He’s Skrillex’s protégé. He’s Lady Gaga’s producer. He’s beennominated for two IDMA Awards and has appeared on David Letterman. Meet 23-year-old Zedd, aka Anton Zaslavski.
Words: Ally Byers
Photos: Kevin Lake
Today electronic music resembles an increasingly confused child caught in the middle of a furious custody debate. There’s the mainstream charts, the hit radio stations and the major labels in their air conditioned penthouses explaining via suited lawyers that they best know how to take care of the poor neglected soul. Meanwhile, out in the trailer parks of late night Twitter feeds and politically Byzantine artist forums, the self-proclaimed heroes, the poorer, trendier types scream that they looked after it from the beginning, and they’ll never, ever give it up. Replace ‘EDM’ with ‘Stacey’ and 68 per cent of online debates read like a transcript from the Jeremy Kyle show.
Step forward our next guest: Anton Zaslavaski, aka Zedd. He’s toured with Skrillex, he’s produced Justin Bieber. He’s been nominated for two International Dance Music Awards, billed by MTV as a 2013 Artist To Watch and he’s played classical piano on The Late Show With David Letterman. His tracks ‘Shave It’, ‘Slam The Door’ and ‘Shotgun’ have slammed into the Beatport charts time and time again, yet his proudest achievement was producing Lady Gaga’s forthcoming album. The troll jury is out – potentially, because they’re busy ordering his ‘Clarity’ album.
Anton Zaslavski, however, isn’t rebelling against the dance music debate – he just doesn’t see electronic music differently to any other genre. Sitting in a basement bar in Shoreditch, military jumper and designer leather jacket hugging his lean frame, cracking jokes in an untraceable, US-tinged accent and holding Mixmag with a friendly but somehow authoritative gaze, Zedd elaborates.
Born in Germany to two classical musicians, Zedd’s enduring passion from day one was composition: “At some point when I was six or seven years old, I started writing my own music, and recording on a keyboard and on video camera, and it just became normal for me,” he tells us. “Every day I tried to make a song, and when my parents came back from work I would present them with the song and that became my daily thing.” At 12, Zedd joined his then 15-year-old brother and they formed a band with Zedd as drummer which enjoyed modest success, touring nationally and eventually finding a label, thanks to the duo’s extensive music education. Soon, Zedd and his brother began producing rock bands, and a future of weekend gigs for a small German metal band seemed set – until in 2009 Zedd stumbled across the Justice album. “When I heard Justice, it was like ‘wow’,” he recalls. “The first album I ever bought was ‘Discovery’ by Daft Punk, and I fell in love with it. But After Daft Punk there was just rock music and that alone. Then, I heard Justice...” The then 20-year-old realised that his exploration of music had been missing a chapter. “It just triggered something in me. I suddenly felt in rock music, what could I do that I haven’t done yet? But this new electronic world was like, ‘Lock this door – you haven’t done anything yet, everything is new.’ I had no clue how to make a fat kick-drum or snare drum or bass sound like they did – but that was fun because there was so much to learn.”
It didn’t take Zedd long. Within a year – and as an unknown, unsigned producer – he’d won two Beatport remix contests: Moussaka Clarke & Fisher’s ‘Love Key’ in February 2010 and Fatboy Slim’s ‘Weapon Of Choice’ in August. Curiosity quickly turned to attention when Zedd decided to drop a line to Skrillex. “I saw a link to a Skrillex track that Deadmau5 posted on Facebook, and I thought the song I was then working on was extremely similar. I also thought I was ahead with that song and doing something new, so I messaged Sonny on MySpace, never thinking I get a reply.” And how did that conversation go? Zedd laughs, still looking bewildered over a year later. “It was short. And very effective. I wrote ‘Hey dude, I’m a musician and I think 99% of the dance scene is complete shit, but you’re awesome and you will like my music’ and just sent a link. That was it. And he replied a few minutes later and said ‘Oh dude the song is awesome. I have a show in one hour, is there any way you can send me the song?’ So I sent him it, and the next day he asked if I want to remix him and I was like ‘Yeah, of course!’ and I started remixing the first song, then I did ‘Scary Monsters And Nice Sprites’ [which would reach No 2 on the Beatport electro charts] and later on ‘Breaking A Sweat’, and then he took me on tour. Now we have the same agent, the same management, the same production team – we’re all just like one family.”
The sheer pace of Zedd’s transition from local rocker to mysterious remixer to Skrillex’s protégé was only fully apparent when he played his first live gig. “The first time somebody asked me to play a show was in Germany and I said, “Well, how would you like me to play? Like, what do I do?” I had all these songs done but I had no idea how to play. The promoters just said, “Well, now you’re a DJ, get a programme, get a controller,” so the first show I actually DJed, I just had a laptop and DJed with the mouse. A few months later Skrillex took me on a huge tour of the US ,so I started learning to DJ, with Skrillex, while on the road.”
Clearly something was clicking, though: later in 2011 Interscope Records, a subsidiary of Universal Music, got in touch, and 22-year-old Zedd, having been producing electronic music for under two years, was asked to produce remixes and ultimately an album for Lady Gaga, as well as a track for Justin Bieber.
It's this duality between cutting-edge and mainstream that makes Zedd so fascinating. “With Gaga I’d done remixes before and I told the A&R that my dream would be to make a song for her one day, because I love her voice. Then it came to the point that she asked me to produce her record, and I just didn’t care what people might think,” he says. The same went for Justin Bieber: “I had a track already made, and one day Bieber’s A&R visited me in the studio and said, “That’s perfect for Justin, we have to try it out.” I actually had a female vocalist in mind, but I thought, why not? So we went into the studio and he sang it and I was completely convinced. I love that track with him on it, and if no one knew it was Justin Bieber, even more people would probably like it. I just decided to not care about credibility or image or whatever. I like the song, I love him on the song, so that’s a done deal for me.”
However, Zedd does have strong views on the concept of artist integrity: in fact, his philosophy hasn’t changed since he was trying to nail that C sharp in front of the Handycam aged eight. “There’s only one factor I care about: whether something feels natural to me, or if it feels forced or not right. There have been a lot of times when people wanted me to perform on big TV shows and said, “You’re gonna stand there and you’re gonna [pretend to] DJ and they’re gonna play it back” and I was like, “Why? I can do that live.” I don’t know how far you can go if you do these things when it’s not real, because it’s just not right.’ He feels so strongly about it that, when invited to appear on US-wide talkshow The Late Show With David Letterman, Zedd agreed, and then proceeded to perform a track as a full orchestral version. ‘I didn’t want to just press play and perform a song live,’ he says. ‘I rearranged it and put a full orchestral version in there – I wanted to show there was a way to play this song completely acoustically, with an orchestra and live piano, and just show that beyond those beats there’s actually a ‘soul of music’ in there.”
It’s this ongoing fascination with the true nature of music, that keeps Zedd moving. It’s Saturday in the green room at Ministry of Sound and Zedd sits, totally relaxed, tapping away at a MacBook. Does he prepare his sets? “Oh no, I just look at some ideas and then go out and try them,” he says. “I don’t even have a studio. Well, I do in theory: in Germany, in the basement of my parents house. It’s a tiny room with two USB speakers on a tiny table – actually one now, the other’s blown. I just have a laptop.”
In the green room the laptop’s quickly abandoned for a long debate with Zane Lowe about the future of dubstep in America. So long, in fact, that he’s more or less manhandled onto stage by the tour manager – where, in front of several thousand cheering people, Zedd pulls off a pitch-perfect set, the whole time flicking through samples, loading and unloading tracks, cueing up then changing his mind and always, always looking for something new, that next sound, that unusual drop. He somehow pulls off the entire set without headphones. When we mention it, he puts down the cupcakes a fan brought him – each iced with a track name from his ‘Clarity’ album – and just laughs. “Oh shit, yeah – I totally forgot about them,” he says. “I left them behind somewhere.”
However, Zedd’s preoccupation with music composition goes further than ensuring the hi-hats make a cameo at the correct moment. With a residency in Vegas, a US tour scheduled for Autumn, a track with Ellie Goulding and a second album all in the pipeline, he tell us that his long-term goal is to be a mentor: ”I want to sign and build artists. That was a dream of mine ever since, in a way, Skrillex built me. I hope to be able to sign artists and produce their music well, write music with them and manage them using the experience I have. It’s my dream to make an artist really big, a superstar.”
Best drop him a message on MySpace, then.
Zedd’s single ‘Clarity’ is out now on Interscope