He’s the biggest name in music you may have never heard of. Kiwi-born Zane Lowe tells Chris Schulz about his career as Apple Music’s star DJ.
Elton John likes to prank call Zane Lowe. “He calls me once every month or two,” says Lowe. “He generally calls me during my radio show when I’m live on air, and he’ll go, ‘Hello darling, are you doing a show?’ And I’ll go, ‘Yes.’ And he’ll go, ‘Good. How’s the show going?’ I’ll go, ‘It’s going great’.” He’ll go, ‘Have you heard this?’ I’ll go, ‘Yeah, I love it.’ He’ll go, ‘You’re an idiot. It’s terrible’.”
Being called an idiot by Elton John would be a death blow for some. For Lowe, a Kiwi DJ at the top of America’s music industry, it’s just another day at the office. That office, by the way, is in a state-of-the-art studio in Culver City, Los Angeles, where Lowe spearheads Apple Music’s star-studded radio service, Beats 1. Lowe’s daily show is Beats 1’s linchpin, and he’s the boss. His PR team requests that he be called “Creative Director and DJ behind Apple Music’s Beats 1 radio”. He’s the biggest name in music you may have never heard of. Kiwi-born Zane Lowe tells
Chris Schulz about his career as Apple Music’s star DJ.
But Lowe’s not in his office today. He’s in Sydney, four flights up in the Hotel Palisade, with a massive team of Beats 1 staff where they’ve set up a mini studio to record a weeks-worth of shows to coincide with the Aria Awards.
Yesterday, Lowe, 44, interviewed Amy Shark and Lorde, stayed out past midnight celebrating at the Arias, then was up at dawn and on air by 10am, broadcasting his show to more than 100 countries. When I arrive, halfway through his show, Lowe, wearing blue track pants, a skinny-fit black T-shirt and Vans, requests a coffee. He doesn’t seem to need it.
He’s known for his jacked-up puppy levels of energy, and today’s no different; he becomes ridiculously excited about new music, which is mostly what his Beats 1 show plays, often singing over his favourite songs. “Dance with my dogs in the night time!” he yells over his current favourite, Migos’ Stir Fry. He’ll Facetime artists on a whim, talk off-the-cuff about almost every artist, live mix and regularly repeat catchphrases like: “Beats 1! Worldwide! Always on!”
If he really likes a song, he’ll stop it after a minute, hype it up some more, then play it three times in a row, something the producers hate him doing because it loses them listeners.
His frenetic style has been fine-tuned since his days on Max TV, before he left New Zealand for the UK to host XFM and MTV. He would go on to host the BBC’s popular Radio 1 show in London for 12 years.
In 2015, Lowe was headhunted by Apple to launch its music streaming service. He, his wife Kara Walters and their two boys, Jackson and Lucius, took the plunge and moved to Los Angeles. The role is all-consuming and he feels like he’s only just starting. “We’re not there by any stretch of the imagination,” he says. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Lowe’s not on his own at Beats 1. He’s friends with Apple boss Tim Cook, comfortably takes calls from Pharrell and Dr Dre, and has meetings with musician Trent Reznor and producer Jimmy Iovine. He’s also built up a starstudded roster of DJs and artists who produce weekly radio instalments for him. Drake has OVO Sound Radio. Frank Ocean has blonded RADIO. Pharrell has OTHERtone. Dr Dre, Charli XCX, Lars Ulrich, DJ Khaled, Run The Jewels, Future and Jaden Smith also contribute.
Can you guess who else has one? Yes, Elton John, whose show Rocket Hour is “one of my favourite radio shows of all time, period, one of my favourite experiences, period”, says Lowe in his hyperbolic way. Elton likes to mix things up, playing a hardcore UK guitar band one minute, an obscure Brooklyn hip-hop act the next. The 70-year-old’s ultra-dry sense of humour brings everything together.
When Elton calls Lowe, he’s often checking that he’s got an exclusive on a new single. So when he labels Lowe an idiot, the joke’s on him. Lowe is Elton’s boss. But Lowe doesn’t see it that way. “Being able to call him a friend blows my f***ing mind,” he says. “He just really, in a very fun way, prods me that when it comes to music, I’ve got a lot to learn.”
WHEN BECK Hansen released Colours last year, he wanted to talk to someone he could trust. The 90s alt-rock legend had spent years perfecting his 13th album, with some songs requiring hundreds of takes to get right. His previous album, Morning Phase, had won several Grammys. He had a story to tell.
Beck ran into Lowe regularly at industry events and parties during this time, and he kept hassling him about how long the album was taking. “I felt bad. Every time I asked you, you’d wince,” Lowe told the singer on air recently.
When Colours was finally finished, Beck went straight to Lowe for the tell-all. It’s an attitude shared by many big names. Since moving to Apple Music, Lowe’s recorded immersive exclusives with Jay-Z, Eminem,
Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus and Justin Timberlake across interviews that sometimes last an hour.
After Lorde wrapped up her Australasian Melodrama tour last year, she was about to go on holiday. But she agreed to one more interview with Lowe. In his temporary Sydney studio, he got her to reveal things many were wondering: Why did she only play Auckland’s Powerstation when she could have played an arena? What made her choose that bizarre interpretive dance routine at the MTV Awards? She also tells him her five-year plan: “I want to entirely do a record, everything. Write it completely myself, produce it myself.”
When asked why everyone wants to talk to Lowe, Beck offers a simple answer. “He’s a musician’s musician. There’s a depth of love that he has for musicians, a distinctive enthusiasm for the music and what’s happening. He’s very interested in what musicians are doing — and the process.”
Lowe’s interviews are friendly. They get personal. Often, it feels as if you’re eavesdropping on a catch-up between long-lost friends.
“It’s partly where I’m from,” says Lowe. “Being from New Zealand, it’s a very matey environment, there’s a friendliness that’s just in my DNA.” He doesn’t have pre-planned questions. “I’ve never gone into the process with a hard-hitting game plan ... I want to go in and get to the core of it. I want to get to the gold.”
Beck remembers first meeting Lowe in London around 2000, and was struck by how different he was to other interviewers.
“I remember when he was younger, he was always up for fooling around, breaking down the journalistic fourth wall, going into another space and letting some weirdness happen,” Beck says.
But those high-profile interviews don’t always go to plan. In 2016, Lowe flew to Japan to interview Frank Ocean. The R&B singer had just released Blonde, his first album in four years. The reviews were overwhelmingly positive, the hype immense. But Ocean had refused all interviews. Lowe had interviewed Ocean before, so asked him again. The reclusive star, now based in Japan, sent him a text: “Yeah, do it, get on a plane.”
Lowe boasted about the interview on social media, and spoke repeatedly about it on air. He admitted to London’s Evening Standard that he didn’t have a confirmed time, or location, for the interview. But he flew to Japan based on Ocean’s text. Then things went quiet. The interview didn’t happen. Or, if it did, Lowe’s never aired it. And he never explained what happened.
Today, Lowe says the incident taught him a big lesson. He chooses his words carefully when discussing it. “Frank is an incredibly deliberate individual. I am, like many other people, an obsessive fan about his music, his art and his delivery,” he says.
“I’ve learned now that Frank is better left speaking for Frank. Even at my age I learned that lesson, and it was really valuable, and I’m really glad I learned it, as painful as it was at the time: Don’t speak for the artist. Don’t jump the gun. Respect the process from start to finish, not
He’s a musician’s musician. There’s a depth of love he has ... a distinctive enthusiasm for the music and what’s happening. Beck Hansen
Clockwise: Zane Lowe with Lorde; the weeknd; and Ed Sheeran.