20 Questions With David Guetta: Producer Discusses Making Money, Being Parodied on 'SNL' & Bridging EDM With the Underground

Guerin Blask
David Guetta

If there were a Mount Rushmore of 21st century superstar DJs, David Guetta’s face would surely be blasted onto the side of that mountain.

The French producer has worked with some of the biggest pop stars of the modern era including Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Pitbull and Britney Spears. He produced The Black Eyed Peas’ record-setting smash “I Gotta Feeling” and of course has a litany of his own monster hits, including “Titanium” with Sia, "When Love Takes Over" with Kelly Rowland and "Turn Me On" with Nicki Minaj. It's a catalog that has altogether defined Guetta as one of the key architects of both modern EDM and the EDM-pop crossover. 

These efforts have earned the producer international acclaim, two Grammy Awards, multiple homes and 8.4 million Instagram followers. The father of two still hosts his enduring F*** Me I’m Famous party each season in Ibiza, with his 2018 album, 7, coming alongside the Jack Back alias project that allowed Guetta to lean into the more club-oriented aspect of his output. It's a vibe that's been close to his heart since the late '80s, when Guetta got his start playing clubs music in his native Paris alongside contemporaries like Laurent Garner. 

Lately, the 51-year-old producer has been holed up in his studio, working closely with Danish producer and longtime friend Morten on an entirely new sound. With palpable excitement in his voice, Guetta says he thinks the music they're developing might bridge the wide, and often contentious, gap between the "underground" house and techno currently dominating the international scene and the confetti-and-pyro mainstage EDM that helped make Guetta a household name.

Evidence of this sound can be heard on Guetta and Morten's July's release "Never Be Alone," a huge and driving sonic Red Bull with vocals by Aloe Blacc. Meanwhile, Guetta's latest track "Jump" -- out today (October 3) and made in collaboration with Dutch duo Glowinthedark -- is quintessential larger than life Guetta with a Caribbean twist. Hear it below.

Sounding relaxed on the phone from Ibiza, Guetta seems to be in a professional sweet spot -- satisfied with what he's accomplished, less obsessed with the numbers game of musical superstardom and genuinely stoked about the music he's making. Here, he talks about money, fatherhood and the time Oprah made him cry. 

1. Where are you in the world right now?

I’m at my place in Ibiza.

2. What is the first album or piece of music you bought for yourself, and what was the medium?

That was a long time ago. The first album I bought was from The Rolling Stones, Some Girls, with the track "Miss You." It was that incredible cover where you could slide the disc and there was a cut in the cover and the faces would change when you slid it. That was really cool.

3. What did your parents do for a living when you were a kid, and what do they think of what you do for a living now?

They were both kind of intellectuals. My mom was a teacher of philosophy and my dad of sociology. So, they didn’t like very much what I was doing. [Laughs.] They felt nightlife was very superficial and that I should be reading books. My parents were very left, so me working in clubs, that was not good -- but me becoming an artist, that was good. I don’t blame them for being a little bit worried about me becoming a DJ. I still remember this meeting with my math teacher and my mom, when I was like, 14. I was saying, “I want to be a DJ” and they were like, “A what?”

It’s not like now, where everyone knows what that is and knows you can make money and be famous. At the time there was no fame or money in DJing. I remember explaining the concept of mixing and scratching and all of this. I was like “I don’t care about mathematics, I want to be a DJ!?” I don’t blame them for being a little scared. Of course, now they’re very happy and proud. I feel like they still don’t really get it, but they see that I’m doing something good.

4. What was the first song you ever made?

A lot of people know my first song as being “Just a Little More Love,” but the real first one is actually a hip-hop record. At the end of the ‘80s, I was a hip-hop DJ and doing DMC-style scratching competitions. I did a tour in France and the contest was battles of rappers and the idea was for Island Records to sign rappers. This is like, 1989. I would DJ and scratch, and people would rap on the top.

What happened is that this was such a success, when I came back from the summer tour Island was like, “You need to make a record.” I was like, “I don’t know if I can make a record.” They put me in the studio, and I had no idea what I was doing. I did manage to do something with this French rapper. If you want to have a good laugh, go to YouTube and search "Nation Rap." It’s really hilarious.

5. If you had to recommend one album for someone looking to get into dance music, what would you give them?

My favorite album in history and the album that was always my benchmark was Michael Jackson’s Thriller. I consider that a dance album, because those records were the dance music of that time. The second album in more modern music would be Homework by Daft Punk. That’s really a masterpiece of dance music.

6. What’s the first thing you bought for yourself when you started making money as a DJ?

A house. It’s funny, because I didn’t grow up with money, and my entire life I was always scared to be poor. Again, you have to understand that when I was making the choice to become a DJ -- it was a huge risk. You can’t compare it with now where there’s risk but there’s also a chance to become rich. At that time, there was no such thing as getting rich from being a DJ. So, when I started making money, my obsession was to have a house in case something happened. If music didn’t work, I would have a place to sleep. I saved everything to buy an apartment in Paris.

It’s funny, because this has kind of stayed with me my entire life. I was always feeling that someone was going to come wake me up in the morning and say, “This was all a joke and you need to give it all back.” I’m always worried something is going to happen. I think it’s a poor person complex. Now I’m rich for life, but I still have this [complex]. It’s gotten a little better in the last two or three years.

7. What’s the last song you listened to?

In the moment I’m kind of feeling a new sound, and this is really all I’m focusing on. I’m listening to a lot of my own music. I have this project with Morten, and I really feel like this is huge for dance music. I feel like there’s been a gap, because what’s hot right now is underground. This type of music is great, but it’s hard for DJs that play really big festivals like me to play this music, because there’s not enough energy. It’s club music; it’s not meant for festivals. Basically, DJs that play big shows have the choice between being cool and playing underground -- but not having it work in terms of energy -- or playing EDM, and it sounds like you’ve been playing the same music for the past four years.

8. What are you doing to solve that?

I feel like with this new sound, I’m filling this gap with something darker and techno and cool -- but it still has amazing energy and is killing it at festivals when I play it. One of the new tracks I have coming out with Morten feels like a rave, but sexy, and the vocals are a bit like Lana del Rey-ish. Kind of trippy. It’s really fresh and new and I’m so excited about it. DJs I play it for are excited about it too. I haven’t been excited about dance music like this for a long time.

9. What’s one song you wish you had produced?

Oh my god, there are so many of them. A lot of them have been produced by Calvin Harris. [Laughs.]

10. You and Morten work really closely together. What’s something he does in the studio that you really admire?

I think what’s interesting is that he came with the sound, and it’s so hard to find a new sound. Then I have more experience in making chords and melodies and structuring records, so it’s been really interesting to be able to kind of complete each other. We’ve been friends for many years, which is also nice. I’ve been wanting to work with him for a while, but I needed to feel something special, and that’s what’s happening right now. I think what we’re doing doesn’t sound like anyone else.

11. What’s the last thing he did that made you laugh?

He’s very into Instagram and taking pictures, and my deal is nerdier, so I’m always teasing him about his tattoos and hot women. He tells me I need to show myself more. He’s such an Instagram guy, and I’m a little more hidden, so this is always how we kid each other. He feels like I’m overly secretive, and I feel like he’s a hot guy wannabe model. So we tease each other about that, but in a nice way.

12. What’s distinctive about the place you grew up, and how did it shape you?

Well I grew up in Paris, and that definitely shaped me. To be growing up in the capital, that already shapes you, and it’s one of the capitals of fashion and art and cool. That definitely had a massive influence on me.

13. What is the first thing you do when you get back to your hotel room after a show?

It depends. If I’m working on a record, which is what’s happening in the moment, usually when I play I take notes. Especially on all these records I’m making with Morten right now, it’s a lot about being precise in the production, because it’s really about making people dance. I always say for radio records, it’s more about melodies and words and being as emotional as possible. But this type of music, when it comes to clubs and festivals, it’s really almost a physical reaction, so it’s finding ways to equalize and perfecting the sonics.

So, I often come back and take the record I tried and do some corrections. Right now, I probably have 10 or 12 records of my own that haven’t been released. I haven’t been this productive for a long time. It’s really exciting.  

14. What do your kids think of what you do?

At first they kind of hated it, because people would ask me for pictures and autographs. They saw it as people trying to steal their dad. Now they’re teenagers and they’re happy about it in ways, but in the beginning they didn’t like it at all. They would ask me, “Can you just be a normal dad and stay at home?” Especially when we were still living in France. It was insane, because I’ve been playing in my country for many years, so it was really complicated.

That’s actually why I left France, because it became a problem for my kids. But now, my son is 15 so he’s starting to go to parties and clubs – they’re a bit open-minded with age in the clubs -- and they’re playing my records, so he’s super proud.

15. What is the craziest thing you’ve ever seen happening in the crowd during one of your sets?

Oh my god I’ve seen a lot. [Laughs.] I’ve seen a lot. Sex in the middle of the crowd. Groups of girls flashing me. I used to play after-parties, and that was on a whole other level. That was many years ago – people that would fall asleep and some guys would cut their hair or draw mustaches on them.

16. Your music obviously puts up massive numbers on streaming platforms. Do you pay attention to those metrics?

Early in my career, I was making music [that was a reaction] against pop music, like being anti-system. It’s very funny how life is, because later I kind of became the system. I was on radio all the time, and then I was obsessed with those numbers. This year I’ve been focusing more on my DJ career and making dance music. I started an alias called Jack Back for more house and underground music. I’m doing this project with Morten that’s a little bit more tuned to other DJs and less for radio. If I was going to do that and be obsessed by numbers, it wouldn’t work.

I’m going to go back to making pop music soon, and I’ll go back to looking at numbers, but for now [I’m not.] This year I’ve done “Say My Name,” which has been pretty massive with 600 million streams on YouTube, so I still made a couple of really big pop records. But I’ve been trying to not be so obsessed with numbers. That actually brought me way more happiness and more creativity in being a producer.

This is actually a really big problem for any artist -- when you start to have huge hits, it brings so much to your life that you want to keep doing it. But in order to keep doing it, you become a little safe. Creatively, that really messes you up. I just realized that I was obsessing with making hits, and that was not necessarily the best way to make quality music. It’s always about finding the right balance. Lately, I’m not obsessed with numbers.

17. What went through your mind when you saw yourself spoofed on Saturday Night Live in “When Will the Bass Drop?"

That was so funny! [Laughs.] I thought it was really hilarious. It’s funny, because at the same time there was a really famous show in France, it’s like a Muppets show that portrays famous people. They usually only do politicians, but they created a Muppet that was me, and it was really funny too. At the same time there was this one button on the SNL skit, this other skit was the story of this guy who was working in a piano shop and creating pianos for famous artists. He prepares a very unique piano for David Guetta, and they show the piano and there's only one key. My friends were so mad, and I was like, “Come on, this is so funny.” I loved it. It didn’t offend me at all.

18. Where do you keep your Grammy Awards?

At my home in London. I don’t really put my accolades out, maybe in my studio in Ibiza, but those two Grammys are there in my living room.

19. What is the most meaningful interaction you’ve ever had with a fan?

I do a Make a Wish Foundation type program in France, and I’d meet these kids and they have really terrible diseases and big chances of dying before they’re 18. One of the kids was making music, and that was really crazy and special for me because we kept in contact and he sent me his music and of course one day he died. It was really hard, but I was also really happy to have that experience. It was intense.

20. What’s been the proudest moment of your career?

I think the peak was when I produced “I Gotta Feeling.” It was really insane. Insane. I’m not sure about now, but years ago it was in the top ten of the most sold records in the history of music. That song brought a few unreal moments -- I remember will.i.am calling me because Oprah was doing the season premiere of her show and had a street shut down in Chicago and was playing the song. I was like, “Come on.” Having a No. 1 hit in America and an impact on pop culture… I was crying, actually.

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