Interview: Armand Van Helden Talks Vintage Clothing & Breaking The Music Industry

The Man, The Myth

Legendary American DJ and sonic pioneer, Armand Van Helden offers us a unique insight into his personal career, speaking about how the music world has come a long way from dismissing dance music as 'a joke' and telling DJs to perform facing brick walls. He explains how vintage clothing has shaped his identity and the first steps somebody looking to crack the music industry should take in order to make a career of it.

Despite his legendary status and bold, defiant basslines, Armand Van Helden is as zen as they come with a philosophy on life that is well crafted after years in the spotlight.

"As a Kid I Loved Disco as much as I Loved Rock”

"My sound is primal. It's more rhythmic than anything...almost naïve", Armand comments when asks to describe his music. With a pulse that he hopes can touch a vein but with no contained sphere of influence. “As a kid, I loved disco as much as I loved rock music, so you know, I was already complex back then.” His insane record collection is a testament to this, spanning hip-hop, rock and disco through to house music he tells us how when it comes to generating a new track, or loop, it's more about raw sonic texture than anything else.

"Kanye West's DJ" & The Power of Friendship

In terms of collaborations, Armand is keen to stress how an intuitive and open-minded relationship is important. His duo 'Duck Sauce' that formed back in 2009 with Canadian DJ 'A-Trak', is a long-standing partnership that has produced award-winning tracks including 'Barbara Streisand' and 'Big Bad Wolf'. “It's what was happening at the time. Everybody was collab-ing in our circle. I met Alain (A-Trak) through a mutual friend, at that time he was Kayne West's DJ, and obviously, he was a DMC champion. We ended up hanging one night, we started to become friends and we thought that maybe we should do something together. We set a date to start the first song, he came in and I said: 'What are we doing then?' It was an easy decision. He was like 'disco house', his concept was right up the gate. I was like okay, I've been there before!”

"Successful DJs are doing 150-200 Gigs a Year Easily”

Writing your own schedule and having the ability to pick and choose gigs is a luxury that comes with great success. With a portfolio spanning right back to the '94 it's no wonder Armand chooses this way of life, he notes: "Successful DJs are doing 150-200 gigs a year easily”. "Financially it's a gold mine and you're being praised for your crack, it is quite a glamorous lifestyle." But this level of intensity is hard to sustain. “It's just like everything, you can't always do the same thing, you gotta flip it up. Do a change." Whilst acknowledging that this is a privileged position to be in, Armand is sure about one thing: If I'm doing 80 gigs a year I don't enjoy it so much. If I'm doing 8 then yeah, that's fine”. And after 23 years in the industry, he has more than earnt that right.

"DJs are Afraid to Try it Sober"

It's no secret that being an incredibly successful DJ affords a certain lifestyle, a certain reputation and pressure to uphold this. But Armand is self-assured. "I never really got into any peer pressure, just because everybody whipped out cocaine after the DJ set didn't mean that I had to hang with them and go back to a hotel room. I started doing a few gigs realising that I didn't have to drink or do drugs or anything, that it could be done. It's not necessary. A lot of DJs think that it's necessary, they're kind of afraid to try it sober. Especially in the UK, their buddies are all around them and it turns into a pub thing in the DJ booth and they're not allowed to be like 'Oh no mate, I don't want anything', and if they say no it's like they cheered for the wrong soccer team.”

"I can Remember DJing in the 80s' Facing a Wall"

"The DJ was kind of important but you didn't need to see the DJ” The house music scene has evolved massively in the last 10 years and Armand praises its shift from an underground presence into a more mainstream and accessible genre. One of the funniest things I can remember is DJing in the 80s facing a wall - because DJ's weren't important back then. They weren't superstars, they were on the paycheck with the barman and janitor”.

There's no disputing that DJs have come a long way from facing the wall; they are no longer the silent host in the corner of a room but the defining feature of the night. Standing raised up above the crowd on a pedestal, the DJ has become the main attraction. The transformation is momentous. But how did it come about? “The superstar DJ thing was invented by the UK. Period.” He cites the UK's techno rave scene as the pivotal turning point: “They started in '88, the sound systems were outside which meant everybody could focus on the DJ. It put the DJ in a rock band setting. The rave, techno and breakbeat people were the first superstar DJs. It was a weird translation from that on to the house scene.”

Making EDM a 'House'-hold Sound

In Armand's view, Daft Punk's 2006 performance at Coachella is what really changed history. He goes on to explain how from this point onwards indie kids who were into rock music started borrowing from dance music and have shaped the house music scene into what it is today. But did he expect house music to explode like it has?

“If you'd told me in the 90s' that this would happen I'd say you were crazy, because all through the 90s I was trying to make this happen (laughs). Literally, we'd have meetings with record labels in the US and they'd be like 'Dance music is gay music, it's a joke, nobody cares about it.' But the UK and Europe is a different story, they were always ahead. Disco never really died in Europe.”

House music had a tough time breaking through but now it has, there's no stopping it: “Now people are out dancing to DJs, having these huge festivals everything, it even seems like there's not enough of them. In my day it was maybe one-thirtieth of what it is now, it's crazy. For me it's super positive, I couldn't care less what the style is – it's all beautiful (laughs)". When pressed on his favourite performance, it's no surprise that with over 20 years of gigs back up in his portfolio, Armand struggles to pick a favourite. But he does have a favourite club? "In New York we had Shelter. I think to this day, Shelter had the best sound system I've ever heard.”

"My Folks were also into the Vintage thing, they were Hippies."

Personal style has always been an important form of expression for him and vintage is something he cites one of his great passions. Armand tells us how he first discovered vintage clothing aged 20 in Boston. “My folks were also into the vintage thing, they were hippies. And hippies usually shopped at vintage stores, it was the norm, they would always have funky stuff on.” I'd go there straight after the clubs. But it was Armand's roommate who first took him to, what would become, his favourite rummaging spot for vintage treasures.

"It was this place called “Dollar a Pound”. On Sunday mornings they would open up this huge warehouse with layers and layers of clothes on the floor. You'd basically walk on clothes. You grab your garbage bag and fill it at a dollar a pound, 30 dollars of clothes is a LOT of clothes (laughs). But if you dug right down you'd get to the mould layers. There were even certain areas where the clothes were still wet and you were like 'Yuck!' - I mean, the smell alone... it was for the headstrong (laughs). We'd go there straight after the clubs. I'd have sheepskin coats and suede Puma sneakers in my garbage bag. I had a blast doing that.”

Priceless Fakes from Harlem

As the 2000s ticked on and the hip-hop phase took hold, Armand found himself spending time with the retro kids from New York. “All these kids looked like Big Daddy Kane, it was the hi-top phase, the gold chains. I got into Dapper Dan's stuff, he was a guy in Harlem who got with the Chinese and bootlegged all the designer logos and made them supersized; Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Versace. He would basically work from scratch and duplicate the designs and fabrics, with crazy sew jobs on jumpsuits. Now, these things are super rare, worth the same as the real thing. I have loads at home.” But as is the case with most people, Armand acknowledges that his style has changed over time. These days he is settled in what he calls a “lazy vintage hip-hop” look that suits him to the ground. Despite his taste for fashion, Armand explains how he has never been tempted to splash out on designer wears, citing his preference for H&M over Gucci any day.

Aggrivating NY Sneakerheads in Nike Air Mags

With sneakers too, I'm not one of those guys that lick the bottom and goes 'I've never worn these' then puts them away in a glass case.” He fondly recalls a time where the public was not in agreement with him on this: “I bought these [collectable] shoes, the same as the ones from Back To The Future 2 [Nike Air Mags]. As soon as I bought them I wore them in New York and people were yelling at me 'Go home and take those off! You can't wear those!''

"I'd Love to Work with Stevie Wonder"

When quizzed on a dream collaboration, Armand shies away from the question, as so many artists do, explaining that his love for music cannot be pinned down to one musician or band. I'd love to work with Stevie Wonder, but there are endless people. As a record collector, it's overwhelming to answer that question.” Could this be something on the horizon? "I don't know. Since 2012 I feel like I've been in the sunset part of my career, I came to the conclusion that as long as I don't DJ too much, that's what works for me. I like my schedule at the moment."

"Once you get Through the Door, the Door Closes Behind You"

But what about someone at the dawn of their career, looking to break into the industry? It's an infamously difficult thing to do but Armand has some realistic and insightful advice for producers looking to make a go of it. What I tell a lot of kids that play me their tracks is just go to the Top Tens, go to the places and get the data you need and find out what records are really hitting people - and if you are really trying to make it a career, then copy them with a twist. Give them your own spin. Just enough so that people are like, "Obviously that's inspired but it's blatant and it's palatable." You'll be able to sneak into that club because your style and sound matches the set, it means you're going to get the play. But what I hope you do at this point is you show your real creative prowess. Now you're up there with the big boys, now is the time you change your game. It's hard to get up there on your own creative merit but once you get through the door, the door closes behind you, and you can be whatever you are. You get to show your true colours.”

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