There is an energy and optimism, a boundless enthusiasm that permeates his discussion. An animated language peppered with anecdotes and considered colloquialisms sweeps you along. His green eyes sparkle with life and a certain cheekiness.
He’s done some things, achieved a bit. Possibly more than your average Joe.
We stole a moment with Grant Smillie, who now resides in LA, by chance. When I saw a poster advertising his New Year’s Eve gig in Melbourne, I called him straight away.
“I’m just getting off the plane mate, I’ll call you back in 15.”
Grant was here in Melbourne’s Eve to play four gigs over two days. Generously, he spent one day with us. We felt lucky.
You have to remember, this guy is damn busy.
"Well, I grew up here. Melbourne is a formative place for me. I started my music career and my hospitality career here. It holds a special place in my heart.”
Grant Smillie is well known to the dance music crowd. As a DJ, he produces hit dance tracks, plays to sold-out crowds and festivals around the world, has been awarded ARIAs and received critical acclaim from his peers, who continually remix his tracks.
Learning saxophone at school was the precursor to Grant making music. When finishing high school and moonlighting as a promoter for nightclubs, he naturally gravitated to being the DJ.
From DJ’ing, the next stage was to become a producer. His first track (with his music partner and mentor, Ian Gough) won ARIAs. That began many years of travel (three hundred flights per year) and seeing more places than most people can only dream of. Grant went global.
“It was a really, really fun period in my life. I’ve got more frequent flyer points than I know what to do with.”
“Being a producer was more about knowing what’s a no than what’s a yes. Being a DJ too meant a unique proposition that I could go out on a Saturday night, test it on the dance floor, and get immediate and instant feedback: it was flat there, this was good, this really impacted, and this part was bad. Then I could iron it out.”
“Ultimately for dance music the engine room is the percussion and the bassline, and if I’ve got the bassline, everything else just works. Then if I can collaborate with a great singer, I get a great topline, and that’s what people sing along to. Energy is key. You have to manifest energy.”
“I want to play things that people want to participate in. If you have a hit record, you’ll have 10,000 people singing it back to you. That’s pretty immediate and amazing. It’s visceral. There aren’t many industries that give you that immediate, amazing feedback. It's addictive. It's freaking difficult to make a hit record, and you chase those moments for the rest of your career. After that first big track, the expectation can really quash people's creativity, when asked continually ‘What’s next?’.”
His success as a producer and DJ continued. He would tour and play clubs around the world, a new city every night.
“It was 12 hours of the best of a city, it was amazing. Unfortunately, the other side of it was late nights and early mornings that felt like a conga line. Airport, disco, hotel, right? Just doing this conga line around the world. After years of that kind of travel, I had this moment. I think I was in Albury, and I was standing there, thinking, ‘I am the highest-paid prostitute in this joint, in a place I don’t really want to be, and why the fuck am I here?’"
At this stage, Grant had already ventured into hospitality, another forté of his. His first bar in the heart of Melbourne with respected hospitality partners was opened in 2011. Ponyfish Island floats on the middle of the Yarra River, named after a folkloric fish of the river, and it continues to be graced with a full house nightly.
“Waking up in my own bed on a Sunday morning, as crazy as it sounds, became a really important thing to do. I hadn’t been able to do that or even attend friends' weddings. It was a pivotal moment. I had to know what I could actually do that I would enjoy, that I’d be passionate about and could transition into. For me, going to California was chasing an opportunity. There was a restaurant that I wanted to open there. I was on my way home from the Miami Music Festival, stopped in LA and caught up with a friend, David Combes (now my business partner) who was a property developer. He showed me a rooftop space, and, all of a sudden we were pregnant with a big bloody restaurant in West Hollywood.”
After relocating to Los Angeles a few years ago, Grant began to realise his dream of building a collection of top tier restaurants. The first was that rooftop space his friend had shown him. Appropriately named by the DJ owner, E.P. & L.P. is an über cool West Hollywood hot spot. Musicality is an underlying theme for the venue. A huge Asian fusion restaurant and rooftop bar that is constantly filled with foodies, A-listers and the cool crowd. It was an immediate success, but that didn’t mean Grant was going to rest on his laurels.
After watching the adjacent building to E.P & L.P. for a while with a twinkle in his eyes, he finally appropriated it and created the Melrose Rooftop Theatre, which is perpetually sold-out for screenings under the stars. Continuing his expansion of cool, this year is a busy one for the entrepreneur with four restaurant openings planned before July.
“I wanted to make sure that music had a big part of whatever I did. The cafe we’re opening in March is named ‘Strings of Life’, after an old Derek May house record. Then we’ve got another project, ‘Grandmaster Recorders’ which I didn’t know we were going to do, but we walked into this old recording studio, and went WOW, sounds like we’ve got to have it, so we’re doing that." (It will be an 800 capacity venue).
"I want a fabric of musicality to come through each venue. It’s got to be a part of the rhythm of the room and the energy in the space, as important as the food or the decor. The design, the food, it’s the same as music. It's the expression. It’s that creativity, that's my driver.”
Style is a really important thing to have your own identity on, but also with this common thread about knowing what’s not you.
What I want to see in a room, or when I have to create a vibe, it’s about what to say no to.”
The Aussie humility in Grant is evident. However, most of his peers regard him highly as a taste-maker that works relentlessly to get things right.
"What have I got? An opinion, a style of substance. I’m employing people that are far more talented than I am, in their respective roles, and my job is to be a collaborator, to just steer the ship into the right path. Maybe it's like bumper bowling. As long as we’re knocking down pins, I’m happy.”
“Am I the best restaurateur on the planet? Absolutely not. Was I ever the best DJ on the planet? Absolutely not. Do I work harder than most people? For sure! I love making a decision. Often overthinking stuff is your worst enemy. My first instinct (snaps fingers), that’s it. This is the first track (snaps fingers), this is the last track (snaps fingers), this is the colour (snaps fingers). As long as I’m getting more right than wrong, who gives a shit? I’m not perfect. I’ve blown up more opportunities than most people, but I’m out there with a golf club having a swing every day."
Thanks for giving us the time Grant. We wish you every success with all of your ventures.
Grant’s style continues to cars, luxuries he doesn’t treat as investments, rather, things to be enjoyed while in Los Angeles with all of its traffic.
"I’ve got a Porsche 992, 4S, in Aventurine Green, a truffle brown interior, with gold rims. This thing is an absolute weapon. It will tear your undies off if you go too quick. It’s really fast. Not saying that I do that on the California roads, but… I do.”