Let the music speak for itself. It’s easy to proclaim but hard to practice in an era when buying into an artist’s persona is often an expected part of the deal. For Steven Zhu, a 27 year old musician of Chinese descent who grew up in the Bay Area and is now based in Los Angeles, one way to let the music speak for itself was to remove himself from the equation. In February 2014, Zhu debuted via an unattributed Outkast remix medley on Soundcloud, blending the duo’s raps over house beats. He ended the year with an international chart hit (the slinky “Faded”), a deal with Columbia Records in the U.S., and a show at EDM festival HARD Day of the Dead. The trick, it turns out, was to leverage his relative anonymity to build online hype — stoked by images of a mysterious logo and radio play —and draw curious fans to his music. “Faded” went on to receive a Grammy Award nomination for Best Dance Recording in 2015 (the win went to the U.K.'s Clean Bandit), and later that year Zhu released the energetic Genesis EP, a diverse set of collaborations with Skrillex, A-Trak, and AlunaGeorge among others. This past spring, he embarked on his first U.S. headline tour, a prelude to his debut album, Generationwhy, due out July 29.
Speaking from his L.A. home by phone in early July, Zhu sounds relaxed and content (he asked for our Skype conversation to be audio only). “For our generation, the internet is a gateway to distribute music in the same way we make it,” he tells me. Before he become an internet figure, Zhu had been making music in a more traditional way for years: playing piano and horns as a kid; jazz bands and orchestral practice at school; music studies at USC; a one-year stint releasing a track a week on Soundcloud (“a self-training process”); and some low-key releases. “In terms of actually saying I make music for a living, it’s been three years,” Zhu says before adding, “but of course there’s been 10,000 hours or more put into it.” Those hours of practice are evident in the music. Beneath their polished EDM house front, Zhu’s songs are well-crafted and slick. So much so they might catch you off guard. “Orchestration and arrangement is always interesting to me,” he continues. “The arrangement of a song can make or break its success.”
While his music has won him many fans, Zhu’s keenly aware of how the popularity game is played. “I think that the tools which made me successful are shifting,” he says of the platforms he used to gain a place in the limelight. “Artists might start breaking out on Snapchat; it’s the reality of the technology.” Zhu’s choice to efface himself behind a music-driven persona — an inversion of the current tropes of celebrity obsession — has brought him growing acclaim and fame. Yet, as our conversation makes evident, he wants to strive for something bigger and more genuine, “a better cultural music.” Generationwhy and its sweet, sophisticated electronic pop is an ambitious step in that direction.
Why did you choose to hide your identity initially?
The message behind it is something I firmly believe in. The artists I admired growing up, many had faces but some didn’t. Gorillaz, for example — I wasn’t focused on the men behind the music. I think as an artist you have to capture what the music represents.
What is the message behind anonymity?
Back in 2013, dance music was making big headlines and I felt like half the people had ghostwriters, others didn’t know how to perform, and some couldn’t even play music or were tone deaf. I felt everybody was using their face to capitalize off the music, grabbing fans instead of perfecting music. I was confident in delivering the type of music I had, I felt it would be a statement if people didn’t know who I was.
It’s about trying to connect to the music first?
There’s too much information today. You lose the feeling of curiosity, the mystique, and I think that’s important. It is an experience for people to discover music that might become their favorite. If you give them all the information, the experience becomes watered down.
What does anonymity mean to you in today’s world?
Anonymity was just part of a movement, counter to what was happening when I started. We’re always looking for something different and for ways to identify with our own. 10, 15 years ago, you wore clothes that represented the music you listened to. Or you might have drove certain cars, or went to certain places. Today everyone listens to a lot of stuff but I don’t know if the sub-culture elements are as strong as they used to be. And I think those elements are important for music outside of the pop realm.
I remember as a kid, during high school, I worked at a little indie label and distro house in San Francisco, IDC, during the summers. They had records, they pressed vinyl, and it was the first time I listened to jungle, original rave stuff. It was a mix by AK1200. It was really interesting, what is this stuff? I couldn’t find out anything about it so I had to dig and try to find venues where some of the DJs played. I looked at how people dressed. It was a certain culture they latched on to that I was curious about.
Are you hoping that your music might help something like that to happen again?
That’s the goal. I want people to listen and embrace and take it into their lifestyle, what they wear, the way they talk about music. I think there’s something powerful about that.
“If an artist doesn’t evolve something is wrong.”
How did you approach the writing process for your debut album, Generationwhy?
I have a studio in L.A. and that’s where I finish my music. I start my music anywhere, because of how much I travel or where I might want to be to grasp inspiration. The older you get, the harder it is to get in that same zone you were in when you were making music carefree. You have to really make an effort to isolate yourself from the distractions to achieve that. Listening to music I just made is my favorite feeling.
For this album I spent two weeks in New Orleans and had a bunch of local players, good friends, come through to session and make some music with me. As for the process, it always starts with a vibe. It’s a vibe thing first. Once I capture that I can determine whether or not it should be a song or something more dynamic. On this record there are way more songs than the first two EPs, in terms of vocals and more intricate songwriting. That’s something I challenged myself to do for this particular project. I try to take up different types of voices in my music and so there is more of me singing in this album. There are a few different writers and vocalists on there as well.
What led you to use your own voice as an instrument?
The truth is when I first started I was making beats and sending them out but no one was writing on them. So I wrote on them. No one was cutting the demos. So I cut the demos. And then the demos got to a point where people were like, "This is dope." Ok, if no one wants to take the things I’ve done I’m gonna do it myself.
What does the voice add to the music for you?
A level of rawness. I use the first or second take. After three takes, I call it a day. While the production is very polished, what balances my music is how raw the vocals can be. It adds an additional edge to it. I like the repetition of house and techno and the importance of setting a tone and groove, but I always saw my music as a fusion of different influences, especially this album. So the psychedelic rock thing I love, a Sade element, and then the more electronic, house influence.
The electronic element is the main reason my music is what it is today. The vocals and songwriting are intertwined as an instrument in the beat. As time changes, I experience more things and what people want to hear changes. There should be evolution. If an artist doesn’t evolve something is wrong.
The album feels like it’s reaching towards more of a pop aesthetic. And pop today is electronic.
For sure. People have a misconception about pop music. When it’s done really well, it’s great. [Take] Pink Floyd, for all the arrangements and musicality at their core, [Roger] Waters wrote pop songs. And he was able to intertwine these with bigger concepts. My goal and challenge is to take something that resonates as a pop record and create something around it that makes it more provocative or tasteful.
What's the idea behind Generationwhy?
My concept for this record was to bring people towards a feeling of rebirth. My intention was to bring the listener on a journey and back to a youthful innocence. As cheesy as that may sound, but sometimes cheese is real! And in terms of what we’re dealing with right now in the world, there’s a lot of questions we all ask. And many people are afraid to ask them even. Artists have a responsibility and duty to create the music that describes their era. I think this record is the soundtrack to what west L.A. feels like in the past few years.
A few years ago I noticed that many in my generation seemed lost after college, going into jobs or staying with their parents, and it felt like the system wasn’t working. And so we ask a lot of questions, all of us. Like, why do people pay a lot of money to go to a place where they are surrounded by hundreds of strangers to feel like they belong together? We have different mediums to achieve that. Music is the rawest of those medium, people can gather together and allow everybody to have something in common. And then we have a place to start from, to relate.
There's a short film attached to the album as well?
We’ve integrated elements of it into the recent shows, but we haven’t shown it in full yet. I wrote the movie and it’s directed by American Millennial. The story is about these kids trapped in a menacing, Full Metal Jacket vibe of an institution. There’s an evil dictator, of course, and the kid escapes and as he runs towards freedom the song “Generationwhy” kicks in. The reason I did a short film is because the song is very happy and uplifting. I think that to feel this happy you have to go low and dark, which is what the film does for about 8 minutes and then brings you to this release through the song.
The song sounds like a finishing montage — it’s very positive — but it doesn’t truly test its effectiveness unless you’re sad and then you listen to it. A lot of my music feels visual. I have synesthesia, I can see colors in the music. I have a grasp on how it can best be translated, hopefully. I think it’s very important to hear songs in the right place; it affects interpretation of the music. I’m trying to allow those who discover the songs to discover them in the right frame of mind.