Perhaps the biggest Artist Spotlight to date for the Dance and Rave team, we had the delightful opportunity to pick the mind of one of the hardest working and most talented acts in the Trance scene over the last decade, Markus Schulz. The Coldharbour Recordings head honcho and man behind the globally known Global DJ Broadcast has been hard at work this past year, as the sixth Markus Schulz album titled Watch The World was released, leaving many fans speechless. With two discs, including an acoustic side packed with 10 remakes, and plenty of collaborations both new and old, it is quite evident Markus put his entire heart and soul into a final product that has even the most skeptic of fans singing his praise. Following the release of Watch The World, we got the chance to ask a few questions regarding the album itself, the meaning behind it, and his reaction following so check out the interview below and leave us your thoughts afterwords. Enjoy!
As the 6th studio album as Markus Schulz, along with two under your Dakota alias, how would you describe the evolution of your sound over the years?
I think if you examine my career from then to now, everything has been a slow climb and a slow evolution reflecting my growth. I am a strong believer that if you are not evolving, you are dying, because nothing stays the same.
Many of your readers that will have followed my career throughout, like yourself, will know that I experienced a difficult childhood growing up in Germany, being an “army brat” and moving around various bases every couple of years. Meaning that establishing any sort of friendships was impossible. And then immigrating to the United States aged 13, without knowing a word of English; there was the culture shock of dealing with that. And eventually leaving home at 17 and initially spending my early time in Arizona homeless, sleeping in the back of my car at night.
So all of those dark experiences contributed towards the Without You Near album; which was very heavy and carried a lot of emotional baggage. Almost everyone’s first artist album is like that, because it documents all of their struggles and hardships while trying to find your foot in the industry.
However, when you are blessed and privileged with being able to do your dream job for a living, and provide for your family with this living, your general outlook on life brightens, and the music you create reflects that. Now, undertaking the challenge of a sixth artist album, combined with the current lay of the land in our industry I felt that it needed to contain important messages that our community abides by. And this was projected into the world of songwriting.
Can you give us a little background behind the title Watch the World?
Ideally, I wanted to name the album after one of the track titles. And in analyzing the names, I had to determine which would best paint an overall portrait of what the album is about. I spend endless hours on airplanes every single year, and always looking out the window. From that perspective, the words “Watch the World” took on greater meaning. When you think about it, how many stories are being developed and shared in various locations around the globe on a daily basis?
And with the album being built around songs based on life stories, it became the most appropriate and poignant slogan to use. The track itself is beautiful, and having a history with Lady V in the past, through the likes of Erase You and Winter Kills Me, our chemistry was strong with Watch the World itself.
To me, it’s just a beautiful title because it means so much as far as us watching each other and other people watching us. We’re watching the world go by.
Obviously this album is a bit special to you because it’s the first album you really rolled up the sleeves and helped to co-write the lyrics. What kind of freedom as well as inspiration and motivation did that bring out?
Ultimately, the best way to remain motivated is to continually challenge yourself, rather than always play it safe. Going in to undertaking a new artist album, after completing five already, I wanted to take some time to evaluate and determine where I wanted to take my career going forward.
When I was young and attending school, the one subject I excelled at was creative writing, and my teachers would always be encouraging me to try it as often as possible. However, even at that age, having fallen in love with music and listening to the radio, I was so determined to chase my dream of becoming a DJ, even at the expense of everything else.
When doors began to open for me on the DJ front, next step for me was moving into production. And when you are at that young age, you expend all of your creative energy into the music – playing around with the synthesizers and turning the knobs. So my desire for creative writing began to fade away over time.
So going back into this mode of writing – expressing yourself through words on a piece of paper, was something I wanted to explore once again. The first result yielded Destiny – a track based on my personal relationship, and the attachment and gratitude from the fans towards that track in particular acted as the catalyst towards what Watch the World as an overall album would become. It provided me the confidence to continue this songwriting path.
The songwriting began with these songwriting ‘camps’ so to speak. Can you give us a little more insight on to how these sessions transpired?
That’s right; the camps were kindly arranged by my management. There were four in total – three in Los Angeles and one in Bucharest, with additional writing and production done in London, my apartment in Berlin, and of course at home in the Coldharbour studios in Miami.
They were very helpful with the album process, because you had access to so many voices, and people with experience in creating successful songs, some of which have received Grammy nominations in the past. However, what meant so much to me was approaching these people and sharing my vision with what I was trying, and them being so complimentary towards my ideas. I think that’s the biggest thing I can take overall from creating the album, gaining confidence.
The album sees collaborations with some familiar faces (Delacey, Lady V) as well as some with new faces (Tomlinson, Thompson), what was the selection process like when choosing singers/producers/artists to have on board?
What I have always strived to achieve with every album is to provide a platform for new singers to be showcased and it’s a passion for me to seek out new talent and share ideas with them. Having such a rich array of talent to work with through the writing camps was a blessing for me. I am also a believer that being able to work with a fellow collaborator in person is so advantageous, because it means that if a sung lyric line or technique needs to be changed, it can be done on the spot in the studio, rather than having to wait back and forth while working remotely.
Because Destiny was such a powerful piece, having Delacey on board for another track was a natural decision. Favorite Nightmare I think is one of the sleeper tracks on the album, and when it gets converted into something that fits the club sets, people will be discussing it a lot more. Brooke Tomlinson was amazing to work with, and completely embraced the idea of In the Night being the third in the series of my stalker anthems. She started making these comments in a dark, creepy tone and I was cracking up in the studio! It’s a huge favorite from the album already.
I actually met Ethan Thompson during a New World Punx writing camp with Ferry Corsten, and during that week we had an agreement with each other that if we found something we wanted to work on for our solo careers, we would have the blessing of the other. So both of us ended up working on individual tracks with him, Ferry on Hearts Beating Faster for his Hello World EP, and me with Love Me Like You Never Did and Rewind. He has such an incredible voice. Love Me Like You Never Did I imagined as that casting call to rock it one more time at the end of a night, and his voice fits the idea perfectly.
Not only does Watch The World boast 17 incredible tracks, Disc 2 features 10 acoustic versions of tracks included on the album, what kind of diversity and challenges does that bring to your album and how do you feel it impacts the music itself?
With the exception of Destiny and Fears, the acoustic versions that appear on the second disc of the album were produced prior to the original, disc one versions. This was mostly prompted through the creation of Facedown.
Because of the story involved in Facedown – where it’s two people who have screwed up in their lives to the point where they have nothing but each other, and their plea is for each of them to stick with the other through this difficult time, coming out on the other side intact. The radio edit, a more acoustic driven version with basic percussion, was deliberately the interpretation I wanted people to listen to first – to listen closely to the words and understand the story, and of course the big club version with the trance riffs would be the one you would hear me play in my live sets.
Following on from that, and because people appreciated the value in the story, it became more apparent to me that writing the song with a basic guitar melody was the best way forward to complete the Watch the World album. So that was how the “acoustic disc” so to speak became a reality, and of course it made sense to go back and do Destiny in that style.
I think the strength of the acoustic versions is to help people understand and feel the soul of the song, and of course you are correct in that a presentation such as that can yield remix opportunities quicker. That is the next step in the process – A&Ring the remixes for the summer.
All in all, the new album allowed you to get back to a style of artistic expression you hadn’t been able to touch in a while, how was the overall experience piecing the album together?
For me, it was about presenting a plethora of topics and themes that collectively as a community are important to us; some with deep intimate layers, and some born out of spontaneity, but can be applied to many other situations.
I have to give huge credit to Adina Butar for her guidance and assistance throughout the entire album process. It was because of her encouragement in helping me find the words inside me that I didn’t know I was capable of. She was there throughout all of the writing camps and always willing to help if either the vocalist or I was stuck on a particular lyric line.
And of course, there are some huge instrumentals which play an important role in the overall piece – such as A Better You, and the collaboration with Kyau & Albert entitled Fears. I am so proud to finally work with those guys, who have contributed so much to the scene over the past two decades. To be able to play a small role in their 20th year as artists means a lot.
The reaction from fans and critics in regard to Watch The World has been fantastic thus far, what do you think?
I will remember the release day itself and seeing all the reactions flood in on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere for a lifetime. Much like the initial response to this songwriting adventure with Destiny a year ago, I am humbled and overwhelmed by the warmth and attachment from the fans to the album.
It is probably the most personal album for me to date, and to be able to share intimate stories, and consequently finding the same frequency as the fans out there, that means so much to me.
A little bit unrelated, but you’ve certainly mastered the art of the marathon set better than most over the years. Seeing an open-to-close such as the one at The Guvernment (RIP) in Toronto was a breathtaking experience. What kind of mental preparation does one of these marathon performances require and what are some of the big challenges pulling them off?
Not only mentally is it hugely challenging, but physically too. 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 dancefloor. 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 rabbithole, 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.
As much as I love the festival sets, and of course they are hugely important in a career because of the opportunity to cast a wider net on your fanbase, the open to close solo sets I adore the most. I need nights like those for my soul, because you can cement your legacy into legend by playing memorable, life changing sets in iconic venues in your scene, in musically well-respected cities.
I was so sad when The Guvernment closed, because it was one of those few places where the Markus Schulz open to close set could fully blossom. However, I’m really happy that I am doing another open to close in the city in a few weeks, at 11 Folsom (The Old Sound Academy). For a city so important like Toronto, it’s vital that we find somewhere to create a new legacy, and continue the special relationship that began with The Guvernment man years ago.
Are there any other big plans for 2016? Perhaps some more tunes under the Dakota moniker?
For now, the biggest priority for me is to undertake the full album life cycle of Watch the World. Now that it is released, the next stage is to work on various remix packages for singles, and eventually do a remix album. I’m also hoping to revisit some projects that didn’t make the initial 17-track cut (I wrote over 40 songs for the album initially), and see if I can develop those into full blown tracks with a fresh mind and approach.
As for Dakota, let’s just say that there are quite a few tracks bubbling under the surface that nobody knows about. You guys are hearing them live, especially in the open to close solo sets, but you just don’t know it’s me. 😉