“I haven't worn headphones in five years,” says Zedd. “Let’s be real here. It’s 2018. You don’t need them. I used to be the drummer in a metal band. Do people think I can’t hit ‘play’ at the right time?”
Born Anton Zaslavski 28 years ago in Russia and raised in south-west Germany from the age of four, Zedd is a DJ who doesn’t care for conventions. He’s happy to admit that he isn’t presenting his live appearances in the style of a traditional DJ, reading the crowd and changing the setlist every night. Everything for him is pre-planned meticulously, and it’s no secret.
Nor will he put the most famous guest singer on his hits just because he can. His last single, The Middle, which spent five weeks in the UK top 10 in the spring, tried out 13 different vocalists including Demi Lovato, Camila Cabello and Carly Rae Jepsen before settling on a 14th, lesser-known country singer Maren Morris. Last week he returned with a new song, Happy Now, voiced by another newcomer, Alabama’s Elley Duhé.
“I don’t do myself a favour by putting a big name on a record if the big name doesn’t deliver the emotion I want from the song,” he tells me. “Of course it would be a dream to make a song with Rihanna or Adele, but I’ve had plenty of situations where I’ve worked with artists really high up on my wish list, I get the vocal back and it’s just not good enough. It happens all the time.”
First brought to the US by Lady Gaga to work on songs on her Artpop album, he’s now based in a $4million home in the Hollywood Hills with a massive pool and a tree inside, and talks fast with an American accent. We catch up on a 24-hour visit to London while he promotes the new single and records a few “one-liners” for radio, where he tells you his name and which station you’re listening to. He does one for me, too. Here it is: “Hi, this is Zedd and you’re reading the Evening Standard.”
Slight in stature with a scruffy beard, pulled-back hair and in blue jeans, he doesn’t look much like he lives in a celebrity bubble, though before meeting him I’m asked by his people to “keep the conversation to music”. This presumably means avoiding asking about his love life (he found himself a paparazzi target when dating Justin Bieber’s ex, Selena Gomez, in 2015) or his various Twitter feuds (Diplo called him a “pompous cornball loser” online in 2016). He won’t be too bothered given his sales figures, or the pay cheques that come from his residency at the glitzy Omnia nightclub in Las Vegas. Forbes magazine placed him 10th (four places behind Diplo) on its most recent list of the highest earners in electronic music, claiming he banked $19 million in 2017.
Happy Now is a big step away from the powerful, melodic EDM with which he made his name, producing Ariana Grande’s hit Break Free and winning a Grammy for Best Dance Recording in 2014 for his song Clarity. It rests on a picked electric guitar, keeps the pace relaxed and shuns the idea of big brash breakdowns. In fact, Zedd has only become more successful as he has slowed his music down. Between The Middle and Stay, a similarly unhurried collaboration with Alessia Cara, he has been the most played act on US Top 40 Radio for 13 weeks of the past year.
Both of those hits reduce down in their choruses to just layers of digitally treated vocals and the sound of a ticking clock in the background. “Stay takes a while to get to the chorus, too. I don’t think it plays by any of the rules that you should obey to have a successful song,” he says. “But then a song like this gets successful, and now I hear other songs like that on the radio. The rules change so quickly when something different pops up.”
And he’s keeping close track of those rules, even if it’s just so he can break them. The criteria for the numbers that add up to a single’s chart placing are changing all the time, with YouTube videos added to official streaming counts last month. Some giants who were previously guaranteed hits, such as Katy Perry, Taylor Swift and Beyoncé, don’t look invincible any more as the streaming era sees tastes fracturing.
For Zedd it means trying to move faster, track by track. He released his second album, True Colors, in 2015, and there’s no sign of another. “With my albums I made the entire thing before I released one song, so when you hear it, you’re hearing what I thought about two years earlier,” he says. “Now I could make a song today, call my management tomorrow and release it the next day.”
Not that it’s usually that easy. Making The Middle was a year-long process involving seven different songwriters and all those potential vocalists. Zedd says he began making Happy Now even longer ago than that. In August 2017 he played Billboard magazine a version of the song with Sigrid singing.
Releasing one song at a time still suits him better, he insists. “Making music single by single took so much weight off my shoulders and really made me more creative. It made me make better decisions musically. I’m slowly getting to the point where I want to tell a slightly longer story. An album doesn’t mean a 10-song compilation, it means you have an idea that requires you to make more than one song. As soon as that idea is there — and I don’t have it yet, to be completely honest with you — I will definitely make another album.”
Meanwhile the tour dates pile up. The requests to collaborate keep coming in. He thinks he took four days off in the first four years of his music career. When we meet he’s extremely excited about an imminent holiday off the coast of France, on a friend’s boat where he’ll have no phone reception. How long’s he off for? “Two days.”
We talk about the pressures of the DJ lifestyle, especially significant after the death of Avicii, aged 28, in April. “It’s not an easy job. People think we’re lucky because we get to party for a living. That’s really not the case. You’re responsible for the 20,000 people that are partying, and that takes work,” he says. “Is it healthy? I don’t think so. But it’s not healthy to be a pilot either. It’s important to take care of your body, to be hydrated, to get enough sleep, and to keep good people around you.”
He makes sure he gets eight hours’ sleep per 24-hour period, usually from 4am to midday, but sometimes in three-hour/two-hour/three-hour bursts where he can. His older brother Arkadi, whose metal band he used to drum for, is also close by in LA making music. He’s often joined by “the Germans”, his closest childhood friends, who’ll fly to LA and stay in his guest rooms. He flies his parents, both musicians and teachers, out sometimes too. If that all sounds very sensible, that’s just his way, and it’s working out brilliantly.
Happy Now by Zedd & Elley Duhé is out now on Interscope