Zedd on What He’s Learned From Skrillex, Lady Gaga and the Beatles
Ambitious DJ on new ‘True Colors,’ breaking free from EDM
Zedd’s music has a huge sound, so it can be surprising meeting the unassuming Anton Zaslavski in person. On the 80th story of the Empire State Building, the soft-spoken 25-year-old behind the EDM powerhouse is preparing to play his new LP, True Colors, for fans who have crossed the city to win a scavenger hunt for tickets. The record, his second, refines his earlier work, moving seamlessly from one compact EDM track to another, all building to transcendent peaks. He’s started to take on new textures here and there — perhaps most radically, the rapper Logic shows up on “Transmission” — but the result is unlikely to disappoint those who love Zedd for what he has done previously. The DJ-producer spoke to Rolling Stone about inspirations beyond dance music, studying under Skrillex and collaborating with Lady Gaga.
What’s the main difference between this album and your previous work?
Well, I think my first album, nobody had an expectation — not even my label. I’d never made an album before, so it was really a fresh start. Then obviously I gained fans through the record, and suddenly people were expecting me to do things. I thought it was really important for me to do what I want to do, and not be caught in this cage that you technically built yourself. I started the songs, and I liked that the first four or five songs were really different: “Transmission” was one of them, which sounded totally different from “True Colors,” which sounded totally different from “Straight Into the Fire.” Halfway through I realized I would like to keep that idea as a concept album, of every song being a very different color. I had a song that was very similar to one of the other songs on the album, so even though I loved the song — it probably would have been a single — I cut it out.
I imagine after “Clarity” blew up, there was pressure following you to do certain things. How did that pressure take shape?
It’s boring to stay the same. I can’t make “Clarity” 10 times. I’m bored of it; I made it once and I want to move on. It’s important for me that my fans know I’m Zedd the musician, not Zedd the EDM DJ. And if I decide to make an acoustic album next time, which is very well possible, that’s still me. My heart is in there. It doesn’t mean that sonically the sound will be the same.
To me the pressure is not on me really. The pressure is more on the label, because I’m convinced of my abilities. With “Clarity,” the label told me that the song wouldn’t be a hit because it was four-minutes-and-30-seconds long. It had two drops; they were 45 seconds long. So much instrumental — that music wasn’t on the radio. And I was like, “Well, yeah, but I love it.” And it became a club hit and everyone played it, and then the radio’s like, we’re going to play it too. . . . and suddenly the rules didn’t apply.
One of the things that’s great about “Clarity” is that it has a real classic pop songwriting sound. I was curious about your influences outside of EDM. Who inspired you in that way of writing?
To be completely honest, I’m not very inspired by EDM at all. I have a really hard time listening to EDM and being like, “Wow, that’s really inspiring, I want to do something like that.” There’s a handful of artists that will do that. I’m way more inspired listening to, song-structure-wise, the Beatles. The Beatles have never stretched things unnecessarily if it didn’t help the song. In dance music, you will sometimes find those structure of, like, a one-minute intro. And, like, why do you need a one-minute intro? That’s not necessary at all. I kind of went about it in a very Beatles way. Or Queen is a huge influence for me. Bands like Silverchair and Radiohead. Feeder, Queens of the Stone Age.
What was it that led you to use EDM as a medium for your pop songwriting?
I heard Justice, and to me, Justice was so musical. Which is what I love about it — it’s songs. You will not find the EDM structures in Justice’s music. Barely. It was still so good-sounding. I couldn’t live with the fact that someone could sound so good, and I had no clue how to do that. And I didn’t know anything about production in the electronic world. So I started figuring it out, and I wanted to sound like Justice. I wanted to know how to do that.
Were Daft Punk an inspiration to you as well?
They were. One of the most important ones, looking back. Because I was in a rock phase: jazz, funk, rock. Deep Purple, Rainbow, that kind of old stuff. And then I heard “One More Time,” when they released the single in Germany. I didn’t like electronic music at all; there was nothing that made me want to listen to it. But I loved that song so much, so I went to a record store like, “I’m going to listen to that album.” And they had little stations where you can grab headphones and you can preview an album. I just listened to the entire album in a row, and I was like, “Whoa! This is so different!”
I bought the record and listened to it hundreds of times. I was obsessed with it. And then went on with my rock phase: I listened to a lot of Feeder. And years later is when I heard Justice and was like, “It reminds me of that Daft Punk vibe.” But the sounds were way better: It was more mature, the production was much more advanced at that time. And I was like, “Fuck, I need to do this myself!” And then I met Skrillex.
How’d you and Skrillex connect?
The reason I got in touch with him is because I was working on a song. It was before “complextro,” which was a subgenre of electronic music that had a boom five or six years ago. Before that happened, I had this idea of putting a million sounds and making them connect. I was like, “Oh, I think I’ve got something no one’s done before.” I was working on the song, and randomly I saw a Skrillex remix online, and I clicked it and it was that thing but way better than I had done it. I was like, “Damn, I thought I had something no one’s ever done before!”
I messaged him and was like, “Listen, dude, electronic music, the majority isn’t musical, you got it. You understand the music.” And I sent him a two-minute clip of that song that wasn’t finished. He heard it, was like, “Dude, this is so awesome, send me the full song. I’m gonna play it tonight.”
Skrillex was huge at that moment — I can’t believe he replied to me a couple minutes later. It turned out it was random: He hadn’t checked the messages for months. He checked it a minute after I sent the message, and mine popped up all the way to the top. He listened to that, biggest luck ever, and that’s how we got in touch.
Every Skrillex show I’ve been to has been amazing. When you’re trying to translate your music to a live performance, do you model it off what he does?
I used to be a drummer in a metal band. I did my own thing, I had earplugs on, I heard nothing, I was in my world. But then starting DJing, you’re the frontman. My English was really bad when I started touring because I got my visa in 2011. So I came to the States and my English was really broken. Skrillex is like, “You’ve got to talk to the crowd.” I was like, “Oh, I can’t do this — I’m not confident.” He’s like, “You’re here because of me, I brought you here, you’ve got to talk to the crowd.” I was like, “Oh . . .” I started watching him doing it every night.
It came to the point where we played a tour in Mexico. He had his new production, he had his new team, and I watched the show. And I know he’s doing it live, because I know him, but the production was so on point — it was unbelievable. It was the first time I realized you can be perfect live. Because I thought you had to pre-program a show to be tight. But it is possible: The lighting guy had pedals, used every finger possible. That was the inspiration for my tour. Now we have a cable running to the front of house guys, so they see my screen. Whenever they hear the song coming, they know, “OK, got to recall ‘this song, red color.'”
Do you find you’re getting more collaborative with this level of success?
It’s easier: I can reach out to more people. Like back then, people would be like, “I don’t want to work with a DJ.” Where now, people are like, “This is a musician, not a DJ.” I was asked to produce a country album, and if my album didn’t take months longer than I expected it to take, I would have produced it. And I would have loved to see where it ended.
Working with Lady Gaga, for example, made me learn to collaborate, because she’s a musician too. I got really lucky that every collaborator really trusted my vision, even if it was outside of their comfort zone. Echosmith doesn’t make music like what we did together. Logic doesn’t. Every single person I worked with trusted my vision, and at the point where we recorded vocals, the songs weren’t always done. Sometimes they were really raw. It was like, just trust me. I’m not gonna do anything that’s not great.