Success can be a difficult burden to deal with. For some artists, all it takes is the slightest critical nod and suddenly you’re churning out half-baked nonsense, recording jingles for toothpaste ads and growing some really odd facial hair. Not so for Armin Van Buuren. The Dutch mixmaster has been at the top of his game for the best part of a decade, setting up camp at the top of DJ Magazine’s annual top 100 DJs poll in 2007 and refusing to budge ever since. In town next week for a one-off show at Flash Forum, we spoke to him about pre-set rituals, mid-set dancing and the pressures of being the first legend of trance music...
Why do you think you’ve been voted the world’s best by DJ Magazine for four years in a row?
I don’t think it’s the best DJ as such; maybe it has something to do with popularity. There are a lot of reasons; I have a radio show that’s in 40 countries on FM and in the States on XM, with six million listeners every week. I have been doing a lot of compilations since 2002. I have had a couple of hit singles such as ‘Burn with Desire’, ‘Yet Another Day’ and the new one, ‘Full Focus’. I am co-owner of Armada Records, based in Holland, and we produce a lot of records on Beatport. Mostly, I have been going to the States a lot, touring every two or three months, DJing up and down the country.
Trance music seems like it has stuck around a good long time. Are you into the way it is changing?
I don’t think trance has ever been one type of sound. I think trance has always been evolving. The trance of now sounds different than that of five years ago. If you ask me if I still play trance, I say yes. But am I still playing the same records as five years ago? Definitely not. You move on.
Is that why it seems to have stuck around for a while?
Trance music gives you a full journey, and I feel that some other dance music styles don’t do that; they stick to one sound. You’re a trance music DJ, and you’re allowed to go from 125bpm to 145bpm. If I look at my record case right now, I play a lot of tracks that are labelled as minimal, as electro, as house, as trance. You can get away with playing anything as long as you are taking people on a journey. That journey element and the euphoric element are really important. Trance works toward a climax.
So how do you usually prepare for a set?
I always try to have different ammunition. That’s really where I load up my gun, because I’m the type of DJ who doesn’t know exactly what he’s going to play before a show. I have hopes for what I will play, but I mainly look at my crowd and decide where I’ll go with my set. It depends on how long I play, what crowd I’m playing for, whether there are many women on the dance floor, what time of night I’m playing and what DJ I’m after. Sometimes at a festival you have to play almost the opposite of a set in a club because you don’t have much time to build it up as you would do at a night. I might start off with my hardest and best record of that moment at a festival just because I’m after a DJ who really rocked the crowd and I want to keep that atmosphere going.
You sometimes play 12-hour sets. Can you take a break?
No. Talking about it, it sounds tiring. But doing a 12-hour set is the most rewarding thing for a DJ. Mind this, I’m not playing guitar for 12 hours; I’m playing other people’s records. I show up, put my hands in the air to other people’s music. That’s what I get paid for. A lot of people know me from the high-energy two or three-hour sets, but there’s so much great music out there; as we speak, there are hundreds of hours being made. In a longer set, I’m my own warm-up DJ, I’m my own highlight DJ and I’m my own closing DJ.
Do you have any pre-show warm-up rituals?
One of my pre-show rituals has become a DJ nap. I always want to sleep, even if it’s just for half an hour. It clears my mind. Usually I take a hot shower and then I read my emails, and I investigate a little bit about the club that I’m going to. It’s good to know what music lives with the clubbers. I don’t drink before I go on stage, because I want to be fresh. But I do get very, very nervous. I put my earplugs in – I DJ through earplugs – and I do always want to have my CD players updated with the latest software and be there on time. I want everything to be perfect.
So do you have a special trance DJ wiggle?
I have a DJ wiggle with a kick, which is really embarrassing. I can’t stand still with the music. But the reason I became a DJ actually was so that I don’t have to dance, I can let other people do that: I’m a terrible dancer! So if I stand behind my decks, I can do my wiggle and it doesn’t look so stupid because you can’t see my legs. Mind you, some trance DJs don’t like being called trance anymore because it’s a ‘dirty word’.
And how do you feel about being called a trance DJ?
You can call me a trance DJ with a capital T! I think I’m the only trance DJ who actually admits he plays trance – and I’m proud of it. Something went wrong with the word ‘trance’. I think some dude in a suit in an office somewhere started calling really commercial [dance] music trance and started releasing CDs with really crap music and calling it trance. So, in my opinion, trance had a different definition from what it has now with the main crowd. At the moment, house is more commercially successful than trance, which is good for the genre because it brings it back more to where it came from. But call my music whatever you want, I don’t care, as long as you come to see me.
And everyone does come to see you; how does it feel to be a trance pin-up?
I don’t know. I still feel very much the same. I still feel like this 20-year-old nerd who finished his law degree in Holland and started DJing in the UK and being paid £300 a gig and travelling all up and down the M6 and the M1. It’s really hard to explain for someone who doesn’t DJ, but it’s so rewarding to play for a crowd and to get a reaction. No money or awards or anything else can take that place.
Dutchmen on the decks
Mr Van Buuren’s not the only man from Holland storming the DJ scene. In fact, it seems that the land of windmills and tulips has something of a knack for producing big-name party starters...
Currently ranked third on DJ Magazine’s Top DJs poll, this is the man responsible for taking trance music mainstream. He’s played some huge gigs in his time, including a live performance at the opening ceremony of the 2004 Athens Olympics and a sell-out show at Abu Dhabi’s Flash Forum earlier this year.
Fedde Le Grand
The man who ordered you to ‘Put Your Hands Up 4 Detroit’ may never emulate the success of his 2006 floor-filler, but he’s still considered a force to be reckoned with in DJing circles. He placed 21st on DJ Magazine’s latest poll and still remixes the likes of Stereo MCs and Benny Benassi.
Having changed his name more times than P Diddy and Prince put together, the artist formerly known as System F, Ferr, Exiter, Sidewinder and Moonman (to list but a few) has cut himself a niche as the go-to man for A-list remixes, with U2, Moby, The Killers and Nelly Furtado all in his discography.
Back in 2002 you couldn’t turn on a radio without his remix of Elvis Presley’s ‘A Little Less Conversation’ smashing against your eardrums. The track went to number one in more than 20 countries, making
the Lichtenvoorde-born mixmaster a household name.
Aged just 23, the man known to his mother as Nick van de Wall has already broken DJ Magazine’s top 20 and bagged a Grammy Award. You might have caught him at last year’s Creamfields festival at Yas Arena, belting out chart-storming hit ‘Take Over Control’.
Sander Van Doorn
Another highlight of last year’s Creamfields festival, this Eindhoven-born decksmith is currently touring the world with five-hour mix marathon Dusk Till Doorn, treating hardcore audiences to his unique blend of trance, techno and house styles.
Armin Van Buuren plays Flash Forum on June 30. Tickets, priced Dhs250-470, are available from www.timeouttickets.com.