Why Armin van Buuren Almost Ended ASOT, and What Changed His Mind
Miami Beach, Fla. – It’s the week before Christmas and I pile into an SUV with Armin van Buuren and crew at the Fontainebleau Hotel. Before we know it, we’re streaking north up I-95, discussing van Buuren’s whirlwind year. Like many of his recent professional escapades, this trip will represent another first for the mega-popular DJ/producer, but it’s also the culmination of a previous 12 months unlike any other.
The destination? The Y100 Jingle Ball at the BB&T Center, a 20,000-seat hockey arena in very suburban Broward County, 35 miles away from South Beach. As one of 12 stops on Clear Channel’s iHeartRadio Jingle Ball Tour, the event would see van Buuren sharing a concert stage with the year’s biggest hitmakers—Miley Cyrus, Avril Lavigne, Robin Thicke, Enrique Iglesias, Jason Derulo, etc. And with his international smash—the Trevor Guthrie-fronted “This Is What It Feels Like”—still burning up radio, van Buuren finally had joined fellow DJs like David Guetta and Calvin Harris as a bonafide hitmaker himself. This would be another big night, but for an audience completely different from clubland or the festival eco-system.
To the Stage: Following Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” is no easy feat these days, but van Buuren manages just fine with his two-tune set. With van Buuren stationed in a mid-stage DJ booth, Lauren Evans belts out “Alone,” another trance-tinged anthem from van Buuren’s Intense full-length. Then Guthrie strides out to deliver one of the many radio earworms the multitudes came to hear. The opening piano chords ring out and Guthrie coos, “Nobody here knocking at my door…” On cue, the fans rise throughout the arena, seemingly with one collective thought: “Oh, I love that song!”
Soon they’re singing along with Guthrie and things are soaring—“And I don’t even know how I-I-I-I survive…” When the drop comes, we find an arena full of 40-ish mothers pogoing with their middle-school-aged daughters. It’s a moment for sure and, perhaps, a new demo converted.
But it went like that for van Buuren in 2013. Not only did the Dutch DJ’s well-crafted single break onto American pop radio, it also earned a Grammy nomination in the “Best Dance Recording” category. In April, his groundbreaking A State of Trance radio mix show celebrated episode 600 with a simulcast from a sold-out Madison Square Garden. Aside from playing the world’s biggest summer festivals, van Buuren also DJed with the Royal Dutch Symphony Orchestra for the coronation celebration of his new monarch—The Netherlands’ King Willem-Alexander. If that wasn’t enough, in July, he and his wife Erika welcomed a new son, Remy.
So, what does he have in store for 2014? Plenty. If you know anything about the goal-oriented van Buuren, it shouldn’t be surprising that he’s challenging himself further on his new “Armin Only—Intense” tour. The jaunt will find van Buuren rocking global arenas for six hours at a time, complete with freestyle DJ moments, choreography, guest vocalists and plenty of on-the-fly production. With a half-dozen Live Nation-promoted North American dates running through May, then gigs in Mexico, Australia and South Africa to follow, 2014 promises more mountains for van Buuren to climb.
Our I-95 convo went like this:
DJ Times: Let’s talk about the tour. To me, it seems as if you’re in a better position than most DJs to do a big arena tour like this. You have a longer backstory, you have ASOT, a fanbase that’s built organically over the years and, now finally, a hit record.
Van Buuren: I agree. I’ve been blessed with a really strong fanbase, really the best fans in the world, because they listen to the radio show every week. If there’s one thing I’m proud of in my career is that I started the show at a time when even my manager thought I was crazy for doing a two-hour radio show every week: “Are you crazy? Nobody does that!”
DJ Times: Now everybody does it.
Van Buuren: Yes, it started a whole new thing with radio shows. Obviously, I wasn’t the first—we had Pete Tong and Judge Jules and all that. But for an independent DJ to do it on an independent radio station on a weekly basis—and displaying all his tracklists—it was a lotta work, but it was a new thing.
DJ Times: Back to the tour, what’s going to be different about this one?
Van Buuren: I want to give people the idea that when they come to my show, it’s going to be unique, something they haven’t seen before. So this is the biggest thing I’ve ever done and it’s unlike anything any DJ’s ever done, if I may say so. For me at this point in my career, it would be so much more easy to grab my USB key—which is in my left pocket right now—and tour the world. I’d grab my headphones and play “This Is What It Feels Like” everywhere, raise my hands, cash in and say, “Thank you very much!” I’ve done that. I’ll still do that and I enjoy that—there’s nothing wrong with that…
DJ Times: But…
Van Buuren: From a creative point of view, it’s not so inspiring anymore because mixing itself is not as difficult as it was with vinyl or with the first CDJs. Now the thing practically mixes for you—I mean, you have to be a real idiot not to be able to mix with CDJs. You can do quick mash-ups, which we do—it’s fun, it’s OK. But I wanted more.
DJ Times: The technology affords that now.
Van Buuren: So yes, “Armin Only” is a six-hour, non-stop DJ set for which we’ve written specific software, so that the [tech] people backstage and at Front of House can see what I’m playing. There are choreographed moments, but it’s still a live, freestyle DJ set. Every set that I play will be different. There are all kinds of surprises that we’ll have in the show.
DJ Times: Some on-the-fly production, then?
Van Buuren: Yes. I really wanna be able to tell a story during the night and I really believe this is where DJing is going. More than just playing records in an order, it’s interacting with people, giving them a full night of entertainment, something exciting that lifts the bar to the next level. I think I owe it to my audience and to myself to get out there and do something new. Believe me, it would be much easier financially just to grab that USB key and play everywhere around the world.
DJ Times: Looking back on 2013, what was playing the royal event like for you? The coronation of a king isn’t exactly like getting another club gig…
Van Buuren: Musically, it was a hurdle because I was asked only seven weeks before the actual event. So everyone had to get on their toes. Also, at that point, we had another tour going on—that same month, I played at Madison Square Garden for A State of Trance 600. It wasn’t like the whole team didn’t have enough on its mind already! But, you know, if the king calls, you just drop everything [laughs]. For Holland, it was a really big day. Actually, it was one of the most glorious days I’ve ever felt in Holland. Everything came together.
DJ Times: Working with the orchestra must’ve been challenging.
Van Buuren: Yes, it was. We ended up doing “Intense,” the opening song from the album, and they chose “The Bolero,” which has a pretty consistent rhythm pattern, so it was easy to come up with something, technically, to mix. So I made some beats for that and we rehearsed a couple weeks early. Then the event happened!
DJ Times: You mentioned the Garden show—it’s a venue you’ll be playing again this year. What was that like for you?
Van Buuren: Call me naïve. I’d heard of the Garden before, but I didn’t know that it was such a legendary location. But I found out, for example, that John Lennon played his last concert there. Michael Jackson and Madonna played there and it’s a big sports venue. It’s right in the middle of Manhattan and you can see it from the sky and it’s a pretty big deal [laughs]. I realized that this is holy ground for any artist to play. It was a special night.
DJ Times: You’re seeing a lot of new people getting into this music now, some of them wanting to become a DJ. Do you remember what it was like to be a fan, before you were a DJ?
Van Buuren: Well, I’m still a fan [laughs]. But yeah, when I started listening to dance music, there was no DJ industry, there was no scene in the U.S. When I listened to dance music for the first time, it was 1988, then on through 1991. That’s when I bought my first turntables. That’s when I started mixing. At that point, there was not a lot of money to earn from the industry. You couldn’t even dream of being a real big DJ simply because there was no industry to support it. In The Netherlands, there were maybe one or two magazines that wrote about it, maybe one or two radio stations that played it. But there were a few events that drew 2,000 or 3,000 people—that was the beginning of everything.
DJ Times: What made you want to do this?
Van Buuren: When I was 8, a friend of mine started talking about a Dutch DJ named Ben Liebrand. He sampled the weather report from the news and he put it on the beat of Janet Jackson’s “Control.” He could put his voice right on the beat of Janet Jackson and I thought that was so cool, and it immediately sparked my attention. I was already interested in music, but I wanted to know how that was done.
DJ Times: Do you remember your first DJ setup?
Van Buuren: Yeah, I had a 2-channel Numark mixer with a modified cue so that I could hear the master output, if I wanted. I also had two JB Systems belt-driven turntables because I didn’t have enough money to buy Technics turntables [laughs]…
DJ Times: A familiar story…
Van Buuren: They were OK—you could mix with them. But, yeah, when I got a Technics SL-1200 turntable that was a moment for me. At first, I only had one [laughs].
DJ Times: What advice would you give upstart DJs today?
Van Buuren: There are two very important bits of advice that I always give to DJs. Firstly, your quickest way to the top is to make a track that other DJs play because that’s how you’ll get noticed. Make something that other people want to play. Secondly, make something that sounds current, but is unique. Don’t just copy stuff that’s already out there. If you’re going to make another “Animals” by Martin Garrix or another Deadmau5 track, remember, it’s already been done. It’s fine if you like that, but try not to sit on that wave and look for the next wave that will come. It’s difficult to predict. But it’s hard to make it to the top by copying what other people are already doing.
DJ Times: For the ASOT radio show, how do you manage to maintain such a long-running thing and keep it fresh?
Van Buuren: By doing skits and stupid little things like “The Oath” [laughs]. I think I made the show for myself maybe, first and foremost. I want to make a radio show that I would actually listen to and enjoy. I try to stay away from being boring or repetitive. Having said that, I think it’s important to have items that fans can fall back on, like the “Tune of the Week,” “The Classic,” “The Future Favorite.”
DJ Times: It certainly keeps them involved.
Van Buuren: I have to be honest: Without the support of the fans, I would’ve already [finished ASOT]. I think 500 would’ve been a great number to end it. I seriously considered that. But it just seems to get bigger and bigger with the events surrounding it now and the fans wanting it more and more.
DJ Times: How has it changed?
Van Buuren: The mixing is faster now. There are almost 30 tracks per show each week. Everything is shorter, so we’re really adjusting to the signs of the times. But the formula is still the same when I started—it’s still the latest of trance and progressive in a two-hour, non-stop mix every week.
DJ Times: Obviously, you’re in a unique position as a tastemaker. What producers are you feeling right now?
Van Buuren: The biggest names I’m excited about are Mark Sixma, Andrew Rayel, MaRLo—they do really well. Photographer and Simon Patterson are still really rocking it for me.
DJ Times: When you’re playing a club, what do you require in the booth?
Van Buuren: My current setup is a [Pioneer] DJM-2000 mixer with four CDJ-2000nexus players. As I said, we use the nexus players because we have the specific software written for those CDJs, so my team can see which tracks I’m playing and what visuals they can sync up. So, no matter how big or small the system, we can always work with the visuals.
DJ Times: What can fans expect from you in Miami for WMC/Ultra week?
Van Buuren: For Ultra, loads of new tracks. Actually, I’ll be premiering a few new ones in Miami. I’ll be doing A State of Trance on the stage again. I’ll be debuting a few new Gaia tracks, so I’m excited about that, too. And we’ll be doing a live radio show to celebrate episode 650 of A State of Trance—The New Horizons Tour.
DJ Times: Were you surprised that “This Is What It Feels Like” found such an audience, especially here in the States? What quality resonated with people?
Van Buuren: First and foremost, it’s a really good song and people can relate to it. The lyrics are very powerful, the melody is uplifting and it just has a natural feel. You try to do that with so many songs and it just doesn’t happen. With this one, it just did. A magic happened that you just cannot always capture. There’s something universal about it. And it proved my theory that a good song is a good song, no matter when it’s written or released. But there’s something melancholy about “This Is What It Feels Like” that just appeals to a bigger audience.
DJ Times: So what did the Grammy nomination mean to you and your team?
Van Buuren: I tried to explain this to them that, for an American artist, being nominated is a pretty big deal—it’s like an Oscar, I guess. But if you’re nominated for a Grammy and you come from The Netherlands… that is national news, headline news. Yeah, it’s pretty surreal.
DJ Times: Why do you think we’ve seen such a cultural change in the States for this music?
Van Buuren: Things are just different in the States. Radio is obviously a very important factor and I think that in 2008 there were a couple of tracks that were groundbreaking. You had Fedde le Grand’s “Put Your Hands Up for Detroit” and the David Guetta tracks. A little before that, you had Delirium “Silence.” There were small signs. I actually remember in 2005 when P. Diddy came to Amnesia [in Ibiza] and he was standing in my DJ booth. Looking back, it was like, OK, he already knew that something was going to happen with electronic dance music in the States.
DJ Times: So playing a series of Jingle Balls is a far cry from playing Amnesia, right?
Van Buuren: Yes, but you know what I think? As an artist, there’s a natural flow in your life and if you follow that flow… I don’t want to do the same thing over and over again. I want to evolve. It’s actually very exciting. It’s like we’re investing in our future clubbers [laughs]. For a lot of the [Jingle Ball] audience, it’s the first time they’ll see a live show and they’re with their mom or dad, and we’re introducing them to EDM. Having said that, I’d be more than happy to go back to Amnesia, or any club for that matter [laughs].