Armand van Helden: “DJs don’t have to think about much up there”

House trailblazer Armand Van Helden will have you know he’s semi-retired. So what exactly does that mean for a DJ-producer with a deep catalogue of classics and a canny knack for reinvention? “I’m still passionate about music, but I’m out of touch,” he tells inthemix from New York, the city that made his name. “I’m not in the clubs every day, and I’m not paying attention to every DJ, remix and song.”

Semi-retirement still allows for a trip to Australia. As announced this week, Van Helden will team up with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra for a one-off Symphonica show in January 2018.

The setlist will take in Van Helden’s early anthems like ‘U Don’t Know Me’ and ‘The Funk Phenomena’, his evergreen take on Tori Amos’s ‘Professional Widow’, and later hits ‘My My My’ and ‘Bonkers’ (featuring Dizzee Rascal). Then there’s his host of solo albums, decades-spanning remixes and Duck Sauce project with A-Trak to consider. Despite his credentials, Van Helden was “a little taken aback” by the Symphonica offer. “Right out the gate, I was like, this is crazy but I don’t know how I’m going to say no,” he recalls.

Modesty is Van Helden’s M.O. Throughout our conversation, he reiterates his out-of-touchness, describes his music as plainly as possible and wagers he’s no better in the studio than a child. There’s certainly a raw simplicity to Armand Van Helden’s signature productions, but he’s a proven maestro of the bare essentials. Read on for our conversation with the not-quite-retired, orchestra-ready house OG.

What do you mean when you say you’re semi-retired?

I feel by the year 2000, I was already mentally done. So that’s 17 years ago. I’ve been saying semi-retired since 2005, 2006. It just means that I enjoy what I do for a living.

These days I’m doing 10 gigs a year, less than a handful of remixes, and barely putting out music. I was in New York for 9/11. It took a number of years to recover from that for a lot of people, myself included. Creatively it just felt off for a time. When it came back around, I had a little more gusto. I think my last run of being involved was ‘Bonkers’ and Duck Sauce. From that point on, I’ve pretty much pulled back.

But I still enjoy it. I know the craft and I know the game. I know guys older than me who are still out there and pretty adamant. I’m not saying I’m as skilled as they are, but I know if I ever want to jump back into the pool and start swimming around, it’s likely I’ll do okay. It’s lucrative to be a DJ, honestly. You can get to be 50 years old and still be doing it.

What went through your mind when the offer came through to do this Melbourne Symphony Orchestra show?

I was immediately blown away, but I just didn’t understand how it was going to work. I get that I have a certain back catalogue that has a classic appeal, but I just didn’t know really how interesting that is for your average girl or guy living in Melbourne.

I Googled what they did with Derrick May and Jeff Mills, which was absolutely incredible. Jeff Mills and Derrick May made sense, y’know? My music is not what they do. It’s closer to comedy – really more Fatboy Slim than Carl Cox. An orchestra is pretty serious. Serious goes with serious, but my back catalogue is fun and erratic and almost cheesy and commercial at the same time. Now throw in an orchestra and you’re really weirded out. But the composer and arranger really put the confidence in me, which is what I needed. I totally got their angle as soon as I talked to them.

I doubt you’re playing all your big career hits in one set when you DJ, so I’m curious how it feels to revisit them for this symphony show.

I kind of do DJ like that, though. The past three years I probably haven’t played a new record. Seriously. The last few years of touring with A-Trak as Duck Sauce, we were literally playing all our own songs, like we were Daft Punk or something. Which was like…we are not Daft Punk, but we were making an attempt to be. [Laughs]

“The past three years I probably haven’t played a new record”

I can’t really keep up with music anymore, so I thought if someone’s going to book me, I’m just going to play all my old songs. I don’t have enough that people know to fill 90 minutes, so I go 75-percent my stuff, 25-percent ‘90s house. So I’m comfortable with a straight Armand Van Helden show.

You’ve said before that classic dance records are usually simple and even childlike. Can you expand on that?

I never learned to play one instrument. I can play the drums, but I would never call myself a drummer. I don’t know music; how I have a career in it, I really don’t know. So when I say my songs are childlike, they are built in a childlike mind.

If you were to bring a sampling keyboard and put it in front of someone who’s never touched a keyboard and asked them to play something, the first thing they’d play, I make a track from. It’s extremely naïve. I’ve had musically inclined friends who’ve told me not to learn, because I’ve gotten this far with what I do. If you can get a career in music without learning how to play…it’s like, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

You mentioned playing alongside A-Trak as Duck Sauce. How does the energy and expectations of those shows compare to DJing in the ‘90s?

My first DJ gig overseas from New York was in Germany in 1994. For most of the ‘90s, I was a travelling DJ with vinyl in heavy record cases. You didn’t move, you often didn’t look up at the crowd. You would show up to a gig and the guy before you was in full trance-out mode or playing trip-hop. In the moment you had to improvise and come up with a set.

“[DJs] don’t have to think about much up there – as long as they don’t fall and twist an ankle while they’re jumping around”

It’s a totally different thing to the way DJs are now. It’s all a no-brainer. They don’t have to think about much up there – as long as they don’t fall and twist an ankle while they’re jumping around.

When we were doing it then, it was very stressful. There isn’t a lot of footage of that time, because most of the DJ set you were down on your knees digging through your record box. You were so concentrated on what you were doing it was almost like a trance-like state. There wasn’t any, like, participation with the crowd.

I think the thing that changed was this new sound – a mixture of dance music and rock – that appeared around 2006. Stuff like Justice, Crookers, MSTRKRFT, Switch; this new thing was coming up. New kids were coming from the rock scene and they wanted a performance. The technology changed too – with a setlist in your computer, there’s time in between songs to goof off. That exploded into EDM and that’s where we’re at now to a degree.

When I got with A-Trak [for Duck Sauce], he was from that generation, so he was about putting on a show. He was about stage antics and going over the top. It was a brand new thing for me, because it isn’t my personality. But I get it. You can stand there and spin your records and people will still like it, but you can also take it one level higher and really go in. Bring in crazy lights, pyrotechnics, dancers, you name it – put on a whole circus act. That’s what it is, but it’s nothing negative. There was a major revolution in DJing that happened during that time.

You released the track Wings on commercial house label Spinnin’ Records. Were you wary of any negativity you’d attract by aligning with Spinnin’?

I’m out of touch, but I was relatively aware that the label has a certain sound. It would’ve made sense to have it on a UK label like Defected or Ministry Of Sound, but they passed, which is fine. I’ve been shopping records around since 1991, so I’m very comfortable with a turndown.

Spinnin’ kind of sold me on it, so I was up for it. Their audience is obviously younger and not a “house” demographic, but I like that. Other people would’ve said that’s career suicide. But man, I’ve been here 20 times before. I like the concept of being where you shouldn’t be, and maybe turning a few people onto something new. It’s back to my old rebellious Armand side.

Symphonica: Armand Van Helden with the MSO hits Melbourne’s Sidney Myer Music Bowl on Saturday January 27. Tickets are on sale from July 26.

Jack Tregoning is a freelance writer based in New York. He is on Twitter