Hidden away in the northern cap of Finland is a place called Levi—home to the largest ski resorts in the country and known for being one of the few places on earth to spot natural phenomena like the Northern Lights and the midnight sun. During the off-season, Levi is home to fewer than 1,000 people, but during the holidays, the many restaurants and hotels (and one top-of-the-line dance club) open up to nearly 20,000 tourists hoping for a winter wonderland getaway.
When my boyfriend and his family invited me to spend the holidays in the Arctic Circle, I did not expect to find myself on the back of a speeding dog-sled or eating copious amounts of reindeer meat in a dimly-lit elvish cavern, but above all else, I certainly did not expect to run into one of Europe’s most famous producers of all time. Ville Virtanen, better known by his stage name Darude, was thrust to international stardom in 1999 with his hit song, Sandstorm. Although Virtanen hails from Finland, Sandstorm gained worldwide popularity, especially in the US, as it exposed many people to the world of dance music for the first time ever. While Sandstorm is one of the most widely recognized songs in dance music, Darude is still regularly producing new music and performing around the world. I had the opportunity to see one of his performances in Levi, while I also got some time to ask him a few questions. For clarity, my questions are formatted in italics, while Virtanen’s responses are standard styling.
Carlie: Coming from Finland, what’s it like getting to perform in a place like Levi?
Virtanen: I’ve actually played here numerous times. It’s an interesting place because there’s always a mixed crowd, but obviously it’s ski season, and it’s almost New Year’s Eve so the area is very festive. With this area you never know what you’re going to get. Not going to lie, I’ve had weird gigs here, like mid-week or Easter time where I’ll play for a small handful of people, but I’m always excited to come here because I love the snow, myself, and I think tomorrow I’ll probably go do some snowboarding, as well. The Hullu Poro Areena is a really nice venue. There’s great sound both on the stage and on the dance floor, so I’m very much looking forward to being back there.
One thing that makes interviewing you interesting is that you actually started making music the year I was born—1995—what are some noticeable changes you’ve seen in the contemporary dance music scene?
Well, I guess the big, main difference is that back then it wasn’t a big industry and it wasn’t mainstream like it is now. A lot of things contribute to that, but I’d say the internet and the development of technology—all the possible ways to create music and how it’s available to everybody— have not only contributed to people being able to share music, but also people being able to create music. Somebody like me, who back then and even now, I’m not that great of a live player. Unfortunately, I never took piano lessons or anything. I played ice hockey as a kid. But even people without live music playing skills have access to computers to make music. Now almost everybody who wants it or is interested in it has access. With all that, I think the awareness and the accessibility to dance music has become so easy and so wide that nowadays, we’re not talking about the underground dance music scene. It’s mainstream, it’s pop, and any big artist—the Armin van Buurens, the Calvin Harrises— they’re all basically pop. The dance records that end up on the radio or on the top of Spotify, those artists can still make harder or darker or more underground dance music, but what becomes their biggest hits are just clear-cut pop songs with an electronic beat.
Yeah, we have kind of started to see electronic music sprinkle its way into every other genre. There’s even electronic country music now.
Oh of course, exactly.
Who are some modern artists that you listen to— some of the younger artists that are coming up that have impressed you as an artist?
I don’t really know about younger. I don’t really know anyone’s ages and I don’t want to bring anybody down by bringing him up, but Avicii, to me, was kind of a younger kid who came after me and his rise to stardom was obviously one of the reasons why electronic music became big. He was one of the huge contributors. Like how you mentioned electronic country, he was one of the guys who fused, quite freely, different aspects of different genres and probably contributed to that melting pot. Martin Garrix has been around for a good while and has obviously established that he’s pretty much the biggest DJ in the world, according to DJMag Top 100. He’s done slow, ballad types of tracks, he’s done a little bit of trappy stuff, and a little of this and that, in addition to his sort of normal, festival-style bangers. Which, again, is one of the things that makes people more and more used to the idea of not having such separate boxes for what an artist can do. I like the idea of there being more freedom and people not shunning you for not always doing what people expect you to do. I made a track with Ashley Wallbridge this year called “Surrender,” and we had a singer called Foux on it. Ashley has sort of also been bubbling under for the longest time, but I think sometime soon he’s probably going to be a mainstream name. Definitely someone to look out for.
Who are some of the artists that first inspired you to get your start in electronic music?
Oh wow. I was actually listening to a lot of 80’s hair metal [laughs], like Bon Jovi and Twisted Sister. Around the same time a lot of German-style dance music like Bad Boys Blue and Modern Talking, that kind of stuff. None of it was really trance, but it was more of my generic background in melodic, sort of easy, mainstream music. That’s kind of what I’m about and really where I come from. In Finland, we never really got all the new stuff or all the big stuff, but we had a pretty decent dance music culture, even when I was getting into it. We even had some mainstream dance music on the radio, like Rhythm of the Night or Dr. Alban. After I started touring internationally, I realized that a lot of Europe had similar music to Finland, but America didn’t and that was weird to me. The US is a big country and when I was getting booked, it was always to these huge cities—LA, New York, Seattle, Miami—the cities are so big that even though dance music wasn’t even close to mainstream, the club scene was very good. To me, those club scenes seemed very similar to Finland, or Europe. What I didn’t understand was why dance music wasn’t on the radio at all.
Yes exactly. Even now, the music that my friends and I listen to— experimental bass music, future bass, even the big-name house artists, the ones on Dirtybird Records— you’re not really going to get any of that on the radio. We mostly listen to our music on Soundcloud. It’s just a great platform for less mainstream artists to share their work. Who are you listening to right now?
Hmm…[laughing] I sometimes feel guilty. I don’t really actively listen to music in my free-time. We might have some techno on Spotify on in the background, or just the other day I searched “uplifting house” and got a mix of like, techno and 120-125 BPM house. I enjoy it, but it’s not like I need to be listening to my bangers when I’m off. Some house or deep house, softly playing in the background is what I like. Rufus Du Sol, Fisher, stuff like that. When I first got into music, I was actively listening to it all the time. Exchanging CDs, recording on the radio. It was everything I did. Now I sit in front of a computer making music and playing in front of crowds, so when I’m off, I’ve just sort of hit my limit of actively listening.
What was the experience of having Sandstorm become such a hit like? Did you expect that to happen?
It’s funny, I wasn’t even really considering myself to be a musician at that point. I had one synthesizer, one computer, and one sequencer, and I was just using any and every little sound or gadget or software I could to put stuff together. I was really just having fun. I wasn’t trying to put myself down, but I was always thinking “professionals are up here, and I’m somewhere down there” and the gap was just so huge. I didn’t have any education in music. I didn’t have the right gear. I never dreamt about this life, not because I didn’t believe in myself, but I just never even saw this as a possibility.
Is it crazy now being one of the huge names and playing on lineups with artists that you once looked up to?
Oh, so let me tell you one of the things that blew my mind just a couple months ago… Pet Shop Boys played in Helsinki and I got to open for them. I did a soundcheck and had a chat with Neil Tennant (Chris Lowe wasn’t there at that point) and it blew my mind. I still have some of their tapes that I’ve recorded. We had a good chat and he was just such a nice guy. A lot of times people tell me that they started making music or that they got into dance music because of my tracks or something and that’s the biggest compliment ever to me. That’s the cool thing, if you end up getting to meet that person that you look up to, most of the time they’re normal people. It’s a nice thing to be able to sit down with someone who has a skill similar to your own, or just have a quick high-five and kind of recognize that they might be older or have more career experience, but that mutual respect is still there. Most of the time it’s the press or other people that put artists against each other, but most of the people actually in the industry are totally fine with each other, even embracing each other.
I actually notice that a lot, especially in the electronic music community. Instead of competition, there tends to be a lot of collaboration. With technology nowadays, you could sit here and have a collaboration with an American artist and never even meet the guy or girl that you’re working with. There really are limitless opportunities for artists to work together.
Oh, I know! My track “Surrender” with Foux… I’ve never met her.
Really? So you just went back in forth online, or?
The connection came through Ashley, who’s the other writer/producer on the track. He had a connection with her so he asked her to sing. They didn’t even sit in the same room while she recorded the vocals— he’s from England and she was all the way in America. It’s the same with my track “Timeless” that was released a couple months ago. Jamie Lee Wilson (JVMIE), who’s an Australian artist living in LA, we’ve never met face-to-face. I’ve chatted on the phone with her, but those vocals came from me sending her the instrumental and her saying “cool!” A couple of days later I had the vocals.
What are you looking forward to in 2019 with music?
Well, all going well, I should have six tracks come out next year, last year I only released two, I’ve been holding back for a big project that’s coming soon.
A new album?
Hmm… Not an album. But a project. When you see it… you’ll know! [Laughing] But I’m excited! I think there will be some guaranteed exposure. It’s a big thing… A good thing! Some people will definitely be surprised or weirded out by what’s coming, but what I like about the last ten years or so is that there has been a lot of collaboration and mixing of genres. I find that cool! After being around for a while, I feel that it’s necessary and healthy to venture out and be outside your comfort zone. That’s what I’m doing now… no country music for me though!
Some dialog has been edited for clarity.