Calling Preakness "a very special event," van Buuren said the greatest challenge will be whittling down his normally expansive sets. In his scheduled one-hour InfieldFest set, he hopes to fit in 15 to 20 tracks.
Standing well over 6 feet tall, Armin van Buuren would not be mistaken for a jockey at the Preakness Stakes on Saturday. The Dutch DJ and producer knows his way around a stable, though.
"My wife has her own horse," van Buuren said on the phone from the Netherlands last week. "She doesn't do horse racing herself, but sometimes I go with her to look after the animal. It's her passion. I'm not very good at it, to be honest."
Lack of horse expertise aside, van Buuren — the headliner of the concert-focused InfieldFest — is a major draw for this year's Preakness. Despite lacking mainstream name and face recognition in many circles, the Grammy-nominated van Buuren is a titan of electronic dance music (EDM), and — thanks to his side gig as an influential radio host and tastemaker — arguably the most authoritative voice of the popular subgenre trance.
Even as EDM continues to sonically splinter in many directions, van Buuren remains a top-bill act by many metrics, including social media (8.5 million "Likes" on Facebook) and shows booked (Las Vegas residencies, globe-trotting gigs from Sao Paulo, Brazil, to England).
Calling Preakness "a very special event," van Buuren said the greatest challenge will be whittling down his normally expansive sets. In his scheduled 90-minute InfieldFest set, he hopes to fit in 15 to 20 tracks.
"It's going to be a high-energy set, so a lot of tracks in a very short time," van Buuren, 38, said. "I'm not the kind of DJ who knows exactly beforehand what he's going to play. It just really depends on the vibe and the atmosphere."
Van Buuren guaranteed he will play his hits, including 2013's "This is What it Feels Like," which has more than 80 million streams on Spotify and earned him a Grammy nomination last year for Best Dance Recording. The song — with its 130 beats per minute and patient, mid-song build to climax — naturally appeals to trance fans, while the anthemic hook by Canadian singer Trevor Guthrie offers an accessible entry point for pop fans.
While pop and EDM continue to influence each other, the atmospheres of their concerts are discussed differently because of recent drug-related deaths at the latter's shows and festivals. Last August, two people died at a Mad Decent Block Party at Columbia's Merriweather Post Pavilion. At an Australian festival headlined by van Buuren in February, a 19-year-old died of a suspected overdose of MDMA, or ecstasy.
Karin De Francis, a consultant to the Maryland Jockey Club who helped book van Buuren, said the DJ was chosen as a headliner partially because last summer's EDM-centric Moonrise Festival at Pimlico went off without incident. She said public safety matters above all else at InfieldFest.
"We spent a lot of time and attention reviewing protocols," De Francis said. "We have a wonderful team of people that we work with both internally in the private sector and with the city to make sure that we are providing the best possible and safest environment for people to come and enjoy Preakness weekend."
Van Buuren said he will perform "Another You," the first single from the forthcoming album van Buuren hopes to finish this year. He produced the beat, while the Dutch singer Mr. Probz supplied the catchy, festival-ready vocals. When it comes to songwriting, van Buuren said he simply follows inspiration, rather than forcing himself to solve it like a math problem.
"I never start always with the beat or always with the melody or always with the vocal. It's different every time," van Buuren said. "I can't make music that doesn't inspire me, because when I'm making music, I want to have a good time myself."
Like many artists, regardless of genre, van Buuren utilizes cellphone technology to craft songs. He records raw snippets of melodies and lyrics — he called them "rough diamonds" — and transfers them to his computer. Van Buuren estimated he had roughly 200 of varying lengths saved to his hard drive right now.
"Sometimes I sit on my dining room table with a guitar and a piece of paper and I write a lyric. Sometimes I just want to try something silly, like that track 'Ping Pong' that I released last year," he said. "I like to enjoy myself, because I think that always shines through in the music at the end."
This ability to write on the go speaks to van Buuren's hectic lifestyle. He writes new music often, and forces himself to stay on top of the evolving world of trance — a type of dance music known for its hypnotic build-ups and breakdowns. He hosts "A State of Trance," a weekly radio show that attracts fans worldwide. As someone who must pay close attention to the scene on a weekly basis, van Buuren said he likes where it and electronic dance music in general are headed. He rejects the notion it is a fad.
"This whole generation is growing up listening to dance music," he said. "It's a cultural movement really, and I think only retrospectively will we be able to confirm that. ... It's just amazing how it's grown and how much different sounds have been developing throughout the years."
He has remained at the center of EDM for years. Being called the greatest DJ in the world seems like hyperbole, but van Buuren's five wins as DJ Magazine's No. 1 DJ suggest otherwise.
Evan Weinstein, a partner of the Moonrise Festival and the EDM-focused Steez Promo company, compared van Buuren to Tiesto and the group Above & Beyond, respected acts in the genre that draw thousands wherever they go.
"You're talking about these guys who have been doing it for so long," Weinstein said. "They're on legendary status in the EDM world. The crowds that he can draw are incredible."
Van Buuren sounds a bit like an elder statesman these days, but also someone driven to outdo his previous successes. Whether it is crafting the most exciting DJ set or producing a mega hit, van Buuren said dance music will forever excite him because of its unpredictable and influential nature.
"Dance music is like an oil stain. It has spread throughout all other genres of music. There's electronic beats in most pop albums, and even in classical music, they're working with dance music influences right now," van Buuren said. "I like that dance music is constantly reinventing itself. It will never go away, but it will change."