Solarstone on the supreme coolness of uncool trance music and his first ever NZ gig

Solarstone performing at ASOT 1000 in Poland.
Solarstone performing at ASOT 1000 in Poland. Photo credit: A State of Trance

Trance music hasn't been cool for decades and arguably was never really cool at all. But once upon a time it was one of the biggest genres in the world and it might just be about to make a triumphant comeback.

UK-based musician Solarstone has long been associated with trance after his 1999 hit 'Seven Cities' became one of the genre's most iconic anthems, played countless times at clubs and festivals around the world - including New Zealand.

But that was just one of his many, many contributions to the genre. He's been one of its most consistently consistent figures, persistently releasing new music, managing record labels, hosting radio shows, putting on live events and fathering online communities over the years as mainstream support came and went, and other big name DJs abandoned it for other genres.

Later this month, Solarstone - real name Richard Mowatt - is coming to New Zealand to play his first ever gig in the country. He never made it over during the genre's peak in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when he would've been a headline act at a major event with thousands in attendance.

Instead, on April 21 he's playing The Mothership, a club in central Auckland with a capacity of much less than 1000 people. He's playing for six straight hours with an open-to-close set in a relatively intimate venue for what will likely be an audience of passionate trance fans completely unbothered by how uncool the genre may be.

"I've always said that the coolest thing about trance is that it's not cool, but it knows it's not cool and it doesn't f**king care," Mowatt told Newshub.

"Music fashion is like any other type of fashion - genres have their moment in the sun and then that's it. I'm fine with it the way it is now, I actually prefer it like this. Those brief few years in the late '90s and early '00s, that was an anomaly that was never going to last.

"It's the same with a career as a musician. You have these moments in the sun, which you're grateful for, but you know they're not going to last. I think it's always better to not be the flavour of the month but to be sort of the next guy down. That way you continue to be creative and relatively successful, but you don't have to worry about being at the top. There's only one way to go if you're at the top - down."

There is a sincerity to trance in how it wears its heart loudly on its sleeve that has made it easy to mock. But that unabashed emotiveness is precisely what keeps fans coming back to it.

"God forbid you show any emotion on the dance floor! Trance is kind alien to Britishness with how it expresses emotions with purity and a sort of innocence. People who want to be considered 'cool' can't deal with that. But why? Who gives a f**k what other people think about the music you like?" said Mowatt.

"When you go to a club and take ecstasy or whatever, the last thing you want to do is be concerned with other people's opinions. If you can just close your eyes, open yourself up to music for six hours or so and feel properly free - how can being accepted by strangers be more important than that?

"People who haven't experienced it just don't understand. But if you take them to a really good trance event, surround them with smiling people and this amazing music - they suddenly go, 'Oh my God, where's it's been all my life?'."

Solaratone is playing The Mothership in Auckland on April 21, 2023.
Solarstone. Photo credit: supplied

A genre about to make a comeback?

The thing about musical genres - or fashion trends - is that they do indeed have their day in the sun then recede away into obscurity, but often they come back again.

This year there's a lot of buzz around a new track that some see as a big step in an imminent trance comeback.

"Calvin Harris and Ellie Goulding believe in a trance 'Miracle'," said the Rolling Stone. "Calvin Harris & Ellie Goulding drop trance anthem," said Billboard. "Calvin Harris channels '90s trance on new Ellie Goulding collaboration," said DJ Mag, while NME also described it as "'90s trance-inspired" and "ravey".

In New Zealand, George FM posted glowingly about the release and asked: "Is trance back?"

When Solarstone is in Auckland, he's playing the George Breakfast Hotset on the morning of his club event. That's the premiere guest mix slot on the country's biggest dance music radio station; a 30-minute DJ set, uninterrupted by ads, on Friday, April 21 from 9am. It is perhaps the first time ever a through-and-through trance artist has claimed the slot.

But you won't hear Solarstone play that new Calvin Harris single. For purists, new enthusiasm for trance and younger fans getting into the genre will be warmly welcomed, but 'Miracle' somewhat represents what went wrong with it in the first place.

"Trance was so big and it hit so hard, it really shocked everybody. But then it went from being something 'cool' to being Eurodance. It became what Calvin Harris has just done with Ellie Golding," said Mowatt.

"Trance turned into Eurodance in the 2000s and that's when it became shit. That's when everyone started saying that it was cheesy and it wasn't cool. But real, proper trance music still existed - it just wasn't in the spotlight.

"Most of the music I and other DJs like John 00 Fleming play is not even categorised as 'trance'. It's referred to as 'melodic techno' or 'progressive house', because fashion conscious DJs don't want to be perceived as supporting something which is uncool. So the only way you can get them to support proper trance is by calling it something else."

Another outlet labelling the Calvin Harris track "a trance anthem" is the New Statesman, which strongly suggests trance is about to replace techno as the global genre du jour. The article by Octavia Sheepshanks ends with an emphatic verdict: "Techno's reign is over, and not a moment too soon."

"Trance is techno's cheerful sister, quantitatively similar but qualitatively worlds apart," wrote Sheepshanks.

"Both trance and Eurodance have traditionally been considered eminently uncool. But Gen Z and young millennials, who were toddlers during trance's original launch into orbit, don't care. And so, change is afoot."

It's not uncommon for techno tracks to be played in trance sets and indeed tech-trance is its own subgenre. But while top current trance acts like Bryan Kearney will play a great deal of straight up techno in most of their sets, you'd be hard-pressed to find a serious techno DJ doing the same in return - unless they're playing one of the many modern techno remixes of a trance classic.

Solarstone regularly plays techno on his Pure Trance radio show and loves that genre too, but he's clearly amused by what it is currently experiencing.

Solarstone performing at A State Of Trance 1000 in Poland.
Solarstone performing at ASOT 1000 in Poland. Photo credit: A State of Trance

"What is happening now with the techno scene is what happened to trance music with the whole EDM thing. It's quite funny - it's almost like they're getting a taste of what it was like for us," said Mowatt.

"People are hearing what is being sold as techno now and saying 'This is cheesy shit.' I mean have you heard some of this music? Have you seen some of these DJs? It's like a playground, it's hilarious. But that's not techno, that's just some kind of pop music.

"So techno purists aren't happy, and that's no different to what happens with other genres and subgenres. With classical music - classical purists would rather die than admit to liking a piece by Einaudi. In the classical world, Einaudi is considered something like an idiot child who's just taken piano lessons, even though some of his melodies are very borrowable."

It's hard to imagine techno becoming quite as looked down upon as trance became, but it could happen.

"We trance artists have been like the whipping boy of the electronic music world for nearly 20 years now. It became very fashionable to say that trance was shit," said Mowatt.

"With music journalists it became fashionable to despise it and to refuse to discuss it. If they did mention it, it was always with an inherent snobbery. It became incredibly hard as a trance artist to get features in DJ Mag or Mixmag, or the main websites for electronic music."

Should such a fate befall techno, however, its stars may not face as difficult a struggle - thanks to trance.

"It's very interesting the A State of Trance events bring in these DJs from the techno world and the melodic techno world and all the rest of it, because that would never happen the other way round. Those big techno events - they would never invite me, would they? They wouldn't invite Aly & Fila, they wouldn't invite Armin [Van Buuren]. So there is a very open-armed thing within the trance world," said Mowatt.

Back to where it began - the clubs

Some big name international DJs only do the major festivals playing whatever style is popular at the time.

Solarstone plays big festivals like A State of Trance, Transmission, Ultra and Luminosity, but he also regularly plays smaller club nights such as the one in Auckland this month.

"The club shows, that's what it's all about. The big festivals are just a little special thing that happens occasionally. That's not what the scene is about - never has been. It couldn't be about that," Mowatt told Newshub.

"It's definitely all about the club experience for me, with a few hundred people in a room from the start to the end. They all know the words to the tunes, they ask you for obscure records, they mention something you said on the radio show - I just love that.

"Obviously when I do a gig and it's half empty I feel gutted. But when it's full, I feel incredibly fortunate. When I manage to get 300 people into a club, I find it f**king incredible that they've come to see me, like I can't I believe I'm doing this!"

The Auckland event is being put on by Ramesh Premaratna through his Lost in Sound brand. He is tremendously excited to be bringing Solarstone to Aotearoa and is hopeful for more trance gigs in bigger venues here, but he is fairly grim about the current state of the Kiwi trance scene.

"There's the old school ravers wanting to go out once in a while, but to be honest with you, it's almost dead. But we are trying to keep it alive," Premaratna told Newshub.

"Getting 150 people or even 120 people through the door at a trance gig in New Zealand is a big, big task. We don't have a younger generation following it, so it's a smaller, niche crowd.

"Solarstone is the biggest gig I've done since I got involved in 2018. There's four other people behind me with this one financially and all five of us thought, you know what, Solarstone's never been to New Zealand - we have to do this. It's a relatively OK amount of money we can risk - even if we lose out, it's not a huge amount when divided by five. So we did it."

Trance gig in Auckland in February, 2023.
A Lost in Sound trance event held at The Backyard Bar in Northcote, Auckland in February, 2023. Photo credit: Azriel Dsouza Photography

The capacity at The Mothership is 350 and Premaratna said if they get 200 through the door they'll "probably break even". If they make a profit, they'll be looking to invest that money into putting on more gigs.

"I'm not doing it for the money. I'm doing it for the passion and for the fun of it. I've met a lot of really nice people through the trance scene, many of them are close friends and the reason I do it is to pretty much bring those people together and keep the network going," said Premaratna.

"In the future, maybe we could get Bryan Kearney and John O'Callaghan over here, keep the scene going with a gig like that maybe once a year. That would be awesome. We want to keep it going and get the younger generation into it so it goes on longer again."

One benefit of a smaller gig is it actually allows for the open-to-close format. When the big UK superclub brands did events in Auckland 20 years or so ago, those always had a bunch of local and international DJs on the bill to attract maximum punters, sell more tickets and try to fill all the rooms in a venue.

For Solarstone - and probably for his fans - the open-to-close format is a superior experience.

"It's the thing I love the most - it's your night, isn't it? You're taking people on a journey, as much of a cliche as that is, that's what you're doing. You're setting the tone from the very start and it's a proper combined, joint experience between you and the fans," said Mowatt.

"It's what it's about as a DJ, and a producer. And a fan, as well. If you're a big fan of an electronic music artist who DJs, to go on that journey with them - the whole build, going off on tangents, going down a little rabbit hole, then the big wow, goosebumps moments where you're all going 'Oh God yeah!'.

"To do that with a couple of hundred people in a room for eight hours or whatever, there is nothing like it. You cannot beat it. It's just brilliant and I'd happily do that every time."

Even though Solarstone has not played Aotearoa before, he has visited, popping over on a break from a tour of Australia - where trance has enjoyed a much larger resurgence.

"New Zealand was astonishingly amazing. It felt like it was in a bubble, completely separate from the whole world. It was totally not like Australia, it felt almost like Wales as a really chilled, family-focussed, community-focussed place," said Mowatt.

"It's weird I haven't played there yet. My radio show in its various forms has been played on Pulzar FM in Christchurch since day one with the very first edition of Deep Blue Radio. There could be people in New Zealand who've been listening to my show for nearly 20 years. So it's strange I haven't played there, although it is literally the furthest away you can possibly get from the UK."

He isn't sure why he never came with one of the UK superclub tours, but puts it down to being "just unlucky".

Armin Van Buuren playing Godskitchen at the St James in Auckland in 2003.
Armin Van Buuren playing Godskitchen at the St James in Auckland in 2003. Photo credit: archives

When trance ruled New Zealand's nightlife

Had Solarstone played Auckland in the early 2000s, he would have found his records for sale in several record stores around the city and being played in several clubs, none of which exist anymore.

Nick Collings vividly remembers the era. He was a major part of it - running a record store, DJing in clubs and at festivals, hosting radio shows and so on. An important figure in Aotearoa's dance music culture to this day, he has also become somewhat of a historian of it, founding and managing online groups that celebrate it.

Asked to put his finger on the point when trance jumped from being a small thing in a few clubs to the biggest thing in town, he immediately referred to a TV ad.

"For monumental moments in trance music around here, Sony NZ picking up the Gatecrasher compilation Disco-Tech and the big ad campaign they ran for it was a truly pivotal moment," said Collings.

"It really nailed the vibe of that time where the people getting right into dance music were really defined by what happened on the weekend between 9pm and 7am, rather than their office jobs. The soundtrack of the Gatecrasher generation was trance, that was the 'it' genre of the time, in the same way to how pop drum and bass is here now."

It is hard to describe to people not from the era just how ubiquitous trance and related genres were in Auckland at the time, considering how little there is of it now.

"K Road was the spot to go, from the late '90s right through that era to about 2004. That little street had Angle Bar, Voyager, Bed, Kiss, Sinners, Jones Bar - that's five venues off the top of my head that played trance music, then there were house clubs like Calibre down the road, Bacio, Departure Lounge, the K Rd Ballroom did events, as did Studio or Staircase as it was named then," said Collings.

"There were lines out the door for most of them on Thursday night, Friday night, Saturday night and Sunday morning. They were the feeder to the big events we got from overseas like Gatecrasher, Slinky and Godskitchen packing out the big venues. Then we had Lagered and Chemistry as local brands more than holding their own attracting huge crowds to the big venues, too.

Flyers for Two Tribes 2002, Gatecrasher Digital and Sundissential V Ministry of Sound in Auckland in the early 2000s, when trance music ruled.
Promotional flyers for major dance music events with international trance DJs in the early 2000s. Photo credit: archives

"If Solarstone came to New Zealand then he'd have been in the main room at the St James or Ellerslie Racecourse where those touring international brands usually played. Those venues are comparable to Spark Arena today and if trance music was as big now as it was then, Solarstone would be playing Spark Arena to a few thousand people."

Collings remembers 'Seven Cities' being played "four or five times a night for several years in the K Rd clubs". The track also featured on that renowned 1999 Gatecrasher: Disco-Tech album.

It remains an anthem, having been remixed and re-released many, many times over the years. But it almost wasn't released at all.

The "incredible fortune" of 'Seven Cities'

When 'Seven Cities' was produced, it was a bit different to the majority of what was being played in European clubs at the time and Mowatt said there were many reasons it almost never saw the light of day.

"It was flat out turned down by record labels, but then Paul Oakenfold played it at Cream. It was all down to that. We sent it to Paul Oakenfold, he played it at Cream, the crowd went mad and then a guy from the record label promptly got back in touch," said Mowatt.

Despite having played it hundreds - maybe thousands - of times over the years, he said he still loves playing it.

"I'm incredibly fortunate that I've got that track because while a lot of artists have a back catalogue, they don't have a really big track that people always think of. When you say 'Balearic Trance' to a lot of people, they think 'Seven Cities'. So I'm extremely fortunate that I've got that," said Mowatt.

"But it didn't do as well as a lot of people think. It wasn't a top 40 hit all over the world, it didn't make millions of quid or anything like that. Maybe it wasn't overplayed and maybe that's one of the reasons people are still fond of it, but it wasn't like [ATB's] '9 PM (Till I Come)' or 'Offshore' by Chicane. It never reached that level of popularity."

The hook of 'Seven Cities' features a distinctive string sound that has gone on to feature in the hooks of several subsequent Solarstone tracks including 'Touchstone', 'Shield', '4ever' and 'Thank You', to name a few.

"It's this sound I created back in 1999 and I can only get it with a particular synth and a particular effect. Every couple of years I'm working on a track with a certain kind of melody and I think, 'I want to use that sound'. And it's my sound, so I can," said Mowatt.

"I've been asked to provide it as a virtual instrument and have been offered quite a lot of money for that. But I won't give it away. People ask me what it is, but I'm not going to tell them because if somebody finds out, it'll be ruined. I've got a couple of tracks sitting there waiting for me to use that sound with at the moment, there will be another one - hopefully this year."

Of course, that 'Seven Cities' sound isn't in all of Mowatt's tracks, even if it is perhaps the signature Solarstone sound. There is diversity to his music, let alone all the other trance producers out there. And if the Calvin Harris 2023 "trance anthem" isn't actually trance, then what is?

"Trance music is groove, melody and emotion. When I was growing up I was into stuff like ELO, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and the Pet Shop Boys, which always had a sense of drama to it. The trance I love is also dramatic. It has huge, sweeping arrangements, lots of intricate layers, lush breakdowns, huge goosebump-inducing builds and beautiful melodies," said Mowatt.

"It's kind of like the modern version of classical music from someone like Beethoven. It's very intricate and intelligent. But then simplicity is really important with trance music as well.

"In a clever arrangement there could appear to be very little going on, but somehow it locks you in and it keeps you focused, moves you emotionally, takes you down then brings you back up, even though you don't even realise what's being done to you. Those tracks are some of the hardest to make.

"Take something like 'Sovereign', one of my latest tracks, that has loads and loads of stuff going on. It's packed with samples, has lots of hooks and lots of layers. But then 'Hope', another of my 2022 singles, that's really, really simple. But it's got three hooks in it - and each of those three hooks took ages to decide upon and combine with the other two. With 'Seven Cities', that's an incredibly simple track with only three chords. When Armin [Van Buuren] remixed it, he only used two of them! But it still sounded great."

Solarstone. Photo credit: supplied

The Pure Trance movement

Solarstone's Pure Trance brand is now in its tenth year. The radio show reaches millions of listeners each month, the four record labels have released a total of over 700 records, it has packed out several global events and a tenth Pure Trance compilation album is being finalised for release some time soon.

But the brand is all the result of what could be described as a happy accident that came about when trance music was at arguably its lowest point in history.

"It was dying. People weren't really making the music, DJs were walking away and it really looked headed to where the traditional jazz scene is at the moment where all the players dying, the fans are dying and soon there's going to be nothing left," said Mowatt.

"At my radio show I was getting sent hardly any music that I considered real trance. I had no gigs, I'd separated from my wife, I had no money - I had f**k all, basically. I was in a real tough spot and was considering chucking it all in and doing something else.

"Then Orkidea asked me to do a remix of his track 'Unity'. I asked what kind of thing he wanted and he said, 'Just make it really pure, pure trance'. I had nothing to lose, so I did this track and completely ignored everything else that was happening in the scene at the time and called it the 'Solarstone Pure Mix'. And then something happened."

That 'Unity' remix was released in 2011. The next year, the Pure Trance brand was launched.

"It was like zeitgeist timing, you know? It was almost like I became a flagbearer for trance music. 'Pure Mix' started trending on Twitter, everyone started talking about it and it was kind of like a rallying cry for people who love trance and felt like their precious thing was was disappearing. There was nothing preconceived about it, it was entirely natural," said Mowatt.

"Now here we are ten years later and it has just snowballed into something absolutely huge. And I do think that Pure Trance - looking back at it now - it really was important for the genre at the time. It definitely helped."

You won't find a serious trance music fan who would deny that the Pure movement helped the genre. You probably won't find a serious trance music fan who would deny that Solarstone's music has helped them on a personal level, either.

"When I get a really nice message from somebody about my music, that can have a really big impact," said Mowatt.

"Whether it's somebody saying, 'I met and fell in love with my partner as your song was playing', or 'My partner died and we're playing your song of the funeral, it was their favourite song', or 'I listened to this song when I was in labour with my son'. Those things are really important. And sometimes when I'm having a bad time psychologically, my wife Paula will say something to me like: 'Your music really means so much to people.' But it's hard to absorb it, it's hard to accept it.

"I really struggle with it - I'm 50 years old, I've been doing this my whole life but I really massively struggle with it. It's hard to take the credit for something like that, without feeling like a dick. But when someone tells you your music has had an impact on them, like 'that track helped me through a really shitty time in my life' - then I'm really glad. It's like being able to give somebody a hug, or to help a friend."

New Zealand's trance fans will be able to show Solarstone what his music means to them in person in Auckland on April 21.

And if what those music publications are saying about Calvin Harris et al is true, the Auckland gig is happening in the same year as trance finally gets a mainstream comeback.

So will it start to be cool? Who cares.