While some electronic artists are lauded by critics for their innovative approaches, Paul Van Dyk is routinely consigned to the ghetto of dance music known as "progressive trance." This, despite a 10-year career that has produced such milestones as "Forbidden Fruit," "Another Way" and "For an Angel."
"If I had to play the music people say I'm playing, then I probably would stop DJ'ing," says Van Dyk by phone from his Berlin home. "The worst electronic music that's released is always getting labeled Ã?trance.' But I think as soon as people listen to my record, and people hear what I play in the club as a DJ, they understand I have a very different idea about electronic music and about trance."
There are similarities. Van Dyk's approach -- thick as syrup with warm melodic washes and churning house beats -- employs many of the classic elements of trance. The music drives along repeated thematic musical figures, as crisp synth lines rise and fall over the steady pulse of the beat. But close listening reveals strong narrative elements and pop classicism that comes out most clearly in the vocals that embellish the tracks.
After all, guitar pop was Van Dyk's first fascination, and he's recently been led to experiment more with guitar.
"I grew up with guitar music first of all. I was a big fan of bands like the Go-Betweens, New Order and The Smiths," says Van Dyk. "I still love that kind of music, and on the forthcoming album (which arrives in September), a few of the songs I composed [while] sitting in the garden with my guitar. They might not end up as songs [with] guitar, but it seems they create a different kind of chord structure than being in front of a piano.
"But I'm not coming from the angle where I say a good song has to be played on guitar," he continues. "At the end of the day it doesn't matter much what kind of equipment you use, as long as the whole idea of the song comes through."
Which is important for Van Dyk, because while as a DJ his job is to keep the dance floor jumping, he has the point-of-view of a musician. For him it's not about a big bangin' sound so much as having a musical message or story. As a result, he'd argue that his music is a lot more intense and evocative than your standard trance track.
"It's a thin fine line between being melodic and making some musical sense out of it -- giving some deepness to it -- it's a very thin line between that and being cheesy. And to not be cheesy you have to feel it. You can't go into the studio and say, Ã?Now I just play a pretty melody and make a whoopty-whoopty sound,'" he says.
Van Dyk is touring in support of his new CD/DVD set "Global," a kind of greatest-hits album that traces his decade of music-making while visually bringing you along to the cities and clubs he visits as a globe-trotting, international star DJ. Van Dyk's intent was to create a "document showing people what this global youth culture is about."
Unlike rock acts, Van Dyk's live performances as a DJ by necessity take on a different flavor each night. Playing in different clubs on different continents for people with disparate ideas of what's good dance music, Van Dyk's more of a performance artist, taking cues and interacting with his audience.
"It is always different. But as a DJ, I think it is really important to have the ability to interact with a crowd. To sort of take all this into account, that they have a different culture, but at the same time, have a very clear idea about your own musical abilities and your own style and then trying to find the right balance with those two issues," he says. "If I cannot connect with what is going on in the room, I stop DJ'ing."
Not that he plans to any time soon. For though he gets great satisfaction running his own label, Vandit Records, and helping young musicians learn from the mistakes he made coming up, he doesn't like the idea of being an "elder statesman" or giving up his turntable.
"The only reason why I'm not jumping up and down so much is [because] I'm on stage, and people are watching me, and I'm rather shy," he says. "But if I did, I would be the freakiest dancer on the dance floor."