The Reinvention of David Guetta: EDM Giant on His Surprising New Sound

The 47-year-old DJ opens up about Daft Punk, his underground roots and the personal new 'Listen'

David Guetta calls his new LP, 'Listen,' the most personal of his career. Credit: Ellen Von Unwerth

Eating sushi in Atlantic Records' Manhattan office, David Guetta couldn't be more excited: 30 years after he began spinning club music and five years after he changed pop with EDM hits like "I Gotta Feeling" and "Sexy Bitch," the 47-year-old DJ halted production of his latest album, Listen, so it could include one more song – a ballad. "It's such a statement song," he says, speaking proudly and wearing a leather vest covered in zippers. "For a DJ to make a ballad, it's a bit surprising."

After three years of work, several major revisions and a well-publicized divorce from his wife and business partner Cathy, Guetta says he intended to a create the most – maybe even first – introspective record of his career, starting with "some personal stories" and turning them into songs. Slowly working through lunch, he broke down this unexpected new direction, explained the existential crisis that led to it and recalled how Daft Punk got him his first record deal.

How did the album change over three years? Was the finished product the album you had expected to make?
Oh, yeah. The reason why it took me so much time is that I wanted to come with something that has not been done and I wanted to reinvent myself. One Love made me famous for that combination of urban and dance that was new at the time, but it's been done so much. I really wanted to do something else and it was a little bit, like, a moment in my life and my career: What type of life do I want? Do I want to play it safe and apply my recipe and be like, "OK I'm at the top of my game"? And look at like a younger generation like [groans in a way that suggests the panic of losing his edge to newer artists coming up behind him]? I don't want a life like this, you know?

When you're a little bit at the top of the game, what is left except being afraid to go down? I never want to feel like this, so I thought that the best way to avoid it was to kind of start from scratch again. Until today I was always starting with the beat and then writing the song on it. This time I was starting with piano, voice and guitar, then producing around the song. I've really changed everything, like the way I was working, the people I was working with – everything. I'm really happy, because the result of this is that I'm here with you, doing the interview, and I'm excited.

What did you learn from this process?
I spent way, way more time on songwriting. It's probably my most personal album. Until today I was doing lots of songs about happiness and love and sexiness and just having a party – it was basically my life, you know? And lately, my personal life has been a little more difficult, so it reflects also on the album, on the things that we're talking about, on the type of chords. I've never done this, because even for me it was all about making the people dance.

Will this affect your live show, or will you play different mixes and keep the same atmosphere?
This album would be amazing with, like, a live band, but that's not really what I want to do. I know how to DJ and I think many, many people are better than me when it comes to performing with a band, so I don't want to go in competition with amazing rock bands that can do this better than me. Why do something average when I can be really good at what I'm doing? I don't want to say, "Oh, I want to be an artist, and I don't want to be a DJ anymore." I spent my life working for DJs to be respected as much as artists, so now that I'm successful, I'm not gonna say, "Oh, now that I'm big, I'm just gonna stop being DJ."

How much people's attitude toward DJs changed since you started out?
I started to DJ even before house music. I was playing funk and disco, New Wave. I was like, one of the most indie DJs, but absolutely no one knew the name of DJ in a club. The concept didn't even exist of a famous DJ, of a DJ making money. None of us were making money. I always felt like our music was not respected the way it should have been, and I've always done everything I could to change this. I think I'm part of the people that made a change, but I never thought it was gonna be that big.

Was this in Paris in these early days? When was that?
I started to play house music in '88. I started to be a DJ when I was 14, so that would be 30 years ago, you know? For years, I was playing only in gay clubs, because house music was only being played in gay clubs. It's kind of crazy when you think about it today. I even remember when I started to invite urban singers, some of them would tell me like, "Yeah, it's really cool, but I'm just afraid, this music is so gay." I was like, "Whaaat?" Because in Europe it was never like this.

Were you still in Paris when Daft Punk came around?
Actually, Thomas [Bangalter, of Daft Punk] is probably the reason why I'm here today. I was DJing and I was also running a club called Queen in Paris, and I came up with a concept that was completely new. It's really crazy when I think about it: The concept was to invite guest DJs, which is completely basic today, but at the time it was a total revolution. I would invite people like Danny Tenaglia and Louie Vega and David Morales, DJ Pierre – all those people and also people from Detroit. And Thomas and Guy-Manuel [of Daft Punk] would always come.

One day I made a record in 2001, and I was like, "Thomas, can I play you something?" I was a huge fan. He listened to it and was like, "Woah, this is really good." He called the president of Virgin in France – that was his label – and was like, "Hey I'm here with a friend." Imagine at the time, it was like God was calling the president of the company. It was insane. He was like the hottest artist in the world. It's really funny because I didn't make music for years and then when I started again after two days I had this record. The day before I was in the office of the company, and it was, like, impossible to get a meeting. Of course with Thomas calling, I signed on the same day.

When do you see yourself start moving more towards pop?
It all happened at the same time. First, I was working on a new album, and I was in a club playing and Kelly Rowland came. She asked me what was the record I was playing, and I said it was my own music. She was like, "Wow, I love it!" And she said, "Can I try something on it?" And for me that was crazy – and we did "When Love Takes Over."

The same week, I have a text message from Will.i.am saying, "I love your record 'Love is Gone.' Can you produce something like this for me?" And I did "I Gotta Feeling." Then I was performing "When Love Takes Over," with Kelly in London, and Akon was playing onstage after me. He was like, "Man, I love your music," and I said, "Let's work together," and on the same night we did "Sexy Bitch."

So those three records happened almost on the same month. And I think that really, that was the turning point for me but also a turning point for American, you know, pop music, because that music became accepted by radio, which was not the case before, and opened lots of doors for many DJs. That was probably the moment, and then, again, when we did "Titanium" – that was also a turning point in my career. I really feel like "Dangerous" is another one of those game-changers, at least for my own career.

Do you miss playing what you might have played in the Nineties, funk or underground music?
Sometimes, yeah. The thing is that now I'm really playing huge concerts or festivals. It's very rare that I play for less than 10,000 people, so obviously it is difficult to play even the deep house that is so popular. That couldn't be played in those huge festivals – it wouldn't work.

What have you been listening to lately?
Hozier, "Take me to Church" – I really love this. All the work from Sia. But if I'm home I'm listening to Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.