Paul Van Dyk loves the sound of a guitar, but says he can get a wider range of tones through electronic music. The popular DJ might have formed a rock group like The Smiths, his favorite, but growing up in communist East Berlin didn't afford him the opportunity to play anything but traditional folk music. Sitting at home and listening to illegal radio stations from West Berlin, Van Dyk heard techno and a new world opened up to him.
"I found a different dimension in electronic music. It was not just a typical bass player, drums, guitar and vocalist," Van Dyk says. "There are endless ways of creating a soundscape. I just found it more interesting. I started making mixtapes, which a friend of mine gave to a promoter — that's how I got my first gig."
More than two decades later, Van Dyk, the pioneering German DJ known for club hits including "For an Angel," "Tell Me Why (The Riddle)" and "Nothing But You," remains one of the top DJs in the world. A trance-music audio architect — he builds those exciting, hyper-repetitive melodies and mid-song breakdowns — Van Dyke performs roughly 120 shows a year and is the only DJ to be in the world's top 10 every year since 1998. Van Dyk, who will be at Phoenix on Jan. 26, says he worries about the purity of "electronic music" and the misuse of that description by those who simply make electronic-infused pop songs.
"There's a lot of stuff being called electronic music these days that is not electronic music," he says. "It's electronic-y sounding pop music. Labeling things as electronic music is biting itself in the ass these days. If people listen to music because of a certain label, then things are wrong anyway. I'm sure as soon as Dr. Dre produces (another) great hip-hop or R&B album instead of selling shitty headphones, at that point the pop circuit will move on from dance music" to Dre's next big thing.
Electronic music has come a long way from when Van Dyk started in the early 1990s. After the wall fell in Germany, he made his way to the clubs of West Berlin, including the small-but-legendary UFO, where Germany's techno scene got its roots. What stood out to Van Dyk was the overall energy. "Just entering the club, you knew you were going to spend time with people who were just as crazy as you," Van Dyk says. "It was very friendly, tolerant and it was just very, very, very cool."
While drugs are often associated with electronic dance music, Van Dyk is an outspoken proponent for a drug-free scene. "As a teenager listening to the radio, it never came into my mind to take substances to enjoy the music," he asks. "You don't need drugs, because the music creates enjoyment by itself. It's all about creating a positive energy and positive vibe — why would anyone want to go out to get depressed?"
When Van Dyk performs, he's usually grinning ear-to-ear while jumping up and down from behind his turntables and keyboards.
"I'm pretty smiley, I guess," Van Dyk says with a laugh. "People always ask me what the craziest thing that's ever happened is. For a kid from East Germany, raised by a single mom, to travel around the world playing his favorite kind of music, I'd say the whole thing is pretty crazy."