Zedd talks Daft Punk, Hayley Williams, Electric Zoo, safety at EDM festivals and more
Anton Zaslavski is one of the most in-demand DJ-producers in the world — and at the moment, he’s experiencing all of the highs and lows that entails.
The Russian-born, Germany-based artist known as Zedd has crashed the pop world in the past year with a pair of soaring smash singles, Clarity with Foxes and Spectrum with Matthew Koma. He was Lady Gaga’s opening act until the singer canceled her tour due to a hip injury earlier this year, and he contributed to her forthcoming album ARTPOP. And his new Moment of Clarity Tour, which hits the Ritz Ybor on Saturday, is one of the hottest EDM tickets in the country, selling out dates coast to coast. (The Tampa show is no exception, having sold out weeks ago.)
But since launching on Aug. 28, the tour has already hit a couple of tragic snags. At the opening date in Boston, one fan died and two more were hospitalized, reportedly from an overdose of MDMA, the powerful strain of ecstasy known as Molly. And last weekend, Zedd was scheduled to play the main stage at New York’s Electric Zoo festival before two more fans overdosed on MDMA, prompting organizers to cancel the event’s final day.
Earlier this week, Zedd called tbt* from Charleston, S.C., to discuss his music and tour. We were warned in advance that the Boston incident, which police are investigating, was off-limits (so was Lady Gaga, for some reason), but he did speak generally about safety and responsibility at EDM concerts and festivals. Here are excerpts.
I understand you had a birthday this week. Congratulations! How’d you celebrate?
I ate at PF Chang’s, and I chilled on the tour bus. We were on the way from New York to Atlanta, and we couldn’t do it in a day. You can only drive a certain amount of miles, so we stopped in the middle of nowhere to celebrate my birthday by doing nothing. It was amazing, though.
Do they do anything special for your birthday at PF Chang’s? Did they sing at your table?
I had a couple of cakes. But I’m pretty happy that I didn’t do much, because I don’t get to not do anything a lot of the time. So when I get to do it for my birthday, that’s pretty cool.
You just dropped a tease of Stay the Night with Hayley Williams, which comes out next week. Are you playing that track in concert?
I have not yet. Now that the preview’s up, I will start playing it. I have not made the extended mix yet, which is what I’m going to do after this interview. I’m going to the bus to work on an extended mix so I can try it out tonight.
Are you going to play it in Tampa?
I think so. If I can finish a playable mix, I definitely will. Because I prefer to play an extended mix, so I have parts to mix in and out. If I can get this done before the show, I’ll do it tonight; if not, as soon as it’s finished, I’ll do it.
What do you look for in a vocal collaborator?
What I look for in a voice is for it to be unique. I don’t really care if a singer sings well. If you would ask a vocal coach, he would tell you if the singer’s good or the singer’s not that good; I will a lot of the times prefer the one that’s not that good, if he or she has a unique voice. So really it’s about emotion, or being able to sing the lyrics and actually mean it. A lot of singers sing good notes but forget about what words they use. Hayley Williams is a perfect example of someone that is just perfect at translating those lyrics, and on top of that she’s an incredible singer. I’ve always been a huge Paramore fan, so it’s more than an honor for me for her to be part of the song.
Hayley, Matthew Koma and Foxes all have high, soaring, and I would say somewhat fragile voices. Do you see any connective tissue between those three singers?
You’re actually the first person to point this out. I haven’t thought about this, to be honest with you. I do think that they all have very unique voices, which is the reason I decided to work with them. And depending on the kind of song I make – I don’t think Hayley would be the right singer to sing Spectrum, for example, the same way I don’t think Matthew Koma would have been the right person to sing Stay the Night. I always have a type of voice in my head, which I try to explain to my managers to get ideas of who could fit. And Hayley was all the way up on my wishlist, but I didn’t actually expect her to do it, because she doesn’t do any collaborations, and I don’t think she’s ever done an electronic song, so it’s even more of an honor.
Do you sing at all?
I sing every now and then in the studio, when I need backing vocals. I get ideas for backing vocals in the middle of the night, and I can’t get any singers, so pretty much every song, there’s backing vocals that I sing. But I never want to be the lead singer. I don’t like my voice.
Your performance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon was great, where you hopped on the keys and did Clarity as a slow jam with Foxes and the Roots. In your mind, what purpose does that serve, stripping a song down to perform on live TV?
I think it’s boring to go up there and play a song as a DJ. A DJ can’t just play one song. It’s about playing a set, or how you connect songs in those two hours, and where you place them. So it was not an option for me to just go up there and play the song and have Foxes sing it. I always want to do something unique on TV, and in my opinion, stripping down a song to its essential parts, the chords and the melody, shows you what quality a song actually has – especially if it’s electronic, where a lot of the times all those parts are very hidden. I usually write my music on a piano, and I really enjoy performing that way, because that actually shows how the music was in my mind before it actually became an electronic song.
Do you miss performing like that?
Sometimes, for sure. I used to be a drummer in a band, and I really loved playing the drums, so I look forward to the right opportunity to do that at some point. Maybe even on TV. Every single live performance I’m doing on TV, I want it to be different and unique.
You might be the first DJ that I’ve interviewed since Daft Punk released Random Access Memories. Do you have a take on that album?
I’m probably not the right person to judge that. It’s not necessarily my favorite album. I just prefer their older stuff. But I know so many people that love it, and I’m very happy for Daft Punk to have a lot of success. I really like their single. Let’s just say it’s not my preferred type of music on this album. Which does not mean it’s bad.
As a house DJ and producer, are you surprised to see midtempo songs like Get Lucky and Blurred Lines becoming these massive pop, dancefloor singles?
If you had asked me that question before those songs came out, I would have probably said I don’t think it’s going to be a hit. So I guess I am surprised. But at the same time, those songs are hits. They just are massive, and a hit means that a lot of people like the song. That’s not deniable. You can’t say a song sucks if it’s really big, and it is, so I think those songs have something. I like them a lot, both of them. And I’m kind of happy to see some different type of music making huge waves and a lot of success. I think that’s great.
How’s the tour going so far?
The tour’s going incredibly well. So far, every show’s been sold out or is almost sold out, and I’ve never played in front of more diehard fans. If you play festivals and stuff, you always get a mixed crowd that likes electronic music, but in this case, the fans that come out to the shows, they’re just diehards, and they really love every single song of mine. It’s really fun playing more of my own music and getting a great reception for that. The shows have been amazing, the production looks incredible; I’m really, really proud of the whole team that’s working on that. I’m really looking forward to all the shows that are still to be played.
Was it a bummer when they canceled the final day of Electric Zoo?
Oh, yeah, for sure. I had some amazing stuff planned for that show, as well. That was when I was supposed to premiere Stay the Night. That would have been a very special moment. And unfortunately, that didn’t happen. So that’ s a bummer, for sure. But, you know, gotta keep on going and finding other ways.
Do you think it was the right call, to cancel the final day?
I don’t know if it was the right call. I’m not the best person to judge that. It’s a very difficult debate. When is it a right thing to cancel a concert? If a place is not safe because it gets overcrowded and stuff like that, I do think it’s definitely right to cancel a show, because it’s a risk. But if we’re talking about general things, or people’s responsibilities, it’s difficult to judge that. Just to take another example: A surfer, right? If a surfer goes out and surfs dangerous waves, that’s legal, and those people die a lot. Would you think it’s right to not allow anyone to go swim in the water anymore, because there’s waves? Probably not.
I don’t know too much about what exactly happened at Electric Zoo, because I was obviously playing shows before that, so I literally got there and got the news.But I was definitely very disappointed. It’s hard for the people that bought their tickets to go see the show, and it’s very hard for them to understand that a show gets canceled because of someone else’s irresponsibility. Some of them are mad at the artists, but there’s not much you can do. Do you think it’s the right call to cancel a show like that?
Do I think so?
You know, it’s hard to say. There are so many moving pieces to a festival, it’s amazing that they’re even able to cancel it. It seems like it’s an aircraft carrier – once it gets moving, you can’t pull the plug on it. But I’ve never actually organized one, so I don’t know, maybe it is easy to just pull the plug.
You can always pull the plug. People that say something’s impossible are just lazy. Anything’s possible, really.
Do you have general advice for people about staying safe at festivals or shows?
I don’t do drugs, so I would just tell people not to do it. That’s the safest way to enjoy music, is to enjoy the music, and use that as your drug and not any other substances. So that would be my advice. But at the same time, I don’t want to tell anyone how to live someone’s life, because it’s not mine. I live my life that way, and people should live their life their way. I think an important thing to know is if you take drugs, you’re very egotistic, because besides your life, you might ruin a lot of other people’s lives – families and friends who will really suffer from what could happen. That’s already reason for me not to do anything. But again, I don’t want to tell anyone how to live their life. I think it’s important to be informed and, whatever you do, stay safe. That’s the only advice I can give people, is to inform themselves before they do something stupid.
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*