INTERVIEW: Armin Van Buuren on returning to Dubai

It’s 6pm. We’re sitting in the canteen on the third floor of Amsterdam’s Ziggo Dome, backstage before the first show, or “world premiere” as they’re calling it, of Armin Van Buuren’s Armin Only Embrace global tour. We’d been invited to the Netherlands to meet the DJ and see just what goes into such a massive show before it swings by Dubai’s Meydan racecourse on May 20. It is just the first taste of what will greet revellers on four continents in the coming months.

The room is filling up with a gaggle of hungry dancers, session musicians and production staff – the beards and black t-shirts give them away – all waiting to be fed. The dancers are easy to spot, too. Maybe it’s the cropped hoodies, scraped back up dos, energetic chatter and spontaneous flexing, yes – even as they pile swirls of greasy noodles onto paper plates. Pre-show carb loading probably. “We have to do karaoke in every city,” a girl suddenly declares from one end of a long table. “We’ll be together for a year so let’s make nice memories,” she adds.

Cue a dulling ripple of groans. “The show finishes at 4am,” one male dancer snaps. “This isn’t about us, it’s all about you!”

It gives a little insight into what lies ahead for the crew behind the spectacle. The Armin Only Embrace tour will compress 30 people together for an as-yet unlimited span of time – his tours are known to simply keep going. A catfight or two is probably expected.

Oblivious to it all is their boss. DJ, remixer, producer, musician and songwriter, Armin Van Buuren is one of the genuine superstars of the global EDM scene. The father-of-two has been named number one DJ by DJ Mag a record five times, four of them in succession, and was nominated for a Grammy in 2014 for Best Dance Recording for “This Is What It Feels Like” featuring Trevor Guthrie. His A State of Trance podcast now attracts 20 million listeners a week from 87 countries and his tour, the confirmed dates of which are now almost completely sold out, was designed specifically to take his show direct to his core fans.

He’s a clever man – his law degree backs up that claim – and a really nice man, greeting us warmly with a big, generous smile and a firm handshake. He even tests our dictaphone “Hello, hello,” to ensure it’s working. Sound check done, Armin tells ShortList about his excitement in bringing Armin Only Embrace to his fans, how he once said “I’m done,” with DJ-ing, and the pain he feels in leaving his family at home while he goes on tour.

You’re playing in Dubai early on in the tour. Are you excited to return?
Yeah, I love Dubai. There’s always a very mixed crowd with so much energy. I’ve always had a lot of love for my music from the people in the Middle East and the trance family in Dubai, so it’s very good to play there. I’ve done six or seven gigs already, some of my biggest gigs actually, so I’m excited to bring Armin Only Embrace to my loyal fans there.

You’ve taken this tour up a level with prominent live elements, what kind of preparation goes into such a massive world tour?
We’ve been preparing for this for over a year. The album Embrace dropped in October and before that was even finished I sat down with my team and the directors, Joe Thie and Sander Reneman, and we started designing the visuals, thought of a theme for the show and what we wanted to represent with the album. Then we hired out the Brabanthallen Exhibition Centre in the south of the Netherlands. It’s about the same size as the Ziggo Dome but much cheaper! For three weeks, we rehearsed and worked out what we wanted to do. We finished with two try-out shows, which was the first time we could rehearse in front of a big crowd.

You have two young children now so how do you cope with being away from your family for so long? This is a big tour…
The length of the tour and that time away from my family is pretty daunting to me. My children are very young (daughter Fenna is six, son Remy, almost three) and they are just beautiful. Every day I have to spend away from them is kind of painful. We are Skyping and Facetiming with each other a lot.

So what drives you to take each album on the road?
I love my job and I’m really addicted to it. I’m addicted to music. I’m addicted to playing live and I love my fans. This tour is another step forward in my career. My children are not really old enough to understand what I do and why I’m away for so long. My daughter did just come to my gig in my home town of Leiden. It was her first time so it was very special.

Avicii recently announced his retirement from DJ-ing, and other high-profile DJs have talked about approaching burnout. Can you sympathise with that? And what keeps you going?
When I finished Intense [his 2013/14 year-long world tour] I was done, you know. I said I can’t do a tour like this again. We did the tour, it was great. But enough. Then I went back into the studio and had a lot of fun creating music. It wasn’t about, “I have to make another hit single”, it was just about trying out new stuff. Then suddenly I’ve got a new album and I’m like, “So shall we do a tour? Why not?” That’s what it is.

So, if the new music keeps coming, you’ll keep touring?
It’s down to whether I find inspiration in the music and what I want to do. I never consciously said I will stop when I’m 40, 50, 60 or whatever. Of course, I have a long-term career plan, but it’s more go with the flow than you’d think. It all comes down to the music. The music needs to happen, then a tour seems like a natural progression.

Will we be hearing all this brand new material in Dubai?
Of course! I created so much new music for Embrace a lot of it didn’t even make the album, so it will be super exciting to try it out on tour. There will be one hour of brand new material in the show that has not been released yet. No one has heard it yet anywhere in the world, it’s all new. So that is very special.

You have a law degree, has it helped you with the business side of the music industry, copyright laws etc.?
It’s good to know something about corporate law, tax laws – that’s helped me a lot. When I set up the label Armada it was good to know about copy rights. I actually wrote a paper about copyright with everything changing, you know with streaming and downloading and all that stuff. What you might not expect is I value that work ethic you get from being at university. As soon as I finished at uni I started to work full time as a musician, but I took that work spirit with me. I’ve always been a hard worker.

The Embrace tour features artists such as Mr Probz, Kensington and Cimo Fränkel across hip-hop, rock and jazz… is this an attempt to attract a broader fan base?
No, it’s purely for me. It just means I am opening myself up to other styles and genres. Like Eric Vloeimans, who is our jazz trumpet player. It was very inspiring to work and be on stage with him. He’s has a classical jazz background and is so talented it’s ridiculous, he’s from a completely different musical world to me. I have embraced his sound and that’s the idea. Embracing different sounds within my own. It’s basically a DJ show, but it isn’t pre-programmed. There are lots of different live elements and musical genres involved.

You’ve been on the scene for more than 20 years now, do you feel by showcasing young talent outside of trance you’re staying ahead of the game?
I’d like to state clearly now I’m not trying to be ahead of anybody. I have a lot of respect for my colleagues, so that’s not my incentive. To be bigger than anybody or better than anybody, no, it’s not about that. I have never elbowed my way in. I have been DJ-ing for a long time. You do all the festivals and do all of the gigs and you start to see possibilities – what if we try this or do that, what if we involve a live drummer or singer, you know. I’m always open to new things. I just want to enhance the experience for the audience, that’s my motivation.

Do you still get nervous?
I’m a little nervous now, but not as much as I could be thanks to our rehearsals. We only rehearsed individual show elements though so it is still very exciting.

You’ve been known to play eight-hour sets without even taking a toilet break – are those antics now a thing of the past?
When I last did an eight-hour set, it was just too tiring and I felt the energy was fading. I have no problem playing eight hours. Give me a bag of records and I’ll do it for sure, but the night wasn’t better for it. We have since made a switch to a more theatrical show.

You had a rethink?
Yes, sure. I sat down with the team and we said; why we don’t do four hours plus an hour of only vinyl? You still have five hours of music but slightly more segmented.

You called the first night of the tour the “world premiere” and even have a red carpet – all very glamorous! 
Well, you want to ring as many bells as you can, right? Get everybody to enjoy the show, so we added a bit of glamour, why not?

You’ve previously talked about feeling surprised by your own success – is that still the case?
Well, I never believed in coming to the top. I always believed in finding my own path in music and trying to please the fans and reach as many of them as I can. The rest just follows, but I don’t really think about it being a success. If I’m still enjoying it, I think my fans will be enjoying it too.

You’ve been called Dutch Royalty by your fans here – what would you do if you ruled for the day? 
That’s simple, I’d make sure everyone is happy and healthy; your health is the most important thing. I’d try to cure all the sick kids. I have two kids myself; that definitely changes you as a human being.

Armin Only Embrace
When: Friday, May 20
Where: Meydan Racecourse

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