DJ Paul van Dyk happy to play Hong Kong again and even happier to be alive after near-fatal accident
After suffering spinal injuries and severe brain trauma in a fall last year, the ‘titan of trance’ has fought back, relearning to speak, and is back at the top of his game. He talks about growing up in East Berlin and his return to music
Paul van Dyk is an outlier. The German electronic music producer and DJ, who plays at Central nightclub Zentral on November 10, is a titan of trance, although he isn’t keen on the term himself, not wanting to be lumped in with the dance music sub-genre most likely to veer into cheesiness.
And for more than 20 years van Dyk has transcended the genre’s boundaries, retaining the surface details of trance as a framework within which to experiment. His uplifting, wistful, future disco integrates techno, dub and acid house and breaks into trance’s shimmering synths and ethereal melodies. For once there is substance behind the grandiose whooshing atmospherics.
In some ways, van Dyk is an unlikely candidate for a career encompassing eight albums – his latest, From Then On, is currently riding high in the charts after it was released on October 20 – top position in numerous best-DJ charts, a Grammy award in 2008 and a nomination in 2003, and global adulation over a quarter of a century.
Born in 1971 in communist East Germany, he got his love of music listening to it illicitly, with early favourites including The Smiths and New Order.
“I grew up in East Berlin, listening to music on radio stations that came out of West Berlin,” he says. “I had to listen to it in secret, and I couldn’t talk about it. Well, I had two or three very close friends with the same interests, and we protected each other. But there’s wasn’t the sense of a bigger youth culture, of a group of people listening to the same music and talking about it. It meant there was a big demand for it when the [Berlin] wall came down.”
Thailand’s Wonderfruit festival puts sustainability at its core, creating one of the most socially conscious (and fun) Asia parties
He trained as a carpenter, but after the fall of the Berlin Wall he cobbled together the money for a set of used turntables and a handful of records. One of his home-made mixes found its way into the hands of the owners of Berlin’s Tresor club in 1991, and he had his first gig. It helped, he says, that the momentous recent events had unleased a pent-up creative flowering.
“Berlin has always been a city of creative people, and when the wall came down, all the kids wanted to go and enjoy that culture. It created a huge movement, especially in electronic music, with a proper club culture – a passion for music we could never hear before. East German kids wanted to make up for the lost years somehow. It’s probably why the club scene in Berlin is still so wild and crazy.”
His career hit the big time in 1993 with his remix of Humate’s trance classic Love Stimulation, and he followed it up the following year with his signature track, For An Angel.
In addition to his studio albums, collaborations with the likes of David Byrne and Saint Etienne and remix work for Depeche Mode and Justin Timberlake, he has also produced his three well-regarded Politics of Dancing albums, two of them mixes and the other a collection of collaborations.
Since 1998 he has also been the owner of label Vandit Records, with a roster that includes MOTi, Hardwell and Judge Jules.
Van Dyk enjoys a reputation as a sonic perfectionist who spends an age getting everything right (only, these days, for most people to listen to it on their phones). In fact, his perfectionism appears to extend to fixing other people’s mistakes, he says.
“In most cases when I really love a track and would like to remix it, it is because of sound issues in the original production that I would like to change.”
His live set-up goes well beyond the usual two turntables and a mixer; he performs accompanied by samplers and keyboards, and reworks a lot of songs using live instrumentation.
“I consider myself a musician, and my favourite music is electronic,” he says. “But as soon it was possible to take studio elements with me on stage, I did. It gives me much more flexibility and allows me to be creative; I have everything at my fingertips.”
Hong Kong was for the longest time a pretty trancey kind of place, and he has performed here on numerous previous occasions.
“I have the most amazing memories of Hong Kong, and I always have a great time in China,” he says. “What I look forward to as an artist when I perform is an audience that’s open to follow the music and go on a journey.”
It’s something of a miracle that he’s still performing at all, however. In February 2016, he fell through an unmarked hole covered by material on a stage at the A State of Trance festival in the Netherlands, suffering cracked vertebrae and severe brain injuries that for a while had him fighting for his life.
He’s had to learn everything anew in a long, ongoing recovery process, he says; his doctors have advised him that if we can recover 50 per cent of his previous physical capacity, it will be considered a success.
Unsurprisingly, it took a while after the incident before he even started thinking about making music and performing again.
“It was a combined effort by the doctors and myself,” he says. “My injuries were rather severe, and there needed to be all kinds of motivation for me to recover. We said: ‘In four months there’s a festival [Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas] where it would be good to perform. It’s organised by my friends, so someone else can play if not’. It was an ambitious goal.”
Clockenflap 2017: Kaiser Chiefs and Stormzy round out line-up as countdown to November festival begins
His “very big fear” was that he might have lost the ability to compose and play music. “I had severe brain injuries – I had to learn how to speak again – so I wasn’t sure whether I’d be able to make or understand music until I actually did it.”
The first track he produced was called, appropriately, I Am Alive, echoing the title of his 2000 single We Are Alive – “although when I wrote that I couldn’t have known what would happen”. And his comeback single, released earlier this year, was equally appropriately titled Touched by Heaven.
Paul van Dyk, Nov 10, 10pm, Zentral, 4/F-5/F California Tower, Lan Kwai Fong, HK$488-HK$988, Eventbrite