Evening Standard Magazine
George Harrison’s only child Dhani became an aerodynamicist to escape the shadow of the Beatles. But after his father died, he tells Alice B-B in his first interview, he found himself unable to resist following in the footsteps of the man he called his ‘I was always brutally teased for being my dad’s son,’ says Dhani Harrison. ‘That was from the age of about four or five, before I even knew who he was. And for seven years people would follow me around school singing “Yellow Submarine”. I still can’t listen to that song to this day.’ Amazingly, the bullying doesn’t appear to have negatively affected George Harrison’s only child, Dhani, 27. Instead, it seems to have imbued him with the resolve to succeed in his own right. Refreshing, considering the number of fame-seeking ‘kids of’ who would be thrilled to ride on Sergeant Pepper’s coat-tails.
Dhani has tried hard not to be a musician. ‘I’ve always steered away from having a band because that’s what people expect.’ But Dhani, who has a disconcerting combination of his father’s face and mother’s eyes, and wears jeans, trainers and a big fat watch that looks like Cartier, has given in. So we’re here to talk about thenewno2, the band he’s formed with childhood friend Oli Hecks. ‘Oli and I met when we were 15,’ says Dhani, ‘and bonded over a mutual love for Zeppelin.’
School was Shiplake College, near the Harrison family home in Henley-on-Thames. ‘I became obsessive-compulsive about everything,’ says Dhani, sitting on a velvet sofa in the elegant Knightsbridge house that serves as the offices of George Harrison’s musical estate, of which Dhani is now the sole beneficiary. ‘I was so eager to prove myself as my own person; I worked hard at school, got good grades, competed in sport, was in the teams and the art department.’ But being a day boy at a single-sex school didn’t have the sting that it had for most of the other boys. ‘I’d come home, tie off and go straight into the studio with my dad and watch Ravi Shankar play some amazing raga,’ he explains. ‘So the next day, if someone was getting uptight or telling me that my shoes weren’t clean, relatively it wasn’t important.’
Dhani then went to Brown University in Rhode Island, America, where he read industrial design and physics because, in his quest not to be a musician, he’d decided he was going to be an aerodynamicist. After university, he landed what was then his dream job at McLaren, working on the F1 and the SLR, but it didn’t last long. ‘I’d designed my whole education around that job,’ says Dhani. ‘But I was commuting an hour and a half to work, sitting beneath an airconditioning duct and it just wasn’t as much fun as I thought it would be.’
During his time at Brown, he was on a visit home to the Harrisons’ mock-Gothic pile in a 30-acre estate near Henley (where he now lives when in the UK), when something truly horrific happened. In November 2000, Michael Abram, a paranoid schizophrenic, broke into the house and stabbed George. His wife and son frantically struggled to keep him alive while waiting for paramedics to arrive. At the time Dhani said, I honestly believed he was going to die, but, supporting him with one hand on his back and the other on his stomach, I kept clicking my fingers and saying loudly, “Listen to my voice.”’ George survived but the family were clearly shaken. Dhani took a year out from Brown to be in England during the trial. ‘I wanted to be here to support my parents. My dad refused to go to the trial, but I went,’ he says, adding incredulously, ‘and the man who tried to murder my parents wasn’t locked up and now works in a Citizens Advice Bureau.’
George fell seriously ill with lung and throat cancer soon after, and it was then that Dhani started recording music for thenewno2’s first record. ‘All the family were living in Switzerland while Dad was ill,’ he explains. ‘I didn’t have any friends out there, but there was a mini studio so I started recording some stuff.’ After George died, aged 58, in December 2001, Dhani went to LA to finish his father’s last record, Brainwashed, with producer Jeff Lynne. ‘There were songs that he’d written from when I was born up until the year before he died, and Dad was just sitting on them,’ explains Dhani, ‘so I was helping him get them together.’
Dhani’s career has been plotted the wrong way round. Most budding musos learn to play, get a band, get a record deal, make a record and eventually get the money to buy themselves a studio. ‘I was born into this interesting position whereby I had no band but a studio. I learned to record and produce before I learned to play live.
Dad would come in and tell us what we were playing sucked,’ he says, laughing, ‘or sometimes he’d come and play with us.’ And it’s the same topsy-turvy story for Dhani’s live performances. ‘The first concert I ever played was with my dad when I was 13,’ he explains, ‘It was at the Tokyo Dome, which has a capacity of 45,000 people. Now I’m playing in a pub in front of five people.’
Liverpudlian George Harrison, started off the right way round: he was born in 1943 and met Paul McCartney in the mid-Fifties while at The Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, and they started off playing to tiny audiences. Dhani is his son from his second marriage, in 1978, to Olivia Trinidad Arias, a Mexican born Californian whom he met when she was working as a secretary at his record company in LA. George’s first marriage in 1966, which lasted four years, was to model Patti Boyd, about whom he wrote possibly his most famous song, ‘Something’, deemed by Frank Sinatra to be ‘the greatest love song of the last 50 years’.
Hecks and Harrison describe the music they’re making as electro blues rock. ‘The backbone is blues with lots of synthesisers and trip-hop influences,’ says Bedaleseducated Hecks, 28, whose father Malcolm is an architect and mother Donna a sociology teacher. Both Dhani and Oli name Bristol bands Massive Attack and Portishead as influences, along with Dylan, Zeppelin and Ravi Shankar. A disc isn’t yet available, but from the sample snippets on MySpace, the music sounds interesting; psychedelic bluesy beats with some chunky drums thrown in and Dhani’s spellbinding voice. You would have thought that record companies would be scrambling over themselves to sign a Beatle’s son, but thenewno2 aren’t signed to a record label.
Dhani twiddles his hair and rants about the state of the music industry. ‘It’s a bad time in the music industry right now,’ he says. ‘There are no incubation labels, no development deals. You have five minutes to make the best record ever, and if you’re not selling as many as Coldplay, then you’re dropped.’ So thenewno2 is self-funded. ‘I was concerned that it was going to look like a vanity project,’ says Dhani, ‘but we’re just control freaks rather than spoilt brats. We’re not Paris Hilton. We want to own our publishing and masters and do all the photography, videos and artwork ourselves.’
Being a Beatle’s child who’s making music inevitably brings intense pressure and comparison. Both John Lennon’s sons, Sean and Julian, have had a crack, with average to poor results. But Dhani seems impervious to judgement. ‘Everyone wants to make a comparison with my old man,’ says Dhani, ‘and I’m not saying that I’m not influenced by him, because I was around him every day and he was my best friend, but the music we’re doing is so different. Anyway, how can anyone do anything that the Beatles haven’t already done?’ he asks. ‘Between my dad, John, Paul and Ringo, there was pretty much no musical stone they left unturned. I remember saying to my dad: “The backwards solo guitar on that Hendrix thing is just the stickest thing I ever heard.” Dad just replied, without looking up from his tea: “I did the first backwards guitar solo on “I’m only sleeping”.’
Harrison clearly misses his father. ‘I’m proud of who my dad was; he was a great guy,’ says Dhani. ‘But people try and make it like that’s the be-all and end-all and he’s not alive any more, so I have to do my own thing. He taught me that from an early age.’ His mother Olivia is supportive of the band. ‘She comes to see me play gigs, always very lowkey, hiding in the back somewhere. We’ve made a few songs that she likes and listens to over and over again,’ he says.
Dhani is close to the other Beatles’ kids. ‘We’re like an extended family,’ he says. ‘But the one I see most is probably Stella,’ he adds fondly. ‘Actually, Stelly made me this jacket,’ he says, showing off a grey coat with a spotted lining. However, his tone turns icy cold at the mention of Paul McCartney’s break-up with Heather Mills. ‘I have absolutely no comment to make,’ he says, then repeats it resolutely. He goes quiet. The subtext is noisy, particularly considering his close relationship with Paul’s daughter Stella, who never seemed enamoured of her father’s new bride. But despite his dark and shiny eyes, he won’t be shoe-horned into revealing his true thoughts about the woman. And Dhani is equally tight-lipped when it comes to his own relationship status. ‘I’m not commenting on anything to do with that,’ he says, adding tantalisingly, ‘but I’m not a player.’ Which may mean Dhani has a beautiful girlfriend somewhere whom he’s trying to protect. And he doesn’t want hordes of girls chasing him. I may be wrong, but with Dhani’s entrancing combination of intensity, obsessiveness and humour, he can’t be single.
Hecks and Harrison’s future plan is to create a new audiovisual experience with their live shows, and they expect to tour the UK next year. ‘The standard format for a show is so dated,’ says Hecks. ‘We want to blend video work and visuals with the music and progress from your usual gig.’ Harrison adds: ‘I always tried not to be a musician because of what people would say. Then I realised that was what I loved more than anything. Especially after my dad died, it’s a way of being close to the reality of what I assume is the real me.’ So Dhani’s stopped fighting the urge and it’s quite possible that there will be a No 1 for thenewno2.
Visit the band’s website at