JOHN HASSAY. He’s pleased to meet you. In fact, of the people I’ve met in my life so far, it’s probably fair to say there are few people who have seemed more pleased to meet me than he was. John Hassay has that rare gift of making you feel you’re the most important person in the room. That’s often the way with the people you admire, isn’t it?
3 Grammies, 13 MTV Music Video Awards – spend a day in his company and you’re left feeling like you’ve met a modern-day pop cultural Zelig. He’s had a hand in pretty much every landmark music video you’ll have seen since the late 1990s, so naturally he has an interesting tale to tell.
And of course, he’s a Red. The Anfield Wrap caught up with him… and this is the heavily edited version by the way. This fella can talk!
As a Belfast child, your path to a Red persuasion was unconventional, wasn’t it?
I supported Queens Park Rangers when I was 5, but my Dad pointed out that supporting a team with Rangers in the name would be a challenge in our part of town. My favourite colour was Red anyway. By the age of 9 I moved school and realised that literally everyone else there supported Man United, so that made hating them much easier. This was the late 70s, so it wasn’t a bad time to get on board the mighty Red bandwagon.
I hope I’m not talking out of turn here John, but you strike me as someone who takes pride in ploughing your own distinctive furrow. Is that fair?
I think I’ve always felt ‘different’, but that may be something to do with the political situation in Ireland, the school I went to – that kind of thing. My class mates loved Bon Jovi, I loved John Peel. My class mates loved Man United, I loved Liverpool – just like John Peel. My class mates wanted to take over their Dads’ pig farms and be part-time policemen, I wanted to fuck models and take LSD.
I’m very happy with my choices.
So when did you first make the break in your pursuit of models and mind-altering chemicals? Not that I’m alleging you’ve ever partaken of mind-altering chemicals, you understand. But when did you first get off your thruppenies on acid and bang Christy Turlington?
I moved to London in the summer of 1988 in pursuit of acid house and techno, which up until that point I’d only heard on John Peel and read about in iD…
And how old were you then?
What were you doing at the time?
Acid house and techno. I was very poor, and drugs were very expensive then, so I got by on Grolsch bottled beer and the sheer thrill of youth.
But eventually I moved down to Brighton in 1989 to study Law at Brighton University.
And you met a few interesting people in Brighton…
Yeah, that’s where I met Damian Harris [AKA Midfield General, the founder of Skint Records and the driving force that kick-started Big Beat in the mid-90s] – we were flatmates, and Norman Cook was our landlord.
Norman was bankrupted by “Dub Be Good To Me” [under the name “Beats International”] as he didn’t clear the Clash sample [the bassline from “Guns Of Brixton”] or the Ennio Morricone sample, which meant he had to pay 200% publishing [raise £1 in royalties, pay £2 to someone else]. He lost the lot, and was making the music for The Smurfs video game. He also hated house music, but we kept at him and tried to turn him on to it.
At that time, the Midfield General was Brighton’s busiest student. He supplemented a full grant with stints behind the counter at Rounder Records, Mau Mau (Brightons answer to Wade Smith, which I loved for the Stussy stuff, but hated for their Adidas obsession) and a residency as DJ at the best night out this side of London, the Coco Club. And yet, he was ALWAYS skint.
Damian was a major face for our peer group. Not only did he have all the back issues of “Boys Own” – Londons answer and acknowledged response to Pete Hooton’s “The End” – he could even get us tickets to Boys Own’s legendary parties, at which one contender for the coolest man alive – Andrew Weatherall – used to blow our minds.
A space became available in the General’s flat, “Pig City”. It was the Official address of the Beats International fan club, and Norman’s sole asset after the legal action. I had to audition to get in.
How did that work?
Well, I’ve always been a dab hand in the kitchen, and the General loves his grub, so I roasted two chickens – lemon and garlic and honey and seedy mustard – with a pile of green beans and duck fat roast potatoes. We ate them while watching the Star Wars Trilogy [the original trilogy – Episodes IV to VI], and after the steamed pudding with egg yolk custard I was in.
So what was Fatboy Slim’s flat like?
Well, my room used to belong to Luke Cresswell, who was the drummer for Beats International – he went on to start “Stomp”.
It was the dirtiest flat in the world. The General’s a fantatical Arsenal fan, so his idea of changing his sheets was to buy a new Arsenal duvet cover once a season, but I’m a clean freak. Still, I got to hear the best records in the world months before they came out, and Damian feasted like a King as we enjoyed our football in our vast array of South American and obscure Italian away kits (again courtesy of Mau Mau and our travelling mates). It was a brilliant time.
Was there much time free for Liverpool games?
I saw my first ever liverpool game at the Goldstone ground when I was down there – Brighton took us to an FA Cup replay. I remember Jimmy Case starting for Brigthon at 38 years old, and that Jimmy Carter came on as a sub and was so bad he got subbed about 10 minutes later.
Ian Rush netted the winner in extra time and we were stood on the shittiest away terrace I’ve ever encountered – it was literally covered with rubble. Their bastard owner managed to sell the ground to Tesco even though it was public land, so it was nice that Skint Records could sponsor them and the Withdean.
They’ve now moved to the site of the University and neither Skint nor Fatboy can afford to chip in, but they seem in good hands – I was chuffed when we drew them in the cup. Of course that doesn’t mean I can get an angle on any tickets, and the scalpers are looking for £150 a pop – too rich for my blood.
Anyway, being at University in Brighton meant we went to games on the south coast. Losing 4-0 to Southampton was a really shit day to be honest, but nothing like as scary as beating Millwall 1-0 at the old Den. We were in the Milwall end, and they would keep up this low drone for the whole of the first half and then of course stated singing “You’ll Never Make The Train” to the tune of our own anthem.
They were ridiculously well dressed – Commes Des Garcons just as much as Stone Island – but we had to fuck off before the end as they were scaring the shit out of me.
I was a regular at the London games with Stamford Bridge my bogey ground. We finally beat them this year on my 13th visit.
I got to European games from time to time, with great days like 2-0 in Rome at the Stadio Olympico, and shit days like the 3-0 loss to Paris St Germain with the immortal cry “Taxi for Collymore”. What a player he could have been, but instead he’s a [*PARENTAL ADVISORY*] who makes his career out of slagging off the club he professes to love.
The Paris trip was when I was very, very into nightclubbing and it was nice to see a game in the early evening and then smash it off somewhere later that night. Its a measure of just how good a DJ Derrick Carter is that he cheered us all up after a humiliating defeat at the Parc Des Princes.
In Rome we spent the night being chased by knife-wielding maniacs on scooters and I resolved to focus on the TV for future Euro aways, but I did see the most amazing Stone Island jacket I’ve ever encountered that night [John has a few of these – you’ll have noticed, he likes his clobber] – a waxed green cotton-like Barbour ultra-luxe, lined with a down jacket with a sheepskin funnel neck. Patch on obviously.
On the night the Liverpool fans had been bussed in hours before kick off and were left in there until the Roma fans had dispersed – that’s just too much of a ball ache for me.
Do you go much nowadays?
These days its the odd bit of sniping – I go when I can get tickets, but really I’ll be an armchair fan until my son’s big enough to go. I’m going to start him early.
So when did you end up starting work ‘proper’?
I was in Brighton until 1993. I didn’t want to be a lawyer – all the girls were rough and it felt too much like hard work, so I blagged an internship at MTV.
What did they let you loose on?
I was hired to run their archive, and that meant I saw all the videos that came in, but more importantly I got to understand what they wanted to play.
It was quite exciting at the time, and it gave me some very niche access and information in terms of what I eventually got to do with Skint.
For example, I knew who Spike Jonze was, and I knew I fucking hated rock and performance videos, that kind of thing. My Kennedy being assassinated moment was seeing Spike’s video for Sabotage. I know that makes me sound like a twat, but it was as big a game changer for me as house music.
Daft Punk’s first album was kind of my commissioning ‘finishing school’ at MTV. But all that time we’d been chipping away at Norman to get him into house music, and when he finally got involved… BOOM! – Fatboy Slim happened, and Damian got me back from MTV to commission the videos.
He asked me if I wanted to come to Brighton and shape culture, no prior experience necessary! I bit his hand off. Two months later we were shooting “Gangsta Trippin” with Roman Coppola on the James Bond set at Pinewood.
That was pretty much when life started for me.
So what did you set out to do there? Was there a grand plan? It was pretty much landmark stuff as an outsider looking in at the time.
Yeah, basically we copied Daft Punk – be the one cool video they played every hour in amongst the usual crap.
On the first video, the Midfield General went on holiday so we shot a sneak video for Super Collider. Anyway Damian only found out when he saw the edit and wasn’t pleased at all, but I’d popped my cherry and Fatboy Slim was next up to bat.
Norman was into anti-videos. He had fallen out with the music industry and had never liked the very expensive but admittedly shit videos he had before.
Roman Coppola suggested we just ‘blow shit up’ and so we did using phoyosonic cameras on the James Bond set at Pinewood – its a huge outdoor lot were they’s shoot the big battle scenes that were usually the films’ climax.
So next up was “Praise You”. How did that unfold?
Well, we really wanted to work with Spike Jonze, and Roman pointed out that he was marrying his sister, so that shouldn’t be too hard to pull off.
A few weeks later we were in LA. Norman was coming off a two week tour and was in full rock-n-roll mode. I was booked into a bungalow at the Chateau Marmont and it was at that point felt I’d really arrived!
We hit it hard for a couple of days, and there was an awkward lunch where Spike and Roman tried to explain their idea while the Brit contingent played with their food, glugged their martinis and made frequent runs to the toilet. By the time we got to the set we were swaying, but it was all over in 20 minutes – what you see is what we got – and I remember us heading off to another after party thinking ‘this job is easy’. To be fair, it is!
So that was it? The rollercoaster was off and running?
After “Praise You”, the world shifted on its access and we were suddenly the coolest gang in town.
We had drawn up the marketing plan on the back of an envelope, and felt that video should be taking us into Guardian reader territory – “if you buy one dance record this year” etc. So we met up with Tim Roth fresh from Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. He had some pompous idea of black people in suits being hosed down by ‘the man’ for “Right Here Right Now”, and we didn’t really click.
But on the quiet I’d been speaking to Hammer and Tongs, who did the backwards video for Bentley Rhythm Ace – and we instantly connected. Norm also didn’t want to be famous after being turned over by the tabloids, so we wanted to make the fat kid on the sleeve of the album the star.
Garth Jennings, who went on to direct Hitchikers Guide To The Galaxy and Son Of Rambow, came up with the idea of an amoeba becoming the fat dude, and were off.
While we were in post-production for it – Valentines Day in fact – the Daily Mirror splashed on ‘Zoe Ball to wed Brighton DJ’, and we were well and truly rumbled. It was perfect timing really.
So from a scabby flat in Brighton you and the people you’d grown close to were suddenly right in the public glare?
Yeah. Next stop we were at the US MTV Awards. We didn’t win Best Dance Video [that went to Ricky Martin] and we thought that was our best shot, but then we won Best Choreography, Best Video and Best Director.
The look on Will Smith and Madonna’s faces when they lost Best Choreography will stay with me forever. [They fancied their chances with “Wild Wild West” and “Beautiful Stranger”.]
Amazing rock-n-roll parties ensued and we were pretty much on the crest of the wave. We ended up at the Four Seasons Hotel where Norman was DJing. Strangely Natalie Portman remained immune to my charms, but it was fun hanging out with people like David Bowie, Paul McCartney, Lenny Kravitz, Pamela anderson and Tommy Lee… pretty much everyone who went to the awards bar Madonna and Will Smith – probably sulking.
So that was for Praise You?
Yeah. “Right Here Right Now” didn’t win an MTV Award as it wasn’t released in america but it did win a lot of industry awards in Europe.
So how did you work then? Did you develop a ‘roster’ of directors and production companies? Who were your favourites to work with during your time at Skint?
It all stemmed from my time at MTV really. I remember watching the Daft Punk videos when I worked there and realising that they fitted a certain category. MTV basically plays big hits to make people stay for the ad breaks, cos that’s where they make their money. So they would usually play one cool video per hour to keep up their credibility – usually Daft Punk, the Beastie Boys or the Chemical Brothers. The Chemical Brothers and the Beasties really schooled me in the art of cool – the videos didn’t have to make sense, they just swaggered with attitude. I went to Skint with a brief and a mission to make cool shit that didn’t conform and that’s exactly what happened.
From a commissioning point of view, when I joined Skint I knew who directed all these videos and how to contact them. The Internet existed then, but it was still the 56k modem stage of proceedings and all anyone really used it for was football and still image porn. That meant I had esoteric knowledge allied to an opinion and good taste – I think they’re pretty much the only qualifications you need to get started as a commissioner.
The directors who worked with Daft Punk were Spike Jonze (Da Funk – the dog head one), Michel Gondry (Around The World – possibly my all time favourite video), Seb Janiak (Burning) and Roman Coppola (Revolution 909).
On my first Fatboy Slim album someone else commissioned “Rockafeller Skank” and Norman hated it so much I got my gig with the proviso that he didn’t have to be in them, and they had to be cool – even if they didn’t get played. That was immensley liberating!
You’ve obviously moved on now. What led you to setting up your own thing?
Well, Skint was the best place I ever worked, but I was never going to make any money on my own, so I left and set up New Selecta – these were the heady days of the late 90s when there was so much money in the music industry that I could make some decent cash as a freelance commissioner.
This was a fairly novel concept at the time and basically meant that bands or managers would approach me requesting that I make their videos cooler. After Fatboy Slim I had a good track record so pretty soon after I got to work with Basement Jaxx making “Where’s Your Head At?” with the legendary directing team Traktor. They’ve done most of the biggest, weirdest, coolest commericals in the world.
I was also thankfully still working with Fatboy Slim and we got to make some great videos for the next album. I met up with Blue Source who did “Bird Of Prey” – a shoot on which every single thing that could possibly go wrong did. Blue Source are Rob Leggat and his directing partner Leigh Marling and this was only their third video so it was pretty ambitious.
And then I got to make “Ya Mamma” with Traktor, which is my personal favourite Fatboy Slim video… although two weeks in The Grenadines might have had something to do with it.
Then came ‘Operation Grand Slam’, AKA “Weapon Of Choice”. Spike Jonze directed it again. As soon as the fax arrived we were jumping up and down. “There’s a tired businessman tapping his food in a hotel lobby. The man is Christopher Walken…”.
I know! We could only shoot just before xmas and the hotel location was actually having its staff party around us while we were shooting but we knew it was another banger. Yet again it was great fun to make – Mr Walken was pretty cagey but thawed over the two night shoot and ended up enjoying it as much as we did.
Why ‘Operation Grand Slam’?
It took down 9 MTV awards and a Grammy and it led to Norman DJing at the Oscars. Charlton Heston asked him to turn the sound down a bit. Norm told him to ‘Fuck off’.
At that point I realised i was working with lots of headline talent but also finding new people on the way up. I thought it might be a good idea to start our own production company and start signing these directors.
Our first stable at www.colonelblimp.com included Blue Source (with one massive Red on board), Dougal Wilson (another Red), Lynn Fox and Pleix. These names might not mean much outside my industry but they’re a very talented crew and they helped us grow very quickly.
Only Rob Leggat [the Red at Blue Source] would have coal miners from the 19th century emerging into the school of performing arts.
Meanwhile, we made a totally amazing video for Basement Jaxx that was unfortunately never used and Lynn Fox led us to working with Bjork – she provided the back drop for her performance at the olympics in Athens. Bjork’s the most amazing artist I’ve met. She’s actually what you think she’ll be like, and well up for causing a bit of trouble.
Meanwhile Dougal Wilson was taking off like a rocket and we defined the whole tits and ass genre with Beni Benassi’s “Satisfaction”. I was the commissioner and producer on this one so got to keep the polaroids and oil down the talent.
I was – at that point – unaware of Lena Franks’ alternative career choices but it was a very fun day!
Once that genre had been sparked I became the Ministry Of Sound commissioner-in-residence and we smashed it again with “Call On Me” by Eric Prydz.
The director Demis Husos still gets weirdos asking him for the uncut version. Unforunately what you see is what you get but I have to say its the most fun I’ve ever had on a shoot day and we were finished three hours early. Buns of steel. Blimey!
John Hassay’s Top 10 Videos He’s Worked On
- Fatboy Slim – Praise You (commissioned)
- Fatboy Slim – Weapon Of Choice (commmissioned)
- Basement Jaxx – Where’s Your Head At? (commissioned)
- Beni Benassi – Satisfaction (commissioned and produced)
- Eric Prydz – Call On Me (commissioned)
- The Streets – Blinded By The Lights (commissioned and produced)
- The Streets – Fit But You Know It – (commissioned)
- Bat For Lashes – What’s A Girl To Do (produced)
- Dizzee Rascal – Dream (producer)
- The Chemical Brothers – Galvanise (produced)
Honours (well, the highlights – there are too many to list here)
13 MTV Music Video awards
- 12 for Fatboy Slim
- 1 for The Avalanches
- 2 nominations with Dougal Wilson – “Fit But You Know It” for The Streets (in which he makes a special guest appearance [John makes his entrance jumping sideways into the pool on the snap about 40 seconds in]) and “What’s A Girl To Do?” by Bat For Lashes
- “Weapon Of Choice” by Fatboy Slim
- “Days Go By” by Dirty Vegas
- “Galavanise” by the Chemical Brothers
Follow John’s company “Skin Flicks”: