DJ, producer, remixer, entertainer: Armand Van Helden has always systematically pushed the limits of dance music. His very name evokes anticipation for devastating melodies, overflowing beats, dynamic sets and mind-blowing albums, from his home in New York across to Europe, and down under to Australia. A veteran behind the decks inspired first by hip hop and moving through house, Armand Van Helden creates, inspires and fashions where ever he goes.
Born to a Dutch-Indonesian father and a French-Lebanese mother, Armand travelled the world following the career movements of his US Air Force father. With such a nomadic childhood, it is no surprise that this spontaneity is now a deeply ingrained aspect of Armand’s music and career. The signature of Armand Van Helden is that of the chameleon – eternally questioning and adjusting to his environment. He is never predictable, never conventional. His fans can never expect to know what he will perform or produce, for Armand van Helden is predictably unpredictable. His latest partnership Duck Sauce with breaks master A-Trak is a testament to this; the particularly haphazard hit Barbara Streisand a demonstration of his capricious nature. In the lead up to this Australian tour for Summadazye and Summafieldayze, Armand van Helden chats how being a DJ gives him the musical edge and how Australia just “gets it”.
With your upcoming tour to Australia for Summadayze and Summafieldazye, what are you especially looking forward to?
Well first I’m going to head for the beach. New York is freezing right now! But every time I tour Australia, I am always excited. For me - though I’m not sure the Australians believe me and I have DJ’d everywhere in Australia - for me as a DJ, it’s always excitement. To do something I love where people “get it” - the situation of performing and entertaining and the crowd reacting and “getting it” - is wonderful. Australia has never failed me.
Dance music has been so dominant in Australia for so long now, that many DJs have commented Australian audiences have higher expectations from international DJs. Do you find yourself playing differently here compared to the US or Europe?
I can play more experimental to an extent. Obviously Australians want to party and you have to be aware of that. You don't want to take them too far to the left. But if you want to play something that not many DJs are playing, or not accessible or go pretty underground it seems to work in Australia. No matter the situation, whether a rave, a nightclub or lounge, it seems like they live it so much, they're aware of when you're dropping in new stuff its Woah! Okay, whats this! Oh this is cool! Australians are up for the mystery.
You’ve always had that knack of tuning in to your audiences with brilliant hooklines, great rhythms and amazing vocalists, resulting in fantastic tunes. Where has that talent of tuning into your audiences come from?
You can be a great producer, but if you have never DJ’d, you can only produce music from a certain perspective. I happened to be a DJ before I was making music, so I always have the mindset of the dance floor and the energy and flow of it. When you do make music after that point, it’s almost too late for you. When you’re a more of a producer and not a DJ, you’re maybe more of a musician. You might think how much more musical you can make the song. But when you’re a DJ, taking it and simplifying it is going be the key. It’s two different angles. But I happen to be happy I am a DJ as well. It gives me the edge. Some producers can’t find that edge, but for me, it’s a blessing.
It seems that you have been a seeking soul, always searching and never keeping still, always changing and adjusting to the times around you. From “U Dont Know Me”, to “Hear My Name” to “Bonkers” and now “Barbara Streisand” what are you doing to keep ahead of the sounds and to always stay fresh yet true to yourself?
I rely upon instinct and feeling. I wish I could say there’s some logic to it all, because I consider myself quite a logical person. But sometimes you know when something’s going in the right direction. I’m not saying I know when it’s going to be a hit. But sometimes you just know. So if you make a song and it becomes top 10 in Australia; so for some people they think “that’s what I’m known for and I can do this for the rest of my life; just do that sound, and just do that style”. For me, I can’t get caught up in a certain architectural mindset, in the name frame where I don’t change. I just find some other pattern and take it from there. I think it comes from something that is a very illogical area. It’s instinct - and trusting in it.
With so much success behind you, do you find yourself confronting obstacles?
I did during the 90s - I was trying to get to a certain level. But not since then. I think the warrior in me left - it just may have died in the new millennium. So these days, expectations and anything I’m striving to achieve, the walls I’m trying to break down, my tactic is much different these days. I don’t expect anything. I know what makes me happy. I know what my day to day is and I enjoy it. That’s the key: me knowing it’s very simple and very easy to enjoy. I am so blessed. I am more of a backseat driver these days.
So making yourself happy is the formula?
I am always happy. Fortunately, I’m a happy person. But at the time of my life when I had high expectations for myself where I’m poor and eating sugar because I can’t find food, I don’t want to be there. I’m happy with where I am now. It’s been a great growing experience. I really am a rags-to-riches story. I’m not so obsessed with the riches where I can’t enjoy the riches. I enjoy what I have. And riches can be valued by the wealth of your experiences.
(A-Trax & Armand)
What has been confirmed to me in this chat especially is that you don’t allow fans to define your sounds or who you are as a DJ or a producer. So with the concept for Duck Sauce, it’s such a huge departure from your sound and what your audiences have come to expect from you. What was your aim with Barbara Streisand?
Well - Barbara Streisand is totally random. We left it to interpretation. Everybody gets what they want to get out of it. I don’t think A-Trak and I realised what would happen. We both just thought it was funny; we wanted it to have a comedic feeling. When we were making it in the studio, we were both laughing. Anything else, any other interpretation - and that’s solely for the person to make out of it. I don’t really do many collaborations. I hung out with ATrak for a while - we caught up here and there, he lives in New York too and we have mutual friends. Once we got in the studio, the idea he bought to the studio was direction. It’s a partnership everyone pulls something into it. One of his things specifically was direction. I didn’t know what he wanted to do. I said let’s do something. What do you feel like doing? And he said, let’s do disco house. So the direction is his. I was more than happy when he suggested that. Its taking me back to the 90s again and the energy and fun of when I had making disco house back then. It was a revisit of the past. So, maybe we can make this happen.
So collaborating with another artist has taken you full circle back to the 1990s?
Well, 'U Dont Know Me' is quintessentially disco house. But 2010 disco house compared to 1998? People don’t really do things in twelve year cycles. Fashion, art, music usually follow in a twenty year circle. I’d say I’m just revisiting.
Knowing that Australian audiences “get it”, what can we expect to hear from you when you reach down under?
Festival sets are quite short, so you really have to go straight for the jugular. I will go out there and bang them on the head. You’re really going to “get it”.
Catch Armand Van Helden perform at Summadazye in January