An awful lot has changed for Armand Van Helden since he first signed to Southern Fried back in 2002. In 2005, he’s scored a huge commercial hit with ‘My My My’, his biggest hit since ‘You Don’t Know Me’ hit number 1 back in ‘99. In the interim, he’s released two excellent long players, ‘Nympho’ (2004) and ‘Ghettoblaster’ (2007) while also satisfying his New York culture vulture cravings with ‘New York: A Mix Odyssey’ (2004) and ‘A Mix Odyssey Two’ (2008), the latter of which is an homage to the emerging hip house and electro movement of 1988 and is by far the most classic retrospective compilation we’ve heard all year. And yet, to return to our opening point, by the man’s own admission, nothing’s really changed that much at all. Are you a contented elder statesman these days, Armand?
“I had my son for a long time - only David Morales had kids before me!” he laughs. “But I never had a golden retriever. That’s supposed to knock you out but I think it makes you more focused. I’ve actually been speaking on this subject with friends, this idea of personal happiness and success in terms of public perception. Most artists are happiest personally when they’re out of the public eye: so whenever I’ve fallen off, it means that I’m enjoying life. The odd thing about Southern Fried as opposed to other labels is they understand that I’m that kind of guy. I know you don’t make money unless you are up in peoples’ faces 24/7 but I’m not concerned with that so it takes a deep understanding to know and accept what I’ll do and what I won’t do.”
With five top thirty singles under his belt, sales of the first ‘…Odyssey’ at over 50,000 and ‘My My My’ having sold well over 150,000 copies physically and digitally, it appears that Armand has found himself a new home in the new millennium. But how does the naturally man who never courts publicity or remix work (Armand says he’s never actually asked to remix a record himself in his entire career) rate his current label? “Pretty much completely amazing,” he snaps back. “They’ve done what nobody else could do in terms of understanding. Southern Fried is one of the tightest, most visionary labels in the UK. I’m really big on the professional thing. The UK industry gets a little ugly but they understand.”
Armand Van Helden was born in Boston in 1970 to a Dutch/Indonesian father and a French-Lebanese mother, but traveled around the world as a child spending time in the Netherlands, Turkey and Italy, as his father was a member of the U.S. Air Force. He bought a drum machine when he was still a teenager and started DJing two years later. (Though that’s still a side to his career that he doesn’t feel comfortable about. If anything, he’d rather be making beats.) But the great thing about Armand is that despite an incredible 15-year career – which was really kick-started by the wild pitch drama that is ‘Witch Doktor’ on Strictly in 1994 - he doesn’t really have a musical master plan or a studied understanding of where his career path will lead next. Point out that ‘My My My’ is easily his most popular song since ‘You Don’t Know Me’ and he’ll claim to have not really noticed. “It was an odd one. I guess the way to look at ‘My My My’ is this: at that time I was trying to produce hip-hop. I was digging in the crates, found a sample and just snapped it together.”
It’s his distance that makes his music all the more impressive. If anything, it’s instinctual and he knows it. “I don’t live this scene. I don’t,” he insists. “I dip in on occasion and when I meet friends who live and breathe it, I love to hear how they start a conversation. There are all these names and genres and I have no idea who they are! I wouldn’t say I’m fresh about what’s happening, it’s just straight feel. I think it’s better for me to NOT know what’s going on. If I did I might turn in a minimal track with a low voice and then it’s gone in a month and a half.”
And that’s what makes AVH such a fascinating, if occasionally frustrating proposition. He’s the house producer who loves hip-hop, the beat master who would die happy if he could make a beat with Pharrell Wiliams or find a (female) muse for his musical meanderings. It’s this quest, this stabbing in the dark that makes his recent music so intriguing. Try and pigeonhole him into one genre and you’ll fail miserably. He’s made tribal house for Strictly, soul-flavoured garage for London/FFRR, straight-up electro-house for Southern Fried and pop-flavoured rock for himself. He’s a man on a mission, he just doesn’t quite know what. What he does know, however, is the importance of digging in the crates and digging different scenes without actually being a part of any one of them. On his latest ‘Odyssey’, he revives hip house just before the UK dance industry jumps on the bandwagon.
“I’ve always loved that music,” he says, not unreasonably. “I was always the dude who played Tribe Called Quest and The Jungle Brothers ‘I’ll House You’ – that American version of what dance music is. This is nothing new for me but the timing is right. I couldn’t do this ten years ago – it wouldn’t make sense. I’m combining and showing people the great records from ’88: it’s for the kids. It was a forgotten music and I still think that hip-hop denies it. Black people dominated the house clubs but I do feel like I’m breaking open an old wound, bringing up old songs. I’m like the BBC doing a documentary on a forgotten time. [Artists like Usher] all do slightly house-y music. Maybe the hip hop community will hear this, maybe Fabulous will hear this and be inspired.” Either way, the foundations have been laid down and he’s here to give them a new polish.
There are several new tracks on the new comp, and none of them sound like anything we’ve heard from Armand come before. One of the biggest club tracks of 2008 was the Switch mix of ‘Je T’Aime’ – which was of course in itself a tribute to Armand’s classic remix of CJ Bolland’s ‘Sugar Is Sweeter’ - and it does sound like Armand is channelling Dave Switch Taylor in return on the incendiary house tracks ‘Shake That Ass’ and ‘This Ain’t Hollywood’. It’s not something he denies: in fact, he has nothing but praise for the West London house producer. “When I go to an M.I.A. show, they’re the best looking people I have ever seen. I don’t think the UK realizes what Switch is doing. He is the only one I know who has been able to pull off what he has done with M.I.A. If you’re a producer, you can do scenester music but you always want something bigger than that because you do what you do best. I’m seeing Americans losing their minds to a guy making techy house with a buzzing bass-line. He sat down at some point and found M.I.A. and that changed history. M.I.A. is what the rest of us are supposed to be doing. It’s so screwed up that we can’t see.”
Ask Armand what the secret to his success is and he draws a complete blank. Ask him what makes Timbaland great or Madonna a pop juggernaut and he’ll come back with an answer that takes ten minutes to reach its conclusion. Ask him about the state of the music industry and the art of music-making and he’ll stand on his soapbox in Union Square for the best part of an hour. “Making music is a science project. For every label, it’s the same.” But he does have an answer for anyone who wondered how ‘Hear My Name’ or ‘My My My’ got made. The art, it transpires, is in not trying too hard to make the magic happen. “I think the main thing is for it to be unforced. If people go ‘where’s the next album with ‘I Want Your Soul Part 2’, you might pull it off, you might not. I’ve just never gone really over the top with what I do for a living.”
Armand Van Helden is 38 years old. Like the hipster in ‘Losing My Edge’, he was there in the 80s, he was a drum n bass/garage alchemist in the 90s and he wanted your soul in 2007. But right now, his dial is tuned to electro, albeit the Steve Aokoi/Crookers-style electro that’s urrentky hotter than Brooklyn in the middle of August. But ask him what the difference is between Crookers electro and classic electro and the reply is bemusing but still typically Armand. “You’re not going to like the answer,” he says. “To me, it’s all part of the fun. I don’t look at the music by the sound. I actually go by who follows the sound. When it comes to music, I’m concerned about mixed races combining with youth culture. I am really turned off when people go to a party in Ibiza and they’re ‘oh, don’t go there, that’s a German night or that’s an Italian night. I feel that dance music is here to transcend boundaries. If trance music was half black, I would love it. But it’s not, it’s white as hell. The simplest root of that analogy stems from hip-hop: hip-hop brought races together.” So let’s get this straight: what drives you is the idea of social movement? “Yes. There are a number of driving factors…. Are we separating or are we bringing together? When you go to a party and it’s models and bottles and everyone dresses the same, I don’t mind them in a club if that’s 15% of the club that OK but if it’s the whole club, I hate it.”
But despite all this, Armand is not tired or even cynical about the world. He’s just eager to see what’s around the corner. And despite a healthy cynicism for record labels (aside from his current Fried home), he’s actually optimistic about the future and his place in it. “People just think we’re making music but there’s a lot to think about. Because of the current climate, you have to be a thinker. The successful people are not idiots. If you have a successful pop record, you are not an idiot. I don’t care if it’s pop garbage, you’ve made a record that’s transcends everything.” Is making music like winning the Olympics, Armand? It seems so. “I look at it all like a game. Are you going for gold or are you going for bronze?”
Armand Van Helden still lives in the same spacious condo that he’s lived in for the best part of a decade. He watches the world through his eyes and TV still hits the clubs at least twice a week. But rather than moan about the state of the dance nation, he consciously stays on its fringes. And he remains philosophical about the world that pays his bills. “Dance music is bigger than ever,” he asserts. “I see these kids – blogging manics, everyone is sharing MP3 – they’re not paying for music and they’re going to cool parties. There are roof parties all day every day and they’re on every night of the summmer. I know it’s not the same as in 1994. Gladys @ Strictly Rhythm told me we could sell 15,000 for Strictly and by the end it we were selling 1500. But all that happened was only a certain number of people knew how to make house music. Before only a select few knew the magic tricks.”
But if there’s one party that demonstrates his attitude in 2008, it’s summed up by a party he saw on his door-step just a fortnight back. “I was in Union Square a couple of weeks ago and the cops couldn’t shut it down because was a silent rave. A thousand people, everyone had the same song on their headphones, they were all dancing but there’s no sound. They all hit ‘play’ on a two-hour pod-cast and were dancing all in unison. The authorities cannot stop being people going into a park. That is not illegal. It was special, all you could hear was feet.” Armand chuckles to himself at the thought of such a unique event. Who would have thought it? We’d like to know the answer to that question, actually. “That,” he concludes, “is borderline genius.”