“Sometimes I wish I’d be more like an action painter when I make music, instead of an architect.” The Dutch tech-house master tells Greg Scarth about his unique approach to sound.
Before his music career catapulted him to international fame, Joris Voorn trained and briefly practised as an architect. The desire to return to architecture is, understandably, long gone (he says it would be like learning again from scratch after all these years out of the game), but his passion for various elements of art and design remains intact.
Ahead of his SIDEXSIDE set at Tobacco Dock this April we called him to discuss the evolution of his DJing style, how his perfectionism sometimes works against his creativity, and his recent interest in creating short films to accompany his music.
Attack: I believe we’re approaching the 20th anniversary of when you started DJing?
Joris Voorn: That’s true, yes. I would say at this point it’s probably like 19 and a half years. I don’t think I’m really going to celebrate that – I’d rather focus on other things – but it’s true, it’s been 20 years.
It’s a nice milestone. I’m curious how your approach has changed over those years. Not the obvious stuff like moving from vinyl to CD to laptop, but in terms of what you personally try to get out of a DJ set.
I think things really started changing when I started playing for bigger crowds. In the very beginning it was just trying to keep my head above the water, you know? Just trying to make sure the records don’t walk away from each other. But then as I started to play for bigger crowds I realised that it’s a different dynamic: people are coming to see you and you have to deliver the goods. Lately I get a lot of headliner slots and it’s nice sometimes to play longer sets so you can do all these things in one: you can be the warm-up, the one who’s closing down and everything in between. I think that’s the real joy of DJing and presenting music to people: the whole spectrum.
Playing to bigger crowds is quite an easy thing. The challenging times are playing new places, smaller gigs.
So it interests you more to play longer and present a lot of different music along the way?
It is great, yeah. I don’t hope that everybody now starts asking me for longer sets, because I don’t want to make every set a long one, but generally it’s really nice to be able to do that – when everything’s right, when the crowd’s right, when you know the club, things like that. Back in the days I was happy with a mono monitor and a few people in front of me, but nowadays I really notice when things are right and when things are not ideal, environment-wise. When you can really connect to the people, the club’s designed a certain way and the sound works with you – there are so many things that become so much more important.
Do you think it’s easier or more difficult to play to bigger crowds?
It’s quite an easy thing. I’m used to it and I’m quite confident and I have the tools to deliver a good set pretty much anywhere. It doesn’t become more difficult. The challenging times are playing new places, smaller gigs. You play very differently when you play to 300 people as opposed to 5,000.
DJing is usually considered quite a spontaneous art form, but your mix CDs like the Balance mix and the Fabric mix are meticulously planned and clearly not spontaneous. Do you see them as being quite different approaches?
I think so. They don’t necessarily have to be, but I enjoy approaching mix CDs in a very different way to how I approach a live DJ set. To me that’s the beauty of it: having the tools that you can use to create something that’s never possible in real time. There’s no way that I can mix something like the Balance or Fabric mix with three turntables, or even a laptop with four decks. As an artist, I really love the challenge of making something new and really creating my own kind of world.
The back-to-back sets you’ve been playing lately, like the upcoming SIDEXSIDE show with Kölsch and Steve Rachmad, are like the extreme opposite of that, where you’re challenged by what your partner’s picking out of their box and you have to react quickly without planning too far ahead.
Exactly. Which is another challenge, and I think it enriches the whole art form of DJing. Having someone next to you that you know, knowing that they play differently to you, that makes it really interesting. You challenge each other and sometimes you can end up playing amazing sets, but sometimes when I’ve played with someone I feel like I could have done better – not because I think I’m the better DJ, but for some reason maybe the chemistry wasn’t there or people weren’t getting it. There are times when it goes insane, like me and Kölsch played back to back at the Warehouse Project last year and that was amazing. It’s not that we’ve played together so much, but everything came together nicely.
The good thing about being two people behind the decks is that you’ve always got a co-pilot, like flying a plane
It’s good to hear that you acknowledge the fact that it doesn’t always work. Obviously a big part of the reason that back-to-back sets are popular with promoters is the novelty factor of pairing people up, but there’s not necessarily a guarantee that it’ll work. Do you ever find yourself struggling to figure out where to go next?
The good thing about being two people behind the decks is that you’ve always got a co-pilot, like flying a plane – there’s always someone to catch you when you’re falling – but I hardly ever think, ‘Where am I gonna go now?’ I sometimes wonder if people even realise who’s playing the track. That’s kind of interesting, really.
I’ve always been interested in your background in architecture. If I think of the stereotypical personality of an architect it’s a person who’s interested in a combination of arts, sciences and engineering. Does that apply to you?
In a way yes, and in another way not. I think I approach my music not very scientifically – I really follow my heart and my ears and try to feel the music and not program things to a point where it becomes very mechanic and about the technology. On the other hand, I am a perfectionist – annoyingly at some points – so in a sense yeah, I think I definitely have that part. As an architect obviously you have to be very much of a perfectionist, and I take ages to finish tracks. Sometimes I wish I’d be more like an action painter when I make music, instead of an architect.
I like the idea of architecture versus action painting as two ends of the scale. Do you have any desire to return to architecture at any point?
Not really. I’ve been out of the game for such a long time – I think almost 12, 13 years – and my architecture career was very short-lived. Also, architecture is such a tough job – the amount of hours and work that you put into projects is pretty insane. That goes for music as well, but at least now I’m my own boss, I can make my own living and build a future. In architecture it’s very uncertain – the [global financial] crisis has made a big cut into the work of architects.
architecture is such a tough job – the amount of hours and work that you put into projects is pretty insane. That goes for music as well, but at least now I’m my own boss
It’s kind of ironic that you’d think of DJing and making music as a more stable job than a traditional career like architecture.
Yeah, architecture’s not a very stable job at the moment.
I’ve seen that you’ve been getting into making videos. Can you tell us about that?
I’ve been into photography for at least 20 years, since art academy. When I started touring, I had a tiny little digital camera with me and since then I’ve been buying a lot of cameras and slowly upgrading to better quality. Last year I bought a new Sony camera and a lot of new lenses, so it gave me a lot of inspiration to go out and shoot new pictures. It’s something that I really enjoy – it’s instant gratification.
When did the video come in?
I’ve been doing a few little bits here and there. I think the interesting thing was that when I bought the camera – it’s a Sony a7S, a really good camera – I was really amazed by how easy it is to get nice images very quickly, but then the whole process of making a video that makes sense is like making music. I realise that people study for this, but it’s like making music – you can use all the presets and sample CDs and think, ‘Wow, great, I can make music,’ but there’s a bit more to it than that! I kind of stepped down a bit from having the ambition of becoming a cinematographer, but it’s something I have a real interest in.
You mention that the camera itself is so important to the video process, but I know you’re keen to focus on feel and following your heart when it comes to music, as opposed to the tools. Why is that?
Well, I could talk very much about the tools I’ve bought recently to make music. I’m not so interested in talking about software and plugins, but I think when it comes to [hardware] synthesisers and stuff, they’re real things and you have to make a bit more effort to make them sound good. There’s a bit more to it than playing notes on a perfectly well-designed, extremely expensive-sounding soft synth.
I'm not so interested in talking about software and plugins, but I think when it comes to synthesisers and stuff, they're real things and you have to make a bit more effort to make them sound good.
I always got the impression that you thought discussing the tools was a distraction from the more important points of making music. Is that not the case?
Well yeah, but tools are very important. Talking about the software side and these kind of boring things is not my favourite, that’s true, but I do have a passion for real things – I really feel a bit more of an emotional touch to those things. For instance, I just bought a new synthesiser – a vintage Roland JD-990 – and I’ve been getting back into the 90s sounds, the pads and that kind of Leftfield, Underworld sound.
They’re great synths. Still reasonably affordable, too.
They’re relatively cheap, yeah. It’s a bit more sought-after than the JV-1080 or something – those go for absolutely nothing – but it’s an amazing instrument. I just started making some tracks with it, using sounds that I would never go for with a VST synth, but for some reason it just makes you create different music. It’s a good reason to purchase a new synthesiser: it’s always an inspiration and in the beginning it gives you a lot, then you get bored at some point and they start eating dust in the corner…
Joris Voorn plays back to back with Steve Rachmad and then with Kölsch as part of SIDEXSIDE at London’s Tobacco Dock, Saturday April 2nd. Last remaining tickets available here. Find Joris on Facebook, Twitter and SoundCloud.