Armin Van Buuren on a new world order for EDM; ‘If something is beautiful and if something is great, then it’s just beautiful and great.’
Throughout the span his lengthy career, Armin van Buuren has achieved more awards, accolades and acclaim than is worth counting. From a Grammy Award nomination to a record five-time run as DJ Magazine’s No. 1 DJ, van Buuren has (whether intentionally or not) achieved legend-status and carved out a permanent place for himself in the electronic history books.
Everybody’s heard all of that a thousand times already – even van Buuren himself is a little weary of acknowledging his deification. To him, the days when he looked to artists like Tall Paul and Judge Jules for advice and inspiration in the ’90s and early 2000’s don’t seem so far off at all. He still remembers the first time he experienced the power a DJ could hold over an audience from behind the decks.
“I remember seeing Paul Oakenfold at Creamfields and people chanting his name like I’d never heard before. It was really kind of a new thing, so I was really blown away by the whole atmosphere and everything that was happening.”
Even though that kind of overwhelming response has become a common occurrence for the Dutch producer, he admits that it still gives him goosebumps. “You can get used to a lot of things but you cannot get used to that. It’s a totally surreal feeling, that’s the only appropriate word,” he says. And he means it, too, with that very honest and even endearing modesty Armin exhibits whenever anyone makes him out to be anything other than mortal. Even days before several headlining WMC performances, he’s smiling, excited and quick to poke fun at the whole EDM superstar thing.
The secret to his success, both personally and professionally, is simple: he’s never let anything – not money, fame, status or pressure – get in the way of what he still incontestably considers his greatest and most sacred responsibility: making and sharing music.
“I think at the end of the day the only thing that really matters is the music and the feeling it evokes, the passion you get from it. It’s so great to have an idea for a track and to go into the studio and to create that track, and then actually see that track connect with the audience, to see that they understand you,” he says, his eyes lighting up as he tries to define the sensation. “You speak a new language, you put your emotion into music, not into words, and just the simple melodies, the notes…can spark the same emotion with other people.”
According to van Buuren, that feeling is why his career has never really felt like a job, but rather more of a life calling.
“I’m the kind of artist who wants to be heard, at the end of the day. I’m an addict to this job, to this work. I really love what I do and I’m passionate about it, but it goes beyond a passion, it goes beyond a hobby or just a way of living. Even if I wouldn’t get paid for it, I would still be doing this.”
While he’s still a producer and performer first and foremost, van Buuren has fallen into a new role over the years: that of a mentor to aspiring producers. It’s a role he embraces wholeheartedly, and one he considers part of the natural order of things, so to speak.
“When I started my career I had help from other people. Now I’m helping new people, and I think that’s the way it should go,” he says. “And I tell these new people – I told W&W as well – now it’s your job to find new talent and to help them further.” And in a culture that is quick to turn artists into idols, sometimes that help includes a nudge in the right direction and a slice of humble pie every now and then. “What I love about young people is that they’re naive in some ways, and sometimes you need to be naive,” he says, smiling wistfully as though lost in some memory from his own youth.
The most common obstacle he sees facing young producers is pressure – pressure to stand out and be the best in the shortest span of time, pressure to play as many gigs as possible in order to be seen or to pay the rent. It’s a foreign attitude to van Buuren, who maintains the only thing you cannot mix with music is money.
“It’s not going to work,” he says, simple as that. “If you have to make a remix or a follow-up track to pay rent, the pitfall is there and you’ll often end up going for the easy way. You think, ‘well that worked last time so I’ll use the same kick drum, the same bass line, I’ll use the same chord structure…I’ll change the break down a little bit but the drop will be the same.’ And if you don’t have that pressure of having to perform you might be able to give yourself some more creative freedom and say, ‘you know what, I’m just going to throw out all the sounds that I had in my old hit and I’m going to start completely from scratch.” Nearly two decades in the business and van Buuren admits he still doesn’t do well with deadlines. “I’d rather just sit in the studio and have fun because basically that’s what making music is all about.”
Regardless of what he’s working on and with whom, one of van Buuren’s primary objectives is to always remain very aware of the changing musical landscape. The father of two says he hopes his children grow up in a world that is open-minded to the evolution and merging of styles.
“There’s a big irony in the way that humans are made. If you go to the supermarket and you want to buy peanut butter, you go to the aisle where they have the jars of peanut butter. You’d be pretty upset if you came home with a jar that said ‘Peanut Butter’ only to open it and find jam inside. That is a little bit what’s happening with music,” he says. “If you go on Beatport, everything is neatly labeled. Everything is deep house, or trance, or progressive…but the nature of music is that it keeps evolving. And that sort of conflicts with the fact that us human beings, we make Top 40s and we have charts and we have competitions so we can label stuff, so we can put stuff in brackets and in jars and put ‘Peanut Butter’ on them. But if something is beautiful and if something is great, then it’s just beautiful and great.”
For many reasons, he says, music needs that freedom to just be in order to continue evolving. It needs to borrow from other styles, like trance borrowed from progressive and progressive borrowed from minimalism. Van Buuren’s recent collaboration with Mark Sixma was inspired by this concept of flux. Titled “Panta Rhei,” the tune owes its namesake to an old Greek saying from the philosopher Herclitus. “What he meant by that is that if you stand in a river all night, the next day you’re in the same spot but it’s different water running past your legs because the river’s moving,” he explains.
“That’s what happens with music. Everything flows.“