Ship to Ship: HARD CEO Gary Richards Talks Holy Ship's Origins and Horizons

Piper Ferguson


Captain D steers his beloved cruise party brand into a new era of expansion.

When Holy Ship! sets sail this week for its second voyage of the year, it will signal a new chapter for dance music's premier cruise party brand.

Growing popular demand forced HARD Events to schedule two sailings for the first time this year, and both legs quickly sold out and garnered extensive waiting lists. With a lineup boasting the likes of Skrillex, Fatboy Slim, Baauer and DJ Snake alongside significant Bromance and Dirtybird crews, Holy Ship's dedicated "Shipfam" attendees are set to carouse through the Bahamas in style this week.

HARD founder Gary Richards has been a busy man between the sailings, embarking on his fifteen-city Ship2Ship tour to DJ as Destructo with support from Anna Lunoe, Motez and T. Williams. Billboard spoke with Captain D, as he is affectionately know at sea, aboard Holy Ship's first excursion last month to discuss his cruise concept's rise and future plans.

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Billboard: How's Holy Ship's fourth year been going?

Gary Richards: I feel like this year has been the best year so far to me. The music is a little more diverse Did you see some of Busy P's set? Did you see the part where he said, "Hey I know you guys like deep house but do you like Deep Purple?" and he played "Smoke on the Water"? I went backstage and Branchez was playing a Bob Marley song, I feel like there's been so many style of music on this boat. And usually on the past boats it ends up like a big trap party. I'm not mad at trap, it's fun, but I feel we've got a lot of different angles to music and the crowd knows what to do after four years. No one's throwing furniture over the balcony, everyone's enjoying the music and looking out for each other -- we haven't had any major issues really. At first I was like, 'I hope what we booked is going to mesh,' but I think they have and it's given us a good diverse sound of all kinds of music from all over the place.

What was your booking approach for this year?

I just book what I like and then try to make nights out of it. There's really never a formula to how we do it. I know we need 50-60 artists now and this year's a little different because we normally have two stops, but this time just had one. So today we had the full thing going on the top deck with three areas going, and tonight I did the late night set. We don't normally do that. We changed the program up and it's worked better. It's like every event I've done -- we fine tune it. It takes a while. The first time you come on this boat it's like, 'Should we use that area?' The first time we used the pool back there, it was never a venue. Now we know it's a great venue and we have some tricks for making it work better. 

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How did the Holy Ship concept originate?

In 1997, I went on a cruise called the Trans-Atlantic Move and it went from Miami to some island down here. It was like 400 German techno freaks and I don't know how I got on it. It was this little tiny boat but it was one of the best times in my life, and I've always thought I'd like to have an opportunity to emulate something like that. I got HARD started and then I met my partners Bowery and Cloud 9 and they said they did this cruise, and I said I'd always had the idea to do a cruise since I went on one. When they showed me what they were already doing in the boat, we just linked up and made it happen. 

What were the biggest lessons you've learned since starting Holy Ship?

For the artists, when you go to a festival you have all these artists and you're like, 'Oh cool, this guy and that guy, it's all my friends.' But then your set time's at 3 and his is at 7, you gotta go to the airport, you gotta transfer and you never really get to hang. But on this we're here for four days, there's nowhere to go. So on the first Holy Ship I realized right away that everyone's in this together. You go in to see Boys Noize play but then he's on like Diplo's shoulders and he's chicken-fighting with Skrillex. And Justice are playing. And Gesaffelstein and Brodinski are on the side of the stage and everyone's just hanging, you know? You don't ever get that anywhere else, so I learned immediately the community and family vibe that being on this floating thing together brings.

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Talk a bit about the Shipfam concept. It's very real and it seems like your dedicated fans treat this event as a reunion of sorts.

The Shipfam thing brewed up just naturally. I tried to emulate what we're all about in the '90s by bringing great music to great venues, but the Shipfam is like what this spawned. And it's like a million times better than anything I could have dreamed for. Whenever I see people they're most excited about the relationships they made through this event. I never thought that would happen, it surprised me, but it's the most rewarding. If you like the same kind of music, you're going to be on the same page with people. Now when I go on tour, like this Ship2Ship tour I'm doing between the two ships, the Shipfam shows up. They come because it's kind of like another reunion where they can come out again, whether it's in Denver or Dallas or wherever. It's really cool to have that. I never even realized that was going to happen. It just happened.

How has Holy Ship impacted your profile as Destructo?

For me, most importantly, I wanted to be able to showcase to the other DJs that I know how to DJ, too. The reason why I do all that I do is because I love the music. Last night when I played at the Boys Noize's party, he was like, "Why don't you play like this more often?" because I was playing harder like his style. I always just wanted those guys to know I'm on the same level as them and it's hard to do that when they come to L.A. and it's a HARD festival and I'm running the show. You know James Murphy needs his champagne and everyone needs their shit, and I just want to be able to play and hang. So on that level, Holy Ship has helped me play with my peers and gain their respect.

As far as the fans go, it's not the kind of festival where you need to play a certain style to get a reaction. I played four different sets and haven't played any of the same songs. You can just switch it up, because no one's leaving. At a festival, it's like if people aren't jumping up in the air and bashing themselves in the heads, within two seconds they'll just go to the next stage. Here you can educate people on what's cool. I was saying on the mic that I want to see more dancing and less fist-pumping in 2015. That's what dance music's about and it's hard to do that at a festival. It's weird because when you look out on the crowd and people aren't jumping, it feels flat. Even if they're into it! But here, I can play for three or four hours and take people on a journey. To me, that's what DJing is about.

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Holy Ship expanded this year with two sailings. Do you foresee further expansion in the future?

We'll keep with the two-ship format, and the plan is hopefully to add a third one in the Mediterranean. There's definitely been other markets, but to me, that would be the best. We're looking at the Spanish islands, there's companies based out of Italy. I just want to go personally. And that's always been my theory: 'Well what am I going to do festival-wise?' It's what would I want to do. I want to ride this thing around the Spanish islands. Let's go.

You've previously told me there was a lot of interest in expansion of the HARD brand internationally, but you put your foot on the brakes for a while to focus on L.A. What factors have changed your mind?

In L.A., I think we've got it locked down. We really nailed it this year. We did 180,000 people over the two events, and we're just going to try and find markets where there's not 20 festivals already. Maybe we'll go to Nashville or Buffalo -- just throwing markets out there. There's so many places in the world we can develop more electronic-wise. It's just identifying which ones are the right ones. We're working on a tour for the early summer called the Go HARD tour and we'll probably do six-eight markets that we've never really done on a big scale and start building there. I need to increase the staff a bit and get some more people involved who can help further the agenda.