Being the No. 1 DJ in the world comes with a certain level of confidence. For Armin van Buuren, it's that self-assurance that keeps all the gears -- the weekly radio show with millions of listeners worldwide, the countless DJ gigs, the top-level stage productions and artist albums -- in motion.
"I don't try to be someone I'm not -- I've always followed my heart and trance has always been my main sound," a fresh-faced van Buuren told HuffPost Entertainment in the first of his many Saturday afternoon interviews at a posh New York nightclub. Later that night, the 36-year-old DJ would headline Madison Square Garden, where he, Ferry Corsten and Markus Schulz, W&W and Alex M.O.R.P.H. brought A State of Trance 600 to thousands of eager ravers. (The "600" means the show had reached its 600th episode. It's a weekly program, so do the math.)
Staying true to himself is a common theme for van Buuren, who grants interviews freely and affably, despite the understanding that his dance music pedigree should speak for itself. "At this point in my life, it seems like the less harder I try, the more easy it gets," he said. "I'm Armin van Buuren, and this is who I am."
It wasn't always so easy: van Buuren says it wasn't until 2004 that he realized he was solidly in the right lane. "It was when my radio show went to English, funnily enough," he laughed. "It was around episode 180, and I started to notice the power of radio. But the reason I started the radio show wasn't to be popular at all -- If you look back at it now, it looks like a great marketing trick, but it wasn't. I'm just fascinated by the power of radio."
This year's ASOT tour has an additional importance for van Buuren, who will release his fifth artist album, "Intense," on May 3. "You see me grabbing the light on my album cover, and it means that I've found my own road," he said of the record, which lands only a couple of months after Billboard tweaked its Hot 100 formula to focus heavily on web streams of songs.
"Of course I dream of having a No. 1 on Billboard one day, but this is not the main focus for trance music," van Buuren said. "What I like about trance right now is that it's not the main sound anymore on radio. In all fairness, house music is more popular than trance music, and I think that's a good thing."
Dance music -- be it trance, house, dubstep or trap -- is fuel for parties, but it's a mistake to assume the wild times extend far beyond the dance floor. Nary a model, groupie or intoxicated person was seen when this reporter walked the halls between the Garden's many backstage green rooms. A visit to van Buuren's personal dressing room offered nothing scandalous, and Willem van Hanegem and Wardt van der Harst of W&W (who later suffered through blown-out speakers midway through their set) were nursing drinks and watching M.O.R.P.H. perform on a TV inside their backstage quarters. A security guard admitted to being surprised at how "professional" everything was. "It seems pretty quiet in here," he said when asked if rock or rap groups have more exciting backstage scenes. "Everyone has to go through lots of hoops to be here, but there are usually some more interesting types hanging around."
Out on the floor and in the stands, of course, things were a different story. Ravers in neon lurched alongside regularly dressed fans of every shape, American flags waving here and there. A number of extremely amorous youths were also (uncomfortably) spotted, as the all-ages nature of the show seemed to have given way to some teenagers' ... liberation. But roaming the venue that night revealed no incidents of disturbing behavior; an organized chaos permeated the arena, and by the time van Buuren himself took the stage at 11:30, the fans had settled in quite comfortably.
For a DJ known as one of trance's posterboys, van Buuren's sets are famously hardcore. He flips through BPMs and styles with a gleeful abandon, transforming to a smiling face with the joy of a 15-year-old, always dancing and occasionally adopting his trademark, Christ-like pose as a barrage of pyrotechnical displays unfolded before him. His transitions are very tight (more so, it's worth noting, than Schulz and Corsten's, who occasionally fumbled blends, which is perhaps to be expected given they have only just launched their new partnership as New World Punx), and he's an expert at building and releasing tension.
Seasoned EDM listeners often tire of seeing some mega-popular DJs live, mostly because the "drops" -- the instrumental equivalent of a track's chorus, where the beat intensifies and the bass prompts listeners to jump around with abandon -- seem awfully predictable and low-impact. But where Tiesto may tire out a crowd after 10 similar builds and drops, van Buuren takes his listeners on a wider journey, layering tracks in a way that stirs a deeper response.
Trance's other huge name, Above & Beyond recently rebranded their radio show as Group Therapy Radio. A&B's Jono Grant told HuffPost the change was mostly due to the group feeling wary of being limited by the word "trance" (the program was previously called Trance Around the World).
"I have a different view than Above & Beyond on this," van Buuren responded when asked about how he sees the genre. "I think that trance is not a fixed thing or a fixed sound. With ASOT and this tour, I show you in my warm-up set, when I play 122 bpm; pure progressive house, no vocals, no anything. I play those sets. And on the other hand, in Den Bosch, I have a room called Who's Afraid of 138, which caters to the harder styles. If you look at the DJs who we have lined up, like W&W who are more into the housey side of dance, or Dash Berlin, who plays a lot of vocals. For me, personally, trance is everything from 122 to 138. If you listen to my earlier sets, you can hear tracks from the likes of James Holden and Border Community."
Still, van Buuren said he's happy to see different definitions of the genre and now even appreciates criticism of his work and shows, something he admitted "having a hard time swallowing" in the past. And why not? As van Buuren readies his album, shows like Saturday's are easy reminders that plenty of his fans agree that he's right, for now, to believe in himself.