Oliver Heldens Talks Deep House & Defying Genres at TomorrowWorld

Oliver Heldens, 2014.
Marc van der Aa

Oliver Heldens

'Genres mean nothing to me. Listeners create the genres,' the up-and-comer says.

"What does deep house mean to you?"

Seated on a butterfly bench backstage at TomorrowWorld, Oliver Heldens hesitates. It's understandable; his stance is more often assumed than asked, both by the fans of his radio-ready reinterpretation of the style and the classicists who crucify his new blasphemous sound.

"Nothing," he finally replies. "Genres mean nothing to me. Listeners create the genres."

Ever since "Gecko (Overdrive)" shot to the top of the U.K. dance chart in June, its 19-year-old Dutch producer has become both a symbol of shifting trends and a lightning rod for criticism. Slotting throbbing funk bass and shuffling hi-hats into big-room arrangements, Heldens has helped bring deeper house sounds to the main-stage masses, while incensing those who find the label misappropriated by his festival-oriented fare.

Case in point, Heldens recalls being asked to describe his music on a recent Dutch television show.

"There were a lot of different ages and families watching, so it's easiest to say what listeners say because it's familiar to them," he explains. "I said it's groovy and uplifting and most of my listeners think it's deep house, so I guess it's deep house."

Heldens came home to a firestorm of criticism from Dutch underground DJs who decried his use of the term and sent him "tracks from 10 years ago." While he acknowledges that his music is distinct from the purists' "old deep house," he believes his detractors are preoccupied with syntax over substance.

"I don't really get these people who are discussing how it should be called," says Heldens. "They're focusing on the wrong things. It's funny to see how serious some people take the naming of music; it's almost ridiculous sometimes."

When Heldens was first exposed to house music in high school, he was far more interested in emulating fellow countrymen like Hardwell and Laidback Luke than creating controversy. He became enamored with Dutch dance imprint Sneakerz Muzic, which minted early releases from the likes of Afrojack and Bingo Players, and soon started DJing parties and producing his own beats in FruityLoops.

"It's interesting: The EDM DJs who are big now made this groovy house music like six or seven years ago, and now I'm bringing that back and getting inspiration from that," says Heldens. "I'm also inspired by the new deep house sound, like Disclosure inspired me a lot to go in this direction, or like Flume or Kaytranada."

After showcasing his studio prowess with a diverse range of productions, he attracted the attention of labels like Spinnin' and Cr2 in 2012 and released a handful of big room and electro house tunes the following year.

However, it was "Gecko" that would help launch his career to its current height. Heldens had conceived of its iconic bass lead three years prior to its release, but sat on the track because he wasn't sure where it could fit within the harder-edged sounds that were dominating dance's mainstream. Asked to play deep house at a fateful party last year, Heldens decided to drop "Gecko" and was blown away by the crowd response.

"I really liked it, but it was like, 'Which DJ would play this?' It was so different from all the other DJs out there," he says. "I didn't expect it to go off like that, so since that moment, I knew I had to do something with it. Some friends of mine were like, 'If you do not release it, I will give you slaps with a flat hand to your face.'"

Heldens decided to send "Gecko" to Tiësto and was delighted to get a reply within 15 minutes. The Dutch superstar told Heldens he wanted to sign it to his Musical Freedom imprint and arranged a meeting in Amsterdam the following week. But despite the vote of confidence, Heldens was still surprised when Pete Tong named "Gecko" his Essential New Tune and marquee artists such as David Guetta, Hardwell and Zedd began supporting it.

"I still didn't expect that so many EDM DJs who play really hard stuff would play that, but I was really happy they all caught onto it," he says. "Tiësto was the first to bring my tracks to other DJs Although DJs could also see each other as competition, they're actually really nice to each other."

Following the unexpected success of "Gecko" and the vocal version featuring Becky Hill, Heldens quit school to tackle music full time. He dropped its successor, "Koala," on Spinnin' in August, and on Monday (Oct. 6), he released new single "This" in collaboration with Sander van Doorn.

In addition to running his popular Heldeep Radio podcast, Heldens has collaborative projects in the works with a wide range of artists, including Tiësto, Zeds Dead and Netsky. The latter two came together over Twitter, which the artists initially used to express their admiration for each other's work.

"It's all thanks to the Internet," Heldens chuckles. "It's all about the music, but Twitter really makes it easier for DJs to get in contact with each other."

Having played 35 shows in July and August alone, Heldens readily admits that his ascent to the international touring circuit has been a bit of a whirlwind.

"Everything goes by so fast," he says. "When I think back on it, there's a lot of stuff you forget. The fans are really funny sometimes. They make things for the gigs like gecko and koala heads, or bring a koala bear on a big stick bouncing the whole time. People in gecko shoes or nice signs like 'Take me Heldeep.' Some people even give me fan mail!"

However, the flip side is never far from view. Heldens acknowledges that negative comments affected him early on, but he strives to remember that on any given track, each hateful barb is usually offset by exponentially more likes and listens.

"Most of them are dumb comments too -- like 'Oliver is not deep house, you are so stupid if you think he's deep house,'" he says. "Some people are even like 'Stop making deep house mainstream.' I'm like dude, I'm just making the music I love."