25th Anniv. Moment: DJ Tiësto - Jan, 2003 [Interview]
In the Melodious World of Trance, Holland’s DJ Tiësto Rules the Dancefloor.
Originally published: January 2003
To some ears, dance music may be nothing without the rhythm and the groove, but as the rise of progressive trance amply illustrates, one cannot underestimate the importance of melody, either. For as the world’s biggest DJs know, a crowd of people doesn’t only go out to dance, but to feel something strongly from the music. And while producers like Paul Van Dyk and BT may have laid down the movement’s defining tracks, it is Holland’s DJ Tiësto (aka 31-year-old Tijs Verwest) who has most decisively won the hearts, minds and feet of dancers worldwide.
As a producer/DJ/remixer and co-founder of the successful Dutch dance label Black Hole Recordings, Tiësto has created a cottage industry out of emotionally evocative minor-key melodies and a 4/4 kick. And sure enough, dance music’s biggest names have already taken notice.
Raised in Breda near the Holland-Belgium border, Tiësto began his career there as a resident at The Spock. As Tiësto relates in his interview, this club gave him a valuable opportunity to make the shift from human jukebox to discerning tastemaker. As his reputation grew, he caught the attention of Basic Beat Recordings in Rotterdam and released his first mix CD, Forbidden Paradise. Tiësto, however, wanted to run his own game, and formed Black Hole with partner Arny Bink in 1997. Through this imprint, Tiësto released two of the most successful mix compilations in the business, the driving Magik series and the mellower, Balearic In Search of Sunrise series. Additionally, Black Hole helped inaugurate the careers of producers such as Armin Van Buuren, The Scumfrog and DJ Montana.
But like most producers, Tiësto’s breakthrough came with his remix of Delerium’s “Silence,” which crystallized Sarah McLachlan’s vocal in a moody, yet driving melodic setting that sent the hands of clubbers everywhere shooting for the sky. It also led to remix offers from Paul Oakenfold (“Southern Sun”), The Dave Matthews Band (“The Space Between”), and Moby (“We Are All Made of Stars”), as well as an album deal with Nettwerk America, which released Tiësto’s artist album, In My Memory, in 2001.
Yet as massive a producer and remixer as Tiësto has become, this straight-laced all-business kid still takes it home most convincingly as a DJ. His days of playing for 200 people in Holland are over, as he routinely packs superclubs and stadiums with his fans. This past year, he brought his pumping, anthemic trance records to the Gatecrasher and Homelands festivals in England and Moby’s Area: Two tour in the States. The only date he missed was the Chicago date, as he had to run back to Europe to make his new residency at Cream in Ibiza.
Despite all of this activity, Tiësto never lets these new burdens dampen his passion for the music. As he reveals in this interview, he feels it’s necessary for a DJ to love what he or she does in order to do it well, no matter what frustrations that might be encountered. A good crowd, he figures, can hear the difference. We managed to catch Tiësto after a date in Montreal, where he spoke about his career, his production and his hopes for the future.
DJ Times: I had heard that you had started DJing when you were eight. Were you aware from that early on in your life that this is what you wanted to do?
Tiësto: I never thought that I could be a professional DJ because at that time it wasn’t really a profession. You couldn’t make a lot of money out of it. I got my first professional DJ job when I was 19, and I would make $50 in a night, and that was it. So it was really just for fun.
DJ Times: What were you spinning at the time, and how long did it take you to get started?
Tiësto: I had always felt the need to share the music that I liked with others. It always gave me a good feeling when I had new music to play to my friends or make tapes with my friends, so I had always had this thing with the music to share that. So the next step was to be a DJ. My path has always been DJing, for as long as I know. I never wanted to be anything else.
DJ Times: How did you start off?
Tiësto: I started off with mobile dates; then I had the residency in Holland – a small club for about 200 people. Then I played there for a couple of years.
DJ Times: When did you see things get bigger for you as a DJ?
Tiësto: I did a mix compilation for a record company in Rotterdam. The mix compilation became quite big in Scandinavia; so then I got these DJ bookings from Scandinavia. I was even more popular there than in Holland. And that was my first step into the DJ world as a “star.” I was really famous over there before I was famous anywhere else. That was the first step.
DJ Times: How long did you spin at The Spock, and what were you playing?
Tiësto: It was already electronic music. I started spinning there in ’89, and I spun there until ’95, three nights a week.
DJ Times: I get this feeling that considering the hardcore tradition of Rotterdam at that time, your style of music wasn’t very popular. When did you make the shift between being a mobile DJ and playing what others wanted to hear and what you wanted to play? Was it the residency?
Tiësto: Yeah. In mobile gigs, as a DJ, you play what the crowd wants. But the time I played at The Spock was very good for me because there was a small room for 200 people and a big room where they played the popular Top-40 music. The good thing was that I could play whatever I wanted, and if people walked away, they just went to the other room. So they just wanted me to play what I wanted to play. There, I could develop my own style easily. If they were going, nobody cared. But they stayed anyway. And it was good, because I had the freedom to play whatever I wanted. That’s been very good for my development as a DJ.
DJ Times: How did you get introduced to the dance music underground?
Tiësto: At the beginning, there was no rave scene. I went to clubs in Belgium and there they were playing really underground music. They had this sound called Nu-Beat, and they played records that were supposed to be played at 45 RPM, and they played them at 33. So you went to a club and you saw strange people, strangely dressed, that danced to music, which was way too slow – like A Split Second and Front 242. So that was for me the first touch with the underground. And in the records, the vinyl record stores, you could still buy those records. I fell in love with it right away and got this mysterious feeling.
DJ Times: What do you usually need to do your job as a DJ?
Tiësto: I like a good, high-quality mixer. It’s just better for the mixing of the records. There has to be certain frequencies on there, or you don’t hear the mix so well. It’s very hard to explain, but not all the mixers have it. Some mixers have too much kill switch on it. They kill the record too much when you put the bass down or the treble down. So I prefer a Rane mixer or a Stanton mixer – the VRM-10. The new CD players by Pioneer are really good, the CDJ-1000 – you can cue it in just like you would with a record.
DJ Times: Are you using CDs that much? I thought you were more about vinyl.
Tiësto:True, but after that CD player from Pioneer, I started to use more CDs. It’s easier to use more CDs because you can get stuff through e-mail from people and burn them on CDs. You get a lot sent, which is cheaper than vinyl. So CDs are taking over a bit. And it’s 2002, so it’s about time that vinyl leaves. It’s a difficult thing for me to say, but the technology is developing. It’s going to happen anyway, sooner or later.
DJ Times: When you’re in the booth spinning and mixing, what else are you doing with the records besides playing them?
Tiësto: Not that much, because the music I play doesn’t leave much space for stuff like that. If you’re a scratch DJ or a techno DJ, you have more opportunity to do different stuff. But I play a lot of melody in my sound. It’s very hard to do extra stuff. What I’ll do sometimes is put an extra vocal or an extra effect, but I can’t do much more than that.
DJ Times: So how do you select music for your DJ set?
Tiësto: I always look for tracks that sound original, and it has to have energy. It has to do something with me, the track. And at the moment, I’m not just playing only trance music, because people know me for trance music, and they see me as a trance DJ. But I play all kinds of music and I like to bring people into a trance.
DJ Times: How often do you replace the music in your box? Do you play differently for clubs, for example, than you would festivals?
Tiësto: I play different everywhere. I think everywhere is a different crowd. If I’m at a big festival, I’ll normally play harder. It’s very much the people inside. They want to hear a harder sound. And if you want to play an intimate club for 200 or something, then you can play much softer music. It depends on the area, on the people, on where you are and everything. Of course, I have a few key records that are always in my box which are the “stones in my box.” People expect me to play those, and they carry my sets. The other pieces in my set are always different, and they’re always varied.
DJ Times: I take it those “stones” are your own remixes or tracks, like Sarah McLachlan?
Tiësto: Sarah McLachlan, or tracks from my album. Tracks like that stay longer in your box because you made them yourself, and DJs are artists nowadays. People want you to play your own records. That’s what they come for.
DJ Times: With your own label, Black Hole, you have two very successful DJ mix series. What is your vision for those CDs?
Tiësto: Magik has to sound magic! [Laughs.] With the Magik series, I try to put on the CDs what I’m playing. It’s a live story of how I would play a set. The other series, called In Search of Sunrise, I do that once a year, and it’s more Ibiza, how I would play in a small club. It sounds very Balearic, very warm. On a Magik CD, you could expect all kinds of music.
DJ Times: How do you proceed with remixes?
Tiësto: I work with two products, Logic Audio and Nuendo from Steinberg. When I hear a track, I try to take the best part out of it and leave the rest that I don’t like. With the [remix of the] Moby track, “We Are All Made of Stars,” I put quite a lot of the original in there, because Moby requested that, because it was a very strong track. The music was very strong. Every track is different. Every track has different elements that we were using. Obviously, of course, a lot of people expect me to remix a track like the “Silence” track. I get a lot of vocally stuff sent. They want me to remix it, and it has to sound exactly the same as “Silence.” Some people request certain things like Moby or Paul Oakenfold. They say, “We want you to use the strings or the vocals or something in the track.”
DJ Times:: Tell me about your work in the studio. Are you producing and engineering, like Paul Van Dyk?
Tiësto: I used to, but not anymore. I used to produce everything just by myself, but nowadays, in the last three years, I’ve been working with an engineer. And since that time, things have been going much better. Before that, on tracks like “Allure,” the first DJ Tiësto song, I made it all by myself, but the sound wasn’t as wide as it is nowadays. It’s much better now.
DJ Times: Tell me about what you have at home. What do you use to make the tracks?
Tiësto: At home I have everything you need. At home, I work on the Steinberg Nuendo and I have Nord Leads. I have the Access Virus and the Roland JP-8080, Korg Triton, Roland 909, all kinds of stuff.
DJ Times: Some argue that with the rise of soft synths and Pro Tools, it’s unnecessary to have outboard gear. Do you agree?
Tiësto: No, because I still believe you can hear the difference in how the record sounds. There are not many producers in the world who can equal that sound. I think I can only name one, and that’s BT. If you hear the crisp sounds in my records, no matter what your music tastes is – and I just mean the quality of the sounds – you can never do that with just plug-ins. That’s the credit to my engineer, of course. He’s very good in the mixing the track down and everything.
DJ Times: What clubs do you like?
Tiësto: As far as the crowds are concerned, I have many, many good experiences. All over the States, everywhere except for Japan, I think. I’ve been to Japan twice, and both times, the gigs and the crowds were not very good. But aside from Australia, I’ve been everywhere. But a perfect club to play as far as set-up was Club Spin in Miami. The DJ booth there is just amazing. Everything that you need is in there. You don’t even need the monitors. The sound inside is so good that you don’t need the monitors, because there’s no delay in the club. Everywhere you hear the sound crisp and clear. As a DJ, that’s perfect, because you don’t damage your ears. And you can see the crowd and it’s a very clean club. It opened just before the Winter Music Conference. I played there during the Music Conference.
DJ Times: A lot of the big progressive DJs are heading into breaks. What is your take on the sound? Would you ever do it?
Tiësto: Maybe. I’m still very keen on the 4/4 bass drum. I like a few tracks, like the Lee Coombs remix of the New Order track [“Crystal”]. That’s a really nice breakbeat track. But it could be a 4/4 bass drum track as well. A few breakbeat tracks, I’d like to play them in a set, but I don’t see myself going in that direction – at least not yet. If the music changes in the next two years, I get into it and start playing it, because I always do what I want to play myself.
DJ Times: How do you work with collaborators?
Tiësto: The good thing with collaborators is that you always make a new track. I also worked with the guy from Rank One and many different producers. And every producer has his own sound and way of working.
DJ Times: I want to talk about Black Hole. How do you work with the label now?
Tiësto: Now I don’t do that much for it any more. I still spot records, but I’m so busy with my DJ career and producing that I can’t do a proper job. But I have some good people working for me. I have a very good A&R guy and I also started my own label. It’s called Magik Music within Black Hole, because Black Hole became so diverse with all kinds of music that I wanted something small for myself that I can release my own records from and records that I play myself.
DJ Times: What was your role when you started the label?
Tiësto: Well, we started with a mix compilation because at that time, the mix compilation with the other record company was in Scandinavia. And I thought, “Well, I want to do my own thing. I want to do my own label.” The record company I was working with at the time didn’t want to give me my own label. So I started off my own label. I knew that I could sell a few copies in Scandinavia. My name over there was already big. So I was like, “Let’s do it ourselves and see what happens.” And then we released the first CD, Magik: First Flight.
DJ Times: Which DJs do you admire?
Tiësto: I got inspiration from Sven Väth. He had his own label in 1992, Eye-Q and Harthouse. And those labels influenced my sound a lot at that time.
DJ Times: His sound has really changed. He’s not really doing the trance stuff anymore.
Tiësto: Maybe my sound will change as well, in a few years’ time. I think so, because a good DJ tries to develop and tries to innovate. All big DJs and artists, they change after a few years. If you don’t do that, you get stuck in the same boring thing, I think.
DJ Times: How did Area: Two go for you?
Tiësto: Yeah. I played all the gigs except Chicago. But I played the early sets, from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. It was a great honor to be on that tour.
DJ Times: What’s your favorite time to play, and how long do you like to spin for?
Tiësto: In the evening. But every crowd is different. In Montreal, I played this weekend, and people don’t go out until 2 o’clock. So if you play at 2 o’clock, people just came in and they’re still cold. So it depends. But basically, I like to play longer sets, and I like to start playing when there’s nobody in the club just yet, because you feel everybody coming in, dropping, and you see the climax of the evening, starting from an empty club to a rammed club. I enjoy that.
DJ Times: How do you end the sets? I think you usually end it with “Suburban Train.”
Tiësto: Well, on that tour, I had to promote the album, so that was a good finishing song. I like to push the last bit of energy out of everybody.
DJ Times: When you’re playing live for a crowd, what reaction do you want to establish in the crowd? Do you want them to feel happy, or do you want them to feel something more?
Tiësto: I want to give them a good time and surprise them – not the whole set, but I want them to hear new kinds of music. But basically, the most important thing for me is that people are feeling good. That’s the reason why people go out. That’s what a lot of DJs forget. People go out to have a good time. They go for the music, to enjoy their friends – it’s not just about the music. It’s also about celebrating together something in each other. It’s a whole social culture, which is the most important part, I think. Going out, that’s what you never forget when you’re old and everyone’s talking, “Oh, remember when we went out?” If you’re having a great night, you will never forget it. So it’s a combination of making people happy and education/entertainment.
DJ Times: For someone who has played all around the world, what keeps you from
Tiësto: I feel I was born to be a DJ. I have a manager that handles all of the money stuff. If you pay me $100 or $100,000, they’re not enjoying themselves, and they’re like, “Oh, he’s playing shit,” it doesn’t matter how much money you’re getting for the gig. Since I’ve worked hard to get to the top, and just at the point when you think you’re not going to make it, it suddenly happens. And that’s what I’m grateful for. And I think I can only spin for so many years. If I don’t enjoy it, I don’t think other people will enjoy it anymore, and then it’s time to quit. If they’re playing for the money, I don’t think it’s a good thing to do.