DON DIABLO: The Dark Knight

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Don Diablo is the Dutch DJ with the film star looks who will be releasing his debut album with Columbia Records, the label behind acts like Daft Punk, Beyonce and Calvin Harris. Meet the real Don in this intimate and rare interview with Liselotte Doorduijn, where he talks about the loss of his father, the struggles of being a celebrity, and how he would like people to really see him.

I’m with Don in his London studio. He’s fresh faced, with a friendly smile, wearing cool black clothes. He offers me a drink. All perfectly normal.

So how did Don choose his stage name ‘Don Diablo’? “As a kid, I thought it sounded cool and it’s a powerful name on flyers. My last name Schipper doesn’t work for many reasons, so it was also a bit of a marketing decision. I wanted something easy. Eventually, the name just grew with me. [But] Don Diablo is a character, a façade. Like Batman, I wanted to create this iconic super hero.”

And he’s referencing Batman further by  naming his upcoming release ‘Black Mask’. “Yes, the title refers to Batman, fans understand that. I feel blessed because I got to legally use exclusive Batman footage thanks to a unique collaboration with Warner Brothers.”

Warner must have noted the resemblance as the company asked Don to create the worldwide theme song for the highly anticipated Batman Arkham Origins game. The track and the accompanying video became an instant viral hit. “Warner Brothers contacted me as they were searching for an artist that would fit the Batman theme and, in their eyes, I was the right guy. Batman does fit me – the music needs to be raw but with a mainstream appeal. To me, Batman is the ultimate style icon, adored by the masses but still dark and cool. It is funny because people really connect me to Batman now. I get many emails, pictures and tweets from kids in Batman shirts, with Batman gadgets.”

The Warner collaboration takes him full circle as Don initially wanted to become a film producer himself: “I  used to make little videos and clips that became more ambitious over time. I started at home, with my parents and friends as the actors. Not long after that things became bigger, I bought more equipment and started working on different locations. Aged thirteen, I bought my own green screen. I remembered my mother walking in and I was hanging in front of my green screen – like superman. It was hilarious: ‘Mom, I’m busy at the moment flying through outer space.’ Becoming a film director was my goal.”

However, life had different plans for Don. When he couldn’t find the right music for his films, he started making the music himself. When a friend sent one of his tracks to a record company, he was offered his first record deal aged 15. Fast forward to now and Don has performed from London to Tokyo, from Miami to Sydney, and has collaborated with the likes of Kelis, Alex Clare, Diplo, Example, Dragonette and Noisia.

In 2013 alone Don produced dance floor hits on Axwell’s Axtone label, Nicky Romero’s Protocol Recordings, Steve Angello’s Size X imprint and several tracks on the Spinnin’ Records label. Don has had strong support from BBC Radio 1 host Pete Tong, who debuted no less than six of Don’s releases in his show in 2013, and he has had a residency at Las Vegas’ hottest new super club “Light”. He also toured the UK with Nicky Romero, enjoyed a sold-out solo tour of Asia and the USA, and closed the year in New York City on Pier94 with Alesso.

It all started in Coevorden, a little village in the Netherlands where Don Pepijn Schipper was born 34 years ago. His parents named him after cult hero Captain Beefheart, whose real name is Don van Vliet. “My father loved him,” says Don; “He was an American musician and painter who became one of the ultimate icons of the Seventies, representing the avant-garde music wave. The way they dressed, the music they made, the covers they created for their albums – they created without rules. Sometimes when they recorded an album they just got ten musicians and improvised from the beginning till the end”.

At an early age, Don understood that you have to earn your success. Aged 12, he decided that if he wanted to achieve something in his life he had to give something back, so he made a pact with the universe to never smoke, drink or use drugs. “You can’t expect the universe, or god or whoever is up there, to keep on giving while you give nothing in return – that is the way I see it. The only thing that I had to offer at the time was to never use drugs and alcohol, both of which are a great part of growing up. Until now, someone has rewarded me very well.”

His parents were open-minded and raised him with the motto: “It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you are happy”. But he learned not to be too freewheeling: “Later, you realise that people expect your work to be very structured. You can’t be everything and do everything.”

Don had to specialise in something and chose to focus on his music. “I made a decision; I wanted to create music so I needed a band.” However, growing up on the countryside, where few people had the same kind of drive as Don, it was difficult to find people for his band so he had to find a solution: “I discovered electronic music and computers, which basically allowed me to become a one-man band.”

He also enjoyed being in control of everything, contrasting with movie making where he might have to depend on others. “I still want to make a movie some day, but as film director you are very dependent on the work of others: actors, scriptwriters, budgets etc. It’s a collective thing. With electronic music on the other hand, I am not depending on a singer or session musicians. I can create something on my own from A to Z. I love that.”

As the creative director of his own ideas, he controls the entire creative process: “When I make music I am already thinking about the music video I want to make, the album cover, the show. I love to take risks, like making videos for tracks that are not commercially relevant… If someone blows my mind I’m very open to put them in control. However if I feel like I can do it better myself then I prefer to do it myself.”

“I love to make big music videos shot with a big crew on many different locations and then the next video could just take place in my own backyard without a crew. I have so many ideas and why not give them all a try? As an artist you’ve got two options, you can be a sprinter or a marathon runner and I see my job as a marathon – seeing every part as an element of the whole. I love to play with the rules. It’s the same with buying clothes. People always expect me to take hours to find the right outfit, but I know exactly what I want.”

He has been voted multiple times ‘best dressed man’ by Dutch Esquire magazine. “I prefer to make clothes myself. As an artist I can’t really wear the same outfit multiple times so you have to be creative with the time and elements that you have at your disposal.”

Argentinian designer Rodrigo Otazu is a regular collaborator for creating special pieces, he says. “Most guys in the best dressed list wear suits. I try to think a bit broader. I always wear black clothes as a base. It has to be comfortable. I have a lot of jackets that are easy to combine with for instance a waistcoat that I customise myself with vintage stuff I find or other cool images. In that way, it seems like I have a lot of clothes but basically I’m just changing the combinations. Other DJs are always surprised when I arrive with my little suitcase in the midst of a three week tour, but I guess I just know how to mix and match.”

He adds: “I feel that I can’t wear things on stage that are available in stores. That’s just my idea of being an artist, you have to try to stand out. In my opinion the creativity doesn’t end with the music. If I stand in front of a crowd of thousands of people, it just seems nice that people have something fun to watch as well.”

He is currently working on his own merchandising line, having signed to Columbia Records, which he notes is “the house of Daft Punk”. He explains: “Daft Punk always works with shapes. It inspired me to create my own shape, The Hexagon. For my merchandising line, The Hexagon is going to be my shape. Most artists just put their name on t-shirts, but I would love to create a cool shirt with just a recognisable symbol. Even if you don’t like my music, the merchandising should still look cool on its own.”

However, the combination of music and fashion is challenging for Don: “If the focus is too much on fashion then it distracts. That is why I became more moderate with my style. I grew up with Freddy Mercury and David Bowie, so these are the people that I look up to, who inspire me. I thought about wearing the same outfits but I always come to the conclusion that it’s too distracting for my audience.”

He’s a straight guy although sometimes mistaken for gay. “Every now and then there are people asking me if I am gay, just because I like fashion. At one point I decided not to aggressively deny it anymore, because somehow it felt like I was insulting a whole community – why defend myself? I definitely love women, but I don’t want to be small-minded about it. I also want to send out a signal towards young gays that they should be proud of who they are. I think that is an important message to send out, even though I am hetero myself”

Don likes to challenge. “I recently had this discussion about my new music video Got me thinkin’. The track was doing really well on an underground level, especially thanks to a lot of support from BBC Radio 1. While brainstorming about ideas for a video someone said: let’s just film some semi naked girls fooling around with each other.’ This idea, which always comes up in meetings like these, made me think; what does that really say about me? So I said, why not take two guys instead of two girls? The meeting became very silent, they where like ‘no-homo, but why?’ I work in this macho culture. But why not?”

The final Got me thinkin’ video ended up receiving very positive reactions, but as expected it also triggered some hateful remarks. “You have to create a tough skin, most people react really positive, but others become really negative. For that reason, not many artists get mixed up in these subjects and try to stay on the safe side. In this industry, it’s still a taboo. I think that’s weird and it literally “got me thinkin”.

If you stand out from the crowd people judge you. Don explains: “People don’t like what they don’t understand. I want to be open-minded. I like to inspire people. When something happens in my life I like to express myself. A lot of artists in my scene are mostly involved with the production side of making a song. I love to write or co-write lyrics as well when I feel inspired, so it becomes more personal. The track Hooligans, for example, I wrote in the night when I was fucking pissed off about something. The track Golden Years is a song I wrote just before I lost my father. For me, my music is a way to process stuff.”

The track Golden Years was written when Don realized his childhood was over. “As a kid, you want to grow up fast but when you get older you miss the time when you were a child and had big dreams and everything felt like an opportunity. Somewhere along the way you lose that feeling when you get older, so you should always remember the golden years, because before you know it you are grown up.”

It is hard for Don when people don’t get his work or don’t want to get his work, because he is emotional attached to it: “For me, the ultimate challenge was making The Artist Inside music video. The song is based on a letter I wrote for my father, three days before he passed away. Unfortunately he was never able to read the letter.”

“For many children it is difficult to deal with the fact that you know your father only has a few days left to live. That is the biggest issue in life because ultimately you do everything in life to make your parents proud. It’s a Greek tragedy. It’s so difficult when you realise that every conversation might be the last one. What do you say? Thanks for everything?”

“I wanted to write a letter to my father to thank him for everything. Which is something you never really do. The Artist Inside is about my father; he was the best father in the world. For the funeral I wanted to use my inner feelings and turn it into a song and a music video. As a kid I was always filming everything and for this video I used some of this footage that seemed insignificant at the time, but now holds a very special emotion. The video is my father’s life flashing by in front of your eyes, my hero, a strong man with humour who is on his way to the end of his life. It’s the circle of life in a way and it felt like I had to make this video, because now all these images of my father’s life became like a puzzle that finally came together.”

He adds: “For me, reality is the most beautiful art there is. If you can show reality how it really is, then you are the ultimate artist. Life is more then fantasy. I would like to create art that transforms lives, to make something that influences peoples lives, more then just party, party. When I put this video online, it had a great impact. I literally received hundreds of letters of young people who where dealing with the same loss. One of the most beautiful letters I received was from a girl who had not spoken with her father for 10 years and I received a picture of them on holiday together, with the words ‘Thank you, your song was all we needed’. Another young boy mailed me the day after his father passed away telling me that the last thing they did together was listen to my song.”

It sounds heavy. “It is super heavy! But it means so much more to me then all the negative reactions. Sometimes when I am performing, and I look in the audience in some kid’s eyes and I feel we have a connection – that we both lost our father or somebody else that was very dear to us. That deep connection means the world to me. How many mails I received from kids who played my track at their parent’s funeral. That means so much more to me then a track in the top 10. To be a part of someone’s live like that, to me that is the highest one can achieve as an artist.”

The media, by contrast, has sometimes given him a hard time. “They create an image and that’s what you are for the rest of your life, that is difficult at times. Sometimes it cuts through me like a dagger when they say I’m arrogant or a guy who’s just pushing buttons and is obsessed with his looks. Because sometimes that is what the media makes of me.”

He recalls his teenage years: “I had a ponytail and hardly came outside. I was the guy who could never get the girls in class; I really had to work on myself. Fashion became my disguise. Don Diablo is a character I play, it is who I am but on the other hand I’m not – its some kind of twilight zone that I am living in.”

He notes: “Fashion plays a big role in music. Your image is an important factor in your career – even if you don’t want it… For people, DJs are such abstract beings – people see a documentary about DJ Tiësto or Armin van Buuren and they think all DJs are like that. It’s like comparing Italians with Spaniards. We are all different artists. People however are not interested in deep interviews – that is the reason why I’m not doing as many interviews as I used to anymore.”

Currently, he is hard at work on his first artist album and has been crafting a show together with L.A. based visual company VSquared Labs, the creative brains behind the visual shows of Amon Tobin and Skrillex. “I want to bring all the elements together during my shows, both music and visuals. The idea is that I will perform behind this transparent screen and on that screen images will be shown so it seems I’m part of it. It is going to be very futuristic, more then just music. But this whole process is very costly and might seem complicated for promoters so I need to work on that before I take the show on the road.”

He is putting his own money in the project. “I have been driving the same car for the last six years and prefer to invest all my money in my creative impulses. Which is not making me rich but I think that it is important for an artist to invest in your creative growth. Most managements and record labels are like ‘why invest in all this when people just want to see you and hear the music?’

But for Don the song he made for his dad is how he wants people to remember him – not just as the guy behind a slew of bangin’ tunes that rocked clubs and festivals around the world. “I want to portray something, leave something behind. My father was my inspiration; he was the only one I wanted to impress, creatively. Now that he’s gone I can start thinking more about the other aspects of becoming more successful. I told my father that I will try to be the greatest – my father taught me to dream like that.”

Published on Hungertv.com

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