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To say that few artists in the electronic music world will ever reach the level of success seen by Paul van Dyk is an understatement. In addition to the more than 60 top placing DJ awards he has received over his career, he has also been a mainstay on the DJMag Top 100 DJ poll, including taking the top spot more than once. Beyond DJ specific awards, Paul van Dyk has been recognized by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences with a Grammy nomination for for his album Reflections and a shared Grammy win for his collaborative work on “Poor Choice of Words” from The Dark Knight. It is no surprise that many have labeled Paul the first “superstar DJ” and a “Leading Force” of trance music. As fitting as the titles seem to be, Paul is hesitant to accept them as fact. To him, this career is not about the labels. It isn’t about being a superstar either. To Paul van Dyk, he just a person pursuing his passion and always pushing himself to be the best that he can be. This passion is genuine to him, and if the fame and titles disappeared over night, he leaves you with the impression that he would still be doing the exact same thing. It is this ideology that Paul believes has contributed most to the success he has achieved.
Last Saturday, Paul returned to Chicago for another performance at the Mid. I was fortunate enough to sit down with him one on one and discuss his career and passion for music.
John C: Your pathway to a career in music is uniquely different than the average artist. While most grew up in a world where they are exposed to a wide assortment of music styles, you had to rely on smuggled mixtapes and unauthorized radio prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall. How do you think this impacted your approach to music creation and performance?
PVD: I don’t think it really had an impact on how my music is created, because my biggest inspiration, I would say, is just life and whatever I experience somehow ends up in my music. So maybe in the earlier years that was one of my influences. However, it definitely had an impact on how music (itself) is for me. For example, I don’t give much concern about this whole stardom, hype and fame, or any of that kind of stuff because to me, music was just an audio file… just something I heard on the radio. I never knew what my favorite artists looked like or what they had to say because I could never read an interview. I could never actually see a picture of them. It was purely the music that connected me to them. So it is a pure relationship between the music and me, and I have maintained that.
John C: Coming from not being exposed to that idea of music stardom, which has now become very big, you have gone on to become one of electronic music’s most award winning artist and have performed for crowds that total in the millions. In the beginning this might not have been pictured, but as you progress, when did you start to see that you were entering that stardom?
PVD: It never really feels that way to me. It’s like….you know, every day, every show, it’s a different challenge. When you’re an artist, that’s the thing, It’s not like you every say “That’s a great painting, and I made it!” – You are always looking at the next challenge, you always feel like “I could have done that better or this.” It’s almost a struggle for perfection and you try to get as close as you can. When I started – and it’s like I always say – the DJ was a freak in the corner. There was no thought about even earning money with it or traveling around the world, or thinking that people would want to talk to me and know what I want to say. You were just that freak in the corner while everyone else had fun. So, it just is like an everyday approach to try and be better than yesterday.
John C: With the success you have had as an artist commonly labeled as a figurehead and pioneer of Trance, you have remained on the forefront of Trance’s popularity. From your perspective, and in addition to this approach for perfection, do you feel pressured by these positions in terms of meeting specific demands or expectations?
PVD: You know, there is this one thing where my mom always writes me to be kind of down to earth and only look at what I consider to be real. So I never refer to myself as a pioneer or a legend. So therefore I don’t have to struggle with that term. So to me, it is really about the music and really about bringing across what I feel and what I want to bring across musically. If that works out, then I am the happiest artist on the planet. To me the pressure is almost coming from myself and my responsibility to myself rather than what people try and put on me.
John C: On the topic of responsibility, let’s talk about “No E, Pure PvD.” You were one of the first of a short list of DJs to take a public anti-drug stance. Recently, the scene has been making headlines concerning drug incidents at popular festivals and events leading to a negative image of our music from the media. How do you think that our music can overcome this negative association?
PVD: Well I think it is more a problem with society than the music itself. The fact is, and if you really look into it, one of the reasons that so many young kids are at these festivals is because the law in the US prohibits them from entering a safer environment, like a club in my opinion, so they go to these festivals but don’t have the experience or people telling them anything. I wouldn’t even say education, necessarily, but there is nobody communicating about this with them or telling them “this is what is happening to you” and this is why these things are happening. To me it is definitely a problem with society. You can look at it another way and ask “why are people taking these substances?” It’s usually to escape a reality and that reality is shaped by society, and it always comes back to that. So take care of the youth, take care of the kids, take care of the people that form your society and then you won’t have these issues and such. There will always be people using these substances, its partially human. Since the first humans on this planet, they have been – I don’t know, smoking leaves, licking frogs, and all these weird things to get high or enter a certain state of mind. It’s a question of being responsible with that.
John C: An anti-drug stance is not the only example of using your position to promote a positive message. You have been known to voice your opinion on political concerns, especially in regards to your anti-war stance. Through your “The politics of Dancing” concept, you have voiced the role that music can play in uniting people of all race, color, sex and background. Do you think it is a certain responsibility of an artist to speak on these issues and do you feel like there is a certain risk in taking a strong stance and does it concern you?
PVD: Well first of all I don’t think it has anything to do with being an artist. I think this is a responsibility of anyone who lives in a stable western democracy. We all have a responsibility for that democratic state. I believe democracy is the best concept we can live in, from what I have seen and experienced, but it very far from being perfect – it requires everyone to contribute and be involved to make it succeed. The other thing is that, Yes, if you don’t say anything, you don’t give anyone a platform to attack you. There have been multiple times where people have attacked me for a stance I have taken. At the same time, I grew up in East Germany. I had the people, the government, the society I was growing up in, which was a dictatorship, telling what to say or what was ok to say. So I get really grumpy if someone tells me “You can’t say that!” The thing is, whenever I take a stance on an issue, I have a reason for it. I am very interested in many different aspects of politics and social things; it isn’t just me pulling out a thought. Whenever I take a stand it is backed on facts. At the same time I am always open to discussion, maybe to change my point on things, because after all, that is what democracy is about. However, yes, I can say there have been numerous instances where I have been attacked for voicing my opinion.
John C: I know you said it is not a responsibility solely as an artist, but it’s easy to find it admirable when an artist does take those risks, especially as there are many artists who use their voice for things that are less than positive. Let’s take a shift back towards music. Beyond studio albums and mix releases, your music has extended to other mediums, including movies, such as the Dark Knight, and video games, such as Mirror’s Edge. While electronic music is typically exclusive to club and festival usage or personal listening, does the extension to these new mediums provide evidence of the music’s mainstream acceptance?
PVD: Well I think that may be happening, but the electronically, or should I say digitally, produced music obviously has reached society. You can’t watch any program without seeing it in things like trailers and it is all electronically created somehow. In terms of what made it to the masses, it is not necessarily the music that I have created. What i create is something created with a passion behind it, it is not something that can be listened to for 3 minutes on the radio and then it passes by, it is something you have to get into, something you have to let yourself feel and experience, it should leave you saying “wow what’s that,” and you discover soundscapes, not just the melodies or the simple “1 2 3 4 put your fucking hands up” nonsense, it is something that has substance. It must last longer than that. What has branched out in the US, and let’s just call it \”EDM,\” is more of a pop-fun fest sort of version of what electronic music sort of is.
John C: That transitions well into my next question which aims to look closer at that “EDM” world and sort of pop culture influence on electronic music. In Germany, and throughout the rest of Europe, electronic music popularity has been steady. Stateside we are currently experiencing a surge of electronic music’s acceptance leading to a rapid expansion of releases, with new artists and labels appearing constantly. Some artists have praised the growth it provides the music overall while others have found it to negatively impact the scene, often citing some of the watered down and formulaic tracks making it to the radio. How do you feel this growth has impacted the music?
PVD: I would say “we will see in 5 years.” I think by then this pop influx would have had its peak and people will look back and ask “where is the substance” in music. Where are the ones that really MAKE their music. At the same time you have to consider the fact that is the same 4-5 ghost producers that are producing music for these artists that are popular on the mainstage. It is why everything sounds the same. It is why you will see the last 6-7 guys on the mainstage playing the same tracks. It almost doesn’t matter. We should be saying “what is going on there? This is the same music!” So, I don’t know, that is not my approach to it. I guess I can’t speak for others, but I can say how it has been going is not how I would do it. To me it is an art form. There is a lot of passion in that music. The music opened my eyes, my ears, and my mind to the world and it always will. So I am always looking for that, and when I listen to music that is what I am trying to hear. There is so much fantastic music out there. Every day there are so many new tracks. So I don’t care much for that “EDM” stuff, in fact, I don’t even really know much about it anymore. At one point I was listening through demos, and I was so, I don’t want to use the word, but disgusted at what I had to hear, that I just thought “That is not why I am doing this, this guy is wasting my time.” I listen to them because I want to hear music, and then I am forced to listen to that crap. My girlfriend would ask me “What’s wrong?” and I would respond with “I just had to listen to all of this bullshit!” I decided to kind of really focus on the things that I know are the source for what will make music great. Sure, every track won’t be the greatest thing, but it’s the effort that someone puts into the music you must look for. That music lacks that effort, it’s just a guy, you know, copying what was done before, and this is why it has all sounded the same for past 2 to 3 years now.
John C: It’s hard to disagree, especially when you see examples of it. I am not sure if you have seen any of them, but you can literally go online and see video demonstrations where multiple songs are played next to each other, whether from the same artists or different artists, and the tracks are nearly the same. Same progression, same buildups, same stylistic drops…
PVD: I haven’t seen it, but, …. well let’s just call him “one of the most influential music executives for one of the largest music labels in the United States”, actually pointed that out to me, that you can find something like that on YouTube. I found it really funny that he knows about it. But I guess that is how the world turns these days, at least in regards to that EDM music. For the music itself, let’s just hope that it is over soon. The music that really matters will be the ones that shines through. Let’s say if 10-15% of all the new age EDM kids at these festivals, sort of like discover real electronic music and the music behind what is going on at the mainstage, then that can be good for electronic music at the end of the day. I guess it is a balance as it is with everything. There have been so many genres. Look at punk music in the end of the 70s and the early 80s, with great bands like The Godfathers. It was the same thing, and now, looking back, who do we remember? It’s the same thing. This is like the pop punk we saw then. But you have to know that behind that, it’s the real stuff that is truly alive.
John C: Another hot topic that has created a divide amongst DJs is the expansion of new music technology. From the evolution from using analog synthesizers and drum machines exclusively to entire tracks being produced via software or the transition from vinyl purism sets to beat synced CDJs and Ableton based controller sets. The new technology has opened completely new worlds for a DJ set and can even blend the line between DJing and live production, but not all agree with it. What is your opinion on the expansion of technology for the creation and performance of music?
PVD: Well I can only speak for myself. I have the same passion for being a musician that I have for being a DJ so when this was done and it became possible to bring the production elements onto the stage, I did it. So I am one of the guys on the stage with computers and keyboards and processing software, so for me it is automated. At the same time for more than 15 years I proved I can beatmatch, so that’s not even a thing I am challenged with. So I move on to the next challenge and that is giving it the live twist. This is almost the next level of presenting electronic music. I agree on the criticism of the guys who just put in their USB sticks and press play and basically just shout “raise your hands in the air,” then jump all around the stage, or you know…..like, throw food at people. That’s not really what this whole electronic music culture is all about. With the technology, and I AM a big supporter of the technology, you have to be creative with it. If you use it to be a lazy ass, you deserve to be criticized for it.
John C: As we steadily approach the year 2015, you have held a remarkably longer career as an electronic musician than others have historically. While most have seen a decline in popularity after much shorter careers, your popularity seems to have continually climbed since the early 90s. What do you believe has contributed most to your continued success and your ability to maintain such a loyal fan base over such a long amount of time?
PVD: You know, I guess it is because I am authentic. Whether that is with mistakes I have made or things I have done really well, I am just a person and I think people can see that. I am not a product of marketing. It is not like you heard about me because you see me on the sign at the bus stop promoting some product to people that haven’t even heard my music. The people who come into contact with me come into contact with me directly at the result of hearing my music. That is something with more substance. I am not a product. I am an artist and a person. Every day I try to do my best, I bring that passion and that drive, and I think people see that and appreciate it. With that appreciation, I think people, I don’t know…accept some related facts. You know I always try to give 100% , but things happen, maybe a bad day or something with the family, maybe I’m sick and still have to deliver, and it may interfere from giving it 100%, but I am ok with that because I would rather be the person there. There is a human element there. I am a person not the product designed by management, and that is what it is. I think that plays a role and I do what I love doing and support every beat and every note I have ever played, and I think that is appreciated.
John C: As we near the end of our interview and you prepare for your performance, I have one question that I try to bring into all of my interviews. Tonight’s performance at the Mid marks another of many performances you have had in Chicago. Chicago has a long history in electronic music and a strong scene that thrives to this day. Does performing in a city so deeply embedded in the history of electronic music hold any additional significance to you?
PVD: Well to me, it doesn’t hold importance just as a result of the heritage, it holds importance because every time I play in Chicago I have a really, really good time. There is just such a phenomenal audience here that knows about this music and that is passionate about this music and always shows appreciation for the music. Of course I know about artists like Marshall Jefferson and that kind of stuff. I sometimes wonder how these guys must feel when they hear this EDM crap and know that some people call it house music. Sometimes when I look, I think this has nothing to do with it – house music is something very different. This is how strong my passion behind this music is. You know, in two weeks I am flying out to Ibiza and doing a sunset set at Cafe del Mar and then of course another set at night at Amnesia. I am already in that mode. I am really ready to play real house music. You know, there will be the chill out stuff, like at night and when it gets darker, but I am going to play REAL house music: The music that actually means something, the music from Marshall Jefferson to Jamie Principle and Knuckles and all of those guys. That is what the whole music is based on; they are the godfathers of that. Obviously that is what comes with the name Chicago. If you are in any way related to Chicago, you know that is what Chicago is all about in the end. That is what is historic about it. But then again, let’s look at it now. Some of the best festivals held in the US are located here in Chicago; Chicago is home to one of the best clubs in the world. It is always great to be here.
John C: Out of all of the places that you have had the opportunity to travel to or to play at, do you have one place that is special every time, such as a place that maybe you put all of your heart into the performance or that the performance itself brings you to a different level as an artist?
PVD: Well, since I am such a home-y, it’s an unfair question. It will always be Berlin. It is where all of this started for me. It’s my history, and Berlin is a cool city. They have the same approach to music that I have. They can give a flying fuck about fame or stardom or whatever else might be in the yellow press or whatever. It is all about what you bring that night. People will walk out on the biggest pop stars if they do not deliver when in Berlin, and it is probably one of the few cities in the world that is like that. It is one of the most challenging environments to play in because it is never a sure shot. It is never a single give away and that is what I love about the city.
John C: Berlin works as a perfect example to another question. Obviously you are from there and your sound has become associated as from there. Berlin also has defined itself as quite a strong force in Techno. Do you think that music is still genre specific to geographical boundaries or do you think in today’s environment, with things such as the internet, that these boundaries are no longer definite?
PVD: It’s now a global phenomenon, really, at the end of the day. Yes, Berlin is, let’s say ‘techno specific’, but at the same time, it is known for a very specific, very minimalistic style of techno, as opposed to the Carl Cox type of techno, for example. It has become that because the clubbers there just love that more than other things. But at the same time, I am from there so you could say that whatever I do is the sound of Berlin. It really is more of a global phenomenon these days. There is so much music coming out of Chicago too, that isn’t house music, be it progressive or trance, which goes to show that the genres have gone global.
John C: As I check my clock, I fear we are running out of time on our interview.
(At this time, Paul’s manager checks the time and lets him know he is due on stage in one minute).
John C: On that note, I want to thank you for not only the opportunity to have this interview, but also for the fantastic discussion it has led to.
PVD: Thank you as well.
From the moment Paul took the stage in front of an absolutely packed house at the Mid, he carried the audience through a highly varied and energetic sonic journey that kept both floors of the Mid dancing from beginning to end. As discussed during the interview, his set up consists of not only traditional DJ gear but also two midi keyboards allowing him to implement live performance into his set and expand it beyond traditional mixing. As he transitioned flawlessly between hammering away at the keyboards and dropping into the next crowd pleaser, there wasn\’t a moment where Paul didn\’t seem to be giving it his all. As the crowd seemed to follow his every move, it would seem that he may be correct about the way in which he found success. From the moment he took the stage, you could sense the passion he had for what he does, and that definitively translated well to his energetic crowd.
I would like to thank Paul van Dyk for allowing me to interview him on behalf of EDM Chicago and the Mid for accommodating to our needs and allowing us to cover this event. I would also like to thank, while giving full credit to, the very talented Raf Winterpacht of Chicago Photo Concepts, who tagged along for the adventure and captured both Paul\’s and the crowd\’s energy. You can find more photos available on his facebook page.