Paul van Dyk: Playing With Pain

By  | 

New York City “He was a little bit nervous the other night,” Paul van Dyk’s publicist confides as she leads the way to a Times Square hotel suite, where DJ Times is set to interview the longtime trance luminary.

Though he’s one of the genres biggest names, he could be forgiven a slight case of the jitters—just two nights earlier, he debuted his new AEON live set at Times Square’s PlayStation Theater, a show which also served as a coming-out party for his latest LP, From Then On [Vandit].


But if van Dyk (born Matthias Paul) was apprehensive, he certainly didn’t show it. Standing in the middle of the futuristic set—behind a transparent controller and flanked by two black-clad musicians, with all the video and lighting bells and whistles you’d expect from a superstar production—he was in full control, furiously working his arsenal of gadgetry whenever he wasn’t busy jumping up and down, clapping his hands and generally working the crowd.

Not that his fans needed any encouragement: A mix of ravers, collegiate kids and older folks who had probably been following van Dyk since his early ’90s beginnings, they were jacked up and ready to go from the start, reacting on cue with wide-eyed rapture at every breakdown, build-up and key change.

What made the scene even more remarkable was that less than two years ago, van Dyk didn’t even know if he was going to be walking again, let alone be commanding a stage in front of thousands of acolytes. In February of 2016, the Berlin native suffered a near-fatal accident, falling off his stage set-up at the State of Trance festival in Utrecht, Netherlands. He broke his spine; there were internal injuries; he had an open wound in the back of his skull; he suffered significant brain trauma. In an interview with Billboard just a few months after the accident, he confided that the doctors told his family that “most likely I won’t know who I am, or what my surrounding is.”

But van Dyk, 45, persevered. He’s relearned how to speak, to speak and finally to make music again – and now comes From Then On, his first full-length album since the fall. It’s the Paul van Dyk his fans all know and love—rhythms and throbbing bass laying down the bedrock, while swirling synths, soaring melodies and heartfelt vocals provide the uplift. As usual with van Dyk, it’s a sound that manages to convey spaciousness while still feeling intensely personal – but it’s perhaps the purest distillation of that sound yet.

When we sat down to speak with van Dyk, he was in upbeat spirits but in serious need of caffeine – not surprising, since the interview was taking place at 10 a.m., an ungodly hour for an electronic-music maven. But a few sips of coffee later, he was ready to chat, reflecting on his early days, the accident, the album, and his new outlook on music and life.

DJ Times: We’re sitting in the middle of New York City. You have a long history with this town, don’t you?

PvD: I do. My first U.S. gig was at here Limelight [infamous early ’90s club-kid night] at Disco 2000. I was one of the residents there. You have to remember, I was this little kid—no drugs, hardly any alcohol—and there were these club kids doing all these crazy things! I didn’t know, I just thought they were really nice and friendly. Then the whole Michael Alig disaster happened. I know it’s really wrong to say about a murderer, but he seemed like a very friendly and clever person. The drugs made him do the bad things.

DJ Times: When you were an even younger kid in East Berlin and were first finding out about electronic music, did you have any idea that you would make a career out of it?

PvD: When I first discovered the music, I knew that, OK, this is going to be something that would be forever. It was going to be something I’d be listening to and enjoying for my whole life. But it wasn’t until a few years later that I even thought about making this music. And it’s amazing that I’m still doing it, traveling around and finding audiences everywhere.

DJ Times: You still live in Berlin. Did you ever live anywhere else?

PvD: In ’89, we moved to Hamburg, then I moved by myself back to Berlin in 1990. My mom is still in Hamburg.

DJ Times: The Berlin Wall had just come down when you moved back. That must have been a wild time to be living there.

PvD: It was crazy. When I was growing up in East Berlin, I wasn’t the only one there illegally listening to West Berlin radio stations, finding out about electronic music. There was a substantial amount of us. We all developed an excitement about the music, but we could never go to any of the clubs. When the wall came down, and we were finally able to go to these clubs, there was an acute influx of energy and of momentum, right into this scene that had already been established in West Berlin.

DJ Times: What was that like?

PvD: At the same time, there were all these factories and warehouses in East Berlin that had gone out of business because of reunification, so there were a lot of spaces to do things. Also, on the administrative side of things was really installed yet. Nobody knew who was in charge of anything! So people would just bring some turntables and a PA into these spaces, and make these illegal parties everywhere they could. And that created the groundwork for the dance-music revolution, that then sparked a global phenomenon.

DJ Times: Were you taking part in that revolution as soon as you moved back to Berlin?

PvD: I was getting into it right away, going to the clubs and everything, From the start, I always had a very clear idea about what part of electronic music would be mine. I knew what kind of records really reached me, so I started buying as many as I could, started making tapes and all that—the old-school way. And then I started playing about a year after I got there.

DJ Times: It was just a few years later, in ’93, that you were DJing in New York at Disco 2000.

PvD: I was really lucky. That’s when the [long-defunct conference] New Music Seminar was going on in New York, and they had what was billed as a German night. They were bringing all these famous German DJs over, but one of them couldn’t do it—and I was the substitute. I made the best of my chance, and I really connected with the audience that night. Howard Schaffer, who used to run the Happy Colors DJ agency—which I think was the first DJ agency in the world—saw me, and said, “I think you are really talented. We should do something together. Come by the office on Monday.” And after that I was playing in Limelight every month, and then started doing tours.

DJ Times: It sounds like a combination of luck and skill that had set you on your path.

PvD: It’s like with anything. You can be the most talented, most creative person in the world—but if that element of chance isn’t there, if you are not in the right place at the right moment, it’s difficult. I’m a very lucky guy.

DJ Times: You seem remarkably upbeat for a man who recently sustained a life-threatening injury, one that nearly ended your career. How is the recovery proceeding?

PvD: Well, I broke my spine in two places… and that was the easy shit. There are still a lot of things going on, like I don’t really have proper feeling in my legs. And this [points to his arm] is all numb. But giving up is not an option, and I try not to let that stuff hold me back. The doctor says it will be at least three to five years, but that’s not for everything to go away—that’s how long it will take me to get used to not feeling anything. I also have other challenges, like word mix-ups. I had some really serious injuries to the speaking area of the brain, and it’s taking a lot of focus and training and extra energy, just to appear to be good again.

DJ Times: You’ve certainly had a lot of fans rooting for you.

PvD: There has been a lot of very, very positive energy sent my way to give me the strength to pull through.

DJ Times: Has it affected the way in which you perform, or even in how you approach music in general?

PvD: Well, there’s multiple things. I can’t perform the same. I can’t be as agile as I was, simply because I’m in constant pain.

DJ Times: You seemed to be pretty active, even leaping around, at your PlayStation Theater show.

PvD: I love the music, so I can’t help it. But every single time I land, it’s like [makes electric-shock sound]. It’s like sticking your fingers into a power plug. So I still interact with the crowd, but I’m definitely a lot calmer when it comes to jumping and things like that. In terms of my approach to music in general, I’ve realized how much my music gives me, and I think I am working without compromises anymore. Sometimes in the past, there might be an A&R person or someone from a record company saying, “Why don’t you do this? Why don’t you do that?” And I would never really follow that advice, but it would always be in the back of my head. Perhaps I would do something that I wouldn’t ordinarily do.

DJ Times: But that’s changed?

PvD: The music I’m making now is music that means something to me, 100-percent. I think that this new record is the most personally relevant record that I’ve ever made. There is not a single, tiny little thing on there that wasn’t influenced by me wanting to do it exactly that way. That’s what’s changed. There is now no compromise. It’s like, this is my album—if you don’t like it, fair enough.

DJ Times: It sounds like a whole new outlook on life in general.

PvD: When I had the accident, I was like, why did this happen to me? What did I do? There’s an element of anger. I spoke a lot to my wife, and she said, “You have to look at it in a different way.” We know what happened, and that’s obviously a disaster. I was more dead than alive. But she told me that I should look at all these other things, good things, that happened that just can’t be an accident.

DJ Times: What other things were those?

PvD: Like the fact that the accident happened in Utrecht, only 10 minutes from the best neurological center of the Netherlands. If it had happened in Amsterdam, I wouldn’t be here, because time was so vital for the doctors to do the right thing. And then just being there, with this phenomenal medical team. And it was the same when I was transferred to the rehab facility in Germany. I was told that it was like a miracle—they had never seen anyone coming back from multiple injuries like I had, as fast as it has been. It’s been just a lot of things coming together: the doctors, the positive energy, the love that was sent my way… the love was the most essential part. I had a reason to stay alive.

DJ Times: Has music played a big role in your recovery?

PvD: Definitely. The first few times that my wife was playing me music after the accident, I was crying like a baby. It was like drilling to the core of my soul.

DJ Times: Did you want to get back to producing music as quickly as you could?

PvD: Oh, no—that was really scary. I put that off ’til the last minute. The creative area of the brain is where the speaking center is, and I had severe damage there—so I wasn’t sure if I could do it. I was afraid that I wouldn’t know how to make the programs work, or even if I would feel anything about my music. Can you imagine that? It would have been really bad.

DJ Times: But that obviously wasn’t the case.

PvD: Yeah, it felt good right away. And the first track I made, which is actually on the album, is called “I’m Alive.” That’s how I felt—I can do it!

DJ Times: Were all of the songs on the album produced after the accident?

PvD: They were pretty much all made after. But it’s not like a therapeutic piece of music; it’s not something I made to get rid of my anxieties or anything. I made the album for the same reason I always make music.

DJ Times: What specifically is that reason?

PvD: It’s that I’m inspired by life. It’s everything I see and everything I experience. That can range from a beautiful movie to a sunset in Central Park, or really anything. What has changed is that… like, I didn’t even know if I was going to be able to walk again. I was in a wheelchair for five months. So now, just being able to walk in Central Park is so special. I don’t take anything for granted. I don’t think I ever really did, but now I see how every little thing has an impact on my music.

DJ Times: What defines your music? I was re-listening to some of your earliest releases, tracks like ’92’s “Perfect Day” [produced with Cosmic Baby under the Visions of Shiva moniker] and ’94’s “Pump This Party,” and even though your sound has obviously evolved a lot since then, it feels like there’s a core to the music that runs throughout your career.

PvD: I know that this sounds a bit cryptic, but I think my music is a celebration of life. It’s that positive, hopeful energy. Even if it’s dark, it’s dark in a positive, hopeful way [laughs]. That’s what I am, and that’s how I express myself. That’s what shines through in my music. And that’s exactly the feeling that I had when I was a kid, listening to electronic music on the radio—it made me feel alive. At the same time, I’m very targeted with the music that I like. I mean, I’m a musician, and I know how to make an easy EDM track. I could easily do that. But that’s not who I am; that’s not what I feel. As an artist, you need a certain confidence in yourself, and not let anything else influence you. I feel that way even more since the accident.

DJ Times: What kind of gear were you using in your early days to help you realize your vision?

PvD: Back when I started, I had an old Atari computer. When you would start a production, you had to leave it on ’til you were finished because you never knew if you would still have it [laughs]. And I had an 808 and 909 and 303, all that essential Roland gear from the past. I still have them, though my 909 finally gave up a few months ago. But it’s still in the studio—I have a long history with it, so it will never leave. Also, there was a Juno 106 synthesizer… a lot of really cool machines.

DJ Times: Do you miss the days of relying on that gear?

PvD: A little. Nowadays, it’s so much easier to create music. Back then, you had to improvise a bit more. For instance, back in ’96 or so, I was in the studio with BT, and we wanted to get this aggressive, electro, techy sort of sound. The sound we were searching for wasn’t on any of the synthesizers available. So I ended up taking a cable, sticking it in a guitar distortion effect, and touching the other end of the cable to create a short. Zap! We sampled it, tuned it and we had it. I can remember the studio looking like a spider-web of cables [laughs]. You had to be creative just to find the sounds you wanted to create with. I do appreciate the fact that it’s a bit easier now, but it was fun back then. But even now, you still need the ideas.

DJ Times: Your music certainly feels full of ideas.

PvD: You know, it’s a shame that after all these years we still have to explain that the computer doesn’t make the music, that there’s actually a person making the music, a person with those ideas.

DJ Times: Do you still use much in the way of hardware?

PvD: Well, I do for mixdowns, and I have touch controllers in the studio. But really, the main piece of hardware that I rely on is my big Moog Phatty. That’s always connected, and is in pretty much every piece of music that I make. That thing is just a monster. A good monster, like the Cookie Monster!

DJ Times: Your PlayStation Theater gig was the first stop of your AEON tour. Is there an underlying concept behind the show?

PvD: It took a long time to figure out the whole thing. You know, when you watch a movie, maybe a sad movie, and you feel emotion. I cry at animal movies—sorry about that [laughs]. But then, the emotion wears off, though you remember it was a great movie. Reading a book, the emotion might last a little longer, and maybe the thing that has the longest lasting impact is music. The idea behind AEON is to create this whole audio-visual concept, one that comes together through the production and the visuals together with the music, to create that same kind of emotional impact—but on the highest level that we can. We want to give people a feeling of energy, and of openness to the world. We want it to be inspiring.

DJ Times: Do you feel that you are achieving that goal?

PvD: It’s a learning process. Just from that first show, we learned so much–and because of that, every show will be different. It will be an ongoing, organic progression. But I think that people are already feeling a lot when they come out of the show.

DJ Times: You and your two musicians seemed to be very active during the show. Is it stressful at all?

PvD: Not really. But I always do a lot of things live, and sometimes you don’t have enough hands to do what you want—to trigger things at the right time, to play the keys and everything. That’s why I have my two colleagues onstage with me. They take over some of it, which enables me to be doing even more. For example, very often, I’ll be playing something, and then it will be recorded, quantized, and then I can loop it and play it back. I’m basically constructing a track live, from nothing. It can get pretty complex, and have that support on stage helps.

DJ Times: Do things ever go wrong?

PvD: Of course! The other night, for example, we had a big sound glitch. One of the main audio connections was right at my feet, and I must have kicked it. But it didn’t get quiet—the drum loops and the bassline were still going—so people thought I was just playing this really fucking cool break. They were into it! But really, there’s always something going wrong—I don’t even know how many wrong notes I play during a show [laughs]. But luckily, nobody usually notices.

DJ Times: Do you ever think back to the days when you could just show up at a club with a few crates of records and just slap them onto the turntables?

PvD: I do, and I wouldn’t say that I miss it, but I am very glad that I got to experience that. I have the knowledge that you get from doing that, and I also think that it gave me more of an emotional connection.

DJ Times: In what way?

PvD: I would have one Deutsch Mark in my pocket, and I would have to think, should I buy that record or am I going to eat something that day? That’s a very powerful way to get a connection to the music, and I’m very, very glad that I lived through that. It’s much better than some management team buying some young kid a slot at an EDM festival, and creating an online persona for that kid that’s more important than the music.

DJ Times: Did you ever find yourself getting lumped into that EDM world?

PvD: I think a little bit. If you are a passionate artist and you really care about the music, and you are suddenly being compared with something that is just a marketing product… let’s just say that it could be annoying. I never wanted to be part of it—not in any article, any list, or any other sort of way. And I think I have managed to avoid that.

DJ Times: It sounds like you are not exactly an EDM fan.

PvD: You know, back in the beginning of the ’80s and the end of the ’90s, the people who were getting really into making electronic music were making a conscious decision against marketing-driven product. We used to call it plastic pop. We believed that it didn’t matter what you looked like or who you were. But EDM is more market-driven than anything. It’s not really about the music. I mean, I guess it’s not for me to say—a lot of people enjoy it. Fair enough, but it’s not what I like to listen to. It’ s not me.

DJ Times: What do you listen to when you’re not working?

PvD: For the past four or five years, there’s been this really interesting musical movement. The music has this really trancey element, but there’s a laid-back feeling to it as well. Luke Howard would be a good example—you could put a trancey beat and a bassline on any of his tracks and it would fit, but it’s a whole different thing. It’s like trance, but taken out of the club. And on the much more sunny-day side, my wife is Colombian, so I listen to a lot of Latin-American music.

DJ Times: So should we expect a Latin trance track at some point?

PvD: I don’t want to end up with something like “Despacito,” so probably not. That’s not something I would even want to try.