When James Albert Michener said, “the master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play…,” Armin Van Buuren must have been listening closely.
What motivating power has allowed this maestro trance producer to reign supreme on the throne of DJ ranks for more than over a decade, I wonder. I’m sitting in the hotel lobby, languidly sipping on a glass of iced water. Just behind me, scores of fans are eagerly waiting by the elevator to get a glimpse of this superstar DJ. An autograph, a quick picture, or his lasting-for-only-seconds attention will make it into the annals of their Facebook timeline, or instant Twitter feed. He is after all their sonic superhero.
I remind myself that he will be doing this interview with me straight after arriving from the airport in Mumbai. He’s flying in from Kuala Lumpur having played to a sold-out concert of 30,000 people only a few hours ago. At this point, I can’t decide what drives him.
”He’s hardly slept,” the media coordinator tells me in a hushed voice. She ushers me hurriedly into the room to do the introductions. He’s arrived.
Courteously, he has already stood up to shake hands. He is smiling. A face that just didn’t disappoint. I search for signs of exhaustion or perhaps even exasperation at having to meet another media madman (or woman in my case). But he appears focused and alert.
Casually dressed in jeans, flight hair and a white t-shirt showing a world map illustration, a bright red heart is hugging the African continent right in the middle. ”Thank you for seeing me. It must be crazy doing this interview just minutes after...” He cuts me mid-sentence.
“This interview? Yeah of course, if you believe in something like I do. I’m so passionate about this music, it’s so close to my heart, you have to understand. I know I’m the artist and DJ talking to you right now, but I’m a fan myself first and foremost. Okayyyy, I’m the guy that’s playing the tunes, but I love this music so much. It’s so in my soul…”
He’s extremely articulate, eager to talk and to indulge you. He talks fast. But he knows where he’s going. A man with a mission. Not just for the sound of trance, but for the sake of the world. And one for himself.
He is aware of his limitations. He can’t solve the world’s problems, and is happy if he can just bring people and connect them together to celebrate music and dance, he shares. That’s the way he believes he wants to inspire people. But is there a certain madness to the equation? In less than two hours he will be playing to yet another crowd of 20,000 people. A line-up of stellar DJs have joined him for “The Expedition” tour across four continents to celebrate the 600th episode of his radio show, A State of Trance. I’m left amazed at his strength to talk about the idea of playing philanthropist when what I essentially thought he’d rather do is take the pillows out.
“But I’m here in India, I’m talking to you here right now, it’s fantastic! You know it’s great! It’s not like, “oh…(imitates in a disgruntled voice)I have an interview.” No! It’s fantastic to be able to share my passion with the people in India, the people in Saudi Arabia, people all over the world, and really get them in touch with this sound. Because I’m this little pawn in the middle of this big web and I’m in a position to share this music with a lot of people. This is what I do. I’m a DJ. DJs share music with people. It’s very simple and let’s not make it too complicated. I love what I’m doing.”
I can’t keep a poker face. My expression of disbelief at his racy enthusiasm is giving. I did train in theatrical performance. But sometimes it proves very disadvantageous. He smiles. “If you’ve watched any of the live performances or broadcasts of A State of Trance 600, you’d have seen it…just the choice to go to new territories… People are so happy we’re there. It makes it really, really worth it.”
What aspect of success and stardom titillates, I wonder. Is it in the heady ego trips of knowing that you have millions of admirers, fans and devotees? The vanity of excessive frothy indulgences? Or the morning-after hangover of fame? What about temptations?
“I think if you do it for the wrong reasons… if you do it for drugs or money or fame or women or cars or whatever, and it has nothing to do with music, then you’ll fall through and people will see that. People see that immediately. I’m not the type of person who needs a Porsche to satisfy myself. Some people do and it’s fine. I don’t judge them. I think I should use that success to try and move things to the next level.”
The need to super-achieve can also come from plain insecurity. “But I’ve always had the sense of security.”
We talk about his brief stint as a lawyer practicing copyright law in the very early days of his career as a weekend DJ. Having to attend law school was an agreement he made with his father who wanted him to secure an educational qualification. “But I’m very happy that this happened. I found freedom through it because I knew that I could start work as a lawyer if I wanted tomorrow. I didn’t have to prove myself. I didn’t have to go sit in a studio, uninspired, making tracks that I didn’t want to make. I never had the pressure of having to make a hit track because I had to pay rent. And that gave me so much creative freedom to become who I have today.”
“It gave me so much knowledge about contracts and taxes. It gave me knowledge about being a human being in the music industry, which is a lot of work, because there’s a lot of pit-holes you can fall into. You can connect with the wrong people. And I’ve been in a very fortunate position. You know I’ve always worked with the right people who were fair to me and wanted to promote the sound as well.”
That protection can come from self-imposed discipline, values and ideals. You must have built a wall around you. “I don’t know…it’s hard for me to answer that question. It’s really hard to have this position for myself and say, (does an exaggerated impersonation), ‘Hey, look, this is what I did, and that must have helped with my success.’”
He is naturally expressive with his body, moving his hands animatedly and gesturing to assert his points of view. I imagine he would have made an ambitious lawyer performing in the courtroom as he was. Perhaps it’s an old residual quality retained from rehearsing for courtroom mock trials during law school.
So you don’t think about all the success? “Noooo… Success is very relative. I was very lucky to have been brought up by a very normal family. I had a really normal upbringing. I don’t wake up in the morning and say, ‘Hey, how can I be the number 1 DJ in the world?’ That’s not what’s going through my mind. It’s a dream...”
I curtly cut him in the middle, reminding softly that he’s forgotten he is the number 1 DJ as far as magazine fan polls and charts have been indicating for sometime.
“Yeah…but it’s not something that I wake up with. I mean, every athlete dreams of winning a gold medal, right? But when he wakes up it’s not that the first thing that goes through his mind is like, ‘Oh I want to win a gold medal.’ That’s his end goal. When I wake up in the morning, I think, ‘Hey… Benno my studio partner is coming over. I’m excited about this idea for a track. Let’s go into the studio and finish it.’ So it’s more about the energy and about the enthusiasm for this music.”
I recall him saying once at some interview, “If you really want people to take notice, then do something different.” He’s stuck to his guns. He has faithfully played the trance playground. But he has also wandered off in search of new horizons for his new artist album, ‘Intense,’ due for release next month.
He is breaking into new paths, and this album could mark as his seminal step into unexplored territory. It will be unconventional. But he is convinced and confident of experimenting with a variety of textures and styles foreign to his trance insignia. Trance has remained his most naturally fitting musical character. He has been very vocal about it. But I suggest that perhaps he feels differently about that today.
“No…no…no….”, he throws his hands in the air.
“My heart will always, always be with trance. And I’m sure because I’ve been listening to this since I was 8 years old. And I’m still there. I feel trance as a genre is very much alive. We had the golden era of trance from 1999-2001.But I think with new artists and new DJs the sound is evolving. It’s an exciting time. This music is growing and growing and growing. But the only way the sound can grow is if we have an open mind. Some people want to go back to the 99-2001 era. It’s fine, there’s nothing wrong with that. I’ve chosen a career path that will take me through a journey with different styles but I always come back home to trance. This is my journey. It’s the same thing like…I’m a Dutch person, I like to live in the Netherlands. I feel at home in the Netherlands. But I also go to other countries sometimes. But, I always come back home.”
I’m convinced by the draw of his analogy. “I’ve always kept an open-mind to every genre. And with ‘Intense’, I grow through different sounds within EDM. The title track itself, I haven’t revealed it to the audience yet, was a track I worked on literally for three years. And I think we have 276 versions of it. And only the last version we found good enough to release. The idea of the track was to…see I don’t like to be pigeon-holed into one style. I mean, if you wanna put a label on me, then put the trance label on me.” He traces his forehead with his fingers. He’s making a point.
Recalling The Beatles experimenting with Indian influences and how it made their sound more complex and interesting, he says, “Some people said, ‘Oh, why are they using Indian instruments’, you know…but if you look at it from a cultural perspective, that album made a difference for a lot of people. And it opened a lot of people’s minds.”
We unanimously agree on the right to artistic freedom. Of allowing an artist the opportunity to experiment as his influences and environment changes, although many DJs who risked the crossover have faced hard-hitting criticism from fans. Worse still, lost them.
“Yeah….but you have to be creative with it. And I see that as my mission as an artist. Because I can also choose the safe path and only make one certain sound. But it doesn’t give me a…satisfaction as an artist. And sometimes this is a struggle because of course I want to please my fans, but I have to please myself as an artist as well. This is my responsibility towards myself. And I’m not defending myself. I’m just trying to explain that this is why I make the choices that I make.”
I feel encouraged to probe further. I ask if he thinks there’s a plausible difference between him being crowned the world’s number 1 DJ and ex-trance fellow artist Tiësto touted as the world’s greatest DJ. He’s clearly caught off-guard but laughs for having taken on him slyly.
“Oh…,” he gives me a slight nodding smile. “I’ll leave that up to the magazines to decide. I think that was made up by another magazine that thought of that. You know, who cares really. I mean…if you like Tiësto and you’re a big fan of him, that’s fine. He’s a great artist that deserves a lot of respect. I do what I do because I love what I do. I’m really passionate and enthusiastic about my kind of music. He’s a different artist, has different sounds. I’ll leave it up to the audience to decide whatever artist they like. You can put any label on my forehead that you want. If you want to put me as the world’s no.1 DJ or the world’s greatest DJ, I’ll leave that up to you.” He continues laughing, as I sigh in relief. It could have gone caustic.
Does he still feel particularly ambitious? How further up can one go from the top? Is there a view beyond the beyond? Milestones that wait to be crossed?
“I’m 36,but it feels like life has just begun. The last ten years have flown by so fast. I have to say there’s another ambition now that comes next to my music which is my family. And I’m a father now to a daughter…”
He is an emotional man. It’s easy to gather hints to his shades of perfectionism, both in his role as a father in as much a musician. The name of the new album, he reveals, was also an indication to how he feels his life is like at the moment. Intense.
“I was shopping with my wife on the street, and I had this piano melody in my head…ta na na na ta na na na…So I put that melody in and went back to the studio and listened to it the day after. Benno, my studio partner came in and the song just created itself. Just watching it from a different perspective, seeing that song grow was a different experience. Everything came together and we were like ‘woah!’ Just watching the magic of a song coming together by itself, you know just letting things happen, just letting the magic happen to a song…it’s art. Just existing if you stay open for it. Of course, there were five people working on the song, but just seeing it come together and seeing a song being born is almost as magical as seeing my own daughter being born. You know…it’s fantastic.”
Having Fenna, his daughter who was born last year, and a steady marriage, he believes, brought much grounding in his life. “I’m more productive now than ever. My fans will acknowledge that. I’ve never released more tracks than now. I’m focused more than ever because of my daughter. I have a strict schedule everyday because I want to be with her as much as I can. But when she’s asleep or when she’s at day care I have the time to work in my studio. But I don’t mess around anymore. I don’t have time to mess about. I’m much more stable as a person. “
But there must come a point when he wants to escape all the noise and chaos of being Armin Van Buuren.“I do…I do.”
“This is what I love about being home, you know. My family doesn’t see me as a….the number 1 DJ or something. I’m just Armin taking out the trash, cleaning the kitty litter. And also, Fenna being there now…what I love about her being around is the fact that when I come home it’s not about me, it’s about her. She’s the most important thing in the house. And that makes me…. it’s good like that. I love the fact that when I come home it’s not, ‘Oh, how was the concert? Oh, you have to talk about the next tour. Did you confirm your flight schedule? People called about this and this album, and about this and this track.’ I come home and it’s about, ‘ohhhh, when should we feed her? Should I bathe her, should I go play with her?’ And this is great!
He doesn’t discount the fact that he wants to be an involved father. It’s a position he takes very seriously.
“I want to, you know…I want to be a good father. I want to do the right thing because it makes me feel good.”
Five hours later, the ASOT 600 Mumbai expedition closes with a sense of surrealism. I see a maddening sea of people lost to the master in the state of trance. And Armin? Well…he is doing the dance of being found in the rhythm of the moment.
Later that night, I accidentally meet him in the hotel lobby while taking the elevator up to my 16th floor room. How long will you be in Mumbai? “For a while. I leave to play in Miami in about an hour.”
At that moment, I can clearly say I found my answer, as I recall him saying earlier, “I don’t wake up thinking, ‘Oh, I’ve played to 30,000 people last night.’ I try to focus on the next project and the next big thing that I want to do.”
It’s play in the laborious disguise of work. It’s passion.
—Interview arrangement courtesy of Submerge.