Markus Schulz: Trance-Global
Los Angeles—The scene outside Avalon isn’t untypical for a Saturday night. Fans stream steadily into the club and, by 1 a.m., a line begins to form down Vine Street. Once again, the Hollywood Hustle is on.
But what’s different about tonight’s festivities is its air of blissful familiarity. This isn’t just another weekend night out for these clubbers. No, they’re here for the DJ. They’re here for Markus Schulz, and they have no problem telling you why Schulz’s Los Angeles ’12 weekend at Avalon is a can’t-miss party.
From the back bar to the upstairs W.C., plenty of longtime Schulz fans tell stories of how they’ve road-tripped for this event, how they’ve taken off work, how they’ve circled this date on the calendar.
“Markus gets it,” offered one energized fellow, who’d made the 90-minute drive west from Riverside County. “He always delivers. He just knows how to make his fans happy. Whenever he’s in the area, I go because I know it’s going to be great.”
A couple hours later, those words ring true as the now-packed room responds with extended arms and ecstatic shouts to the opening notes of his mega-anthem “Digital Madness.” It’s another high point in a weekend of Avalon dancefloor triumphs.
Of course, Schulz’s journey to the top tier of global trance jocks took a helluva lot longer than his fan’s trek from Riverside. His rise to the prominence—indeed, his status as one of America’s major DJ exports—is as much a testament to his drive as his talent.
Before he started playing the world’s major clubs and festivals or began creating winning dancefloor tracks, before he founded his Armada sub-label Coldharbour or kicked off his series of city compilations (like the current Los Angeles ’12), Schulz faced a bit of a career dilemma.
As he describes in the following conversation, Schulz made the move from his native Germany, where he discovered his love of music, to America, where he honed his DJ craft, and began to find a following in the clubs and on radio. Ultimately, he had to ask himself some soul-searching questions and make a “pilgrimage,” as he calls it, to become the DJ/artist he is today.
We connected with the Miami-based Markus Schulz during that February weekend in L.A. It went like this:
DJ Times: You were born in Germany and I’m curious to know about your first musical inspiration.
Schulz: My father was a musician, so it’s in my blood. Growing up, music was all around.
DJ Times: What kind of musician?
Schulz: He was a drummer in a band, playing soul, Motown, things like that. After he quit the band, he became a DJ. I should also mention that my mother was always into music. In my childhood, I remember that my mother would be cleaning the house after putting on a Boney M album. By the time the album was done the house was clean!
DJ Times: What was your first musical move?
Schulz: I got into breakdancing. My crew and I would search out great songs to do our routines to. Then, of course, you had the whole graffiti and DJing components. It all merged for me in Germany. We made mix tapes with the pause button.
DJ Times: Then you moved to the States…
Schulz: My parents had split up and when I moved to Boston, I hooked up with breakdancers there—same thing, we got into DJing and making sets. At some point, we decided we were going to throw a party at a banquet room in a hotel. We were all going to DJ that night. We were passing out flyers all week. We didn’t know what to expect. The night of the event, the place was packed, but the rest of the members of my crew got cold feet. So I got up behind the decks and ended up playing the whole thing. That’s when it all clicked for me. I was 17.
DJ Times: What were you playing?
Schulz: It was Kraftwerk, “Planet Rock,” Newcleus, Man Parrish, stuff like that—it was fantastic. It was what they called electro, back in the day, but it had melodies. I always liked the stuff that had more melodies. That’s what made me get into house music, but again, the more melodic stuff.
DJ Times: What gear did you use then?
Schulz: I had some old, crusty, direct-drive turntables, and it wasn’t even the same brand. I don’t remember the brands, actually, but I ended up getting the hang of it. Then, at that gig, the manager of the club at the hotel checked out the event and he offered me a job.
DJ Times: Serendipity. How did that play out?
Schulz: I learned my chops there. I learned how to open a night, to close a night and everything in between, learning how to deal with management and how to deal with the bar, learning proper DJ philosophy.
DJ Times: Did you do mobiles?
Schulz: I did one mobile gig, a wedding. The Monday morning after the gig, the parents called and wanted their money back—it was so bad [laughs]. So, I quickly realized that mobiles weren’t for me. It was always clubs.
DJ Times: What was the Boston scene like then? How did you move up the ladder?
Schulz: I was hearing stories about the Boston gay-club DJs, and at clubs like Metro and 9 Lansdowne there was Capt. Wendell and Hosh Gureli on 88.9. Through that, I hooked up with the Boston Record Pool and that’s how I got to networking within the scene.
DJ Times: Anybody inspire you there?
Schulz: Really, the biggest inspiration to me was, through these other DJs, that I’d hear these stories about the Paradise Garage in New York City and about [its resident DJ] Larry Levan. Unfortunately, I never got to hear him, but the stories inspired me. I’d have a mental image of what it was like to be there and that’s what I was trying to achieve. I’d hear stories about him mixing reel-to-reels, of putting live percussion on top of things. All this was clicking in my head and pushing me to the more artistic side of DJing.
DJ Times: You were always a fan of radio mixshows, right?
Schulz: Radio shows have always been so important to me. Especially when I lived in Germany, I would get mix tapes of WBLS in New York and 98.7 Kiss. I would hear the Latin Rascals, Shep Pettibone or Tony Humphries on mix tapes.
DJ Times: Eventually, you moved to Phoenix…
Schulz: When I went there, I hooked up with a studio that was doing a syndicated mix show called Hot Mix—it was the biggest in the world. I started there taking out the trash, working my way up. By the end of my run there, I was programing three or four different shows and mixing three or four shows. That’s when I started making contacts in the industry and started doing remixes for major labels and major artists.
DJ Times: And that club scene was starting to bubble.
Schulz: While this Top-40-radio thing was going on, I was still active, playing in the clubs. I started to play the gay clubs in Phoenix because that was the only place you could play cool, forward-thinking dance music. That progressed to the rave scene.
DJ Times: Ultimately, a huge scene developed in Phoenix.
Schulz: Yeah, this club opened called The Works. One owner was gay and the other loved the rave scene, so the philosophy was to combine the two—there was this synergy of craziness.
DJ Times: What was it like to play there?
Schulz: I remember being in the DJ booth, watching people walk into the club for the first time. You could see in their eyes, they were looking around like they’d never seen anything like this, never heard music like this. It really motivated me to be a little more twisted and really make people freak out.
DJ Times: It was a crazy time for music, the late-’90s.
Schulz: Yeah, we opened a record store and I had another mix show that was underground trance music. All this was growing, and the Top-40 part of it was taking up so much of my headspace that I was close to burning out. I was burnt out, so I just stopped what I was doing. The Works had run its course. It closed—the lease was up—so that era of my life changed. I realized that there was nothing holding me back. So packed up and moved to London to try to reinvent myself.
DJ Times: How did that work out?
Schulz: It was a pilgrimage. I just put myself in London for two years, going out to all the clubs, studying the music and the scene, trying to discover who I was as an artist. Why? Because all this time I was doing what the major labels wanted me to do or what the radio programmers wanted me to do. I was either going to quit music or I need to really figure out who I am.
DJ Times: So what did you find?
Schulz: I found I was inspired by the big basslines from the drum-n-bass scene and by these melodic trance sounds, so I started making tracks with these elements and releasing them on Hooj Choons and Yoshitoshi, and it just blew up for me. It was outrageous.
DJ Times: Eventually, you returned to the States, having built your profile.
Schulz: Yes, it really started to buzz and I moved to Miami. I got a residency at Space, started a radio show called Global DJ Broadcast on Party 93.1, and that’s when everything just exploded. Everything went to another level because people all over the world were listening to me through the Internet. We were being streamed every Sunday night, plus we were broadcasting live from Space. People got to hear a radio show that was being programmed and a live show.
DJ Times: What, to you, goes into a great radio show?
Schulz: When I was doing Top-40 shows, I had this structured philosophy of what to play—a recurrent, a classic, a power. It was a formula. But with this style of music, it’s about mood. It’s about tension and release. My philosophy is to hypnotize people—keep them interested, but hypnotize them—and build to a certain moment it’s like… whoa! Do that over and over. The entire set has to be a slope up with a big finish. With this music, you’re no longer mixing songs like a traditional Top-40 mix show, you’re mixing sounds.