DJ King Pigeon: A Life in Music|
We all know about today's Eurodance playboy DJ King Pigeon, aka Mr. Lava. But where did he come from? Everyone has a past, and Mr. Lava's is as strange as any. From bitter rivalries to a three year "blackout," his life has been anything but normal. In this unprecedented interview, all is revealed.
by Michael Davies
for URB Magazine, February 2002
To see him today is to bear witness to the very personification of majesty. He sits across from me in his penthouse wearing a bright red Hobie T-shirt under a zebra print bathrobe. I cannot see his famous piercing blue eyes, for they are concealed by iridescent wraparound shades. His hair is mussed up from another roll in the sack with actress Natalie Portman, who is now making us a vegan breakfast.
Some things Mr. Lava no longer does: He no longer smokes. He no longer does drugs. He has not had a drink in several days.
Some things Mr. Lava does: He gets 8 hours of sleep every night. He swims 2 hours every day. And then there's his daily 10 hours of Tantric sex.
Birth of a Legend
He lives a life of opulence, but his origins could not have been more humble. His mother, Ellen James, still works at the Pittsburgh steel plant where the young Mr. Lava spent his summer vacations mixing children's songs on Fisher Price turntables. Ms. James would not talk to us about Mr. Lava; she feels he deserted her and is bitter about his celebrity. She once called him "the devil's spawn" [Jockey Slut magazine, May 2000].
Daniel Lava, the "devil" in question, was, in his own time and way, a hipster very similar to today's Mr. Lava. He died in a 1977 skiing accident in Switzerland after snorting two lines of coke with Eurodisco legend Giorgio Moroder. Mr. Lava has no memory of his flamboyant father, but often hears stories about the man's hedonistic Club 54 exploits.
"I am like psychoanalyst Erik Erikson," says Mr. Lava. "I consider myself to be my own father. I empathize with Wordsworth, who noted that 'the child is the father of the man.' My family? Fuck 'em."
High School Years
He was a typical 1980s high school student. He wore stone-washed jeans, Penn State sweatshirts, and he sported a mullet. He was Mr. Lava's best friend, Donald "Duck" Dennison. Mr. Lava, on the other hand, always wore black clothes by Armani and sported timeless, sharp haircuts that would be perfectly appropriate in today's poshest club settings.
Dennison died on 9/11 (of a heart attack in Milwaukee), but we were fortunate enough to interview him two weeks before he passed away. The young bank teller we met bore a startling physical resemblance to his high school incarnationright down to the mullet.
"Back in those days we didn't call him 'DJ King Pigeon,' of course," Dennison laughed. "We called him 'Mr. Lava.' Even the teachersand the principalcalled him 'Mr. Lava.' At the time that didn't seem so strange, but in hindsight I must admit that it was kinda odd."
Mr. Lava is reluctant to discuss his teen years, but a careful wade through the Madison High School newspaper archives (and a surreptitious three in the morning rifling through some Madison file cabinets) reveals that he was a straight-A student, star lacrosse player, and consistent winner of the school's annual talent show. He graduated in three years with two semesters of college credit under his belt. He was voted, "Most likely to rule the world," by his peers. His yearbook pages are filled with gushing comments, mostly from horny female peers, but also from one oddly enamored male biology teacher, who wrote, "Don't call me Mr. [name withheld]. Call me Howard. Call me! [phone number follows]"
"Most celebrities say that they weren't popular in high school," Dennison mused. "But Mr. Lava was wildly popular. Even high school quarterbacks wanted to hang out with him. He was like a God."
But what about those early DJ sets? The first ones DJ King Pigeon ever unleashed on the unsuspecting public?
"They were fairly popular," Dennison said carefully. But he seemed to be lying. I pressed for more details. "I think he was a little ahead of his time," he admitted at last. "Nobody at Madison High School was really ready for Detroit techno and acid house in the late 1980s. I think that really bothered him."
All Mr. Lava will say about high school is: "I hated it. I knew I couldn't waste any more time in structured classroom settings. While the graduation ceremony was taking place I was on a flight to Manchester."
19901992: Hardcore Techno
Manchester, England proved to be a refreshing change. A bitter and cynical Mr. Lava stepped off the plane. But that night, at the legendary Hacienda Club, he took his first dose of ecstasy.
"I could not construct a negative thought," he says, reflecting on that happy (albeit brain-damaging) moment. "I was in complete bliss. I sat on a beanbag in a back room with the Inspiral Carpets to my left and the Happy Mondays to my right, and we were talking about how the Internet was going to change everything. Well, I was talking about that, but by the end of the night I had everyone convinced."
As much as he enjoyed the "baggy" indie dance scene, it was the hardcore techno raves that won Mr. Lava's heart. "That shit was the new punk rock," he says. "I loved it all. Joey Beltram. Lords of Acid. Prodigy. CJ Bolland. And most of all, DJ Massive's 'Massive Overload.' Ace."
Soon he was splitting his time between working the Xerox machine at indie label Creation Records and hitting hardcore raves at night. Although he loved Creation's signature psychedelic guitar sound, Mr. Lava encouraged label owner Alan McGee to form an electronic dance subsidiary called "Infonet" (which never really took off). Not being a Bandulu fan (" 'Why are we putting out another Bandulu CD?' I'd ask Alan"), Mr. Lava split for Deconstruction Records, where he pushed for the signings of USURA, Felix, and Lionrock. Those acts produced some of that label's biggest hits. He also encouraged Deconstruction to take a chance with two scruffy Mancunian lads who wished to remix Lionrock's "Packet of Peace." Those young men went on to become The Chemical Brothers.
1993 - From Underworld to Weatherall
"I met [Underworld vocalist] Karl [Hyde] in 1993 in Dorset," recalls Mr. Lava. "I don't remember what we talked about, only that there was much enthusiasm on both sides. I told him that I was a big fan of their Lemon Interrupt stuff. 'Well, you should listen to the new Underworld stuff,' Karl said, though not exactly in those words."
"I told him, 'Keen gloss boy, you slide this through,' " says Hyde over the telephone. "Princess Leia Tetris. Windframe."
"So I think he talked me into heading down to the Boys Own offices, where Andrew Weatherall was working, to join the family there," says Mr. Lava.
"Good singing kaibab bouncer," says Hyde cheerfully. "Shake this job and lub it."
Mr. Lava had already met the much-revered DJ Andrew Weatherall in the Creation offices the previous spring (Weatherall had received many accolades for his production work on Primal Scream's legendary Creation release Screamadelica). The two hit it off when they found a shared past: in their youth, both had enjoyed spitting on random passers-by. "We wuz none more punk rock," Mr. Lava laughs.
1994 - A Great Year
"1994 was a great year for underground electronic music," says Mr. Lava. "The tunes were catchy, but there was still an experimental edge to them. Portishead's Dummy is great. Sabres of Paradise's Haunted Dancehall is great. The Prodigy's Music for the Jilted Generation is . . . very good. St. Etienne's Tiger Bay was that band's last masterpiece. Underworld kept on being great, as did Orbital. And there were the Chemicals, who were then putting out smashing dance tunes and remixes under their Dust Brothers moniker."
So, it was the year to be underground?
"Absolutely. 1994 was the last great year of electronic dance music. No offense to the artists of today. Today's music is fabulous. But 1994 saw a rare balance between hooks and edge. It was clever, but not pretentious. Challenging, but not deliberately obtuse."
Mr. Lava recorded under at least twelve different aliases for the Sabres of Paradise record label. "We wanted anonimity," he explains (to this day Mr. Lava still won't identify which 12" records are his). He also supplied some ideas for the Sabres of Paradise band's own records. "I said to Weatherall, I want 'Haunted Dancehall' to go down like 'Titanic.' Make the listeners feel in the final few minutes like they're on that doomed ship. You know, 'And the band played on.' Weatherall liked the idea, and he executed it brilliantly."
In those happy days it seemed that Weatherall, Underworld, Portishead, St. Etienne, and The Chemical Brothers were going to party together forever. But their lives were about to change.
1995 - A Great Divide
Things soured between Weatherall and DJ King Pigeon. The two parted ways in the spring of 1995. Neither man gives much detail about the events that led to the split (Weatherall declined to be interviewed for this article). But rumor has it that Weatherall had had enough of Mr. Lava's insistence on "hooks" and "melodies" in dance musicnot to mention Mr. Lava's "erraticness."
Drugs had taken their toll on Mr. Lava's mind. In a famous gaffe, Mr. Lava spoke fondly to Radio 1 DJ Annie Nightingale of Weatherall's involvement in Boyzone; he had confused the boy band with Weatherall's earlier underground magazine and record label "Boy's Own"! "It was embarrassing," Weatherall said in a 1997 NME interview. "Once we were best mates, but [by 1995] I couldn't stand the c***."
Even worse, Mr. Lava was seen frequenting Italian clubs with Enrico Zabler, one of the artists behind the Eurodance act Masterboy. Mr. Lava shared pints with Bad Boys Blue, Chyp-Notic, and Anticappella. When word got back to Weatherall, the Lord Sabre was not amused.
Weatherall turned down our invitation to talk to us, but Nina Walsh, who helped Weatherall found Sabres of Paradise and "sister label" Sabrettes (and currently records music in Slab), recalls those tense days.
"Andy told me, and he said this very emphatically: 'Masterboy is fucking terrible,'" says Walsh. "Then he asked me if I knew 'What the fuck sorts of drugs' Mr. Lava was on. It was around that time that Andy decided to go cold turkey himself. Andy always blamed club drugs for Mr. Lava's switch to the Eurodance scene, and to be honest I think he was afraid that he might succumb to the same siren call himself."
Weatherall began vetoing all of Mr. Lava's ideas, including a trip-hop remix of Yes's "Starship Trooper" (the final version of which included vocals by Trixi Delgado of Masterboy and rap by K-Swing of AB Logic). The finished product, "Sooper Trooper," was released on white label (and, much to Weatherall's satisfaction, tanked). Eventually, the two artists drifted apart. They have not spoken to one another for six years.
Mr. Lava's relationship with St. Etienne also deteriorated. In 1995 Mr. Lava was pushing for that band to go further along a trash trajectory. Mr. Lava suspects Weatherall talked them out of it. "They could have been the first post-modern trash band," Mr. Lava says. "Imagine a Eurodance outfit that could inject wit and pathos into the genre. But after the Motiv-8 remix of 'She's on the Phone,' which really scared them, they told me that they wanted to do more sophisticated, stylish music. Trash was 'too easy,' they said, but I knew I was hearing Andy [Weatherall]'s voice, not their ownthough it's possible that the Shampoo girls also poisoned them against me. Bitches. Anyway, the Etienne Daho collaboration was the first sign of iminient boredom. I jettisoned."
One positive thing did come out of 1995. While hanging out with Underworld's Karl Hyde at a Bath pub, Mr. Lava shouted out"to an evidently deaf bartender""Lager! Lager! Lager!" Hyde chuckles fondly at the memory. "Yeah, he was a naff one, all right. Little Mr. Lava wants his lager. Superclassic. That tanblonde snake-fighter boy was like Elvis sniffin' the wind."
The song "Born Slippy" was released that year, with that famous "Lager! Lager! Lager" bridge, and became an international hit one year later when it was used to great effect in the movie Trainspotting.
What happened to the collective that had shown so much promise in 1994? Weatherall began sculpting less "user-friendly" electronic tracks in such projects as Blood Sugar and Two Lone Swordsmenand watched as record sales plummeted accordingly. St. Etienne began putting out more laid-back music and their star dimmed, too. Only Underworld got better and better. "We wuz Einstein crazy," says Hyde. "We wuz Einstein crazy and drinking the juice, cutting the box and wading beaucoup rewind. Turbo drive and cottage cheesecake. Trash or no, supreme pigeon, I love you."
Mr. Lava was offered a permanent spot in Underworld, but due to a complete inability to understand Karl Hyde, opted instead to move to Denmark and join a struggling dance act called Aqua.
19961998 - The Lost Years
"I don't remember anything that happened in the years 1996, 1997, or 1998," says Mr. Lava.
Certainly you remember something? A party? A club? A friend?
"No." His brow tightens.
Natalie Portman takes a seat beside him on the arm of his chair. She twines a lock of his blonde hair around a finger and speaks softly into his ear. I can barely make out her words.
"You met me then," she says. "At the Moby thing in Prague."
"I don't remember, woman!" Mr. Lava shouts, hurling a tumbler of Arden's hogplum juice across the room. "How many times do I have to tell you people?" He buries his face into his hands. His body quakes with sobs. Portman dries his tears and makes sympathetic noises.
"I'm a freak! I'm a freak!" Mr. Lava chants.
I feel ashamed that I have rattled him. Perhaps I can help fill in the blanks.
Records show that Mr. Lava moved into a flat in Copenhagen in 1996. He had next to no money, but began earning a living in the Danish porn industry. Mr. Lava appears in some Color Climax spreads under another name: "Rocco."
"I am not ashamed of my work," Mr. Lava/Rocco says. "I was beautiful, it paid the bills, and at the end of each shoot everyone was very satisfied. Or so, in reviewing the Color Climax Web site, it appears."
With cocaine powering him through the day and ecstasy fueling him through the night, Mr. Lava met and got the phone numbers of thousands of influential people, but never called any of them back. However, one group reached out to him repeatedly, and in the end he wound up moving into their flat. That was the band Aqua.
"King Pigeon was so witty!" squeeks Lene, the group's lead singer. "We knew he could write some great English language songs for us." And with Mr. Lava's help Aqua crafted and released the now legendary "Barbie Girl" single in 1997, which basically brought Eurodance as a whole back from the dead.
Mr. Lava also penned songs for the lesser-known "Toybox." "I spent time in two groups," Mr. Lava says. "One was Aqua, and the other was Toybox. I couldn't tell them apart, which is why the songs I wrote for them sound so similar. Even today, when I drop a classic Toybox song in a Eurotrash set, fans ask me if it's a rare Aqua B-side. I always have to check the record label to be sure."
How did Mr. Lava help Aqua get through the tough times? Lene flushes, then laughs.
"When we were down about stuff, King Pigeon would always have sex with us. He was really great. Probably the best any of us had ever had. Rrrrocco!" She trills the "R."
When I confront him with that quote, Mr. Lava rubs his chin bemusedly.
"I don't remember that," he says, "but I was part of the Danish porn industry. I couldn't have been bad."
1999Present - "The Best Years of My Life"
"I have no regrets about my past," King Pigeon says today, reclining in a leather easy chair and gazing reflectively through his penthouse window at a stunning view of downtown Atlanta. "Friends come and friends go. That is the ebb and flow of life. When Weatherall and I were working together we were good for each other. When we parted it was simply time to part. I love everyone I've ever worked with. It's been a great ride."
He still stays in touch with the Underworld alums; it was Mr. Lava who assured former member Darren Emerson that doing a Global Underground mix was "really quite OK and respectable."
And where does Mr. Lava see himself today, in relation to his past?
"These are the best years of my life. I am wealthy, universally acknowledged as a genius, and loved as a DJ. I also have regular sex with girls who make Natalie Portman look like a troll."
(Portman applies the finishing touches to breakfast out in the kitchen.)
At last, Mr. Lava removes his sunglasses. His blue eyes, so haunting that they inspired three Moby songs, pierce the air like a daggers. His brow twitches as he stares off into space. He seems troubled.
What is it, Mr. Lava?
"My father," he says with a sigh. "He died in a skiing accident. He was coked up."
Yeah, we covered that. Daniel Lava. Died in Switzerland.
"I was just thinking . . . " His voice cracks. "It coulda been me."
A tear escapes his right eye and winds its way down his face.
"This is a good, good, good life," he says at last. And with a smile he wipes the tear away.