Over the last 20 years, the term ‘electronic dance music’ and the name ‘Paul van Dyk’ have become all but synonymous. In that time the Berliner has pioneered sub-genres and through his kinetic on-stage performances, entertained untold millions. He’s written & produced certifiable genre anthems, smash albums and helmed one its most iconic labels. Selling out shows in every dance music-centric city on the planet, it’s seen him break more than his share of world records, earn himself legions of fans and win numerous accolades in the process. Paul is famous for circling the globe 16 times every year and entertaining in excess of 3 million music lovers as he goes. Playing upwards of 150 shows annually, he spends a full 2 months of every 12 in the air travelling to and from events. Among those have been his Barra Beach, Rio show, where on New Year’s Eve 2008 he spun to an unprecedented, then record-setting 1.5 million-strong audience. He has twice been voted the world’s No.1 DJ – a feat achieved to-date by just three other spinners. In 2014, he was aggregated as the #1 DJ Mag DJ of all time. As a producer PvD (as he’s known to fans) has achieved similar success. In 1994 he released ‘For An Angel’, a track that 20 years after it was recorded was hailed as the 8th greatest dance track of all time by Mixmag. Van Dyk has, and continues to be a regular film & game score contributor, which has resulted in numerous notable OST credits. They have included his rework of Hollywood composer Hans Zimmer’s ‘A Poor Choice of Words’ for The Dark Knight soundtrack and ‘Still Alive’ for EA’s groundbreaking Mirror’s Edge game. He’s also owner of one electronic music’s most outstanding remixographies, with his hallmark remix sound being applied to acts like U2, Depeche Mode & New Order, as well as acts as diverse as Madonna and industrial metal rockers Rammstein. His most recent album (Paul’s 7th) ‘The Politics Of Dancing 3’ met with major press acclaim in 2015, spawning a run of Beatport #1 singles.
Was DJ-ing always something you wanted to do as a kid? Was this how you pictured your future or were you pursuing a different career path?
Paul van Dyk: When I was a kid, DJing wasn’t kind of like, you know, a job and such. I grew up in East Berlin, in East Germany, so I was listening to the music through the radio and that’s actually something that got me into music. And then when I went to all the clubs after the Berlin Wall went down, I thought, wow this is really awesome. Then I had a very clear idea about the music I really like. So I started to find it in record stores and kind of make mixtapes, as we called them back in the day. And this is how I started. It wasn’t really about looking at it as a career because I remember days where I had one Deutsche Mark and I was thinking, okay, am I going to eat or drink something today, or am I actually saving it for the next two, three days and buy that record on Friday? So there was no such thing as making a living off it. That came somewhat later, so I never pictured it when I was a kid. To me, it was always about the music, about that passion for it and the drive that the music has. And then I kind of went on to do this in a more professional way.
So you said you listened to the radio to learn about it, what about learning and discovering music really inspired you to go do that as a carrer?
When I was listening to the music it kind of opened up a whole new world to me. It created that energy and that passion that’s sort of like a substantial and vital part of who I am. And yeah, it just basically happened. I developed my taste in the music, what I really like, what really reaches out to me. So I started making it as well and I started DJing and because my music was so different from everyone else, obviously it kind of created a bit of a, we would say “buzz” these days. That’s when I did my first interviews, got my first DJ bookings and this kind of stuff. And when I realized I liked to play this music and to kind of see the direction of the audience and feedback of the audience and the interaction, this is when I decided, that’s what I want to do, and then for quite a long time I did both. I actually did two apprenticeships. One was as a broadcast technician and the other one was as a carpenter. I did the DJing and making music and the carpentry all at the same time until a point that it was simply not possible for me anymore to be in clubs four, five in the morning and at seven in the morning doing some tables or something. So I had to make a choice and I chose what I liked more.
Yeah, you use that in your music. So why electronic music, what attracted you to it?
I think there’s multiple things. One thing is generally and, again there’s so many genres in electronic music as well, I don’t really like all of them. There’s certain elements that I like and it’s the positive drive to it. It’s the depth it has as well. I’m not really a fan of this over-cheesed out stuff. You know it’s something that kind of gives something to me. And that’s what I like about it. A good piece of electronic music never tells you the whole story. I don’t need someone singing to me, telling me this is a really sad love song. I either feel it or I don’t. And I want the musician to actually do everything they can to make me feel it. And that’s the music I enjoy. That’s the music I like and that’s why electronic music is the one that I find the most inspiring.
So you’ve been in the electronic music scene for close to thirty years, what do you think of it now as compared to back in the 90’S?
Again, it’s always very subjective. What I call electronic music might be something else for others. But the point is, to me, it’s still the best music in the world. I totally understand that a lot of people in the world enjoy it, I think it’s the best music in the world. I think everybody should listen to it because it’s so great, but then again there are certain aspects of the music, there are trance and tendency and subgenres that are not mine, but that’s totally fine. Otherwise we’d be all the same too. I love what I do. I’m very passionate about the music I listen to. I can be tired of some things. Like in the moment I hear a good tune and I’m like, “Ah!” I don’t know, it’s just what this music does to me, so I’m loving it every bit as I did in the beginning.
You seem remarkably upbeat for a man who recently sustained a life-threatening injury, one that nearly ended your career. How is the recovery proceeding?
Well, I broke my spine in two places… and that was the easy shit. There are still a lot of things going on, like I don’t really have proper feeling in my legs. And this [points to his arm] is all numb. But giving up is not an option, and I try not to let that stuff hold me back. The doctor says it will be at least three to five years, but that’s not for everything to go away—that’s how long it will take me to get used to not feeling anything. I also have other challenges, like word mix-ups. I had some really serious injuries to the speaking area of the brain, and it’s taking a lot of focus and training and extra energy, just to appear to be good again.
What kind of gear were you using in your early days to help you realize your vision?
Back when I started, I had an old Atari computer. When you would start a production, you had to leave it on ’til you were finished because you never knew if you would still have it [laughs]. And I had an 808 and 909 and 303, all that essential Roland gear from the past. I still have them, though my 909 finally gave up a few months ago. But it’s still in the studio—I have a long history with it, so it will never leave. Also, there was a Juno 106 synthesizer… a lot of really cool machines.
Your music certainly feels full of ideas.
You know, it’s a shame that after all these years we still have to explain that the computer doesn’t make the music, that there’s actually a person making the music, a person with those ideas.
Do you still use much in the way of hardware?
Well, I do for mixdowns, and I have touch controllers in the studio. But really, the main piece of hardware that I rely on is my big Moog Phatty. That’s always connected, and is in pretty much every piece of music that I make. That thing is just a monster. A good monster, like the Cookie Monster!
Do you ever think back to the days when you could just show up at a club with a few crates of records and just slap them onto the turntables?
I do, and I wouldn’t say that I miss it, but I am very glad that I got to experience that. I have the knowledge that you get from doing that, and I also think that it gave me more of an emotional connection.
What do you listen to when you’re not working?
For the past four or five years, there’s been this really interesting musical movement. The music has this really trancey element, but there’s a laid-back feeling to it as well. Luke Howard would be a good example—you could put a trancey beat and a bassline on any of his tracks and it would fit, but it’s a whole different thing. It’s like trance, but taken out of the club. And on the much more sunny-day side, my wife is Colombian, so I listen to a lot of Latin-American music.