Laidback Luke: "I Got Sucked into the Mainstream"
The Dutchman weighs in on addiction, Troxler vs. Avicii, and Kung Fu.
I can still recall how, years ago, at an Awakenings party in Amsterdam, Laidback Luke ended his set around 11 am with Rotterdam Termination Source's nineties gabber anthem "Poing." At the time, that was simply not done; playing a super commercial hardcore classic at a serious techno party. And yet, this was arguably the best final track I've ever heard at Awakenings, because it was completely unexpected and it brought the house down.
These days, Luke tours all over the world and continues to surprise his audiences - whether it's the Dutch techno crowds at Awakenings or American EDM fans at Ultra. He may have been 'sucked into' the mainstream, as he puts it. But that doesn't stop him from making well-thought-out contributions to the public debate or calling out his colleagues personally on their behavior. He cares too much about the scene not to.
I remember when you used to play a lot in Holland. But these days, you seem to be all over the plac How long have you been touring internationally?
For quite a while. Things really took off in 2008. I remember that I found it very stressful in the beginning, because I'm not much of a traveller. I'd rather just sit in my studio all day and make music, but I got sucked into it. The first few years were overwhelming. It's scary: suddenly you don't have a home anymore, you're living out of a suitcase, and you hardly see your friends and family anymore. That takes a little getting used to.
Avicii had to go to the hospital recently because he was overworked. So it's not without its dangers. How do you make sure you stay grounded?
Well, I did hit the wall a few times –and hard, too. That's one of the reasons I quit drinking, Because I couldn't be a good father anymore. At some point I just got incredibly frustrated at home. If you're drinking and you're on a schedule like mine, you don't have time for hangovers. Three hours after your gig you're already back at the airport with your vodka breath for another two flights and a three-hour car ride. At some point that starts to affect your motivation. Plus you have to keep producing, answer e-mails and listen to new music. I quit drinking in 2010. Before that I'd drink at least two vodka Red Bulls during every set, but now I live like an athlete. I only drink water during shows, no after parties. It sounds boring, but there's so much pressure and professionalism in my scene that I just can't afford to do that anymore.
As we could see in My Son the DJ, you also practice kung fu at a high level and bring your teacher with you on tour. How has that influenced you as a DJ?
Kung fu is a part of my life. It's essential that I stick with it. A few years ago I decided to bring my kung fu master on tour once a month as my personal trainer. That really helped me to get better at it. I've had two burnouts in my career. Once you get out of that, the burnout is still always there, in the background. You're always aware that if you don't sleep for a few nights or work too hard, it's like: 'Oh no, it's coming back again'. My teacher has helped me to mentally deal with that. A lot of the people I talk to will say: 'I don't understand how you do it; how you're still producing new music, still tweeting at people.' Kung fu helps me to calmly step into the chaos.
So you quit drinking. Were you addicted or was it just a way to escape the pressure?
Both. I remember that my ex-wife found it problematic. She saw what I was doing and said: 'You've been drinking more and more when you're playing, do you really think that's necessary?'. And then I'd say: 'I'm just combining pleasure with the pressure of the business.' But it was an attempt to run away from the stress; you have to give everything at every show. That went completely haywire. I do feel like it was an addiction. I didn't think I could do it without alcohol.
I once heard a DJ say that he had created his own little world with his addiction. A sort of cocoon where no one bothered him. Is that something you recognize?
Yes, that sounds familiar. I love to cook for example, because I can do that without the whole world having an opinion about what I'm cooking. I recognize that level of stress when you have to perform at a high level and that cocoon as well. But now I take the edge off in a healthy way with kung fu.
Luke at Hakkasan
You already mentioned that everyone has an opinion about everything these days. Most artists wisely choose to ignore their haters, but I admire the calm and collected way you often respond to them. Is it hard to bite your tongue sometimes?
Yes, sometimes. I can be hard to stay civil when the rest of the world is allowed to call you a piece of shit, but I think of it as a challenge. And if you can pull it off, you're the man. I've got a lot of passion for this scene –both the 'overground' and the underground. That's why it bothers me so much. I feel responsible. I'm kind of stuck in the early nineties. I'm like: 'We're all doing the same thing'. One DJ may get paid more than the other, but the other may get more recognition. But whenever there's controversy, I like to dive right in. I'm too much a part of this world not to.
You've already had to deal with a few waves of hate from the underground, because you chose a more commercial sound and a bigger audience. I remember that years ago you ended your set at Awakenings with 'Poing' by Rotterdam Termination Source –was that meant as a big fuck-you to your critics?
That was the idea. I remember when I was just starting out, I often played a mash-up of a Speedy J record with Lady by Modjo. Then my booking agent came up to me and said: 'Dude, you can't do that sort of stuff anymore.' But I was like: 'Lady is an awesome track, but the beat's got no balls so I'm adding in some Speedy J.' Musically it just worked. But then I had to deal with all the techno snobbery. You weren't supposed to do certain things, because then it wasn't techno anymore. But I thought it was more important to have fun. I also played that mash-up at Awakenings and after that I thought: 'If we're gonna go hard anyway, I might as well take it to the next level with Poing.' That was pure nostalgia. But the techno crowd doesn't want you to play stuff like that. The funny thing is: I also had a few more commercial gigs around the same time. And I noticed that the commercial crowd will let you play a techno record, but the techno crowd doesn't want you to play anything commercial. And for me that cemented my choice to switch to a more commercial sound.
I don't take myself too seriously. I often dress up as a superhero for my shows. I'm all in favor of going a little nuts. Most people sit behind a desk five days a week. Why would you then spend your weekends still trying to act cool?
With an attitude like that, it must be hard to read the negative comments on a video like What DJs Do These Days. Isn't it terrifying to see how much hatred something like that stir in people?
I thought that video was funny too. In that minute and a half, Steve, Sander and I really aren't doing much. But even legends like Dimitri would sometimes just let a record play for seven minutes. But all the hate in the comments on that video... Some people on Twitter even started insulting my newborn daughter because of that clip. That was just bizarre. And then you have to explain to these people again and again what it is you really do. I'm one of the fastest-mixing DJs in the world. But still there are people who say that all that has been prerecorded and I'm essentially lip-syncing. I just said that being a DJ is all about having fun for me, but that doesn't mean that I don't take it seriously as an art, especially when it comes to technique. So the whole thing did hurt me a little.
Yes, because he's also a DJ and you can also wonder what he's doing behind the decks. A guy like Richie Hawtin also flies in a private jet. There's no accounting for taste and it's true that those guys play deeper stuff than we do, but they also play music, travel the globe and try to entertain their audiences.
But you understand why he's rebelling against you, right? That's what his audience wants; for him to rebel against the mainstream.
It's true that nowadays it is cool to be anti-EDM. And of course people should rebel against the mainstream. In my day, the mainstream was trance and I did my best to make the music that I represented as big as possible. Not for the money, but to reach the largest amount of people possible. I didn't realize that would also have its consequences. Where there's a lot of money, there's also a lot of ugly stuff. I'm still proud of how far the music has come, but it has become mainstream. I agree with some of the things that Seth said. I don't really want confetti or CO2 cannons at my shows either. If it were up to me I'd play in a dark club with just a strobe light, because that's where my roots are. But times have changed, so in my scene that no longer makes sense.
So laid back
Seth Troxler thinks that it's also your responsibility –as an important member of the scene- to educate your audience. Do you get where he's coming from?
Absolutely. And in my circle, that's exactly what I did. And what I'm still doing. I'm a mentor to a lot of young artists; there are about five kids that I mentor personally. The last year and a half for example, I've been on an anti-Pryda-snare crusade. If someone sends me a demo with a Pryda snare, I don't listen to it, or I tell them they have to take it out and replace it with something a little more original. And I try to instill in my students that it's not about the private jets, but about passion for music. I also try to get that across through my Twitter feed.
Unlike some of your colleagues, you don't seem to have a huge ego. Do you think a big ego can be an artist's downfall?
Definitely. I've noticed that egos often get inflated when people become more successful. But if you take someone like Afrojack –who I still consider one of my students by the way, and who I think is a really nice guy- he has always been the way he is now. When he was 17, he'd lease an Audi for 2000 euros a month so he could be the big man on the block. We always made fun of him a little on my forum. He was always bragging and then we would be like: 'Jesus, just give it a rest, kid'. Now that he is making millions he really is the big man, but he hasn't changed a bit.
I used to get teased for being so modest. But I don't feel the need to brag about money. I realize that I make my living off kids between 17 and 23 years old, my target demographic, that work hard to buy a ticket for my show. So I think it's just not done to put a picture of my new, ridiculously expensive car or a personal private jet on Instagram. Sometimes I'm actually embarrassed to spend their money.
Your wife is a DJ too . Are you glad you're doing this together or is it hard sometimes to be in the same business?
No, it's very easy. We're really a DJ unit. To give you an example: when girls ask me to take a picture with them, it's no problem, because she also has to have her picture taken with guys. We both understand that. If you're going on tour for two weeks, the other wishes you good luck. And a lot of people in the States know that my wife plays more underground and deeper stuff than I do. She has earned her stripes in the underground.
So she gives you more street cred?
Yes, definitely. And really dope tracks, so I know exactly what's happening in the underground. And people don't see her as a groupie or someone who's leeching off my success, because she was already successful for quite some time before we met. And with all the controversy –my wife knows the guys from Art Department and DJ Sneak loves her –I sometimes just have to turn to her and ask: 'Would you have married me if I was a typical EDM douchebag?' And then she says: 'No, of course not.' She knows that I have a genuine interest in music.
As a Dutchman, what's your take on the evolution of electronic music in the States?
It's a whirlwind. People have been listening to that commercial EDM sound for a while now and they are ready to hear more underground stuff; more experimental and longer mixes. Before they didn't really get those here. But now there's a large group of kids that grew up with EDM. A lot of 18-year-olds have been listening to it for five years now, and appreciate it if you go a little deeper. We don't need to hear Akon on a David Guetta beat anymore; we want to hear Avicii with Coldplay. I think that there is a very positive development going on in the States right now. But I see EDM as a sort of glam rock or glam metal. We went from the real rock 'n' roll to glitter bands like Queen and Europe.
And now it's on to grunge?
Yeah, that's what I'm waiting for, for the grunge. Hopefully house music will stick around for at least another ten years or so. But eventually there will probably be a new genre that is so much cooler that we'll just be done with house.
Mixmash Records is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. What have been some highlights so far?
I've always fought to create a platform for the talent that I'm mentoring. But Avicii has been one of the biggest highlights. You can debate whether his music is good or not –I'm not a big fan of country house either- but the kid has made it to the absolute top. I'm just waiting for him to collaborate with U2 now and then he'll have done pretty much everything there is to do.
But you are proud of him?
I'm incredibly proud of Avicii. I remember when he was just a 16-year-old kid and he sent me his first demos. And after a year or two his sound was so professional that he was ready. He had his first booking with me. He opened at WMC in Miami for an empty room. It's great to see where he is now. The same goes for Afrojack. We also pushed him really hard with Mixmash. I was the one that introduced Afrojack to David Guetta.
Don't you want to warn them sometimes? Are you in a position to give them fatherly advice, or does that not happen anymore?
It still happens sometimes. I was backstage with The Chainsmokers the other day, who are just starting to tour heavily. I'm the first person to tell them: 'You think this is hard? Wait until you have to tour outside of America, in Australia and Europe.' Then I give them some tips. Somehow I still feel responsible for them.
Do you think more people should take that responsibility?
Yes. A lot of people, maybe also in the underground, are only concerned with their own ego; getting drunk, using drugs, fucking girls. But you forget that you got into it for the music, for the people that also like your music and that you feel connected to.
Do you worry about them?
Yes, I do worry. I care about my fellow human beings. I went up to those Nervo girls not too long ago at Ultra Korea. I asked them like: 'Are you okay? I see you drinking a lot and touring a lot, how are you holding up?'
What kind of response do you usually get?
In general, people react very well. I hope they sense that I'm being sincere. But anyway, DJs still end up in hospital if they're not looked after. And there will always be as many DJs getting into the music business as there are dropping out. And they will also think: 'Fuck it, sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll!' That's supposed to be super cool. It's nothing new or special, but that is not what it's all supposed to be about.
But won't the scene lose some of its romance if all that disappears? Or do you think it can do without?
I think it would be pretty cool if lost its romance. Because then you would only have people in the scene that are all about the music. That love to introduce new music to a crowd of people, and that love to discover new music.
So if I understand you correctly, that isn't the appeal for you?
For me, the romance or the appeal of DJing lies in a successful night. That people come up to you after your set and say: 'That was great, man. This is the best party I've ever been to. I've never heard a set like that.' That is where the romance is for me. Sometimes when I go to the bakery around the corner, I just want to give them a little applause to thank them for their amazing bread, but you can't do that. So I think that as DJs, we should just be glad that people show us so much appreciation. I got into DJing because I was a nerd that wanted to explore new music and share it with an audience. I still have that same mindset.
You don't play in the Netherlands a lot, but when you do, how does it feel to be back home?
The Dutch crowd is more reserved. In general, it's difficult to play in front of a Dutch audience, especially in my scene. Benny Rodrigues and I were among the first that introduced a more dynamic way of mixing in the commercial scene. Quick mixes, live mashing, using acapellas. But in the past few years everyone has started doing that here. So when I'm abroad I am Superman, but back home I'm suddenly Clark Kent. The Netherlands is kind of like my kryptonite, I suddenly lose all my special powers.
Does that make you up your game or is it just annoying?
It does force me to up my game, so I have to work harder and come up with some surprises. But I have noticed that lately people are more enthusiastic about international Dutch DJs like myself. I've had a few gigs in The Netherlands where I thought: 'Wow, the vibe is actually really great!'
What's the most important thing you want to teach your kids?
I want to teach them that you should do what makes you happy. It happens so often that people just end up in a job because that is what they're qualified for, what they have a degree in. I don't have a degree in DJing or producing, but I am still successful. I know this sounds utopian, but I just want my kids to find a job that makes them happy.