Les Smith: Hey, Mr DJ!
Les Smith is about to retire after 30 years on the decks. He spoke with Andrew Shaw about his life in music...
Sitting with Les Smith in The Wickham Hotel with a view of the multi-mirror-balled dancefloor and its adjacent DJ booth, you realise that for him this is a second home. It’s been that way ever since he began DJing 30 years ago, a career that’s about to end with his official retirement in March.
Smith was brought up in the New South Wales town of Grafton, described as one of Australia’s most beautiful provincial cities. And for someone whose passion is DJing, his first job took him in an unexpected direction.
“It was in Lismore with the National Bank,” he says. “Then I transferred to Sydney for eight years. I was working in IT and to stay in that line of work I couldn’t move back to Grafton.”
He describes Brisbane in those days as a big country town and says people who knew about computers were few and far between. “There was a lack of trained IT people here so it didn’t take much to get a job. I worked with what was SGIO Building Society and DJed at night. Pretty much all my working life I’ve had two jobs.”
Smith now works for a large car company, and after running two careers since the 1980s – office by day, DJ booth by night – he’s decided to slow the pace and move more into party promotion. As part of the Crew Parties team, he’s already got lots in the 2013 pipeline. But first he has an emotional hurdle to get over: his final official DJ gig at Big Gay Day on March 10.
“I think when I play my last track it will really sink in,” he reflects. “I do know what my last track is; as soon as people hear it, they’ll go, ‘Right – that doesn’t surprise me…’”
Whatever it is – and Smith isn’t saying – that last track will be one of thousands played over three decades, including his first vinyl import in 1982. “I remember the first import record I bought: Madleen Kane’s ‘Playing For Time’. I bought it from Disco City in Sydney on my very first trip there to buy. Import music was very hard to get in Brisbane so in the 80s and up to about 2005 the gay clubs were usually the first to break the music. With the internet and downloads now you can’t break music as easily as you used to.
“When I started here in Brisbane myself and Peter Harris, who worked at Zulus, we were the only ones playing imported music and actually beat mixing music. Everyone else would start the song, let it finish and go on to the next one. The music was Dépêche Mode, even Jimmy Barnes at The Terminus, Stars on 45...”
Smith got his first DJ job, at The Terminus in Brunswick Street in the Valley, in horrific circumstances. “The DJ at The Terminus, whose name was Tim, was killed in a plane crash in a flight at the Terminus’ owner’s property. I think they hit a tree and slammed into the mountain. It was terrible They asked me if I could fill in for the weekend and I was still there 13 years later.”
The Terminus moved to the old Alliance Hotel and from there Smith worked at Options. At the same time he was working at The Beat and began working at The Wickham doing 3-5am and Sunday afternoons. When Options closed down he settled permanently at The Wickham.
“It was a crowded scene,” he says of The Wickham 17 years ago. “You’d have 800 people here on a Sunday afternoon and for us to get into the DJ box, which used to be right in the corner where the drag room is, we used to have to climb in through the window with our music. You couldn’t get in through the venue.”
Five general managers and four ownerships later, Smith is still at the hotel and is also the only Brisbane DJ to play the RHI Pavilion – at Mardi Gras 2005 – “the scariest night of my life: I took over from Tina Arena and when I finished on came Darren Hayes”. As well, he worked Australia’s first gay cruise and numerous Sydney Toybox parties and the Box party, which apart from Big Gay Day he says were his most popular events.
“It’s been 30 years and that’s an extremely long time in DJ years,” he says. “I’ve always loved doing it, but I’m at the point now where I don’t want to work every weekend. I want to see what life’s like on the other side of the decks.”
His involvement in Crew Parties includes the Masc., Rigid and Mancamp franchises – and of course Mu Mu Land. “I was actually walking on a bike track and I suddenly started singing [KLF collaborator] Tammy Wynette and I thought, ‘Mu Mu Land!’. I wanted something that was fun, happy, a bit camp to bordering-on-very camp, with music that wasn’t harsh. I like lots of vocals, I’m not interested in just music. The clientele tend to get a bit bored with that, if you play just instrumentals. I want it to be a happy, fun night. If you want to come dressed up – by all means!”
The golden age of DJing, Smith says, was the ten years from 1995 to 2005. “In that era, vocal uplifting happy trance was very popular – that’s a genre I really like. There was a vibe in the clubs that was really positive.
“Then unfortunately crystal meth appeared in the club scene. GBH… It took a wrong turn. Crystal meth tends to make people more aggro. You don’t see it in the clubs much any more – most people tend to stay home.
“With GBH there’s a fine line between people having a good time and waking up in a hospital. It’s still around a bit, but it’s nothing like it used to be.”
Smith says up-and-coming DJs need to learn how to read a crowd, a major part of the art. He says a DJ needs to have a love for the music that he or she can communicate to the clientele. “As long as you don’t force on them what you want them to hear, you’re ok.”
So how does he sum up the 30 years of his DJ career? “A rollercoaster ride,” he laughs. “A lot of fun and a lot of long nights – and lost weekends.”
Catch Les Smith’s last official DJ set at Big Gay Day at The Wickham Hotel on March 10, 2013.
IMAGE: Les Smith outside The Wickham Hotel. Photo: Andrew Shaw