Living at the forefront of trance music, Markus Schulz has a deep past in what it means to be both a producer and DJ in the electronic music industry. As a producer, Schulz acknowledges the commodity of the industry while still remaining true to his artistic value throughout his extensive career. In a world dominated by the influence of pop music, its easy to forget that music is, first and foremost, an art. Music can often be exhausting, both mentally and physically, and good music is driven from passion just as much as ability. Prior to his appearance at SKY SLC on the eve of Thanksgiving, we were able to talk with Schulz about his inspiration and artistic drive. –Julia Sachs
EDM Utah: You’ve released acoustic versions of your music alongside the dance tracks as we see in “Watch the World,” do you think being classically trained in music is important to being a quality producer?
Schulz: This may surprise you, but I would actually say no in response. That may or may not be the correct answer, but I can only base it on my own personal experience because my journey in this industry firmly began as a DJ first, and producer second. When I was beginning, the only means for producing was through hardware—which was expensive. For pretty much all of us starting out, your money went toward renting a studio and creating your work there. But now with the advances in technology and improvements in production software, the facilities are there for someone to learn from home and explore. My DJ journey began by listening to the radio and falling in love with the music, eventually studying the layers that made up a song, but nothing of an educational background. When moving from Germany to the Untied States, I caught the bug of the breakdance movement, and would arrange parties with friends. For one particular show we rented out a hotel venue, and because my friends got cold feet, I wound up DJing the whole night, and the owner of the hotel was impressed enough to give me a job. Years later I found myself in Arizona working as an assistant in a studio, where the likes of CeCe Peniston worked. This was where my first steps in production began. However, my job there was simply running errands—taking out trash, making people coffee and, on occasionally, I was allowed to act as a fly on the wall during studio sessions. At night, when there was no one there, I was granted access to the place, and it was those nights where I essentially was learning through improvisation. I like to think that the production side is somewhere that I continue to learn with every project, even today. I look back at my old work and sometimes cringe because of the flaws in the tracks, but in a sense it’s good because it means that you are learning and growing.
EDM Utah: You’ve said in the past that you like to use these albums to find ways to incorporate up and coming singers into your work, how do you go about finding new voices to feature?
Schulz: The key is to establish networks with people in the industry and build your list of contacts. The likes of Raz Nitzan have amassed an array of vocal talent throughout the years, and many of them have contributed to my work in the past, such as Susana and Ana Criado. For the Watch the World album, the songs were written across a series of specialist writing camps that I attended that were based in Los Angeles, Bucharest and London. With these, I was presented with the opportunity of working with singers and fellow writers of differing backgrounds; people who have been nominated and won Grammys in the past. To me, irrespective of which technique you use to find singers to work with, the most important ingredient is finding a frequency with each other for that particular song. If it’s something a vocalist has written, it has to be something that resonates with me. Conversely, if it’s something I have written, the vocalist has to feel and understand the story I am trying to portray.
EDM Utah: Let’s talk about your songwriting process on the new album, what inspired a lot of your new music?
Schulz: The biggest catalyst toward Watch the World as an overall piece was the song “Destiny,” and some 18 months on after its release I can say with confidence that it will be one of the most vital pieces in the jigsaw of my overall career picture. “Destiny” came about because of my personal relationship, where you meet someone in your life that you never knew before but felt destined to be inspired by them beyond belief. It was the first track I wrote under this mantra of exploring my creative writing side for the first time in decades, and because it came at a time where the subject matter was a paramount part of my life, there was a determination for me to get it right; not just lyrically, but on the musical side too. In many ways it was lightning in a bottle because it came along at the right time, where people were beginning to tire of the threadbare EDM track formula of short beats, build, drop leading to less than four minute extended mixes. But the nature of “Destiny” lent itself to that old-school, ten minute plus structure. Because “Destiny” resonated so deeply and passionately with the fans, the consequence was that it provided me with confidence to pursue this songwriting path further, and thus became the backbone for Watch the World.
EDM Utah How do you go about translating your thoughts into song?
Schulz: A large part of my inspiration comes from being onstage performing, particularly when it comes to composing melodies. Very often I will head back to the hotel inspired from playing at a particular show, and immediately I will open up Logic or Ableton in my laptop and sketch out a rough idea before it escapes my mind. But you can take influences from anyone and anywhere. Even though Miami is my home, I also have an apartment in Berlin where I stay should my tour schedule involve two or more successive weekends of gigs in Europe. During my time in Berlin in particular, it has been a rich source of influence towards my next huge project for 2017, and that is a new album under my deeper, darker Dakota alias. I think the best trick to follow is get your ideas laid down into words or a melody punched into a program as quickly as possible. Most of them will never see the light of day in the end, but if you start to expand on something and it compels you to the point that it feels like it’s the best and most important track you have ever done, keep going to the finish.
EDM Utah: You say you have some experience in creative writing as well, what do you often write about?
Schulz: I am continually humbled and inspired by the connection I have with so many fans around the world; particularly when people are getting in touch saying that my music is helping them heal or get through difficult times. I feel strongly about the sense of community which is embodied particularly by those who dedicate themselves to trance. It’s funny, because people often look at trance as this form of antisocial music, but what people of other genres continually remark to me is how loyal fans are to the trance DJs. They love this music—it means so much in their lives. In an overall sense, my aim with delving into the world of songwriting was to convey stories—the words containing messages that are important for our community.
EDM Utah: Do you write the lyrics or the music first?
Schulz: It can work in two ways—either the lyrics come first and you build the melody around it, or you come up with the melody first and write around that. Up until the previous album, I always went with a music-first approach, and then would have gotten a vocalist to write a topline for the bed. But with Watch the World, everything began with a notepad, a pen and a guitar to get a basic story and structure for a song. They are the two most important components of a song for me. A production could be technically outstanding, but if there is no soul in the melody or no connection in a lyric line, then it doesn’t matter. Getting those right and weaving everything else around them is my preferred mindset.
EDM Utah: Do you ever find producing to be emotionally challenging? How so?
Schulz: Always, because I have always tried to base my music on how I am feeling emotionally and mentally. 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. Immigrating to the United States at age 13 without knowing a word of English as well as the culture shock of dealing with that [was challenging] 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 toward my first album in 2005, titled Without You Near, 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. Of course there are flashpoints that trigger emotions of distress and melancholy, but when you get the weight of your childhood and teenage years lifted, the melodies in your mind can become more optimistic.
EDM Utah: Are you going to check anything in Salt Lake out while you’re here?
Schulz: Not this time unfortunately. Due to the schedule I only get into Salt Lake City in the early evening; and then I am on a flight to Ontario on Thanksgiving morning. But rest assured, I’ll be ready to give my all for the fans at Sky SLC. They were so welcoming during my first visit there, and have been eager to get back. Having that sense of family and community together on Thanksgiving Eve will mean a lot.