Electronic Democracy

Paul van Dyk talks politics, Pandora and the state of techno

Paul van Dyk is a German DJ, but is no stranger to American politics. As he prepares for a pair of Independence Day performances at Tao, he doesn’t hold back his views about U.S. foreign policy.

“They put themselves into the position of being the world police,” he asserts. “Of course the European Union and all of us have an opinion. We have troops in Afghanistan, too.”

He defends the troops with passion and compassion.

“If they had the choice, they wouldn’t be there; they would be home with their families,” he says of the thousands of international soldiers currently stationed in Afghanistan. “They’re there because they’re on duty for all of us, and they’re on duty because the government that we voted for made a big mistake.” While he doesn’t agree with the war, he supports the soldiers fighting it.

“I disagree on the political agenda why [soldiers are in Afghanistan], but since our troops are there, we have to support them,” he says.

Although he laughs off a “Bono of electronic music” comparison—“I’d rather be the Paul of electronic music,” he says—van Dyk is one of few DJs actively involved in international politics.

“My aim is to make people aware of how important democracy is,” he says. And despite his distaste for the war, he looks forward to celebrating Independence Day on American soil.

“The Fourth of July weekend is a big sort of celebration of patriotism of the Americans, but also it’s a big celebration of democracy, of liberation—and I think this is something that’s absolutely worth celebrating, especially since I grew up in East Germany. For me, democracy is a very valuable thing.”

The DJ talked international politics, among other things, during a trans-Atlantic phone conversation with Vegas Seven.

You host a radio show, Vonyc Sessions, out of Berlin, and were raised on two underground stations in East Germany. What does the future hold for radio?

These days, there are a hundred radio channels that play just electronic music, or just rock music, or just talk radio. That has the benefit that I always get what I want, but … if I only listen to the electronic channel I will never discover the cool and new rock bands. The other day, I was listening to this sort of indie rock station in Berlin and they played this track and I was like, “Holy shit! Who was that?” So I stopped, actually wrote down the name, and it’s a fantastic album. The name of the guy is Fyfe Dangerfield. If I would have stuck to just my electronic dance station, I would have never ever heard of that person. You miss out on that stuff if you only listen to your electronic station. I think maybe 95 percent of the music I’ve made has never been played outside of specialized shows, because it’s kind of too undergroundy, too hard, too rocking, too banging, too edgy, too whatever, for Top 40 radio.

Internet radio stations—Blip.fm, Slacker Radio, Pandora, etc.—generate playlists for you using what they consider to be similar artists. Your Pandora station plays 4 Strings, Armin van Buuren, Tiesto and ATB. Do you think this is accurate?

Um, not necessarily (laughs). To be really honest, I think that stuff like this is really difficult to judge. People that enjoy someone’s particular style may not necessarily enjoy [another artist’s] style, just because they use the same instruments. Just because Linkin Park is using the same instruments as Limp Bizkit doesn’t really mean that I’ll like both. I’m a big fan of Linkin Park, couldn’t really say that about Limp Bizkit.

OK, so who would you put on your Pandora playlist?

Arty, Giuseppe Armani, Armin van Buuren, Sasha and BT.

You’ve taken an anti-drug stance, prompting T-shirts with slogans such as “No E, Pure PvD.” Is this still the case?

Absolutely. … It probably has to do with how I got in contact with electronic music. I was a kid in East Berlin, sitting in front of the radio. I was far away from any drugs, and it obviously wouldn’t appeal to me to sit in front of a really small radio and be high on something. I’m not a better person than someone else; it’s just actually never really appealed to me.

Speaking of T-shirts, you sell some that say “Fuck It, We’re Famous, Too”—a play off of David Guetta’s notorious party, Fuck Me I’m Famous. Explain that one.

Our scene was never about individuals putting themselves on a podium, or crowning themselves as this and that. It was always about the music, it was always about the scene. So, basically, this T-shirt is for everybody. Every single person in the club enjoying electronic music is fucking famous.

You obviously know Guetta. What does he think about it?

I don’t really know, and I never really thought about it, either. I don’t think it’s offending at all; it’s just a little, fun thing. … It was just a fun idea [that came up] in the office … and we all just laughed our asses off.

Electronic music can be hard to categorize. What do you consider your music to be—house, techno or something else altogether?

To be honest, I don’t really know! Where exactly is the borderline between trance and techno? And where exactly is the borderline between minimal techno and minimal? Where is electro versus trance? It’s not really clear. It’s always a very subjective point of view—what you call techno I might call minimal, what you call trance I maybe call pop music. For me, it’s electronic music.

What’s the difference is between European DJs and American DJs?

They have a different passport.

Is that the only thing?

I’m pretty sure it is, because if you do what we do you have to be a complete lunatic, and you have to actually be a complete freak and geek when it comes down to music—regardless of if you’re American or European.

What has been the most significant change for your genre—whatever you want to call it—in recent years?

There is music that has its roots directly in the clubs, in the electronic music scene, and has pop elements to it. This is something that I actually like … What I don’t really like is the other way around, when cheesy pop music is using the elements from our genre, [or] cool hip-hop acts becoming third-class dance acts.