In depth with Markus Schulz on Trance Nation
That was before planting the Schulz flag squarely and firmly in the then-embryonic/now front-&-centre electronic music capital of Miami.There he’s stayed, becoming, arguably, the city’s most successful electronic music son. Over that time, career highlights, landmarks and accolades have whipped by at pace. He’s polled 10 years straight in the DJ Mag Top 100 chart, won Best American DJ at the 2008 IDMAs, bagged in 2012 DJ Times’ America’s Best DJ gong and then rang its bell again (for an unprecedented 2nd time) in 2014.
Given his extensive run at the forefront of scene, Markus mixing one of Ministry of Sound’s ‘Trance Nation’ album’s was never really an ‘if’ - only ever a ‘when’. When he became available, Ministry’s once-a-year annual release guideline for the series sailed straight out of the nearest window. The cards had fallen right and Markus - undoubtedly the series’ most requested mixing prospect of recent times - was at the wheelhouse and ready to ‘skipper’ a ‘Trance Nation’.
With those stars in alignment and an exclusive-packed tracklist that had us, frankly, frothing, we decided to collar Markus and get the full lowdown on what he’s been up to of late and what the compilation holds in store…
Thanks for talking to us this afternoon, Markus. Where in the world do we find you today?
Hi guys, thanks for having me.
Currently speaking to you from Melbourne, Australia. I had quite the trip to get here; from Hong Kong to San Francisco on Sunday for 13 hours, played Beyond Wonderland Bay Area, flew to Los Angeles and then 15 hours to Melbourne. So my body clock is probably clueless right now!
Well, we’ll take it easy on you! We’re chiefly here to discuss your new mix compilation release, ‘Trance Nation Mixed By Markus Schulz’. As it’s your first in yours and the series’ long, estimable history, it feels like it’s been a long time coming. Do you feel likewise!?
It’s an incredible honor to be asked. I remember when I moved to London in 1999 and walking around Brixton; there would be flyers plastered all over the buildings and bridges promoting the very first Trance Nation, mixed by some unknown guy named Ferry Corsten.
If you asked me that at some point in the future I’d ever be mixing an edition myself, I wouldn’t have believed you. But now, I regard it as another chapter in a relationship I have been so lucky to establish with the people behind the Ministry of Sound club and brand.
The biggest challenge was producing a compilation worthy to match the prestige of the series.
You’ve been a resident at the Ministry of Sound’s Gallery nights for a considerable while now. How long’s it been exactly and what memories stick out from your earliest nights playing there?
There’s something truly special when you say the words “Ministry of Sound resident”.
I have been working closely with them since 2008. In February of that year, I played at one of the final ever nights at The Gallery’s former home, and another iconic London venue, Turnmills. There was quite a bit of uncertainty and part of me wondered how long it would be before I had the chance to play at a club in London again.
But the best thing possible happened, with The Gallery taking over Friday nights at Ministry of Sound. So I was booked to play one of the first shows there in May of that year. And honestly, as soon as I stepped foot back into that venue, but for the first time as a DJ, there was an instant chemistry.
That gig in particular was very important, particularly the role played by the fans. A month later I was in Ibiza, having dinner before a night at Amnesia. My mouth was full of bread and the phone rang, and it was right there when they asked me to become their international resident. We haven’t looked back since.
I think the biggest compliment I can pay about the residency is that it was the catalyst for the open to close solo sets elsewhere. People saw what was happening at MOS it helped open doors for me at other respected venues in various worldwide cities.
Your history with Ministry goes back further even than your shows there of course. You used to have studios just down the road from the club in Coldharbour Lane. What initially prompted you to up sticks from the States and move to London?
By the end of the nineties I felt completely burned out. I was living in Arizona and had just completed a seven year residency at a club called The Works, but it closed down and got converted into a parking lot. The frustrations in trying to succeed outside of the state were enormous, especially in the infancy days of the internet. It was incredibly difficult to feel the pulse of what was going on in the scene worldwide.
So in an effort to rediscover who I was musically, I moved to London and lived on Coldharbour Lane for two years. I look back and think of everything up to that point as “learning” for my career, and my actual career commencing from London onwards. This was where I began to click as a producer, and figured out that if I can make music that is good enough for me to play in my own sets, then other DJs could play it as well.
Of all the DJs you caught at the club at that time, whose set do you remember finding most inspirational?
That was one of the most important aspects of London - having the opportunity to be a clubber, watch and study the big international DJs performing. I took a lot of inspiration from Sasha & Digweed, Paul Oakenfold, Judge Jules and Carl Cox at the time. Xpander was practically the soundtrack of my early days in London.
I think that’s why the residency at the club is so important to me; because I have been on the other side of the DJ booth and can understand the importance of the connection between performer and clubber.
When you play there nowadays, what set time do you find to be optimal?
Open to close! Haha. If I had my wish, I’d do that on every appearance there.
The club is quite unique in that it opens at around 10-10:30, and all the other rooms have music up and running, except for the main room, called The Box (hence the Lost in the Box track name). It opens at midnight. So when you’re the first DJ in the main room, there is a sudden rush from the fans to fill the room as soon as the clock strikes midnight. The nights generally run until about 6am.
What I’ve loved most about the residency is that there is an element of trust within the audience, and it is arguably the best setting in the world for road-testing material that no one has ever heard before. I never feel confident releasing anything until I have played it first at Ministry of Sound.
Moving onto the release itself, broadly what approach did you want to take to its compilation & mixing? How did ‘Trance Nation’ differ from the curating & mixing of, say, one of your City Series compilations?
It was different in the sense that for the city series compilations, it’s a brand that’s deeply associated with me, and all of my own fans will know about it’s development, creativity and build their own anticipation towards the release day.
However, Ministry of Sound and Trance Nation are iconic brands on their own, and there will be a large volume of people out there who religiously collect the Trance Nation CDs, but possibly never have heard or bought a Markus Schulz compilation before.
So the challenge of Trance Nation Mixed by Markus Schulz was twofold - present lots of unreleased exclusive material to satisfy the expectations of the hardcore followers, and to provide a fair snapshot of who I am and the musical passion I represent; so that for the casual fan who follows Trance Nation, it may interest them enough to explore my work further.
With that series moving from a mix-comp to a run of city dedicated singles, this year has been an even more prodigious one on the production front. What of the studio creations under your own name are we seeing on the album?
Trance Nation features the three that were released between June and August, because the compilation had to be completed and submitted before the end of the latter month.
My mantra with the city series production project has been to feature clubs or events in municipals that have played a crucial role in the development of the scene, and also for me personally.
Because of the Ministry of Sound residency, London was always a guaranteed fixture in the series, and also for the Trance Nation compilation. From London we moved to Belgium and to the biggest European festival of the year - Tomorrowland. I also have a special connection there; due to the open to close solo sets on my own stage. This year was a special occasion, because I was one of the chosen three selected for the Daybreak sessions on the main stage, so naturally there should be a track to reflect that.
And the final track on the album is dedicated to another solo set destination, Avalon in Los Angeles.
You are very well known for being a DJ that’s equally at ease playing the deeper end of the genre as you are with the tougher stuff. Is this something you were able to translate into the ‘Trance Nation’ mixes you’ve done?
Anyone who follows me closely knows that I have a broad palette when it comes to music; with everything built around the magic of the melodies. And I think that’s well represented when you collate the members of the Coldharbour family.
So hopefully when people are listening to the compilation, there is a sense of progression from first track to last.
Your ‘Destiny’ single had a huge impact earlier this year. To your mind, why do you think that was so and which single track that you’ve produced has had the single greatest effect on your career?
To be honest with you, I am still overwhelmed by how deeply that track has resonated with everyone, and maybe the reason it has is because it marked the beginning of my proper foray into songwriting.
The aspect of songwriting I feel is the next step in my career. I love the art of creating, and I have a blast working in the studio alone on instrumentals, but there’s something very gratifying about writing.
Destiny was one of the first songs where they’re my words - not just my music, but words - and the singer singing them back to me. It’s a new chapter in my career. I’ve always been into creative writing and helping the songwriters, but this is a special track with personal meaning, and that’s why I spent so many hours trying to get it absolutely perfect; with the old-school arrangement and the ten minute track length.
During every part of the process, we felt we were creating something special, something that touches your soul, and I’m delighted for Delacey that the fans have been so complimentary towards her talents.
To date, I still think The New World remains as the one track, which affected my career the most. It was a watershed moment at the time, because of my association with the Transmission events in Prague. I know that I meet so many fans, particularly those based in the eastern European countries, whose first discovery of me was thanks to that track. That area remains important to me today - Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria etc. - and Transmission is our annual gathering together.
With ‘Cathedral’ having just hit promotion and ‘Twilight of the Night’ featuring exclusively on the album, things look like they’re gearing back up for your Dakota alias too. What plans are afoot in that area? Will we be seeing a new album soon?
We have the 225th release on Coldharbour coming up, and traditionally for every 25th and 75th release we like to dedicate as a Dakota release, so that will most likely be next, and include Twilight of the Night.
Cathedral was more of a spontaneous decision, but when the track was completed, it was only natural that it should be christened as a Dakota production.
Doing the Dakota tracks is a lot of fun for me personally, simply because there isn’t necessarily that element of pressure to deliver attached. The problem is however that when it becomes an album process, suddenly that pressure from labels, management and so on is intensely cranked up, and right now I’m not sure if I am in a position to fully commit to doing that.
Don’t worry though, the alias is a lot more active than everyone realizes. Many of the IDs that filter through the solo sets are Dakota tracks that haven’t been released. Most of them don’t even have track titles!
One of your two mixes brings both Giorgio Moroder and Sia to the tracklist of the compilation - a genuine first (and possibly only!) for a ‘Trance Nation’. How did your mix of ‘Deja Vu’ come about and what line did you go down with it?
This is one of the big exclusives on the compilation and an incredible honor to feature them. Thanks to a connection within my management, I had the privilege of collaborating on an original with the pioneer Giorgio Moroder for his album, entitled Timeless. When you think of the bonafide legends who have contributed to the scene of electronica, few have done more than Giorgio. So you can imagine the pride I feel to be able to include his name on a compilation.
While Timeless was going on, I simultaneously had the chance to remix the title track of Giorgio’s album, Deja Vu. This of course wouldn’t be the first time I would remix Sia, having done one for her track Buttons many years ago.
Her vocals on Deja Vu are incredible, and it's one of those tracks that will captivate you from first listen. It’s full of beautiful layers of grooves and melodies, and is a vital piece of disc 1 one on the compilation.
Hopefully the remix reflects well on the original!
There are also the massed ranks of your dedicated Coldharbour artists’ latest featured on the album. What, in particular, can listeners look forward to hearing from them?
I am so proud of my Coldharbour family! Whenever a compilation project comes up, they are always there to play their part tremendously with their individual talents.
When I received the details from Ministry that they wanted me to mix Trance Nation back in March, the first process was to contact the producers and emphasise the importance on their next production or two, because I wanted to create something memorable and special for the compilation through the inclusion of their compositions.
So even though the likes of Nifra’s Army of Lights was an important part of Coldharbour’s summer release schedule, the ultimate aim for it was to have it shine on Trance Nation - one of those tracks people will remember when listening in future years.
Doppelbanger - the collaboration between Mr. Pit and Fisherman & Hawkins, was an eleventh hour entry, in that they sent the final version 12 hours before the submission deadline! But I’m glad to have been able to include it.
And I’m so happy with all of the input from our guys really; whether it’s the beautiful lush tones of Gai Barone or Danilo Ercole, or the peak hour power of Ron Alperin or Dave Neven, they should be very proud of their work, and I am certainly grateful to them all.
Do you think that this will be the Markus Schulz Trance Nation, or do you think we might see another one again one day?
Ultimately that’s not up for me to decide! The final say should be decided by the fans and by the folks at Ministry of Sound.
The history of the scene is very important to me, and I know from my own life experiences and studying the Trance Nation series the names who have resonated throughout.
So to have both Ferry Corsten and Judge Jules; guys that have mixed multiple editions of Trance Nation, in a production capacity on my compilation is an honor. Having legends like Chicane, Giorgio Moroder and Sia is an honor. And to have such a healthy wave of upcoming talent from Coldharbour and beyond represented tops it off.
Whether I do a second edition, who knows, I’d sure love to! But all I can say is that I am truly grateful to have had the opportunity to contribute to the series with this one.
Many thanks for talking to us Markus – it’s been a pleasure! Before we wrap up anything else you’d like to say to the good people!?
As always, many thanks to everyone who follow me and especially those who have supported and bought the album digitally or on CD.
With everything I do, I have put my heart and soul into the compilation, and I hope that it’s a journey that you will enjoy on your own or with friends for quite a while to come.