Interview: Armand Van Helden 'Doesn't Get' Lady Gaga, But He Tries
Few DJs have ridden the wild waves of club-land as long as Armand Van Helden has and still survived with their careers intact. The New York spinner's anchor is soul, disco and hip-hop, and no matter how far dance music drifts from its roots, he's in the mix, a buoyant reminder of where it all comes from and what it all comes down to.
These days you can spot Van Helden mugging for photos with indie spinners like Steve Aoki. (Van Helden will be at the one-year anniversary of Avalon's neon-punk party Control on Friday to spin, too). He's been embraced by many of the hipsters in candy colored Ray-Bans, even if he's old enough to be their father. Van Helden has soaked in the New Wave flavors and non-sequitur, mix-and-match stylings of the cool kids (as heard on his 2007 track, "NYC Beat"). Even before many of today's top indie DJs even got a clue about dance music, Van Helden was pointing the way on 2004's New York: A Mix Odyssey, which features Blondie, Soft Cell and Yes in a seamless journey.
True dance heads, however, know him more for his genre-creating productions of the 1990s, when he single-handedly created a U.K. phenomenon called "speed garage" with just a handful of remixes (including Tori Amos' "Professional Widow"). His 1996 hip-house track "Funk Phenomena," which has the swagger of rap and the progression of electronic, is surely on many an e-music watcher's all-time singles lists.
He broke out even before that, in 1992, with deep house, and he returned to the sound for a 1999 U.K. No. 1 single, "You Don't Know Me," a track many took to be a pro-gay-rights anthem. That conjecture just adds to the enigma that is Van Helden, however, as he's been known to roll up to a club during March's Winter Music Conference in Miami in full-on pimp mode, half-a-dozen girls on his arms, shades-on, collar up, velvet rope agape, the whole scene (one that we witnessed with our own eyes). The Ali G look-alike, however, is said to live a simpler, low-key life in New York, where he foots it around. He's one of house music's original b-boys, and we caught up with him recently to ask him a few questions.
LA Weekly: You've been releasing tracks with DJ A-Trak under the moniker Duck Sauce. Are you going to do more?
Armand Van Helden: Yeah, yeah, yeah -- it has to be made. I would say sometime next year. Could be like a limited promo [single] at the end of the January too. If people like it, then eventually we might compile it to an album.
What do each of you bring to the table?
Every partnership has its reasons, in business and in marriage. You have a partnership of two people going after basically a goal. You'd be surprised. I can make beats, A-Trak can make beats, but it's the chemistry that's put down when we're together. It's not something I could do without him, and he could do without me. But it's the fun we have together doing it and just coming up with the Duck Sauce and the branding. I'm always on my own. I fly solo most of the time. So when I'm able to do stuff like this it puts some of the fun back in it. It's like we're in a band. It's like you're 18 again with a rock 'n' roll dream. It's just fun.
The project had helped you tap into a new generation of dance fans.
The thing is, I live in New York and I still enjoy the scene, but I'm not a scenester or a true hipster. I don't mind going out and seeing new scenes. I live in New York because it provides me with a multitude of adventures. I just do them don't do them every night. I've been around in this thing for a while. That's how me and A-Trak met.
But there's a whole new scene apart from house and super-clubs.
Yeah, there's this whole new movement going on. But I've seen this five times in my lifetime. People are so passionate and concerned about what's happening. They're 19 and life couldn't be more grand. It's beautiful. I'm not a bitter old man. Everybody from all the past generations of this movement felt the same. I tell them to be wary as time grows because things start to get ugly, people start to become drug addicts. Everything that starts off with this beautiful, wonderful thing gets dark. Then do you have the ability to look again to the youth? But some people never break out of it.
It's given you some new fans.
At the end of the day I like making music and I'm very thankful. I do have the passion. Why am I going to make music that I made 15 years ago? My thing is go out into the world and see what's happening. You don't have to like it, but try and understand why people like stuff. Why do people like Lady Gaga? I don't get it, but at least I'm attempting to. I'm out there peeping the stuff out. The thing that's been crazy for me and my music career -- I've always done that instinctively -- I make sure I'm dong the right thing for the kids. I don't make adult music. At the end of the day people are going to see I wasn't making music to be a cool adult, I was making music to be a fun kid.
The hipster kids are taking over the super-clubs.
The whole hipster movement here in New York was an odd convergence. It felt like it happened in one moment and came out of nowhere. It was basically an indie rock thing. People talked about when Daft Punk did Coachella for the first time [in 2006] -- that's when the whole world changed, with indie rock kids saying dance music is awesome. Before that they thought it was homo. Same thing in New York. You had these parties in '02, '03 pop up, like Misshapes. Indie kids were saying, 'Let's do dance beats.' Let's play as a band but with a drum machine. So when 'NYC Beat' came out or even my Nympho album [in 2005], before Ghetto Blaster, it was kind of me in a retardo way doing rock and dance. 'NYC Beat' was an extension of the Nympho album. It definitely was intended to be in the hipster vein.
You were representing a hip-hop side of dance music early on. Now everyone from Kanye West to the Black Eyed Peas to Spank Rock are doing it. What are your thoughts about this renewed convergence?
It's good. I'm a lover. Anytime anything like that happens, I'm happy. I'm happy about the current thing with hip-hop and dance music. It's extra-cheesy. All kids have to do is go online and research what this stuff is. Before they thought it was homo. They would cringe. It's cool that they're all hip-hop people and indie kids are all, 'Ooh I like this dance music.' I don't care if it's cheesy. I'm happy.
Are you tempted to revisit some of your own hip-house flavors?
When I make music, it's more of a flow with me. There is a subconscious template. I know better than to remake a 'Funk Phenomena' or a 'Witch Doktor,' or do speed garage. Once I've done it, I can't go back. People want that from you, but in your head, you're like, I can't do that. You have to go into experiment mode and come up with something fresh. It doesn't work all the time but occasionally you hit it right. I have the past templates in my head, and I try to avoid them.
Can we expect an album from you next year?
I'm working on an album, but I'm not. In due time. I pay attention to the U.K. charts, I always have. I'm not concerned with American charts and Beatport and Germany. I'll go to a studio and listen to what people are liking at the moment, see what's happening on the charts. I'm always walking the razor's edge between pop and dance, and that's difficult. Right now it doesn't seem that I'm hearing anything new that I can feel. I'm looking for the next thing because I need to be ahead of the curve. I'm not hearing what I need to hear go get amped on my new album. Eventually I'll put out some singles for WMC [Winter Music Conference in March]. I would call it writers block. I'm not excited. I can't do dubstep, bass-line stuff, all the stuff most people are doing. I have to find my own little thing, and I haven't found it yet. But once I do I can finish an album in two weeks. I'm like a bird in a tree. I'm looking for that scrap.
You're DJing for a hipster crowd in L.A. Do you play a different set than what you might play for big-room house scene?
I kind of try and play what I want. A hipster set is not too different really. All the songs in the hipster scene I like. I wouldn't say I'm dropping the same songs as all of the kids are. I play a little more with a groove behind it. A lot of the songs I like from the hipster scene are short with short intros and abrupt changes. I look for the ones that groove and have space. A lot of the new DJs are trying to hit 'em over the head with a beer bottle.
How old are you these days?
My first album came out when I was six.
Armand Van Helden spins Friday at the one-year anniversary of Control at Avalon, 1735 N. Vine St., Hollywood. 18+. Doors at 10. Tickets $20 advance. Info.