SUPERSTAR DJ... HERE WE GO!
In 2010, Anton Zaslavski was the ex-drummer of a deathcore band who had started doing his own remixes. Today he’s Zedd, a Grammy Award-winning DJ and producer who’s worked with Gaga and been responsible for some of the biggest hits of the past decade. “Wh
Asa teen growing up in the South-West German city of Kaiserslautern, Russian-born Anton Zaslavski loved Friday and Saturday nights. He’d live for the weekend – but not in a way that would seem familiar to many current or former teenagers. His Fridays would kick off with band practice, because at this point Zaslavski hadn’t yet become Zedd, hadn’t yet been responsible for billions of song streams with his own tracks and productions for Ariana Grande or Thirty Seconds To Mars, hadn’t yet won a Grammy for the Foxes collaboration Clarity and was still the drummer in a death metal band called Dioramic. But when Friday evening band practice was over, Zaslavski’s weekend could really start. “I loved Fridays and Saturdays because that’s when everybody went out,” he begins, which seems fair enough. But then: “I could play video games all night. And I knew nobody would disturb me, because everybody was out partying. That was my mindset: I can be by myself.” Today, with the 28- year-old back in Germany ahead of his set at ludicrously over-the-top Düsseldorf dance festival Parookaville and Zedd’s music soundtracking a planet’s worth of nights out from Vegas to Vauxhall, he hasn’t changed much. He says going out is “not something I love doing.” Clubbing, explains the globally famous DJ, is “not really my thing.” His home in the Hollywood Hills, he adds, has all the hallmarks of a “number one party house”. From where he lives he can see nightly parties taking place in other mansions, but in nine months of living there he’s only had one himself and even that he downgrades to “get-together” status. On the topic of whether he enjoys meeting new people, he says, “Not really.” All of which might make Zedd sound like a roaring dullard and borderline pillock, but the sweatpants-sporting, softly-spoken and frequently rather smiley chap entertaining Q today is, like a surprising number of big DJs, merely lightly introverted. And there is one exciting thing happening in that Hollywood abode: he’s recently commissioned an artist to partially demolish one of the walls, then rebuild it with blocks of Lego. There will be little secret compartments in the wall, he explains with increasing gusto, inside which will be miniature depictions of scenes from his life, such as his current Vegas residency. He pauses while he’s explaining all this, catches himself, and in a very Zedd-like statement that screams, “I’m happy to have some fun and put a load of Lego in my house, but let’s not get carried away,” he adds. “It’s alright. It’s not a load-bearing wall. I checked.” Just after Zedd’s 2017 single Stay was a massive hit he had a meeting with Spotify, who took the opportunity to show him how their algorithms worked. They told him about things like skip rates, and how long listeners would stick with a song before moving on to the next one. Stay, he was told, was a great example of listeners really engaging with a song. “I never really knew how Spotify worked until then,” he says, suggesting a degree of intuition that dates back to 2010 and his earliest forays into producing, when his deathcore outfit had disbanded and, having heard a Justice album, Zaslavski had started entering remix competitions. “When I started making electronic music I honestly had no idea what I was doing,” he smiles. “I didn’t know at all.” He knew more than he realised, as he discovered after randomly messaging Skrillex on MySpace. This set in motion a series of events that by 2011 saw Interscope’s Jimmy Iovine introducing Zedd to Lady Gaga. It was a strange first meeting – they were onstage at an event – but Gaga took the opportunity to say, “Let’s make music.” Zedd submitted a song and legend has it that Gaga immediately called Iovine with the words, “I want this guy to produce my album.” She wasn’t messing around. “For it to be possible, I had to be there,” Zedd remembers. At that point he was still living in Germany. “She flew me over for four
months. You think someone that big is not tuned in to all the little guys. But she very much was. I give her a lot of credit for a lot that otherwise wouldn’t have happened – I had all this time, so I started making my own album.” Ultimately, Zedd produced three of the better tracks on ARTPOP, and music he’d recorded during his Gaga-funded excursion was already taking off: Foxes collaboration Clarity went triple platinum in the US alone. Zedd notched up another global hit with Stay The Night, featuring Paramore’s Hayley Williams, and by 2014 he was working with uber-producer Max Martin on Ariana Grande’s hit single Break Free. Recent years have seen Zedd leave behind the glowing embers of EDM in favour of slower beats, bigger melodies and even greater success with songs like the Spotify-friendly Stay and sparsely-chorused belter The Middle. Over the last 10 years the line between electronic artist and pop star has become increasingly blurred, the long and short of which is that Zedd is now extremely famous. He’s discussed his uneasy relationship with fame in the past; fair enough, Q suggests, as the whole thing looks awful. Is it hard work? He laughs. “It depends what kind of famous we’re talking here. There are some people who are stressed to leave their house – I’m nowhere on that scale. I’m at the very bottom.” He was thrust into an unexpectedly harsh spotlight in 2015, when he was romantically linked with the singer Selena Gomez. Suddenly, friends’ phones were being hacked, and the media were bothering his parents. “I was genuinely surprised – and mad – when my dad told me,” he says. “It really angered me. But now, thinking back: what did I expect? I should have been aware of it. I just didn’t want to think about it, maybe? That kind of fame is nothing for me. Nothing I’m interested in.”
“Lady Gaga flew me over to LA. You think someone that big is not tuned in to all the little guys. But she very much was.”
While he wouldn’t rule out another high-profile relationship (“if you meet someone you fall in love with, you’ll sacrifice everything for it”), Zedd admits that for self-preservation he’s developed something of a sixth sense that involves asking himself: “Is a person genuine? Why is that person talking to me? And do they expect or want something?”
After tomorrow night’s festival slot, Zedd will fly to Amsterdam, and then to Minneapolis, where he estimates he’ll have time to take precisely one shower before appearing onstage. “Can I promise I’ll be onstage super-stoked to perform?” he wonders. “No. If I can’t sleep on that plane I’ll be tired and exhausted, and that’s when the persona will kick in where I portray happiness. Nobody who tours a lot can say they loved playing every single show. That’s just a lie. Sometimes you’re tired, sometimes you’re exhausted. You still have to perform.” Zedd accepts that his workload has affected him physically, leading to problems with his neck and his back, requiring scheduled weekly massages. “But more than anything else,” he says, “it’s mental health.” At one point, he remembers, “I was working so much that I just stopped being creative. There were days I was actually scared to go to the studio, because I didn’t want to experience failure.” He paints a bleak picture of what became his daily routine. “You sit down. You waste 12 hours. You go home. Then you reflect, ‘What did I do today? Nothing.’ I was overworked. And I wasn’t creative. And I still went to the studio every day because that’s just what I did.” Insisting on a rough three-way time split between touring, producing and resting eventually got him back on track but Zedd seems to envy artists like tomorrow night’s gateau-tossing festival headliner Steve Aoki, who’ll play 31 shows in 30 days, or Skrillex, “who’ll get into a taxi and have his headphones on, and he’ll produce on the road.” Sometimes, Q offers, it’s nice just to stand up and go for a walk. Zedd seems keen on this idea, until it’s suggested that he could leave his phone at home. “Oh no,” he says. He looks very concerned. Q has pushed it all too far. “I would be miserable.”
“There are two types of artists. Ones who like to focus on the music and keep their beef out, and ones who live for drama. I just don’t have time to waste on beef.”
One benefit of leaving his phone at home might be the avoidance of less-than-cheery bons mots from Diplo, who for the last few years has waged a one-man war against Zedd via social media – a brilliantly cerebral tirade that’s included a poo emoji, a claim to have “fucked” Zedd’s “girl”, and a photo of a Zedd poster next to a pile of rubbish. Zedd admits that all this has “upset me every time”. “There are two types of artists,” he decides. “Ones who like to focus on the music and keep their beef out, and ones who more or less live for drama. I just don’t have time to waste on beef when I can spend it making my own music. I’ve just never been into being a dick to other people. More or less all my other DJ friends are like, ‘Why don’t you ever answer?’ And I think, partially, it annoys people more if you just ignore them.” In any case, as Frank Sinatra supposedly once noted, the best revenge is massive success, and one of Zedd’s biggest and best successes to date is The Middle, the billion-stream behemoth whose jarring chorus – nothing more than vocalist Maren Morris and a ticking clock – became one of 2018’ s biggest earworms. Zaslavski is one of the song’s seven credited writers, as well as the principal listed producer alongside duo Grey and production outfit The Monsters & The Strangerz. Demi Lovato, Tove Lo, Carly Rae Jepsen, Anne-Marie, Camila Cabello and many others recorded versions of the song during its torturous recording sessions – a story so emblematic of the modern hit process that earlier this year the New York Times published a video documenting the song’s creation. It revealed something quite curious: The Middle was pretty much finished by the time Zedd got his hands on it. “I helped the production and the vocal,” he says, when asked what he actually did on the song. “I said, ‘I think it has a lot of potential but you’re losing me in the chorus.’” The bridge used to be the chorus. It’s very little things that make things either good or great.” Persuading his collaborators to re-imagine the song was, Zedd says, “a long, painful procedure. I said, ‘Can I just try and do something? And if everyone hates it, then at least we tried?’” The gamble paid off. Despite Diplo’s best efforts, Zedd’s star continues to rise. Once current single Happy Now has done its business there are as many as five future singles that are all planned and mapped out, and don’t rule out a last-minute Thom Yorke guest spot on one of them, either. “I assume he’s very openminded,” Zedd says. “He’s one of my heroes, so I’d let him take the song in a different direction if he wanted to. I think he should call me. Not that he needs to, of course, but I think we’d create something really amazing.” Perhaps a little on the fanciful side; then again, eight months ago the kid in Germany who opportunistically MySpace-messaged Skrillex was on the cover of Forbes magazine, accompanied by stats estimating his earnings as exceeding $ 85m. Zedd doesn’t flinch when Q suggests that that figure must now be over $ 100m. “I didn’t even really think about the figure,” he adds, which is the sort of thing you can say if you’ve got enough cash to have a Lego art installation shoved into your house. “To me, it was about a producer who started making music on a slow computer in his parents’ basement. When you work so much, and so fast, you forget what you achieved, but that was one of those moments where you think: ‘I did achieve a lot.’” He smiles, and stops. For a moment it seems Zedd’s looking back on his eight-year career with the happy contentment of a man with nothing else to achieve. But that moment is brief. It’s hard to imagine him stopping until, if nothing else, his entire house is made out of plastic.
(Above, left) He bangs the drums – in death metal band Dioramic; (above, right) Zedd and Foxes accept their 2014 Grammy for Clarity (inset).
Thumbs up: Zedd enjoys the good life, Parookaville, July, 2018.
Bottoms up! Zedd with Skrillex (right), who helped kickstart his career.
Happy now: Zedd calmly reflects on the $ 85 million currently swelling his account.