Words: SARAH POLONSKY Portrait Pic: Courtesy of Cocoon Live Pics: ANDREW RAUNER
This man could be a double secret agent. It is the day after Sven Väth has become a card-carrying legend when we find him sipping espresso a bit too casually on a balmy afternoon in Ibiza. In all fairness, the German DJ and big daddy of revered party brand Cocoon has been regarded as a dance music icon long before donning any official legend crown. If he is a spy, his counterintelligence mission to protect the paradise republic from musical espionage is still in the throes. A waitress approaches and the Rioja must be forsaken, opting instead for an espresso of our own. Better to stay on his level.
Suspicions only increase whilst sitting across from the unerringly relaxed Sven: he has the eyes of a puppy and the stamina of a superhero. Referred to by friends and fans alike as “Papa Sven,” Väth is arguably one of the most innovative techno producers of all-time. Last night, at the age of 50, he was anointed with the annual International Music Summit (IMS) Legend Award during a ceremonial dinner.
We half expect him to rip off the artichoke-hued fedora atop his head, shattering the espresso cup to smithereens, and burst through his cotton t-shirt to reveal a giant “S” emblazoned across his chest.
This doesn’t happen.
Instead, Sven talks openly from a quiet table inside Ristorante Il Giardinetto, a local mainstay for tasty Italian fare in Marina Botafoch. The location provides a clear view across the bay of Ibiza Town’s cobbled peak, Dalt Villa, where in a few hours the techno king will continue to celebrate by working some kind of wonderful on the decks as headliner of tonight’s IMS after-party.
Until then, we kick back in the quaint marina, a stone’s throw from the famed Pacha Ibiza and 13-minute drive to Amnesia — motherland to his 15-years-running Cocoon residency. The electricity of Cocoon’s 16th edition is palpable. Papa Sven — his name already rolling off the tongue like a crisp drum flam — promises to sling vinyl on at least 14 of the party’s 18 blissed-out Monday nights, where he works the crowd as only a loving father could.
That’s not enough action for dance music’s harsh protector, though. Sven also hosts a second, more intimate Cocoon affair on Thursdays at a historic locale, Tipic. The spot in Formentera, made famous in the ‘70s for being home to hippies and nomads, is apropos for the self-proclaimed “hippie-raver.” Now in its second run at Tipic, the hushed Thursday night party undergoes metamorphosis in 2015, awakening from a yearlong slumber, ready to emerge from its own cocoon.
This is an apt way to describe Sven Väth, minus the sleep. He’s toured the globe relentlessly this year before returning to clubbers’ paradise. First landing on the Balearic Islands’ southeast coast in 1980 at 16, he reflects on the early days in Ibiza that “changed my life [and] inspired me.” He speaks pointedly through clear, round spectacles and looks into peoples’ eyes in a way that would unnerve even the best gambler at a poker table. His eyes reflect a trustworthy and sincere artist who has been around the block and played like a pro, but who has never lost his game face.
Family man to the core, he recalls how Mama Sven also once saw something in her son’s eyes. “I started to DJ and my mother started asking me if I wanted to be a DJ. She saw in my eyes, something changed.” Mama was correct, neither Sven nor Ibiza would ever be the same after those first few months he spent on the island.
“I invested my love, my time, my energy, my vision in Ibiza for more than 20 years,” he emphasizes.
The sun has finally come out, illuminating Sven’s face and warming the air. Over the past few days it has been regularly raining, annoyingly chilly for late May in paradise. The weather puts a slight yet perceptible overcast on the dance music industry’s mood, who have come out in droves: media members, managers, booking agents, promoters, branding hopefuls, talent buyers, tech savants, TMs, GMs, MCs and DJs. They converge on the island for IMS 2015, aka the unofficial-official kick-off to the long-awaited summer season, ready to rub elbows by day and party hard after the sun goes down. For now, however, its rays are out in full force shining upon this exceptional moment with Papa Sven, a musical treasure that — like the White Island itself — is nothing short of legend.
What does the word “legend” mean to you?
“I would hope that it is a recognition of the impact I have made. It is hard to answer such questions without sounding arrogant. But I have taken many risks in my efforts to present the music I love and want as many people to hear as possible. That is what drives me and in the end it is great if this is recognized. I know that I opened paths for others to follow that might not have been there without me. I am very proud of that.”
How was last night for you, being honored with the IMS Legends Award?
“It was a lovely night, a very warm night and quite an emotional one. When I came here for the first time in 1980, 35 years ago, I was 16-years-old, it’s changed my life, inspired me. I started to DJ. I stayed here three months alone in the forest. I stole a sun chair and lived in the forest for three months, like a vagabond. Now with this award yesterday it seems I was right to follow my dreams.”
Do you miss that Ibiza vagabond life?
“I think we got overrun this season. Ibiza in general now offers many choices, perhaps too many. Maybe I am a bit responsible for that! All I can do is keep presenting parties and music in the way I think is best for the island.”
And how does it feel to you now?
“If it’s too full I can’t enjoy myself, I can’t go through the crowd, I can’t go through the dancefloor. I have to stay in the VIP part, which is in the parking in the back where you hear no music.”
Do you feel you have to keep up with all of it just to stay on the ball?
“No, I’m over it. To be honest, I’m too experienced. I’ve done too much to go into a fight here. Competition is okay, I don’t mind at all. I’m doing it. I know what I can do and I am very strong and selective. People know that I’m a good selector. I don’t follow trends, I create trends and nothing has changed - people vote with their feet. I play for 12 hours, only vinyl. For some people that looks old school, but I know what I’m doing. I play great records.”
You’re known for interacting with the crowd when you DJ and dancing in general...
“I come from the dancefloor — I love dancing. I was a strong raver. I like to party with good sound and dance the whole night. I had so much fun in the Love Parade in the ‘90s, from 1990 until my last Love Parade was in the year 2000. I joined the Black Market [an underground offshoot of Love Parade that entices attendees to dress up in costumes]. I organized busses and trains from Frankfurt and had a big posse. My mother, my grandmother, my daughter, everyone, every summer in July comes with me to the Love Parade.”
It started as a family affair and you’ve kept it as a family affair.
“It was a perfect scene, a million people raving in the street, sunny daylight and dancing and having fun. That was really something special, talking about dance. Today many people, I think don’t know how to dance, they have their mobile phones and they wait for the breaks and they jump.”
Ibiza, right here, this is your happy place. Do you feel violated by the past few years onslaught or is everyone welcome?
“I mean everyone is welcome, but I don’t like to see when tracks are taking too much over the crowd. I like to play long sets but I carry on playing after hours or beach parties and then, of course, I see everything; I’m scanning. I see when a fight is going on, when boys are being rude to girls; I see everything. My eyes are the security. I try to look in everyone’s eyes, I really try, it’s very important, to the eyes and to the ears I create this connection and of course also sometimes there’s negative energy, or people getting too wasted. But that’s nightlife; I’m used to this.”
When you look at everyone in the eyes do you see a lot of people on drugs?
“It depends on where I am, which city. I like to think a proper Cocoon crowd is distinctively different. Dancing comes first.”
Does it bother you to be performing and see this?
“No, as long as they’re happy, as long as they are in control somehow; in control that they are not doing stupid things. I am not going to pretend, in every area of music and the performing arts there are drugs, alcohol is included in this. The object is to create things so special that it is somehow not the only importance. The music, the art, the theater, the whatever should come first.”
In the ‘90s, during your mammoth sets at The Omen, you’d say: “a pill an hour keeps Sven at full power!”
“Most of us have our adventures as we grow up, as I said above we are all experimenting and finding our way. I have found mine and other things now keep me at full power. Growing up turns out to be just as much fun.”
Being Papa Sven is having the responsibility to look out for the scene, the younger generation. What does that mean to you? “I try to say take care and then enjoy this music, the feeling that you like to dance and go with the flow and don’t go out for the wrong reasons. People see me—and how much I love what I do -- and maybe I can motivate them a bit with my passion. I’m running a company, I’m coming from zero and I built up everything on my own. It was very important for me to build platforms for artists, so they can also be creative and do what they want. I supported young DJs, live acts and many people who are in this event business”
I actually talked to one of these very DJs before coming here. Guy Gerber said:
“Sven basically changed my life. I remember the first time I played with him. I was so nervous, but when he finished he stopped the music and said, ‘this is a good friend of mine from Israel, you should listen to him.’ And from that first track that I played, 3,000 people went ballistic. In a way something changed in me and in that moment. I felt less shy onstage and more confident and it was as if he was showing me the way.” He insisted I tell you, “Thank you, Papa Sven!”
Clearly, you do give back by acting the mentor...
“With Guy, we worked many years together, he was releasing brilliant music and still he’s a brilliant producer and he has a very good talent for melodies and harmonies. He can create this melancholic feeling in his music, which I really like.
“I have introduced a lot of artists into Ibiza: Richie Hawtin, Marco Carola, Chris Liebing, Luciano, Ricardo; they have all been under my umbrella and what I want to say is that I’m always open, if I like the artist I like to introduce the artist.”
Do you ever have any fear?
“No, I don’t have fear. That’s why I call my company Cocoon; I believe in metamorphosis. The only constant thing in life is change. I’ve seen a lot of people coming and going. I’ve learned this lesson in my life: nothing will stay forever, not a friendship, not a marriage, maybe. Everything is on a constant move. Accept it.”
Coming from a man that’s always in motion …
“I have a good contract and in my contract my technical rider has to organize all those things in my contract, which is not so difficult. I travel a lot and the places I visit, and the places where I play worldwide, most of them I’ve worked with for many years. I’m a very loyal artist. I like to give people a second chance if things went so well, and if the event was not that successful. I try to build good relationships with my promoters, with the club owners, with the festival promoters because I always see the long term. I’m planning the things in the long term but of course today you have to be very flexible because things have changed dramatically in the last two years, but I don’t give up. I never cancel a gig. I never come too late. I always do my job; sometimes it’s good, and sometimes it’s very good.”
How have you survived so long physically? You are like dance music’s Keith Richards.
“In the end, you make a choice. It’s the passion and love for what you do. If you become a slave to your habits, time will tell. I’m 50 now and I just enjoy what I do and don’t want to kill it. I respect my music too much and my life. I have a message.”
What’s your message?
“I don’t want to just play a cool track, I want to give the people some message, or love, or connection: we are one, good feelings. I’m very true to this -- it’s authentic. I have to take care of myself. I’m not smoking anymore. I quit 10 years ago. I’m doing my Ayurveda [an alternative medicine that includes the use of herbal treatments, mineral or metal supplementation].
“I have three months where I have a whole break in the year. I’m taking every January off. I take time for my ears. That’s the biggest thing, the stressful life; your ears are very sensitive. I’m happy that I have elephant ears. I don’t use plugs ... never.”