Armin Van Buuren: The art of the all-nighter

Of all Armin Van Buuren’s achievements, perhaps the most remarkable is his ability to keep a level head. When inthemix calls the world’s #1 DJ on a Monday morning, you’d have a hard time believing he’s just come off a gruelling weekend of late-night gigs, transit lounges and press commitments. In fact, the man is sounding pretty Zen.

Whether it’s the Dutch temperament or years of conditioning, Armin Van Buuren has clearly got a handle on being Armin Van Buuren. It no doubt helps that when we talk he’s riding on the relief of completing his fourth album Mirage. But then there’s all the other stuff that comes with being the doyen of trance. On top of his A State Of Trance show, label duties and tour schedule, there are those many fans to think about. Few DJs engage with their devotees as well as Armin, and it’s just one of the reasons he’s so revered.

The focus of our Monday morning call, though, is Armin Only. After bringing us his nine-hour spectacular in 2008 to gushing reviews, this New Years Eve we’re getting the Mirage redux. It’s the ultimate platform for the DJ to give everything he’s got: the production, the guests, the progressive, the trance, the tingly anthems.

Here’s everything we could fit into a ten-minute conversation with dance music’s beneficent superstar.

You’ve just come off a big weekend, with Creamfields and South West Four in one night. How did that go?

Really well. Closing the mainstage at South West Four was just amazing. I got really lucky with the weather, because it was raining and when I started it stopped. It was really special. And Creamfields was just sold-out mayhem. I played two till four-am, the closing set, but it was a rocking atmosphere and a great crowd. It reminded me a little of the early days of spinning in the UK.

How so?

I don’t know. It just felt really, really fresh. Every tune, people were responding, not just the peak tunes. Every tune there was a crowd reaction, it was mental.

Is that a hard balance at a festival, measuring the ‘peak’ tunes with the ones the crowd may be less familiar with?

Well, I like to compare what I do as a DJ to sometimes you have a fancy Christmas dinner, and sometimes you go for some fast food. DJing at a festival is basically fast food. I do like to eat fast food, but not every day. Sometimes a fancy Christmas dinner is really nice. The thing about festivals is that it’s high energy, you can play all your big tracks, and a lot of new people come and listen to your music. They might come in for just half an hour and get an idea of what you’re about.

Was it exciting to work with such a range of vocalists but also other producers on Mirage?

It was a lot of fun. Most importantly, we had loads and loads of fun in the studio, and I think you can hear that. It’s a varied album. It’s trying a range of different styles within what I do. The main theme of the album is still trance. I do like to stress that it’s easy to talk about the collaborations, because that springs to people’s minds, but half the album is still instrumental trance.

So, for your Australian fans, Armin Only is that ‘Christmas dinner’. Do you relish that opportunity to really stretch out musically?

Well, Armin Only has come from being a normal extended DJ set on my own to a full show. It’s really different from what I normally do, and it’s personally the most exciting thing I can do. I bring all the artists I work with and all my studio experience, but also a complete production. It’s so much fun to do a show like that.

The last Armin Only tour was in 2008 – what’s changed in its new incarnation?

Well, the show is still called Armin Only, so there are some things we like to keep intact. But it’s a completely new show, a new theme, everything. If not, I would’ve made Armin Only a yearly thing, which I easily could’ve done, because so many people said they wanted one. The promoters wanted to do it as well ‘cause it’s a cash cow for them, and it would’ve been a cash cow for me too. But I decided to only do Armin Only if I really have something new to bring to the table. It needs to be new visuals, new stage design, new music, everything; so it doesn’t become stale.

Have you figured out yet who’s joining you as the guests on this Armin Only tour?

It’s still under wraps. It’s all about budget. Obviously flying someone from London to Holland is a lot cheaper than flying them to Australia. But doing such a massive Armin Only does allow for a good budget, so we are bringing some major artists to Melbourne.

In recent years, we’ve seen artists like Tiesto really widen their sound, but as you say, you still champion trance first and foremost. Do you see that as a strong basis for your following?

Well, I think the sound of trance is changing. If you compare a trance record from 2010 to a trance record of 2000 it sounds different because of how we now produce. It’s the sound I feel closest too.

I love house music and enjoy listening to the Swedish House Mafia and Eric Prydz and all that. But for me, Eric Prydz is already a little bit trance. I hope I’m not insulting anyone there! His melodies are beautiful and chord arrangements are great. It’s just the BPMs are lower, that’s why people put it in the house genre. But his tunes to me definitely resemble a trance feeling. Trance isn’t just 138BPM, G-sharp, wobbly bassline, big breakdown for me. For me, trance music could be an Eric Prydz record.

There’s certainly a trance feel to the Swedish House Mafia stuff, something they acknowledge as well.

I heard Laidback Luke say he’s going to make trance music, so…

With the Armin Only format, do you have idea of how the hours are going to progress?

Well, the cool thing is, it’s still a mix of pre-prepared show elements and a live DJ set. We don’t stop the music, which is a really hard thing for most artists, who need a cue for when they need to go onstage and sing live or whatever.

Sometimes if the dancefloor needs it, I’ll tell the people who help me with the show direction that I want to play for another half-hour rather than doing the show elements, so it’s still a DJ set and very dynamic. That’s what I love about it. If you go to Armin Only in Melbourne, it might be very different from Armin Only in Utrecht. Of course the theme will be the same but the music might be completely different, and that all depends on the crowd.

And you also have that rare opportunity to essentially warm up for yourself.

In a normal gig, I play two to three hours. I arrive at the club five minutes before, play my set, then leave five minutes after, because sometimes it’s just not possible to stand in the DJ box or the promoter wants me out. I love hearing opening DJs, it really inspires me. Recently I’ve been touring with Glenn Morrison and Blake Jarrell, who both really know how to keep the pace.

But if I DJ myself for nine hours, I’ll know what I’ve been building towards. Sometimes an opening DJ might play peaktime records, but the last half hour of his set, he might bring it down. So I didn’t know he was playing big records a half hour before I got there. Nine hours gives me the opportunity to play the stuff I wouldn’t get to in a three hour set.

What is it about Australia that keeps you coming back?

The crowds – simply one of the best in the world. I always say Argentina, Poland, Eastern Europe, Australia and a couple of others. In Australia, so many people go to events. It’s not just Armin Only, but it’s also Summadayze and all the other festivals. It’s definitely one of the best countries for electronic dance music, and I think a lot of my fellow DJs would agree.

For those of us not catching you at Armin Only NYE, you’re also doing some festival slots. That must require a very different mind-set from the extended sets.

That’s completely different. A straight DJ set is a lot easier, for sure. Armin Only is really taking a big risk. Financially it’s not really rewarding for me, as I bring such a big crew. Playing a summer festival is obviously very exciting and it’s easy. You just show up with your records and you try to entertain the crowd. It’s just me, the crowd, and some CDs. Or a bunch of USB sticks now [laughs].

Thanks Armin. There are a lot of fans here looking forward to it.

Cool, and thank you to inthemix. I think it’s a fantastic website and it’s great what you guys are doing. It’s really cool. I even check the website regularly from Holland to see what you guys are up to!

Armin Only Mirage takes over Etihad Stadium, Melbourne, this New Years Eve. Add yourself to the roll-call on inthemix!