How an unknown remix contest winner from a German forest becomes Skrillex' right hand man and Lada Gaga's Opener
After a week of trying and failing to get in touch with Zedd, the electro house mad scientist, I was starting to imagine him as an insane night owl, a club rat with night vision who definitely couldn’t keep daylight appointments. So I was pleasantly surprised when I finally called him at 3 pm LA time and Zedd himself picked up, on the third ring, no prodding from handlers needed. As it turns out, the man who is coming up as the next messiah of electronic music is an extremely polite 22-year old.
If you look at press shots of Zedd with his team of friends and fellow producers, he’s impossible to miss – with his clean-cut look, he’s the one who looks like a sensitive classical pianist who’s shown up to the wrong party. Zedd did plan on being a classical pianist growing up in Germany, or at least his parents, both accomplished musicians, planned it for him. In Kaiserslaustern, a town near Frankfurt he still officially calls home, although he’s spent the past four months working in LA, he basically came up learning music in a forest: “If I run out of my house for ten seconds I’m literally in the woods.”
But Zedd, whose real name is Anton Zaslavski, has come a long way from his piano prodigy childhood. His latest single “Shotgun,” dropped March 27 on Skrillex’ OWSLA label and proceeded to park itself on the Beatport top ten chart for two weeks. It’s a monster of electro house, with a build-up and drop that’s a textbook example of mind-blowing facemelt. At Miami’s Ultra Festival, whose attendance was 165,000 this year, the dizzying tension and release electrified an ocean of partiers, who jumped in perfect unison.
“Shotgun’s” crowd-destroying capacity was no accident.
“I wanted to make the song like a weapon,“ Zedd says. That’s why he interrupted his hundreds of hours of working on the song on his laptop to go to the club and play out versions, just to see how people reacted and how the low frequencies hit his belly, and then went back to the studio and made adjustments to the structure and the mix. Finally, just to be safe, he made it a fool-proof, even for boring people.
“Right before the drop there’s ‘1-2-3 jump’ so the people who are not ready can get ready,” he laughs.
This obsessional quality is something he shares with most EDM producers. But in addition to his classical background, he has one other card up his sleeve that sets him apart from the laptop-loving crowd: he was in a serious rock band called Dioramic for a decade before switching to electronic music. The live music background is something he shares with friend and collaborator Skrillex, whom he met via the magic of MySpace around mid 2010.
“I was a little drunk, and I had a song that I thought was better than anything else I’ve produced before. I’d seen Deadmau5 post something by Skrillex that morning, and I listened to it, and I heard something in his music that I recognized, something I learned in other genres that I didn’t hear in EDM music before. So I wrote him a MySpace message that said ‘You’re doing something different from everyone else, and here’s my music, check it out,” Zedd says of his first contact with Sonny Moore, the dubstep wizard and former post-hardcore band leader.
At the time, Skrill must have been checking his MySpace obsessively, because within five minutes Skrillex wrote back, said he had a show that night, and he wanted to play Zedd’s song. Next, he asked Zedd for a remix, and a relationship was born. In 2011 Skrillex took Zedd on tour with him in the United States and Europe, and they agreed that Zedd would release music on Skrillex’ new label before it even existed.
“It was really natural,” Zedd says, of the process of getting “Shotgun” on Skrillex’ young label, OWSLA Records. ”He brought me on tour and we’ve been friends ever since. When he made OWSLA, I knew that I was gonna release there. I knew way before he actually started. So when it finally got official it was kind of natural for me to release my songs with him.”
In 2011, Zedd toured with Skrillex and Porter Robinson for several months, and capped it off by going on tour with Deadmau5 in the fall. Then he went on his own tour, and so by now, Zedd is a veteran of giant stages and light installations: he recently performed several shows in LA in a Superman costume, complete with muscles.
Of course, the electronic producer didn’t start out so slick. In 2010, after having played only in little clubs in his hometown, his first US show was at the Beyond Wonderland festival in California, in front of 40,000 people. He ran late to the performance because of visa problems, so rushed onstage to play.
“I looked up and saw the people and I was like ‘Oh f-ck, wow,’” he says.
Still, it went okay. He was so behind schedule he only had to play three songs.
“It was a really short set!” he laughs.
But since his mastery of the live form, playing gigs has actually taken a back seat to his work as a producer for other artists’ records, as well as for his own upcoming debut album. When we caught him on the phone, it was during a long stretch of production work, broken with just a few live dates in 2012.
“I’ve been locked in the studio for the past four months,” he laughed. As an EDM producers, his work is in demand in the pop sphere, which has recently gone in a dance direction. He won’t say whom he’s producing, but will say that his own album, which has been in production for over a year, is the hardest thing to work on. A full-length record is tricky in EDM, he says, due to the speed at which the sound evolves.
“You have to make sure that the first single is not old by the time the last one is out,” he says.
Of his preferred sound, he says it’s “a mix of classical musical elements with part electro, but always melodic.” Obsessed with musicianship, he also pooh-poohs complicated sonic fireworks in favor of the basics: melody, rhythm, and musicality.
“I always take care to have interesting chord progressions, because you can have the best sound design in the club, and you’ll kill it in the club, but in five years kids will have better sound design. But if your music is good, you’ll always be able to listen to it, even in 20 or 50 years,” he says. “That’s what I want for my own album.”
Listening to Zedd talk, it’s hard to believe that he blasted onto the EDM scene just two years ago, when he entered his very first remix competition, and won — in a Beatport competition where he gave his glossy take on Armand von Helden’s classic of darkside house, “Witch Doktor.”
Zedd’s as-yet unnamed album is about 70 percent complete, and he’s tentatively scheduled a September release date, although, he says, “It’s more of a wish than a plan.”
Still, he’s got other projects in the works for 2012 to keep it interesting. For one thing, he just confirmed that this summer he’ll be on tour in Asia – opening for Lady Gaga.
In just four short years, with only his refined musical compass to guide him, Zedd has gone from a complete unknown to becoming the darling prince of electro house, with legions of wannabe DJ fans to pepper his party line with requests for advice. It’s getting to the point that the man, who admits to having no other hobbies besides making music, is starting to miss the simpler things: like quiet.
“I love silence. But I usually only to to listen to that when I’m sleeping,” he laughs.