Zedd is no stranger to hit singles, with two of them, “Clarity” and “Stay the Night,” coming in the last two years. Now, the Kaiserslautern, Germany, native, born Anton Zaslavski, is preparing to release a new album, True Colors, which is likely to yield even more Billboard Hot 100 chart-topping singles and make him the household name he deserves to be when it comes to pop-star producers of electronic music. The album is scheduled to come out May 18, and as part of the rollout, Zedd has been hosting surprise events for fans across the U.S. The most recent one took place on Sunday in Philadelphia, and Complex went along for the ride.
Fifty fans of Zedd won a city-wide scavenger hunt guided via tweets from Zedd’s @ZeddTrueColors Twitter account in Philly on a steamy Mother’s Day afternoon. They were then transported to an unknown location, revealed to be Doylestown, Penn.’s Fonthill Castle—a 105-year-old man-made home modeled off of a 13th century Rhenish castle, to experience Zedd’s forthcoming record.
Once there, fans were treated to a private event with the color white as the theme. A catered meal, free gifts, and a private, Zedd-attended listening session of nearly eight-minute-long album single “Papercut” while sitting in the home’s study were all tied into the color and the album. Zedd told fans that he intended his new album to show that dance music need not only be emotive, but also musical too. To wit, “Papercut” is a yearning groover set in multiple movements that feels more in tune with D minor scales than deep house. Therefore, sitting in a home defined by melding classic influences and the modern age made sense.
After three hours of meeting fans, taking pictures, sending Snapchats, and having a three-to-five minute chat with each of the 50 attendees at this massive undertaking of an event (that’s happened everywhere from Joshua Tree National Park outside of Los Angeles to Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium so far), Complex sat with a surprisingly not-so-exhausted Zedd and discussed everything from synesthesia to George Benson’s jazzy 1980-released single “Give Me the Night.” Zedd's True Colors Tour starts Sept. 6 in Seattle.
Marcus Dowling is a writer living in Washington, D.C. Follow him @marcuskdowling.
What would you say are the key sonic influences, genre-wise on your new album, True Colors?
This album is very classical, and there’s some rock influences, rap influences, and “True Colors” the song is almost tribal. I actually think it’s important for artists in electronic music to try to push the barriers of creating music that’s of a genre that everyone can appreciate.
From Selena Gomez on current single “I Want You to Know” to Foxes for “Clarity,” you’ve worked with a diverse cross-section of “known” and “unknown” vocalists.” Is there a difference between the two, and what quality draws you to someone’s vocal performances?
A vocalist can make or break a song. Even if a vocalist sings the same top line and the same lyrics, it’s the colors that you see and feel when you hear their voice that’s most important. I love voices where when you hear them, you know immediately who it is. [For instance], Ellie Goulding is the most extreme example of that. Her voice is an instrument. It really is. It has a lot of air, and when you think of things like air, you’re thinking of colors and things like that, too. So for me, the right vocalist is absolutely crucial to create the right emotion for the song.
I think that whether an artist is known or not known doesn’t affect how the song feels to someone. It’s much more what the voice sounds like. For example, when you take a song like “Clarity,” nobody had ever really heard of Foxes before. Of course, it’s awesome when you can find someone like Hayley Williams [vocalist on “Stay the Night”] that has a huge rock fanbase that’s suddenly like, “you know what, I should like electronic music because I never liked it before, and thanks for introducing me.” Of course, that’s amazing because this dance movement is a pop culture movement, and I want everyone in the world to know my music, which is why I make it. I also want to change something with what I do, but I would never do it if the voice didn’t fit. On “Clarity,” I had several other singers sing it too, and some of them were pretty big, but I decided to go with the voice that really means something to me, which was Foxes. I think the song actually got much bigger with Foxes than it could’ve gotten with a [bigger-name] vocalist.
What are your goals, if any, that you’re attempting to achieve these days in your creative process?
Well, I’ve always had the approach to push electronic music to be more musical. Coming from a musical background, you will find that a lot of [electronic music] isn’t [musical]. The more people that make music not-so musical, the more people accept that and think that’s how it should be. That’s going to make it really tough to turn it back. Looking back to Queen, the Beatles, King Crimson, Genesis, and all of those great bands, they were able to speak to huge masses of people with fairly complex music. The amount of depth you can put into music and still make people understand it is getting very low and you can overload people’s minds very quickly with very little. So, I’m trying to push that back and bring back musicians that can speak in wider terms. I think people can understand it without having to make some kind of crazy “math rock electro.” You have to speak [the fans’] language, and there’s ways to push that musically.
So many of your bigger hits are defined by piano-driven melodies. What has drawn you to the instrument, and why is it important to you?
When you write the chords [of a song] in a computer, you can either let a synth play it or a piano play it. That’s how it’s typically done, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The way I use it, I use the piano as an actual instrument. I write on it, and then I turn it into a synth. I don’t do it the other way around. The result is that the chord progressions are more unique and the music feels more musical. I hate hearing a drum fill that’s impossible to actually play. It feels wrong. It’s the same when I hear chords that a human being can’t play. I’ll hear something that’s 11-tonal and that’s something you can’t do with 10 fingers. By writing music on an instrument, you’ll make the music feel much more organic.
By writing music on an instrument, you’ll make the music feel much more organic.
True Colors album track “Transmission” features Logic and X Ambassadors. I believe this is the first time you’ve worked with a rapper on a track, so, what was that process like, and what drew you to Logic?
I’m not a big hip-hop expert. I heard Kendrick Lamar the first time I heard rap and realized that rap could be really musical. He’s brilliant. That’s what made me want to work with a rapper, and then I found Logic, and I was like, “he’s so good, he’s so talented.” He’s also such a nice guy. I’d never worked with a rap artist before, so when we recorded, I asked him if I could ask him to re-record something or change the lyrics and [Logic’s] like, “Dude, I’ll do whatever it takes to make this awesome.” That was really refreshing for me. Working with X Ambassadors, who are alternative rockers, that was an amazing way to bring three cultures into one. There’s a lot of pieces, but I think “Transmission” proves that there doesn’t have to be a barrier between genres and something fresh can be made. I don’t know of any other song that sounds quite like it.
Who are five artists—alive, dead, whatever—that you’d advise someone who’s never listened to your music before to listen to in order to get an idea of what to expect?
Silverchair. You know, the band? Yeah, Daniel Johns is the lead singer, and he’s one of the most influential people in my life musically, and I would love for him to listen to [True Colors]. Jeff Buckley, Freddie Mercury, George Benson...
Like “Give Me the Night”? George Benson?
Yeah, him! And Stevie Wonder, too.