Grant Smillie was one of the world’s leading DJs, taking 300 flights a year to perform in front of thousands of dance music fans at clubs and festivals around the globe.
And here he talks about how he used that experience to pivot to a new, and just as successful, career as one of Los Angeles’ top restauranteurs as the founder of Botanical Hospitality Group.
The Australian-born entrepreneur is the co-owner of eateries including top West Hollywood nightspot EP & LP, along with Swedish House Mafia DJ Axwell, and is preparing to launch what is expected to be the biggest addition to city’s nightlife scene in 2021, turning the iconic Grandmaster Recorders music studio in Hollywood into a sprawling 14,000 square foot restaurant.
And his advice on how to use the skills and contacts from one career to build another, as well as how he keeps his mind and body fit and focused in a busy, social industry, has lessons for us all.
Tell me about your time as a successful DJ and what you learned from that?
I was always involved in music, I learned it at school and had a pretty strong affinity for it. When I was 16, I would run out of the classroom at lunchtime to have meetings at nightclubs to become a promoter. And from there, I started to book the DJs and realized that the musical talent that I had should probably be put to use, and I started DJing. And that’s a pretty unique job, where you have 100 people, 1,000 people or even 100,000 people in front of you, and they’ll give you pretty instant gratification feedback. If you play something good, they tend to let you know about it. Which is a rare thing. If you’re an accountant, and you save someone $100 on their return, they don’t tend to give you a standing ovation.
And from there I realized that playing other people’s records wasn’t so satisfying, so I got into the production side. So in my career I’ve always wanted to become an authority in a space. And a DJ playing other people’s records doesn’t come with the same respect as a DJ who’s playing his own records. So I teamed up with a great producer in Australia, Ivan Gough, and we started a little electronic band together called TV Rock, and we went on to have some tremendous success. Our first major release, ‘Flaunt It’, ended up being the highest selling single of the year in Australia and won two ARIA Music Awards, that are the Australian equivalent of the Grammys.
I took that record to Sony, EMI, Ministry of Sound and no-one wanted to sign it, so the only way to get it out was to start my own label and put it out myself. So I guess the message in that one is if people tell you ‘no’ often enough you have to put your destiny in your own hands.
I was traveling a lot and doing 300 shows a year around the world. And started to become firm friends with a lot of people in the industry and became good mates with Axwell, from Swedish House Mafia, who then partnered with us in EP & LP.
So how and why did you make the change of career and go into the restaurant industry full-time? And how did your experiences as a DJ help you with that?
I was DJing full-time from 19 to my mid 30s, and I still go back and play the odd gig. I was on about 300 flights a year and it’s very taxing. I think one of the big measures of success was that if you weren’t booked on a Friday or Saturday night, you were doing something wrong. But then with that you’re not going to friends birthdays, weddings, any of that sort of stuff. So you end up forging a really unique bond with all your peers who have a similar crazy lifestyle, but you force a wedge between some of your original bonds growing up, and sometimes you are really looking forward to waking up in your own bed on a Sunday morning.
For anyone thinking about changing careers, I don’t think it’s very smart to just pull the handbrake on and say, “That’s the conclusion of that. What’s next.” I always had a passion for food and beverage, and I had a venue that we started 10 years ago in Melbourne called Ponyfish Island, which is in the middle of the Yarra River, a really unique location. We started that as a pop-up, and it’s now been running 10 years, so that fueled the fire I had for hospitality. And with the DJing, I’d go to Kiev, to Rome, to Paris, and I‘d get taken by these nightclub promoters to the best restaurants, and often when the chefs finished at 1am they would come out and see me play afterwards. So I end up forming bonds with lots of great chefs.
Then in 2014 or 2015, and I had this buddy who was selling real estate in LA, and he had this rooftop that he said might be of interest if I was thinking about anything from the hospitality perspective in LA. So I went to see it and was stood on this unfinished rooftop, on a skeleton of a building, and thought, “I reckon LA people might like drinking outside on rooftops.” And there weren’t too many of them in the city, which is odd because there are 300 days of sunshine a year, so that turned out to be the EP & LP site.
And any sort of job, or creative outcome, there’s certain commonalities. So in music, you might say that when you’re writing a song, there are beats, there’s a rhythm, a top line, maybe a synth line. Then there’s the artwork, the marketing and the PR piece. And all those elements together create a machine that you take to market and see if it sells or not. So in hospitality it’s similar. I get the opportunity to choose the cuisine, the color palette, the design. You still keep ticking those creative boxes. So for me it wasn’t such an enormous departure from what I wanted to do, as I could still get that same outcome.
Tell me about your new venture, the Grandmaster Recorders restaurant. And how has Covid-19 impacted that?
The Grandmaster Recorders was an operational studio from 1971 to 2016, where guys like David Bowie, The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Kanye West all recorded some of their best stuff. There’s a a beautiful studio space and at the back is a big, open warehouse, where Motley Crue used to throw parties.
I was just looking for a small new spot, and this was 14,000 square feet. But I walked in and was like, “Oh f***, I’m going to have to do this!’ It’s an enormous project, and all of a sudden, were looking down the barrel of, “Holy s***!”
But when you get this legacy, drenched bourbon and hits, I had to do it. I’m not making up some backstory, if anything, it’s for me to maintain that heritage and legacy.
And being the guys that operate rooftops, we have put in more steel than the Eiffel Tower and engineered a 450-person rooftop looking directly at the Hollywood sign. And then downstairs is the beautiful live performance space that is going to be maintained, and the warehouse has become the dining room.
We’ve pretty much finished the build and are ready to go, but we are going to hold it until March or April 2021, to coincide with the Oscars. We can’t afford to limp into market and say part of it is open and part of it is not, and you can’t do a grand opening with social distancing. So it seems to me 2020 is a wrap, and we should wait until it’s something that LA can get really excited about.
Personally, how do you keep your clarity of mind in such a busy, social sector? How do you stay fit and healthy, mentally and physically?
When it comes to clarity of process and thought, delegation is pretty key and making sure you surround yourself with really great people. EP & LP shouldn’t have to require me to be in on a Saturday night for it to be successful.
And I cherish morning time. It’s the only time when I can truly have that personal time. So I am an early riser, having had a lifetime of going to bed when I’m now getting up. So I’ll get up at 5am every morning and I’ll do two hours of some sort of physical activity, be it hiking or weights or whatever. And that gives me some time with no phone, apart from maybe listening to an audio book, so when I come to work, I can be really switched on or ready to go. And I make a concerted effort to not turn it on like I used to, because the next day doesn’t really work out so well. And you don’t want to be the guy drinking in your own bar every day, it’s not the best look.
I’ve always liked sport or competition, and I think that healthy competition with yourself is a good thing. And that means that when a chef wants me to try a new dish and it’s been drenched in duck fat or whatever, I have no guilt about it.
And I think the only way to be able to keep multiple plates spinning with multiple different business units and a cast of hundreds, if not thousands, of staff is to make sure that you’re pretty disciplined about how you spend your time across the day. And that way when you get home, you can try and turn off and have some sense of normality, even though we all know that as a business owner, that doesn’t always work out, but you can try your best.