Paul Van Dyk talks about the current state of dance music ahead of his upcoming set in Dubai. Words Peter Feely.
German star Paul Van Dyk has regularly topped the polls as one of the best DJs on the planet. Having collaborated with the likes of David Byrne from Talking Heads and indie stars Saint Etienne, it’s evident that this DJ is not cut from the same cloth as the run-of-the-mill dance music artists that currently populate the scene. No stranger to Dubai, the maestro returns to the city once again on Thursday February 27, when he will hit the decks at Skydive Dubai’s cool new hangout Zero Gravity.
Raised in a single parent family in what was formerly communist East Germany, music was a restricted commodity in the musician’s youth. He explains that since he was unaware of the personalities and image of his favourite artists, he developed an acutely direct relationship with the sounds of the songs. ‘I could never read anything about my favourite artists in a magazine so it meant my love was directly for the music. The only thing I had was the music in front of me on the radio. It was never about the pop stardom or fame because I didn’t know about it and it kept things pure.’
Van Dyk discovered what is now considered ‘house music’ in the late 1980s and to him the energetic form of electronic music was a revelation. Curiously, for a German, he is particularly attached to the British music scene. The first record he physically owned was by English electronic outfit OMD [Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark] and he cites groups such as New Order and the sounds that emanated from Bristol at the time. In references to one of the tracks from his 1994 release Seven Ways, he recognises this influence. ‘With the track, “The Greatness of Britain”, if you listen to the dubby echoes – it definitely has a Massive Attack kind of feel, but at the same time it has the electronic feel. When I was a teenager, the artists that influenced me all came from there.
UK music is always about different shades. If something’s one thing it’s almost boring. Music has to have tense, melodic parts as well as an aggressive drive – that’s the source of the tension that [good] music has.’
The first band that really captured Van Dyk’s attention was the hugely influential Manchester group The Smiths. Yet it was always electronic music that most fascinated the German. A key turning point was a set from British DJ Sasha in Paris in 1993.
‘I’d just started – I’d maybe played for a year and I had an idea about electronic music (I’d already produced my first record) and I was trying to define my own sound, the importance of that and a gesticular approach to everything. I wasn’t as defined as I am now. Sasha played after me at a big party for the Liberation newspaper and I had heard a lot about him before. The way that he played, on just turntables back then, and he was mixing one of my tracks and live – he made a break beat version out of it.
I was like “holy pinoly” – it was to the point 1,000 percent and at the same time artistically, so incredible. He was remixing my record live between turntables. It was a game changer for me – it was something that I saw and it really influenced me.’
Van Dyk is distinctly unimpressed with the current EDM (Electronic Dance Music) crop of DJs, believing that the generic beats and style lacks the class and identity of his peers.
‘I always used to say electronic dance music, but since this whole EDM term became a marketing tool rather than a genre definition, I’m not comfortable. I’m not calling my music EDM and I’m not calling the music I’m trying to follow EDM.
‘House gives you the idea that you’re moving back and in – you’re grooving in. My music is somewhat more powerful and it’s to the point and energetic – probably a bit faster than what you would consider house music. I would maybe call it “power house” because it’s powerful [laughs].’
In reference to the image-conscious EDM DJs, Van Dyk is dismissive and indifferent. ‘It’s almost impossible to identify who is who because none of them have an artistic signature,’ he says. ‘It’s down to the Nexus 2 synthesiser they’re all using.’
When Van Dyk plays in Dubai Marina, his music will adapt to the atmosphere and vibe of the audience. A man from the era when chart music was a separate entity to the British house music scene, or the industrial techno Detroit-inspired sound was on the circuit in Berlin, Van Dyk has justifiably stayed loyal to his artistic integrity.
In person, despite approaching middle-age, none of his drive and passion has faltered and Van Dyk’s unique love affair with electronic music certainly still burns as fiercely as ever.
Paul Van Dyk plays Zero Gravity on Thursday February 27. Dhs180 (advance), Dhs250 (door). 6pm-3am. Skydive Dubai, Dubai Marina (056 931 1098).