What’s it like to be the world’s number one DJ? One could look for the answer in Dutch trance producer Armin van Buuren’s latest single “This Is What It Feels Like,” which was released on his fifth studio album, Intense, on Apr. 3. The song features Vancouver singer Trevor Guthrie over a steady progression of melodic synths. Although its lyrics speak of a breakup, it’s an upbeat track, and feels celebratory in the wake of van Buuren’s achievements. These include gaining the no. 1 spot in DJ Mag’s top 100 poll a record five times, including last year; and hosting one of the world’s most widely listened-to radio shows, A State of Trance.
Van Buuren’s specialty is trance music, which is characterized by sweeping melodic layers and emotional buildup, and often mixed into longer sets, hence the popularity of his two-hour radio show.
“I do like my set to have a certain flow, so I’m trying to give my set a feeling that it doesn’t stop, that it’s one continuous thing,” he says, after headlining the Easter weekend’s Bal en Blanc show. The concert is an all-night, all-white celebration of electronic music, and one of this year’s largest so far, attracting 15,000 attendees.
“Bal en Blanc is almost a religious thing for people in Montreal; it’s such an important event,” says van Buuren. “It’s one of the remainders of the great times here in Montreal when I played a lot here; 2003, 2004, 2005…. Bal en Blanc still proves that Montreal is one of the great cities to play for.”
Just don’t call it a ‘rave.’
“I don’t think the term ‘raves’ even applies anymore to these kinds of events, because ‘rave’ has a bad taste about it,” says van Buuren. “A lot of people associate the word ‘rave’ with drug use and all those kinds of things, and I don’t use any drugs myself. I drink a glass of champagne—that’s what I did last night.”
Even though van Buuren loves playing in Montreal, he was still excited about being the first Dutch performer to play at New York City’s Madison Square Garden, where he appeared the night before Bal en Blanc as part of his A State of Trance tour. He is also the second electronic dance music (EDM) act to ever sell out the venue.
Over the years, Buuren has built a wide international audience.
“I’m sort of making it my thing to go to new cities every year,” he says. “Why do I do this? I do this because I believe in the love for music … and I’m in a position to break new territory with A State of Trance; with the sound.”
With committed fans worldwide, trance as a genre is still going strong 20 years after originating in Germany in the ’90s. But its surging popularity also dovetails with its umbrella genre of EDM, which has emerged as a major force in mainstream top 40 charts. French DJ David Guetta, who snatched the 2011 no. 1 title in DJ Mag, breaking van Buuren’s four-year winning streak, has released songs such as “Titanium” and “Turn Me On,” which topped international charts last year. Can trance music, especially poppier tracks such as van Buuren’s “This Is What It Feels Like,” ride the EDM wave to the top?
“I’m not gonna lie, I would be happy if the track does well on the charts, but it wasn’t made for that—that’s a big, big difference,” van Buuren says. “And I want to stress the rest of the album, Intense, is not like that. The whole album is a pretty varied album with instrumental tracks, a lot of influence from classical music and different kinds of electronic music. But the main sound is trance, for sure.”
There certainly seems to be a hardcore group of trance purists that keep the genre distinct. At Bal en Blanc, there were two rooms: a main room, and a trance room. Guetta’s remix of “This is What It Feels Like” has a 1:3 ratio of likes to dislikes on YouTube, with van Buuren fans deriding the poppy electro mix in the comments. But perhaps van Buuren’s success lies in balancing the widespread appeal of his music with his loyalty to his favourite genre.
“I know that the trance family’s a pretty tight community, and you’re not really allowed to step beyond those borders—at least that’s how some people view it,” he says. “I don’t like to limit myself to one style, to one genre, to one particular thing. I want to have the creative freedom to do whatever I want to do.”