Oliver Heldens on why his sound is hard to pigeon-hole and the north/south divide

Oliver Heldens: "I never felt like I was just some kid on his own, in his bedroom in Rotterdam"
Oliver Heldens: "I never felt like I was just some kid on his own, in his bedroom in Rotterdam"

Creamfields always seems to attract the best and biggest names that dance music has to offer, and this year was no exception.

The 2016 line-up read like a funky, knob-twiddling Who's Who, with the likes of Fatboy Slim, Tiesto and Calvin Harris jostling for position with Avicii (his last ever UK performance), Dimitri Vegas & Like Mikeand Knife Party.

Back for the third year running, and laying waste to the South Stage on Sunday, was the ridiculously talented 21-year-old Rotterdam-based DJ and producer Oliver Heldens. And when we talked to him prior to the even, it sounded like he was looking forward to it.

"I do maybe 200 shows a year, and you start to understand how the different crowds work all around the world. America is a crazy crowd, but Canada has a bit more knowledge. Holland has a lot of history and the underground crowd always feels very passionate. The UK has history, too, of course, and I've realised there's a big difference between crowds in the north and south. The south is strong, but the northern crowds are just completely crazy!

"Somebody told me that Creamfields is in the north. Is that correct? [A few might quibble about its credentials, but Cheshire is certainly above Watford Gap!] That would explain a lot because the crowd are just… the maddest ever. The energy hits you as soon as you walk on stage; it's like a human kick drum!"

The Oliver Heldens 'sound' has always been fairly difficult to define… deep house, electro, progressive, elements of disco. Do festival dates like Creamfields give you a chance to get a bit more experimental with your setlist?

"No matter where I'm playing, I don't like the idea that I can only play one kind of music. If the music's good, who cares about the style or the rhythm? I like to think that the music I make - and the music I listen to - isn't controlled by names and labels. And that's the great thing about a big festival like this: you'll find everything together, all in one place. And it's all dance music!"

Anyone else you'll be watching?

"It would be cool to check the Pryda stage and see Kolsch in to Adam Beyer and then Prydz. I also saw Prydz is playing as Cirez D on another day - I'm actually a bigger fan of the Cirez D stuff than the Prydz stuff, so I would love to see that."

The last couple of years must have been a hell of a ride. You signed to Spinnin' in 2013, released Gecko towards the end of that year and, here you are, third on the South Stage bill, rubbing shoulders with Calvin Harris and Pete Tong.

"It's very hard for me to explain what happened in those three years because… well, because I don't really know. I've just been kind of living my life and enjoying my music. At no point did I ever say to myself, 'Oliver, do this and people will notice you. Make this kind of track and you'll get a record deal'. I had some ideas in my head and I tried to turn them into good songs. There was never a plan.

"To me, it actually seems like quite a long journey because I've been producing music since I was 12 years old."


"Yeah, I had the demo version of FruityLoops, which allowed me to make seven-second beats; I used to export them and edit them into songs on Apple Movie Maker. I look back now and think, 'Wow, that was pretty impressive for a 12 year-old'. I must have had a good imagination.

I'm pretty sure I was the only 12-year-old in school who was listening to LTJ Bukem at the breakfast table."

"I guess that came from my Dad… he loved music and technology. His biggest love was jazz, and he used to play all this crazy stuff on a big Steinway piano in the hall, but he also bought lots of great synthesizers like the Minimoog. There were guitars and effects pedals all over the house, different bits of percussion. Musically, he was pretty experimental. I'm pretty sure I was the only 12-year-old in school who was listening to LTJ Bukem at the breakfast table."

Fantastic! What a soundtrack for your Weetabix!

"Like me, Dad wasn't interested in labels. He never said, 'Hey, this is drum 'n' bass and this is jazz and this is disco' - he just said, 'Have a listen to this. It's a great tune.'"

Was he writing music, too?

"He wasn't really a composer, but he used to spend a lot of time improvising with other music. If it was jazz, he would get kind of freaky, but there were other times when he would come up with these very simple, beautiful melody lines. As I was listening to them, I would start coming up with my own melody lines. I would also listen to songs in the Top 40 and try to recreate the main melodies on one of Dad's synths. Most of the time, I would fail, but in that process I would find a new melody that was all my own. That's what made me want to start making music for myself."

So did you start off making your own creations with your dad's analogue setup, or did you go digital straight away?

"Dad had a computer, but he didn't have anything like Cubase or Logic. Luckily, my friend next door had an older brother who had just started working on FruityLoops - that's how I found out about the demo version. At first, I didn't really have any idea about how to write a song, but I'd had piano lessons for a couple of years and… I just started putting my simple melodies to my seven-second beats.

"They were actually quite energetic songs, because I was listening to a lot of the electronic music that was in the charts at the time. At school, we used to have these big disco parties, and I noticed that all the kids loved dancing to this electronic music, so I said to myself, 'I'm going to be a producer. I'm going to make music.'"

You make it sound so simple…

"It wasn't so simple. I did try sending out a few tracks, but nobody was interested because they sounded terrible. After I while, I decided to stop playing music and start playing videogames instead. Music reappeared when I was about 15 and I realised that, even if I couldn't make great songs of my own, I could play them to other people. So, I started DJing, and that made me fall in love with music all over again.

"Luckily, I was a bit older and a bit wiser; I joined a few internet forums, I found tutorials on YouTube, I joined any group that was talking about dance music. I came across people talking about EQ and Massive and mixing, and I realised I needed to start saving up some money. I was playing school parties and doing any odd jobs I could get… all my money went into music. Over a couple of years, I bought some Genelec speakers, FruityLoops, Massive, Sylenth…"

Not a bad couple of synths to start you off…

"My eventual journey to production and music was definitely as part of a wider, social-media community. On my own, like any 15- or 16-year-old kid, I would have had no idea what synth to buy, but the internet gave me access to all this information.

"By the time I actually got Sylenth and Massive, I felt like I knew them. I had watched other producers make new sounds from a blank page and immediately started to look for sounds of my own. I would follow a tutorial for a sound that was similar to what I wanted to achieve and then start messing around with my own ideas. Pretty soon, I was building up a database and using that to create even more sounds… building and building on what I'd achieved before."

And since you were already part of the online music-making community, you probably knew what to do next - feedback, promotion, collabs…

"The websites gave me the chance to get some immediate feedback. Not all of it was positive, but occasionally a well-known DJ would get in touch and say, 'Hey, I really like your ideas'. That was a big boost to my confidence. Other young kids got in touch and started talking about collaborating on a track…
I even started posting tracks for DJs that I admired. I never felt like I was just some kid on his own, in his bedroom in Rotterdam, because I was regularly in touch with all these people.

"That must have been how Spinnin' Records heard of me, because I was signed before I'd released anything; I hadn't even found my own sound. At the time, they said, 'We like your ideas, let's see what happens'.'"

You released a ton of tracks in that first year, 2013.

"That was how I found my sound. Like I said before, it wasn't planned - I just put together things that sounded OK in my head. I was being exposed to so much music at the time, and that was also having a big effect on me… I was picking up different influences from the UK, Holland, the US… all over the world.

"That's probably why my sound became so hard to pin down. I wasn't just listening to deep house or UK bass; I was listening to everything. I was hungry for all this music.

"I can certainly remember there was a period when I was listening to a lot of UK music, like Shadow Child. At one point, I seemed to be going back in time, checking out tracks from 2005 and 2006, but then I somehow tried working on my own version of UK deep house, and that turned into Gecko."

Can you remember what you were using when you were putting that track together?

"Pretty much. The main hook is Massive. I found a sound on there that was close to what I was after; layered that same sound with a few tweaks and a bit of distortion, then added a seventh note. The distortion probably came from Guitar Rig, which has become an important effect plugin for me.

"The sub was Sylenth, and the drums… well, I think the kick was from a Swedish House Mafia track, layered with a few other kicks and a bit of reverb to make it a bit bigger. I'm not so sure about the hats or the clap, but they could have come from something by Vengeance or Sample Magic.

"It all came together quite easily, but finding the right kick took a while. Layering drums is something that changes with every track - every track has different rules. You can't just say, add this kick to this kick and a little bit of this one and you end up with the perfect kick. If it was that easy, I think that a lot of producers would be much happier."

So far, we've talked FruityLoops, Sylenth, Massive and Guitar Rig, but there's got to be a few more tools, right? Is your setup really that simple?

"There is a little bit more to add, but not too much. I really should investigate more of the equipment that's out there, but I just don't get the chance. Travel and live shows have become a big part of a producer's life, and that takes up huge amounts of time. Choosing a new synth is really important and you need to dedicate lots of hours to understanding how it works.

"The main ones for me are Massive, Sylenth and Nexus. The main effects plugin is Guitar Rig. The main reverb is Valhalla. After careful consideration, I'm just about to buy one more synth… Serum. And then there's Kontakt. Over the last year or so, I've become a lot more interested in organic sounds… strings
and pianos - sounds that aren't synthesised.

"The main string part in Melody [2015] was initially played on Kontakt, but then I gave it to a real string quartet. The feel and emotion is so much more powerful than anything I could achieve myself. When people play it, it begins to live."

It also sounds like your productions have recently got a little bit more… complex. Is that simply a case of you getting more confident as a producer?

"I suppose so, but you could argue that a track like Ooh La La [released under Heldens' HI-LO moniker] is still quite simple and empty. If I'm collaborating on a track, maybe that's when things have more ingredients, because you have two sets of ideas. Like Space Sheep, which was me and Chocolate Puma, sitting together in the studio, trying to turn our thoughts into a fresh sound."

Working in your studio?

"Ha ha! My studio is still in my old bedroom. I'm right where I started. I love it, but it's not always the best place for big collaborations."

"My setup is very basic and it doesn't really need anything too fancy. There's enough room for the computer, my old Genelec speakers and a new set of EVE four-ways."

But you've got a few Euros in the bank. Didn't you fancy something a bit more… y'know..?

"What's the point? I'm away for two thirds of the year and do a lot of work on the MacBook. My setup is very basic and it doesn't really need anything too fancy. There's enough room for the computer, my old Genelec speakers and a new set of EVE four-ways."

Don't the neighbours complain?

"The one thing I've spent money on is the acoustics. I've had a lot of work done to make sure there's not too much noise escaping, and I've had it set up so it can give me the best sound possible.

"And if I do feel like turning the volume up, I only have one neighbour to worry about. You remember the guy I told you about? The guy next door who had an older brother who introduced me to FruityLoops? Well, he still lives there and he's a producer, too. He makes just as much noise as me. It's perfect!"

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