Armin van Buuren was setting the template for EDM (electronic dance music) long before that unfathomable acronym existed. Not only a superstar DJ – we’ve had them since the 1990s – he is a specialist in spectacle, known for the kind of laser-flashing theatrics that have come to define the genre’s sudden explosion in the past half-decade.
For a while, he was untouchable, winning DJ Mag’s influential public poll five times between 2007 and 2012, and serving up unrivalled, high-spec conceptual live shows while half of the current crop of globetrotting DJs were still in school.
The electronic-music landscape has experienced some tectonic fissures since the Dutch decksmith unveiled his first Armin Only concept, in 2005 – a then-revolutionary stage show augmenting van Buuren’s typically epic trance sets with an expanse of striking strobes, bursting smoke, strutting dancers and guest vocalists.
Today, all that is de rigueur for any A-list DJ – and Van Buuren’s response has been to go bigger. His latest four-hour show, Armin Only Embrace, kicked off in Amsterdam this month. It ramps things up to 11 with a diverse cast of seven featured artists of notable solo fame – including rapper Mr Probz, jazz trumpeter Eric Vloeimans and rock band Kensington – plus eight dancers and a raft of eye-popping effects.
“Having 35 people on the road with us – live singers, band, trumpeter, dancers – and all that blended together in one show, that’s never been done. Never,” says the show’s designer Sander Reneman.
Van Buuren, 39, is certainly taking things seriously. Rather than resting up before the big opening gig at Amsterdam’s Ziggo Dome on May 6, which will keep him on the decks until 4am, he fusses about the sound onstage and is spotted later, backstage, head bopping along to music from his headphones, searching for last-minute setlist additions.
When we sit down to talk, van Buuren rates his own anxiety level at six out of 10. Hopefully by the time the show arrives at Meydan on Friday, May 20 – only the second international stop on a tour slated to keep him on the road for 18 months – those levels will be significantly lower.
You’ve been rehearsing this tour for three weeks – how easy is it to maintain the spontaneity of a DJ set with so many prepared elements?
I just really, really want to stress that it’s not a preprogrammed set. I know my opening two tracks – but after that, it’s just free-styling.
So if I come tonight, and again tomorrow, how much of the set would I hear twice?
Right now, I played around 20 per cent different between the two [private] tryouts last week. It could be 40 per cent, it could be 60 per cent – it’s up to me, right? It’s completely open –the only thing we pre-programme are individual songs, but I still decide when, and if, I play them.
Last time we spoke, backstage at the 2014 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, you said you didn’t want to go down the typical guest-heavy, post-Guetta, EDM route – but with so many diverse featured artists, in many ways this album and tour have done just that.
I disagree with you, completely – Eric Vloeimans is not a choice that would be obvious. No disrespect to David Guetta, but that’s not who I am – I tried to find collaborations which were not the ones you would expect. It’s not just sticking names up.
What made you want to make such a radical departure at this point in your career?
I don't think it's a radical departure, it's just a natural progression. As an artist, I was a little bit fed up with being formulaic – that's when your career dies, when the passion goes away. I know it would be very easy to make a follow-up to In and Out of Love or This is What if Feels Like – just grab the same kickdrum, change the piano chords a little bit, copy the drop of an EDM record, and then you have another hit. I'm trying to find ways to make it more interesting for me – not even necessarily for my fans, even though they're very dear to me. I'm just trying to see where I can go, how far I can stretch the boundaries of trance.
Some EDM fans have suggested that you are turning your back on trance. What’s your response to that?
What you’re stating is a point of view – I’ve not turned my back on trance in any way. That’s my safety zone, and in many ways I feel I’m still way too safe in my own margin. If I was to just make 138 [bpm] tracks for the rest of my life, it would bore me to death. I understand that some of my loyal fans are maybe disappointed with some of the choices that I’ve made – but that’s actually a compliment, because that means in the past they were really pleased with something I did. That’s why we have records, so you can go back and listen. So thank you for your support at that time – but I want to move on as an artist and do a little bit of an experiment.
• Armin Only Embrace is at Meydan Dubai on Friday, May 20 from 8pm. Remaining tickets from Dh499, with an open bar. See www.arminonlydubai.com.