Martin Garrix’s music belongs to a genre and a culture that I find detestable. I may well have partied to ‘Animals’ back in the day in some sweaty school hall and I’m fairly certain I was enjoying myself. But this is the problem: the aggressive big room house of ‘Animals’, and EDM more generally, seems to have a brash adolescence to it that I smugly believe myself to have outgrown.
I flick through videos of Garrix’s live shows, marvelling at the droves of fist-pumping fans in snapbacks and tank-tops; at his music videos with their montages of famous collaborators and farcical flashiness. But for all this preconceived cynicism, Martin Garrix is a nice guy. Within the first few minutes of sitting down at the Guild-hosted event he has admitted how nervous he is about public speaking, saying that he is more comfortable playing in front of thousands of people than he is about addressing this limited Oxford audience. He begins charting his journey as a musician by admitting that all the music he made in his first three or four years “was shit”, but that it was just about having fun with his friends rather than making sellable material – priorities, he insists, that have not changed. Already he’s expressed some aversion to what many see as the intense commerciality of EDM and shown himself to lack the arrogance of so many of the big names in the industry.
A big feature of people’s curiosity with Garrix seems to be his youth. He signed to record label Spinnin’ Records when he was just sixteen and released ‘Animals’, the track that catapulted him to fame, barely a year later. At this point he tells us he had a limited fan base and was mostly playing to crowds of twenty people at a club at home in the Netherlands. With the release of ‘Animals’, things took off. A weird combination of playing to thousands in Ibiza, continuing to play to small crowds in his usual spots in the Netherlands, and being at school on a Monday morning, commenced. He admits that he found the contrast of playing in front of large crowds with being sat in front of teachers who could make him stay after school if they wanted, odd.
Garrix is still only nineteen and hardly looks it, fresh faced in his tracksuit bottoms. He jokes about how when he DJs to sell out shows in enormous Las Vegas nightclubs he has to be escorted from the premises by security before his last track has even finished playing because he’s still underage in the US. Garrix answers questions in good humour throughout with a cheeky smile on his face and a perpetual excitement which betrays the newness of the lifestyle he has acquired. Asked if he has ever made a mistake on stage he springs up from his chair and puts on a video on Youtube simply called ‘Martin Garrix FAIL’, where his headphones slip off his sweaty head and his mix is interrupted. He later mentions an incident where a fan bit him on the neck. His jokes and stories elicit big responses from some clearly adoring Oxford fans, responses that seem more a show of appreciation for his friendliness than they do for his comedic abilities.
Music does get a considerable mention amidst the chat about his life and fame. Garrix isn’t afraid to criticise, and something he keeps coming back to is his split from Spinnin’ Records which he announced in August 2015. The split arose from a considerable debate over the rights to Garrix’s earlier work, especially ‘Animals’, and his official statement at the time said “I am extremely disappointed that the discussions have not led to a change in the agreements or return of the ownership rights, and that is why I nullified them.” When asked about what advice he’d give to hopeful producers he warns against signing contracts at an early age without any prior experience of negotiation. He says this light-heartedly but later admits how troubling this was, that he “doesn’t want to get too deep into it”, that it was an incredibly difficult decision but one he’s glad he’s made.
This unfortunate chapter in his career reminds me of the seemingly incredibly money orientated commerciality of EDM. However, Garrix takes a critical rather than supportive tone on this issue, saying that it’s understandable that record labels need to make money, but many within the industry are focused on making “lots of extra money”, something he doesn’t seem comfortable with. As he discusses Michael Jackson, one of his favourite artists, someone inquires what MJ song he’d remix if he could. He responds that he could never remix a Michael Jackson song because they’re all too good, that he only remixes when he feels he has something he can add to a track, and that he dislikes it when people mess around with songs that are already perfect just to make money.
Given that it is supposedly not about the money, what did draw our friend Martin to the ethos and sound of EDM over other more underground genres of electronic music? He simply responds that he liked the sound, the atmosphere, the dancing. He cites Eric Prydz as a formative influence, that at the time “it was all so new, I like it a lot, I still like it a lot.”
He is asked a question about whether he’d spend more time on learning some of the more advanced mixing techniques, clearly a reference to the criticisms levelled at EDM DJs who are often referred to as ‘press play’, or ‘push-button’ DJs. Garrix begins talking about how he’d love to play with a live band at some point, clearly not quire grasping the nature of the question, or perhaps wanting to avoid it. However, it is clear from his newer material that he is branching out. These more recent tracks are still unmistakeably poppy, but more melodic and vocal orientated than his previous more aggressive tracks. Throughout he frequently says that he is open to multiple influences, that he likes “all music”, that every track should be different and that the main thing to do is just “be you” rather than adhere to any specific genre. Eager to show us as much he insists on playing a few snippets of the songs he is currently working on, despite the protestations of his press agent. One is called ‘Video Games’ and includes a line about Mario Cart; the other he says arose out of “being in Amsterdam just having the time of my life.” Both are fun to listen to and light-hearted but hardly the greatest departure from previous material, nor do they possess the emotional musical depth he earlier said he was now looking for.
Garrix is continuously friendly, fun and engaging as an individual. Despite the inanity of many of the questions, he continues to respond in good grace, seeming to relax and enjoy himself. Not only this but much of what he says about music is far less disagreeable than I had been expecting. His criticisms of the money making ethos of many record labels, the necessity of being open to numerous influences and the desire to make music as an individual, are intelligent comments from someone who has clearly given these issues some thought. Yet I can’t align these attitudes with the music he likes and the music he makes. There seems to be a disparity between what he says and the reality of his personal production and that of the industry. Maybe the experience of setting up his own record label will give the opportunity to put what he says into practice. He’s made me willing to give him the benefit of the doubt in the meantime.