Armin! Armin! Armin! As the world’s No. 1 DJ according to DJ Mag’s definitive poll, legions of fans adore Armin van Buuren’s music, his A State of Trance radio show and ASOT festivals around the globe. And they’ll be donning their best white attire for his gig at Marquee Nightclub on May 24 for Tao Group’s annual Memorial Day weekend white party, where anyone dressed in white enjoys an open bar from 10-11 p.m.
With your “Who’s Afraid of 138?!” movement and track on your new album, Intense, why do you think some of your contemporaries now shy away from the trance sound or even being associated with the genre?
It is sort of a cynical remark. During my radio show, I still play a lot of [tracks that are] 138 [beats-per-minute], and I like to progress my sets usually from around 132 to 138—that’s just the way that I like to do things. I just love the sound. It’s the pure core of electronic music. But trance is not a fixed genre. If you listen to my new album there’s anything from 128 to 138. The whole thinking involved in style is ridiculous. Music should be entertaining, and the other thing about music is that it’s completely different each time; that’s what makes it so strong. What you said about DJs leaving the genre, I can understand that—some people want to move on and it’s fine. But it’s not a criticism against anybody. It’s more of a dedication to fans of true uplifting and show the people I still really love that sound and still want to support it; it’s a big part of my sets.
There are many influences on this album, but is there anything in particular that you do to keep that feeling trance gives people, while still being able to experiment and innovate?
I’m not trying to make a non-trance album or trying to change my sound, nor am I trying to make a trance album. I’m just following my heart, and never really stuck to one genre. If you look across my career, I’ve always been inspired by different styles. But my main sound and my heart goes to trance, and I’m not afraid to call myself a trance DJ—some of my colleagues maybe are, and that’s fine. I just love the sound, that’s all I can say.
Explain the journey you’ve created on Intense.
The idea behind Intense was to create an album that’s basically a photograph of ordinary life. We’re all human beings: Each has happy or sad moments in their life. If you look at the album, there’s some really happy tracks on there, like “Beautiful Life,” “Won’t Let You Go” and “Last Stop Before Heaven,” and also some sad songs, like “This is What it Feels Like” and “Alone.” It’s really the extremes of life, and that was the idea behind the album and the idea behind the artwork—life is full of surprises, let’s put it that way. … Those 78 minutes of music are the result of two-and-a-half years of experimentation and soul-searching, I want to try to do things that inspire me. So with every track on this album, there’s a story, and every track on this album there’s a reason the album’s played in that order, in that sequence.
The orchestral arrangements are fantastic. Do you think there’ll be more live instrumentation incorporated in electronic music rather than just samples and plugins?
If you look at the history of music, it’s always been like that, especially now with EDM fully embracing popular music, it’ll go on and embrace other genres as well. For example, if you look at the first Beatles album and the last Beatles album, compare the two, they sound completely different. Not only sonically, but the music’s different, the songs structures are different, everything about it is different. So I think this is a great thing. There’s something about real instruments, they have a dynamic range that just touches the soul. Having said that, I could never leave a good electronic bass drum out, or a kick drum created on a soundboard or from a drum machine, that’s something I could never omit. But working with real instruments on this album—like with the violinist Miri Ben-Ari—it was really pretty exciting. I was really happy about it. It taught me about the value of using real instruments, and how inspiring that can be. If you have a group of performers like on the opening track “Intense” we wrote the violin melody, sent it to Miri and she started rehearsing that melody and played it in one take. The dynamic range of a real violin compared to samples, it’s just so much more emotional. People that hear the original sample and then Miri’s performance—it’s the difference between day and night. The intonation, the dynamic range of a violin, maybe it’s the inaccuracy that the human ear picks up, it’s just so beautiful.
What kind of pressure, if any, do you feel being the world’s No. 1 DJ, and why are others referred to as No. 1 when you hold the official top spot?
[Laughs] I don’t feel pressure anymore. I let that go after Mirage and I can put a big X behind that winning awards goal in my life. I’ve won awards, I’ve gotten a lot of recognition from my fans and it feels absolutely fantastic that I got it, so winning awards for me is not so much of a satisfaction anymore as the first time you win an award. Having said that, if I were to win another award, it would of course feel great, another recognition from the fans that you kept up with your times and everything. My fans have stayed so loyal, and I hope that they appreciate the fact that I don’t stay stuck in one thing and I stay true to my roots. The main focus is not being the world’s most popular DJ, the main focus is to make great music and please fans.
It sometimes takes you months to complete a track—basically three years for this album. And you put a lot into it. What do you think about the prevalence of “ghost producers” or those that have a separate producer and then someone else who DJs? Or those who say it only takes them a few hours to make a track?
I don’t know, I find it hard to give an opinion about it. Some people say that some people don’t even work on their own tracks, and then I’ve worked with those people and find out that they actually do have a very important say about the track. So you never really know what’s going on with ghostwriting or not. All I can tell you is that I’ve worked on every track on Intense singlehandedly, and was involved in every track, the idea behind it and for me that counts. Some people don’t care and that’s fine, too. I take pride and honor in the fact that I’m still involved in every track that carries the Armin van Buuren name. If you go to a restaurant of a famous chef and you want to eat his menu and then you hear that it’s actually not cooked by him, you feel let down.
You were thinking about stopping the ASOT shows after 500, but thankfully you continued. Do you think 1,000 will be the magic number, or will you just go as long as possible?
I had the idea to stop at 500 because you have to stop at the peak, but this year was another peak with 600 selling out [Madison Square] Garden. It just keeps on growing, and as long as I feel like it still adds something to the scene and promotes new talent, really investing in the future of trance, especially with the new guys like Ørjan Nilsen, Andrew Rayel, Actic Moon and all those guys. They’re making fantastic tracks that sound completely different than 10 years ago, but it’s still very much uplifting and very much true trance, so I’m excited about that and I think that’s a great future for trance. That doesn’t mean trance needs to become commercial, because I think where trance is right now is perfect. If you want to be successful right now it’s best to have a house track instead of a trance track—but that’s not to diss house or anything, everything’s fine. I like to experiment with house as well a little bit, but I think trance is great where it is right now.
You’re going to be playing Las Vegas over Memorial Day weekend, when there are going to be a lot of tourists who only know the hits. Why do you think your gigs are the exception and what will you bring to the table?
I’m the type of DJ who looks at the crowd and decides where I’ll go with my set, nothing’s pre-programmed. [Although] sometimes I do know what track I want to start with. I’ve never played the same set twice, never. You can check all my track lists; I always mix it up. And Vegas is different every time. I think also right now I’m in a position where people know who Armin van Buuren is and can extract certain sounds and certain things that happen. I don’t think you should play for a crowd exactly what they want because it gets a bit boring. On the other hand, I do want to please my fans, but surprise them as well. It’s a delicate balance.
What has been the biggest hurdle to overcome in your career?
The biggest hurdle is probably myself. [Laughs]. With my handling criticism from other people. Now I understand that you need to see that people are just one person. But when you look at a mass crowd, it’s all these different opinions together, and it took me a few years to realize that. I don’t say that I can handle criticism easy. I’m a human being and I take criticism hard, but it’s easier to deal with now than it was at the start because I grew a bit older and now I know I can’t please everybody as hard as I try, I simply can’t. So I just do my best and follow my heart.