Interview: Markus Schulz

Nina Ristivojevic

August 15th, 2023

Markus Schulz is known for his unique, energetic, and flawless DJ sets. With his deep, progressive, and techno-trance style, he has cultivated a devoted fanbase. His skillful DJ abilities and crowd connection have earned him numerous accolades and awards. Ranking among the top DJs in prestigious polls, Markus Schulz consistently impresses audiences with his musical evolution while staying true to his artistic origins. The innovative productions and electrifying performances of his work continue to inspire generations of EDM enthusiasts.

At Luminosity Festival, we had the opportunity to sit down with Markus and delve into the release of his latest album, “The Rabbit Hole Circus.” Our conversation went on to explore his enthralling open-to-close sets, his creative alter ego Dakota, the profound impact of his Coldharbour Recordings label and Global DJ Broadcast radio show, and his visionary outlook on the future of music. Markus also shared his expectations and sources of inspiration, providing valuable insights for aspiring musicians seeking long-lasting respect and influence in the music scene. If you’re eager to learn the secrets of Markus Schulz’s success in the industry for over two decades, don’t miss this chance to read the full interview.

The ongoing trend of incorporating old trance classics sounds into melodic techno and techno music has captured the attention of many, including myself. It’s undeniable that music is constantly evolving, often witnessing the reincarnation of past popular styles. Why do you think this particular trend has gained momentum in the last 3, 4, or 5 years?

I don’t know. It’s an interesting question because I’ve been experimenting with this for 10 years. I do my open-to-close sets and at 5, 6, 7, 8 o’clock in the morning, I don’t really want to hear full-on blasting trance. I want to hear really dark stuff. I’ve been looking for this for 10 years and now people seem to be coming around. But I think a lot of it has to do with the after-hours culture, and where the creativity began was in the after-hours, the clubs, and the techno festivals. It is undeniable that it’s catchy, beautiful, and just worked its way out of the underground. I really feel like the underground has been doing this for a long time now and it’s now catching on to the mainstream and it’s cool, but at the same time, they missed out on 10 years of amazing stuff in the underground before it really popped. So I guess I have many secret weapons in my collection now.

Do you find it inspiring for your own productions?

Yeah, for sure. I mean, I was just thinking about it. When EDM came around I believe we were all guilty of experimenting with it. We were like: “Oh, this is cool. It’s different. Let’s try it. “But I think we learned quickly that this music is very shallow. It doesn’t leave room for creativity and I got really bored of it pretty fast and felt like: “You know what? There’s no real story in it, everything is just so homogenized.” I always felt uncomfortable looking out at the dance floor and hearing these 3, 4 minute long breakdowns with a love song. That’s never been my thing. So, for me, this trend, this beautiful hybrid of trance and techno is where my heart has always been. For me, this is a perfect time. I feel in my element.

How do you envision the future of trance music and music in general?

Well, I think it cycles. What I’ve always noticed is that trance starts off simple and then the productions evolve and evolve. After a while, all the tracks seem to become epic and overproduced and then it comes back around. That’s a natural evolution. I think this whole techno trend will get more and more complex. The beats and melodies will get, I dare say, overproduced, and then it’ll just go back to the bare minimum again. Which is just a beat and a melody. So, we’ve seen that cycle many times, but it seems these cycles go quicker now. It used to be 5, or 10 years and now they’re two or three-year cycles.

It is interesting, hyperproduction at its finest, right?

Creating stuff is easy, and sometimes the best tracks are the simplest ones. That’s why many upcoming artists are active nowadays because of that magic touch. Production is no secret. In other words, if you gave the same ingredients to 5 chefs, tomatoes, eggs, flour, etc., 4 will make pizza, but the fifth one will do something amazing. Some people just have that special talent to turn something ordinary into something extraordinary. That’s what’s happening on the scene with many talents emerging and creating amazing things. The key is to make a difference, but it’s difficult to predict which tracks will be game-changers. When you try too hard to be different, it often doesn’t work out. The ones that hit harder are the ones that come naturally, without forcing it in the studio.

Speaking of techno sounds, I can’t help but mention your dark, tech-focused alias, Dakota. It’s widely loved, but I’m curious, how did this project come about and what was the underlying idea behind it?

Dakota was an alias I used during Sasha Digweed’s Global Underground Bedrock days. When I started breaking I was making more trancey stuff and I was using my name. At some point, I just said: “You know what, I want to revive the Dakota project.” I did a couple of albums under the Dakota name, deeper, darker songs that were more for me because I felt like I needed to tell that story. And here we are, 10 years later and I’ve done a few different variations of the Dakota thing. The Nine Skies, for example, wasn’t really deep and dark for me. It was more like a story I wanted to tell. I was going through a crazy period in my life and musically, it felt therapeutic. Although I don’t feel that I have made the perfect Dakota track yet, I still think that is the challenge. So that’s why it is inspiring to walk into the studio with this idea in your mind, how to make the ideal Dakota track.

The Rabbit Hole Circus album has just been revealed, and I see you have already announced tour dates. You’ve mentioned that this project is something you’ve been searching for for a long time and that it provides you with comfort. What makes this project so special to you, and what can fans expect from the open-to-close The Rabbit Hole Circus sets?

There were a few years in my career where I felt I was chasing a shadow. I think we all tried to follow that big EDM bubble and I was never comfortable chasing it. The rabbit hole is where I’ve always felt at home, at peace. Like my open-to-close sets, when it gets around 4, 5 o’clock in the morning and everybody is feeling twisted, to me, that’s the most fun part of the night. And I’m trying to figure out how to take that part of the night and put it into my two-hour festival sets. So that was the whole mission with the rabbit hole concept. This album is dedicated to that unique atmosphere. Yes, some of the tracks are a bit chill, but lyrically, they’re dark, they’re wild. When I was working with HALIENE, Emma Hewitt, and Adina I said to them: “Listen, I want to write lyrics about the rabbit hole, about what you would see in the rabbit hole.” So, lyrically and musically we definitely got there. So, you got a few cute short 3, 3.5-minute edits that I hope people will connect with.

When it comes to open-to-close, you are known for your unique and impressive dedication to these sets, which can last up to 12 hours. Could you recall when you performed your first open-to-close set and what was the defining moment that ignited your desire to continue pursuing this unique style of performance?

Well, that’s easy because I started off as a resident DJ. Every Friday and Saturday night, I would go in the club, turn on the equipment and play from the time the door is open until the last person leaves. So that’s how I began my career. And as I got more famous, my sets became shorter. Now you can do an hour festival set or a two-hour club set. That is the irony of it. The more famous you get, the shorter the sets are. For me, the open-to-close sets have always been a nod to my past, back to my roots. I think that’s why it’s so special for me because I remember many people who helped me along the way. They inspired me for the open-to-close sets. It means that even though some of them are no longer with us, I think of them every morning at 5, 6 o’clock in the morning and know that they would be proud of me. And it’s beautiful.

It must be an incredibly demanding and draining experience to prepare for those sets, so where do you find the motivation to keep pushing forward?

Physically, I don’t need any preparation since I stay fit throughout the year. However, the real challenge lies in the mental aspect. Ironically, after an open-to-close set that demands intense focus for 11-12 hours, the toughest part is shutting down my brain. Even in my hotel room, I still hear the music, see the lasers, and find myself making harmonic calculations and thinking about BPM. So, the most challenging thing for me is switching off mentally after such a set.

Regarding everything mentioned, I’m curious to know how you describe your sound as an artist.

I thought about it. I feel like I’m doing techno, but techno also flirts with trance melodies, right? But it doesn’t give you that moment, that euphoric moment. So I call my music euphoric techno because it’s like a techno vibe, but it has that moment of euphoria. And I’m not afraid of that euphoric moment. I know that’s what my people want to hear and feel and it makes it all worthwhile.

So you’ve been a resident at Luminosity since 2016, which is incredible! It’s funny because that was also my first Lumi experience. When you look back on this exciting festival journey, which moment stands out to you as the most epic one?

Wow, there have been some wild moments here, obviously. I think it was 5,6 hours of In Search Of Sunrise set in 2016. And there was a sense of calm and patience. When you get to a festival, especially when you hear banging music on all the stages, it’s very difficult to be patient. You have to have confidence in yourself. I don’t need to bang it out. I wanted to build trust and it worked out beautifully. I really had a sense of calm and peace when I was up on stage.

Remarkable project and a significant milestone indeed - Global DJ Broadcast and 20 years of success! Just WOW! Could you share the story behind the inception of this radio show and what motivates you to continue delivering it to your dedicated fans after so many years?

I don’t even count episodes. For me, it’s a labor of love. I had a rough childhood. I grew up listening to the radio. That was my escape. That’s how I got through it. And I would listen weekly to all mixed shows and repeat everything. When I started as DJ, I promised myself that one day I would help people by having my own radio show. And for me, radio shows have always been like this. It’s like theater. I always call it the “theater of the mind”. I just like people to, wherever they happen to be, close their eyes and imagine the theater. Let the music tell its own story to you. You interpret the music story your way. One thing I always say is that a song is just a song until you attach experiences to it, then the song becomes something special, right? That’s what I try to do with my radio show.

I was talking about this with some of the DJs and they were like: “I don’t care if it’s progressive, or techno, or trance, it doesn’t matter. If I feel it and like it, if I wanna play it or produce it that way, that’s it.”

Well, yes, we all need to think outside the box and listen to music outside the box. That’s why I love my open-to-close sets. Especially at 8, 9, or 10 in the morning, you can really go outside your comfort zone and experience something different.

Coldharbour Recordings, another incredibly successful project that you launched back in 2005. It’s remarkable how the label has thrived over the years, consistently delivering exceptional music to the world. What qualities and attributes does an artist need to possess to release his/her music on your label?

That’s a good question because lately, I feel like I’m lost because I get a lot of trance demos and they’re beautiful. I love them, but it sounds like 2016, like before the pandemic. So it’s really tough. Sometimes I can’t turn down some of these tracks because they sound so amazing. But in theory, the idea is to sign tracks that fit me in my sets. This is because if I can play them in my sets, I know there’s a fan base out there that will support it. You know, if I can’t play it in my sets, it’s very hard to build a fan base for it. So that’s really the main thing. I look for songs that allow me to build connections with producers.

Producers, be aware of that when you send a demo to Markus and Coldharbour Recordings.

Ok, a few quick questions and I would love quick answers from you:

Who were you inspired by at the beginning of your career and who do you currently admire?

Well, at the beginning of my career, I worked as a DJ in gay clubs. That’s where all the best music is. So I worked with a lighting guy who came from a theater background. He inspired me to think of music as theater. The way he used the lights encouraged me to play more performatively.

And when I was young, I heard all these stories and one of the stories was the old legend about Larry Levan. I couldn’t get to the Paradise Garage, but Paul Oakenfold and Carl Cox were there so I kept up with them all the time. For me, Larry Levan was a big inspiration, not because I heard him playing, but because of the stories and the myths about Larry Levan. I imagined him as a DJ doing things nobody else could do. And that was my goal.

And today my biggest inspiration is Cirque Du Soleil. And that’s why the Rabbit Hole Circus Tour is so special for me. When I’m making music, I’m imagining the aerialists, the go-go dancers, the stage show. So to me, Cirque Du Soleil is a revelation.

A particular track of yours that you consider your proudest achievement?

Wow… Probably “Perception”. I fell in love with it when I heard it with Justine Suissa in London when I was living there. Just a gorgeous track.

If there is a vocalist you’ve always wanted to collaborate with but haven’t had the chance, who would that be?

Actually, there was a producer I wanted to collaborate with. His name is Giorgio Moroder. And he’s the legend of all legends. He is one of the founders of electronic music. I worked with him on a track 6,7 years ago. This question is so interesting because who I wanted to work with actually happened to me.

But regarding vocalists, I love legendary vocalists. You always see a few legacy artists on some of my albums. This is just because I do it for the child in me, the teenager in me, or the real young Markus in me.

In your long career, what would you consider the best and the worst that has happened to the electronic music scene?

I think the most brilliant thing that has happened is technology. I’ve always been a studio nerd, always trying to do things differently or take things to another level. And I think technology is just amazing. The things you could imagine you can do now.
Perhaps the worst thing is that music is becoming more disposable because of that same technology. It seems like a track lives one or two weeks and then it’s flushed. That’s why I’ll play tracks on my sets for years because I want people to experience those tracks. And then 10, 20 years down the road, you hear that track and say: “Oh, wow! I had so many great memories with this song.” But if you don’t commit to playing a song in your sets for a long time, people don’t really build those memories and experiences on the tracks. You have to give them the opportunity to do that.

Finally, do you have any projects or gigs that you would like to share with us?

We’re working on some cool ones. My favorite is Stereo in Montreal. Usually, I play there during Canadian Thanksgiving, in October. So I’m working on that now. It’ll be another 12 hour set. It’s definitely the most extreme Rabbit Hole by Marcus Schulz you’ll hear.