Known as “the unicorn slayer” for his ability to magically hold down the dance floor with his open-to-close DJ sets, the Miami based Markus Schulz lets us in during our exclusive interview. As we pick the brain of a kingpin of dance music, we discover what it takes to build a proper set for various atmospheres, to develop a successful record label and DJ broadcast, what Schulz’s inspirations are and how Markus has grown into the person he is today.
You will also get to learn about and listen to his latest nourishing release, “Upon My Shoulders” (Coldharbour | Cat Music), with Armenian singer/songwriter, Sebu Simonian, of the indie-pop duo Capital Cities. Then make sure to get a taste of how he got his call sign by listening to his 4-hour set during Coldharbour Day 2018.
Welcome into the mind and heart of “America’s Best DJ” (DJ Times Magazine 2012 & 2014), Markus Schulz.
1) “Upon My Shoulders” is your first single off your upcoming full-length studio album, We Are The Light (Coldharbour | Black Hole) and it’s the pop song that will catapult Schulz from clubland royalty into the pop music stratosphere. This song is a revelation. What makes “Upon My Shoulders’ different from the rest of your music?
Markus Schulz: I wouldn’t necessarily describe it as being a sea change from the rest, but more of a sequel. “Facedown” (with Soundland) from my Watch the World album was the first instance in which my productions had an emphasis on using an acoustic guitar, and “Upon My Shoulders” follows in similar vein.
Both of the tracks in question were actually inspired by the same event, and that was Tomorrowland.
I have had the very fortunate role in performing the opening set on the main stage during one of the festival days – the Daybreak Session. When you perform in that setting, you are essentially building up the day and building up the audience from nothing at all.
After my first experience of it, I was inspired to create “Facedown”, because when I was getting set up to begin my set, I looked out and could see couples out there, sitting on the grass and wrapped in a blanket. It gave me the vision about two people struggling through life, who have nothing but each other.
If Facedown was inspired by the beginning of the Daybreak Session, “Upon My Shoulders” was inspired by the ending – the big crescendo of a set, where the couples are having the time of their lives, and they demonstrate this bond with one carrying the other on top of their shoulders.
Listen to Markus Schulz’s “Upon My Shoulders”(Coldharbour | Cat Music):
2) How did the collaboration with Sebu come to life for “Upon My Shoulders”?
Markus Schulz: I had established a connection with Capital Cities a few years ago, due to remixing their tracks “Safe & Sound” and “One Minute More” alongside Grube & Hovsepian. When envisaging what “Upon My Shoulders” was about and had a rough idea of lyrically what it was going to represent, Sebu stood out to me as the obvious choice. So we reached out to Capital Cities, and Sebu came onboard right away. That vision of people carrying each other on their shoulders is incredibly powerful and stimulating and it sparks the imagination endlessly. Every one of those guys and girls has a connection with the other – a friendship and a story that very likely goes way, way beyond the physical bounds of the event.
Having Sebu’s voice as the narration of those moments makes “Upon My Shoulders” carry a warmth and emotion few can convey.
3) What goes into planning one of your sets, especially at big festivals like Tomorrowland?
Markus Schulz: It ultimately depends upon the setting, because the key aspect to understand is that one set will not work in every single environment. With festivals, you usually only have between one hour and 90 minutes to do your thing, so there isn’t really a huge scope to explore. You tend to play a little safer, because if you make a programming mistake, it’s very difficult to recover in a short space of time. Festivals are also like a shop-window for DJs, because you’re playing alongside all the other top-tier guys, and in many ways, the fans may not necessarily be attending to see you yet they have the opportunity to enjoy what you do for the first time. Because of that, the festival sets are generally your signature tracks, presented in high intensity. And of course, you prepare some special surprises specifically for the occasion.
With clubs however, you are almost always headlining, meaning everyone is there to see you perform, and more often than not you are presented with the opportunity to play longer.
Festivals are hugely important, and I do enjoy the spectacular settings that somewhere like Tomorrowland presents, along with the opportunity to cast a wider net to your fanbase.
I think that our biggest privilege as a DJ should be paying tribute to the art behind it. What I don’t like are the club nights where a promoter tries to present a festival-style lineup within a club, meaning everyone plays short sets and there’s no room to breathe or explore.
Markus Schulz Live at Tomorrowland 2017 (ASOT Stage):
4) What do you like most about creating music? As one of the leaders in trance, how would you define trance music and how does it make you feel inside?
Markus Schulz: It’s undoubtedly the best method in which I can express myself to the world, because I have always tried to base my music on how I am feeling emotionally and mentally.
To me, trance is the one genre within the dance music spectrum that touches the soul, connects and resonates deeply with people more than any other. The fans are the biggest source of influence and inspiration in my career, because ultimately, us DJs would be nothing without them.
My biggest inspiration for creating music actually occurs while on stage performing, because you see the passion and response of the fans, and how much this music means to them. That’s the one thing I feel trance has above any other genre. Many people regard it as this sort of antisocial music, but the people who follow trance love it with paramount importance. When we hear those arpeggiated melodies and complex chords, they invoke memories of places we have been and people we have met, and that’s what’s important.
5) How did you first get introduced to electronic music? Who has been your biggest influences?
Markus Schulz: I had a difficult childhood and as a result of that, I discovered that my best escape from it all was music. I would listen to the radio at night and get lost in the sounds. A lot of people will be surprised when I say this, but most of my influence comes from classic rock. Bands like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, ELO, Manfred Mann and U2. The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd for me is the best album that has ever been made and continues to inspire me today.
On the electronic side, the likes of Kraftwerk and Depeche Mode were really pushing boundaries, and that captivated my imagination too. I would go on to discover DJs playing this music, such as Mr. Magic, Red Alert, Tony Humphries and the Latin Rascals.
6) What efforts did you make that made Coldharbour Recordings so successful?
Markus Schulz: Coldharbour is one of my babies! I am incredibly proud of what it has become. What still amazes me is how passionate the fans are for the label, and how they feel part of it as much as the producers.
What I’ve always strived to achieve with Coldharbour, along with Global DJ Broadcast, is to provide a platform for showcasing new talent. I think it’s really important for your legacy to take people under your wing and guide them, and I feel incredibly proud to contribute towards their growth through releases and remixes on the label. Our Coldharbour family is incredible, and I am so grateful to them all for their endeavors.
The most important thing for me in any track is that it needs a melody and a groove that grabs my attention. Because of my solo sets and playing across the board, I am always open to differing styles, whether they are the peak-hour upfront tracks with aggressive leads, or the deeper progressive material that helps build a night.
Developing relationships with the talent is absolutely vital. You need to be passionate, dedicated and open-minded. All of the producers on the roster combined feel like a big extended family to me, and each person is helping to contribute in their own unique way.
One of the most important aspects for a producer is that they need to be flexible and alter a track if necessary. Sometimes I’ll hear a track and find something within it I like but need fixes in order to play it in my sets, so it’s important to have the producer on board and willing to adjust their piece. On many occasions, I’ll be in contact with them firing back notes until we get the product right.
The Coldharbour club nights are all built with a team ethos. We imagine it as one overall presentation with each member playing a vital piece towards the story being told across the night. Every one of our members supports each other very well.
Listen to Markus Schulz set for Coldharbour Day 2018:
7) Tell me what life was like for you in the 8th grade.
Markus Schulz: Well, when I was 13 years old, I immigrated to the United States, without knowing a single word of English, and lived just outside of Boston. It was such a culture shock for me, and I struggled to become part of the fabric due to a lack of self-confidence. Again, this would be where the radio would save me – I would come home from school every day, put my headphones on and listen to the radio. When it was cloudy, I was able to tune in to some college radio stations at night, where they would be playing more interesting electronic music.
Along with that, I quickly developed a love for breakdancing, and gravitated towards all the other misfits and outcasts at school as a result. Two things mattered to me when at school – creative writing and making mixtapes. I’d trade tapes with other people at school and as we got older, we would start organizing our breakdance parties.
The creative writing is actually something that as an artist, I had been itching to rediscover for years, because when I started producing it was almost entirely all about making music and twisting the knobs in the studio. My previous artist album, Watch the World, provided me the platform to delve back into that creative writing world, and the new album coming, We Are the Light, facilitates the same passion.
8) Since the 8th grade, how have you evolved into who you are today?
Markus Schulz: Incredibly fortunate, but I have gone from a 13 year old outcast, living in a foreign country without knowing the language and really struggling to find my purpose in life; to being able to connect and entertain people through a passion and love for music.
I take absolutely none of this for granted, and I count my blessings every day that I am one of the lucky ones who get to do what they love for a living. There are so many talented producers and DJs out there who never get the breaks in their careers and have to give up their dream to find other jobs in order to support themselves and their families. I still feel as passionate about our scene as ever and am determined to continue adding those building blocks towards whatever may be my legacy at the end of it all.
Over the next couple months, Schulz is booked all around the world with stops in London, Australia, Malaysia, Japan, Philippines, Chicago, Canada, Kansas City, Mexico, Amsterdam, Czech Republic, Miami and New York. If you are fortunate enough to be in Canada or Chicago on the 6th and 7th of October, then you will be able to experience his open-to-close solo set. Also, on October 19th in Amsterdam you will be able witness him in full “Unicorn Slayer” fashion. Check out his tour dates and locations to find out when you can enter the state Markus provides.