Interview: Armin van Buuren Talks Jazz, The Beatles, and Nietzsche
Armin van Buuren is one of the biggest DJs in the world. He managed to get a new album ready to drop this fall while touring the world and holding a family and home life. He’s an incredibly intelligent and well-spoken man, although you may not know it from the hard-hitting set he dropped at TomorrowWorld. While chatting with him at the festival, Sensible Reason got to hear what Armin thinks of the past, present, and future of electronic music, what he thinks of jazz, and even what he would have as his next tattoo.
Sensible Reason: Your album just finished! When did you actually finalize everything for it to be ready for the release?
Armin van Buuren: Well, the master was delivered last Wednesday. There was one digital pop, that’s nerd talk for one glitch, but yeah it’s done now. I can’t change anything, I can’t go back, which is über scary.
SR: Why is that so scary?
Armin van Buuren: Because you can’t go back! [Laughs]
SR: Shouldn’t you already be ready and proud of what you’ve made so far?
Armin van Buuren: Well, you always go back. Some of the tracks I’ve literally been working on for two years, going back and forth. It’s good to press a button and go “Ok, stop,” because otherwise you over produce it, you over think it and it loses a natural enthusiasm.
SR: There are a lot of collaborations on the album, what is your favorite besides the one with Mr. Probz for “Another You?” Since you’ve already been talking about that one all summer.
Armin van Buuren: Oof…There’s one that I’m really proud of, there’s actually two I’m really proud of, but I can’t tell you yet who it is.
SR: Ah! Why not?
Armin van Buuren: Because the track list is not out yet. But I can tell you that of course the Hardwell collaboration I’m extremely proud of and there’s another track that I’m going to premiere here at TomorrowWorld, tonight. The track is the title track to the album, Embrace. The idea behind the album is to embrace different sounds, styles, cultures. Because, right now what’s happening, you see it on social media, you see it everywhere, is that people are afraid of everything they don’t know. They like to be in their own comfort zone, which is fine there’s nothing wrong with that I totally understand that, but my mission with this album is to go out of my way and do collaborations that you really wouldn’t expect from me. Like a Hardwell collaboration is something that a lot of my fans didn’t see coming and some didn’t really appreciate. But the idea behind it is to use it as a positive thing.
Armin van Buuren: I’m a big fan of jazz music. I have all the albums from Chet Baker, Miles Davis, you wouldn’t think that I would like it but I listen to it a lot when I’m in my kitchen or chilling at home. I love to listen to jazz, it relaxes me. I’m not a jazz musician at all but through jazz I really fell in love with the trumpet. I think it’s an underestimated instrument and it’s never been used in a trance track before. I went to a concert in Harlem in the Netherlands and saw this trumpet player and he made his trumpet sound like a flute. I always loved wind instruments so the sound of the flute was just magic. Instead of blowing out air he was sucking it in and it has a very special sound, so you’re going to hear that on the track, because I was completely blown away by that. I called him up and he came to my studio and we vibed, I had a melody idea I had some chord ideas, and it was just an experiment at that point. He came to my house about 4 or 5 times, and he’s a jazz trumpet player, he comes from a jazz band he doesn’t have anything to do with trance. So, that’s one of my favorite collaborations, it’s a very experimental track, it’s a dance track there’s a massive drop and everything but in the breakdowns it has a trumpet. It’s a beautiful instrument, it’s so emotional, and that’s what I mean by Embrace. You have to embrace different cultures and styles and that’s the collaboration I’m really proud of.
SR: Going along with the idea of panta rhei, what do you see as the next thing up the river as it flows through electronic music?
Armin van Buuren: Well if you look at the history of music in general, the answer is quite simple. It’s: mixing and merging. Let’s take The Beatles for example in the 60’s. I like this a clear example because you can see what happens with music. In 1960 The Beatles released their first album, and in 1970 or 1969 they released the Let It Be Album produced by Phil Spector. Take the first album, take the last album, compare those two sonically, musically, it’s black and white. It’s still The Beatles, but they made a huge progression. What they did is for example they were hugely inspired by of course their own work, their song writing skills got better, they’re legendary, but also it was a 24 track tape. When they started making their first album it was a 4 track tape, that was the only thing you could do, and then they ended with 24 track tapes. They could have a wall of sound, and with synthesizers. The Moog synthesizer was regarded in the 60’s as a devilish instrument. It wasn’t an instrument, it was electronic. And then The Beatles used the synthesizer in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and all of a sudden there’s a twist in the culture. So my point is, to answer your question, is that what you see is that music only evolves if it mixes and merges.
Armin van Buuren: Look at Skrillex for example, his dubstep sound has clear influences of drum n’ bass, two step, speed garage, all those sounds from the UK and he took that and lifted it to the next level. So, just mixing and merging, nothing will be the same. Everything that will stay the same will fade out, people want progression, in music and in their lives as well. Who watches black and white TV, right? We want things to go further and that’s what’s happening with music right now clearly. The sound of music right now is completely different. Also because we went from turntables to CDJs. Like it or not, that was a revolution, same thing with The Beatles and their 24 track tape. So technology is a really big influence in this. New plugins are being invented, the new sounds that other DJs are playing, new talents that are coming up. Right now deep house is very big again.
SR: For sure, deep house and “future house”.
Armin van Buuren: See, with future house that’s the sounds from 1991-1992 coming back, but then with the sounds from now.
SR: Your sets are not 100% planned out. There are still electronic music skeptics, like with the Moog synthesizer. They say electronic artists aren’t musicians. What would you say to someone who thinks that electronic artists just go up on stage and press buttons.
Armin van Buuren: I dare those people to come stand here at TomorrowWorld and press play, because it’s a lot more than that! Essentially what it boils down to is “What is a DJ?” And I think you can have several definitions of that and I’ll leave that up to you to decide what is the most fair definition. Is a DJ indeed a button-pusher like many people say? Or is a DJ someone that reads the crowd and decides where he goes with his set? Or is a DJ a man of moments? The art of the moment is what I say sometimes. I think the art of the moment is really what makes a DJ stand out. Because instead of having a fixed playlist like many bands have with a little piece of paper glued to the floor and then they know their set list, most bands do that. I can decide to go anywhere with my set based on the reaction of the crowd, so I call that the art of the moment. And then I use a lot of techniques to make my show. I bring 5 people with me on the road for visuals, lights, sound, everything to make it an experience for the visitor. So the times where it’s just about pressing play are gone. On the way to Atlanta I was working on mashups of the latest tracks so I knew I could have something fresh. So, you start playing your set in the studio. I call it my ammo, I charge my gun with my ammunition, new tracks, mashups, new ideas, twists that I can do in my set to try and keep it interesting to the crowd. I’ll have my ammo ready in case I feel that maybe I should shoot one weapon over the next.
SR: You’ve said that you’re more productive now that you have a family, now that you have more things to do. Studies have shown that when people have more of a time constraint, for example students who also have a job, they tend to be more productive. It shows you have drive, you clearly have a passion.
Armin van Buuren: Well, I like to quote Nietzsche “Wir haben die Kunst, damit wir nicht an der Wahrheit zugrunde gehen” [We have art in order to not die of the truth]. Because reality sometimes is so hard, and music is my escape. It’s so beautiful and what I see here at TomorrowWorld is an escape from the harsh reality we have to deal with sometimes. And what Nietzsche said is so true. If I ever end up getting a tattoo I think that would be the tattoo.
SR: Do you think you’ll ever get the tattoo?
Armin van Buuren: Maybe. Not for you to see. [Laughs] But that would be my quote. Even though I’m not really a fan of the German language, I think it’s a beautiful quote. So that’s the answer to all that.
SR: Do you have a muse?
Armin van Buuren: My mom. I’m a mommy’s boy.
SR: You’re constantly on stage touring and making music, how often are you able to go to a show and actually be a spectator and get excited about other music?
Armin van Buuren: I’m constantly looking for that excitement. The thing that I learned recently by listening to other people’s sets is that you learn so much from listening to any kind of DJ. And I’m not talking about established DJs like Carl Cox only he’s a legend, but also the young artists. I want to randomly check out other people’s sets, random stuff because I listen to a lot of different music because I work out a lot. I love to work out and listen to music, I find it inspiring. Not to say that I’ll copy them. I just find it fascinating, my job is to find out what music does to people. Think of it, music is nothing but trembling air from a speaker that pushes air at you and it gets you emotional, excited, you feel better. It’s a wonderful thing and you don’t even touch it! I sell nothing but trembling air, that’s the beauty of it. Try to go to a wedding without music, try watching a movie without music, you kidding me? It’s not even fun to look at.
Need more Armin? Sensible Reason is giving away a pair of tickets to see him and a ton of other awesome music! Just check out the Facebook post below for details on how to win!