Interview Joris Voorn / DJ
"Try to keep things new and interesting, for yourself."
Born into a musically minded family, with one parent a composer and the other a music teacher, Joris Voorn grew up playing the violin and guitar. Yet his initial dream was to become an architect, and his search for the right outlet for creative expression would involve him in skateboarding and photography before finally returning him to his first love, music. Today he is among the most renowned DJs in the underground house music and techno scene, and co-owns the Amsterdam-based labels Rejected and Green.
Interview & translation Inge Oosterhoff
Photography Jerome de Lint
To start things off, which song does Joris Voorn keep on repeat all day? I have been listening to a lot of piano music. I’ve had the album Velvet by Michiel Borstlap on repeat for a while now. It’s truly fantastic music, very calming but also incredibly inspiring on so many levels.
That’s a surprising answer from a techno DJ. Care to explain? Well, I started taking piano lessons recently, shortly after I turned forty. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do but never really got around to, and I finally found the time and motivation to do it. It’s great! I just bought a beautiful hundred-year-old piano. I had a piano before, but it was kind of crappy, so I invested in a really good one for myself and my son and we’re taking lessons with the same teacher.
So can we expect a Joris Voorn in Concert tour anytime soon? Haha, probably not! Our teacher does organise recitals with her students, where everyone has to play something for friends and family, and I recently took part in one of these, which was an interesting experience. I had just started, so all I could play was this simple tune from a music book for beginners. It was kind of embarrassing. To be honest, I was more nervous for that than I am playing a DJ-set in front thousands!
Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like? I grew up in the countryside of Moergestel, between Eindhoven and Tilburg. My parents bought a huge farm there in the seventies, which they completely remodelled. My parents still live there. There was absolutely nothing in the area. The closest town was 3 kilometres away, so there were no distractions and nothing ever happened. But the space we had there, to run around and play hide and seek, to entertain ourselves and blow off steam, is something I look back on as something positive. I believe that having so much physical space gives you a sense of personal space as well, to find your own identity.
“I believe that having so much physical space gives you a sense of personal space as well, to find your own identity.”
Do you ever find that sense of space and peace and quiet in your life now? I guess I do, now that I live in Amsterdam. I am fortunate enough to have been able to buy a large house, surrounded by nature, which does offer a sense of quiet and space. I can really get away from everything there and unwind.
Your father was a classical composer and your mother a music teacher. How did that influence your career path? I initially didn’t want a career in music at all. After high school, I studied to become an interior architect, after which I went to work for an architectural company. Music was always just a hobby for me. My parents’ upbringing did help me develop a strong work ethos. My siblings and I all had to play an instrument and practice every day for an hour without exception, and I still find it quite easy to motivate myself to sit down and work in a very disciplined way, although that might only apply to music; it’s not quite the same with administration, unfortunately.
Did you have a distinct musical taste when you were younger? I played the violin growing up, which I liked at first until I ended up being the only kid in class who played the violin and it became something very uncool. I was allowed to switch instruments when I was about sixteen, and chose the guitar.
I was really invested in using my instrument to express my personality and I listened to a lot of alternative guitar music. All my friends had an electric guitar, which I desperately wanted, but my parents wouldn’t allow it. So I used my acoustic guitar to play all the songs that I liked. I did eventually get an electric one and began playing in bands, which was a lot of fun.
Choosing the guitar was probably my first step towards finding my own musical identity.
I also expressed my identity in other ways though. I was really into skateboarding, for instance, and photography. Now that I think about it, I did a lot of things that I could do alone.
Do you still prefer to do things alone? I do. I enjoy collaborating and working with others, but I also really enjoy working on my own. Obviously, creating music, especially electronic music, is something you can very easily do alone. Maybe that says something about me?
“I was fascinated by how techno and house music were structured and layered, and I listened to a lot of it quite carefully to figure it out.”
You’ve become of the world’s biggest names in the techno and house scene. When and how did you get into that genre of music? As a teenager growing up in the nineties, my favourite band were The Pixies, and I spent all my time in record stores looking for bands that sounded even remotely like them. And that was how I discovered more electronic and industrial-sounding bands like Nine Inch Nails and The Chemical Brothers, who used synthesizers and drum machines.
From there it was but a small step to bands like Underworld and real techno and house music. I got heavily into Detroit and Chicago techno, which is very stripped-down, and began listening to artists like Dave Clarke, whose songs are basically built up from extremely hard kick-drums with vocals. That was a real revelation; polar opposite of everything I was used to, but that’s what drew me in.
What made you want to start making that kind of music yourself? I was fascinated by how techno and house music were structured and layered, and I listened to a lot of it quite carefully to figure it out. The next logical step was to wonder if I could perhaps make something like that myself.
I would sometimes deejay at friend’s parties and played a few gigs at a local club in Tilburg, which was close to where I grew up. I had a small mixing panel that I used to play CDs from my personal collection. It wasn’t an especially professional rig, but it was fun. I eventually bought some other equipment and began messing around some more.
How did you go from playing at school parties to becoming a bona fide DJ? I began to take it more seriously when I moved to Enschede for my architectural studies. A friend told me about a deejay competition at a local club, ATAK. They were looking for a new resident DJ for a biweekly dance night, so I sent in a cassette of my work and was invited to play against three others. There’s a good chance we were actually the only four to have entered the competition; deejaying wasn’t very cool back then.
Anyway, I won and ended up playing at ATAK every fortnight for four years. It was there that I learned to play in front of an audience and mix and create sets, instead of just stringing songs together. That was the impetus to add actual records to my collection and buy more professional equipment.
I bought two turntables at a flea market and an MC-303 Roland Groovebox: a crappy machine with drums and synthesizers and a sequencer for programming. Nowadays, you can easily put a song together on your laptop in 30 minutes, but that wasn’t an option back then. I wore that groovebox out in just a few years — all the buttons were faded. But it taught me the basics of producing electronic music.
How did you go about developing your own sound? I’m not entirely sure I’ve developed it, to be honest. In the beginning, I made absolutely everything; from jungle to drum ‘n bass, shake beats, chemical beats, trip hop, techno, house, trance and acid. I just wanted to try everything out. I still have boxes of tapes of everything that I made back then. It wasn’t until much later that I sort of found my own niche, although I still like to experiment and reinvent myself.
“Japan was the holy grail for techno DJs at the time. The Japanese techno scene was crazy, completely different from what I was used to.”
Can you name a specific moment when you felt like you’d actually made it? I was named DJ Talent of the Year at the Dutch DJ Awards in 2003, shortly after releasing my Lost Memories EP. Other winners have often cited that as a turning point, but to be honest I don’t know if it really did much for my career. It was an encouragement and an honour of course, but it’s not like doors suddenly opened for me.
There are so many milestones that I could name if I look back at my entire career, though. When you’re starting out, everything feels like your big break…but I guess a turning point for me was my first visit to Japan, around 2005. Japan was the holy grail for techno DJs at the time. The Japanese techno scene was crazy, completely different from what I was used to. My song “Incidents” was a megahit there and that really made a huge impression on me.
Did you feel a lot more pressure to perform, once your hobby became your profession? Oddly enough I felt no pressure in those early days. I feel way more pressure now than I did at the start of my career. Maybe that’s because I had no expectations going in, and people had no expectations of me either. Don’t get me wrong, it was blood, sweat and tears in the studio at times, but I was much more relaxed about it then than I am now.
“It’s great to connect with and learn from my younger peers through the labels. If you don’t cherish that connection as a more established artist, it’s difficult to stay relevant.”
Could you give an example? I remember finishing my first album but still having to produce a few remixes for the vinyl version. The deadline was on a Monday, yet I still had two tracks and two remixes to finish the Friday before.
I wouldn’t know what to do with myself in a situation like that now, but back then I was like: “Just do a bit of this, a bit of that, presto.” I finished those tracks in one day.
I’ve become much more of a perfectionist and want to test everything I produce before putting it on an album. It’s good to be a bit more professional, but sometimes I miss the ease I felt about things back then.
Is your perfectionism also the reason it took seven years to release your last album, Nobody Knows? Partly, I guess. After releasing From a Deep Place in 2007, I moved to Amsterdam. That was a real turning point for me. I went back to my musical roots; picked up the guitar again, played around with acoustic elements. I was experimenting a lot, but it took a while to find a sound I was happy with.
It’s also why the album is called ‘Nobody Knows’; the creative process took so long and for a long time it wasn’t clear what the end result would be.
You also own two record labels, Green and Rejected, which you started shortly after your breakthrough as a DJ in 2004. How did this come about? I really wanted a platform where I could do things on my own terms and decide everything, from the artwork to the music. That’s why I launched Green, in 2005. I initially used photographs I took myself for the album artwork but eventually recruited one of my best friends from art school to do my designs.
I launched Rejected in 2007, together with Edwin Oosterwal, a Dutch DJ who I played with at ATAK and who I’ve been friends with ever since. I’ve always kept things close to home regarding music and worked with people I’m familiar with.
“It might seem easy and glamorous, but it’s a very demanding industry.”
What is your role in running the labels? I’m not always as closely involved with the labels as I’d like to be, and I’m a bit ashamed to admit that some of the artists on the labels have released albums of which I was only aware afterwards; but I try to be as involved as I’m able to be. I enjoy working with new artists and it’s always awesome to have people approach me with their music. It’s also great to connect with and learn from my younger peers through the labels. If you don’t cherish that connection as a more established artist, it’s difficult to stay relevant. It works both ways.
Edwin is much more involved in the labels than I am. He took over Green eventually, and now runs both labels from the Netherlands. He’s great at it, and I trust him completely.
What do you look for in new artists? Quality. Music that excites us. And music that fits the character of our labels. Green is focused more on melodic music and Rejected is more about bare house and techno. But really, if it’s good, it’s good. And if we believe in it, we’ll release it. Finding new talent isn’t as easy as you might think, though. There is a lot of music on offer nowadays. The internet is making it easier to produce music and get it out fast, but that quantity doesn’t always correlate with quality.
What kind of wisdom and experience do you try impart onto the younger generation of artists? I try to encourage aspiring artists to venture out and try new things, to stay interested in emerging genres of music before your big break, after which you will generally have more freedom to step back and experiment. It can be tempting to focus too much on creating and holding onto your own sound in the beginning. To not be led by changes in the musical landscape, but to know how to use the changes to your benefit. It’s important to find that sweet spot between your own sound and one that’s popular at the time. I’ve seen artists whose inflexibility has left them stuck with the style of their first hit.
Would you say it’s become easier or more difficult than it was twenty years ago for artists to break through in the techno and house scene? It’s a lot more difficult these days. Things like image and identity are much more important now and there’s a lot more competition too. Few wanted to become DJs or producers when I was starting out; it was a niche thing and not particularly cool. DJs back then often just wanted to play records at parties. There were a few producers, but they tended to focus solely on producing. There just weren’t many who did both, like me.
“I’ve had people comment that my sets are too varied, so I do try not to be too all over the place. But I’ve always had a broad interest, which expresses itself in my music.”
You’re known for exploring new musical avenues with each new album. How important is it for you to stay innovative? I just find it boring to keep doing the same thing for a long time, so after a while I begin looking for new things to try. I’ve never been one to experiment for the sake of experimenting, but I do try to keep things new and interesting, mainly for myself. I guess that’s how I keep myself inspired as a musician and I always just hope that something comes out of it that sounds interesting to others as well.
It might not be the smartest way to do things, commercially speaking. I’ve had people comment that my sets are too varied, so I do try not to be too all over the place. But I’ve always had a broad interest, which expresses itself in my music.
How do you deal with negative criticism? I’m always trying to avoid it coming up in the first place. The funny thing with feedback is you only remember the negative, rather than the positive. It’s a cliché, but it’s true. And I do get nervous when music critics attend my shows. But I’m usually only nervous beforehand. Once I start playing, I forget about the resulting reviews, at least until they appear in the Monday papers!
Your broad interest also seems to be the theme of the SPECTRUM nights you began organising last year. What sparked that new venture? When you’ve been around for a while as an artist, you begin at some point to look for new ways to express your creativity, one of which might be to organise night-time events of your own, which is what I did.
“I didn’t get much advice when I was starting out, but I don’t know if that’s a bad thing.”
With SPECTRUM, I get to combine all the things I love about music and deejaying, the whole ‘spectrum’ of it. I tried to create a concept that reflects my broad musical interests as an artist, something that would allow me to share all the kinds of music that I like and to which I could invite other artists to perform while offering the audience a unique experience. We held the first few editions of SPECTRUM last year, starting in Amsterdam, Paris and London. It was a lot of fun and it felt like a real success, so we kept going.
I also got to link an online radio show to it, which is something I’d been wanting to do for a while. I had all these wild ideas for it, but primarily showcase the more unexpected sets I play during SPECTRUM.
Looking back at your career thus far, what advice do you wish you'd been given earlier? I didn’t get much advice when I was starting out, but I don’t know if that’s a bad thing. Of course I learned from other DJs and colleagues along the way, but I’ve always sought and found my own way. I pretty much just figured it all out by myself, and I think that’s been essential to my development as a DJ. Techno has always been a very DIY thing, where the best results come from just messing around and seeing what works for you.
You’re married and have two young children. How do you combine a young family with an international career as a DJ, two record labels, the SPECTRUM nights and all the other things you do? Being away a lot and having to travel all the time definitely makes it challenging to combine work and family life. I try to make sure I’m home as much as possible during the week, to drop the kids off at school and things like that. I also try to take off at least one weekend a month, which isn’t a whole lot.
But even then it’s challenging. When I’m home at weekends, I don’t always have the energy to go out and do things. My wife often asks when we’re going on vacation, or going out to do something. But a vacation for me is relaxing at home … so that can be tricky.
“Imagine getting just two hours of sleep in one time zone after a seven-hour set at a club, and then hopping on a plane for eight hours followed by a three-hour car ride before another full set.”
Which misunderstanding about the music industry would you most like to clear up? That it’s all just one big party. It’s hard work. It might seem easy and glamorous, but it’s a very demanding industry. Imagine getting just two hours of sleep in one time zone after a seven-hour set at a club and then hopping on a plane for eight hours followed by a three-hour car ride before another full set. It can be really taxing. Of course I get to do what I love, but not everything about it is glamorous.
Do you ever think about slowing down, or maybe doing something else? Sometimes. I mean, I’m 40 now, which is a respectable age. When I started out, my musical heroes were all very young. Nowadays, most successful DJs are around 40 or older, which is a bit surprising actually. But I’d say I could go on for another five years, maybe ten?
I would definitely want to continue working with music, though. Maybe compose for films and documentaries, create more melodic music than I make now. It’s one of the reasons I started taking piano lessons: to be able to make music more intuitively. Techno and house is all about putting notes on a digital piano roll, which is very different from sitting down at a piano, closing your eyes, and seeing what happens. I hope that being able to do that will eventually lead to a new step in my career.