Club Life & Beyond: Tiësto on Sharpened Songcraft, Corporate Sponsors, & State of EDM
New York City – “I happened to see an old copy of DJ Times from around 2001, with me on the cover, just last week—I thought, wow, so much has happened to me since then. It’s been wild.”
Tijs Verwest, the Dutch DJ/producer known to millions of dance-music aficionados as Tiësto, has just a hint of wonder in his voice when he says this during our recent Manhattan interview. This doesn’t come across as false modesty; instead, it’s uttered with a touch of astonishment that after all this time, he’s still one of the scene’s most popular figures.
And needless to say, the ride has been wild. Since that long-ago cover, the 45-year-old has performed at festivals and megaclubs the world over, not to mention the opening ceremony at the 2004 Summer Olympics; graced the top rungs of numerous top-DJ lists (Mixmag even went so far as to hail him as The Greatest DJ of All Time in 2011); released a slew of world-conquering mixes, including the first seven installments of the groundbreaking In Search of Sunrise series; and produced five artist albums, his latest being the hot-off-the-presses A Town Called Paradise (Musical Freedom/PM:AM/Universal).
But the narrative of Tiësto’s career, starting with his ’80s beginnings as a local-party spinner in his hometown of Breda, Holland, isn’t a quest for stardom; instead, it’s one of continuing evolution. He began his recording life in the early ’90s as a gabber and hardcore producer, working under aliases like DJ Limited and DJ Joker. But by the end of that decade, he had shifted his attention to the music he’s most associated with: trance. Actually, “shifting his attention” is a bit of an understatement—along with a handful of others (Armin van Buuren, Paul van Dyk and erstwhile production partner Ferry Corsten among them), Tiësto basically owned the music, and helped muscle its fluorescent rhythms into one of the leading beats of the raving universe.
Though he’s still known to many as a trance demigod—and tracks like “Adagio for Strings” and his remix of Delirium’s “Silence” are among the genre’s stone-cold classics—in the late ’00s, particularly with the release of 2009’s Kaleidoscope, he largely left trance behind in favor of punchy, catchy cuts that were closer in spirit to house, electro and dance-rock than anything he had produced before. That guest-heavy LP—which included Calvin Harris, Bloc Party’s Kele Okereke, Nelly Furtado and Jónsi of Sigur Rós—confounded some of his trance-happy fans, not to mention the critics; on his website, Tiësto himself calls the release “controversial.”
And now, five years later, there’s A Town Called Paradise. It’s as sleek and streamlined a collection as you’d expect from the veteran, a machine-tooled, hypermelodic tunefest that manages to range in vibe from heart-rending introspection to balls-to-the-wall bacchanalia. Refreshingly, the DNA of the producer’s chugging, euphoric hands-in-the-air trance is on display, gracefully merging with Kaleidoscope’s pop tendencies—but his sound has matured into something much closer to pure pop songcraft, as appropriate for prime-time radio play as it is for festival season. It’s not for nothing that the two singles released thus far off the album—the dreamy ode to escape “Red Lights” and the fist-pumping party anthem “Wasted” (complete with its sweetly salacious video)—have soared as high in the world’s singles charts as they have in the dance rankings. Like Kaleidoscope, it’s another star-studded affair, with Sultan & Ned Shepard, Hardwell and Firebeatz among those helping out on the production side, and Matthew Koma, Icona Pop, Krewella, Ladyhawke, Cruickshank, and DBX among those on the mic.
But A Town Called Paradise is much more than a series of star-studded cameo cuts—instead, it’s another major step in the growth of Tiësto as an artist, one working hard to break free of preconceptions. Not that he’s given up on pure dance music; among other things, the superstar is currently slinging his pumping rhythms at Las Vegas’ Hakkasan club, where he’s in the midst of a 20-month residency, and he remains one of the world’s most popular spinners. DJ Times caught up with the superstar just as A Town Called Paradise was hitting the stores to talk about the album, corporate sponsorships and lots more.
DJ Times: I’ve been listening to A Town Called Paradise a lot in the run up to this interview, and now most of the songs’ melodies are completely stuck in my head. Are strong hooks something you strive for?
Tiësto: I think it’s something that comes completely naturally to me. I don’t really think about it. When I hear something I like, I just say to myself, “I guess this is the hook.” [Laughs]
DJ Times: So writing hooks is a natural part of the writing process for you?
Tiësto: I think so. This whole album really came from the heart. It’s very organic; I didn’t think about anything. The one thing I did want to do was to make more song-oriented tracks, rather than DJ tracks. It’s definitely a song-driven album.
DJ Times: Your previous album, Kaleidoscope, was also song-driven, but experimented with fairly wide range of dance-pop formats. This one comes across as more focused, and also a bit more like prime-time Tiësto, especially in its sound design. Would it be fair to call A Town Called Paradise a return to form?
Tiësto: In a way, yes; it is a bit back-to-basics. But at the same time, I think it’s different than anything I’ve done before. It might not sound like Kaleidoscope, but it doesn’t sound like the Elements of Life album either, or any of my old trance albums. But I do think I learned a lot from making Kaleidoscope, and I think this one is a great improvement. When I was doing Kaleidoscope, the aim was to make song-driven dance tracks, but I didn’t really know how to do it, so that album ended up as more of a mixture of things.
DJ Times: And you feel like you’ve made strides in creating the sound that you want to with this new set?
Tiësto: Definitely. This album is really close to what I stand for, how I DJ, what I like to listen to and what I like to make nowadays. It’s much closer to what I am today.
DJ Times: The album seems to be split between outright party rockers, and more introspective, emotional cuts. Was that by design?
Tiësto: Yeah, that was on purpose. There are two sides of me, almost like two different characters. I love to party and listen to crazy music and do crazy stuff… but I’m also very romantic. I like love songs with emotional lyrics and warm sounds. That kind of music seems sexy to me. So yeah, both of those styles are in the album.
DJ Times: I’m guessing that the video for “Wasted” is a reflection of your party-animal side.
Tiësto: Oh, for sure. [Laughs] That was fun to do. It’s the after-party after the after-party.
DJ Times: As usual for you, the album features a hefty list of collaborators. When you’re working with guest vocalists, what’s the process like? Do you simply send them a track and see what you get back, or is it more collaborative than that?
Tiësto: It really depends on the track. With some tracks, it can go back and forth for a year, or even a year and a half. But with some of the tracks, I would just get sent a vocal, and I’d be like, wow, this is just perfect. Every track has a different story; they all come together differently.
DJ Times: How do you choose your vocalists?
Tiësto: I don’t look at whether they are famous or not. I just look for great-sounding vocals and great lyrics. Those are the only important things, really. With most of the people I worked with on the album, I had never really heard of them before I met them. A lot of them came through suggestions, like people saying, “You should check out this guy or that guy.” Like Cruickshank or DBX; I had never really heard of them before. Even Matthew Koma was not on my radar before I started working with him on “Wasted.”
DJ Times: His voice seems like such a natural fit for that track, and for “Written in Reverse” as well.
Tiësto: That’s true, and a lot of other DJs have worked with him, but I never really thought about it. But then we started working on “Wasted” and I just realized how perfect he was for that one. And that went so well that we just ended up writing some more songs together. He’s amazing, and just so talented.
DJ Times: What’s your process like? Is it an everyday thing for you, or do you have to force yourself into a room to get work done?
Tiësto: That goes both ways. Sometimes I’ll take a week and lock myself into the studio; I’ll use that time to try to do a lot of different things, discover new equipment or whatever. Other times, I’ll work on a song a little bit, let it go for a while, and maybe come back to it later. It’s a combination of methods, really—whatever feels right at the time. But a lot of it is decided by my DJing life, which is generally something of an ongoing process. [Laughs] You never really have time off. You just do what you can when you can do it.
DJ Times: I guess it’s the kind of job where you’re always working, at least in some vague sense.
Tiësto: You’ve got that right. But for me, it doesn’t feel like work—it’s a way of life.
DJ Times: And a lot of people would say it’s a pretty good way of life.
Tiësto: I’m not complaining!
DJ Times: You recently played an album release at New York City’s Terminal 5, with many of the vocalists on the album—Kona, Icona Pop and others—performing live. Do you feel that it’s important to do more than just play songs when you are DJing?
Tiësto: Not really, actually. Simply playing records is still the best way to DJ, I think. For the album release, yes, it’s a special moment in my career. It’s been five years since I’ve released an album, and I wanted all the singers to be there, so it really felt like a release party. But it’s not something that I’m going to do all over the world. For one thing, it’s hard to get all these people in the same place at the same time!
DJ Times: It’s impressive that you got Icona Pop to appear at the party. They’ve gotten quite big in the past year or so.
Tiësto: Yeah, they’re huge now. We were actually friends before they got famous, but I was still lucky they could come. But what I’d like to do going forward is make some nice videos with the vocalists so we can have some kind of interactive visuals with them, so I can tour with artists being there in some kind of virtual way.
DJ Times: What is your DJing methodology nowadays?
Tiësto: I’m pretty much old-school, really. I don’t use much software, or even effects; I really just like playing tracks. I don’t use much gear at all, to be honest. I don’t like to play off laptops, and I like to use [Pioneer] CDJ-2000s—three of them—along with a Pioneer DJM-900nexus mixer. Also, I don’t really prepare much before my set. The way I look at it is, I’m just gonna go out and play a bunch of songs and see how the crowd reacts.
DJ Times: So you are actually still out there DJing?
Tiësto: Yeah, it’s almost all improvised. Almost the only thing that isn’t improvised is the opening track—I’m always going to open with an instrumental track. But after that, who knows? I mean, at some point I have to play the tracks from the album, but I really don’t know in what order or anything.
DJ Times: That’s actually quite refreshing. So many big-name DJs seem to know exactly what they’re going to play and when they’re going to play it.
Tiësto: I couldn’t work that way. It would just be too boring to play the same set every night from start to finish. I wouldn’t be very happy doing that.
DJ Times: It would become almost like working on an assembly line.
Tiësto: Yeah, especially for DJs. If you’re a live artist, it’s still a challenge to get all the notes right every night, even if you play the same songs. At least, that’s what I’m guessing. But yes—there are DJs who play the same exact set every night. I don’t know how they do it. Or even why they do it.
Top Guns: Tiësto’s Favorite Producers
Deorro: “I’m really enjoying him quite a lot. He’s just so good at what he does, and he has one of the most original sounds around right now. He’s new—well, not super-new—but I think people are really now finding out about him.”
Avicii: “Of course, he’s is one of my favorites. I’m amazed at what he’s achieved in just a couple of years, and I’m amazed at what he can do; he can produce so many different styles. I always keep my eye on him.”
Hardwell: “He is just so good at sound quality. His sounds are warm, but still so full of energy. That’s something that not many people can pull off, but it’s something he seems to do naturally.”
DJ Times: You teamed up with 7Up for the release party, with that partnership continuing throughout 2014. It seems as though cooperate America is investing heavily in the EDM scene. How do you feel about that?
Tiësto: I think it’s very important—in a way, especially for people who aren’t huge followers of the music, it really helps to increase awareness. But it has to be a cool brand; you can’t have a brand that you don’t really like sponsoring your tour. I would never team up with a chicken-soup company or something like that.
DJ Times: I take it you are a fan of this particular brand.
Tiësto: It is definitely in my top three drinks! [Laughs]. I grew up on it as a kid. I love to work with brands like Apple or 7Up. Since I use them every day, it doesn’t feel unnatural. It doesn’t even feel cooperate, if that makes any sense. Also, 7Up has the #7x7UP program, which is putting a lot of money into young talented DJs who I serve as the mentor for. So yeah, I think this kind of thing is amazing for the scene. I think if brands like that want to be involved in dance music, it’s a win-win situation for everybody involved.
DJ Times: So you’re not worried that it might turn fans off?
Tiësto: I don’t think so. So many things have corporate sponsorship now, so I think people accept it.
DJ Times: Speaking of changing perceptions, do you feel that kids look at dance music nowadays is different than how older fans do? Younger people often haven’t been introduced to the music through clubbing; a lot of them come to the sound via the internet, or perhaps through festivals. Do you think that has had any effect on how they perceive dance music?
Tiësto: Yeah, absolutely. There’s a huge difference. If you grew up in the clubs, you’ve experienced the scene in a very different way than if you discovered the music some other way. And I think that attention spans are a lot shorter nowadays with the younger crowd, too—I guess because of the internet. Back in the day, you could play a track for 10 minutes, and nobody would be bored. And now, I feel like something has to happen every three or four minutes, or even quicker. I think that’s why people started doing mash-ups—people couldn’t concentrate on one song for very long.
DJ Times: Of course, when you first started out playing vinyl, quick mixing was a bit tougher.
Tiësto: It’s definitely more possible to do now.
DJ Times: Are you ever in a situation when you do get to play tracks in their entirety any more?
Tiësto: Not too often. But like I was saying before, I do get to play plenty of sets where it’s basically just me DJing. I have my residency at Hakkasan [in Las Vegas], for instance, and I always play for at least three hours, sometimes four. I can play the tracks a little longer in that kind of situation. It’s really like a journey, one where I can play lots of different styles. That’s how I love to play. Sometimes at festivals, you don’t get much more than an hour, and you’re in between six or seven of the top DJs in the world.
Back in the day, you could play a track for 10 minutes, and nobody would be bored. And now, I feel like something has to happen every three or four minutes, or even quicker. I think that’s why people started doing mash-ups—people couldn’t concentrate on one song for very long.
DJ Times: You really have to go big in that kind of situation, I would imagine.
Tiësto: I would say that what you really have to do is stand out in whatever way you can. You have to play something different than the other DJs. But there’s not really time to let a set evolve in any way; it can be kind of tough. So I’m really happy that I took the Hakkasan residency. On a personal level, it’s one of greatest moves I did last year.
DJ Times: You actually moved to Vegas, right?
Tiësto: Yeah, and it’s so great. The scene there is so new and so fresh, the club itself is brand new, and I really feel at home there. I really enjoy it. It’s where I think I have the most fun as a DJ.
DJ Times: And you don’t have to worry about rain there, either.
Tiësto: No, never at all!
Photos: Jordan Loyd