve Aoki, Busy P and A-Trak. It was also a commercial disaster. Richards and his fledgling HARD company took a staggering six-figure loss on the event. Unsurprisingly, Destructo remained undeterred.
“That was a nightmare,” Richards says simply, shaking his head. “Luckily enough, I’m not stupid with my money. I’ve always had enough to do the next event and stay there. When I was in the record business, I was told that the name of the game is to stay in the game… It’s how long can you weather the storm? And I think I’ve weathered it after all these years.”
Richards bounced back strong with the first installment of HARD Summer at the Shrine in July 2008, drawing 5,000 fans with a bill topped by N*E*R*D* and MSTRKRFT and lifting his company back into the green. He credits close collaboration with the city and fire department for contributing to the turnaround, implementing all the rules and regulations necessary to increase the capacity for future events.
“I think most promoters see the fire department and think they’re like the enemy, but I embrace them,” says Richards. “I don’t want anyone to get hurt here, I’ll do anything you fucking tell me… I tried to explain to them that the majority of the people aren’t coming here just to get fucked up, they’re coming because they like the music. We’re different.”
HARD Haunted Mansion marked a turning point that October, when a now nearly unfathomable lineup that included Justice, Soulwax, Boys Noize and Deadmau5, drew 15,000 fans and elevated HARD into rarified air. HARD hosted its first round of events in New York, Miami and San Francisco in 2010 and embarked on its first full-fledged summer tour in 2011. In 2012, Richards introduced HARD’s wildly successful Holy Ship! cruise and oversaw HARD’s acquisition by major event company Live Nation Entertainment.
“For my career, it always felt right, but I never got lucky,” Richards says. “I never like all of a sudden turned around and bumped into Skrillex. I was always like the dude who was like the Skrillex, but he was on heroin and he got arrested and had to get his car out of jail and he fucking disappeared. This one guy told me it takes luck to get you to the top and it takes talent to keep you there. I never got lucky, but with HARD for some reason with this fucking show I got lucky. It went from 5,000 to 15,000 people and Deadmau5 did ‘Ghosts n’ Stuff’ at that show for the first time, and it fucking blew up and I just rode it. People were like this Gary dude knows what he’s doing.”
What’s funny is Richards did basically turn around and bump into Skrillex. Richards recalls “a kid wearing a hoodie with a lip ring” approaching him after a show and professing that it was his life’s dream to play a HARD event. Richards decided to give him a shot at HARD Summer 2011.
“I didn’t even know any of his music, but he was just such a nice guy,” says Richards. “He had some aura about him. I booked him for no money, but as the show approached we had to up it by a zero. By the time of the show, it already should have been another zero. Other people were trying to pay him six figures and pull him away from me that weekend, but he was so cool and was like ‘you were there for me, you were gonna give me the shot. So fuck it, all that shit will be there.’ The dude has constantly come through for me.”
Richards gestures to a large framed photo on the wall behind me, the centerpiece of the wall facing his desk. The bespectacled visage of Sonny Moore can be seen peeking out from his main stage Mothership construct, ensconced within an orgy of lasers and flashing strobes igniting the immense crowd in otherworldly light.
“This picture from HARD Summer last year was one of the first times I felt like I was at the show,” says Richards. “I remember standing right where it was taken telling my wife I can’t believe this is HARD. It feels like Lollapalooza or something. It feels so much bigger than what I’m used to doing. Sonny brought his A game. He finally got the fee he deserved and he backed it up by bringing all of this production.”
This year’s HARD Summer is the biggest and most successful edition to date. For the first time in its history, the festival is completely sold out with more than 70,000 ticket sales. The Live Nation acquisition means Richards no longer needs to oversee every aspect of the venue setup himself, allowing him more time to focus on the issues that matter to him. For example, Richards decided to end the festival two hours earlier this year in exchange for opening gates six hours earlier, adding four hours of total music to each day. One of his primary motivations was the opportunity to showcase local and lesser-known talent during the earlier time slots.
“It’s always important to have the local dudes, the problem is all my local dudes got fucking huge,” Richards says with a laugh. “My dudes were Aoki and fucking DJ AM! Most DJs today don’t know how to warm up and be the opener. My dad was always like ‘why are you at the bottom of the bill? It’s your event.’ But I never wanted to be that guy, the promoter who stuck himself at the top without earning it, so I was always the opener building up the vibe and giving it to the next guy. I look at the event as the whole event, I don’t just look at how can my set be great and fuck everyone else.”
The Live Nation acquisition has also allowed Richards more time to pursue his ambitions as an artist. He released Higher, his second Destructo EP, on OWSLA and Boysnoize Records in June with highly regarded remixes by HARD staples Brodinski and Tommy Trash. Richards cites a conversation with Justice at Coachella as the turning point that convinced him to take his own productions as seriously as he had been treating his promotion and performances.
“I went to talk to the guys in Justice because I was trying to get them to play Day of the Dead and HARD Summer, and before I could even get it out, they were like ‘Technology! Zis song is so good, you have to make more tracks,'” Richard says, feigning a French accent. “And I’m like really? They’re like yes we play it every time. I was like fuck are you serious? They were on my first show. I really took that to heart.”
In addition to spending time in the studio, Richards has continued to gig with the fervor of a man half his age. His passion for performance is clear.
“People are like why would you want to sit on an airplane and go DJ for like $1,000 bucks somewhere?” says Richard. “Because that’s my life, that’s what I love to do. Because that’s the whole thing. I get my set ready and that prepares me mentally for everything else I’m trying to do. I’m always trying to find that new thing and be on the edge of whats next to come.”
While Richards certainly has one eye on HARD’s expansion with stages at Stereosonic Festival in Australia and EDC London, he insists that the top priority this year was ensuring that the Los Angeles events were done right. His genuine pride in Los Angeles – which he calls the “mecca of electronic dance music in America”- is palpable.
“Most people think the key is to throw more shows, but it’s actually fewer,” says Richards. “The more shows you have, the more spread out your team gets and it can get unfocused… Everyone always thinks you gotta take over the world, but I’m happy dude. If we can keep doing this in LA the next ten years, I’ll be happy. My theory is quality not quantity.”
While it remains to be seen how closely HARD’s new owners will adhere to that credo, Richards is confident that so long as HARD continues to prosper, he will be given the autonomy to steer it in the right direction. To those seeking to follow in his footsteps, he concludes the interview with some pointed advice.
“I always tell people you just gotta fucking do it,” Richards says. “I didn’t know what I was doing, I just did it. I didn’t wait for anyone to help me, pay me, give me money. But you can’t have drive without a cool idea too. Promoters are evil fuckers. They have the world blocked out from everyone. I was able to sneak in because no one was booking these acts, so I created this whole community in LA. If someone right now came in and tried to book these dudes, I wouldn’t let that happen. But I’m sure theres a way you can start another event with 20 acts I’ve never heard of who are unbelievable.”
Richards pauses and scans an office dotted with immortalized event posters, representing the trials and triumphs that he and HARD have surpassed and celebrated over nearly a decade of dance music memories.
“Everybody’s got ideas, but nobody gets a shot,” he says, grinning and motioning to the door. “These dudes in here aren’t giving anybody a fucking shot, they’re a Fortune 500 company and they’re doing Rolling Stones around the world. They don’t have time for a dude doing some little show. All they know is it sold out 70,000 people, and they’re like ‘Congratulations Gary!’ They don’t even know what I’m doing. They see the number and they’re like alright leave that guy alone, he’s just doing his job in the corner.”
It appears to be working.