One of the top electronic DJs in the world for two decades and counting, German DJ/producer Paul van Dyk is part of the incredible lineup for this year's traveling EDM dance party Identity Festival (which kicks off today in Cincinnati). We spoke with the Dark Knight remixer about ID Fest, why drugs are an overstated part of EDM culture and his disinterest in what Madonna has to say.
In the last few years, EDM has blown up in America. Do you think it's still bigger overseas though?
I think it’s fair to say that over the last 20 years, electronic music has developed from a small subculture to the biggest music culture in the world. It’s just as big in Asia, Europe or America. Something we saw over the last two or three years—more in America than anywhere else—is that the normal Top 40 radio pop culture has been influenced [by EDM]. Suddenly Rihanna and Usher want to become dance electronic artists. And we all know they’re not; they’re basically doing it because it’s popular right now and when the next thing comes along, then they’re doing that. This is not what I see as being truly popular because it’s not what I see as electronic music. But electronic music in America has always been phenomenally healthy, and the U.S., Canada and Mexico have always been a powerful part of what the global electronic music is.
[Pauses] Maybe I’ll answer that question by telling you what I do onstage. I have two computers, a custom-made mixer, keyboards onstage and all sorts of different stuff that allows me to replay live and interact with my audience. All elements that allow me to create while playing. I could recreate it later, but it’s much better at the time I play it in my set. That’s what makes the experience of electronic music more intense. Of course you can use technology to make it easier, and a lot of people take it easy, so I think it’s a fair point.
Drug abuse has been associated with dance culture since the 1990s, but that connection seems to be waning a bit. Do you think drug use actually is less prevalent in dance culture today?
I don’t think that the drug use or abuse is more or less than it used to be. What happened was that about ten years ago, a lot of people—mostly journalists and some of the public—didn’t really understand electronic music. They didn’t feel it, they didn’t get it. So their way out of this was, “In order to love the music, you need to be on drugs.” That was their explanation why so many people love the music. But with the explosion of it and more people familiarized with the sound of electronic music, they understand it more and get used to it. People see that there are real artists, real creative people in this. This is where the shift in the view on the drug connection between electronic music comes from.
I don’t know what other people have to say about that, so I don’t really care how it was viewed by other people. I was asked about what I thought about it, and most of the time I don’t really care what Madonna has to say. I think the last album [of hers that] was really good was the one William Orbit did, Ray of Light. I really, really liked it, I was a big fan. After that, it wasn’t my music anymore so I wasn’t too interested. So I was asked and I have my opinion: It’s freedom of speech, it’s what democracy is all about. And what I said was pretty much, “I don’t think somebody with such a massive following and such an impact on a young audience should make reference to drugs in front of that young audience." Especially when electronic music has always pushed against the tone of, “We are all on drugs.” Which is not true! It was just an “I want to be cool” comment [on her part] and I think that’s really s**tty.
Has your approach to performing changed with technological advances?
Absolutely. It started with vinyl and then came the CD and suddenly the technology allowed me to put more of a "life" element into the set. I developed the same passion for being a musician as I have for being a producer, so as soon as I had the chance to take studio elements with me onstage, I did it. The possibilities you get with modern technology allow you to do so much more than just hit play on a stupid USB.
Do you have more fun onstage now that technology allows you to interact more with the crowd?
I enjoyed it 15 years ago, too. That’s not the thing. I was always really good atbeat matching, mixing one beat into another on vinyl. That was not really a challenge. [Back then] I’d play tracks between six and eight minutes long and the other day I was wondering, “What did I used to do all this time?” Just standing around, waiting for the next song to mix in. Now I have so much more to do. From the creative point of view it’s much more fulfilling. Because when you play something live and it really works out, it becomes connective with the audience. It’s very different from pressing Play on a CD player to play something someone did a few months earlier in a studio.
Do you have anything specific planned for your ID Fest dates?
Obviously my Evolution album and there will be different parts of it [in my set]. I’m definitely going to play a lot of the new music and some of the classics, but as I said, how I’m laying it out comes down to the interaction with the audience. That comes back to the equipment I use onstage, which really enables me to interact and change things around toward my audience. I could play two different venues in New York and I would play two completely different sets purely because the vibe, the atmosphere and the interaction is different.