In the world of trance one name always stands out as one of the greatest in the industry. This name is none other than Coldharbour legend, Markus Schulz. Some may know him as the “Unicorn Slayer”, yet others as the mastermind and host of Global DJ Broadcast. Markus is known by something else as well, he is a man who has revolutionized the art of the open to close and marathon sets. Whether he is taking club goers on a journey from the moment the doors open until well after the sun rises, or DJ’ing an entire 12 hour day at Tomorrowland in Belgium, Markus has truly set the bar high.
This year Markus Schulz isn’t slowing down. With an album release right around the corner and an open to close solo set planned for February 27th at Avalon in Hollywood, this trance heavy hitter is keeping the momentum going full force and making sure his fans know that he is here and stronger than ever. I recently had the opportunity to interview Markus in anticipation for his upcoming open to close set at Avalon. With hopes to pick his brain a bit and get to know the man behind the decks, I took a trip down the rabbit hole and asked questions about his history, his current projects, and his future endeavors.
You have an open to close set coming up at Avalon Hollywood on February 27. This seems to have become a spot that you love to frequent. What is it about Avalon that keeps you coming back?
It’s the city of Los Angeles in general that keeps me coming back! Many years ago, when I started to tour across the United States, I used to be really intimidated when arriving into LAX. But I was so fortunate in that there was a group of incredibly passionate fans who embraced my sound and what I was about at a very early stage. It was thanks to them and their reviews on message boards that helped spread the word about me, and these people who started out as fans are all now very close friends to me personally.
So because of that, there is an essence of homecoming with the city, despite never living there. And with Avalon, it has those quintessential characteristics that very few remaining clubs in this world share, where the art of DJing comes first.
“These nights are where you cement your legacy in the industry.”
What are you looking forward to the most come your set on the 27th?
The journey of course! The open to close solo set nights help feed my soul. By the time it rolls round, it will have been two months since I did one inside a club, which was for my final ever appearance at Pacha in New York City before it closed. I did an open to close on board the Groove Cruise a few weeks ago, but the intricacies of playing at sea with the atmospherics in play make the feel of a set quite different.
And come the night itself, I will have completed the next artist album, and many of the tracks on that have never been heard before outside the walls of the studio. So I will undoubtedly have a few tricks up my sleeve, as always for the LA people.
Can attendees at the Avalon open to close expect to hear some debuts off of your up and coming album?
Yes, absolutely. The secret to these open to close solo set nights is that you choose to do them in venues and cities where you have a connection with a musically well-educated audience. Over time and experience with previous shows, you develop a trust with the fans where they have the patience to absorb material that is in the road-test phase.
Some of the tracks from the album will require special club versions in order to fit into my live sets, so even though the main album itself will be completed by February 27, the club versions will remain ongoing. And Avalon is a crucial testing ground for that.
Can you share a special memory or moment from any of your past Avalon shows?
My goodness, there have been so many. It makes me appreciate so much the special connection I have with the people of LA. If I had to pick only one, I think it would have to be the weekend celebrating the release of the Los Angeles ’12 compilation – where we sold out the venue on two straight nights.
The key aspect of that weekend was the first night – the open to close solo set, and to be honest, I was running into uncharted waters, because up to that point, my solo sets were only lasting around 6-7 hours. But for this, not just because Avalon stays open much longer, I was faced with the challenge of 1) being able to physically handle playing that long, and 2) was I capable of taking people on a journey past the 10 hour mark. I sincerely say this, but I was apprehensive in the weeks leading up to that show. But the response of that night catalyzed everything that has happened between Avalon and I ever since, and spawned the historic 13 hour performance on New Year’s Eve 2013.
For the nerd in me, there is a gif of me doing the rounds during one of the shows at Avalon where I’m completely vibing out at around 5 AM on the Sunday night of Memorial Day weekend, after four shows in four days. That gif is the story of my life.
What type of planning goes into a famous Markus Schulz open to close? How do you prepare in order to make sure you take your fans on the proper trance journey?
Well physically alone, it’s a huge challenge, and you start thinking about how to properly train your body for the endurance from a few weeks out – like increasing the length of my cardio workout, cutting out alcohol and so on. On the night itself, I actually don’t eat much beforehand, and don’t drink any alcohol at all during the performance. This way, you basically sweat everything out of your system while you are jumping around on stage; and it makes a bathroom break less of a necessity.
For the solo sets, I try to imagine the overall night as three sets combined – you have the opening portion, where you play the deeper progressive grooves and keep the mood low; allowing the ambiance to slowly build as the crowd assembles on the dance floor. Then you have the main portion which is the usual peak hour chaos and lighting, with the big tracks and hits that you would expect in an everyday Markus Schulz set-length performance. And finally, when you have the room grooving in unison, then you enter the afterhours, or the rabbit hole, where things get weird and trippy with various techno tracks and classics.
For the music itself, I’ll spend months in advance preparing; digging deep into Beatport and promos and on most occasions, I’ll be listening with the mindset of “this I’ll save for the solo set, and this one, and this one”. So when you slowly accumulate tracks like that over several months, you’re essentially putting together the building blocks of the set, and the graft in assembling what goes well harmonically can begin.
Earlier this month we were teased with the announcement that you would be releasing a 6th studio album later this year. With tracks like “Destiny” and “Face Down” already making huge waves, can Markus Schulz fans expect more incredible vocal tracks? And what was your motivation behind the production of this particular album?
After the Scream project came to its conclusion, I spent time reflecting and asking myself where I wanted to take my career artistically. I had done five artist albums already and felt that I needed to find a spark that went beyond the world of synthesizers.
So I sought out my roots, and that led me to songwriting, where everything begins with a pen and a blank piece of paper. I was never the most academic at school, but one thing I loved doing there was creative writing, and the challenge of songwriting is a real-life throwback to that. When I started doing music, I began to drift away from creative writing, and that’s natural because so much of your time is spent playing around in sounds and software. But to take that step back into writing was therapeutic.
The first results of my songwriting yielded Destiny; and I continue to be so humbled by the response and appreciation of the fans regarding that record, even as far as you guys nominating it for Best Trance Track in the IDMAs. Because the response was so positive, it provided me the confidence to continue with this songwriting path, and the album contains some amazing stories waiting to be heard. Of course, there will be some instrumental pieces on the album as well, but the real stories are the words contained within and how they connect with us – stories that bind us together as a community.
Albums for me are milestones, so I’m very nervous yet excited about how everyone is going to resonate with this particular chapter.
With your upcoming release, can fans expect any special plans in regards to your touring schedule? For example, the possibility of bringing along the vocalists for some extra special live performances?
That’s something I am in the process of constructing along with the team around me. Ideally that’s what I’ll be doing! There definitely is an album tour, and will most likely be announced when the details of the album itself are revealed.
Since we are on the topic of albums, Scream 1 and Scream 2 have had such a positive response from fans. From those albums, what tracks were the most special to you and what was your motivation behind their production?
The first one that immediately springs to mind is Nothing Without Me, where Ana Diaz was absolutely outstanding in her vocal performance. I don’t know whether it’s a compliment or if I should be scared that so many of the fans became attached to a song that was based on a true story about me having a stalker!!! But even today, it’s still such a monumental moment when I pull it out for the live sets.
On the instrumental side, I think the likes of Destino and particularly Remember This have established a lasting legacy. Remember This came along at a time where I felt we needed to bring back that feeling of innocence. The melody took quite a while to get right, and looking back, I think there was a series of important gigs where I was testing it out for weeks, and the final version was debuted in the sunrise closing set at EDC in Las Vegas. Almost three years on, it’s still one of the most requested tracks in the sets today.
Let’s move back even farther in time and talk about one of the most adored aliases of all time, Dakota. Can fans expect a return of Dakota in the future? Or have you considered a new alias as the scene continues to change?
Well, the thing I should stress is that Dakota hasn’t exactly disappeared entirely. It’s more a case that fans may be hearing a few things, especially in the longer or solo sets, that are labelled as ID but actually are new and unreleased Dakota productions. Then you also have the tracks that have been made public in the past two years or so – such as Barracas on the Buenos Aires ’13 compilation, Twilight of the Night on the recent Ministry of Sound Trance Nation compilation, CLXXV which we put out for Coldharbour’s 175th release, Cathedral (Montreal) from the City Series Collection, and of course the intro track for my solo sets for a long time which I gave away for free on Soundcloud, the 22-minute length Doors Open.
At the moment my priority in terms of releases obviously lies with the upcoming artist album, but I can assure you that the Dakota alias will continue to bubble underneath the surface. I guess it makes the solo sets extra special in that they are the only occasions you can hear some of these new tracks, many of which don’t even have titles!
Now let’s talk some New World Punx. With the release of “Bang”, an instant NWP fan favorite, can we look forward to more New World Punx releases later this year? Any solidified plans on touring as New World Punx again?
Yeah for sure, we’ll be doing a lot together this year again, particularly towards the summer. Right now Ferry and I are concentrating on our own things, with Ferry’s Gouryella tour coming up and my album to tour, but we’re talking to each other almost every day and sharing ideas. And it’s nice to have that freedom. When we were starting the project, we both agreed that it would never be at the expense of our own respective careers, rather acting as a compliment for each of us. We are quite selective with the number and location of shows that we play a year as NWP, because the less frequent they are, the more special they become.
It has just been announced that we will be doing a show as NWP during Miami Music Week at Hyde Park, so that will be a lot of fun.
As a man who lives and breathes trance, we all want to know: Who are some of your trance idols? Whose music do you find yourself gravitating to the most?
The first and obvious name to mention is the only man worthy of donning the title of “godfather of trance”, and that is Paul Oakenfold. He was the one who opened doors for all of us. I am a big fan of U2, and when you listen back to Paul’s productions in the nineties, you can tell he took a lot of influence from being around them when he was part of their touring crew. He has always been very welcoming to me and helpful in providing any advice.
In terms of who inspires me the most towards the mantra of the open to close solo sets; that would be Danny Tenaglia, the king of the mountain. He showed me how it could be possible to take people on a journey of multiple genres within the space of a night. Sasha and John Digweed were big influences too.
And I couldn’t forget my partner in crime Ferry Corsten. I honestly believe he is the greatest producer of our generation, and I am lucky to find myself in the privileged position of being able to learn new things from him. Even now, when we are in the studio together working on material for the NWP sets, I continually say to him that I wish I could pick a part of his brain and transplant it into mine.
Being one of the most successful Producer/DJs in the scene, you do a lot of traveling. Can you share one funny or interesting story from your travels around the world?
The travel is by far the hardest aspect of this job, and the one thing you absolutely hope for is you’ll never run into delays or any problems with immigration and so on. So you will probably not be surprised when I tell you this story.
It was at the height of one summer, and I had one of those crazy 24 hour stretches where I played 3 gigs in 3 different countries. I started playing the closing set at a gig in Barcelona; then it was straight to the airport for the Netherlands, where I played late afternoon at Dance Valley. All ok so far, but tiring; on to the airport again.
The final gig was in Glasgow, but there was a problem with my immigration papers when landing. So I ended up being detained at the airport – put handcuffs on and everything. Eventually the problem was resolved, but the delay meant I didn’t even have time to go to the hotel and prepare; I had to go straight to the club and perform, and the gig itself ended up being pretty wild. I was never so glad to have my head hit the pillow when that day was over.
And sadly, they didn’t let me keep the handcuffs.
Now for a burning question that is on the minds of every one who has experienced one of your extended or marathon sets. What are the ingredients or elements needed to take your trance audience into the rabbit hole?
“Ingredients” is the right word to use there. It has to be a special night, a special club, a special DJ. Back in the early days inside a club, the crowd entertained themselves, and the DJ booth was hidden away in the corner almost entirely out of sight. But today, everybody faces the DJ. The DJ and the visual production is the entertainment, with the focus coming away from the crowd.
With the solo sets, of course the main portion of the set is going to feel like a big attraction. But the key to transitioning into the rabbit hole is to get everyone in the room vibing in the same direction. There’s no set time on the watch in the night to do it, but you just know with your instincts with what you can see from the booth.
The intention with the rabbit hole is to actually stop people from facing the DJ booth, and start facing the party. So the lights start to become turned down as a result. When the crowd become the party, then everything starts cracking together and moving together at once. It’s so beautiful when it happens.
As the man dubbed the ‘Unicorn Slayer’, how has this title directed you in your music production and do you feel that this title is as appropriate today as it was when it first began?
It’s amazing how a retweet caught onto a whole new life of its own, and is still so prominent five years later. The name came about because they declared me as the “anti-rainbows and unicorns guy”, and that was at a time where trance was hugely over saturated with love songs.
I remember playing one of those big arena shows in Kiev with a lot of big name DJs, and the one thing that resonated with me was talking to the fans afterwards and they said “thank you for finally making us dance tonight”. I think it’s really important not to lose sight of that when playing live; people want to dance and enjoy themselves, and it’s difficult to do that if there are three-minute long breakdowns within every track in a set.
What I’ve always strived to do with every single production, whether it’s under my own name or an alias, is to make something that represents my mind and my soul, and is something that fans can recognise and appreciate when it comes through the speakers.
Finally, it is clear that trance was, is, and always will be your calling. You are a master at what you do and have forged a career that stands out from the rest. What is one piece of advice you could offer the new trance producers in the scene? Or something that helped you grow in your success when you first began your career?
Well firstly it’s very kind of you to say that, so thank you. Regarding advice for producers; the most important rules are to follow your heart, and try to make something that sounds unique and identifiable. If you examine the entire electronic dance music bubble, it’s a copycat scene. One person produces something in a style that’s amazing and groundbreaking, and if it’s successful, then you have a hundred copies of the same thing within a week. So for anyone starting out, identify who or what inspires you, and study their music. Study their DJ sets and how they are built, and do the same with their productions. And the best way to make your own sound unique is to take certain influences from multiple DJs and producers, and create a hybrid of them that you can call your own.
I’ll finish by recounting what was the absolute turning point of my career, and that was during my period living in London around the turn of the millennium. During my days in Arizona, I was always chasing – chasing whatever big trend was happening, or what I thought was happening at the time. And that was a large reason why I was feeling frustrated. I wanted to succeed outside of Arizona but I couldn’t because of chasing. As soon as I settled in London, the key component hit me – I need to make music that I can comfortably play in my own DJ sets. If I can play the track in my own sets, then other people can play it in theirs as well.
“Carve out your own path, and you could become legendary.”