Tiesto Talks Dance Music's Pop Makeover In Las Vegas & How Sven Vath Inspired His Career: Exclusive
The unofficial mayor of the Vegas Strip also reflects on nearly 20 years of his iconic track "Delirium (Silence)" & reveals why he doesn't play his trance classics in his DJ sets.
It's nearing 2 p.m. in Las Vegas, and as many tourists flee the 115-degree desert air for climate-controlled casinos and lobby bars, thousands of tequila-toting 20-somethings in town for America's largest dance festival, Electric Daisy Carnival, venture up and down the boulevard to shrivel up like prunes at their favorite EDM pool parties. Cliché DJ press shots are littered across every billboard, taxicab, gift shop T-shirt and strip-club shuttle on the main drag, a symbol of Vegas' full conversion from buffet mecca to vastly overpriced shuffler's paradise.
"Back then, we had billboards of magicians and Cirque Du Soleil shows, and now it's all DJs," says Tiesto, arguably the primordial face of the city's dance surge. "It's crazier than I can ever remember, and all the clubs are packed. It's still going strong."
One of electronic music's most recognizable mugs and among the highest-paid DJs in the world, Tiesto, whose brand has paved the way for multimillion-dollar Vegas residencies and corporate sponsorships, is aging in reverse. After all, he has to keep up with his friend and protégé Martin Garrix, who at just 21 years old, not only ranks as the world's No. 1 DJ, according to DJ Mag, but also takes up just as much ad space in Sin City.
While young ravers shell out their savings, the longtime Vegas lover and resident is stacking his proverbial chips in one of MGM Grand's ultra-luxurious mansion-sized suites. No joke, there's a climate-controlled dome over the opulent Liberace-style pads, similar to the affluent lifestyle one could expect at the Capitol in The Hunger Games.
Undoubtedly one of the busiest artists in electronica, oftentimes with not a minute to spare, he detaches himself from the larger-than-life icon erected on the towering billboards outside the hotel for a 20-minute break before his residency set at the resort's signature poolside affair Wet Republic. He arrived straight from his Tiesto pop-up shop, powered by Denon, in the lobby downstairs. Tiesto spoke to Billboard Dance exclusively before his headlining set at EDC to discuss the ever-changing dance music landscape in Vegas, how "calculated" social media has become and the techno titan that inspired him to launch his trance career.
You're about to play a pool party and headline EDC tonight during one of the biggest weeks in dance music of the year, but you're here all year 'round as well. Most people can't be in Vegas longer than a weekend. Do you ever get sick of it?
Since the first time I came here, I've had an obsession with Vegas. It was always my dream to come to Vegas -- the lights, the glamour about it. It's a wild town. What I really like though is that everybody comes here to have a good time, no matter what music you like or who you are or what you do. For everybody, there's something to do here, and they're here to have the best time of their lives. That's what's unique about this city -- you can go on holiday anywhere in the world, you'll have a good time, but it's not like Vegas
Dance music has obviously reigned over the last half-decade. The only unrelated billboard I've seen on this trip is a throwback advertisement of Criss Angel. Where is the scene at right now in Vegas?
It's grown fast the last couple years. When I started, I was one of the first ones who had a residency here back at the Wynn, and even before that actually at the Hard Rock. The sound is always changing, some people get more pop. In Vegas, everybody plays a little lighter. A lot of people play more pop. But when you have a full American crowd at the moment, it's definitely more trap and this pop direction. Ed Sheeran, The Chainsmokers -- that's what people are putting a lot more of in their sets. I think I have the most people from all over the world coming here, so I can stay a little more on the dance side. I feel America, like in a lot of things, is always ahead. Dance music never got to the point like it got in Europe, where everybody's breathing dance music. It's in their blood. Here it's big. But I think people are still -- you guys have hip-hop in your culture and breakbeat stuff -- that's all a big part of it. In Europe, you can't play that bass sound that much because people lean more towards deep house instead of trap. That's the big difference I see at the moment: the trap sound, which is what I call it.
Does Vegas inspire your production or songwriting process, or do you prefer somewhere else?
I have a couple places: I love Sweden. I lived there for six years. I loved working there, because the winter helps, everybody is just in the studio. That's why they make such good music, they're in the studio for six months. L.A. is cool, but it's harder there because there's a lot of "yes" people. Everything you do there everybody's like, "That's awesome!" Everything is awesome. And then you're like, wait a minute, it's not that great. It's hard to find a real connection there. But I prefer Sweden or Amsterdam. Even In Vegas, I'll come to the studio here.
You have a legion of fans out there -- from the pool party to EDC -- waiting to see you. Experiencing notoriety for as long as you have, how do you receive love and adoration from fans? Do you even have time to let that energy digest?
I definitely have those moments. Yesterday I had a meet-and-greet at a pop-up store, and one guy was crying when he saw me. It's very overwhelming. It's flattering as well, but it messes with your emotions. When I look in the mirror, I still see the same guy as 40 years ago, but for them it's different, I guess. You just have to take it in, but yeah, it's very overwhelming. It's amazing, of course, and I'm very grateful for that. I mean, people have my name tattooed on their back of the bird, you know, Tiesto tattoos everywhere. There are people in the hospital dying of cancer who listen to my music every day and it keeps them positive and some even survived. Stuff like that is just really mind-blowing to me.
What attracted you to electronic music and dance culture?
I grew up on dance music. Every kid in Holland grew up on dance music. It was as big for me as country or hip-hop here in America. It was just very mysterious. When I was in the scene first, I heard a DJ from Germany play [named] Sven Vath, and I listened to him for six hours and there was not one single record I recognized. And I was working in a record store! I was like, "This guy's playing for six hours and I don't know one track he played, and everything he plays is amazing." Then I said, "That's what I want to do." That's how I got into music, and trance music actually. He has this very mysterious vibe to him, and I think he still plays on vinyl. It's a very different feeling. It blew my mind.
You came up during a period when more importance was placed on DJing versus producing. How did your approach change when a lot of the younger producers of today began touring after just one or two hits without being fully skilled at DJing?
I saw this with Avicii. He had a couple of mash-ups and he started making hits but didn't know how to DJ. Ash [his manager] taught him how to DJ, and then he was practicing in Ibiza one summer with me and opened up for me the whole summer. That's where he basically learned how to DJ and then he got better at it. Most producers today have a hit but they don't necessarily know how to read a crowd, and that's the difference between the old-school DJs and the new DJs. The new DJs perform more like a band, so they play their own tracks and it's all a little bit more calculated. The old-school DJs, like me I guess, I just wing it. I know the first track I'm going to play is an intro track -- it's my track with The Chainsmokers, it's a six-minute intro -- and then I tell Jordan, my assistant, what are we going to do today? The second track maybe this, and after the third track I don't even know what I'm going to play. I'm just going to go for it. That's the charm that's missing sometimes with the pop artists or DJs.
How does social media help and hinder dance artists on both ends of the generational spectrum?
When social media started, it was great for me. I was always this little island called "Tiesto," and you didn't have much contact with other DJs. Only when you saw them at a festival for two minutes, but you couldn't really stay in touch. When Twitter blew up, I loved that period because I was talking to Swedish House Mafia, talking to every DJ I knew. I would DM them and be like, "Hey, man, I love your music" and send tracks back and forth; the community became very tight. You discover young kids online and you can approach them directly. I tweeted Martin Garrix -- it was a famous tweet -- I actually started following him and he was like, "Oh, Tiesto, thanks for the follow! I'll send you some stuff," and he had like 1,000 followers. He's the biggest in the world now. It's crazy. Now that social media has sunk in a bit more, more people are very calculated about it and it's not as real anymore, or as it used to be. It's great for a lot of stuff, but don't take everything serious on there. It's a lot of marketing and PR, and nothing is really real anymore. People should be aware of that.
In what ways has this affected crafting your sets?
What's changed the most is that it's harder to surprise people. You know, when you play a set at Ultra Miami, by the time it's EDC, everybody already knows your sets, so you have to switch it up again. It's just hard to surprise people with tracks.The only way you can still surprise them a lot is with your own tracks that haven't been released. So I always try to put in a couple of those surprises with a new mash-up or a new remix. That's the big difference now: shorter attention span and everything is two minutes this, two minutes that. I try to find that balance. Music is so in your face at all times now, so to keep the mystery going, you have to keep making tracks that aren't out yet.
Aside from your own label, which I'm sure you get sent lots of new tunes, what's your go-to platform for music discovery?
I go to 1001tracklists.com to see what's trending on there. SoundCloud is always great to discover new music. Even on the Spotify viral charts I discover new bands or songs.
Speaking of new tracks, tell me what drew you to reunite once again with KSHMR for your new euphoric single "Harder."
Me and KSHMR connected super well when we met and we did "Secrets" together and another one called "Underwater," which was never finished.
Will that see a release date?
Well, I was in the studio in L.A. for six weeks, and he came over one night and I was like, "I have this vocal, super sick vocal." It's even better than "Underwater" -- which still might come one day. Who knows! I liked it right away and we started working on it that night.
"Delirium (Silence)" featuring Sarah McLachlan is coming up on nearly 20 years since its release. What will you remember about the song's legacy?
I remember when Paul Oakenfold played it back in the day, I think it was on vinyl. He put it on, finished the track, took off the needle, put it back to the beginning and played it again at Creamfields. It was amazing! But back then, "Delirium (Silence)" could be your favorite track, but you could still only hear it at a festival because the vinyl was sold out.
Any surprises planned for your EDC set tonight?
Tonight is going to be a crazy, roller-coaster set. That's what I like at this point in my career. I have such a variety of tracks I can play. So I'll play some old-school stuff, some of my hits and some trap, some deep house, then back to EDM and electro house. The thing with the trance classics is they're all 11 minutes long, so it's very hard to play, but I may throw "Traffic" in there. Last year, I played "Delirium (Silence)," but it's 11 minutes, and I was like, "Hey, guys, take your time. We got 11 minutes to go." [Laughs]
So what's left on Tiesto's bucket list? You seem to really be enjoying this stage of your career.
I've been around for a long time, and I still really enjoy everything. I really do enjoy it still. I don't feel my own age, I feel like I'm 25. This world is so intriguing, and what's next for me is to keep creating new music, continuing to build my sets and give the best I can. I don't want to go anywhere, I love what I'm doing. I'm in a great seat right now. Just focusing on improving my tracks but not really looking at the charts -- so many people are like, "Oh, I need to make a Spotify track." I just want to make good dance music that people are happy to hear. That's what I'm going to do, that's my focus.