A few hours before enthralling tens of thousands at TomorrowLand, two friends sit backstage comparing their kicks.
Hardwell’s radiant red Nike Air Yeezys are blinding against the couch’s white canvas. Fresh off a flight from Moscow, Tiësto wears the confident air of an elder statesman and the more muted maroon footwear that comes with the territory. They speak in snappy Dutch sentences that my intermediate German strains to decipher.
Feeling a bit shoe-conscious, I gesture to my own worn Sambas.
“Classics,” Tiësto says with a reflex smile. “Can’t go wrong.”
It’s the same approach the Dutch duo employed in their joint headline set on the festival’s first weekend, mixing throwback Tiësto standards like “Adagio for Strings” and “Love Comes Again” with Hardwell’s modern main stage fare while a sea of fans swooned in an iridescent orgy of blue and red strobes.
“We worked really hard to combine the best of his tracks with my tracks,” says Hardwell. “It was one big mash-up for the whole set and it worked perfectly.”
“It’s the first time I’ve ever played back to back with another DJ,” Tiësto adds. “The previous b2bs we did were spontaneous. We were at the same venue, so let’s play a couple tracks together. But we really planned this one. It’s the 10-year anniversary of Tomorrowland, so we decided to do something special.”
Tomorrowland 2014 found the two Breda natives at distinct career crossroads. Last fall, Hardwell ascended to the DJ Mag No. 1 throne that Tiësto occupied for three years between 2002 and 2004, becoming the youngest artist ever to take the top spot. The 25-year-old’s victory lap included a sold-out “I Am Hardwell” world tour and a documentary film by the same name.
Meanwhile, Tiësto completed his reinvention from trance throwback to crossover camel capable of not simply surviving, but thriving, amid shifting industry sands. His fifth artist album A Town Called Paradise hit No. 2 on US Dance/Electronic Albums and No. 18 on the Billboard 200 this year, while its first two singles, “Wasted” and “Red Lights,” peaked at No. 1 and 2 respectively on the UK dance charts. Tiësto attributes his recent commercial success to a fresh focus on songwriting in collaboration with artists like Matthew Koma and Krewella.
“I just wanted to write something different,” he says. “I’m at a different stage of my career. I’ve done a lot of different albums and 12 inches, made trance music in the past, and this time I wanted to write something that I’d like to enjoy listening to even when I’m not playing. It’s not just an album that’s made to be played out when I’m DJing.”
While Hardwell fondly recalls buying his first vinyl records at Tiësto’s shop in Breda, the two men didn’t actually meet until 2010 after striking up an email correspondence.
“My idol and role model emailed me so I was totally blown away,” says Hardwell. “He really loved my stuff so I sent him some more of my tracks I was working on and, well he loved every record at that point. He invited me to come and play with him at his Ibiza residency.”
“He didn’t have red shoes then,” Tiësto says, laughing. “He had a lot of success before with the Latin house he was doing and DJing around Holland when he was 15. It’s pretty unheard of.”
Their partnership entered the public eye the following year with “Zero 76,” the hit homage to their shared hometown that brought renewed relevancy to Tiësto and recognition to his young protégé. Over the next few years, Hardwell matured into a festival force to be reckoned with by virtue of main stage staples like “Spaceman” and “Apollo,” while Tiësto solidified his standing as an EDM institution with strong singles like “Work Hard, Play Hard” and “Maximal Crazy.” Despite the Dutchmen’s close friendship, “Written in Reverse” on A Town Called Paradise marks their first joint studio effort in nearly four years.
“We’re more friends now than colleagues,” says Hardwell. “Tijs is the only DJ I share all of my music with and keep in touch with every day… It’s quite recent that we’re collaborating again and we’re actually collaborating on a new song, so we’re being more productive together than ever before.”
In addition to his current song-centric approach, Hardwell cites Tiësto’s era-spanning influence on his own debut artist album, which is expected to see release by the end of this year.
“Every album that Tijs did in the past is totally unique and it’s always different in a good way,” says Hardwell. “I want to use all those albums as inspiration and show my diversity on my first album. I want to actually combine everything Tijs did in the past on one album. There’s gonna be some deep house tracks on it and also some radio friendly songs and, of course, exactly the EDM sound that people expect from Hardwell.”
As label owners, both artists now enjoy positions of industry influence and credit young talent with keeping them on the cutting edge. Tiësto’s Musical Freedom imprint has released some of the most influential dance tracks of the past five years, from the oft-emulated percussive drop of Sandro Silva & Quintino’s “Epic” to the marriage of deep house elements in big room arrangements that Oliver Heldens’ hit single “Gecko” represents. Hardwell’s Revealed Recordings has simultaneously emerged as a consistent festival hit maker, breaking up-and-coming artists like Dyro and Dannic.
However, it’s clear that Tiësto’s shadow still looms large for Hardwell, who has only relatively recently come into his own as a top-tier dance artist. He performs a delicate balancing act in offering effusive praise of the man seated beside him, while bristling at the misconception that his success can be solely chalked up to Tiësto’s support.
“I think people are like ‘Wow you’re so lucky Tiësto picked you up and within two years you became the No. 1 DJ in the world,’” he says. “I’m sorry, but I’ve played more than 1,500 gigs in my life. I played in every single bar and small club in Holland and I’ve been DJing and producing for more than 12 years. I went in the music industry when I was four years old playing piano. I’ve been running my own record label and doing my weekly radio shows, but people don’t see the work. People only see your rise instead of the whole thing.”