Zedd: 'Making music is like painting something beautiful'

Zedd discusses his new single, creative processes and experiences in China

Nick Walker
Aton Zaslavski, better known as Zedd, is one of a few young DJs that have become household names. The Russian-born German has consistently topped the dance charts since the 2012 release of his smash hit 'Clarity'. He has produced remixes for Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga and the Black Eyed Peas and his original track 'I Want You to Know', featuring Selena Gomez, went platinum in 2015.

He returned to Beijing after four years and was here in the capital for the release of his new single 'Stay'. We caught up with him while he was in Beijing recently to talk about 'Stay', how he makes music, acting and getting plagiarised in China.

Do you have a process or meditation you use to clear your head before working on music?
Never. I have a really busy schedule so I kind of have to plan when I can work on music. In my calendar there are days that are specifically dedicated to work on certain songs. We have songs we know we want to finish this year so every song will have a certain amount of time already all the way up to 2018. Otherwise I don’t really have enough time to work on it, but I like candles [laughs]. I like candles in the studio. It’s probably the only thing I do when I work. I like good lighting that’s not too bright and… candles that’s all I really have.

You’ve managed to not burn anything down yet?
Nothing so far [laughs]. Hopefully it will stay like that.

If you could describe what music is to you in one word what would it be?
One word I mean it is passion. I’ve never wanted anything else and I’ve always made music in my spare time. I think that whatever you do when you have time off for yourself is what you really like and those two things were playing computer games and making music always.

Your music is rather orchestral. As a classically trained musician, do you have any ambitions to perhaps write a symphony?
Yeah! I wrote a song not too long ago that is a really intense and long chord progression and I couldn’t think of any way to make that into an electronic song. I just don’t think it would fit, so we were talking to an orchestra that I would potentially work with and orchestrate that song instead of letting it live in the electronic music world. So yeah definitely very interested in experiencing something in the score world.

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Photo credit: Craig Barritt/Getty Images for Nickelodeon

You've mentioned a desire to make an acoustic album is that anywhere in the works?
It’s not in the works, but I have made an acoustic EP in the past where I just went into a room with a band and we just played my songs live. I think that was awesome. A lot of people in electronic music are really focused on the drop and the sounds so they sometimes or very often actually don’t hear the music. When they hear a song they just feel something – that there is a certain feeling. When I make music I write it in a different way than they hear it. I write it on a piano with its core emotions laying in the chords and melody. So whenever I record an acoustic version a lot of people then for the first time actually experience the song the way I do. I think there is a lot of advantages in me making acoustic versions of songs because that points the focus onto something that is really important to me that a lot of people can’t hear.

With your fundraising for ACLU, you obviously understand you can have an influence on people's mind-sets. How do you feel about voicing your opinion by making a song with an outright political message?
I’m not saying that I would never do it. I have never done it and to me music is something really beautiful and emotional and I don’t how I would feel about dedicating a specific song’s emotion just to a political message. I think I would rather use my regular voice and speak about it rather than using a song, but I wouldn’t say I would never do it. It’s definitely possible. I change my mind [laughs].

Depends on how bad things get I guess.
Things couldn’t really get a whole lot worse, but yeah I don’t know… [Laughs].

Your videos have strong emotional components. How much are you involved with the creative direction for your videos?
I’m always very involved there were very very few videos I wasn’t really on top of and we are actually writing the 'Stay' treatment right now, which is the song that is coming out any minute. I am very involved it is important with me to be able to identify with the music video and I think therefore I have to be involved otherwise it’s just not going to be the way I like it.

Do you sit down with the director with a storyline in mind?
No, I usually give directors a direction. Like a mood or where something is set – specific things like I can see myself underwater for the first to second half. I can see this and this there. I want this to be above that and I wanted to have this kind of thing whatever that would be like slow-motion here or fast-forward it or flashback but I let directors always write the treatment because they are the experts and if I knew how to write treatments I would make my own videos. But then once they write something I’ll have many calls with the director for my next song going back and forth rethinking and brainstorming ideas for how to make things work and translate things to lyrics. It’s kind of a lot of work to make a good music video. It’s easy to make a music video [laughs].

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Being behind the decks and being behind the camera are quite different things. Have you gotten comfortable with that?
[Laughs] Yeah, for sure. Not really I’ve only had to really act properly in 'Beautiful Now' and that music video. The rest were like look in the camera and 'woosh', done. For this next video I will probably have a much larger role than I have ever had and it’s going to be the most acting I have ever done. That’s based on the director being very comfortable with guiding me because I am not comfortable with myself. When I act I think I suck, but if a director can take care of it and really guide me through it… it’s about the cut and the angles [laughs].

Can you tell us about the inspiration behind your new track 'Stay'?
The inspiration for every song I make is the same, which is to make a beautiful emotional song. It’s kind of what I said earlier. I could maybe one day make a political song, but for me I make music because it is joy. It’s my way of creating art. It’s like painting something beautiful. I like to listen to music that makes me happy. I don’t really like listening to music that makes me sad or angry, which is kind of what a political song would go towards.

'Stay' musically speaking was something new for me. It is the most minimal song I think I have ever done. I kept removing more and more elements from the song to try to get to the point where everything that is in the song has a specific purpose for the music. I didn’t want things to be there because they make the drop sick. I wanted a tambourine to be there because it moves the rhythm and a guitar would be there because it should give the song another emotional harmonic level – not just because I wanted to have a random guitar on there. I tried to make a very minimal song where each element has a really important and big role in the song.

Listen to 'Stay' here [VPNs on].

Does that preference for happiness also translate to your taste in movies?
That is actually the opposite for me [laughs]. I like dark movies. I like really simple movies – that’s not true – I like complex movies, but ones that don’t have a lot of action. I don’t need special effects all daylong. I like a really strong storyline – movies like Momento. Movies that can mainly be filmed in one room with no money but have a really good thought. I like those kinds of movies with good screen writing like the movie Room for example that was like a handful of actors.

Are you talking about The Room?
I love The Room don’t get me wrong [laughs], but I am talking about Room. The Room is the best movie of all time – no arguing [laughs], but I was talking about Room. I have seen The Room many times [laughs].

Do you have a favourite moment from performing that you'll never forget? Like a time the clouds parted right as you played 'Clarity'?
There are a couple moments. I remember the very first time I played in India. I had never been to India and before I wasn’t sure if I had any fans, but 99.9% of the room were singing along to all the songs super loud and that was really emotional. Playing Red Rocks was very emotional. It’s very beautiful and famous venue and then playing a show in Japan that was really really big – I think it was about 16 or 17,000 people, which is one of the biggest solo shows I have ever played. That was huge or playing Madison Square Garden or the Staples Centre – those were two shows in America that were really special for me. There are a lot of special moments.

Ever been brought to tears?
Oh yeah, for sure. There are many moments when you kind of reflect and see what’s happening and how many people gather to hear and sing certain songs. It’s pretty incredible.

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Photo credit: thecultureofme.com

I heard you had your own run in with China's knock-off culture, but you've been here a few times what is your impression of the growing electronic scene in China?
Well, I don’t know too much about the electronic music scene in China aside from that I know that in the last couple years it became way bigger – at least from the first time I played here till now, it’s a completely different scene. I had an incident where somebody in China had copied my song pretty…blatantly [laughs]. I don’t know the context off the song. I heard some people say it was like a cover show where people made cover music. I don’t understand Chinese, so I don’t really know what it was about, but I know some fans were really furious about the fact that someone stole my song so I listened to it. As a musician, you can see how they went through each part and… pretty much copied the song but again I am not blaming anyone because it might have been in the context of a cover show or whatever – I don’t know what the show was about. Maybe it was about making a song that sounds like something else… Let’s just say the song sounds very similar.

You’ve enjoyed your time in China so far?
This was an absolutely incredible trip already. This was really really beautiful. The fans were super sweet. At the show in Shanghai there were so many passionate fans, which was really awesome to see. It’s been a really joyful time.

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