Joris Voorn on fine art, Detroit techno and the future of Spectrum: UK cover feature
Once focused on the techno of Detroit, Joris Voorn’s latter-day productions have conquered his native Holland, Ibiza and the world. While some have accused him of forgetting his roots, his latest Spectrum project — a triple treat of radio show, party and photography — joins the dots between present and past, and shines a light on the breadth of his tastes...
From a devotee of Detroit to becoming the leading light of the Dutch underground scene, Joris Voorn’s ascent has been as methodical and measured as his famously intricate DJ mixes. Along the way he’s been resident at some of the world’s most revered clubs: Belgium techno temple Fuse, Amsterdam’s sadly-departed institution Trouw and, most recently, after being on the books of We Love at Space for several years, he’s spent this summer playing for its successor, Hï Ibiza.
Evolving from ‘90s techno roots, he’s found his calling in emotive melodic tracks that work as well as beatless electronica as they do in a dancefloor context. This was ably demonstrated on ‘Nobody Knows’, his third album, released on his own Green label, which featured collaborations with Matthew Dear, Kid A and his composer father Joop Voorn. Yet he’s adept at flipping the script, too. His 2009 entries into the ‘Dusty House’ series of EPs on Rejected, the label he runs with fellow Dutchman Edwin Oosterwal, created two Ibiza- conquering house tracks in the shape of ‘Sweep The Floor’ and the Giorgio Moroder-inspired ‘Chase The Mouse’.
His new Spectrum brand, launched earlier this year, is ramping this profile up further. Combining a weekly radio show, the first he’s ever done, a roving party featuring Joris and guests, and a love of photography that had already seen him take most of the cover photos for Green, it’s so far landed in Amsterdam, London, Paris and Manchester with smaller parties at Miami Music Week and Off-Week in Barcelona — all selling out. With another sold out showcase, this time in conjunction with Audio Obscura coming up on home turf at ADE 2017 on 21st October, it’s one of this year’s hottest tickets.
These days Holland is an electronic music power house, with ADE the beating heart of its ever growing expansion. “It’s essential for Amsterdam,” says Joris, dressed in trademark white t-shirt and sporting his smart but trendy haircut, tracing his own history with the event back to around 2004. “It’s the most important worldwide dance music conference. Everyone I see around the world comes here, that’s really important. In Amsterdam everything is really close together and there are so many venues.” Such is its popularity, he adds, that the city swells in size by 50% over its week-long duration.
The rise of EDM, with its stadium-filling stars, hasn’t really impinged on those pushing a less bombastic, more club-friendly sound, Joris believes. “It’s two separate worlds. They mix in a way, but they’re like oil and water with two different scenes and crowds,” he says. “Most of the EDM DJs I know, and I know most of them in Holland, are pretty friendly.” Besides, he adds diplomatically, his opinion doesn’t matter.
Our thriving global industry is a world away from his own humble beginnings, when DJing wasn’t a career choice taught by online courses and bricks-and-mortar academies. He grew up outside Tilburg, a tiny village in the Dutch countryside, in a house his parents had renovated.
Following suit, he’s recently overhauled a machine factory on a quiet street in the centre of Amsterdam, the city he moved to with his then girlfriend, now wife, Shanthi Voorn in 2008. With a huge, bright open-plan living room and kitchen, featuring a mezzanine floor and giant windows looking out over the canal opposite, there’s a quietness broken only by the sounds of his two young sons playing — Ryo and Ringo, the latter the inspiration for his delicately beautiful 2013 track of the same name.
When Joris was a kid, his parents made him and his three siblings practice music for an hour each day. Joris learned the guitar and violin. “Not what I would have chosen myself,” he says, given his career, as we sit down for coffee. Yet he’s started Ringo playing the piano he bought a couple of years ago to learn himself.
Just as the teenage Joris rebelled against his dad’s own compositions, preferring first indie music, then the industrial sounds of Nine Inch Nails, Rob Zombie or Junkie XL’s previous Nerve project, Ringo — aged five — isn’t entirely on the same page as his dad either. “He prefers Despicable Me,” Joris laughs, slightly naff 1980s German worldwide hit ‘99 Red Balloons’ by Nena on repeat recently thanks to its inclusion on the third release in the series.
The Prodigy and Underworld were his route into the realms of dance music proper, this growing taste fuelled first by both Dutch and Belgium radio, thanks to his family’s proximity to the border. His DJ career was launched, though, after moving to Enschede in the East of Holland to go to college to study interior design. Entering a DJ competition at a local pop venue called Atak was both an inauspicious and fortuitous start, and was where he met long-term label and sometime production partner (the latter also under the name Rejected), Edwin Oosterwal.
“I came in with a box of CDs and he brought his friend, who was also a DJ,” grins Joris, then figuratively green himself. “They were looking at me like, ‘Who the hell are you?’ You had to play with vinyl. I wasn’t really a DJ. I just had a broad collection of music, that’s what they were looking for at the time.”
The next day he went to his first record shop to start amassing a vinyl collection that began broadly. “At that time people were playing everything, and I did as well,” he tells DJ Mag, listing his tastes at the time as encompassing techno, trance and acid. Oosterwal, who was already steeped in house and techno, helped direct this. “He was a big influence on me, he showed me guys like Jeff Mills and Derrick May,” Joris recalls. Playing out every week or two weeks over the next four years taught him the practicalities of actually making people dance.
It was around the same time that he started producing. Having read about Roland’s famous 303 in a book of German rave flyers, he went into a shop to buy one, only to get laughed at by the staff who pointed out that the company had stopped making them in 1984. Undeterred, Joris took out a considerable loan to buy a Roland MC-303 Groovebox instead, much to the consternation of his parents. “For what it’s capable of doing, it’s expensive,” he says in retrospect. “It sounded like crap and you couldn’t make a proper track, the engine just wasn’t strong enough. The more you used it, the crappier it sounded.”
It did however teach him about arrangement, so when he bought a computer for college and fitted it out with Cubase, he hit the ground running. After graduating he moved to Rotterdam, a city he says had an almost “cultural exchange program” with Detroit (the first time he played in the city was on an all-Dutch stage at the city’s Movement festival). He was meant to study further, and indeed began working somewhat half-heartedly as an architect. Yet in the early 2000s he came to a crossroads.
“I was making hardly any money with my architect job, and also making hardly any money with my music job,” he remembers. “But at some point it was the same and I thought, ‘You know what? I’m going to spend all my time doing music’.”
If his own success wasn’t affirmation enough of making the right decision, a few years later he met his old boss on the street, unemployed after the financial crisis had wrecked the industry. “He asked me if I knew anyone who had any jobs. It was quite sad.”
From his first release Joris’s tracks were being supported by techno DJs from Carl Craig to Laurent Garnier, and 2003 is the year he considers he began DJing proper — quitting work and gaining recognition outside the country. His debut album, 2004’s ‘Future History’ is awash with lush chords and atmospheres driven by cleverly programmed percussion, an audacious nod to his inspirations. Playing three or four times a year for Fuse around this time, he then followed in the footsteps of Dave Clarke, DJ Hell and Technasia to release 2005’s ‘Fuse Presents Joris Voorn’, which introduced his characteristic take on mix CDs.
An early adopter of Ableton, rather than a straight-up DJ mix, Joris — inspired by Richie Hawtin’s deconstructed ‘DE9: Closer To The Edit’ album — used the program to blend snippets
of tracks in ways that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. Packed with techno classics like Link’s ‘Amenity’ and Basic Channel’s ‘Phylyps Trak II’ alongside house gems like Chez Damier’s ‘Rainfall’ and Aardvarck’s ‘Just Washed That Pig’, it still shines today.
It was also the time that minimal became really big, so there’s some minimal stuff that doesn’t translate as well to 2017,” admits Joris. “But it’s already quite diverse.” It was the first hint of the artist that he’s become, a blueprint for Spectrum and the beginning of a taste for experimentalism that has enamoured most fans, while occasionally alienating others.
2007’s RA mix switched tack, favouring cleverly combined European and US house influences. At a key peak moment, the drums of Master At Work Louis Vega’s ‘One Dream (Instrumental)’ join the hypnotic synths from Jay Shepheard’s ‘Pipe N Sneakers’ and the beguiling vocals of Sterotyp’s ‘Keepin Me’. For some, it signalled RA’s best ever mix, hitting on various tunes of the moment and assembling them in a way nobody else was doing.
“It’s much more about the melodies and the atmosphere and mood,” reflects Joris on another element central to his present strength, noting that it was the stepping stone to his next commercial mix, 2009’s ‘Balance 014’. A sprawling double CD compilation, it combines over 100 tracks from Radiohead and Aphex Twin to Matthias Tanzmann and Minilogue via Goldie and Joakim. In short, many declared, it was his masterpiece. “I went completely crazy deconstructing tracks, mixing acapellas over ambient tracks, taking a two-bar loop of a techno track and putting five, six or seven things on top of one another,” says Joris on the project that took two laborious months to complete.
Tired of minimal, and needing to do something less encompassing in the studio after this painstaking project, he wrote his ‘Dusty House’ EPs straight afterwards — inspired by the loopy house of Germans such as Johnny D and the Cecile, 8-Bit and Innervisions crews. “It was all tongue-in-cheek music, music that works,” he says, an assertion backed up by the pun-filled titles and effective simplicity of the music. The results helped cement his reputation in Ibiza, where he’d been playing — after an invite from Chris Liebing — since 2007. Hï Ibiza continues his relationship with the island and while the old main room, now converted to the Theatre, may cater to VIP tables, adding in “Martin Garrix fans” from across the road at Ushuaia earlier in the evening, the atmosphere is essentially the same, he believes, especially in the last few hours of the night.
His popularity has risen year on year, yet some still miss the ’Future History’-era Joris. “People say ‘Joris, you’ve changed so much, you used to be Detroit’. I always answer, if I’d stayed doing the same thing in 2003 or 2004, you wouldn’t be talking to me right now because I wouldn’t be around anymore. Or maybe I would have...” he adds, perhaps reflecting on the slow but steady rise of Detroit stalwarts like DJ Bone.
“I’m very happy with the way things have been going and I’ve always been looking for a new challenge.” Back in Rotterdam, he’d always go to two records shops. Triple Vision was where he’d buy the loopy techno that some associate with his early career, but he always also bought slower records from Clone. “I was never into the very super-hard techno that was popular in 2003/4, though listening back, some of my sets were pretty banging. I was always buying house too, guys like Steve Bug from Poker Flat who released amazing, very housey tracks that were already quite minimal.” What happened eventually was that his taste moved from one side of his collection to the other.
Despite this, he still asserts that “Detroit was always a big inspiration for me. Going there was very emotional, for sure, places like Submerge, the record store. Seeing guys like Underground Resistance play. That was my Mecca. That city where all the music came from is very special.”
Perhaps it was partially a sublimated frustration at this pigeon-holing from both sides that led to his new project, Spectrum. The name came from a meeting in which Joris told his team, “I want to play a wide spectrum of music”. After his work on Green, in which he collaborated on all the vinyl covers with designer Paul Swagerman, mostly using photos he began taking after getting his first camera for art school, it’s another multi-media project.
This time Dutch photographer Jos Kottmann (who took the photos for this feature and for the cover of the magazine) is working with him, on artwork, first using Voorn and Kottmann’s own photography assistant, and documenting some of the clubbers from the international Spectrum parties in the city that they were held in. Each series echoes the distinctive style and club culture of the city they were taken in.
So far, ironically, it’s been difficult to properly showcase his musical range. With a summer filled by headline gigs, many of the shows so far have been recorded with Joris in main room mode, demonstrating why he’s a regular at festivals such as Park Life, Tomorrowland, SW4 and Creamfields.
“I’m looking forward to not playing in front of 5,000 people, when I can do five- or six-hour club sets,” he says on his winter plans, outlining how this allows him to start at a slower bpm, building through classic deep house, melodic house and even tech-house before moving into techno. “That’s going to showcase my diversity a bit more.”
Thanks to close friend Kölsch suggesting a back- to-back vinyl set at this years’s Awakenings, he’s already done this to some extent. He dug into his old collection to re-live the dreams of the young Joris, spinning the same tunes to a crowd of thousands that he once played to tiny gatherings in Rotterdam. Warming up with a solo vinyl set at Fabric that ended with Amorphous Androgynous’s ambient classic ‘Mountain Goat’, at Awakenings he performed both on his own and back to back. Both solo performances were recorded and are available online via his weekly Spectrum radio show.
Taking in a who’s who of US pioneers like DJ Skull, The Martian, Jeff Mills, Robert Armani and DJ Funk alongside their early European counterparts including Dave Clarke, G Flame & Mr G, Adam Beyer, Thomas Bangalter and Joris himself, they illustrate the Dutch DJ’s deep knowledge of techno’s roots, educating his younger fans and nodding to those still clamouring after this old school aesthetic.
The Awakenings show was also filmed and posted on YouTube, with many comments calling it his best set in years. Inevitability, there are long threads debating the merit of vinyl versus digital DJing. “The circle is now complete,” jokes Joris at one point. “You turn up with a laptop and you’re not really a DJ, you have to play vinyl.”
Revisiting this past did prove exciting. “It was honestly the most fun ever, it reminded me of all the beautiful music I bought when I first started DJing,” he says. There are no plans to abandon Traktor though, the method of DJing he moved to 10 years ago. “With the diversity of music I play, I’d have to carry so much,” he declares.
He admires Sven Väth as a vinyl DJ with a similarly broad palette, always ready to move from the deepest house to the most banging techno. “But he has someone travelling with him who carries three cases of vinyl. That’s too much for me. You also have to go out and buy vinyl. It’s 2017... It’s a beautiful thing, of course, but I don’t know if the medium to me is that important that I’d go through everything that makes playing vinyl difficult.”
Yet there’s part of Joris that can’t help being influenced by these excursions into another time and place. The front cover of the first ever Green release includes the words: ‘Records are pressed with an analog format, no 1s and 0s like we are more used to. This lends a more ‘full’ feeling to the recording’. Despite now playing digitally, an understandable practicality for someone who travels as far and wide as he does, he’s still doing his best to keep this audio quality, answering one fan criticising the loudness of his track ‘I Ran The Zoo’ on Instagram by saying: “We don’t master tracks at the currently most used RMS levels on purpose. It takes away dynamics and crunches the audio in an unpleasant way. There’s also no excessive high frequencies like in many other tracks these days.”
What these sets also revealed to him was the quest for perfection that the sync button has introduced, some commentators criticising his rapid-fire transitions. “For me vinyl’s not about mixing perfectly, it’s a very active way of mixing quickly with abrupt ending. People are not used to that anymore. DVS1 told me he’d done a Facebook post about it. We live in an age when it’s so easy to mix two tracks because CDJs are perfect. People are not used to having slightly wobbly mixes, which gives a lot of charm, I think.”
Joris turned 40 this year, around the same time as Kölsch, who he DJ’d alongside again this year to celebrate the occasion.
“We’re old men now, he said, so he sent me a skateboard. ‘Here Joris, this will keep you young’.” Documenting his successes online in gradually getting back his old tricks — a rock and roll on a ramp, a kick ip on the at — he still has a youthfulness that many DJs have lost thanks to their misadventures on the road. Joris sounds content doing things his own way, mixing and matching styles and eras as the mood takes him. While a large swathe of techno heading down an increasingly dark, industrial road, prompting Danny Daze to declare on Twitter “This ‘who plays the most brutal techno?’ battle going on, has left it completely lifeless”, Joris is still working to imbue his machines with human soul and emotion. Following up ‘Ringo’ have been tasters of ‘Ryo’, a track inspired by his two-year-old second son. A blend of melancholy and optimism that has smudged, saturated hints of Rolando’s massive ‘Knights Of The Jaguar’, it still bears the finger-prints of the man whose biggest influences are Carl Craig and Derrick May.
Not that Joris is bothered how he’s judged. The biggest legacy of his ‘90s schooling is still the ‘play-anything’ attitude that he started with. As well as dusting off his techno classics, momentarily earning the respect of purists again, he’s also been resurrecting trance hits from the same period, playing BBE’s ‘7 Days & One Week’ at Shindig Newcastle and Ferry Corsten’s remix of ‘Adagio For Strings’ at Ushuaia — much to the delight of audiences who missed them first time around. Meanwhile, he’s also resurrecting his Dark Science moniker for a track called ‘The Prophecy’, featuring a Josh Butler remix, that his management felt was just too different to release under his own name. “It’s a little bit cheesy,” he happily admits. “I used a vocal stab and played a bit of a melody with it. People have been asking me about it a lot. I made it last year and wasn’t sure if I wanted to release it. Then this year I thought, ‘Fuck it, I’m just going to finish it’.” It comes out around the same time as a Paul Simon remix, part of a remix project of the American singer’s classic ‘Graceland’ album. Building an entirely new track around the harmonies of album acapella track ‘Homeless’, it’s proved a vital part of his arsenal this summer.
There’s even mention, once the summer is done, of finishing off a fourth album, though he’s making no firm commitment. Unable to build the box within a box needed to fit a soundproof studio in his new home, for the first time he has a dedicated studio in the city — a 10-minute journey away. Having been used to one with windows, this new black box doesn’t feel as inspiring as its previous incarnation. But once festival season ends and the long nights draw in, who knows? The 99th play of ‘99 Red Balloons’ may be just the catalyst Joris needs to spend eight hours a day finishing the next chapter in his story.
• Joris Voorn plays DJ Mag Sessions at The Arch, Brighton on Friday 6th October. Also catch him on our ADE live stream on Thursday 19th October via Facebook or YouTube.