The air is dense with the mechanical whir of tattoo guns, the rebel rasp of Credence Clearwater Revival and timeless youthful absurdity. In this Seattle parlor, Netherlands native Sander van Dijck is far from home but surrounded by a family of friends. He’s sitting with one pant leg rolled up and a crude bus emblazoned with ’90s tribal designs freshly-inked on his right calf. The 28-year-old has made a career on sensitive songwriting, and the irony of this first tattoo is not lost on him.
“The tat is pretty stupid,” he admits. “The first tour bus was dark red with these stupid tribal things on the side. I saw it and was like ‘I never wanted this,’ but it was kind of funny. That bus broke down like 20 times. I think we were in Indianapolis, and it was freezing. We had no heater.” The tattoo might be silly, but it serves to remind van Dijck of the life-changing adventures he had on that bus.
Since October 2018, van Dijck, better known to fans as Bitbird label founder and future bass pioneer San Holo, has toured the world in support of his long-form debut, Album1. It’s been an uneasy but ultimately triumphant journey. He turned down a major label offer, gambling on himself and his friends and settling into a sound that honored his truest self. Album1 became a Top 10 Dance/Electronic Album and begat a year-and-a-half long world tour that ends tonight at Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheatre.
“I’ll never forget this tour,” he says. “It’s a chapter of my life printed and translated through music. It will also be for a couple of other people that listened to the album. I hope they will look back in five years and think, ‘I remember that.’”
The chapter begins in January of 2018, when van Dijck booked himself an Airbnb in Los Angeles. For years, the DJ had bounced from country-to-country, playing a different club every weekend. He needed room to breathe, and in L.A. he found it.
San Holo made his name as a Soundcloud artist, one of those bedroom kids who never stepped foot in a club until he was booked to play one. His 2014 bootleg series Don’t Touch The Classics brought attention. His take on Dr. Dre‘s “The Next Episode” helped launch YouTube curator Trap Nation to prominence and currently has more than 196 million views.
He honed his sound on the 2014 Cosmos EP and 2015 single “We Rise.” Pastel sounds danced with smiley cuteness around trap drums and sing-song vocals. The sound had a sense of of wonder and a festival edge. This TweeDM style matured on 2017’s “Light,” which reached No. 13 on the Hot Dance/Electronic Songs chart and nabbed van Dijck a major label offer. All the while, he searched for a way to melt his indie rock and ambient roots with his electronic-dance present. Van Dijck had studied guitar as a member of his high school’s symphony. His friends wanted to be the next Jimi Hendrix or John Mayer, but Dijck didn’t want to be the next anybody. He wanted to make a sound all his own, so he tried making beats.
“That’s where that San Holo sound, with all the chords and the trap stuff came to be, but then it became a thing,” he says. “Suddenly that was called ‘Future Bass.’ I thought “cool. Future bass [means] futuristic music, innovation.” That’s what I love about music, pushing boundaries, but then future bass went from this mindset to a genre which means trap drums and Soundcloud…I just didn’t feel like I was doing anything new. I wasn’t in my own lane anymore.”
The Airbnb on L.A.’s Vestal Avenue (for which he named the last song on the album) became ground zero for this new sound. Blue skies, palm trees and bird songs set the tone for this period of introspective creation, and an open-door policy for friends and fellow musicians kept the juices flowing.
“I was like, can you just come by? I wanna talk to you, I wanna drink coffee with you and talk about life,’” van Dijck explains. “They would sometimes play guitar with me. Sometimes, they would leave, and I would be up all night producing a song.”
He recorded everything on cassette tape: the birds, the trees, the buses in the street, the conversations. He met fellow guitarist Yvette Young, and the relationship that developed proved highly inspirational. She introduced him to a song he looped in reverse to create “Go Back In Time.” She plays on “Always On My Mind,” and that’s her voice, taken from a one of those coffee visits, on “Love (wip).”
“I cherish anything that feels real, at least in the moment,” Young says on the song, “because I think we live in a world where a lot of thing aren’t very real.”
Van Dijck channelled all of this DIY energy into his productions. The rough edges of the tape recordings fused well with his sparkling, ambient guitar work. Finally, he found a way to bring analog warmth into his build-and-drop world. He was beaming with pride when he brought the new music to his label, but they wanted another “Light,” something for the rave kids. This new stuff was instead all very sensitive, wishy-washy stuff.
“It felt terrible,” he says. “I’m putting my heart into this. I think I’m making the best thing I’ve made so far, and then the label you’re supposed to work with says no.”
After careful consideration, van Dijck and his team decided to finish Album1 and release it on their own via San Holo’s Bitbird indie. That meant van Dijck was paying for everything, from recording costs to album promotion to tour production and overhead, from his own pocket.
“It was super scary… but the most rewarding,’” he says. “If something bad would happen, I could say I am really happy with what we did so far. If I went for the commercial pop-star radio sound, I would not feel like that. I would feel like I was living in a fake reality, something I didn’t want to be. I don’t want to live someone else’s dream.”
Album1, named “so as not to give any impressions,” was self-released in September of 2018. The month before, van Dijck was with Bitbird partner Thorwald van den Akker, lighting director Manuel Rodrigues and video content developer Bob Jacobs working on tour production. The stage was designed to be minimal, with maximum impact. Its terraced levels are decorated with a forest of free-standing light strips and backed by an LED screen. Van Dijck takes turns cueing up production at a standard deck in the middle of the stage, then grabs a guitar to transition into rock-star mode. With a wireless guitar, he’s able to move freely between the lights at varying heights.
“It was very important that I could play,” he says. “I can’t be a four piece. I can’t drum the same time that I sing, play guitar and play synths, but I wanted it to be live. Being able to play guitar, it’s being back home. I’ve been in bands all the time, and I thought that time was over. I make electronic music, but I get to live that dream that I had as a kid.”
The back wall depicts VHS-filmed scenes or generated graphics directly inspired by the music. van Dijck steering his team to reverse-engineer environments based on the atmosphere and attitude of each song. Those two-dimensional images were then mapped and coded as LED color swatches that the standing lights flash with stunning brightness. Add to that showers of confetti, pyrotechnics, and a masterful use of quiet darkness, and the show becomes a beautiful expression of dynamics. At times, it’s like he’s whispering on stage, beckoning you close to hear his message. The next moment, his guitar wails as he writhes, silhouetted by white light and EDM bombast.
“The visuals are very important,” van Dijck says. “We’re all aware that when you add visuals to music, or music to visuals, it enhances each other if you do it correctly. If you look at a movie scene without music, it’s so much less emotional. The same thing when you add visuals to music.”
Eight months after he began work on the album, the tour began. It was San Holo’s second time on a bus tour — he opened for Porter Robinson and Madeon on the 2016 Shelter tour — but it was his first U.S. tour as headliner. He filled the bill with his friends, collaborators and Bitbird signees. They lived on corndogs and excitement.
But van Dijck was crazy anxious. He’d spent a lot of money on production, and they needed to make it back. What if he hurt his hand or got sick and couldn’t sing? None of those nightmares came to pass. Instead, many of his dates sold out. After a European run, the tour added a second phase of North American dates, and a special Bitbird showcase in New York City’s Brooklyn Mirage. Tonight (June 13), he takes the stage at Red Rocks Amphitheatre playing a special extended set with support from Shallou, Clams Casino, Chet Porter, Taska Black, Duskus and Eastghost.
“To see people sing along to songs that you’ve written, it’s very beautiful to me,” he says. “I feel proud about the fact that I was pretty insecure about a lot of things, but now, this is the last show. We did it.”
As a thank you to all the fans who’ve called out of work to see him play, who’ve sung along to each song and who’ve written him letters saying his music soundtracks their long walks through quiet forests, van Dijck has released a new song called “Lost Lately.” It’s a sonic departure from the album and a reaction to the strange dissonance that comes with having all he’s ever wanted. It’s out today on Bitbird to celebrate the big Red Rocks show. Listen to “Lost Lately” below.