Interview: Armin Van Buuren at South West Four Festival
I interviewed trance's answer to Matt Damon, Armin van Buuren, ahead of his headlining set at the South West Four Weekender and the release of his new album, 'Mirage', which features pouty pop dame Sophie Ellis-Bextor. But it's not a mirage though, is it? Is it, Armin? After all, he's so nice and clean cut and media trained… He does say some interesting schtuffs about vintage pianos, how he likes to sleep a lot and how he likes Owl City, though. But, sadly, bugger all about Miss Bextor.
Armin Van Buuren gets set for the South West Four Weekender
Are you a festival fan, Armin? “Yes, really a lot. In July and August I’m playing something like 60 gigs nonstop and I think half of them are festivals. But I’m a punter first and foremost. I buy all the CDs of all my colleagues, because I’m a fan – I think you have to be a fan first otherwise you can’t be a convincing DJ.”
How do you prepare for festival season? “I always try and 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 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.”
So your shows are still quite organic? “Yeah, that’s the reason we’re DJs and not artists. The cool thing about being a DJ is that you can play any sound that’s ever been recorded and try to entertain a crowd with it. But if you’re an artist, usually you have a band, and usually your band has rehearsed a couple of tracks and usually the set list is pretty much decided before they go on. As a DJ, what I’m doing isn’t confirmed at all, except that what begins and ends in my show is decided by the crowd’s reactions and nothing else.”
How do you stay so focused? “I’m very lucky to have a great team of people around me who keep me down to earth: so no drinking, no alcohol. I try to go the gym as much as I can and to sleep eight hours a night. I usually play three to four hour sets, so I like to stay as fresh after the third hour as I was when I started. I feel a responsibility there: if people pay for a ticket to come and see you, you should treat it as professionally as you can.
“I really prepared for the [tour] experience because I took three weeks off with June and we had, you know, a holiday with family and friends. Becauswe now its peak season for all the DJs: when everyone else is on holiday, all the DJs go into work mode!”
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 email, 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 a drop of alcohol before I go on stage because I want to be fresh and I skip all the wine at dinner. 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.”
This year you’re headlining South West Four on the Saturday again. Why do you keep going back? “What I find particularly special about South West Four is that there’s this kind of ‘picnic [boutique] atmosphere’: a really positive vibe from all the people who come to the festival. It’s something I haven’t found at some of the other festivals in the UK, which were all on a much bigger scale. South West Four is a big festival, but it’s humongous like Glastonbury, which gives it that intimacy that really suits London.
“The main reason, though, is that I love London. It has always been one of my first stops [on tour] and I have a close connection with The Gallery crowd, especially when it was back in Turnmills, because I was DJing there every three months at the beginning of my career. It feels like my second home in a way. In London especially there’s this close atmosphere that I have with The Gallery’s crowd. They really do appreciate trance music in the fullest and it has such a great loyal following here that you don’t see anywhere [else] around the world.”
You’ve obviously had a great relationship with The Gallery over the years? “I’m really proud that they’ve done so well. If you look at it [in] worldwide [terms] it’s an achievement for a clubbing brand to be alive for such a long time. It’s really remarkable that the guys from The Gallery are still so popular with a huge following. And they don’t stick to just one style of music, you know: it’s not purely trance or purely techno or whatever.
“It’s really all about the crowd and the euphoria. I did a cover CD for Mixmag a few years ago, which was live from The Gallery, and you can just hear the crowd roar; it’s just insane.”
How are London clubbers different to their European cousins? “Well, they’re really up for new music. I remember when Motorcycle’s “As the Rush Comes” was sent to me as a demo and that night, by coincidence, I played Turnmills and they could immediately appreciate the track when it wasn’t a hit, or nobody had even heard it. That’s what’s so great about them: they don’t come just for the popular DJ names, they come for the music, which, for a DJ, is most rewarding.”
And at South West Four, they can get all those big DJs and new talent all in one place. It’s like a mini Ibiza. “Absolutely and that’s the fun thing about festivals in general: you get [ro see] any DJ you want. There’s plenty of time to go and see some new names that might inspire you or give you something fresh. There’s so many great talents that they’ve put on South West Four and a lot of new names as well, so I really hope I get some time to listen to some of them.”
Is there anyone in particular whose set you can’t miss? “I wish I could see Fat Boy Slim’s set because that’s always something special, but that’s on Sunday. But on Saturday, one of the names I really admire, a really up-and-coming producer from Munich in Germany, is Jerome Isma Ae. He’s doing some excellent productions, made some really big remixes and some of them are really huge in my sets. I really recommend going and seeing him because he’s really talented.”
What’s particularly unique about him? “His DJ wiggle is pretty unique! Go and see him and you’ll see what I mean.”
Do you have a 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.”
Some trance DJs don’t like being called trance anymore because it’s a ‘dirty word’. How do you feel about it? “You can call me 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’, with the genre of 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 [on them] 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 and see me.”
Have you discovered any new sounds this year that we might hear in your South West Four set? “Well, I’m actually releasing my new artists album [on Fri Sep 10] called ‘Mirage’ and I worked on it with some really unexpected names, perhaps, for a trance DJ. For example, I did a track with Sophie Ellis Bextor called ‘Not Giving Up on Love’ and I’ve also got Adam Young from Owl City’s voice on a track. Then there’s one I did with my brother’s grungy rock band, BaggaBownz, which is on the title track ‘Mirage’. It’s a trance track, but it was a breakdown with guitars and it uses a classical orchestra. I think my brother might be the only guitarist in the world who’s not against trance music. I don’t know if I’m going to play that at the festival yet but I’m ready for anything!”
So you and your brother support rather than rival each other? “Absolutely. He gave me some of the guitar parts for some of the songs on the album. Sometimes we have a melody idea and it just sounds better when it’s played on the guitar and he’s really great at it. Or, other times he just comes into the studio and jams with us and then we get a new demo.”
It seems that quite a lot of big house producers and now your trance contemporaries like Tiësto are crossing over into the pop world. “I’m happy you asked this question, because I want to stress that half of my album is instrumental trance music, my roots. There’s not much I can tell about them; you just have to hear them.”
How did you meet Sophie Ellis Bextor? “It was through the Nervo Sisters [who co-wrote David Guetta’s track featuring Kelly Rowland, “When Love Takes Over”] who I met in Ibiza. I was already trying to work with them before they had success with Guetta and they never forgot that. I think they’re really the next big thing, you know, and they also write with some underground dance names, and I worked with them on three tracks on this album, one being the Sophie Ellis Bextor one.”
Owl City is quite an interesting choice for you too… “Oh yeah, definitely. We tend to put music into genres, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a good idea. I think music is music and if people want to label my music and put it in a genre then that’s fine. But I like to think outside that genre: I like to make music that excites me because if it doesn’t excite me, it definitely won’t excite you. A lot of people expected that I would do another “Communication” or another “Blue Fear”. I could easily do another album with the same settings as ‘Communication’, but that wouldn’t be very exciting now, would it?
“I buy all kinds of music, I bought the Owl City album, I have the whole Beatles collection, I buy Lenny Kravitz, I’ll listen to classical music. I’m a human being: I like to listen to all kinds of music and I like to understand why people like that kind of music. And I think I use that [mindset] in the studio when I produce. The most important thing is to have fun yourself in the studio and come out having had an amazing day.”
Have you learned anything new about yourself or your work from making this album? “Very much so. I worked with a classical orchestra, for example, which was really, really exciting. And what I’ve really learned is that working with real instruments really gives so much soul to your album. On another track for the album, “Virtual Friend”, I flew to London to work with Guy Chambers, who has worked mainly with Robbie Williams, and he opened up a whole new world for me.”
What was that experience like? “It was so inspiring. He had all this vintage gear so I was completely in love with his studio when I walked in. And one of the most exciting things about that was that he had an old Steinway in his studio from 1926, which I think was from Hollywood. He flew the piano all the way to London because it has this really characteristic sound. He had mic’ed it up so beautifully because he was working with someone else on the piano the day before, so we started playing on it and got so inspired by it that that’s how we wrote a song. So, rather than starting with an eight-bar loop, which you would normally start a dance track with, we started with a piece of paper and a piano. It was a completely different approach to making music for me and it really fired my creativity.”
How does it feel to be a trance pin-up? “I don’t know, I still feel very much the same guy even though I might not be. I still feel like this 20-year-old nerd who finished his law degree from 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. There are no money or awards or anything else that you can swap for that. I realise that I’m a very lucky guy to be in this position, to be headlining South West Four: my god, it’s the festival of London! It’s just really, really lucky and you can get superstitious. You know, being voted by the DJ Mag as “the most popular DJ in the world” is just insane when you think about it. There are so many great DJs out there, it just makes me humble.”
You started DJing at a really young age. Do you have any advice for your young fans? “I would say: try to look at the DJs you admire, but don’t copy them. I don’t think anyone’s waiting for another Armin Van Buuren or another Deadmau5. Secondly, make your own style and try to entertain people with that. Try and add something to the scene that’s not just blatantly copying someone. The quickest way to get to the top is to make records, definitely, make good records that really are groundbreaking. That is the easiest way to go to the top or, like Eddie Halliwell does, make your performance so special that it’s a reason for people to come out of their houses and to pay money to come and see you. Think about it yourselves: why would I, instead of watching a DVD with a pizza at home on my couch, go and see this and this DJ? At the end of the day, whether you like it or not, you’re an entertainer. You have to think of something that excites: it can be your productions, or it can be a goofy mouse hat.”
I’m intrigued about your radio show – A State of Trance – is it true that it’s one of the biggest and most listened to radio shows in the world? “Apparently. It’s sold around the world and I think we’re on, like, 42 FM radio stations now, including Kiss FM in London. It’s a big responsibility – kinda scary in a way, because it’s easy to fall into the trap of playing records that you don’t actually want to play just to please people. I try to stay true to the original formula of the show and give people the latest in trance and progressive house music.”
Is that why you keep doing it? “Everything begins and ends with me with the radio show. I have to go through the new records every week anyway and doing a radio show pushes me to look through new material. So, I’m more on top of things, I’m in touch with producers and I’m always in touch with the latest music. If I do a new track, I premiere it on the show or if I have a new record released on Armada, my label, then I premiere it on the show. Sometimes I do DJ sets live from Ibiza for it too.”
You don’t really come across a self-obsessed superstar DJ… “I am who I am. In a way, I’m a nerd. I love everything about computers and electronic music; I’m passionate about it. It’s just the way I am. I like to see it as a professional thing and I like to approach it professionally but I’m very passionate about it even though some people around me say I shouldn’t be, which would be better for my health and my social life! That’s why I also do the Armin Only shows, the nine-hour sets which are absolutely crazy to do. I don’t even make money on them, I don’t think, because they’re so expensive, but it’s just so great to do and so rewarding for the crowd.”
What’s the difference between an Armin Only set and a South West Four set? “It’s completely the opposite in every aspect. If I do a DJ set with South West Four, I play all the best high energy tracks I can find, try to interact with the crowd, give the people the best time of their lives, and really bring an energetic booming show to London. When I do an Armin Only show, it’s a club gig, where I play for nine hours and I can really build up the set, really play progressive and really slow music that I like and then build up the whole night towards an absolute climax. I see it as a Christmas dinner: when you have Christmas dinner, you normally have more than one course, you have four or five, maybe even nine courses. that’s how I see Armin Only: people dress up nicely, you have a main course with some really nice turkey and then you have some something sweet as dessert.”
Would you consider yourself when you’re doing those kind of shows? “No, I consider myself more a DJ still. Maybe when I play my own stuff I’m more of an artist, but I’m still playing from CD, I’m not singing.”
Can you sing? “I do sometimes sing to make the vocalists feel more comfortable about themselves.”
What award or accolade are you most proud of? You’ve won so many!
“That’s really difficult because every award in its own respect is an appreciation from the fans, so no matter how small or how big, every award is special. I mean if one person sends you an email saying ‘I want to thank you so much, you changed my life’ then that to me is an award. That’s really hard. Well, I must say I liked winning DJ Mag’s best DJ three years in a row, of course. It’s like winning an Oscar three times.”
What have you got coming up in the future? “My single, “Full Focus” is out now; my new website has just been relaunched; my second single with Sophie Ellis Bextor will come out soon; my album will be released on September 10th; my Armin Only tour will start in October with the big gig in the Netherlands on November 13th. You can check out Arminonly.com to see a trailer of that and tickets are on sale now. We’re probably going to go to probably 14 or 15 big cities and there’s a big chance we might do London as well, so I’m really excited about that. Next year will also be the 10-year celebration of my ‘State of Trance’ show with episode 500. Oh, and I’ve got a Nintendo Wii game coming out called ‘Armin Van Buuren in the Mix.’ You can mix with your Wii remote and it’s really exciting.”
"Mirage" is out on Armand Recs on Sep 10, South West Four Weekender is on Aug 29 & 30 on Clapham Common.