Catching up with Dutch DJ Sied van Riel has its distinct pleasures. Maybe the vodka and the top floor at the Standard Downtown LA helped but the conversation ended up being a very candid talk on the creative process and the future of the Electric Dance Music (EDM) movement.
Q: Let’s talk about your beginnings. After DJing in your room, you started to hustle to find gigs. When did you get your big break?
Sied van Riel: My big break was releasing my first single on a small Finish label owned by one of my closest friends. It was picked up by Tiesto, and right after that they asked me to tour with Tiesto, after just one release.
Q: Tiesto was your mentor?
SvR: Yeah. In a way, he still is, but for the first two years of my career, he definitely showed me the way.
Q: What do you make of the big change in his music, moving away from trance to progressive house?
SvR: I’m not saying I could see it coming, but Tijs [Tiesto’s real name] has always been a person that strives forward, always trying to do stuff before others, so it didn’t come totally unexpectedly.
Q: What are your sources of inspiration today beside Tiesto? Who do you listen to? It doesn’t have to be electronic dance music obviously.
SvR: It comes from 80s music. It may sound very strange, but bands like Mister Mister, INXS, Lenny Kravitz, Nirvana… I also listened to The Scorpions a lot. I find those tracks fascinating: the mood, the technical side, the mixes and the production. The music ignites something in me that makes me different.
Q: Did you read the paper that Kaskade wrote a few weeks ago? He was basically saying that the advent of EDM did not happen overnight. It more explained how some of the roots are found in electronic music from the 80s.
SvR: If you look back at the 80s, with pop bands playing electronic music, the synthesizers became much more mainstream, and then it became dance music because there was a computer involved instead of a drummer. I have to agree with Kaskade that it did not happen overnight. Now we have DJs that rock every country when it used to be rock bands only. [A good example is that] today, when you listen to the radio, it’s predominantly DJs and electronic stuff, but it took at least 30 years to get where we are now, including all things that happened with the rise of major DJs like Tiesto, Armin van Buuren, Carl Cox or John Digweed. All of these guys are probably why we are here today. These guys are legends when it comes to synthesizer music. For instance, Enigma, whom I loved as well, it’s a shame you don’t hear them anymore. I have to be honest. Maybe, they still do a lot of stuff, but it’s not on the radio anymore.
Q: Well, some of those bands like New Order are active again.
SvR: That’s true. I’m also a big fan of the éVoid, which is South African. They do really different things. I think there should be more air time on the radio for these bands.
Q: That’s a problem in Los Angeles. There is no electronic dance music on the radio, except for the very mainstream stuff.
SvR: That’s true. We had that in Holland in the 90s. When it’s new, the masses pick it up. But as with everything, it’s a circle. And the circle always comes back to where it started though maybe in a different form or a different shape. However, a “pick”, a massive “pick” like we’ve seen in the past two years will always come down a bit again.
Q: What’s your travel schedule these days?
SvR: I’ve did a couple of gigs in Russia last week, and Siberia, and before that I was in Holland. After this, I’m going to Prague, then New York, Montreal, Scotland, and then another gig in Amsterdam.
Q: Are you on a specific tour?
SvR: No, it’s just gigs. I’m preparing a new compilation for 2013, a remix compilation for Armada, and then an artist album. [After that] is when I will actually start touring with a legit reason!
Q: You’ve released a number of tracks this year. What made you chose to release one track after another rather than wait a do a whole album?
SvR: Basically, what I released this year, besides that one track, was all I produced last year. I was working on an album but I didn’t feel like I was at the point where I felt comfortable producing releasable tracks. So what I did this year was to release a few tunes that were good enough in my mind and had my signature to get out there. I then postponed the album, worked hard in the studio preparing for next year and, all of a sudden, I had my spark back. For two years, I’ve had a bit of a writer’s block, so it all went really slow. I was feeling a bit insecure in the studio, which is all part of it. I did not want to just release an album just because I had to or because people expected it.
Q: Speaking of your creative process, how do you get started with a track? Do you hum the melody in your head?
SvR: Sometimes, when I’m in my hotel room, I hear a track, especially when the television or the music is loud. I hear a track with a certain melody, and I’ll start humming and recording it on my phone. When I get back home, I’ll just jam to it in the studio. One thing usually leads to another. Sometimes, I’m just creating beats or a bassline. I love filthy basslines and I can already hear the melody in the back of my head and take it from there. It’s a different process every time. The one thing I don’t do is save presets when I am DJing. If you do, you tend to do the same thing over and over again. I always start from scratch. It’s actually a headache because it takes time to get the sound up to a certain level, but it always works out. I think it’s better to put in more effort than just putting on the same track each night.
Q: It was a big deal when you moved from Spinnin’ Records to Armada Music. You have been vocal about staying true to trance and not going to a more mainstream sound.
SvR: I’ve had a really good run at Spinnin’ Records, but their main objective wasn’t something I felt comfortable with. They had less and less room for trance, which is their choice. I respect that. Over the years that I was with Spinnin’ Records, I had many chats with Armin and Armada’s management. They wanted to release my tracks, but I was exclusive to Spinnin’. The minute I had a chance to do something with Armada, I grabbed the opportunity.
I’ve played in slow BPM, which is the more trance and housy stuff. I’ve explored every boundary Spinnin’ gave me, but at the end of the day, I’m a trance artist. I want to produce what I think is trance. Armada gives me that space. They’re very open and they’re very patient. They just said “do your thing.” If we think it’s good, we’ll push it out. If we think it’s not there, we will tell you. That’s what I need because sometimes, you think you’ve created the next hit, but it could be shit.
Armada’s Artist and Repertoire managers are there to guide me. As a producer, you often think black and white. I’m happy with Armada, now that they gave me the guidance I needed at this point in my life. I’ve had a good run with Spinnin’. They’re amazing at what they do, but I don’t think that my sound fits their profile at the moment.
Q: How do you see trance evolving? For instance, what do you make of Above & Beyond changing the name of their radio show from “Trance Around The World” to “Group Therapy”?
SvR: Everybody has to do their own thing. I, for one, am a person who never judges anybody, whether they do it for the right reasons or not. If they want to change the name of their show, that’s their call. I’ve always loved “Above & Beyond”. I actually used to be their driver in Holland before they were huge. They’re good friends and they can do whatever they want to do. If you follow your passion, wherever that leads you is okay. But, if you do things for the wrong reasons, then you’re better off changing careers.
Q: EDM is exploding. No matter what type of EDM record companies are putting out, it seems to find an audience. At some point, don’t you need to stop putting labels on this type of music and acknowledge that the public likes EDM?
SvR: With all the subgenres, it’s human to label things and put people in a box. But it also creates hate. It is the same as religion and countries, borders and skin colors. We should just enjoy what people are doing. The technology is there for everybody. Anybody can see how much talent is out there. It used to cost at least $20,000 to get in a studio, but now anybody can buy a computer, download the software and make a track. There are so many talented kids. I was talking to Ferry Corsten last week in Russia and he told me a signed a 14-year-old kid to his label. The track the kid made is unbelievable. 14! And that’s a good thing.
By Emmanuel Itier and AD Darmon