Tommie Sunshine, an authority on all things dance music, and The Huffington Post recently sat down with Zedd for an interview with the rising star. They talk about everything from producing, his new album, DJing and more. Read the interview below.
[Tommie Sunshine Intro Notes]: When I played at Pacha here in NYC on New Year’s Day 2011, there was a track that seemed to rock the room just a bit harder than all the others. It was a remix of just barely breaking Skrillex by a relatively unknown producer at the time named Zedd. I reached out to him on Soundcloud and we have been in touch ever since. That first set of exchanges made me realize just how different of an artist Zedd was when his reply to the producer/DJ standard, “send me a .zip of your tunes” was “what songs do u like to have? I usually don’t do this, in respect of the labels.” No one had ever said that to me before and I had so much respect for him instantly.
I knew at that moment that this kid was more in tune with the music business than any of the “grown-ups” who were running it at the time. His music just gets better over time, as does his English. In all of the upswing, he’s never lost his ability to always be kind, positive and gracious for anyone’s support — whether they are a peer or a casual fan. This is very rare among so many egos in this business. My guess is if appearing in a Beats By Dre TV ad, then touring with and producing Gaga doesn’t expand your head, then that’s probably not going to happen. His two feet are on the ground and his two eyes are on the prize. If writing songs for Beiber & Minaj with the legendary Swedish super producer Max Martin is any indication of what the future holds for Zedd, he is on the wildest of rides. Not to mention his unfathomably accomplished album, which is taking the world by storm. I had the pleasure of catching up with him for a long chat to talk about all things including where the magic carpet will lead him next.
Sunshine: So how is the post album release madness going?
Zedd: Oh, it’s amazing, I will be happy if it will keep going on like that. The shows have been better since I released the album. Not that the shows before were not good at all but it’s kind of a difference already although it’s after a couple of weeks.
Sunshine: Were you playing most of that music pre-album release?
Zedd: I didn’t want to play it out before because I might have changed things if I did because some might not have worked in a club perfectly. And I did not want to that because the focus for me was just to make music, an album that is timeless. And I don’t know how timeless club reactions are. Something can work in three years that doesn’t work today and the other way around. So I figured I’d just make music. I’d make the songs and then I’d figure out a way to make them work in a club. So the priority was not to play it out. And I kind of liked the idea of people having no idea what the album would be like. I didn’t post any previews. Not a single song got leaked. We kept everything really tight so I kinda liked the idea of people just getting a full album and the full experience at once.
Sunshine: Now you go see a DJ and they play the same ten records that the guy that was there the last weekend played. So you kind flipped that and I don’t know how you kept everything down. In these days, an album not leaking? That’s extraordinary.
Zedd: Usually you will have a promo list or something like that. And literally every single person that had the album received it from me. I sent an email with my manager on copy saying this person will get it. So I kept track of everyone and I personally wrote a message basically to everyone explaining that it’s important that it does not leak because Spectrum back then did leak. And I remember I hated that situation. And the label did a good job because they knew how important it was for me for only people that really needed to have it. And if possible we would stream it to people instead of sending it to them.
Sunshine:You were even careful with the DJs and people you were sending it to. You were very honest and you were like it’s important that no one hears this music until it’s time. I just thought that like that was the first time I’ve seen an artist that involved in the process. You actually stayed involved in the process all the way to release of the record.
Zedd: Oh yeah, absolutely. And I’m very hands on. Wherever my name is, I want to know why it’s there and how it’s there and what it does. From a single ad to every commercial that might have my name to every banner, I would get feedback and change things the way I wanted. Every single thing from release date to price to exclusivity, every single thing. And I think that’s the only way to make sure it’s exactly the way you want it, because, especially in a big label, there are so many people involved you can’t be on the same page with everyone if you don’t control it.
You have to have a vision and you have to let everyone exactly know what you really want to do and what you really want to have. And I think only that way you can really achieve what you want to have if you have a vision. If not, it’s the label’s job to make you a vision or something like that.
Sunshine: You definitely have it well in hand. There’s gonna be people reading this that don’t really know what your trajectory was. More than anything I’m a music fan and when people come along and they flip things a different way, it was abundantly clear that you were onto something that nobody else was really doing. From that moment to now, what was that 2009 or 2010.
Zedd: It was 2010 when I started and it was about when people started hearing my name and I got in touch with Skrillex and started a little. That was in the end, or middle of 2010.
Sunshine: Of course now every kid in America thinks that they can go buy a laptop and get sequencing programs and six months later they are mad because they are not there. And it’s like you’re missing a big part of the story, because you’ve been making music since what age?
Zedd: Since I can remember being on this planet. When I was four I started and it’s not that I bought a laptop and started producing. I was fairly new to electronic music when I started having the first steps of success. I did not produce electronic music for a long time but it’s not necessarily about how long you produce. The same thing with instruments. Like a good drummer, people will be like, “How long have you been playing the drums?” The answer will not really tell you a lot because there are people that need to learn to play the drums for 20 years and there’s people that learn in two years. But the main part probably isn’t the producing aspect but more the understanding for music in the first place. How songs work and how chords can influence people’s feelings and things like that. You can make people laugh and you can make them cry with just chords. Theoretically you can just write it down on paper and it should still have the same effect. I think that’s far more important than just being a good engineer.
Sunshine: I loved the clip of you playing “Spectrum.”
Zedd: It’s really funny because the video had quite a bit of an influence I feel like on more than just me. And it was just a small idea. I remember I had this idea because for me it was interesting to see the transition and I always have the first demos of my songs which are usually just piano of almost every song. So I thought it’s kinda funny to see the transition from step one to where the song is now and I asked my manager Dave do you think it will be cheesy to have someone record an iPhone video of me playing the song on piano just to see how it actually stated because I think it would be interesting to see and I would love to see how other people start their music and it’s kinda interesting. And he had a whole camera team ready across the street on a grand piano a few hours later so it’s like, “Oh wow, let’s do it that way.” I didn’t really prepare it. I tried to go back and play it the way I played it in the first place and that actually made a big influence. And I feel like now acoustic versions of songs become more and more popular I see it all the time, which I think is kinda cool.
Sunshine: Did you hear about Beck’s new album? Beck released his new album as sheet music. And said, “Hey fans, you record your versions of these songs and maybe in a year or so, I’ll record these songs and put out an album.” But for now, it lives and breathes only in the hands of people that can , a) read music and who can play. So that’s next level.
Zedd: It feels like it’s a statement in the first place rather than a big marketing plan. I don’t know how many people buy that. I mean how do you even buy that? I like it. It’s kinda interesting. It’s a cool statement I think.
Sunshine: When you make an album like you did, there are songs on there that are definitely for the weekend. But there are songs on there that go well beyond club play. Those are listening songs, which really was a bold move for you.
Zedd: You know what brought me to this music was if I had to pick two albums it would be “Cross” by Justice and Daft Punk “Discovery” and both those albums‚ “Cross” sounds incredible. I think it’s one of the best sounding albums out there. But it does not live from being a club record although you can play it out. No, it lives from just being good music and I listened to this album from the first to the last second so many times in my car, in my home and everywhere and still you can play those songs out. I think that really the focus that is kind of the direction I’m pushing at the moment should switch back a little bit from beginning on sound design, a little bit more towards begin actual music and having emotion in the first place and not having fist pump. It’s cool and I love doing those songs and I will make crazy club songs and I have even crazier ideas for songs than I had before, but you know, I still just, I would love for people not to judge on what they expect, but judge on what they get. I had the experience. First of all the feedback on the album was really great from my fans and blogs and everyone which is really great to see for me because that shows that people are very open minded. Because it is really different from what I produced before. But there were some blogs, even big blogs, that said you know what I don’t like is that I expected it to be harder. That’s something that was so weird to me because why would you judge something on what you’d expect against getting a product and then judging it for what it is.
Sunshine: The way to show endurance and the way to show that you’re going to last longer than 5 seconds is to write timeless music. And there has to be the Guettas who write records for the radio, for the second, and that stuff is great and is totally necessary. You’ve been around electronic music for a really long time. And I think that where we are now, the quality of what we consider radio music has increased a lot. People they want better stuff. They don’t want silly campy songs. I think that you are a part of a movement that has pushed radio music in a very challenging direction. The fact that “Spectrum” is on American pop radio is a gigantic move in the right direction for music.
Zedd: I remember when Interscope told me they think this song could be on the radio and I just thought well, “Who really wants to play songs over four minutes?” It does not have a normal structure. It does not have that much vocal. Who really would want to play it and who would want to listen to it. And then you know, we peaked at top 30 radio songs in America which is just crazy, insane.
Sunshine: That song is not a simple pop song. There are some very challenging chord changes in that song. There’s tonalities that made for a pretty hilarious remix contest because I don’t think a lot of people realized when they were putting that vocal over other music that it wasn’t really in key.
Zedd: That was easy to select because half of them were either in the wrong timing or the minor, major changes weren’t really working out so I could dismiss half of it fairly quickly.
Sunshine: I remember saying I would never want to be a kid trying to remix that song. That song is very complicated. You’re making complicated music that is very easily digestible. And I think that ultimately is one of your greatest achievements. You’ve kind of raised the bar and I think a lot of people love you for that and there are probably a lot of people that hate you for it.
Zedd: I’m sure there’s always people in that spot, that’s okay. I can live with that.
Sunshine: Now you’ve done a fair amount of pop stuff. What is some of the other stuff that’s out now that’s your production that people may have already heard?
Zedd: What people might have heard recently was “Beauty and the Beat” by Justin Bieber by Nicki Minaj. I was actually positively surprised by the feedback I got on the song because, you know, I didn’t really promote it. It’s not my song. I will not promote other people’s songs big time. I will just mention that I produced the song to get the credit I think I deserve. And people actually, because we all know Bieber is the person people love to hate because it’s so easy for kids to hate on someone that’s very popular. But people actually seem to like that song. And again, I’m judging it on what it is. I wrote the song and I considered using it for my album. It just turned out being for someone else and Max Martin wrote a great melody on it and Bieber happened to be the person to sing it and I just recently realized that, because I’ve always told people that I enjoy making pop music and working for other artist as well, I think I realized what i like about it. And there’s a point to it. All these artists will obviously be on the radio and very high in the charts, and I’m not the kind of producer that will change a lot just because some is big and has to have a three thirty radio hit. And I don’t force anyone to work with me. I will most likely make a track and say, “Either you guys want it or you don’t.” I will use it for myself.
And the cool thing is if you have, it doesn’t have to be complicated, but you know, if it’s a little bit edgy or different, and a big artist gets that song, it actually does influence the radio quite a bit. I’ve been working on a lot of music with Lady Gaga for her next album and that’s what I’m most excited about that some of that stuff is so different and sounds like that have never been on the radio before and I’m very positive they will not, up to the point where we release the songs. And just because she has a large audience, I’m pretty sure this will actually influence and change radio music quite a lot and I think that’s the point that I really enjoy about making music for other people that you actually have a lot of influence.
Sunshine: I’m relieved you mentioned your work on a Gaga record because now I don’t have to tiptoe around that. Did you ever in a million years think that of all the people on this planet, Lady Gaga would cut vocals to an instrumental track of yours? What’s next for you?
Zedd: I actually reached out to people outside of electronic music to make remixes recently. For example, Lana Del Rey, I really like her stuff, and I thought it would be incredible if she made her version of one of my songs instead of having a club banger remix. Or a rock band. I mean obviously it’s very hard to get bands to do something like that but I think that’s really interesting. But I’m happy Lady Gaga did it because how many singers make remixes or whatever you want to call it just because they like a song or just because they want to do it. I think that’s absolutely amazing.
Sunshine: Obviously the biggest undertaking of your life has just hit the air. This album, I’m sure is years in the making. And also, you are serving yourself up to intense criticism. Where from here. What the next frontier for Zedd?
Zedd: I have many steps that I want to make. First of all I’m working on a lot of music for other artists as I mentioned before. That’s something I really like doing. Besides touring and building a production, something unique and interesting. Just before I left for this tour, I had one of those moment I had with “Spectrum” where, in a few minutes, I suddenly had half a song done, at least the music part, the chorus. And that is the first time since I finished my album that I had wished to make a new album. I’ve been asked this question quite a bit since I released the album and I never answered quite that way just because I didn’t feel like that. I felt like maybe a few singles and maybe an EP was the right move. But when I made the song, or started the song, it gave me the wish to just work on another album. It’s just so different, I would love to show it to you, I’m just starting to do that. It’s almost like a somewhere in between rock and electric music. But everything is electronic. The drums are electronic. Just the way the drummer would play them. I absolutely have no idea on how club people will react to something like that.
Sunshine: You have your hands in so many different worlds. You’re producing music you’re making albums. You have the craziest of accolades. You have a lot of artistic freedom and all of things are also rare in the business. Does it ever feel and do you ever feel the weight of that. Do you ever wake up in the morning and feel the need to be awesome or does it just come naturally?
Zedd: Well, I think, pressure-wise the only pressure that I get is from myself. Again, I’m very lucky to have a really good team and a major label that gives me all freedom I want. I mean, what we did was we had a deadline for my album which I wasn’t able to finish. So, although I had this kind of pressure it was all easy from Interscope side and we just set a second deadline because no one wants me to release something I’m not happy with and everyone trusts me on my decision on what is good and what’s not good. And also, you would think a major label, that’s what people sometimes criticize me for, when I signed to Interscope because they just believe that every artist at a major layout is a sell out and they only want to make money and be famous. No one even had a word to say about my music. The way it was I hand them a master and they release it. Their job is to release it, my job is to make the music. So I played the songs to as many people as I could and I love to hear their opinion but that doesn’t change the songs. And I have my own opinion. I’m my own artist and I see artists as movies. No one should try to change them for anything. If you don’t like it, you just don’t follow it. And if you don’t like a movie you don’t watch it. Watch another movie.There’s a lot of great movies out there and no one has to work with me. No one has to listen to my music and I was very lucky to find a team where everyone supports me and trusts me and my creative ideas and doesn’t try to sound three thirty just because it has to be for the radio or anything like that.
Sunshine: To kids that read this article, what would you say to them.
Zedd: I would never say I will stay in electronic music for the rest of my life. I will always whatever I feel like at that moment.
Sunshine: Which is true artistry. I myself am a little bit jealous of that statement because that’s brilliant. Really that’s kinda what everybody needs to hear. It’s dangerous to kind of put yourself out there like that.
Zedd: It is. And that’s also one thing I can say, it’s just my opinion of course, but I know a lot of other DJs that, we live in a time where I think you are connected to your fans more than ever before. You read tweets. You talk to your fans actually all the time and you read the comments people write. And a lot of DJs are afraid of doing actually what they really want to do because of what people reply on a post they would make on Facebook. And I know that because I’m good friends with a lot of DJs in the scene and producers and I’ve just personally experienced people not putting things out because people didn’t like that kind of style and I think that is just for up and coming artist this the worst you could do. Never do what people expect you to do just because you want to please someone that is in the long run always going to be bad at some point. I remember when I released the first song. It was very simple and had a few notes and the few songs I put out before that were all super complex with thousands of samples. The fans’ first reactions, for the most part, was, “this is super boring.” We want to have the old Zedd back. And the worst thing you could do at that point is to react to that and well maybe I should do what they want. Because if you do that, you stop being an artist and basically that’s when sell out starts. That’s what sell out is to me. If you react to that and start making what you did before just because someone else wants to have that. If you’re convinced as an artist of what you’re doing the only move is to, no matter what people say or what management says or your best friends say or people on Facebook. Do what you do and people will find its way to it. And even if you lose 10,000 fans that loved you for what you did before, you will find 100,000 new fans that will appreciate everything you do artistically so much more. And I think that’s also part of the DJ scene. Everything changed so quickly. There’s DJs or producers that are super big, then they release two songs that are probably a little different and so many people lose interest in the artist. I mean the artist is dead, I’m going to pick a new artist I like. In the rock world or in the pop world outside of that, when people used to make albums and music in the first place, people don’t really follow songs so much they follow the artist. So even if a artist evolves and changes or maybe is influenced and makes something completely new, people will usually follow that root because that’s what the artist is. And it’s not about the song or the single or the video or anything. And that’s kinda the way I try to go. I try to use what I know of the world outside of electronic music and bring it into this world.
Sunshine: You have such big and unique ideas put up against the majority of the people that are making this music. How old are you now?
Zedd: I’m 23.
Huffington Post Entertainment Editor Kia Makarechi: Do you guys ever feel that you wish you could take time and withdraw from Twitter and the public eye and immediacy of everything?
Zedd: I personally do. I wish there was not such a thing that you have to do. You don’t have to do anything. But clearly if you just look at numbers of people who just stop following you and things like that I think you cannot really wait as much as you could wait a few years ago. It was fairly normal for a band to release an album and wait two years to release something else. That barely works, you know, just because of the internet and everything, everything gets faster and faster and faster. I’m jealous of Justice to be able to do that or Daf Punk even more extreme. I know their next album is coming out next year which is how many years after the last thing they released? I personally wish there was more time and I could take the time to, maybe I can take the time.
Sunshine: I think the best part of this music right now is surfing the wave. It’s finding that balance between, yes paying attention to social media and kinda quenching the thirst of your fans but I never feel like the amount of time I’m able to put into music is compromised because I feel like I work my ass off. I mean, Zedd does too. There’s no way that somebody can come into this music. Like, come on, you’ve been around for two years and in that time you’ve put out a half a dozen groundbreaking singles and now you have an album out. And you’ve been on tour basically the entire time. It’s not like you’re hold up in a studio in some undisclosed location like making an album. While you’re making an album you’re touring the world. And I think that that is really what its come to. And I think that’s what separates the men from the boys as they say. If you’re only able to excel as a songwriter and producer and then still be able to go out and entertain and DJ and perform and in the midst of all that just really stay and really keep your head down and keep creative, I think that is one of the best benefits of really being a DJ. You’re always paying attention to new music. You’re paying attention to the moves of your peers because not only are you curious but you want the dope jams to play on Saturaday night too. You don’t want everyone else playing the best records. You wanna be playing them too. So that’s how I came to Zedd. The reason why I found your music was because of kind of the never ending quest to find the best new records. But we also get that immediacy of, if we want to, I mean we can walk out of a studio having created something six hours before and we can play it to a massive crowd. What band gets to do that. I mean bands sit in the studio and can very easily disappear up their own ass if they don’t have a producer and they won’t be able to play those songs out for ages. We can do it in a day.
Zedd: It’s definitely a great advantage.
Sunshine: Zedd, we bow down to you and I hope that a lot of people take these words to heart and they really realize that being an artist is a choice. You really have the control at the end of the day. It’s not management, it’s not publicist, it’s not record labels. It’s what you put out there is good and bold and forward thinking then all of that other stuff is gonna follow. This is why I dropped you a line in the first place. You were making music that no one else was making. And it struck a cord with me enough to call her out. You are no less accessible than you were then and that blows my mind. And almost everyone in this business, when they start to get a little taste of this they get busier. But I always get an answer from you.
Zedd: I’m really glad to hear that by the way. I really try to stay in touch as much as I can and emails get a little crazy and lost sometimes, but I don’t think that’s a reason to change the attitude or something like that.