Armand Van Helden Wants to DJ At Your Dad's Barbecue


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Armand Van Helden Wants to DJ At Your Dad's Barbecue

We talk Yacht Rock and keeping it cheesy with the deep house icon

I remember, aged 6, the feel of the carpet under my feet. Slowly edging down the stairs of my first family home, one hand gripping the bannister the other sliding palm first down the opposite wall, steadily lowering myself into the unknown kingdom of 'downstairs after bedtime'. It was a world of wine glasses, threatening television and big-earinged house-guests. This was an environment where my parents stopped talking about Pingu and trying to feed me carrots, and instead reclined into their own interests, eating strange appetisers and doing crosswords.


I remember this sacred space ringing out with the sounds of Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan, ELO and Dr Hook. This, I was to learn, was Yacht Rock. The velvet voices and silver sliding guitars of my parents. I've always hoped someone else would have shared a similar experience with this soulful, sunny music. I just didn't anticipate it being Armand Van Helden.

Yet this is the central theme of his recently released contribution to the Ministry of Sound's esteemed Masterpiece series. Alongside a deep house and a freestyle mix, Van Helden's middle disc is pure unadulterated, completely unexpected, soft-rock heaven. Having made his name in Boston's club scene in the early 90s, the producer has since enjoyed a hugely prosperous career as a purveyor of house and speed garage, yet little in his career indicated that the man behind "Barbara Streisand" was about to start spinning the Doobie Brothers.

"Yacht Rock is basically pop music," explains Armand over the phone. "But you are supposed to be sitting on a yacht, with the sun and the waves. That's the whole world of it." Basically he's invited your dad and his Calor-gas barbecue down to Ministry of Sound on a Sunday afternoon.

"I had done a yacht rock mix for fun about a year before I got offered the mix. I live in Miami these days and I'm semi-retired so my day is broken up into bike and beach. This mix was originally just for me and my friends, to take a boombox down to the beach."


Like me, Van Helden traces his love of FM-friendly guitars back to his childhood. "My parents were huge Steely Dan fans. Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, the list goes on. The tricky thing is, a lot of these Yacht Rock figures don't understand what a mix like this is, a lot of them probably got a call saying "we're going to put out the song mixed with a load of others" and the artists were like "No! You can't layer somebody else's music over our classic! How dare you!"

The respectability of pop music is cyclical, what starts warm and fuzzy can over time quickly become saccharin nonsense. You discover Nirvana, and Elton John immediately becomes a century old cartoon character, only good for post-wedding piss ups and car boot sales. As Van Helden explains to me, this is part of his reason for making a Yacht Rock mix in the first place. "I almost made this mix intentionally cheesy. I wanted people to initially respond 'no', but then be reminded that these are all really great songs."

It's a lesson he has learned in other contexts. "When I first got into house music, New Kids on the Block were big, and I despised them. I didn't want to hear any of it when I was 20 years old. But now in hindsight, with fresh ears, I know these are great records. The musicality is fantastic. When you are young and wanting to be in the underground you push the idea of pop away, but gradually as you get older you start to realise: those were actually great songs."


Van Helden was in fact forced to face his pop demons in a particularly upfront fashion after becoming friends with Jordan from New Kids on the Block. "I told him personally, I'm not into your music and he said, 'I don't care, I don't like my music either.' He was just trying to get away from it." The re-validation of pop music is certainly a considerable trend, the clubbing landscape has long played host to nostalgia nights where disillusioned stock brokers in shit flickers can prance around flashing tiled floors to the chart music of their youths. Only there is a more considered version of this process, beyond the 'lol' factor there is a genuine appreciation that comes with age, a strange sort of considered reverse maturation that pulls the pretence away from pop music and exposes its genius. "The funny thing is now, and this has already started, we will begin to apply this retrospect to Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys and N-Sync, saying 'damn these are good songs'."

His other mixes are also nostalgic, albeit in a different way. The first disc 'The Loft - Boston' returns Van Helden to the specific club where he gained his following. The Loft in Boston was a scene defining venue that became a space for deep house initiation, bringing a younger generation into the city of Boston from all over the state. With its closure in 1995, America lost a bastion of groundbreaking club culture, something Van Helden hopes his mix will convey to modern day house-heads. "I just wanted to show that, this is where I came from - when I started deep house was a new look so this is almost a history lesson. It should humble the younger generation."


His third then flies to a whole other forgotten corner of his dance music heritage, Freestyle. Best described by Van Helden as "sounding like you've had somebody sing over the drums from Planet Rock", the buoyant hip-hop born beat movement is all but ignored by most in dance music today. "Another motivation for choosing Freestyle is the denial of people my age who used to like that music. That's why I'm doing this. How can you deny that you were a part of it?"

His insistence on defending Freestyle's cheesy legacy is reflective of his entire mix, and most centrally his relationship to Yacht Rock. Rather than build a collection of wall to wall bangers, Van Helden has chosen to represent those precious genres and artists from our shared history, that we are often too 'cool' to love. In doing so he has preserved a window into his past, and the past of anyone else who sat drinking Ribena, whilst their Dad burnt sausages in the garden. "I find it brave and fun to acknowledge the cheesiest parts of my youth and doing it with integrity."

You can get hold of all three mixes here.

Armand Van Helden is on Facebook.

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