DJ, producer and philanthropist Paul van Dyk has a message to spread
Dance music fan or not, there’s a more than fair chance that if you ask anyone with ears if they have heard of Paul van Dyk, the answer will come back “yes”. To most he is known as the overlord of electronic music’s most emotional and synthetically uplifting genre, trance. He’s also just as synonymous with one of said genre’s most enduring and widely appealing tracks in the form of 1998’s For An Angel, and though it very much defined the early years of the style with its over-driven 132 bpm kicks, arpeggiated synth lines and rich washes of carefully orchestrated melody, the German who produced it has accomplished so much more since.
Recently, though, it seems that trance has been going thorough something of a difficult period. Although hugely popular commercially and in emerging markets all over the world for decades, a new musical megalith has been stealing some of its limelight: that monster is EDM and its influence has loomed so large it seems to be turning young kids and even trance stars away from their beloved genre. Proof of this came last year when trance titan Armin van Buuren released a track entitled Who’s Afraid Of 138? It was surely his way of reminding people that trance still has lots to give, but Paul sees it differently.
“For me, it’s about substance,” he says when probed. “It’s about making music that lasts longer than three minutes for the radio. I think bpm is about the night and the context so it’s a short shot to make stuff so specific like that.”
Asked about the wider impact of EDM, the man born Matthias Paul has plenty to say. “I think what people in the US call EDM has nothing to do with electronic music; it’s more kind of a danceable pop music that’s based on repetition. It all sounds the same and there is not much creativity in it. This is not what I focus on – there is so much great music out there, so many fantastic producers and DJs that make great tracks and play great sets. That’s where my focus is.”
He’s not wrong, because DJ Magazine’s No.1 DJ of all time, as of a 2013 vote, has been putting the finishing touches to yet another artist album. He has released countless in his time but sounds as excited and enthused as ever when this latest one comes up in conversation. It features tons of high profile collaborations because “making music is one of the most fun things, and obviously doing something fun with friends is even more fun!” Another reason there are so many guests on the album is because van Dyk himself can’t sing, doesn’t want to learn and, rather strangely for someone who has played in front of more than a million people at once on more than one occasion, says he is too shy to ever grab the microphone.
“It’s good to have the additional element of a vocal or words with real meaning that kind of take the track in a different direction,” he explains. “In terms of collaborating with so many producers, I always learn from the people I work with. It’s an inspiring process to work with people together rather than being in the studio and working on the thing alone. I wrote the music alone so there is a substantial element of me in all of it, but then again there are elements of all the producers I work with in every track, too.”
Another thing with which Paul was closely associated was the Love Parade in his hometown of Berlin. Although the huge electronic event no longer happens, once again this year van Dyk and his team have put together a festival that may be even more impressive. Called We Are One, it started in 2010 but then went on hiatus. The whole thing is back in July this year and it’s all thanks to the vision of this tireless DJ, producer and philanthropist.
“We did a big festival in 2010 at an indoor venue and it was really successful,” remembers Paul. “We wanted to do something really special this time round and change the concept a bit. It’s an outdoor open-air thing in an old fortress. We will continue to do this for the next few years because I am generally excited about electronic music – there is so much stuff out there. Putting on a festival like this, it wasn’t just me, but also my whole team, and we thought, ‘OK, what’s missing in Berlin, what don’t we have?’ We have big indoor shows at the airport and in hangars and stuff like that, but we don’t have anything in this type of venue that reflects what we do musically, and this is when we came up with creating a festival that is all about electronic music. It will be in a huge fortress and we have created and curated a line-up that reflects the new and the established – something that really brings people together.”
Another way he hopes to bring people together is through his charity work. Although Paul works with many different organisations, probably the most high profile is in his role as Peace One Day ambassador, with fellow internationally acclaimed stars like English actor Jude Law.
“The Peace One Day thing is something that was put forward to make people remember that there are so many violent conflicts on the planet,” says Paul in earnest. “To have at least one day when all weapons are quiet is very important. It won’t happen all at once but we hope to build it gradually and help manifest it with music. People from all different backgrounds are involved and it’s just a simple thing that hopes to remind people of the reality of the violence and conflict that is happening all over the world.”
Quite how he finds the time to do all this is remarkable in itself, and that he is happy to give over as much of his time to these projects is inspiring indeed, especially when many of his peers instead spend time ‘growing their online audiences’ or crashing Ferraris or beefing on Twitter. Not Paul van Dyk, though – he has much higher cultural and artistic aspirations, something that once again manifested itself in a very special project he recently undertook. It saw him work with people from the Bavaria Open Music Festival to recreate the work of classical composer Giuseppe Verdi.
“The thing is, this isn’t the first time I’ve worked with classical music. I’ve worked with full classical orchestras before, interpreting my music, but also a big classical composition, The Planets. This time, though, the people from the festival chose Verdi because it’s his birthday year so they wanted to bring something interesting together. What they didn’t want to do was just reinterpret his music. They turned the opera house into a club and then had people playing Verdi compositions in very modern ways. The crowd was very mixed, there were kids who enjoy electronic music and then there were older fans of Verdi and classical. It was very interesting and this is something that keeps me excited, doing projects like this, because it’s a challenge on an artistic level.”
Despite being the head of long established and influential label Vandit, and even though he has picked up a number of Grammy Awards for his work, “a challenge” is still something Paul relishes, despite having been involved in this game for more than 20 years. One such challenge that has forever permeated his life and career is his work on the radio. He first started in 1991 and has done regular shows ever since. His latest one gets synchronised across 53 stations and is streamed in no less than 52 different countries, but why does he remain dedicated to the form?
“Well, there are multiple reasons,” he muses. “I grew up in East Germany so the only way for me to connect with the outside world was to listen to illegal West Berlin radio stations. This is how I got in contact with music and electronic music so radio always played a very important part of my life, therefore I think things like radio are very important to me in general. It’s just a great outlet to get music across to the people. Nowadays EDM completely took over – the view that people have of dance music has been tainted, but there is so much more to it than that EDM stuff so I believe it’s important to have specialist shows and outlets for those artists. I’m not doing it for the quick buck, I’m doing it for the art.”
The one question any DJ of his age must surely get asked most often is about retirement, and about whether an older man can still connect with a young audience. “I don’t have a problem with that,” he laughs. “I seem to be much more interactive than many of my young colleagues. I don’t put a CD in a player and hit play: when I play I have keyboards and synths on stage, I basically play live and the tools and abilities I have mean it’s very interactive and live. It very challenging on my side and a much more intense experience than a DJ who slots CDs into a CDJ.”
So long as those experiences remain intense for both performer and punter alike – find out for yourself when he plays here on February 27– you can’t imagine Paul van Dyk taking it easy any time soon.
Zero Gravity, at Skydive Dubai Drop Zone, Dubai. Metro: Dubai Marina. Taxi: Zero Gravity. February 27, 6pm to 3am. Dhs180 in advance/Dhs250 on the door.