This music is intentional.

Girts Ozolins speaks with Kris Vanderheyden - the man behind aliases like Insider, Atomic Fusion, Techno Jesus & Hank Style among others. With more than 20 million record sales & a career spanning over 3 decades, Vanderheyden is considered to be one of the leading pioneers of the Belgian electronic dance music scene.

- How did you get into music?

Insider: I have always been into music, because music was all around me. My father was an incredible music lover, he listened to diverse music from Latin music to Donna Summer and James Brown.

My uncle on the other hand, who was only 10 years older than me, was into Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and even The Sex Pistols. And, to top it off, my mother who is French, listened to all the Serge Gainsbourg stuff. So, it was this good mix of influences that helped me to get into a world of alternative sounds.

- But your music has taken quite a different direction.

Insider: There's a reason for it. Belgium is very small, but at the same time we are influenced by everything from all over the world, which makes us very eclectic and open-minded. Electronic music was already happening here from the early 80's and onwards. By the late 80’s the New Beat style (electronic dance music genre that fused elements of new wave, hi-NRG, EBM, acid house - ed.) that Belgium kind of invented was already fading out and going commercial and you could feel that it was time for something new.

Insider: I always wanted to do something like The Sex Pistols. I imagined taking the aggressive elements and feel of The Sex Pistols or Iron Maiden records and put this sensation into electronic dance music.

And that's exactly what I did. I made my first track, but it was my second track that turned out to be the bomb! The 12'' named “Destiny” under my Insider alias sold about 80,000 copies - which of course was enormous at the time. This happened in 1991 so 30 years ago.

- How old were you then?

Insider: I was 20 when the first 12” s came out but I started at 18 with my faithful Roland W-30 workstation.

- The initial success must have been highly inspiring to you.

Insider: I came with something different, a thing that nobody was doing. And the incredible thing was, that while everybody was claiming that you needed a Roland 909 and other standard gear to make a decent dance track, that I, when I made “Destiny”, didn't even have the 909 yet. I did the whole thing on a Roland R-8 drum machine with a dance card extension containing the sampled 909 kick. The lead sound came from my Juno-106 and I mixed it on an M216, a 16-track mixing deck, and one sole effect - a Boss SE-50.

All the magic happened with these few instruments. Still today I do think that the obsession towards the 909 is a little bit over the top.

from Insider's personal archive

- Did you feel back then that you had to develop your own style? Was that the initial intention?

Insider: I got one motto in life: if everybody is going to the left side, I am off having a look what is happening on the right side. Jokes aside, I got a good reason for this.

If you are doing something different and you don't do it right, nobody will see or notice it. But once you get your own thing going, everybody will follow and start noticing you.

That has always been my thing, so, to answer your question. Did I do something special? Most probably I did because everybody started to copy the sound and feel of my music. It formed THE blueprint for a lot of other tracks.

“Destiny” combined original composition for that time with daring, menacing sounds. The intro pad sounded like a church choir and as soon as it was overtaken by the trademark Insider Juno 106 signature sound - all hell broke loose. It sounded massive on the Tascam M-216 mixer, the melody was special, and the break in the middle section made it stand out. The whole thing was on a planet of its own.

Did I think about all of this? No, but there was this music in in my head, you know? I never make random music. I always go into the studio with a track in mind that is already finished in my head. It can be frustrating sometimes having to reconstruct that specific sound you had in mind. I told you - it's incredible what you have done with the Black Wavetable VCO. I can precisely go where I want. I know that with only one module, the sound that I have in my head will come out. And I'm always right.

- So, you somehow hear the music you are about to produce in your head in advance?

Insider: The music is always finished in my head before I go into the studio, when I fire up the machines I create the magic.

- But back when you were like 20 years old. Did you already experiment? How long did it take to produce the first successful track? Considering you must get familiar with the instrument, you must spend a lot of time to know what can possibly be done.

Insider: Yeah. But then again, back in those days, the whole playing field was still open, there were no rules and you could experiment at will. For instance, at the time there were still a lot of unused possibilities with a Juno 106. Nowadays doing something extraordinary with it is almost impossible. Now it’s mostly used to copy or retrace the classic sounds.

- Why?

Insider: Well, because most of it is already done. For instance: the sound manipulation… At a certain point, you know you are there, you created the sound you liked, your trademark sound. I have my style, I create very straightforward, a bit like a metal band. In a way I'm trying to emulate and imitate the feel of guitar sounds through my electronic universe. I rock, but by using synthesizers instead of guitars and instead of using pedals to change the guitar sounds. I’m trying to do the same with my synthesizers.

- I feel that today's economy is based on growth and that makes things different. Oftentimes there are innovations, new designs every year, companies release new synthesizers, plugins come and go every single week. So how much time did you spend on your first instruments and what were your first synthesizers?

Insider: My first piece of gear was the previously mentioned W-30 from Roland that I used for sampling and as a workstation. Liam Howlett from The Prodigy also used the same and he did the whole first album of The Prodigy with that one piece of gear, with nothing more! Soon I added a Juno 106 and the JD-800. Those were the first pieces of gear I owned and these basically formed my initial setup. Later, I added a Roland 303, a R-8 drum machine (I didn't have a real 909), and my now notorious Roland 808.

  • And using that you were consciously trying to achieve a unique sound design.

Insider: Yeah, I never sampled anything - of course vocals are an exception, from other similar records. I always created my own sounds and that’s what I still do today. Well, at least in 90% of the cases.

What was the next step after the quick success in the beginning?

Insider: Over a period of 18 months I released a massive amount of big club hits. I was doing live gigs, and I started to tour a lot. Back in the days a hit record was created in a different way. Back then the resident DJs played the records they loved in their club, if their crowd went bananas to a certain record, the boss of the club came out to ask what record is that? and practically immediately booked the person behind the hit track for their club. And soon they started to fly me over from all over the world! That must mean that I did something good...

- What territory did you cover in the early 90ies? Was it mostly Belgium?

Insider: No, the world was my playground. My records were successful from Limelight in New York to as far as Japan. I played a lot of the classic early raves, like Mayday, and big parties and clubs in Berlin and the rest of Germany, South of France, and of course Belgium too. All of this on a weekly basis.

- How did they find you?

Insider: If a record was a hit in a club, the bookers would call the record company - there was no internet, only a fax machine!

In those days, your record had to be good because you had a resident DJ in the club and they would be the filter. They decided if your record got played or not. And so, if your track was played in a lot of clubs, it meant your music was liked and that people would most probably start booking you.

- Nowadays the music industry is quite different. How did you come to make the deal with your first label? How did they find you?

Insider: The label was Music Man records. It’s still quite a big techno label. Frank De Wulf, another Belgian rave originator, was on the label from the start. Music Man was one of the most influential record shops in the Benelux. Every Thursday all the new records from all around the world came in there. I was working in a local record shop at the time, the boss asked me to buy the club stuff and so I went to Music Man every week to get new records for the shop. This way I met the owner of the Music Man record shop (who was at the same time the boss of the Music Man record label).

One day I brought him a tape that I made with my W-30 and to my surprise he released it. And luckily for me, one DJ in particular was playing that record like crazy - Sven Väth (a German pop-star level techno & trance DJ - ed.). I took the opportunity, went to see the boss of Music Man and said to him - if you give me a good advance, I can buy more gear and I will make you a big hit.

That was quite pretentious in hindsight, but the thing is, he got his hit.

- …and you already had it in your head.

Insider: Yeah (laughing - ed.)

- Your live performances are always a show. Do you remember an experience that has been the most spectacular one so far?

Insider: When one has such a level of success so early in their carrier, you don't realize it, and I think you can not appreciate it to the fullest.

You don't realize the scope of what you are doing because you think it's going to stay like that forever. But it never lasts forever, like nothing is forever. Only Elvis is forever.

I had kind of a major comeback in 1999 - a few years after my first success, when I did “Boots On The Run”. The sound was good, the track and the timing was spot on. I then did a show in Belgium in the Lagoa club in Belgium. That show was just bananas – people literally destroyed the club. It was completely crazy.

Other shows worth mentioning would be at the Chappelle and the Limelight in New York. But the one in Lagoa was just really incredible…

You must imagine: finally having a number one record in the club charts again after eight years, and then noticing that you’re still able to put together a good live act instead of turning to djing like so many of my producer colleagues did at the time. I was asked to DJ but I never did it - I always refused. I'm known as a bitch to refuse. I do my best when I play live on a stage…

- Tell me about the rave scene and how you feel you contributed to the early days.

Insider: The rave scene was not only about music; it started from another point of view. The Berlin wall was torn down and a new movement rose from its ashes.

When the wall went down, it was kind of a liberation all over Europe. It gave this mental wow feeling for all the young (and not so young). In some sense the whole rave scene starts from that idea. The way of living had changed - from buying secondhand clothes and not new ones, to buying vintage synths and making weird music and going out raving. It was a brave new world that formed a whole culture where everybody could be involved. The new generation still call their music rave but they have no idea what the original concept of the rave scene was. It's completely gone and replaced by something else. But hey, that’s how time works for all of us.

- There must be an illegal aspect in it, right?

Insider: Yeah, that's the whole thing. Now there is nothing illegal anymore. Those rave parties were mostly organized by mafia or drug related people. Why? Because in the club scenes and especially in America the core question was - what music makes drugs sell? I hate to say that, but that's how it was. And for some reason - if you combine ecstasy with some crazy lunatic beats, like I produced…

- You get clubs destroyed.

Insider: That’s it … Exactly. You get clubs destroyed.

- Every musician shares their energy to inspire others. What inspires you as a musician?

Insider: That's a difficult question. I'm always inspired when I'm gardening. By doing something completely different I can get my best ideas musically. Gardening has a very healing effect on the mind.

What I often do is search for new sounds that are good - I want to know everything as sound develops at a breakneck speed. For instance: now mixes sound a little bit sharper than how they did in the 90s, more bass is involved – most probably because sound systems are now better.

- How would you compare your production process and all that it required back then? Now everyone can have their home studio and produce…

Insider: Back then you didn't have a lot of gear. If you buy an Apple computer today, you have GarageBand and tons of other music software available at your fingertips. Everything you need to make music is there.

For over 20 years I had been working with soft synths but a couple of months ago I went back to the basics, I restarted working like in the old days. Why? Because soft synths felt like a huge setback. That's how I think about software. You never treat the sounds because it is annoying tweaking the knob with a mouse. When you have a real hardware synth in front of you there's need for action – you want to grab those knobs and create something new!

- When you released your first tracks did you go to a studio?

Insider: No, I had everything at my own place then. I hate working in studios. I am a disaster when it comes to being productive in recording studios. When I was producing for R&S Records (the most influential electronic music record label from Belgium - ed.) I was invited to the UK to work in a very expensive studio with a personal technician at my disposal. But it didn't work out - I wanted everybody out of the studio and to just work by myself.

- Tell me about collaborations you have had in your career.

Insider: Back in the days we were such a small group that the collaboration concept was much more common. Recently we did remixes for Blondie and Janet Jackson.

- Did these artists reach out to you?

Insider: I'm not going to be pretentious and say that all these big names asked for me personally. I think there's always something or somebody in between who or what makes things happen. But the game changers were the Blondie & Janet Jackson remixes that went to number one in the charts. With thousands of tracks coming out each day on Spotify, having a number one on the Billboard Dance Charts - is still something very special (to me and to the people in the business).

- If you could collaborate with anyone - dead or alive, with whom would you love to do something together?

Insider: That's a very good question……… David Bowie.

- So, then if we come back to the question about who inspires you? Did he?

Insider: Indirectly, but he influenced me for sure. I think that Liam from the Prodigy has refused to work with him but that's the kind of offer that I would never have refused. Liam must have had his reasons.

- Why David Bowie?

Insider: Because David Bowie is like Tarantino and his movies. Like Tarantino he’s the kind of phenomenon that simply isn't possible anymore. Today, you cannot release a record like Ziggy Stardust, and then follow it up with Major Tom. You know what I mean, every record, everything David brought out was in a completely different genre, the same goes for Quentin Tarantino. It's a thing that no one can do now. Artists no longer do that because they're just too scared and that's why they're gone after two years because they refuse to change after initial success. And that's something that Bowie never did, he never stood still. And that’s also something that I never did. I never stood still and I never will.

- If we rephrase this, what you are saying is that nowadays producers are afraid to be daring.

Insider: Of course, there’s a different approach in the music business nowadays, but in the end that’s also fine. Who am I? I don't have to agree with everything, and you don’t have to agree with me. I just know that because I did things differently I am where I am now. So for me - my way worked.

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