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ARMAND VAN HELDEN - EMusician

ARMAND VAN HELDEN

At the turn of the millennium, it was difficult to escape Armand Van Helden's tight grip on surging dancefloors across the United States and abroad. From
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At the turn of the millennium, it was difficult to escape Armand Van Helden's tight grip on surging dancefloors across the United States and abroad. From the soulful garage house of “U Don't Know Me” to the Gary Numan — sampled “Koochy,” Van Helden had the dance charts wrapped up and then — nothing. “My work ethic is usually work hard, play hard,” Van Helden says of his abrupt disappearance after releasing 2 Future 4 U (X-Mix, 1999) and Killing Puritans (Armed, 2000) in quick succession. Aside from 2001's largely ignored Gandhi Khan (Armed), a smattering of remixes and a mix compilation, Van Helden was taking it easy. “I do come from nothing, and I'm afforded a position now where I can choose,” he says. “So given that, any person on the planet given that situation would be doing the same.”

Nympho (Ultra, 2005), Van Helden's first studio effort in four years, shares similarities with his more successful LPs: It's somewhat scattered and inconsistent but littered with grinding bass, insistent house beats and moments of almost scary brilliance. Relying on a relatively sparse studio setup, Van Helden used Digidesign Pro Tools, a slew of plug-ins (he favors Native Instruments' Guitar Rig, IK Multimedia's AmpliTube and Joemeek equalizers and compressors) and a Roland W-30 keyboard workstation to build up his songs. “I started out making music on a Roland W-30, so I understand that it takes nothing to make music,” he says. “On [Nympho], I stayed away from synthesizers on purpose. You know when someone buys some real cheap keyboard, and they go to the electronica patch, and it does this stupid electronica sound? [Producers] add those stupid little things just to remind people on the dancefloor that this is palatable.”

Incorporating live guitar and bass allowed Van Helden to draw on another powerful inspiration: blues. “I stayed away from anything cool and slick,” he explains. “Blues is not pretty. It's gritty, and it's basic. Either you get it or you don't. The only thing on the album that would be considered electronica, really, would be the architecture of the song — the effects and the beats. If I was to take away the effects, the beats, the architecture, they would basically be blues-rock songs.”

Nevermind his inability to actually play the guitar or even read music properly — that's where plug-ins come in. “My shit's pretty basic,” he says with a shrug. “For me, AmpliTube is one of those really magical pieces. A lot of people don't use it because it's really shitty-sounding. It's just a really fucked-up, gritty, grungy thing, but that's me. So it works with my head.” Van Helden purchased his Fender Squire guitar and bass for around $100 at a local Guitar Center. “I didn't want to learn how to play them or nothing like that; I just wanted to use them on this album and incorporate those sounds,” he admits. “What separates this album from the other music I've done is that I did apply an organic effort to add bass and guitar. When they're played, it's a MIDI thing — it's not tight; it's sloppy. They bring out fucked-up sounds you didn't even make.”

Nympho's punked-up, electrified house, featuring vocalists with names such as Virgin Killer and Creme Blush, exemplifies Van Helden's reckless approach to making music. “I'm a victim of history,” he says with a sigh, speaking at length and with more than a hint of nostalgia about the early days of house music. “But at least I'm not making music to pay my mortgage! Because I can tell all the producers out there making the next hot 12-inch — a risk-free, safe record. That's what people want. I can't do that! I did start out as a risk taker, and it's worked for me; it's paid off. Risk takers lose a lot, but when they win, they win in a way the average mortgage-payment payers can't understand.”

Van Helden is as unapologetic of his critical flops as he is humble of his wins. “I've definitely missed my mark many, many times,” he says with a laugh. “Sometimes, you get it; sometimes, you don't. The good thing is, I do love what I do. I won't stop. I guess that's my biggest weapon. If you don't like the last 25 albums I've done, maybe you'll like number 26. I have too much fun doing what I'm doing — why stop?”