October 21, 2014

Markus Schulz: 'Stop Facing the DJ' & 'Start Facing the Party'

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London, England – Nine flatscreens, hanging from the Ministry of Sound’s high ceiling, are staggered in banks of three across the dancefloor, away from the DJ booth. The striking HD footage pierces the smoke and lasers, accentuating the sharp melodic synths that are a fundamental part of Markus Schulz’s signature sound.

The screens are showing video footage of the crowd itself, giving a dizzying hall-of-mirrors sensation as we wander across the vast expanse of the MoS main room. There’s a build-up, then an enormous cheer as Schultz drops the main vocal sample from Depeche Mode’s 2001 hit, “I Feel Loved,” and it encircles the space.

The vocal fits, just as if it were heard at London’s Coldharbour Lane exactly in ’01, a time when Schulz finally felt he was making headway in his career. The flatscreens showing the fans tell their own story: With almost two decades of experience playing to dancefloors, Schulz insists one of the biggest changes from the ’90s rave scene to today is that, in the past, the crowd was the main event, not the DJ. Schulz’s early career, especially the time he spent in Arizona, saw him carve the craft of what he refers to as “going down the rabbit hole,” playing up to seven-hour sets, designed to get people looking away from the DJ booth and at each other, at the lights and at the carnival of freakdom—all hypnotized by the moment.

Transmission Prague Jan 2013

In an amusing twist of fate, however, the American mainstream EDM explosion has seen Schulz become a center of attention, a multi-award-winning spokesman of sorts for the wider electronic music community. (Among taking other honors, he was voted America’s Best DJ in 2012.) With a record label, artist-management arm and one of the most internationally syndicated and successful radio shows of the decade—the Global DJ Broadcast—to add to his full-time schedule of touring and producing, it’s not difficult to see why. We’re just not sure how he finds the time.

DJ Times recently caught up with the Miami-based Markus Schulz, one of America’s top jocks and one of the globe’s top trance talents. It went like this:

DJ Times: Let’s talk about your earlier career. You moved to the States from Germany aged 13. You first release was in ’93. How did that production process start?
Schulz: People always want to talk about my earlier career! Well, I was working in a studio in Arizona at the time, trying to get my foot in the door. I was an assistant, taking out the trash and so on, but I got to be a fly on the wall in some sessions. The studio was available at night time, so in the evenings I would be able to go in there and mess around. I started playing some of my stuff out. During that time, it was trying to find myself, trying to find my footing. But I was always chasing. I’d think, “This guy’s doing this, so now I gotta try and copy that.”

DJ Times: You were also remixing from the early ’90s…
Schulz: I did some major-label remix work—I remixed Madonna, the Backstreet Boys, stuff like that. For me, it was just trying to find myself. This was Arizona. Trying to be part of a bigger picture was very difficult. I wanted to succeed out of Arizona. It was very difficult because there was just lack of inspiration for electronic music. I couldn’t hear the heartbeat of what was happening in ’90s EDM at the time.

DJ Times: Then you landed a club residency in Arizona, which went on for seven years.
Schulz: It was amazing! The club was called The Works. There were two owners. One of them was very active in the gay community, and right at that time the rave scene started coming up. The club’s strategy was beautiful: “We wanna bring the gay community and rave community in. They’re both going to look at each other like freak shows, and everyone’s going to be entertained!” It was like lightning in a bottle. It was the most amazing vibe. I was playing in the gay clubs at the time—because it was the only place you could play dance music—so I got to play there for the opening day and was still playing every Friday and Saturday night, open and close, seven years later. That was really where I got to experiment, make mistakes, learn from them, and learn to musically guide a night for that long a set.

DJ Times: When did you feel, as an artist, it was coming together?
Schulz: My career really changed at the beginning of the Millennium when I moved to London. I look at that as the beginning of my career, and everything before London as learning. I had my studio on Coldharbour Lane, Brixton. In the same studio complex, there were drum-n-bass producers, there were European techno and trance names like Mike Koglin and Pablo Gargano and deep-house producers. During busy days, you’d hear five or six rooms going off at once. You’d have Mike or Pablo’s sweet melodies swirling around, then you’d hear these drum-n-bass basslines coming through the walls. All that went to my head and I started producing drum-n-bass style basslines into my own tracks. That’s when the Markus Schulz sound began picking up. I had releases on Global Underground, Bedrock, and I really found out who I was an artist.

DJ Times: Was there one particular breakout moment where you found your sound?
Schulz: The turning point was the move to London. Everything else has been a slow climb. I’ve never been one of those guys that just had a hit record and then exploded onto the scene. This has been a career based on learning things, doing things different, zigging when everyone else was zagging and just doing it for the art. I do, however, remember one specific period in London where I said to myself, “You know what? I just gotta start making music I can play in my sets. If I can’t play them in my sets, then they’re useless to me.” With that new mantra, things started kicking. It started working, because if I could play it in my sets, then other people could play it in theirs.

DJ Times: How did the relationship with Armada start? How did that lead to you founding Coldharbour Recordings?
Schulz: I’ve known Armin van Buuren since I’d gone to Amsterdam Dance Event in ’99. I had a vinyl with me and this little blonde kid was in the DJ booth in Escape, I think, opening for Tiësto. I handed him up my vinyl. When I got back home, I’d received a fax—how old-school!—with a licensing request for Armin to use my track in his first-ever Boundaries of Imagination compilation. We kept in touch since then. Around 2004, I moved from London to Miami, started a residency at Miami Space and also connected with a local radio station, starting the Global DJ Broadcast. The guys at Armada Records were just starting the imprint and I was one of the first signings. At that point, I’d been doing a number of remixes that I’d termed the “Markus Schulz Coldharbour Remix,” so we decided to create an imprint called Coldharbour. We started off with a compilation, then we had releases called Coldharbour Selections and eventually it morphed into a full-on label.

DJ Times: How do you feel today being both a member of the ’90s “old guard,” yet something of a media spokesperson for the current EDM scene?
Schulz: It’s fine. I’ve been doing this for so long. I’ve seen so many things, so I’ve gained some confidence. I remember when I felt really intimidated walking into studios, or being around other DJs. I just never felt I was up to par. Once you start gaining confidence, you become more able to speak your mind. You realize, “I’m just talking what I feel, what I’ve seen, not just marketing taglines.” I never said, “Hey, I need to become a spokesperson.” I guess I just became more outspoken from experience.

DJ Times: In terms of just raw energy and enthusiasm, are today’s EDM dancefloors different from those of the ’90s rave scene?
Schulz: Oh, absolutely. Back in the day, when I was doing that residency at The Works, the crowd entertained themselves. You had this beautiful mixture of the rave and the gay community all together. Everybody just wanted to take that moment. There was a lot of Type-A personalities that were running around the clubs. People came for the freak show. The DJ booth, at the time, was up in the corner of the room somewhere, and people didn’t pay attention. Nowadays everybody faces the DJ. The DJ and the production is the entertainment. The focus has to come away from the crowd. That’s why I love doing extended sets and I always talk about the rabbit hole. The intention is to make people stop facing the DJ booth, and start facing the party. That way whole party starts cracking together and moving together at once. It’s beautiful when it happens—and it’s still able to happen—but, it has to be a special night, a special club, a special DJ. I’m not saying it never happens, it’s just… for the most part, now most people just face the DJ and that’s the entertainment.

DJ Times: People criticize mainstream EDM. However, you’ve always been philosophical on the matter.
Schulz: I’ve always felt that it’s a gateway layer. Once people get in, their tastes become refined and they look in the layers below. Sometimes they age out, or tap out, after tasting the initial layer, but I think for the most part that’s why it’s important to have those layers of EDM. It can’t be one layer—it’s never been one layer. You’ve got the entry—the gateway DJs that everyone knows, that you hear on the radio—then when you get to the next level, there’s gotta be something interesting there. I tell that to aspiring producers. You’ve got to be different. You can’t just do the same thing; otherwise, you’ll remain in the gateway layer and that place is always saturated. How many people in the gateway are gonna be here in 10 years’ time? One of my own DJs under management, KhoMha, said something which resonated with me: “I don’t wanna be No. 1—I wanna be a legend.” The gateway DJs are the ones that become No. 1 DJs, the next layer are the ones that become legends. That’s what it’s all about.

DJ Times: How did the Global DJ Broadcast come about?
Schulz: It started on Miami’s Party 93.1 FM. It was WMC 2002 and the program director knew of my previous work from Arizona. He said, “I’ve got three days to fill—what would you like to do?” I already had an idea for a show and the name for it. So I ended up bringing in guest DJs every night from 9 or 10 p.m. until 6 a.m. It went from a WMC special to an internationally syndicated, weekly radio show.

DJ Times: You were quite ahead of the curve with the concept of recording live sets from international festivals.
Schulz: Well, at the time it was a necessity. I was looking at my schedule and I was like, “I don’t have time to record a show this evening.” So I just decided to bring a CD recorder to my show and plug it into the mixer. Then I thought, “Well, if we’re going to do this, why don’t we record the crowd?” So we got crowd noise in, and that ended up becoming a part of the show.

DJ Times: In episodes where you are in the studio, your radio show seems to have longer mixes and track changes than live sets. How are your radio sets programmed differently from your live sets?
Schulz: On my show, I never feel like I’m playing to millions and millions of people internationally; I just feel like I’m playing to one other person. It’s you and me, hanging out, and I’m playing you some music. It makes it a different experience, there’s a sense of “listen to this track for a while,” not “listen to this track, now this one, now this one.” At festivals, you have to take a track and cut it down. But you know what? If you think about it, that’s really the way it should be. Because when you’re at a festival, it’s about the experience of being with thousands of other people as much as hearing each track.

DJ Times: Tell us a bit more about life at Coldharbour Recordings.
Schulz: That’s my baby! I’ve always been very proud of it. I’ve always wanted to discover new talent. I’ve never gone to the top producer and gone, “Hey, let me sign your track.” I’ve always tried to find the new guys, the up-and-coming ones. That’s what gives me the most pleasure in this industry—being the guy that hunts down the new talent. And I think it’s seen as a platform for new talent to be heard, which makes me proud. I think we’re up to release number 175 now. We’ve had some amazing hits from the label and whenever I look at the end-of-year charts and when the Best Trance Track or Best Progressive Track of the year has come from Coldharbour Recordings, then that makes me so happy!

DJ Times: You also run Schulz Music Group, an artist management outfit.
Schulz: One of the things that happens with labels is a lot of producers started putting out tracks on different labels, one track on Coldharbour, then another elsewhere and that’s great, but it’s not gonna help you grow. You’re just kind of jumping around. We put together SMG in a way that an artist can still put tracks on other labels, but we can help guide their careers a little better. If you have more of a vested interest in someone’s career, then you can really put your head out there. You can really fight for them. But if all you have is a contract for one song, there’s really no incentive other than occasionally, “This is my friend—we should help him out.”

DJ Times: But your approach is different.
Schulz: So we started SMG as a way we could help guys that weren’t getting exposure, that should be bigger, and help get a voice for them. It’s going well. When I look at an artist like KhoMha, he’s blown up so well. He’s got a bright future. He’s just got such energy. There’s a lot of things we’ve done to help him and I’m very delighted with the way that’s all running as well.

DJ Times: How do you balance your time between all these elements?
Schulz: It’s funny. I was thinking about this. I took a couple of weeks off at the beginning of the year just to try and recharge my brain. I look at all the things that I do, and it just feels like my everyday stuff. I’ve got a great team of guys in the office in Miami. They take the initiative and they’re self-motivated. I think it takes having a great team around me in order for me to start these projects or have visions I can turn into reality. Like the artist-management company, it was just an idea, then suddenly it’s like… boom! We’re rolling with it. When you’re in it, it’s just day-to-day.

DJ Times: You remain as active as ever with production. How do you carve out time for that?
Schulz: I work a lot now on my laptop, on planes and in hotels. In fact, Scream 2 was mostly done on my laptop either in hotels or on buses, and planes. For me, personally, I think this new album is so cool, because, with each track, I remember where I was. Each track has a story—it wasn’t just me in the studio. I don’t think that’s evident in the music, but it makes for interesting stories. I think the fans appreciate that kind of thing!

DJ Times: The 2012 album Scream was a success. Do you think your sound progressed with Scream 2?
Schulz: It’s actually a continuation. I finished Scream with so many ideas still coming through that I still felt the story hadn’t been completely told. Usually, I just make tracks, and when I’ve finished a phase, I’ll take the best tracks and that’s my album. With Scream, I really got into a groove. I really felt like, “I’m making an album” and when it finished, the ideas still kept flowing. So that’s where Scream 2 came in. My goal, or hope, is that years down the road people will listen to Scream and Scream 2 as one continuation.

DJ Times: Let’s talk about your set-up.
Schulz: I’m always travelling, so I try to use a very simple set-up. I’ve got a laptop with Logic and Ableton, and that’s what I produce with on the road. For me, Ableton is more about putting together loops, putting together samples—it’s where I carve out the idea. It’s very quick. It’s also what I use for my radio show—creating mash-ups and so on. Then I’ll import my production ideas into Logic and that’s where I’ll get creative with the sounds and the effects. I grew up on Logic, so for me, it’s the main music program.

DJ Times: And for DJing?
Schulz: For DJing, I have a separate laptop that sits on stage with me and that runs Serato. But I only use Serato for the time code. I run, especially at festivals, a selection of tracks that have synced video linked to them—these, I put through Serato. So typically, I play on four CDJs, of which two are regular CDJs, and two carry the time-coded tracks, which have video outputs to the Front of House guys.

DJ Times: Do you program sets differently for festivals versus clubs?
Schulz: For sure. Festivals, especially when you do the open and close sets, you’ve got an hour—90 minutes max—to do your thing, and you can’t take any risks because if you make a programing mistake, it’s very hard to recover in that short amount of time. So you tend to play it safe at festivals. Everything has to be intense and rapid-fire. Whereas in a club, especially the open and close solo sets, I think the key difference is that your blending sounds together, compared to mixing tracks at a festival. In a club scenario, I can loop percussion. I can bring in another track on a loop and release the first loop—it’s really fun. Now some clubs do these mini-festival things, where each DJ gets an hour-and-a-half and it’s frustrating because I didn’t expect to pull out my festival set but, because the DJ before was playing EDM-mainstream bangers, I’ve got to bring the heavy artillery right at the beginning to build it up!

DJ Times: You produce and perform with Ferry Corsten as New World Punx. How did that come about?
Schulz: Ferry and I have known each other for a long time. We’ve done so many of the same festivals and the same clubs over the years. We were on the plane one time to Ibiza, and we got talking as to how we’d never done a track together. So we found the time, got together in the studio and did a track. We were like two kids, jumping around, high-fiving and it just reminded me of the fun times right when I started out.

DJ Times: How did it become a performing situation?
Schulz: Godskitchen in Birmingham got in touch and told us that myself and Ferry were playing all night—we were to decide when the set times were going to be. We planned to do one hour on, one hour off each, but we wound up playing back-to-back the whole night. It was unplanned, and it was an incredible night. Promoters started calling saying, “Hey, we want you guys to do the back-to-back thing,” and it got to the point where we thought that we really needed to put a project name to this, so people understand what it is.

DJ Times: It’s a different sound from what you and Ferry usually play.
Schulz: We’re not limited to just trance—that’s why I think the New World Punx project is special. We played pool parties in Vegas where we got into some really cool house, and we played some festivals where we just went for it, just thrashed the place!  At the same time, our roots are in trance. We both make trance records, we just try and make custom New World Punx versions of our songs.

DJ Times: You’re seen as an authority on trance, but you’ve never struck us as a trance purist yourself.
Schulz: Trance is, musically speaking, an attitude. Sure, it’s more melodic, spacey, deeper, but nowadays everything is just so blurred. If you slow a track down to 128 BPM and take some reverb out, all of a sudden you’ve got lots of progressive house. Make a progressive-house track, then turn up the reverb, up the BPM and people start claiming it’s an amazing example of trance music. I’m actually anti-purist.

DJ Times: Why’s that?
Schulz: To me, the purist thing got really tired. It got to a point where, unless a track was one exact sound, it just got slated. I think there’s a huge disconnect between what’s happening on message boards and what’s happening on the dancefloor. Reading the message boards, it looks like today’s trance music is rubbish. Yet—and Ferry said this, too—I think he and I are allowed to make a call on “real trance,” not someone that got into it a year or two ago. Some of the most beautiful, stunning trance music I’ve heard in my 10-plus years in the scene is coming out right now. It’s fantastic and it’s definitely is up to the standards of what’s considered “pure trance” from back in the day.

DJ Times: What’s in the pipeline for 2014?
Schulz: I feel that the Scream chapter is complete and I really want to get back to doing my pseudonym Dakota tracks. I feel Dakota’s sound really works for those long open and close club sets right now. At the same time, I want to A&R, the Scream albums, get some tracks remixed from Scream 1 and 2, and, hopefully, I’ll have enough together to do a full Scream remix album.

DJ Times: As a radio host, DJ, producer, label owner and artist-management exec, what advice would you give to aspiring DJ/artists?
Schulz: Find what it is that defines you as an artist. If you go chasing after a trend, even if you do succeed, you’re not going to be happy. Look around this industry and you’ll see a lot of people burning out because they’re not doing what it is that makes them happy. If you wanna be in this long-term, you’ve got to find what it really is that makes you happy.Again, as KhoMha says, “You can be No. 1, or you can be a legend!”

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