Not one to label music, including his own sound, DJ Paul van Dyk gets real about the misconceptions of the EDM world, his craziest night in Miami, and more.
Paul van Dyk.
"As an artist you should just give in to your art and let it go,” says Paul van Dyk, who for over two decades has challenged the status quo of electronic dance music, or EDM. “I don’t care for either.” What does he care about, then? Making music that holds a deeper meaning and is relatable to his listeners. It’s what’s made his record label, Vandit, a 15-year success and made him the first artist to be nominated for the then-new dance/electronic Grammy category in 2003 for his album "Reflections."
Van Dyk had a 13-year streak in the top 10 of DJ Mag’s top 100 poll, and while that may have ended, he secured the coveted No. 1 spot twice—something few DJs have ever achieved. But van Dyk is unlike other DJs. He’s also won a Mexican Oscar for his work in the film Zurdoand shared a Grammy win for his work on the Dark Knight’s original soundtrack. He grew up in a single household in communist East Germany, secretly listening to forbidden music beyond the Berlin Wall. Shortly after its fall in 1991, he secured his first club gig. The rest, as they say, is history.
Today, van Dyk is one of the biggest names in EDM, so it's no shocker that he's in town for Miami Music Week to host a yacht party, perform at Space, and do a set at Ultra. But before all that, the talented DJ stopped to talk to us about electronic music, his process, and his next challenge.
Originally you wanted to be a carpenter, which is quite different from where you are now. What changed?
PAUL VAN DYK: The thing is, I did not necessarily want to become a carpenter, but it was the only thing that was on the label market at the time because it was just after the war went down and lot of people from East Germany were seeking jobs on the western label market as well. That was something that was available—to learn a proper profession rather than being an underemployed kid.
So you became a DJ and you've been No. 1 on DJ Mag’s top 100 twice. What does that mean for you—how does it feel?
PVD: It’s a great honor to be on top of the list. At the same time, I always say there wouldn’t be a No. 1 without a No. 100. In the last three years, it has become a mishmash of so many different styles that it’s almost impossible to compare all the elements that electronic music has to offer in one list. How can you actually compare myself with Carl Cox or Avicii? It’s not just a different world of music but a different universe even. It’s an interesting thing to see but it didn’t change my career, my views, or how I do things. I have the same passion now that I had then. It’s a great honor, but its not a life changer.
You've had many other accolades—the first DJ to be named No. 1 by Mixmag in 2005, America's favorite DJ in 2004 by BPM. Is there an accolade that really stood out to you?
PVD: Well, I got the Medal of Honor [from] my country for my involvement in the charity work I am doing, and this is something that means a lot to me because I took that Medal of Honor for everyone who’s involved in our project and everyone who cares to support these children that come from unfortunate backgrounds. So, the biggest award is not actually related to music to me, it is related to that.
Van Dyk at his 2014 We Are One festival in Berlin.
You went from describing your music as trance to electronic music. How do you describe your sound, and how has it evolved over the past two decades?
PVD: I never described my music [like] that, I never called myself trance music. I was considered to be a trance artist and trance music, and I just tried to make people aware of the fact that I never really produced any song that was a stereotype trance sound. Of course, I have a lot of trance-y elements in my music but there’s quite a lot more to find in that music. These days, I still think if you say I’m a trance DJ, you're probably not too far off 'cause a lot of elements of the music I play are very trance-y.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about the EDM and dance music movement?
PVD: It’s a few different terms. Dance music includes obviously everything. EDM is a very commercial element of what electronic music once was. These are two elements that I do not really care too much about I have to say. To me, I focus on the music that I feel has substance and has roots in what the club culture of what electronic dance music actually means, and this is what I’m focusing on and the music I play and produce—[it's] what I look for. There are so many great artists making that music every day. I am very busy with listening to new music all the time without listening to any of that commercial stuff.
Which are you listening to right now?
PVD: Music that moves me and reaches out to me. [It] can be something techy from Carl Cox all the way to people that maybe not so many of your readers are familiar with like Martin Young or Janix.
You’ve said yourself that EDM can change the world. How so?
PVD: I said electronic music could change the world. It’s about the fact that so many people come together from so many backgrounds and citizenships, and all that matters is that you’re a respectable person.
What’s your take on the perception that DJs just stand on stage and press play?
PVD: I would say that’s probably right for 95 percent [of the time].
You’ve said that getting wasted and throwing cake has nothing to do with connecting with your audience—so how do you connect?
PVD: It is about the music. It is about connecting [because] this is what electronic music is about. It’s not about [having] the biggest bling or throwing stuff at people. It’s about connecting with your audience and that’s something that seems to be forgotten sometimes by some of the people that, as you said before, just press the button.
Van Dyk during a set at Café del Mar Ibiza.
When you're making music, what is your process?
PVD: It’s different every single time. My inspiration is life in general. Everything I see or hear somehow ends up in my music. When I go to the studio, I try to bring that across. [It] might be a [feeling] or something like that. When I feel my original idea is coming across, then the track is finished. But it can really start from a very different point, from just little piano lines to a different drum structure.
Is there one track in particular that started one way and ended up sounding totally different?
PVD: Yeah, a few—pretty much everything when the creative process is running. A song on my previous album, “The Sun After the Heartbreak,” is kind of a progressive sort of house track and then became drum and bass because it felt like it.
Tell us about your craziest night in Miami.
PVD: I don’t remember. [Laughs] No really, the thing is I kind of remember how they start and I don’t really know how they end. There’s a saying, "If you remember you were there, you didn’t go." And it’s one of those things...there are so many friends in town and so many DJ colleagues that I admire that you go out [with] and you start with one drink and then another one and enjoy yourself—and then [I] end up going home the next morning and being destroyed.
What's the next challenge for you?
PVD: I don’t know. For me the next challenge is always the next event, the next show—always trying to convince my audience that what I do actually means something. So that’s basically the next challenge, which would be Space in Miami as the next big one.
On the other hand, there are always interesting projects on the horizon. I’m going to play a very interesting and unique event in Berlin with my band where we interpreted all of my music in a very lush, interesting way that’s accompanied with a water laser and video show.
What's one thing not many people know about you?
PVD: I make good soups. I don’t think a lot of people know that.
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY OF PAUL VAN DYK GMBH; JULIAN ERKSMEYER; VLAD FLORUT