On May 9th, Armin Van Buuren returned to Los Angeles from a belated absence, bringing back the Armin Only experience with the Intense Tour. I had the privilege to speak with him before the show about the details of the work that goes into the Intense show, the current state of electronic dance music, and some things in between. A candid perspective from one of the most influential players in the music scene today. We'll we're here, so let's start off what makes Los Angeles so unique.
“It's simply the biggest number of fans here if you compare to anywhere else in the world. For example, on social media, during A State of Trance radio show, it's a draw between New York and Los Angeles. In New York, Madison Square Garden we did the show, now the Forum here. I'm especially excited because in 2010, I had to cancel the show because we worked with some sort of douchebag of a promoter who didn't book the venue. People have been waiting for the return of the Armin Only concept. In 2008, I did the Imagine show at the Los Angeles Sports Arena which was fantastic, phenomenal. I remember that night like yesterday. 35,000 people, it was so emotional, so great. I felt really bad for my fans in L.A. because basically we got screwed over, but now we're here, proper.”
There are significant differences for an artist in their “creative control” if they are playing a solo event. Compared to a festival slot or a club gig, it' all apples and oranges. (Notice the Armin face in the mountain?)
“First of all, it's called Armin Only. I'm the only guy playing. Normally the show is seven or eight hours, including a vinyl after set. But unfortunately here the curfew is 12 AM, so we have to cut it then. Actually what you're going to see is a condensed show, it's only five hours. Sounds a bit ironic you know, you get five hours and can't even play all of your tracks, but it is what it is. It came from the clubs, the need to play longer than you know, the big hits in one hour. There's nothing wrong with that, I like playing big hits in one hour, but I prefer this. You can compare it best to Christmas Dinner with Armin Van Buuren. It's like, sometimes you go out and have a burger. But this is a Christmas dinner with everything. The food has all the courses, the in-betweens and everything. I really take people on a journey, and I need that as a DJ.
As much as I respect my colleagues, I don't have to take them into account. I can build my own atmosphere, really take people on a journey from A to B to C to D. I won't bang out the big hits when people come in, and we fill the whole show. I am particularly proud of this concept because I don't know any other DJ that's doing it. It's not a competition thing because I don't want to be better than anyone else or something. It comes from a creative need to try and do new things. Same thing I did this year with Gaia. Same thing I did with A State of Trance. I'm constantly reinventing myself and trying to move forward with new sounds. It's an experiment. It's a tour with Live Nation here in America with our own stage, with dancers, with acrobats, with six singers, a full band, floor dancers, you know, the whole thing. It's great to bring something different.
I think for me right now, it would be a lot easier, and financially more interesting, to download the Beatport Top 10 on a USB key and travel the world, which I could easily fill my diary. That doesn't give me the creative kick anymore. As I'm building the show, I'm working with people in the world of theater, spending six months and serious budget on visuals, working with professional singers and vocal coaches, all while building a show that's an actual freestyle DJ set. We've designed special software we tested for months and months where I'm playing a track and people in front of house and backstage can see what I'm doing. We've designed this system for example, if someone sends me a track now, I can play it tonight at the Forum. There's no delay in that. I can immediately play it, that's what I like about this concept. It's still DJ'ing.
When I decide to play “This is What it Feels Like”, there's a click track starting the moment I start the track. The visuals ride in sync, and that's when the pre-programmed moment comes. “This is What it Feels Like” has pre-programmed visuals, Trevor knows when to come on. Whenever there's a live singer, they hear a ‘click' in his ears that the crowd doesn't hear. After that track is over, I'll mix it into another track. For the crowd, it's still a DJ set, the music doesn't stop, it continues. That's exciting… yeah.”
Armin's Gaia persona recently debut at Ultra Music Festival. Luckily, There will be plenty more of this to look forward to in the near future.
“Gaia is a little bit like my alter ego. Gaia is mother earth. It's a reference to where I come from. A need to do something the opposite of playing the hits on the main stages. Again, I like that, but with Gaia, I don't want to move or have crowd interaction. I want it to be purely about instrumental trance music. No vocals or barely vocals. Really take people on a journey like they used to be in clubs. Kind of an anti-reaction to, well… Sometimes I don't even see the difference between two DJ's. They're playing each other's music. They're all doing the same moves on stage. With Gaia, I just want to make a statement like “God let it just be about the music!”.”
What artists is Armin keeping an eye on in 2014?
“Many, many. I own a label, Armada Music. I follow everything closely. I was really impressed by Cosmic Gate coming up with a really great album. Andrew Rayel, who's sort of my protege. Just did a track with him, he's releasing an album soon. I'm really proud of what he's doing. Still really excited about Ørjan Nilsen's stuff, although he's not really new anymore. David Gravell is really a guy to watch, he's amazing. Mark Sixma, those guys.”
Recently, I did some research about the current state of music festivals which included News coverage and opinion pieces specifically focusing on the mainstream growth of EDM, and in particular, misconduct in different global regions. This enlightening article from Flavorwire posed this question to Kerry Mason, Senior VP of SFX Entertainment (Tomorrowland, Electric Zoo, Life in Color):
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“What do you think can be done to combat drug-related deaths at festivals, and do the festivals themselves have an obligation to lead the charge?” Her response: “A combination of education and enhanced security. There’s a lot of misinformation out there. Dance music started as a subculture with a tribal instinct to take care of its own. When it went more mainstream, it lost a lot of that built-in protection. I believe the onus is on us to reintroduce that in some form. Not everyone agrees.”
I asked this in particular because as Armin spoke through the interview, he clearly iterated his position as not only an icon of electronic music, but as a fan who has seen it's progression take place first-hand, on levels I honestly can't appreciate. The Armin Only: Intense experience signifies in ways, a homage to a different way that electronic music was presented before it became so popular. How many other people would have more credibility on such a critical issue as electronic music massively gains in popularity?
“How or could you see electronic music going back to where it's more like a niche tribal culture than something this mainstream that doesn't have these problems?”
“There's a couple of things I would like to say. First of all, there's a thing called evolution that we cannot stop in music. First, a big disappointment. I don't think it's ever going to be underground and niche again. Good news, part of it will be, like deep house. Music like that is not something you would likely hear being played at the Forum but I don't think so, it's less likely. We just have to face the fact that the Beatles are more popular, The Rolling Stones are now more popular. There was a time when fans in Liverpool were complaining that the Beatles didn't play the Cavern Club anymore because they were simply so big, they had to go to London. Then they came to the United States. The rest is history.
If you look at the history of music, it's just repeating itself. I think what's happening right now, there's a diversification. You can no longer speak about just EDM, or dance music. You have to speak about all of the sub-styles. You have to speak about dubstep. You have to speak about deep house, trance, EDM is even a genre now by it's own. There's all these different styles that now have their own following. It's no longer just dance music because it's made with electronic stuff. There's a lot of acoustic stuff made in electronic as well, so it's a mix. I have a problem when people make generalized comments about it, like DJ's have to take their own responsibility and bring people back. My problem is that I am taking my own responsibility at least.
I recently did a big campaign with Heineken called “Dance More, Drink Slow,” where we said to people to take care of themselves. To generalize something and just say that we all have to look after each other, I think that's really, really wrong thing to say, especially from a person that high up. We all have our own responsibilities to look after each other. It's no difference if you are at a festival, an event, or walking at the local supermarket. That's what my track “Alone” is about actually. It's specifically, listen to the lyrics of “Alone”, you'll know what I mean. We have to look after each other. I think it's one of the things that's happening right now, at a bigger scale.
When I came to Los Angeles for the first time playing in 2001 at the Mayan Theater, there was only 800 people there. Right now, dance music, whatever you want to call it, EDM. Everyone has different terms. It's becoming so big, it means that incidents will grow as well. There used to be 3,000 people at an event. Now, there's 300,000. It's more likely for incidents to happen. They are young people. Young people do stupid things, we all know that. When you look at the statistics, young people that drive make more accidents. It is what it is, we have to deal with it. If we forbid it, and say “no, you can't do these events,” people will be stupid at home. It's just going to happen. We have to look after each other. If you see someone not feeling well in the crowd, do something. I have a whole crew standing by, all kinds of security people standing by in case something happens in the crowd, and it's very unfortunate. I don't think it's ever going away completely. Some people just want to be stupid, which is very unfortunate. We have to try to minimize that, make people aware. We have to do the searches, have law enforcement help us out. In the end of the day, people have their own responsibility to look after themselves as well as other people.”
I appreciated Armin's eagerness to speak on a topic that some people consider uncomfortable to talk about. It is what it is. This statement reinforced my impression that not all artists contribute on the same level. If I felt like I did substantially more than others in this aspect, I would be resistant as well to be grouped in such generalized statements from people inside the scenes. It's often difficult to be a peer, “pressuring” others to act with certain responsibilities, in an environment that is known for expressing yourself with little disregard to another's authority.
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On a lighter note, Armin became an Officer of the Orange Nassau in 2011 in his home country of the Netherlands! How did this come to be you ask?
“It feels amazing. To be honored by your country is one of the highest things. I'm not a knight, I'm an officer which is a completely higher rank. I was really blown away. I still don't know what to say. I'm extremely thankful. It feels great to be supported by your country. I'm a law school student from Leiden in the Netherlands. To be sitting here, talking to you in the Forum is still, I feel like I'm sitting on cloud nine really. To get something back from all the love I put into the crowd. Sometimes it's a little overwhelming, or I feel it's not fair. Because, there's a lot of other people that work really hard and don't get that recognition. I just feel blessed. I'm extremely thankful and happy. Every award I get, I cherish. Every little bit of respect, whether it's a Grammy nomination, or a small e-mail from a fan saying I made their night. They are equally important to me. The fans come first and foremost. You make music for yourself first, then for your fans. When you make music first, there's no fans there. You hope other people will like it and connect to it. That's such a powerful thing. It's so beautiful. That's why I'm sitting here. I don't have to be here anymore. This is the beauty of people, the beauty of celebration.”
What activities or hobbies does Sir Armin occupy with his time, besides making music?
“I'm a game fanatic, if I have time. I'm still working on GTA 5, still on 20 percent. I kind of suck at it, I'm older now. I just don't have time to focus anymore. I like gaming. I'm a Star Wars nerd. I have a life-sized Darth Vader and R2-D2 in my game room. I love that. I like to go running, that's how I relax. That's my reset button. I just went running at the airport at LAX and I loved it. It hits the reset button. I download an album on Spotify. I listen to the entire album because I can't switch to the next track when I'm running. It gives me an opportunity to see something of the outside, reset my mind, and listen to an entire album from somebody. I just recently listened to the Elbow album. Loved it! London Grammar. Amazing, very inspiring. That sparks my imagination as well.”
Any last words?
“I just want to say thank you to all my Los Angeles fans for waiting for the show. I'm really blessed with amazing fans. I know any artist would probably say that. To be trending worldwide on Twitter every week. A lot of people listening in from Los Angeles. It's amazing. I hope to bring A State of Trance here to Los Angeles. I think the people deserve it. Maybe a Gaia show, another Armin Only. I want to keep doing special things. You'll see me at festivals. But I'm trying to avoid doing the obvious. Sometimes you have to play a main stage set. Creatively I'm in such a good zone right now. I'm working with such amazing people. It's very fulfilling.”
Armin Only: Intense was truly an amazing experience. The level of energy brought to the crowd from all the details in the production process was unlike any other music performance I have seen in person. There were no bathroom breaks. Didn't see anything that could be construed as a mistake by the performance crew. I can only daydream of a house set or trap set that could actually come close in this regard. Really, what artist would come to mind that is established enough to solo tour a show comparable to “Intense”? Only Armin indeed.