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[Exclusive Interview] Armin van Buuren: Embracing the Music

As I paced the lobby floor of the Sofitel Hotel in Los Angeles, I sipped on my latte anxiously awaiting the arrival of trance music's biggest star. The warmth of the coffee running down my throat kept my nerves calm and the pitter-patter of the rain outside allowed me to relax and clear my mind to ready myself for the questions I was about to ask the legendary Armin van Buuren.

There's always a sense of nervousness that comes down on a journalist before interviewing an artist, particularly because of the uncertainty that comes with an interview. You never know whether that artist will have a list of questions that are off topic, or how open they will be when you ask a pointed inquiry. But all of those emotions, like the rain coming down on Beverly Boulevard, seemed to wash away into the drain as I glanced toward the opening elevator doors and Armin van Buuren approached me. No manager, no security, no entourage, just Armin Only.

The Grammy-nominated producer has been in the industry for over 20 years and is currently in the middle of his Armin Only: Embrace world tour. Having just released a new single last month, “I Need You” with Olaf Blackwood and Garibay, Armin finds himself kicking-off the new year with many exciting projects, some of which he spoke candidly to me about in our interview.

van Buuren playing at The Forum in Inglewood, CA. photo: @arminvanbuuren.

You're back on tour and just finished playing The Forum here in L.A. How's the tour life?

Armin: Good. I'm a little jet-lagged. Sometimes being on tour is a little difficult; the jet-lag isn't really my favorite thing. But anything for the fans.

The Embrace Tour only had two U.S. stops and they were both on the West Coast, any particular reason why you didn't go to other cities?

Armin: Financial. It's a very big show to produce and we travel with a crew of 35 people. We tried to do two shows on the East Coast, but there wasn't any availability. I'd rather focus on two really good shows that everybody raves about. I don't want to do an Armin Only show with only a few of the acts because then you pay the full price and only get half the show. That's not really the way I want to treat my fans. Amin Only is something special.

How do you decide what songs will go on your show?

Armin: I have a limited amount of time and I want to give my fans an experience of the older Armin van Buuren songs and all the new stuff. You can't play everything you want. It's like Christmas dinner with Armin; you have to choose whether you want to eat steak or fish or vegetarian but you can't have everything. I love my food analogies, by the way.

You had a very special vinyl set to close the show, what made you decide to add it to Armin Only?

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Armin: I wanted to show my older fans that I'm not abandoning the older trance, I'm trying to explore different boundaries to keep it exciting. 

You just celebrated 800 episodes of A State of Trance. Congratulations, thats a huge feat. What's the reaction been like?

Armin: Thank you. Well, what I've heard so far is nothing but positive.

You also allowed the fans to submit their favorite songs and included them in ASOT 800, what made you decide that?

Armin: ASOT has always been about the fans so I wanted to include them in this episode. 

I opened a new radio studio and that's new territory for me. I want to include my fans more in a new radio format. I'm calling it #ServiceForDreamers and I want to feature a fan every week whether it's via skype or live in Amsterdam in my new studio. I want them to tell me a story about their favorite track– It could be a track that made your cry, a track you played at your wedding or a track you heard at Ultra during a special moment. I think it's important we share those emotions with each other

Last week you announced via your social media accounts that you're putting on your biggest show to date in May, tell me about that.

Armin: Well, there was a funny moment last year when I had a meeting with my team and one of my managers said, “you're a producer for twenty years this year and you should do something to celebrate.” And I thought to myself, what the hell am I gonna do to celebrate? I don't want to do an old man tour, you know?

No Vegas residencies?

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Armin: Haha. No. I don't want to do that because I still feel like I started yesterday. I remember everything from when I produced my first track: I know what equipment I used, I know what the weather was like. 

So I'm playing the Amsterdam Arena Stadium, which has never been done, a solo DJ show. We're going to be combining all the best elements of the 5 shows I've done in the last 10 years. There will be hints of the old stages and old artwork and visuals. It's a celebration and it feels like it's a logical step in my career at this point.

Right after that show is festival season and you were just announced to headline Tomorrowland. You've played that festival for many years, how do you prepare for it?

Armin: Tomorrowland is the Super Bowl of dance music. It's a special moment and you want to bring out everything you've got. You always want to premiere your new tracks there. You save your special moments for Tomorrowland. It has to be my Lady Gaga moment because life is too short not to have special moments.

People really go out of their way to be there. I speak to a lot of my fans who tell me their dream is to see me play Tomorrowland. Tomorrowland isn't about me as a DJ, it's really about Tomorrowland. It's about coming together and uniting as one, especially at these times with the strange political situations all around the world. I think it's important we all gather and celebrate us being together and do away with negativity and closing borders and all the b.s.

The energy there must be insane. How does that compare to playing at a club?

Armin: Here we go again with the food analogy– I see festivals as a quick bite at a great sushi restaurant, it's not Christmas dinner like Armin Only. But I like that. For example, I played Create Nightclub in Hollywood, which is intimate, right after playing The Forum, which is a huge stadium, and I love that diversity. It almost feels like I'm playing tennis one moment and soccer at another. It's really one of the best things of my career because it keeps it exciting.

You've mentioned that you decided to title your latest album ‘Embrace' because you were embracing different sounds in electronic music. What did you listen to in order to influence your sound?

Armin: Spotify playlists.

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And what's on those playlists? 

Armin: Everything. I listen to everything you listen to. I'm not telling people how to do their Job but I feel that it is your job as a DJ to understand why people like certain kinds of music; whether it's country or hard rock or classical. I don't have to like it, that's a different thing. Sometimes it has a lot to do with culture or your friends because music is so embedded in our every day life. Try to imagine going to a funeral or a wedding without music– it sucks. It doesn't work. Try to watch a movie and take away all the music, it won't be a movie. The whole point in being alive is to be entertained and grab that emotion and I get that emotion from Spotify playlists now. That's where I get my inspiration from. 

Trance music has been garnering a lot of attention lately, how is that affecting you as a producer?

Armin: Hand on my heart, I would stop doing ASOT if trance itself was going in a circle. In a way, I feel part of the trance scene is going in a circle because they're producing the same stuff they made 10-15 years ago. But then there's also a really big group of new artists that are coming up that are bringing new sounds. You can really not say that trance music is dead because it's really really growing. There's new events coming up, there's new DJs and there's new sounds in trance.

I'm glad you mentioned that because I want to know what your input is on the newer sounds that are gaining traction lately, like Psytrance.

Armin: See, trance music used to be this (gestures with hands) and now it's THIS (gesture gets wider). You have your more vocal and EDM type of trance, your Dash Berlins–which is great if that's your thing–then you have the uplifting stuff: the massive breakdowns with all the emotions. And now you have psytrance, more techy kind of sounds you hear now with Simon Patterson, Bryan Kearney and Vini Vici.

There's all these beautiful different types of trance that all have their own following and I want to be a part of that–I want to be in the middle of it. Trance is still growing and it’s still inspiring and moving forward in many aspects. So I'm really looking forward to seeing where trance is going next.

All of those sounds are different and yet similar. Some would say those sounds aren't real trance.

Armin: That's my only criticism of the trance scene right now–there’s one group of people that say that is not trance and I'm like, who the hell are you to decide whats trance or not?

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“If it's not 138 it's not trance,” What? Excuse me?

The only thing that's essential to trance is always about the emotion and the melody and that should be the core of it.

I made trance before it was even called trance.

Insomniac has been focusing heavily on trance lately with their installation of Dreamstate. What's the atmosphere like in the trance scene?

Armin: In general, the atmosphere in the trance scene is very very good. Everyone has found their way and there's trance for everybody. I just wish some of the DJs and some of the fans weren't so negative about it; if a certain type of trance isn't your thing that's fine. But don't bash it or ruin it for other people. Stop being negative on social media because it has an impact. I really don't like that we have this template of what trance should be. I think as soon as you can catch something in a template then it will die. I think the only way we can progress and move forward is if we can add elements to that template.

You're very passionate about your work, my last question is what keeps you grounded? 

Armin: It's funny you should ask that question because I thought about that. But the real answer to your question is that I don't know how to be anybody else- I just am who I am. I don't know how to be not grounded.

I always felt like I was a bit of a strange person in the dance music industry. I'm not into the sports cars and I don't walk around with a posse. I'm just here for the music. If other people like to buy sports cars and using drugs or call their manager every day to find out how much money you made with a gig, that's fine. But it's just not what drives me. I just don't know how to be that other person.

And with that answer, my interview with Armin van Buuren came full circle. Here is a man who just two days before played before a packed stadium and went on to play an after show at a club and greeted me with warmth and humility. A man that has touched the lives of many through his music and always centers his work around his fans. A man that embraces the newer sounds in trance but never forgets his loyal fans who have supported him since day one. A man who came down the elevator at the lobby of the Sofitel Hotel with no security, no posse, no manager- just Armin Only.

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Armin van Buuren and myself post-interview.

You can stream Armin van Buuren's latest album, Embrace here.
Tickets to The Armin Only: Embrace world tour can be purchased here.
The Best of Armin Only at the Amsterdam Arena is set to be his biggest show to date, you can purchase tickets here.

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