DJ Dossier

Markus Schulz on How DJing in Arizona Helped Prepare Him for Superstardom

Trance superstar Markus Schulz has racked up more than a few honors during his 25-year career as a DJ and producer. He's crisscrossed the globe countless times over, become one of the highest-paid electronic dance music artists in the world, sold out hundreds of venues, and has been ranked as one of the best DJs in the world on a couple of occasions.

In other words, Schulz's place in EDM history is assured, as is his spot in local DJ lore. Back before he became a globetrotting superstar headlining festivals, Schulz was an Arizona resident and a veteran of the local club circuit. He took his first steps in the DJ business here in the Valley during the ‘90s, becoming a regular at local nightspots and raves and a hosting a Saturday night show, The Edge Factor, on bygone alternative radio The Edge. In fact, his stint as a resident at bygone Scottsdale danceteria The Works is something old-school EDM fans talk about to this day.

This weekend, Schulz returns to his old stomping ground in Scottsdale to spin trance and high-energy sounds at Maya Day and Nightclub on Friday, January 15. And while the gig won't be as lengthy as one of his now-famous “open to close” sets (which last upwards of 12 hours or more), it’s likely to be pretty darn epic.

New Times got a chance to speak with Schulz recently about his new projects (including the soon-to-be-released album) and longstanding support of trance music. We also discussed how his time in Arizona helped prep him for stardom, how The Works was a hangout for misfits who couldn't go to any other club, and why he has a special place in his heart for the Valley.

Trance has been going through a resurgence during the last year or so, correct?
Yeah, it definitely is coming back strong. To be honest with you, it never really went away anywhere. I think it just fell off the front page. If you look deep at the genre, the trance fans have been the most loyal and the most passionate fans throughout and we've had massive support at all the big festivals. So, on one hand it never really went away, but on the other hand its making its way back to the front page and it really looks like its making a resurgence that way.

And you've stuck by trance through a majority of your career.
Well, I've always believed in staying with the sound that you feel passionate about. It's funny, you see some of these former trance artists go chasing another genre and then all of sudden they start coming back. But the real fans kind of see right through that. I've always believed in just staying with what you're passionate about.

In other words, trance will never die.
Right, exactly. I mean, at the end of the day, trance is melodies and melodies never go away. Melodies are things that you remember that touch your soul and that's always going to come back to that.

Do you think that trance is a very versatile genre? I mean you've done darker stuff as your alter ego, Dakota, but there's also hard trance, acid trance, dream trance, and all these variations.
Yeah. Not only that, but I feel like a lot of the big genres over the last few years have literally taken elements from trance and if you analyze some of the darker techno tracks, it's like, “Geez, you can't tell me that's not trance.” I guess trance in its pure form has taken a back seat to other things, but the inspiration for a long time now for other genres has been trance.

Why do you have the alter ego? Does it give you more freedom as an artist?
The alias was something that came about before Markus Schulz blew up, before I blew up. And it was a different kind of sound, it was a little darker. And then, as I was growing as an artist and everything, I just kind of wanted to make a few more nostalgic and darker tracks and people really liked them. So that's how the Dakota alias never went away. Every now and then I'd just get in a mood to do something a little darker and deeper, but to be honest with you, I was doing that before the Markus Schulz name blew up.

How did your other nickname, the "Unicorn Slayer" come about?
That's a funny story. A fan had tweeted one time in France, “If trance is rainbows and unicorns, then Markus is the unicorn slayer.” And I retweeted that and everybody just kind of fell in love with that. And the next thing I know, people are showing up with Unicorn Slayer t-shirts and Unicorn Slayer flags and it just kind of turned into a movement. It's funny. I got a letter from PETA saying they weren’t happy with it at all, and after that I realized, “Wow this has really gone viral. It’s kind of out of control.” I embrace it, it's kind of funny, and it’s a rallying thing for the fans, but it just started as just a simple retweet of something that a fan said.

You’ve got a new album due out later this year. Can you give us a preview?
I just finished it. I've been working on this album for two years. Obviously, everybody's heard one of the first singles from the album, "Destiny"...“Face Down” is another one. The album right now, as it sits, is 17 tracks, and I think the best is yet to come. Like I said, it took me two years to make as I worked with some immensely talented songwriters on this album and I'm just very proud of it.

Like Delacey. What was it like to work with her on the single, “Destiny”?
That, actually, was one of the first projects that I did for the album, and we were just hanging out and talking about life and reincarnation. And [the track] was kind of inspired by how sometime you meet somebody and felt like you've met them before. So we just started riffing back and forth with the lyrical ideas and I'd already come up with the melody for the track. And when she started singing these lyric ideas, just her mood and the way she was singing when we were writing the lyrics, it just resonated with me. So we were working on it, tracking the vocals and everybody in the room felt like, “Wow. You know what? This is something special.” We felt it right from the very beginning.

Silly question, but what's your destiny?
Well, I always say I'm here to follow this journey and change people's lives. I mean, when I was younger, I had a hard time growing up and I used to listen to music. That was my escape and music got me through all those hard times and I've always said my destiny is to kind of give back. If there are people out there that are having hard times and my music is able to help them through, that's what I'm here for. I think that's my ultimate destiny. When I get messages on social media and they tell me, "This is what happened in my life and you're music got me through it," that's why I do this. And it just gives me energy and inspiration and power to move forward when I see messages like that.

Your 12-hour-long "open to close" sets have become the stuff of legend. How do you get through those? We imagine it takes a lot of endurance.
Well, when I first started as a DJ, I was playing in clubs and I was the resident DJ. When I played at The Works, for example, in Scottsdale, I would go in every Friday, every Saturday night and I would play from 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. till 5 o'clock in the morning. So, for me, these seven or eight-hour sets, they were no big deal. This is what I did every Friday and Saturday night. And it's ironic, because as you get more and more famous, your sets get smaller and smaller.

So I decided that in places that really, really make sense, where the vibe is really, like "Wow!" my idea was to do "open to close" sets. Because when you open the room up, you're playing differently then you do in the peak hours as well as in the after-hours. And I understood that whole journey because of my days as a resident, especially at The Works in Scottsdale and then later on when I became a resident at Space in Miami. So for me, the open-to-close solo sets feel very natural, because I've been doing that even before I became famous.

How else did your time in the Valley prepare you for your career?
I think the thing about living in Arizona was that we were kind off on an island by ourselves hearing fragments of music coming from different countries, different markets, and I was free to explore without much pressure. Free to explore what really excited me, explore and find my sound as well as take some chances. I really think fondly back at the days at The Works because I would try different things and see how it felt, whereas in a lot of places I wouldn't have been able to do that because you're judged right away. I think that's one of the problems in the industry right now, there's not a lot of places where an up-and-coming people can [develop]. Gone are the little, ratty clubs where a guy can work out of a club, experiment and come up with a sound and blow up from there. There's not a lot of places like that left in the world where you can experiment and explore.

So I was very grateful for all the years that I in Arizona. The only sad thing is that I really wanted to make it in Arizona, from Arizona. I didn't want to move anywhere else, I wanted to succeed in Arizona. But it was very difficult in those days and I wound up moving to London and then eventually to Miami and that's when my career went to the next level. But Arizona has always been very special to me. I still have family that lives there and any time I come to Arizona, especially when I'm bringing friends along with me, we always do the "Markus Tour." We go to the parking lot in Scottsdale where The Works used to be, we got to where Plastik Records used to be in Tempe. It's a special place for me where I can honestly say that everything started for me.

Do you still talk to any people from back in the day?
Still, yeah. Like Ryan Jeffs [a.k.a. DJ Inertia] every now and again I talk to him. Sarah Gianetto, who went by GalXyGrl back in the day, I've had some time spent with her over the last years. She actually moved to Miami for awhile and worked with me. So yeah, there's quite alot of people from Arizona that I'm still friend with. You know what's great? When I play in places like San Francisco, even in London, people come up to me and go, "Markus, you know what? I used to come hear you play at The Works." So there's this little community of people scattered throughout the world that used to go there and they all say the same thing, it was a very special time.

You used to do raves here in Arizona back in the day, too.
Yeah, yeah. Exactly. When I saw there I was doing the whole thing. I started off in the gay clubs in Arizona, then I kind of moved on to places like The Works and from there I started playing at some of these warehouse raves, which eventually led to producing more underground music and moving to London. And like I said, it all came together for me when I moved to London and I was able to focus my sound, really perfect the sound that I had in my mind.

Another thing you're famous for here in Phoenix is hosting The Edge Factor on the radio for several years. I don't know if you've seen it, but someone posted a bunch of those shows on YouTube.

Yeah, actually I have a link to it and every now and then I'll pull one up. You know, we were cleaning out the office a couple of months ago and I found some old DAT tapes from The Edge Factor as well. So, yeah, somehow I've got to try and get those digitally into my computer. I don't think I have a DAT player anymore. Every now and then, I'll listen to those old shows as well. Its really funny when I hear them, because in those days, you could just hear the frustration...well, not frustration, but you could hear how my voice hadn't blossomed yet, you know? I was just searching and finding my way. And even when I'm talking on the air on some of these mixes you can hear the difference between me now and then. I definitely feel like I've grown a lot since those days. But I hear it in my voice, that kind of eagerness and trying, but at the same time, frustration.

I've listening to a lot of those Edge Factor shows on YouTube and they're great. Its a time capsule of EDM from that era.
Thanks. It was a magical time for music. A sense of innocence. I listen to it now and I hear a lot of flaws in the music and everything. But back then, we didn't hear those, you know what I mean? It was special because of those flaws. Nowadays with everything so easy to perfect, sometimes the music sounds very sterile without those imperfections. But it kind of goes both ways: I listen to some of that music and I'm like, "Oh, jeez! Oh my gosh!" And then I listen to some of it and go, "Perfect imperfection," you know?

Every artist tends to do that, right? I'll look back at things I did 20 years ago and will sometimes cringe at it.
Yep. That's part of being an artist, man. I listen back to some of the music and I'm going, "Oh my god! Why didn't I side-chain that? Why didn't I roll that bassline off? Oh my god, that's too much reverb!" I think, if you're not growing as an artist, as a writer, as a painter, as a singer, as a musician...if you're not growing, you're dying, because nobody stays the same. And listening back or reading back from 20 years ago and cringing just means that you've grown. If you look back at the stuff from 20 years ago and you go, "Man, that was amazing," it means you've regressed. Like I said, sometimes I listen back and go, "Yep, perfect imperfection" and then other times I listen to it and I cringe. And I think that's part of being an artist that's grown.

Is there anything you miss about Arizona?
The sense of community, you know? I do 150 gigs a year, so I'm very fortunate. I've gotten to see the entire world and its amazing. But I also miss that sense of community. I mean I had such a wonderful social circle when I lived in Phoenix. Those friends from Phoenix, they're real friends. They still message me and they're rooting for me from afar and it makes me feel happy and at the same time it gives me energy to know that there's friends of mine that are rooting me on and encouraging me.

And I think that's what I miss the most is that sense of community that we had, especially at The Works. There was a true sense of community there. We were all outcasts, you know? The people that all went to The Works, we were all weirdos. We didn't belong in any other club except The Works. We couldn't go to any Top 40 clubs because we hated the music. We couldn't go to any typical Scottsdale clubs because we weren't rich enough.

We couldn't go to the Phoenix clubs because we just weren't hip enough or street enough. We were just all fucking outcasts who didn't have a place, but we all had a place at The Works. So I miss those days so much. You would see gang-bangers dancing next to drag queens dancing next to girls with glow sticks and furry boots dancing next to a guy with a shirt and tie and everybody had their eyes closed and was just unified because our souls were united and were all misfits and outcasts everywhere else.

Markus Schulz is scheduled to perform on Friday, January 15, at Maya Day and Nightclub in Scottsdale. Doors open at 9 p.m. Admission is $15.

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Benjamin Leatherman is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. He covers local nightlife, music, culture, geekery, and fringe pursuits.