Dutch DJ Armin van Buuren may not be a household name stateside just yet, but he’s a behemoth in the world of dance music. DJ Mag crowned him best DJ in the world—an award bearing worldwide clout—an unprecedented five times, he remains a leading force and tastemaker in trance music.
Van Buuren is a watershed figure in his native Netherlands, where his 2008 release, Imagine, was the first dance album to top the Dutch music charts. He’s earned the Order of Orange-Nassau (similar to being knighted in Great Britain) for his contributions to Dutch dance music and even headlined King Willem-Alexander’s coronation ceremony last year with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. His podcast, “A State of Trance,” was the first of its kind, and now routinely attracts 20 million listeners across 50 countries every week.
Yet even while EDM’s domestic explosion has given him the chance to fill arenas in America, as he will likely do when he brings his new tour Armin Only: Intense to the SAP Center May 1, he’s still chosen to do things the hard way.
His latest concert—he playfully refers to it as “Christmas Dinner with Armin van Buuren”—gives him a chance to fully curate a large-scale dance music party. Utilizing a touring support system of 35 people and a list of performers that includes six singers, dancers, trampoline artists, acrobats and a live band, van Buuren is supplementing his set with a robust live element previously unseen in the dance world. It’ll also be a marathon for the ringmaster—he’s orchestrating things from the DJ booth for a full six hours.
Thanks to custom software, his technical crew will be able to see what he has cued to play next, allowing them to set time codes for lights and pyrotechnics or wrangle singers in time for them to appear on stage right on cue. While there’s sure to be plenty of rustling backstage, van Buuren aims for his show to come off like a seamless production.
“I think that the future of dance music is more of a theatrical experience,” explains van Buuren when reached by phone. “The days where you just show up, bring your USB key and play the Beatport top ten, those days will be gone pretty soon because people expect a little bit more.”
He’s quick to counter and say he’s not dissing other DJs who take that approach, and admits he’s done it himself. To use his analogy, “There’s nothing wrong with getting a burger at McDonald’s. It’s a quick fix. You can play all your big tracks, but it’s not so much creatively challenging.” Armin Only was conceived as a gourmet offering.
As he acknowledged in an interview with DJ Times, being christened one of the biggest DJs in the world certainly affords the opportunity to tour the world with just his USB key. Instead, he’s forging ahead with a tour that serves to provide the spectacle now expected of a stadium dance show while still retaining some creative freedom.
“I think it’s much more inspiring to really invest in your fans, in your show, and bring it further,” van Buuren comments when revisiting the idea of touring with a thumb drive. It’s a luxury he could certainly enjoy, but he admits he’s content to follow a more creatively fulfilling path.
“It’s exciting. It feels like I’ve totally started re-inventing myself again,” admits van Buuren.
Van Buuren also clarifies that althought the night will contain plenty of live elements he’s translated to his show from the world of theater, it’s firmly rooted in EDM.
“What you’ve got is still a dance music show, but I took the experience from the world of theater because I think the dance music world can learn a lot from [it],” van Buuren says.
While some would dread a six-hour DJ set, van Buuren enjoys the idea. As he noted, it gives him a chance to build a full night that will allow him to take some chances while sprinkling in plenty of hits, which isn’t possible with one-hour festival sets.
He’s also used to it, as six hour sets were the norm for him when he was coming up as a DJ. He once even played a marathon 12-and-a-half hour set in the Netherlands back in 2002.
Given the plan to make his DJ set as open as possible, van Buuren’s latest tour, while certainly ambitious, has helped him retain the creative spark that’s kept him going all these years. With plenty of ingredients to choose from on the fly, it’ll be interesting seeing how his sonic equivalent of hosting Christmas dinner plays out.
Armin Van Buuren brings Armin Only: Intense to SAP Center May 1. More info.