20 Questions With San Holo: On His Beard, New Album & How Porter Robinson and Madeon Changed His Life

San Holo
Haley Lan

San Holo

In a scene where "positive vibes only" has become both a catchphrase and a marketing slogan, San Holo has been a refreshing breath of emotional nuance. The Dutch producer, who came to prominence around 2014 on the power of his "Don’t Touch The Classics" remix series, had his life changed when Madeon and Porter Robinson called on him to open on their 2016-17 Shelter Live tour.

He then released his debut LP, album1, in 2018, putting forth a style that melted indie guitar and electronic compositions, with lyrics less about "putting your f---ing hands up" and more about the shape and weight of nostalgia, the complexities of self-worth and the practicalities of love. (The LP hit No. 7 on Dance/Electronic albums in October of 2018.)

These themes extend into San Holo's sophomore LP, bb u ok?, out today (June 4) via Counter Records and the producer's own respected bitbird label. The album's 20 songs deliver both buoyancy and heft, with lush compositions once again fusing guitars and electronics for an indie-leaning but still distinctly electronic sound. For the artist born Sander van Dijck, the album is loaded with meaning -- functioning as a diary of his own thoughts and experiences, and hopefully as an emotional catalyst for listeners, too.

"I always struggle to find the right words when it comes to describing memories, emotions and feelings," van Dijck says. "It just feels like whichever words I chose, it never really comes close to the essence of that experience. I think that’s where music comes into play. Musically I can express so much more emotional depth. I hope that when people hear these songs they just feel it’s a very personal thing for me. Yet, I want people to be able to relate to it in their own way."

For van Dijck, the album's title is also a sincere question that he hopes will open up genuine conversations about how we're all actually doing, positive vibes be damned. Here, van Dijck discusses bb u ok?, what he learned by being attacked on Twitter, and the silver lining of being of the road for the past year.

1. Okay first, to start, San, bb u ok?

I’m feeling about 89% right now! This is very high. Feels great, very vibrant!

2. Where are you in the world right now, and what's the setting like?

I’ve just been at home in the Netherlands for the last year now. I haven't spent this much time back in the Netherlands in years because I’m usually touring around the world. It’s definitely been nice to see my family as much as I have the last year, but I definitely miss being out on the road, playing shows, and all the experiences and memories that come with it.

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

As every kid born in the '90s, I used to download a lot of mp3s through Limewire and Kazaa back in the day. I think the first actual vinyl I bought was one of these special scratch records with all kinds of sounds on there that you could use to scratch with. I was really into turntablism and rock bands that had a DJ. (Linkin Park anyone?!) I was fascinated with how they could mix rock sounds with electronics. Soon after that though, I got my first guitar and for a long time after that, that was it for me.

4. What was the first song you ever made?

Ever since I started playing guitar 16 years ago, I’ve been writing songs and melodies in my head. Being born in the Netherlands, my English wasn’t so great back then, so a lot of the lyrics I came up with didn’t make much sense at all. They were written like songs with English lyrics, but written with Dutch grammar! But regardless of how much sense those songs made, to me they were important because writing gave me a feeling of purpose. It took my mind off things like school and grades and fitting in and things like that.

5. If you had to recommend one album for someone looking to get into electronic music, what would you give them?

Electronic music is such an incredibly vast term. But an electronic album that definitely changed my life is Baths' Cerulean. I had never heard anything like that when I played it for the first time. The song “Rain Smell” specifically just gives me this indescribable feeling to this day.

6. What’s the first non-gear thing you bought for yourself when you started making money as an artist?

Probably like a meal or something like that? Honestly, I am not a materialistic person at all. I truly don’t care about cars or clothes or anything like that. I’ve spent most of my money on music equipment, like vintage guitars that inspire me to write better music. I think the first non-gear thing I bought after touring for years was a house in the Netherlands last year. Before that I had been living in hotels and Airbnbs, and sometimes if I was back in the Netherlands for a few days I’d sleep on a mattress at my mom’s place!

7. What’s the last song you listened to?

This beautiful song called “The Gap” by Epilogues. It touches me deeply. I don’t think a lot of people know about this artist, but I hope that changes soon. There’s so much great undiscovered music out there, it’s crazy!

8. What's the first electronic music show that really blew your mind?

Before I started getting bookings as San Holo, I never went to any clubs or raves. I went to see bands like Explosions In The Sky or Sigur Rós. It wasn’t until I started touring in America that I learned about this huge, vibrant EDM scene. Soon after I was invited to join Porter Robinson & Madeon’s Shelter Tour as a support act. Seeing that show and the crowd’s reaction to that truly changed my life. That tour was a beautiful experience I will never forget.

9. What did your 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 had an administrative job, and my dad works in the world of construction. They were supportive of my musical endeavors. I studied guitar at the conservatory, but quickly after graduating I started this San Holo project, which kinda shocked my parents and guitar friends. Back then they really didn’t get why I would go do the whole electronic music producer thing, but I think now they do!

10. This album was informed by what sound like some pretty intense, sad and thrilling life experiences. How are you different as a person now than you were when you first started working on this collection of music?

I think I change a little bit every day. I think it’s just life. We all go through ups and downs, I experience these things as chapters. When I wrote this album, I was obviously feeling different things than I do now, over a year later. However, I think there’s always a sense of nostalgia in my music. Nostalgia is something I’m always inspired by. A lot of my songs are about looking back while still moving forward at the same time. They’re about accepting that everything is fleeting and understanding the beauty in that, too. This is something that I’m always thinking about. In that sense this album still really feels like me, even though I wrote it over a year ago.

11. Do you relive those intense, sad and thrilling life experiences every time you hear these songs? If so, how do you contend with that? Is hearing and playing this album emotional for you?

In some way. These songs are all based on experiences I’ve had in the last couple of years. So every song relates to a specific moment, person, or experience from my past. Writing these songs was almost like writing down a chapter, just so I won't forget. Whether they were happy or sad memories, I look back at them with peace and gratitude for all those moments , especially after writing about them.

On the other hand, I have a lot of beautiful memories from the recording process itself. I spent some months with my dearest friends at an Airbnb in Los Angeles, Echo Park. It was a beautiful time. I think about it a lot still.

12. You came under a bit of heat on January 6 during the Capitol siege when you tweeted (and then later deleted) "America, bb u ok?" What's it like to have Twitter suddenly turn on you? 

I understand that some people interpreted this tweet the wrong way. When I write music and lyrics, it kind of becomes a part of me and the way I talk. Perhaps I should be more careful with that. I’ve used the phrase "bb u ok?" for numerous things. Whether it’s a question to a close friend, to the world, your pet, or your lover, it all kind of works. When I tweeted “America, bb u ok?” I meant it as a genuine question, making sure my followers were okay out there, with all that was going on... yet, I understand people could interpret this as me trying to promote my album. This wasn’t the case. When I tell people to please "stay vibrant" throughout this global pandemic, I’m not saying that to promote my Stay Vibrant EP, it’s just the way I talk. However, I tweeted that tweet from the Netherlands -- where we had our own issues going on that rarely make it to the news in the USA. I should have tried to read the room better before tweeting it.

It’s very easy to have Twitter turn on you these days. I feel like there’s a lot of people who can’t wait to call you out if you make a mistake or if they don’t agree with you. Sometimes I’m afraid it’s more and more about the “calling out" part than about actually trying to help people understand the issue or learn from their mistakes. I tweeted with good intentions, yet some people didn’t see it like that.

13. When working on a huge project like this album, how do you know when it's actually, finally, completely finished?

It’s about finding a feeling of peace in your mind. It’s not something tangible. It’s hard to explain. But when you know, you know.

14. When it was done, how did you celebrate?

Sitting at home trying to survive my mind in a global pandemic. Unfortunately I wasn’t really able to celebrate it yet. I’m gonna celebrate right after the album drops!

15. Finish this sentence: the most exciting thing happening in dance music right now is _____.

All of these extremely young producers producing the most insane tracks. It’s crazy to hear how good some of these young up-and-comers are. You can really tell these kids are raised in a fully digital era. I feel like when I was young I asked my parents for a guitar. These kids are asking their parents for Ableton, you know!

16. What's been the hardest part of being off the road during this time? The best part?

The hardest part is not having something to work towards. I like having plans and knowing exactly what’s ahead so I can set deadlines for myself. It keeps me from being in my head too much. There were times earlier in the pandemic where I was so in my head that I got kinda lost and anxious. My tinnitus got worse at times, 'cause I was just sitting in a quiet room all the time and that made me even more anxious. I’ve started feeling better as soon as the world started to open up -- I could finally feel some positivity in the air again.

The best part of being off the road is that I finally got to figure out some non-business related things for myself. When you’re always traveling it’s easy to lose track of all the actual life things you have to take care of. Health, finances, things like that. Up until this year I didn’t really even have a home! That definitely changed this year.

17. What's the best business decision you've ever made?

To say goodbye to the major label I was signed to, and release my debut album on my own label.

18. Your beard is looking pretty illustrious these days. How do you maintain it?

Honestly not much, I just cut off some rough edges from time to time and wash it every few days.

19. Who was your greatest mentor, and what was the best advice he gave you?

I don’t have a mentor in that way. I’m inspired by so many people. From philosophers, to skaters, to painters, to fellow musicians. I get inspired from life experiences, not per se from one person who I come to a lot for advice or something like that.

20 What's one piece of advice you'd give to your younger self?

Stop focusing so much on what can go wrong. Stop thinking in problems, think in solutions. Focus more on what can and will go right. Believe in yourself a little bit more. Don’t mistake insecurity for humility. Even though growing up most people saw you as that weird kid... you’re just different in your own way. Believe in yourself, and go for it.