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Martin Garrix Is The Happiest Superstar DJ In EDM

How the Bieber-backed phenom went from teen dreamer to international headliner

When you walk into the the MGM Grand, the first thing you notice is the sillage of cigarette smoke and chlorine, conjuring classic Las Vegas sleaze in the best way. The lobby is filled with tourists whose expectations for the Vegas experience were formed by Hollywood: They have come here expecting glamour, money, sex, and a tinge of atomic-age paranoia — the urgent desperation of chasing a pleasurable high into the night, and a cool, softly lit place to recover late into the next day. As if out of nowhere, Martin Garrix suddenly appears. Fresh-faced and beaming, he is wearing a long black tunic-style shirt and slightly resembles Zac Efron, or a boy priest. Martin hugs me hello. He hugs everyone hello. His friends call him “Marty.” The 20-year-old Dutch EDM superstar is here to headline a Las Vegas superclub in which he is too young to drink or gamble. He resembles a human smiley-face emoji, the personification of PLUR.

Before his set, Garrix is due at an iHeartRadio event across the Strip, where he is supposed to give a toast to a group of radio programmers. He is promoting “In the Name of Love,” his new single with Bebe Rexha, which is being co-released through his own imprint, STMPD RCRDS. Garrix is managed by Scooter Braun, best known as Justin Bieber’s manager and, more recently, Kanye West’s. Garrix has much in common with Bieber, whom he sometimes opens for: They’re both boy-band cute, came up as teen phenoms (Garrix’s multiplatinum hit “Animals” came out in 2013, when he was 17), and are trying to cross the bridge into being taken seriously as adults and as artists. With STMPD, which launched in March, Garrix is trying to make the Martin Garrix brand into something bigger than just himself. He is personable and slickly media-trained, but there’s a core of humility that feels authentic. Although he’s worked extremely hard to get here, he can’t quite believe it’s real, either.

Garrix is a proper emissary for EDM to cross the final transom into mainstream pop — a polished professional beyond his years as a DJ and producer, who is also boyishly adorable, like a puppy, equally fit to adorn teenage bedroom walls and DJ Mag’s Top 100 without conflict. Bieber’s “Where Are Ü Now” collabo with Skrillex and Diplo ripped a hole between the EDM and pop universes; Garrix is the EDM star best poised to jump through it.

Walking across the street to witness Garrix’s toast, I pass billboards for impressionist Rich Little, Andrew Dice Clay, and something called Band of Magicians, “the world’s first magic supergroup.” Vegas is where old cultural trends go to get embalmed, and the persistent rumors of Vegas’s EDM bubble bursting are impossible to gauge here, where giant posters of superstar DJs still adorn the sides of enormous hotel buildings. The night before, EDM godfather DJ Tiësto headlined Hakkassan, the $100 million five-story club in the MGM Grand; it’s the largest non-casino employer on the Strip. Lining the Hakkassan lobby that night were cologned guys in button-downs and their fanciest shoes, girls in tight body-con dresses and high heels discussing going in on $3,500 bottle service for the night. Vegas promises a VIP experience to anyone who has the money; for DJs, it promises a legitimacy that it once bestowed on legacy acts like members of the Rat Pack — the chance to see your name in lights forever. Tiësto discovered Martin Garrix, and this ecstatic desert backlot of a world is now being handed to Martin, too. The younger DJ approaches house music the way any musician picking up a guitar would treat classic rock — as an endowed legacy. He’s just dropping into his spot in a decades-long set already in progress.

At the iHeartRadio meet-and-greet in the New York-New York Casino, radio programmers mill around eating from steam trays. “In the Name of Love” plays on the overhead. In his long black tunic shirt and tight black pants, Garrix looks like a softly goth Peter Pan, and starts hugging everyone who approaches him. He is extremely good at the shaking-hands part of his job, moving around the room like a politician, greeting people exuberantly, Snapchatting video selfies of himself with the people he just met, and showing off footage of a gigantic crowd at one of his gigs on his iPhone to them. A friend approaches, and Marty grabs him and kisses him on the head. The vibe in the glass-enclosed parlor, which directly faces the casino floor where Martin is forbidden to go, feels less like a swanky VIP music party than a high school graduation brunch. It feels like we are at Garrix’s coronation, and he seems fully comfortable assuming the mantle that the superstar DJ crown entails.

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Martijn Garritsen was born in a suburb outside Amsterdam in 1996. As a kid he took lessons in Spanish flamenco-style guitar, first playing covers and later writing melodies of his own. “I’m a very lazy person,” he says. “My parents were like, ‘Play that song you wrote,’ and I had to, like, grab my guitar and play it. So I found this software program which enabled me to put my guitar melodies in the computer and play the mp3 file to others.” He mostly listened to his parents’ preferred Dutch pop until 2004, when a DJ changed his life — Tiësto, the Dutch trance megastar, who played the Summer Olympics in Athens that year. Garrix’s family watched the televised performance with pride. “It was the biggest thing,” he recalls. “My mom literally pulled me in front of the TV. One day later, I ran to the CD store and I bought Parade of the Athletes and [thought], Wow, I want to do this too.” It was the first time Garrix had heard electronic dance music, his own personal moon landing.

From there he was off, seeking out all the trance, house, and hardstyle music he could find, and teaching himself how to make his own on Image-Line’s FL Studio using YouTube tutorials. “If you’re obsessed with a music genre, it’s a very natural transition to try to produce the music you love,” he says. “It started as a hobby. After four or five years I sent my stuff to some labels, but I didn’t get a reply.” Like his hero Tiësto before him, Garrix began DJ’ing as a teen, playing local parties and weddings. He’d given up on getting a recording deal when Dutch independent electronic label Spinnin’ Records reached out in 2012 and signed him to a deal. “Before I realized what was happening, everything blew up. I made ‘Animals’ when I was in high school, and literally from that moment I’ve been living a different life. I’ve been touring a lot, traveling a lot, doing great shows. I’ve been in the studio with my biggest idols.”

Garrix is glad to have grown up in a digital age. “I think there’s a lot of young artists in dance music right now because — I don’t want to say it’s easy to make, but it’s very accessible,” he says. “It’s not about how old you are. It’s about how much time and effort you put into your craft. All you need is a good computer, a good pair of headphones, and a lot of patience. And, of course, your creative vibes.” He talks about electronic music like it’s a kind of secular church, pointing to the inclusivity and positivity he sees in his genre of choice. “If you go to the festivals and you go to the shows, everybody is so nice to each other. If someone’s not feeling well, you take care of each other. And as cheesy as it sounds, you have this PLUR thing going on — peace, love, unity, respect. You can go to a festival by yourself, you leave the festival with 10 new friends.”

He alternates his heavy touring schedule — he made over 50 stops at international festivals in 2016, with countless accompanying hours of press and travel — with time hanging out with friends at home in the Netherlands, where he enjoys the relative anonymity. “I think Dutch people are very sober,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s the right word. Like, you have the most famous person walk by some Dutch people, and they’re like, ‘Oh, hello.’ And they maybe take a photo, but most of the time they’ll respect you and leave you alone. And if you go to some other countries they will literally mob you, go crazy. I love living in Amsterdam because I can do whatever I want. I can go buy groceries in my bathrobe.”

Asked if he sees himself as the next Tiësto, Garrix is stunned by the comparison. “NO WAY! I will never compare myself with Tiësto!” he says. “Tiësto is legend. I’ve been in the studio many times, we did a tour together, I jumped onstage with him, he jumped onstage with me. Still, every time, I have to pinch myself and realize this is the guy who made me start doing what I’m doing right now. And the coolest part is, even though he’s Tiësto — he’s world-famous, his face is on the hotel right here — he’s still this normal, humble Dutch guy who is himself, and who respects and appreciates everything, and that really inspires me.” Even as he says this, it’s not hard to see the obvious connection to be made between the original humble Dutch guy/world-famous DJ and the latest model.

Garrix says that he and his tourmate Bieber get along “very well” and have hung out a lot. “Justin is dope," he says. “We love making music, we love writing music, and we tour, like, 90 percent of the year. So we can relate to a lot of things.” Is a future collaboration in the works? He smiles slyly and says, “One day.” Garrix relishes collaboration — his catalogue involves a lot of guest vocalists and other producers. He tells me that working with other people is his favorite way to get unstuck. He will make a beat and then send it to another DJ to work on, who will then send it back so he can work on it some more, with fresh ears and new sounds to engage with.

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I am led by a PR liaison through the backstage of Caesars Palace. It feels exactly like being inside the Goodfellas long shot where they enter the Copacabana through the staff entrance — which still has some truth to it — while the plebes who’ve paid to party at Omnia, the casino's in-house nightclub, wait in a cordoned-off line inside Caesars. The entrance where mere employees come into the club is actually also where the most serious VIPs enter. Backstage at Omnia, we pass a giant stuffed Pikachu, the club’s “Holding Cell,” a giant glittered stage prop car, and a fleet of bottle-service girls with rhinestone necklaces bearing the club’s insignia. This is just a taste of what it’s like to be Martin Garrix; to be VIP in Vegas is to always enter through secret doors.

Fifteen minutes before Martin’s set, Miley Cyrus enters in leather leggings and a denim jacket with a bedazzled image of Billy Idol. Her entourage cloud follows. She mills with her people in the greenroom, spilling out into the hallway. A woman in a sexy-teddy-bear costume walks down the hallway and I have no idea if she’s with Miley or not. Miley’s pack moves out the door toward a new destination as the club sets up for Martin’s arrival. Someone is brought out to sweep the DJ booth performer area of any stray alcohol and set out water bottles for Martin. Rules are rules, even for post-teen superstars.

Martin huddles with his posse one last time in the greenroom, then takes the stage to an “Animals” intro. He wears a shirt from his own merch line — his logo is “+x” (a plus sign for the T in Martin, and the same plus sign on its side for the X in Garrix) — and puts on his own branded headphones. Omnia looks like the inside of a Christopher Nolan–directed fantasy set in an upscale, futuristic club. A giant alien chandelier made of LED rings descends from the ceiling as video panels on the wall behind the DJ booth play a ticker-tape stream of Martin’s logo. When his “Animals” intro ends, he settles in front of his deck of four CDJs to play. He opens with his single “Lions in the Wild” as club fog blasts through the room.

Garrix runs through a breakneck pace over the next two hours of his set in an inspirational blur of adrenaline, serotonin spikes, and drops. He works the eager crowd with hits like The Chainsmokers and Daya’s “Don’t Let Me Down,” a remix of The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army,” and a remix of Fifth Harmony’s “Work From Home” that snags pleasurably on the first chorus and becomes an instrumental banger. There is a sped-up version of The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face” that feels even more paranoid than the original, and Steve Aoki’s 2009 electro-house remix of Kid Cudi’s “Pursuit of Happiness.” Not everything he plays is recognizable to the crowd, but they are into all of it. Nor is all of it recent vintage — he pays homage to his forebears with a loop of The Chemical Brothers’ late-1990s single “Hey Boy Hey Girl,” specifically the bit that samples Rock Master Scott and The Dynamic Three chanting “Superstar DJs, here we go!”

Fans hold up their phones to film the whole set or Snapchat bits of it, and Martin hoists his phone to Snapchat selfies and crowd shots. Someone in the audience hands him their phone and he takes a selfie with it and hands it back. The whole thing feels collaborative and participatory, more like a jam band set than a godlike DJ in command. The young Russian-German DJ Zedd appears and joins Garrix onstage at one point, and they jump around together to Daft Punk’s 2001 classic “One More Time." But Garrix never loses sight of the set for a second. He is constantly returning to monitor the CDJs and scroll through for his next segue. I watch from a cloister behind the DJ booth with several young Scooter Braun employees, never putting my pen down as I keep track of the set list — Alesso and Tove Lo’s “Heroes (We Could Be),” a remix of Disclosure and Sam Smith’s “Latch,” a clubby, faster version of Drake’s “Hotline Bling.”

Silver-sequin-clad go-go dancers appear as Garrix plays the intro to “Animals” again at the midpoint of his set, leading into the song for real this time. He climbs the table and jumps on it just in time for the drop. The crowd explodes. There is confetti, smoke, and the UFO chandelier spinning its rings into endless formations. His 2015 hit “Dragon” whips the crowd into a further peak. He loops a singing choir that leads into a majestic remix of Major Lazer, DJ Snake, and MØ’s “Lean On.” For the coup de grâce, he welcomes Bebe Rexha onstage to do “In the Name of Love.” Rexha is wearing a sequined, skintight dress and nameplate necklace, just like the bottle-service girls’ Omnia jewelry, but with her name instead. She belts the song live, adding an organic element and answering the question of how you build to a climax in a set that is essentially all climaxes: with an even bigger one, duh. At the end of the night, the crowd is sweaty, satisfied, and euphoric. Martin is rushed offstage and out of the complex immediately, as per club rules.

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Martin shows up looking a bit more tired and raggedy when I meet him the following day at the Pinball Hall of Fame, just outside Vegas in Paradise, Nevada. I assumed that the pinball museum would be mostly empty on a Saturday morning, but I was totally wrong: There are dozens of pinball-heads who’ve come out to play. Garrix, who has to play the MGM Grand’s outdoor pool party club later in the afternoon, shows up around noon. He skips the round of hugs this time and curls up in the interview chair.

I ask what kind of music he listens to in his free time. “When I listen to music, it’s not even close to what I usually produce,” he says. “I listen to music basically every moment of the day, but I’m not gonna listen every moment of the day to house. Sometimes I wake up with Flume or Disclosure … which is also house a little bit. Sometimes I just listen to piano music. I love [the soundtrack to] Amelie.” He mentions plans to release the non-EDM music he sometimes makes on the side under his birth name. He’s clearly tired from last night, but he’s as smiley as ever. “It doesn’t matter how tired I am, I will always still be happy,” he says. “As soon as you go onstage you get adrenaline. You hear the crowd, they’re screaming your name, they have posters. The energy gives you energy.”

Does he ever worry about maintaining the pace of the career and going so hard? “Not really,” he shoots back. “I think it’s more of a challenge to stay relevant. You can have one big song, but then you can go down again.” He makes a thzzbt raspberry sound. “But I don’t know. It’s fun to try to make each song better than the previous one.” Garrix is an expert at delivering answers he has probably given thousands of times before in a way that feels at least mildly spontaneous — a testament to the professionalism of his industry training. I can sense that there are layers beneath the one he is giving to me as a reporter, but that going deeper will be difficult.

Unlike some A-list DJs, who perform more or less by hitting play on a canned set, Garrix builds his sets live. He has a library of songs organized by BPM and practiced segues, but the set list is apt to change every night according to his mood, the crowd, and the city. He jumps around during his sets, but from behind the decks it’s obvious that he — unlike some other big-name DJs I won’t mention here — did not pre-record anything. I ask if he likes the idea that something could go wrong up there, and he breaks the stream of more rehearsed-sounding answers with what feels like a real moment with the real Martijn Garritsen. “Oh yeah,” he says, his eyes widening with the memory. “I’ve messed up a couple times, big-time, at shows. When I make a mistake, I’m bummed, but afterwards I can laugh about it. And [at least] people know I play my sets live. Every negative thing has a good thing to it.”

Finally, I ask what really scares him, and Martin’s face falls for the first time since I’ve met him, into darkness. He thinks about it for a long beat. “What scares me? I don’t know. I’m afraid of losing someone who’s close to me. That’s the only thing I’m really, really afraid of.” He brightens back up immediately when I ask whether he would like to follow Tiësto’s career model over the next few decades. "Tiësto is one of my inspirations. Same as David Guetta. If they did it for money they could have stopped, easily, 10 years ago. But if you see them onstage, they’re having so much fun. It’s inspirational. Twenty years from now I still wanna be doing that.”

I try to push him on the question of whether EDM has already peaked and is changing into its next form, but he is open and not at all defensive. “It might be! There’s a lot of things I still can do in music,” he says. “Maybe DJ’ing gets less popular, but I’ll still be [making music].” I tell him he seems incredibly disciplined, and he does a victorious arm pump to celebrate. And I believe him when he says he will outlast EDM, because he does not believe that electronic music is a passing trend any more than rock and roll was. After all, 50 million Martin Garrix fans can’t be wrong.

Once we’ve talked for an hour and played some pinball — his wrist-flipping skills honed from DJ’ing are effective here too — Garrix makes his apologies. He has to start preparing for his pool party set at Wet Republic, the MGM Grand’s “dayclub.” There is no rest. He thanks everyone, poses for photos with a few fans who approach him in the pinball hall, and hugs me, sprinkling me with his magic PLUR dust one last time. Then he’s off. As I walk outside into the glaring light of day, I run into a couple of teenagers vaping in front of the pinball hall. One of them asks me excitedly, “Hey, was that Martin Garrix?” and I confirm that it was. “THAT’S SO COOL!,” they say, and it’s hard to disagree.