He sells out arenas and coliseums around the world, hosts summer residencies in the world’s biggest nightclub and played to a TV audience of billions at the 2004 Olympics opening ceremonies, but until now, one group of music fans has eluded Tiësto.
“Everybody comes out to a Tiësto show, in general,” said the Dutch superstar trance DJ. “The normal, regular people do — not the extreme indie hipsters.”
But his new album, Kaleidoscope, may give some indie-rock diehards feelings of confusion they’ve never experienced before: It marries the glittering synths and expansive, expensive-sounding production of trance music to vocals from the likes of Bloc Party’s Kele Okereke, Sigur Ros’ Jonsi and Canadians Emily Haines (Metric) and Tegan & Sara.
The singers were all, apparently, eager to collaborate, despite what Tiësto has found to be the closed-mindedness of their genre’s fans.
“The indie-rock crowd is a very arrogant, very moody crowd,” he observed. “They don’t like anything except the original ‘pure’ song; also they only like the first album of any artist — the second album is always bad. My purpose with this album was not to break into the indie world, but more to expose the indie world to my craft.”
He says this with a cheery self-confidence that suggests he’s capable of anything.
Crouched in a chair in a staff room hidden away in the basement of Toronto’s HMV store on Yonge Street, the man born Tijs Michiel Verwest in Breda, the Netherlands, in 1969 looks more like an action hero than a DJ. He sports a sleek black outfit, a closely-cropped haircut and a healthy tan, and he’s bigger than his own personal bouncer (who stands dourly by the door during our interview, presumably on guard against dangerous indie-rock purists brandishing Pavement CDs).
He refers to his DJ alter ego in the third person (“If you know how the old Tiësto plays, and you hear him now, it’s such different things”), and calls himself “a global citizen — I’ve been around the world for the last 10 years, so I know the world really well.”
Three floors up, a gathering of hundreds is sandwiched between HMV’s aisles, awaiting his in-store performance. They’re here to hear new tracks from Kaleidoscope for the first time, but they’re also clearly captivated by Tiësto’s image: When he appears to spin his half-hour set, many of them, instead of dancing, stand rooted to the spot, holding up cameras to film the whole performance.
Tiësto has been canny about building himself as a brand: He’s had fashion tie-ins with the likes of Armani and Reebok, and one factor in his choosing which artist to remix has been whether that person’s fame will increase his own.
“I had maybe three (remixes) that I was not really happy about,” he admits. “The song wasn’t that great, but it’s such a high-profile band — my manager was like, ‘Yeah, you should do it, because millions of people are going to see that mix.'”
And yet, his move to embrace indie rock on his own material appears to be less calculated.
“There’s more musical freedom again, ’cause you don’t sell any CDs anymore,” he said. “You can start making music just for the art of it. That’s why everything is so different on (Kaleidoscope).”
The album’s concept arose, he explains, after he noticed a number of indie-rock musicians incorporating electronic elements into their music.
After developing a rangy trance remix of Tegan & Sara’s single “Back in Your Head” in 2007, he decided he liked his version better than the original, “and that’s why I decided to move on with that sound.”
The artistic crossover he was seeking didn’t happen immediately — not all of the artists whom he approached understood his concept.
“Some people were actually disappointing because they’d hear a beat and they’d start singing on a beat,” he said. “I wanted them to sing (with) that natural flow they have when they sing on a guitar.”
Tiësto moved into what he describes as a more “intimate” and “eclectic” production style, and together, he and the singers crafted actual songs, rather than extended trance tracks with repeated vocal hooks — a move he describes as “pretty extreme” for him.
Occasionally the results were poppier than he had projected: Kianna, of Tilly and the Wall, a band so far out of the mainstream they use a tap dancer instead of a drummer, bursts into full-on dance diva mode on “You are My Diamond,” and even the prowling, banging “Knock You Out,” featuring Emily Haines, is apparently less dark than the “rocktronic” demo Tiësto delivered to the singer. This last track, as well as the undeniably catchy Tegan & Sara feature “Feel It in My Bones,” are standouts, combining intensity and euphoria.
If indeed indie-rock fans are convinced, what will the club crowd think?
“The indie vocals are always a little edgy,” said Tiësto, “and they’re used to these beautiful female vocals (singing) ‘La la la.’ It’s a little less cheesy, so people have to get used to the vocals, but once they get used to it, I think it’s more timeless.”
Kaleidoscope was released Tuesday by Ultra Records.