The backstage lounge at last summer’s three-day Belgian festival Tomorrowland, often called “the dance music Olympics,” was teeming with DJs of all stripes. There were house godfathers Mark Farina and Derrick Carter mugging for each other’s cellphone cameras; Tiësto holding court at the bar, with his toothy smile and imposing height; bubbling-up buddies Carnage and Porter Robinson, talking about how they secretly want to work with Soulja Boy (“More secret to him,” Robinson said. “I let people know I want to work with Soulja Boy.”); and Steve Angello, Steve Aoki and Afrojack — so much star power, testosterone and net worth in the air that it might as well have been an All-Star Game after-party.
But there was a promising rookie in the midst — a new kid, just 17 years old, working the room like a pro, with boy-band blue eyes and foppish hair. Martin Garrix was just two months into notoriety: That May, the young Netherlands native had laid claim to “Animals,” a then-unidentified track that had been played relentlessly by many of the big-name DJs in this very room-including Tiësto, with whom Garrix eagerly snapped a selfie. During the next nine months, the instrumental would take hold of dance and pop fans alike, rocketing Garrix onto the Billboard Hot 100, securing him deals with Casablanca/Republic and Scooter Braun Projects and making him the hottest property in EDM — all while he’s still in school.
“When I asked my parents, ‘Can I please stop with school? Because I want to produce and focus on creating better tracks,’ they were kind of shocked,” Garrix says months later in New York, his eyes more guarded than they were in Belgium, weighted with regular international travel and intensive media training. The decision was made to switch Garrix to the Herman Brood Academie, a college in the Dutch city of Utrecht for musicians that caters to their chaotic schedules, and from where he hopes to graduate in May — in between touring the world on weekends.
“It doesn’t really matter how old you are. Music is music, and my age doesn’t change anything about the tracks that I make,” he says.
Born in Amsterdam in 1996, Garrix studied classical guitar, until he heard countryman Tiësto play a trance set during TV coverage of the 2004 Athens Olympics. A year later, he played his first DJ set to 400 people. “I played a lot of my own tracks, which sounded like shit, but I loved seeing people dance to music that I had made myself,” he says. “I love producing because it’s like painting — you create something, like art. And with DJ’ing you can play your paintings.”
Garrix got big in part thanks to dance culture’s obsessions with track IDs: Fan sites attempt to name every track in sets posted online, and when an unknown surfaces, there’s a race to find its maker. “Animals” had been incorrectly credited to Main Stage fixture Hardwell and Diplo-approved production duo GTA. But thanks to canny promotion by powerhouse Dutch label Spinnin’, Garrix and his tousle emerged instead, with some hype and mystique already in place. The explosion happened too late to snag him a slot on the Tomorrowland lineup, but he was one of its stars just the same, pressing the flesh all over the VIP room and rocking out in the crowd.
“I was in front of the main stage with friends at Tomorrowland when David Guetta, Afrojack and Nicky Romero were playing, and I heard the intro to ‘Animals’ being mixed in,” Garrix says. “The feeling when it dropped, I will remember it forever.”
Indeed, “Animals” is a festival-perfect banger: an instrumental track made to suit the wide-open, ultra-loud, LED-lit spaces of large-scale dance music events — but typically, not much else. “I created ‘Animals’ because I wanted to make a track which I could play in club sets and at festivals,” Garrix says. “I never had the intention to get it played on the radio.”
The syncopated monster hit No. 1 at Beatport, a digital download site that services DJs and provides one of the only accurate reads of what they’re actually playing. On the strength of that alone, Garrix would have been able to command decent fees as a traveling DJ, playing afternoon slots at festivals and perhaps opening for bigger names on tour.
But “Animals” did the impossible, something that instrumental specialist Deadmau5, despite his iconic cartoon head, hasn’t been able to do: It crossed over, becoming top 40 radio’s biggest vocal-less hit since Robert Miles’ “Children” in 1996. It also received a reportedly healthy license for domestic release from Casablanca/Republic, and made Garrix Scooter Braun Projects’ first — and, to date, only-DJ/producer client. And it’s still rolling, without the addition of a topline by Pitbull or Flo Rida or any other crossover agents-for-hire, hitting a new peak this week (No. 37) on the Hot 100.
Despite “Animals” first making an impact last summer, Garrix only just completed his first U.S. tour, a short run of key nightclubs, including New York’s Pacha and Miami’s LIV, which sold out every stop. The pregnant nine-month pause was by design, according to his manager Michael George of SBP.
“We made a conscious decision to have him not come to America up until now, and to not have him open for anyone,” George says. ” ‘When he comes, he comes as a headliner.’ That was the plan. The offers were coming in, and we just kept saying no.”
Garrix will return stateside this spring for shows at Miami’s Ultra Music Festival (March 28-30) and Coachella (April 11-13, 18-20). In the meantime, “Animals” follow-up “Wizard,” a collaboration with fellow Dutch DJ/producer Jay Hardaway, is proving a worthy successor, debuting at No. 14 on the Dance/Electronic Digital Songs chart on Feb. 1. YouTube views for the video are already past 23 million.
“We are servicing ‘Wizard’ along all of the lines that Animals went last year and making sure that we are always talking back to the core of the [EDM] scene,” says Rob Stevenson, EVP A&R, Republic Records.
“It’s just the beginning for this kid,” Republic Records executive VP Charlie Walk says. “This is not just a singles game for us-this is an artist game. Everything that we’re doing today is really about tomorrow.”
Garrix, however, has no immediate plans to make an album. “Right now it’s too early,” he says. “I just will keep on doing singles.”
“Maybe 2015,” George says on the album question. “The album is outdated. [Martin] being a 17-year-old, he likes the single model more. It’s what he grew up with.”
Garrix has a release with childhood hero Tiësto planned, and “Helicopter,” a co-production with Dutch duo Firebeatz, arrived Feb. 17 with a dramatic video. A new track will follow about every two months.
In the meantime, Garrix still has to finish school. “Sometimes I play four shows in a weekend and then on Monday I’m back in class. It’s cool,” he says. “I have a deal with my parents: If my school marks are going well, then I can do more shows.”
“Then,” he adds with a smile, “we are ready to take over the world.”