This past week I had the honor of speaking with Paul Van Dyk. Lovingly nicknamed PvD by his fans, Paul has been a force in the Electronic music scene for 20 years. PvD was, and still is, one of the first DJ superstars. With over three and a half million albums sold worldwide, Paul Van Dyk circumnavigates the world over 16 times each year to perform sold-out shows. On New Year’s Eve 2008/2009, Paul Van Dyk played Barra Beach to over one million people in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil– a testament to his incredible popularity across the world.
Paul Van Dyk is more than just one of the most significant worldwide musicians, he also holds strong political views– which he voices– and advocates for social justice. After fleeing East Berlin in his childhood, Paul has dedicated himself to his adopted childrens’ charity in Mumbai, India and his partnership with the German Red Cross to assist children in Berlin. In 2004, PvD was the sole electronic artist involved in a nationwide tour with the Rock The Vote campaign, where he joined artists like Bono, P. Diddy, the Black Eyed Peas and George Clinton in campaigning for America’s youth to sign up to vote in the presidential election. Recently he received Berlin’s Medal of Honor (Landesverdienstorden) in recognition of his work with Ruckenwind, a charity organization he founded and which is dedicated to helping poor children in Berlin.
It’s pretty clear that Paul Van Dyk is quite the artist.
During your youth in Germany there were no record stores to buy and keep current with music. How did your childhood in East Berlin affect your music?
I think in a way listening to the radio was really the only way for me to be connected to the outside world in a way. Music to me is not something that I listen to, or that I might like, it really is something that is within my inner core. This is why I freak when it comes down to music. Even to the extent that it is some kind of ideology.
Wow. What type of music was on the radio then?
Back then it wasn’t all driven by Top 40. There was a lot of great music and specialized shows. I remember listening to my first really cool indie rock there, as well as very early electronic music, before they even called it House music. And I think this is something that is, obviously, not really happening anymore that much, but this is what radio was back then. This really changed my life.
I remember when I used to do my homework; I always listened to the radio. It was normal pop music in the 80′s that was being played, but at one point to the other, I heard something that was really special. And it was a band called The Smiths; I became an instant fan. They really made me realize how much music meant to me. It then became a gateway to freedom and the outside world.
Can you explain for me what you feel the difference is between music back in the late 80′s and early 90′s and how it is today? Either with Electronic music or music in general.
There was always a pop culture and there were always different musical genres. Especially in the early 80′s, there wasn’t pressure on the radio stations to just play Top 40 in order to get listeners, and more marketing money. A lot of the radio stations were actually state- owned. It was more about the quality of the music than what was really popular at the time.
In terms of electronic music, it started as a very small pop culture and developed into one of the biggest youth cultures in the world. Wherever you go, you find people really loving that music. Again, I would say, over the last over the last three years, we have seen a development where a lot of what is so dear to us, and everyone who really loves electronic music, was entering the cheesy pop world as well. Right now it seems that 9 of the top 10 tracks in the world are sort of danceable, but at the same time, are really cheesy.
The electronic music world has changed, and I’m sure it will change again. This is the pop world and the pop world is constantly changing to the next big thing. The good thing is that electronic music is really, real. It has its core fanbase, and there are people loving that music. And the people who make that music, really love what they do. Therefore it will always survive, regardless of what is going on.
You’ve described EDM as “…a political and diplomatic tool that could be used.” Can you elaborate on that?
I strongly believe that with events that feature electronic music, you bring people together from different parts of the world, different religions, different kinds of people completely. They all unite in that room, for the night, for the music, and they leave with a really positive energy. This is something political to a certain extent. Certainly, at a time when a lot of governments lose the voice they need to talk to each other for solving worldwide issues and problems. As an example, when I play in Ibiza there are people from all over the world, and they are all having a good time together. It doesn’t matter where you’re coming from, or what god you believe in.
Do you feel like other genres of music can have the same effect?
I absolutely believe that when a lot of people come together to enjoy music, it creates a really positive energy. However it is a bit different with Electronic music. Electronic music doesn’t have a language barrier. It really is an international thing. This is what makes it much more open to that. The main characteristics of Electronic music are really open-minded. You can include all sorts of different elements and therefore everybody can find something to relate to. Therefore they feel connected to it, and truly love it.
Let’s transition into your music. In 1994, your first proper release was The Green Valley EP. Can you describe your sound then and how it has transformed to where it is now?
Somehow I never really cared what people called my music, or what genre they put it under. I made music I really liked, that I wouldn’t have changed in any ways. That is what I did back then, and it’s what I do now. The difference is that back then I was this naïve kid from East Germany, not really having a clue how the world worked and having an arcane knowledge of musical skills and how the studio works. Since then, I have experienced so much, I have traveled so much, and I have seen so many things – and also I have learned so much in terms of my musical skills and production skills – with all that in mind my music has progressed along with me. It is an evolution really.
The other thing is, as you get older and more mature, you develop a stronger sense of self-confidence. This also means you are much more honest with your music. I think this is definitely something you can hear in my music.
You used the word “evolution,” which is the title of album coming in early 2012. What can we expect from you upcoming album Evolution?
Well a little bit of what I’ve just described. It’s always for me and not about any one specific genre our sound. I’ve been called a Trance DJ, but when you listen to my music, it’s not really the stereotype trance. And when you listen to this album, it’s not really the stereotype trance. It combines and takes in a lot of other influences and elements.
It’s difficult for me to talk about my own album release. What I can say is that friends and family, who have heard the album, have actually said that it is the best music I’ve ever done. Obviously, I’m really excited about Evolution.
Tell me about your creation process.
It became more and more diverse in a way. In the earlier days I always tried to capture an atmosphere, then went to the studio to recreate it. And these days I do it a bit different. I remember my dogs running around the garden, and I had my guitar in hand. I just was playing some chords, while developing some lyrics. That’s one way, the other way involves the equipment I use onstage. I have two computers and a couple keyboards, so I’m playing a lot of things live in front of my audience. And very often actually, I play something and it really works, it really connects. So a lot of the music on the album was actually composed live in front of my audience.
Life in general is so full and rich of inspiration. This is what drives me, and kicks my ass every morning.
Can you give me some examples of those inspirations?
It can be those big moments when you’re on the stage, and you play something and it really works out. It’s a real goose bump moment. There is a track on the album, which captures one of these moments– when I played Creamfields in Argentina, and the track is called A Wonderful Day. I played this massive riff and no one knew it, but everyone was instantly hooked. It was one of those special moments.
Then also another approach is a track called Everywhere. When people write about love they write about it in a very sad painful way, or they write about it in a way where everything is over sized, super-duper big. But if it comes down to it, and this is what I believe, what everyone has felt before is those very tiny intimate moments. This is what I tried to capture with Everywhere. It’s very hard electro sounding, but the lyrics are very fine and very thin. Very intimate, very sensitive, but at the same time, very massive.
Earlier you described your stage setup with multiple computers and multiple keyboards. What are your thoughts on progression on DJ technology from vinyl, to CDs and finally digital music?
For me Electronic music was always about breaking the boundaries on the creative side, as much as on the technology side. Using the latest technology was always part of finding a new way of making electronic music even more intense. And of course, over the years I developed the same passion for being a musician that I have for being a DJ.
The setup that I’m using now is the ultimate setup for me. I can actually play live, I can remix live, I can re-arrange, and I can create the sounds live. At the same time I can use all the skills that I have as a DJ in terms of building an atmosphere and building a moment. I can bring all that together with the equipment that I use. This is a much more intense presentation of electronic music– then let’s say ten or fifteen years ago. I was always very good at beat matching, so it didn’t take me much time to actually line up the tracks, so what did I do for like eight minutes? Stand there and wait until the record was over to just mix in the next one? Times have changed. It’s much more musical now.
There is a lot of controversy here in the Metrojolt team over the DJ Mag Top 100 list and its legitimacy. How do you feel about DJ Mag top 100 DJ rankings?
Whatever I say is somehow, somewhere reflected in a negative way, so I’d rather not say much. This is a way you can weigh the legitimacy of that list: let’s take the ten most important clubs in the world and let’s take the “top ten DJ’s” and put them in any of those clubs. Then let’s try to sell those out compared to somebody like Carl Cox, or even myself doing that.
The thing really is, at the end of the day, somehow it reflects what some of it has become, but it’s more about who posted the stupidest picture on Facebook, and therefore, develops a lot of “fans” rather than actually substantially connect with their audience. People have to make up their minds up on what they want in the future, but I don’t put that much weight into that list. Even when I was number one I said, “it’s an honor to be on top of that list,” but it didn’t change my approach or music at all.
If you could communicate one message throughout the world, what would it be?
Respect and tolerate the person opposite you.
That’s a great one. Thank you for your time today.
Been a pleasure speaking with you.