“With GAIA we said ‘Look, what do we really need?’” – Armin van Buuren
The answer: a kick drum, a bass line, six synths for pads and arpeggios, and a sequencer for the drums—nothing more, nothing less. It was with these select few elements that Armin van Buuren and Benno de Goeij would produce their inaugural GAIA album, Moons Of Jupiter. The 21-track LP sources all of its sounds from one soft synth, a Native Instruments MASSIVE, copied over six channels.
“I take pride in that, because we limited ourselves, and that actually gave us creative freedom,” van Buuren said in an interview with Dancing Astronaut before his Main Stage set at Electric Zoo 2019. “I have access to all these plugins and synthesizers in my studio and sometimes it drives me nuts looking for one plugin because I have to scroll through all these menus,” he added. “[With this approach] you didn’t think ‘Oh that plugin can create that sound.’ You had to dig deep under the hood of the MASSIVE. It felt like a relief, not having all of those choices.”
The selectivity of van Buuren and de Goeij’s combined constructive approach to Moons Of Jupiter is just one way that the album-making process would veer from more trodden electronic pathways. The inverted structure by which Moons Of Jupiter came about is another. Normally, producers would go into the studio, create tracks in a sequencer, mix and master them, release the subsequent album, and tour in support of it, van Buuren explained. Not so, however, with Moons Of Jupiter.
“We started with the touring and created the tracks literally on the fly,” said van Buuren of the project’s serendipitous jump start.
The songs that attendees would hear live—and later, would go on to comprise Moons Of Jupiter—were loops that van Buuren and de Goeij had collaboratively amassed over time.
“We always work on two DAWs; one person may be arranging on one screen, while the other is doing something else,” van Buuren said. “Instead of letting all the works that we didn’t use go to waste, we made a deal with ourselves: we would save the midi and whatever else we had made and would throw it in a folder.”
That folder got “bigger and bigger and bigger,” according to van Buuren. The pair eventually put their stock of loops into an Ableton project. Although the GAIA members typically work in Logic, van Buuren and de Goeij set to work in Ableton to prepare their live set for their forthcoming show in Paradiso at Amsterdam Dance Event 2018. They had six months to finish their set up, and no finished music.
“What we’ve done with GAIA is we’ve basically created loops,” van Buuren said of his finished product. “That’s why I came about the idea of planets, because planets rotate. As a kid I’d always been fascinated by space. I saw a book about the planets of Jupiter and I thought, ‘That’s a great concept [for an album]. Imagine if you had a spaceship and could travel between the moons of Jupiter: what would that sound like, what would the soundtrack be? That was the ambition.“
With a litany of loops at their disposal to manipulate, GAIA gurus built their own custom equipment to perform the set, including mini sequencers. Although the experience was admittedly “scary” for van Buuren, it, too, was exciting, in part because it offered van Buuren “a release” from his primary project, Armin van Buuren.
“I love being Armin van Buuren and I love to do the Main Stage sets, but there’s another side of me that feels the need to experiment and travel to uncharted territory for myself, steering a little bit off the safe path,” he explained.
Whereas Armin van Buuren is “more commercial [and] more radio-driven” in sound, GAIA, by contrast, is unorthodox by nature. Indeed, GAIA is far from an alias designed to garner voracious streams or contort to meld to other meters of commercial achievement. This, in addition to the absence of samples and collaborations on Moons Of Jupiter is precisely what allows GAIA to “go a little bit against the grain,” to be “the opposite” of what Armin van Buuren does, and how electronic releases broadly operate.
“GAIA is a statement that music can be so exciting if you try to go across genres,” van Buuren said.
However, listeners shouldn’t mistake GAIA or Moons of Jupiter as an opposition to the way that the electronic music sector runs.
“GAIA is not an anti-EDM statement, [we didn’t make it] because we want to be anti, hell no” van Buuren said. “For us it is an homage: we wanted to make this album because this is who we are. It’s a monument to the early sounds of dance music.”
van Buuren explained that Moons Of Jupiter also honors his childhood, when he was first be exposed to electronic music around the age of eight- or nine-years old. He recalls how his father would often play a sundry of early electronic artists, Jean-Michel Jarre, Kitaro and Vangelis, whose music would all prove pivotal to the development of the young producer. Back then, in 1988 and 1989, when van Buuren was just becoming a fan of dance music, the genre was in a markedly different state than it is today. It was a time when sub-genres such as bass and trance were not defined, or as van Buuren puts it, when “the rules were not set.”
For van Buuren, Moons Of Jupiter and GAIA more broadly represent the chance to “go back” and revisit these foundational electronic artists who inspired him.
“I always promised myself that if I ever got to the position where I am now, I would go back to my roots and say to my fans ‘Look guys, I will never forget where I come from,’ and I think you can hear that in the album,” van Buuren told Dancing Astronaut. “GAIA shows you the core of me.”
In experimentally harkening back to a nascent time in the history of electronic sound, Moons Of Jupiter does not embody current stylistics. Many people have even told van Buuren that the LP reminds them of the ’80s and ’90s, due in part to the album’s drum programming, among some of its other technical approaches. Though the work remains largely epoch-less.
“It’s not the sound of now, let’s face it,” van Buuren said, “but it’s probably my favorite album that I’ve ever done.”
For van Buuren, the significance of Moons Of Jupiter arrives not from its reception—although the album has fielded no shortage of favorable reviews—nor from the number of streams that it may attract, but rather from the artistic journey that it represents. The significance of “journey” in this context is two-fold, in that it encompasses both the growth of Armin van Buuren as a producer over time and the crafting of the LP. Moons Of Jupiter embodies the musical wisdom that van Buuren has gleaned with each track he’s made to date.
“Every track teaches you something for the next,” van Buuren said. “There’s some DJs who say ‘Oh I made that track in two-hours.’ Well, you didn’t, because you take all of the experience from your past tracks and put them into the next track, so each track is a step in the journey to the next one.
What does the future hold for GAIA? Well, unsurprisingly, more journeys. van Buuren said that he and de Goeij have “plenty more loops standing by.”
“Jupiter has 67 moons and there’s only 21 tracks on this album. There’s still moons to be discovered,” he noted.
With GAIA and with their ensuing albums, van Buuren will continue to “go back” to the early electronic sounds that motivated him to go into music in the first place and to the younger van Buuren who lent his ear so attentively to the productions of the dance pioneers of his father’s instrumental influence.
“You have to always go back to that little kid that fell in love with dance music the first time, because that guy is probably the most important guy. That guy guides you to your own sound,” van Buuren said. “If you can listen to that guy and stay loyal to that guy, then there you go.”
*This transcript has been edited slightly for clarity and readability