When I showed up at London, Ontario’s Western Fair District to interview world renowned DJ Armin van Buuren, the plan was to sit down for a few minutes backstage and learn a bit about his music, but I got much more than I bargained for. That night, for a few minutes, I was a part of his entourage.
I’ve been a fan of Armin van Buuren’s music for quite sometime, and an occasional listener to his radio show, A State of Trance. However, I’d never been to a live DJ concert before, nor had I followed the broader genre of electronic dance music (EDM), save for a few artists within that field.
Upon arrival to the venue shortly before midnight, the doors had been open for three hours and there was still a line-up of several hundred around the building. Of course, when you’re headed backstage to meet the main act, you can smirk whilst walking to the front of the line avoiding eye contact with those who’ve been waiting in the cold.
After showing my press credentials, I was brought into the venue and directed to the backstage area, where a photographer and another journalist were waiting, as well as a representative of niteSCHOOL, the promotions company organizing the concert.
The energy in the converted warehouse was palpable. Dutch DJ Jochen Miller, the second opening act for van Buuren, was midway through his set and the standing room-only venue was packed. The energy—and sheer volume—of the performance were no less backstage than on the dancefloor.
Hearing myself speak proved rather difficult. The notion of hearing someone else speak without shoving my ear into their mouth seemed rather impossible.
Fortunately, when Armin van Buuren and his tour manager arrived to the venue, they had the same level of skepticism about whether or not the area was suitable for interviews. Van Buuren, looking rather unassuming, glided into the backstage area wearing a pair of designer jeans, a loose-fitting white t-shirt and a black leather jacket. His lanky figure and tousled hair would give him an almost boyish look were it not for his height. At nearly 6 foot 3, he towered over everyone in the room.
The two conferred with the promoter as the other journalist and I glared at each other with a look that could only signify a mutual confusion about what was going on.
“Slight change of plans,” the promoter warned us. “You’re going to do the interviews at Armin’s hotel.”
Of course, I nodded along reassuringly as though this was business as usual. With less than an hour to go until van Buuren’s three-hour set at 1:00am, we had to drive to his hotel, do two interviews, and then drive back.
Armin, the tour manager, a driver and us media folks were hurried to a waiting Cadillac Escalade behind the stage, but not before Armin formally introduced himself to the other journalist and I before we entered the vehicle.
“How often does this happen?”, I asked him, tongue in cheek.
“Not usually,” he replied, grinning. “It keeps it fun though.”
We were driven through London to the Hilton. Blocks from the hotel, there had been a shooting thirty minutes prior at another concert. Fortunately, there was no delay in getting to the hotel.
During the 8-minute drive, Armin switched between Dutch and English as he spoke with his tour manager and made conversation with us backseaters.
As we pulled into the driveway of the Hilton, all of us got out of the SUV in fluid form and moved as a pack into the hotel, through the lobby, to a waiting elevator where we silently ascended to the 15th floor, where I finally sat down with the man of the hour.
Armin van Buuren was originally booked at a much smaller venue, but the promoter announced the upgrade to the Western Fair District, with a capacity of several thousand, days prior to the show. This is a common occurrence for him, despite his modesty about his draw.
“You have to understand, the reason I’m in this business is because I’m a fan first and foremost. To be in a position where people instantaneously buy your tickets is something you can only dream of,” He said. “Even if you’re successful and no matter how many awards you have or what recognition you’ve got, it’s a beautiful thing to know that so many people like what you do.”
When he speaks of being a fan first, he means it. He admits to owning most—if not all—of the records reviewed in DJ Magazine, the publication that ranked him as the top DJ in the world from 2007-2010 (in 2011 he took second place to David Guetta.)
It’s that music that influences and shapes his own music. According to van Buuren, 95% of his music is inspired by what he hears.
“I always get influenced. Everything you are as an artist is not only because of the music you listen to but the people you hang out with and the environment that you’re in. Everything matters.”
His biggest inspiration, however, comes from the instant reaction of the audiences at his shows.
“I’m there. I see what a good track does and I see what impact they can have on the dancefloor.”
Despite his fame as Armin the DJ, he is just as much a force to be reckoned with as a producer, but in the studio he doesn’t have the instant gratification of audience reaction. He resorts to other methods of inspiration.
“It’s the craving for another crowd. There are a few stages in producing,” he explains. “First of all, you think about what kind of track you want to make and what kind of sound you want to bring across and what kind of feeling you want to try to have. Then there’s the production phase where you do some tricks already used in other tracks. Or you try to improve them in your track. Not copying, but being inspired by another person’s track.”
Van Buuren’s success is rare in the DJing world, and he doesn’t seem to know what the ‘X’ factor is that’s contributed to his success (or at least he didn’t share it with me), but he seems to credit most of it to his uniqueness as an artist.
“I’ve never played the same set twice, which I think a lot of pop artists and rock artists can’t say. Also, I have a big visual show now that I bring on the road. Electronic Dance Music is still a very new phenomenon. I still have to explain to a lot of people what exactly EDM is. Because for a lot of people, it’s just some guy playing records. And I can honestly say with my hand on my heart that we’re way past that stage.” He laughed.
“Some DJs only come up there and play their own big hits, but I don’t consider that DJing. I consider DJing the art of blending existing pieces of music into something that’s more than just that piece of music. It sounds vague maybe, but you really try to bring people in a state of trace.”
Putting his set together starts before he even gets to the venue, however.
“I put a lot of time into it. For example, before the show, I go onto message boards and Facebook and what not to see what kind of music people expect me to play. That’s the safe route. I don’t always walk the safe route though. It’s good to know what kind of audience you’re going to expect. I’m not just looking at one guy in the audience who’s requested 10 tracks. I try to find 20-30 opinions of people who say ‘Hey, I’m excited to see Armin van Buuren’s show because I really like this and this and this track.’ That’s sort of the sound they’re expecting tonight; that’s valuable information.”
“A DJ set should be seen as one thing and all the individual records lead up to that specific point.”
With 4.2 million Facebook fans and over 650,000 Twitter followers (as my jealousy erupts,) Armin’s social media savvy is a big part of his success.
“This is 2012,” he told me sternly. “We need to accept the reality, whether you like it or not, that most peoples’ lives are on Facebook and Twitter right now. It’s important to have a presence there as an artist, I feel, if you want to reach a broader audience.”
“A good thing about Facebook and Twitter is that you don’t really need press. No disrespect.”
I assured Armin that no offense was taken. He chuckled.
“You don’t need to do an interview to get your product out there. I can just say to my fans ‘Hey guys, this is a new track. What do you think?’”
“When I grew up, there wasn’t even internet. No cell phones. Nothing. Kids that grow up now who are 17, 18, 19, spend most of their active social lives on social media. You have to have a presence there.”
While his success on social media is impressive, it’s secondary to his success as an artist. With his record-breaking four consecutive wins in the annual coveted DJ Magazine poll (and eight years running in that poll’s top 3) and “more platinum and gold records than you could count,” it’s his passion for the music itself that drives him.
“It feels great to have such recognition from the fans. If you ask Steven Spielberg if he’s happy with his Oscars, I’m sure he is. It’s recognition and it always feels good. Just like diplomas or whatever for graduation. On the other hand, I think there’s a really important fact that I like to state. DJs are like apples and oranges. It’s really hard to compare myself to other DJs as I bring another sound than other DJs on that list. In fact, there are quite a few DJs on that list that I really look up to and there are a couple that I don’t specifically like.”
“I didn’t ask for the DJ Magazine list. It’s just there. It’s not a competition that I enter. So, you’re a slave to that principle. I think that people look at it—especially the media—as ‘So hey, you won best DJ in Miami a few weeks ago. You won five other awards.’ Then it becomes a list of things you achieved in life but it doesn’t really say anything about the person I am or what I want to represent as an artist. The message that I want to bring across to my fans. And about my music. Am I happy with it? Yes, of course. Does it say anything about my music or me as a person? No, of course not.”
I pushed Armin to explain what he wants people who hear his music to know about Armin van Buuren the man. He paused as he considered my question.
“The message of trance music is really powerful and it can change peoples’ lives. What I want to do is take people to the next level with my music and really try to take them out of this life and put them on a different planet for a little bit. Trance music is a journey. It can really take you away. This is the way I see it and the way I listen to it. I really like that, and I like to be taken away.”
Of course, what he calls his “greatest production” is his 8-month old daughter, Fenna. When I brought the conversation around to her, I saw a new glow in the man I’d been with for the past half-hour. The calm mild-mannered Dutchman had a glee about him at the very thought of her.
Beyond the sheer joy, he acknowledges that being a family man has brought more focus to his work.
“All the clichés are true,” he confesses. “For some reason, it all falls into place more. It sounds really strange, but even in my professional work as a DJ, I’ve become more focused. Just because you don’t have that much time anymore. I feel more confident in a way.
After we had wrapped up, I thanked him and we descended back into the lobby of the Hilton where we had only 10 minutes to get back to the concert venue and for Armin to take the stage. Just outside the door of the hotel, a pair of men from Israel had been staking out the hotel, learning somehow that Armin was on-site. They had flown to London, Ontario just to see Armin perform (I didn’t have the heart to tell them that he was going to be performing in Tel Aviv at the end of the month.)
Despite how late we were, Armin stopped and took pictures with the gentlemen, much to the chagrin of his tour manager. “Every time,” he muttered to me as he motioned for Armin to get into the SUV. Once again, Armin’s team, the other journalist and myself briskly moved along into the SUV for the speedy ride to the venue.
Upon arrival, Armin and I shook hands one last time and went our separate ways. Minutes later, he was on stage and I was on the dance floor watching a backlit proud father and passionate artist raise his hands in the air to thousands of cheering fans. That single motion and the reaction it garnered encapsulates that EDM is far more than a genre; it’s an experience.