20 Questions With Paul van Dyk: The Trance Icon on Growing Up in East Berlin & Why Social Distancing 'Is Incorrect' as a Term

Paul van Dyk
Christoph Köstlin

Paul van Dyk

'Releasing club music right now is like going fishing in a pond where there are no fish. You throw the bait in, but it can’t be consumed when there is nothing there to consume it.'

Paul van Dyk’s name is synonymous with trance. A pioneer of the genre before it even had a name, the German producer and DJ established its characteristics with his early productions and remixes. Most notable of these is his track, “For An Angel,” and his remix of Humate’s “Love Simulation” at the start of the ‘90s.

With these productions and the rise of Stateside DJ culture, van Dyk shifted into international superstardom. Forbes named him one of the world’s greatest DJs in 2012. He occupied a top 20 spot in DJ Mag’s Top 100 DJs for 15 years, hitting No. 1 twice, in 2005 and 2006. When the Grammys introduced the best electronic/dance album category in 2005, van Dyk’s Reflections was nominated. (He won a Grammy in 2008, for his remix contribution to The Dark Knight soundtrack, which won best score soundtrack album for motion picture, television or other visual media.)

In the past 16 years, van Dyk has released nine artist albums and sold millions of records. His 10th LP, Guiding Light was set for release this spring, but due to the pandemic, van Dyk is instead releasing his fifth remix album, Escape Reality. Many years in the making and out on his own longstanding VANDIT Records, Escape Reality reimagines some of van Dyk’s most memorable songs into non-dancefloor versions better suited to the at-home listening audiences are presently confined to.

During quarantine, Van Dyk has also been giving fans a weekly livestream -- Sunday Sessions, at 7 p.m. CET, from his home in Berlin. This program is in addition to van Dyk’s VONYC weekly show on Dash Radio, which recently passed its 700th episode. Upon the release of Escape Reality, van Dyk discusses growing up in East Berlin, the resurgence of trance and shifting gears in these unprecedented times.

1. Where are you right now and what is the setting like?

In Berlin, at home, in my home office/studio, can’t go anywhere. I’m in a different room than where I do the livestreams -- but it’s in the same, let’s say, facility.

2. What was the first album or piece of music you bought for yourself and what was the medium?

I grew up in East Germany, but my grandma was allowed to travel to the West. She smuggled a record back for me. It was the vinyl album of Orchestra Manoeuvres in the Dark’s [1980 synth-pop album] Organisation. It was extremely influential. Early electronic, but also melodies and poppy elements, the general imprint of what later came for me in music.

3. What was distinctive about where you grew up and/or where you spent the specific years that shaped you as a musician?

Where I lived in East Berlin was 600 meters away from the Berlin club, UFO. The Berlin Wall was between me and the club, which created a certain hunger to experience this music live. I was listening to the radio all the time and hearing about what’s going on in the clubs in West Berlin, and I could never go. That energy and that vibe definitely had an impact on me. Music wasn’t just a sound I was excited about. It was also the gateway to a free society for me. Listening to this music behind the Iron Curtain connected me to the world.

4. What did you parents do for a living when you were a kid and what do they think of what you do for a living now?

My mom was an interior designer. I had an apprenticeship in East Germany as a broadcast technician, which stopped when we moved to Hamburg when I was 17 and I started an apprenticeship as a carpenter. My mom raised me very grounded, to have a proper profession, to have a job. When I told her I’m not going to do this carpenter thing anymore, I’m going to do this music thing, she said she trusted me. The way she raised me, she was sure I wouldn’t do this lighthearted.

5. What was the first track you made?

It was a remix for a project called Effective Force called “Illuminate the Planet” in 1993. The remix was called “New World Order Mix,” because I was a fan of New Order and because it was two years after The Wall went down and everything was different. My first own track is called “My World” in 1994. To me, all music fills the room. Trance music goes through the world, all the way to the horizon. Maybe that has to do with where I grew up and how I grew up. When you grow up in a confined space, the world and the universe is what you dream of.

6. What was the first thing you bought for yourself when you started making money from music?

I didn’t have any money at all, so when I was booked to play my first paying show, I went to the promoter and asked him if he could pay me some of my fee upfront so I could buy some more records to play a better set.

7. What was your first ever gig?

At Tresor in Berlin. I wasn’t paid for that. I was just invited to play in the beginning when nobody was there. That was my first gig in front of a few people. But my first real booking was at a club called Turbine in Berlin.

8. What moved you toward dance music as far as a particular club, party or raving experience?

When I was a kid, I used to listen to the West Berlin radio stations when I did my homework. When I heard The Smiths for the very first time, I thought, “Wow, this is awesome, it’s so different.” At the same time, I had this taste for electronic-sounding stuff like OMD and Depeche Mode and Yazoo. I started to listen to specialized radio shows and heard stuff we would call early house music. It was interesting, because there wasn’t actually anyone singing and telling you to be sad or to be happy or whatever the lyrics might say. It was the instrumentation and the energy that moved me. That was so exciting to me, especially since I didn’t speak any English anyway -- we learned Russian in school in East Berlin -- so I didn’t understand what they were saying.

9. Do you remember how it felt when you got a reaction in terms of people actually dancing?

My first emotional memory is fear. I was a typical bedroom DJ. I was at home, never turning the music up really loud, turning the bass down. Then suddenly I was in the club, where I heard the same records very, very differently. I heard all these things that I was never able to hear before at home. It was frightening. The thing was, I believed so much in the music that I was playing that I didn’t doubt that people would like it. At that age, when you’re just beginning, you’re so naïve, you think this is the best music ever, everybody must love it. Until you realize a lot of people have different tastes and different approaches to things. No one left the club when I was playing. That made me happy and gave me hope.

10. If you had to recommend one album for someone to get introduced to dance music, what would you give them?

Gargantuan by ['90s progressive house duo] Spooky. They laid a phenomenal groundwork with this album in regards to sound and a different approach to music. It’s a very inspirational record. In regards to production, BT Ima is phenomenal. It was because of that album that we got introduced and made music together.

11. What was the last text message you sent and to whom?

The last text message I sent was to my IT guy because one of my software plugins wouldn’t work. There are these programs where you can remotely log into the studio system and go on to the computer and see the problem. I wanted to see if he could do that.

12. You were originally scheduled to release a different album, Guiding Light, this spring. What was the idea behind releasing the ambient remix album, Escape Reality, instead?

I was finalizing everything for Guiding Light, and at the same time, the lockdown became more and more intense. I’m banging 138 BPM. I’m really excited. I would love to go out on the weekend and play in front of people, see their reaction, but it’s not possible when everyone has to stay home.

I’m a huge fan of straightforward club music, but that’s not necessarily what I’m listening to right now. I thought it would be a good moment in time to finish the Escape Reality project and release it now when people are posted at home and actually listening to and enjoying music. Releasing club music right now is like going fishing in a pond where there are no fish. You throw the bait in, but it can’t be consumed when there is nothing there to consume it.

13. What was your intention with the creation of Escape Reality?

I compose a lot of music on keyboard or guitar with proper songwriting. In the clubbing context, sometimes the actual song is undermined by the electronics of the music. I wanted those tracks to feel like individual parts of the composition rather than the energetic vibe. Someone like Luke Howard or Niklas Paschburg, who make very reduced piano-based, electronic-influenced music that is meant to be sat down and listened to -- I find really inspiring, and that’s what I tried to achieve.

14. What effect do you hope the album has on people during this specific point in time?

As the title says, maybe a little escape. Maybe sit and look out of the window and listen to the music and get some hope. It will be better. We just have to be patient. We have to get through this together. Maybe the whole album, or just one or two tracks will become something that give that little glimpse of hope in rather miserable times.

15. The general opinion is that this is a productive time for making music, without knowing when, or if, your music will ever be released. Does that feel true for you?

I would make music without it ever coming out. That’s one of the reasons why Escape Reality took so long. I was working on it whenever I felt like it. I finished each individual track without ever having a plan about if it’s going to be released or when it will be released. Every artist is different, so every approach to art is different.

16. You’ve had your tour dates postponed indefinitely. What are some impacts of these changes?

The uncertainty, not just for me, but for everyone, is what’s nerve-racking. For example, in Germany yesterday they said there are no big events allowed until the 31st of August. The next sentence was: "then we will see." It doesn’t give you anything. The only way to stay sane is to be active and communicative. The term social distancing is incorrect. We have to distance ourselves physically, but, if anything, we should socially stay far closer together these days. We should be there for each other and communicate with each other.

17. You do a weekly livestream, Sunday Sessions. What do you hope your fans will get out of these?

My main aim for the people on there is that they all communicate with each other. They all logged on together, at the same time, a big community that is together, connected through the music. I’m just the vehicle they use to communicate through and be together. Playing music is the only thing I can do right now and through that create a communication platform. It feels good to see people from all over the world talking to each other.

18. You’ve always been active and articulate about politics. How do you feel you can use your position to create awareness and have influence?

The complexity of the world and especially the political decision-making process needs much more than [the number of characters you're allowed] on Twitter. It doesn’t make much sense these days to use social media to make a statement. First, you will be ripped apart. No one takes the time anymore to really think twice about why I may have made a statement and what led me to think in a certain way. It seems that the world is conditioned to no longer read. I learned that it makes more sense to connect behind the scenes with politicians and decision makers to work on changing things and initiate a positive thinking process.

19. As a trance pioneer, what are your thoughts on its recent resurgence?

Trance was never gone. I love this music, and I listen to it every day. I hear all the amazing up-and-coming talent. To me, it’s still the most creative electronic music form -- because artistically you have to be able to bring an idea across through a composition, not just a soundscape that is created by plucking on a filter. You have to be able to play a melody, to play chords and also to produce. It takes much more from someone to make this kind of music.

It goes back to my naïve way of thinking when I started: "I love this music so much, everybody must love it." It’s good for the musical genre as a whole that it’s coming back and gaining more popularity again. A young kid who starts making trance music, it’s not the latest, super-duper-popular stuff. They know they’re in a niche, and you know they’re in it for the music.

20. What piece of advice would you give to yourself at the beginning of your music career?

Don’t take disappointment too close to heart. If you’re a passionate musician, if you’re a passionate DJ, one way or another, you will run into a situation where somebody rips you off or sidelines you or does other things to you. Don’t take it to heart, and believe in your music.