While trance’s street cred has often been reduced to the memory of its euphoric heyday, Armin Van Buuren has remained relevant to his corner of dance music by always sticking to his guns. The Netherlands-born globetrotter has served the industry for more than a decade and maintained a constant finger on the pulse of his beloved genre. And his duties as DJ, recording artist, radio host, and label head would have us believe that there is nothing the Dutch artist wouldn’t do to preserve his craft, while always looking forward to its future.
Having recently sold out Madison Square Garden for his ASOT 600 celebratory run, the ardent trance legend sat down with Beatport News to examine the road to his fifth artist album and the anatomy of an industry icon.
Given the considerable list of achievements, landmarks, and developments to your name, how do you feel about the current state of the industry and the circumstances you now face as an artist?
I think it’s a great time for EDM and I’m happy to see it grow, but not necessarily because of some tracks becoming successful in the Top 40 and commercial charts. More people are interested in dance music and interested in visiting a party or buying some music. That opens up the doors for more unknown artists to play on the smaller stages and develop themselves. I think it’s cool that on so many different levels these artists are collaborating and bringing new sounds.
You have been scaling the globe with your A State of Trance 600 – The Expedition world tour. How has the concept developed for you since its inception, and what do you believe it now stands for in terms of your career and the wider industry?
I’m proud to say the formula of the weekly radio show is basically still the same as when I started it in 2001: playing a two-hour non-stop radio show showcasing the latest in trance and progressive. If you listen to the show, you’re sure to catch at least the majority of the trance records that matter. That formula is also used for the ASOT events: bringing new music and DJs to people and let them enjoy, debate, and/or discover it. The focus is not purely on Armin van Buuren or Armada, but it’s on new and established talent and new music. I’ve always believed in trance and I want to get this sound to people that may enjoy it but just haven’t had a chance to check it out yet. That’s why I make it a big deal to travel to new cities every year—in the same way I try to introduce new talent by booking them before or after established names.
It seems fair to say that the world of trance has changed considerably since you first engaged with the genre. Talk us through the developments you have seen it take over the years and your feelings on the current state compared to other popular forms of electronic music.
Well, first of all, the way producers make tracks has changed dramatically. Most make their tracks are now completely “in the box,” meaning only using a DAW with plugins. This has done a lot for the sound. Second, the impact of social media is now a lot bigger than when I started doing the radio show. People interact live during the broadcasts and that helps me to see what they like and don’t like. Also, thanks to the internet, you now have hundreds of radio shows every week, which I think is fantastic! Third, I think trance is no longer just one style. It can be used to describe a number of different sounds. For example, we now have uplifting trance, orchestral trance, vocal trance, tech trance, progressive trance, hard trance, etc. I don’t really like to label music styles because everybody seems to have a different definition of a genre, but I think it’s interesting to see the sound grow into so many sub-genres and cultures, each with its own fans. It hasn’t become as commercially successful as other genres, but I don’t see that as a bad thing. I think it has kept the community closer and makes it an honor to be a part of, as the fans are extremely loyal and dedicated. Trance music has the best fans in the world because they actually care about the music that’s being played and are not just following a hype or trend.
Given the eclectic and all-encompassing nature of modern electronic music, how important do you believe genre boundaries are to the modern industry, and is there a general over-reliance on them?
To be able to understand what’s going on on planet earth, people categorize everything. We like to put labels on stuff so we can find it when we need it. The problem with categorizing music is that it’s not clear what the definition of a particular genre is. For some, it’s trance; for others, it’s progressive! The problem with thinking in genres is that it can prevent new creativity. Despite the freedom available, some are too afraid and stick to their safe haven. If you look at the history of all music, new genres and styles were always born when artists dared to look over their safe borders. The Beatles started using a Moog synthesizer on Sgt. Pepper’s, Bob Dylan suddenly picked up an electric guitar—the list goes on and on and will repeat itself for decades until people start appreciating an artist for who he or she wants to be.
Intense marks your fifth full-length album. How have you found the process of creating full-length offerings, and does the creative and mental process has become easier or harder with time?
Intense is about finding my own road. You can say the album and my life at the moment in general are pretty intense. I’ve never put so much work into one album and each track. I have to say I have never had so much fun in creating an album than with Intense. They are all about moments of extreme joy or sadness, and the album flirts with all kinds of musical styles, particularly the title track itself. I came to realize how intense life can be with the birth of my daughter Fenna and how much more color that gave it. To that extent, music gives color to life, and with her being born, I feel less pressure than before. The ironic thing is with this album, the less I try to be creative or try to be innovative but just sit in the studio and “let music happen,” the more easy it goes.
The album has been three years in the making. Why has it taken so long to emerge. Does the grueling tour schedule have anything to do with it?
Owing to a very hectic schedule with gigs and radio shows, it’s hard to find the time to produce, but I actually took a lot of time off to work on music. This is essential. I didn’t want to force anything so I didn’t give a deadline to myself—only when the album was 90% done, to push myself to finish what I started. I can’t be creative because I have to.
First single “This Is What It Feels Like” seems a pretty strong indicator of things to come. Tell us a bit about the track and whether, given your vast experience with vocalists, you find the process of adding a strong topline to the equation a considerably tough challenge?
Yes, especially since most successful dance music is instrumental. You don’t want to know how many vocals I’ve turned down working on Intense. It’s almost as in real life: if you have nothing to say, better sing nothing at all. “This Is What It Feels Like” was born after a studio session with famous Dutch writer John Ewbank and my studio partner Benno de Goeij. We created an instrumental and sent that to Jenson Vaughan, who worked with Trevor Guthrie on the song. We got the vocal back, and Benno and I created a completely new instrumental. It was one of those rare moments that the magic happened and everything just came together.
Between the successive albums, DJ Mag Top 100 spots, and live global success, would it be fair to say that the pace of life and concept of “fame” have been considerably difficult factors to balance within your career?
Yes, I’m always juggling with time, and it’s hard to miss my wife and daughter. But I’m very fortunate to have a great team of people around me to help me. Without them, I couldn’t do what I do today.
Past the release of “Intense,” what can we expect from you for the remainder of 2013, in terms of live and studio work?
I’m working on a new show for Armin Only. That will be my main focus for the rest of 2013 and will probably take up all my time. Having said that, I’m already working on a few new songs and a new track under my Gaia guise.