When veteran producer Markus Schulz first tapped into his Dakota alter ego, he had no idea it would haunt him for the better part of a decade.
Originally an outlet for Schulz’s darker, deeper techno-oriented side, Dakota’s sound belied the uplifting, fan facing live sets for which he was known. Eventually, the producer came to understand that Dakota was far more than an outlet for a different musical style. As Schulz prepares his third major release under the moniker, he has come to see Dakota as a state of mind and spirit — a persona through which he can interrogate darker cultural currents such as violence and terrorism, questioning their senseless pain in a world that has the potential for so much good.
“While I was working on Watch the World, I was writing about what I was seeing, about my fans. I was active and having a great time interacting with people,” said Schulz in a recent interview. “But all the shit that was going on really changed this, and it all started with the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando. This just devastated me.” Despite the tragedy, the producer says reviving the alias after 6 years wasn’t his first impulse.
“I had a really good time with Watch the World, connecting with my fans and writing about all of those experiences,” said Schulz. “But the shooting at Pulse Nightclub shook me to my core.”
Drawing from the turbulent cultural climate, his hard upbringing, and his evolution as an artist, however complicated, Schulz fostered a sort of creative rebirth for his alias which takes the shape of a conceptual LP, The Nine Skies. This new project, is markedly different than his previous Thoughts Become Things releases in 2009 and 2011. The album depicts the suffering, growth, and the journey to enlightenment and reveals Schulz using his music to cope and understand the world around him in real time.
“I did all of these shows the last year where I went up on stage, smiled, and had a great time where I fed off of the energy of the fans. It was organic,” said Schulz, “but when the show was over and the music stopped, it was hard not to acknowledge what was going on around me.”
The story of how this project came to be is just as important as the music itself and, as with any creative evolution, being a Markus Schulz fan does not necessarily mean understanding the darker and more troubled impulses behind Dakota. To learn more about both, Dancing Astronaut checked in with the veteran producer, discussing everything from the his upbringing to how a troubled world around us impacts his decisions as an artist today.
Let’s start from the beginning. You’ve mentioned that you had a lot of struggle growing up. Can you take us back to that place and talk about your path as an artist?
When I grew up it was very difficult. I moved to the USA when I was 13 and didn’t really speak English or understand the culture. I was really an outcast, so I spent a lot of time in my room just listening to music. It was a depressing time for me, so I related to depressing music. They always say your first album is a lifetime in the making, so my first album went on all of the emotions and feelings I had growing up. The album was really dark and really depressing because that is what was inside of me.
Once my career started growing, and I was getting more popular, playing more festivals, and traveling the world, I suddenly realized I just didn’t have these dark emotions in me anymore to do the same kind of album. It’s hard to be depressed when you are traveling the world and living a dream, you know? So, I think over the course of the years, my albums have reflected that. But where I am now, it’s funny, because I’m almost full circle again. There is so much shit going on in the world that it’s like depressing the shit out of me, you know?
Absolutely. Going back to living the dream- fans see all of the glamour shots on social media about being a DJ/Producer who has “made it.” We see the fabulous lifestyle and the world travel, but no one is showcasing the struggle to the top or the harder parts of this job. What is it that we are not seeing?
You know, it’s very hard when you are doing it at this level. You meet a lot of people who say, “okay I’m doing this for four years and then I’m out.” I’ve been doing this well over ten years where I travel and spend over 200 days a year in a hotel. I had many great friends back home in Miami who have just kind of fallen out of touch. Over the course of time you lose friends, which is why it’s important to have support of your family and your best friends. My social circle has gotten a lot smaller over the years, and the travel is brutal, but you know what, I chose that. This is what I wanted to do, and my father was a musician, so this is what is in my blood, and this is what I am supposed to be doing.
So did you grow up knowing and thinking this is what you were going to do?
I had no idea. I mean, I thought I was a freak because I was listening to music so differently than everyone else. I would listen to music on the radio, and I would study it. I would question why I was studying the music, and I didn’t understand it. It was especially hard because I didn’t know my real father until seven or eight years ago, and my step-father was a drill sergeant in the US Army for 35 years. I had no idea what this artistic side of me was about, and I just thought I was a total weirdo, you know? And where I grew up, in Massachusetts at the time, it was a total blue collar city, so I really didn’t fit in at all. I didn’t know what was wrong with me, and there was no internet or anything back then to seek out support groups or find like-minded people.
In this day and age, it is different because you can seek out support online if you are feeling alone or misunderstood. It’s hard for the younger generations to imagine feeling totally alone like that because there are so many platforms, like Reddit, to help connect you with people who have common interests. We heard you gave up social media for a couple of months. Tell us about that and how giving it up has impacted you mentally?
I did- I gave up social media for about six months. You know everything that has been going on in the world has led me to go inside of myself, and this new project that I am doing as Dakota called “The Nine Skies” is about enlightenment. Because I needed to look inside of myself to do “The Nine Skies,” I didn’t feel comfortable doing Snapchat and Facebook where it was ‘hey look at me partying backstage’ because that’s not what has been happening the last six months of my life.
I did all of these shows the last year where I went up on stage, smiled, and had a great time where I fed off of the energy of the fans. It was organic, but when the show was over and the music stopped, it was hard not to acknowledge what was going on around me.
Every time I go to the airport there is TSA going through our things, terror warnings, and you name it. When I go up on stage, it is kind of to get away from all of that. As soon as I get back to the hotel, I’m always quickly reminded of what is going on in the world, and so for me to just be on social media and ‘hey party party,’ it just didn’t feel right. Like I said, there is so much shit going on and we don’t understand why it’s happening, so I was trying to do something reflective of this for “The Nine Skies.” I really just wanted to get down to the bare and hardcore emotions of what is going on around me and how I feel about it. I want to make a difference.
I know your upcoming project represents ‘The Nine Skies’ to enlightenment. When will we be able to hear it?
I’m debuting it May 27th at Dreamstate San Francisco. Originally, I only wanted to do nine shows and keep it very special. At the same time, the project is also so special to me that I want to share it and have as many people see it as possible, so it is likely I will be doing more than nine shows.
It’s your first time in a couple of years producing under Dakota—a darker, moodier, version of yourself. Why are you returning to this dark persona and darker place to find the steps to enlightenment? Enlightenment is supposed to be this glorious thing.
To me, it feels organic. I always say the Markus Schulz stuff is a reflection of my fans. I write music about my fans for my fans, but the Dakota stuff is what I am writing for me. I kind of block myself out from everything and just go and write about what is inside of me and what I am feeling. I grew up with a hard upbringing and very dark times, and that is still in me, which is why the Dakota stuff has a much darker feel to it.
Your last Dakota release was in 2011, so now that you are producing under him again, does it feel like you are being reunited with an old friend? Is this a facet of your personality that you feel is turned on and off?
Yes, for sure. To me it just felt like I’m in that zone again. Mentally, creatively, and emotionally, I feel like I’m right back in 2011 again.
In a day and age where dance music is becoming increasingly more commercial, I think you have a unique ability to produce music that is popular but also true to yourself. It sounds like this project could be one of the most personal things you have ever released. Can you tell us more about this?
Listen, pop music is great. It’s a great escape where you sing along and have a good time, and you forget about shit for a while, you know? Like I said though, when the music stops, it is hard to not acknowledge what is happening in the world. What I wanted to do with this Dakota project is I wanted to put everything in perspective because everything that is going on is kind of like this elephant in the room. I asked myself things like what does it mean? How do we figure out our path? Where does it all go from here?
I did a lot of reading and studying the past year. The show is based a lot on Reiki influences and thinkings. In Reiki, they say you go through all of the steps of enlightenment over many lifetimes through reincarnation. As I was studying it, I said to myself, “wait a minute, this is something we all go through in some shape or form in one lifetime,” and that’s how the show came together. I realized, if we all go through these steps over our lifetime, I wanted to make a self-help book out of my show almost.
The project starts off with Sky One- the follower. To be a good leader you must first be a good follower. I was thinking about what could represent that. A soldier has to learn to be a good follower because he is doing what it is that he is being told to do. A lot of the time, people look at soldiers in a negative way, but they are on a path, and they are at the beginning. There are so many people who are not even on the path yet, and they are lost souls. The idea for me is to show all of these steps that we go through.
I did a sneak preview on the Groove Cruise and played some of ‘The Nine Skies’ music and talked about it. At the end of the show, people were coming up to me in tears, and it really touched them. I was in tears so many times doing and writing the show, so it is something I want to do for my legacy. I want people 100 years from now to go, ”you know there is a story here and let’s listen to it again.”
When you go so deep within yourself for a project, your goal for it can sometimes change along the way. Is the final product of ‘The Nine Skies’ drastically different then you envisioned it being when you first started working on this?
At the beginning, I just wanted it to be dark and moody techno. As I went on, I understood that these are paths that become more enlightening and uplifting as we go along. The last step and the ninth sky is Nirvana. I can’t exactly do this deep dark techno song and call it ‘The Ninth Sky’ right? I was very conscious in building the show to make sure that it grew and got lighter, but still the main theme is the Dakota vibe and the Dakota grooves.
You talk about how you want to leave a legacy, and you have been instrumental in growing and guiding the careers of those around you. You once told someone who was a striving musician to find himself as an artist first, and then once he found himself, to surround himself with like-minded and supportive people. When was that moment for you where you felt you had finally discovered yourself and you were surrounded with the right people?
It’s funny because that moment didn’t happen for me until later on in my career. I looked out at the audience one day and was like, you know what, I know everybody here. I never realized it, and then one day it just clicked. We are all a family here.
That’s also why I realize if I did a radio hit and then got new fans based off of that one song that they loved on the radio, and they mixed with my fans, that might not be the best vibe. That moment told me to be happy with my fans and to focus on only them. I knew more people would come and join the movement as it goes along, but I couldn’t go chasing that radio hit. The goal of making a radio hit is something not everyone can achieve, and it could make any artist feel like a failure when they have an amazing thing going on. The loyal fans are unbelievable, and they follow you from city to city every night. When the next pop artist comes and makes a big hit, then those fans are going to leave and go follow that artist. When you have fans that are true to you as an artist and not a song, they are fans of yours for life.
While “The Nine Skies” will be released May 27th, below is a sneak peak of Schulz’s work as Dakota.