For all the well-groomed idols and spotless Dutch icons to emerge over the past two decades, Sander Kleinenberg has offered an eclectic vision for electronic music over the years. A DJ first and foremost with an open loathing of the process of production, his plight as a VDJ and musical journeyman have seen unsuspecting jazz figurehead Jamie Cullum and Justin Timberlake alike integrated into his dancefloor oeuvre.
But as the industry has moved further away from the innocent club culture that fostered his passionate disposition, so has Kleinenberg’s patience for its trigger-happy whims. Despite a considerable spiral of skepticism, his presence on the global circuit and behind renowned house imprint This Is Recordings suggests there is hope yet for an organic future regardless of the saturation facing his craft. Ready to follow-up 2011’s 5K with what might be another full-length endeavor to add to his already ornamented discography, Kleinenberg sat down with us in Amsterdam to explore the positive and negative connotations of being a forward-thinker amid times of radical change.
Despite your continued presence on the global clubbing circuit, 2012 seemed to be a tough year for you mentally. What had you questioning the industry and your position within it?
I had to work increasingly hard to remain relevant without selling myself short, which in turn ended up meaning I spent a lot more time in the studio. That was good, as it is something I had not been doing in the way I should have until more recently, so in that sense it was a pretty tough ride. The scene has grown into territories I never thought it would, and in turn I made some rather rash decisions regarding where I want to be as an artist. Sometimes I feel I have been a little diluted in the fame and pursuit of money, but I am back where I should be in the studio with some really relevant music. The scene is mixed, the gigs have been up and down, and I feel like I have been misunderstood, maybe because I have been sending out mixed messages.
During this year’s Amsterdam Dance Event you were on the panel for a pretty stern talk about marketing in the context of electronic music. Is this something that concerns you much within your career?
During that panel they discussed how marketing was apparently super-important, which I agree with to an extent, but I believe you should only whore yourself out if you believe that is what you need and it is close to who you are as an artist. The most important thing is where you start and that your message is music. If your music is relevant then you will always find a way to make your name. Strapping [on] a huge brand name or doing something obvious isn’t necessarily a long-term solution in this industry.
Your introduction to DJing was a real labor-of-love story. What has kept you so rigorously passionate about the culture and creative integrity of DJing over the years?
Electronic music was like a revolution to me over the airwaves: It called my name and I had to be a part of it. You would find me cycling to and from local shows for awful money and sometimes I even had to mop the floor of the club after my sets. It was the age of public radio, when people were still traveling to Chicago and coming back with exciting new records. It was in this period that I discovered that with the right records fused together at the right time, you create these moments in music that people have often never experienced. You cannot over-think the soundtrack to Saturday night, but that doesn’t mean it cannot be invigorating and inspirational to the people that come and watch you. I am always looking for the next piece in the puzzle and how to build these musical journeys to take people places they didn’t expect to find themselves.
With such radical developments in technology and attitude that surround live electronic music, is that culture that first captured your heart as sacred as it was upon your discovery of it?
I don’t care what anyone says, a good DJ set is never as easy as pushing a button. It is about creating a new energy—to master that can never be an overnight affair. There is that culture and the fact is that I am not the only one out there who still guns for it. When you are able to do it organically and truly master the craft of DJing, the prize is simple: outright control of that crowd, both physically and emotionally. For a lot of artists, DJing has become a way to massage their egos, but I don’t want to become that bitter old man in the face of cultural change—arrogance is a defeating tool. The times have changed, a lot of them for the better, but it takes a lot to be a truly good DJ and whether you are a multi-platinum-selling artist or an underground artist, you will always be able to hear and feel the difference when a truly good DJ plays.
How far would you agree that a lot of labels and artists are playing it safe where their sound and approach is concerned?
I think there is a lot of insecurity within the scene. Everyone needs to make that same statement in that same way and under the same parameters. My thoughts are simple: fuck that bollocks! Music is total freedom. Anything can be done with modern technology and as a result the potential for music is now limitless. Because of that limitless side, it does need some perspective and boundaries, but for me those boundaries are fairly wide. It feels like it is difficult for some people to follow this mentality, but realistically one or two hit records is all it takes to make people understand. I try to stand for a somewhat more diverse musical identity and that has been both a challenge and selling point for me over the years.
Your career to date has seen you collaborate with talents from across the musical spectrum. What do you believe such open-minded process and appetite means to this industry at a time when we are seeing more repetition than innovation on most counts?
I look to make a difference with the productions I do. I don’t create to be famous at all, or for money—that stuff simply doesn’t interest me. That being said, I do like the recognition and as a result, I am pretty open to working with people across the board. I would work with some pretty nasty motherfuckers if the product were an incredible one. Now that I think about it, some people would go very far to sell themselves and lead with their managers and success. I am a more open-minded man within the creative process, but when it is being sold, I put some limitations on the distribution. I generally believe that people still put too much emphasis on packaging the content and when the content speaks for itself, people know and appreciate it, even if it is silent appreciation.
Having served electronic music for so many years, is this still an industry you find inherently positive to operate within given the mixed developments we have seen over the years?
Despite my cynicism there are many aspects to this scene that are very positive. The sheer volume and global nature of the platform is incredible. I have seen this grow in such a natural way over the past 20 years, and in turn I am not really surprised about the outcome. Some things aren’t great and there are other people who are successful who do not deserve to be there, but it is not good to let jealousy or spite take over the way that you look at and function in life; negativity is seldom a good approach in this industry.
To that extent, does recognition necessarily always amount to genuine success in the context of the modern industry and your presence within it?
Yes and no. The fact is I am not one of those artists that are just happy if a track has 50 views on YouTube; the idea of people liking my music all over is great. If I can do it within my own rulebook, without taking too much notice of what happens politically, then that would be ideal for me. I would be devastated if I looked back and had shaped my legacy on a sound that already existed and was merely duplicated by my contributions. It is all about authenticity and doing what changes the world people live in for the better.
This Is Recordings has accounted for a huge chunk of your efforts and time of late. Given the diverse array of talents the imprint now holds, how do you see the label developing from here onwards, and what do you look for in artists for the label?
As diverse as the artists are, I want This Is to have #1 records. I think these guys deserve to grow into these territories because they believe in and love what they do. Even some of the best guys in the world that sell millions of records are genuinely authentic and driven by love for what they do. As soon as it becomes stretched-out and inauthentic, you have to recognize you are doing something strategic and insincere. Because of the vast nature of the scene, we have a lot of fast people out there. I admire our artists because they are miles from that mentality.
Keeping the global presence and scattered landmarks of your career to one side, what further aspirations do you hold for the label given the budding roster you now have?
I want it to continue to be as relevant as possible. Making a difference at the biggest heights possible while being true to my beliefs is what has driven the label from day one. It is great that I can feature on the label to assist its profile, but one day I want This Is Recordings to sail on its own wings without me in the equation. I have no doubt that day is fast approaching.
With your feet back on the ground and your approach and attitude refined, what can we expect from you throughout the year? There was rumor of a follow-up to 5K?
I just finished an album, but I am not sure it will be a formal “album” as such. It is a collection of tracks that I wanted to finish as one body of work, but they were more about finding me as an artist than being the follow-up to 5K. That was a great landmark for me, but the album wasn’t very homogeneous due to the varied selection of tracks and sounds. As a result, I think people weren’t sure about what was going on and only tapped into a selection of the tracks. This time I think I nailed it better, both as a musical journey and an art form, but that is the very nature of the album concept—it takes practice and development. The material is much quirkier and I guess a little more squeamish than previous material. I feel like as a statement it says, “Right, I have held back for long enough—time to step back in the arena.” There will also be remixes for Kraak & Smaak earlier on and more work with artists I truly believe in from across the musical spectrum.
It seems fair to say that the challenges have never really ended for you as an artist. What do you consider to have been the most impacting of these within your career, and have you drawn any positivity from overcoming them?
Reinventing yourself is a huge challenge. I was never going to be known for one genre or sound and that confuses people, no matter how big or underground you are. That was a part of my career, but there are many more parts to come, so the challenges are at the back of my mind, while the lessons learned are in the front for the road ahead. I love that I can find new energy and take new directions while embracing the way this genre is morphing towards the future. I am going to keep chasing it, but it takes patience and perseverance to make it for the long run.