DJ superstar Sven Väth in Valentine's Day gig
Electronic music's renaissance man makes a welcome return to Hong Kong
A legend of the turntables whose career predates the era of the superstar DJ, Sven Väth is electronic music's renaissance man. With more than three decades at the decks, the 50-year-old from Frankfurt has been a bona fide pop star, a club impresario, a multifaceted businessman and, arguably, the man who saved Ibiza when it threatened to descend into terminal cheesiness.
Väth is returning to the city to perform at the W Hong Kong's Woobar on Valentine's Day after an absence of many years. Since his last visit, he has made headline appearances at the largest electronic music festivals throughout the world and maintained a busy touring schedule.
But if there is a place that's particularly close to his heart, it's probably the famed Spanish party island where he still lives for about half of the year. Väth grew up with music-loving parents, and knew he wanted to be involved in music from an early age, but it was his first trip to Ibiza as a teenager that made up his mind. "I was obsessed well before my first visit to Ibiza, but when I returned from my first trip there, I was certain," he says.
He got his first break, though, in rather less glamorous surroundings — the British pub owned by his parents. "When I came back from Ibiza, my mother called me and asked me to DJ in her pub. This was the start of everything."
These days Väth is known as a master of a range of electronic music styles, but mostly techno and the less commercial end of trance. He is a big name in his native Germany, widely revered as the country's most gifted electronic artist.
His path to fame started in rather different musical circumstances, though: as a fairly unlikely pop star. After getting a residency at a club in Frankfurt, he started to produce music of his own, and in 1986 scored a surprise hit with Electrica Salsa.
For a while, he had parallel careers as a DJ and a pop star.
After launching the record labels Eye-Q in 1991 and Harthouse in 1992, in 1996 Väth established Cocoon, at first a series of club nights but eventually an umbrella organisation encompassing everything from a record label to a booking agency to an event management company.
It was a financial gamble, and wasn't an instant success. "I learned to build a brilliant team around me and then to trust them," he says. "But I am very proud of Cocoon Recording's back catalogue; each release has its own character."
That back catalogue includes releases from Guy Gerber, Adam Beyer and Roman Flügel.
Perhaps the pivotal moment in Cocoon's fortunes came in 1999 when Väth returned to Ibiza, which had become dominated by commercial sounds, for an experimental Cocoon night on Mondays at superclub Amnesia. It was a runaway success, became a fixture and contributed to its musical regeneration. Over the years it has attracted a host of stellar DJ talent, from Carl Craig to Josh Wink.
While he's played sets in many notable locations, they're all eclipsed, says Väth, by his most memorable set: his birthday party in October last year. "It was a simply incredible event. When 12,000 people come for your birthday, you'd better have a good night. I will never forget it."
With the constant growth of festivals featuring big names, DJs are often being asked to play shorter sets. And this is a particular issue for Väth, a DJ known for playing some of the longest sets in turntable history. He will regularly play for more than 20 hours if he's allowed to, with his record, set at the Love Parade in Berlin in the mid-1990s, standing at a jaw-dropping 32 hours.
"Of course, the tendency now to have several one-and-a-half or two-hour sets does frustrate me," he says. "I like to think it also frustrates the crowd. For me, three hours is the minimum to play, no matter if in a club or at a festival."
The busy life of the globetrotting DJ, together with the volume of music being produced these days, can also make it challenging to discover new music, "but I love doing it and will find the time", he says. It's even harder for Väth as he's one of a few DJs who still exclusively uses vinyl, arguing that the sound quality is simply superior. That can pose a few technical problems these days, with many venues no longer set up to accommodate vinyl. It's an issue "perhaps more now, as there are not many of us left", he says.
"At the bigger festival gigs, I am always praying they have someone who knows how to set up decks on a big stage."
Väth relocated from Germany to London in 2013. It wasn't for any hard-headed, career-related reason — he just liked the place and fancied a change. "I love the city and its vibrancy," he says. "It was the right time for me: an instinct I followed."
And his instincts, after all, have proved pretty good so far.
Sven Väth , February 14, 9pm, Woobar, W Hong Kong, 1 Austin Road West, West Kowloon, HK$480-HK$980, eventbrite.hk. Inquiries: 9348 1000