It's 3:30 a.m., we're in the dimly-lit billiards room of a haunted mansion in the Rocky Mountains, and Grammy-award winning artist Anton Zaslavski (aka "Zedd") is weighing the pros and cons of having himself cloned. This being a notoriously haunted property, we're also keeping an eye out for ghosts.
It's been a weird night. And that's a good thing.
Zedd asked The Huffington Post to join him at The Stanley Hotel (the establishment which inspired "The Shining") on Monday night, along with a gathering of his fans who won a scavenger hunt in Denver earlier that day. The event was the fifth in a series of ten color-themed "listening parties" Zedd is hosting around the country ahead of his upcoming album, "True Colors," set to be released on May 19.
For Denver's event, the electronic dance music (EDM) star previewed the last track on the album, titled "Illusion," which he associates with the color blue. In keeping with that color, everything at The Stanley that could feasibly be turned blue has been. Nearly 500 lightbulbs in the hotel have been painstakingly swapped out for blue ones. There's blue food, blue drinks and Zedd has gifted each of the 50 contest winners a blue pair of Beats headphones:
Somehow, the infamous hallways which inspired "The Shining" turn still-creepier when they're cast in a faded blue light:
Come play with us.
Shortly after we arrive, we're huddled into an expansive room where Zedd presses play on "Illusion." The song itself is a bit of a departure from Zedd's standard fare. It's electronic, sure, but it's more pared down and minimalist. In place of the intricate layering and dramatic climaxes he's done in the past, "Illusion" has plenty of mellow, open space, introduced with a melodic piano demo.
“It feels like the fairy tale’s over,” the song opens. “I really wanted these pages to begin with ‘once upon a time,’ like all those lullabies. I should’ve known better …”
To honor the more illusory aspects of the track title, we move on and partake in various ghostly activities. In one wing of the building, a psychic gazes into the future. Elsewhere, a tour guide shepherds the brave through pitch-black basements, sharing terrifying tales of the paranormal activity known to occur there. Meanwhile, Zedd himself haunts the lobby, meeting and greeting fans -- or is that just an apparition?
Later, in the wee hours of the morning, the night's festivities came to a close and the seemingly tireless Zedd sat down for an interview with HuffPost. Read on for a wide-ranging discussion including the musician's creative process, his strategy for winning the board game "Risk," what his career path would be like in an alternate universe, and -- yes -- clones:
Who is a vocalist you would like to work with, but you haven’t yet?
Adele has always been an artist I’ve wanted to work with. I love her voice and I think that would be a really interesting combination, especially because I really like that kind of music too. On my [new album], there’s a track that’s probably more Adele than EDM. If I could reverse time, I’d love to make a song with Jeff Buckley or Freddie Mercury.
Would you rather spend more time in the studio, or more time on tour?
Now that I just finished an album, I will say for sure on tour. I just spent a seemingly infinite amount of time in the studio, but after a tour, you just can’t wait to get back in the studio, because each side really inspires the other side. When I’m on the road or I see other DJs play, I get very inspired and get ideas. Sometimes, even when I go on vacation I come back with an idea. That helps more than just working straight all the time. When you’re in the studio a lot, you write songs and you produce … but you wonder what people would actually think and how they would react. The flip side is when you’re on the road, sometimes you want to make new stuff.
The beauty of being a DJ is you can almost do both at the same time … I had a studio in my bus, and I’m not a band, so I just need a computer and speakers.
So when you’re deep into a track and you’re stuck in your own head, what do you do to clear your mind?
I play Risk, the board game. We recently started playing board games. I used to play in a two-bedroom apartment that I absolutely hated. I hated everything about it. I bought a house recently, so now I’m never alone at home and when I come back from work, we either just talk or eat or play Risk. That actually really does help. Or on a sunny day I can jump in the pool for a minute and then go to the studio. All those little moments really do help clear the mind, especially when you’ve been working on the same four bars of music for an entire day. You forget how excited you were when you started on those four bars and how it made you feel.
So what’s your Risk strategy?
It depends on the rules. We play a slightly more difficult version where you have to have more territories. My strategy is to get Australia as fast as possible -- there’s only one way in! So you have to get Australia, and then you usually still lose. I just got Settlers of Catan; I haven’t played it yet.
Most creative people have more ideas than they can possibly execute on. If you had a clone, what would your clone be doing?
Damn, I would love to have a clone! It would probably be working while I sleep. A clone would be absolutely incredible. Sometimes, when you’re out on the road you just want to be home -- maybe they could trade off?
I spend a lot of time on details like finding the perfect samples. I want to hear every snare drum sound to make sure there wasn’t one -- snare number 955 maybe -- that was better. I could have someone go through that and filter that for me. That would be pretty nice.
If you were a philanthropist, what cause would you champion?
I’m from Germany, so our education system is a little different. I’m sure there’s quite a lot that can be done in the education world, at least in some countries. The health system is not the best here, in my opinion. I’ve talked to some very intelligent people who try to convince me otherwise -- that it’s better in America than in Germany -- but having the feeling that you’re always covered, no matter what happens, gives your mind a lot of freedom.
I just recently read about Elon Musk, and although he makes money in whatever he does, I feel like his intention is to make the world a better place. Like making some of the patents on his electric cars public so others can benefit.
What are some important things you do that your fans don’t realize you do?
I think my fans appreciate what I do for them -- my tour production is very important to me, for instance. I will spend as much money as I can make with the tour on the production, or even lose money to make it a better show. I make ticket prices extremely low, as low as humanly possible, sometimes lower than what it costs me to put on the show. The ["True Colors"] events are another thing that helps me give back to my fans. I feel these people will really appreciate the time and I appreciate them coming. Seeing how stoked people are -- it’s amazing for me to see how dedicated people are.
One thing people might not know is when I write music, I write an album, which contains hits, which contains album tracks, some they might like, some they might not like. Whichever song becomes a hit is completely out of my control. I can’t just push a “hit button” and that’s what happens. If a lot of people like a song, that’s what happens and I think the natural first reaction is people think if it’s a hit, it’s usually not good. But there’s a lot of layers underneath a vocal, which is what makes a hit a hit. People may not know how much time it took me to get it there. That’s maybe the one thing, but I think most of my fans do listen to a lot of the details, which is awesome. I need that clone! I’m going to ask Elon.
What advice would you give Zedd from five years ago?
That’s a good question, because to be completely honest, I’m happy about mistakes I’ve made in life and in music. Really making mistakes is the absolute best way to learn. You learn when you fail. Everything I’ve done wrong musically led to me understanding and learning how to do it right. When I first started working with vocalists, I was like, "Hell yeah I got a vocal!" You’re just stoked to have a vocal and then at some point you realize, "Maybe I should have been more critical," and you learn -- aside from learning how to produce a vocal -- you learn on the human level how to communicate with an artist, you learn how to get an artist to be comfortable with you. You have to listen and read their body language and react to that, because once a singer is pissed, you’re fucked.
I don’t know if I would say anything different, but just "trust your gut.” That’s one thing I’ve had to learn, too. There’s a million people out there who will say you have to do it this way or that way, especially now with the Internet. Things change so quickly that what might have been right yesterday is totally wrong today, so you have to trust your gut and do things that feel right.
If you weren’t a musician, what would you be doing right now?
I’d be a teacher. I knew music was my life and I’ve been doing it since I was four, but after I finished school and lived with my parents for … almost a year, making music and having almost no success, they said, “Maybe you should think about what will actually pay the bills.” I’d already found the university I wanted to go to and was ready to become a teacher. I happened to meet Skrillex online randomly a couple weeks after that and I never looked at the documents again. It was good timing. Lucky for me!
Are there any songs you’re especially proud of?
I’m proud of every song I’ve made, I’m very particular about never putting my name on something I’m not proud of. If I had to raise a song or two, I think “Spectrum” is a song that -- to me -- is timeless. I’ve never heard a song with that same chord progression. After hundreds of years of recorded music, I think that’s something that’s difficult to achieve. I’m particularly proud of that song. My new album has quite a few songs I’m proud of, because I wouldn’t have had the guts to do them a year ago, since they’re out of my comfort zone.
Was your new song "Illusion" originally more layered and complex like your other music and then you pared it back? Or did you intentionally write it with empty space from the very beginning?
In the beginning it was just a piano song. You can still hear at the very beginning of the song, there was a piano -- that was literally the first demo I recorded -- and then it transitions to the synths. To me, a good album has to have every type of song, and I didn’t have a song with a lot of “room” for the elements to breathe. I started producing this song and it sort of naturally gravitated towards that -- not having that big “drop.” This was one of the most fun songs for me to produce on the entire record. I loved experimenting with a lot of room because I generally don’t do this, and I fill every gap there is. But this song you really have room to breathe.
The Beatles always went straight to the point, no build-up, and I love that about them. This is the one song on the album where I didn’t follow that rule.
Do you usually start writing a song on the piano and then build from there?
Yes. Especially on this album, I think every song started with a piano demo. That way -- at least for me -- the songs become more musical and more focused on chord progressions and melodies, and less focused on sound design.
So who are your piano influences? The start of this song has almost a “Benny and the Jets” or Supertramp vibe to it.
Absolutely. I listen to way more '70s and jazz music than I listen to modern music, mainly just because that’s what my dad likes to listen to. And as a kid, you listen to what your parents listen to. A lot of older rock music like The Purple Gang and Genesis, Yes, that kind of stuff, and that’s very influential. In the very beginning, the chord progression is kind of classical. I played that song for Calvin Harris and he immediately thought it sounded like something Elton John would do.
So you start with a piano, what does your creative process look like from there?
The first step is almost always a piano, working on chord progressions. The piano is always right next to me in the studio, so I’ll just swing over and start playing a little bit, and then when something good happens I just keep focused on that. When I have a chord progression I think is “it,” I’ll go back and get the MIDI, and try to find the right sounds for it, structure the song. Usually I won’t have a vocal yet, so I imagine a vocal for the beginning. Once the song is 80 percent produced, I get the vocal and record a demo. Sometimes the demo ends up being the final vocal, but most of the time I just try to get the right vibe. I literally have a color in my head [and try to match] the vocalist’s sound with the color.
On this album particularly, and I’ve never done this before, I recorded like five singers per song to find the perfect voice. Hopefully the ones that didn’t make it don’t hate me, but I think we communicated pretty openly. I don’t think I’ve ever sung a demo vocal myself.
Are there any rumors out there you want to set straight? Anything you want people to know?
When you are an artist, especially in the time of Twitter and Facebook and Instagram, there’s very little of yourself you actually keep for yourself. By becoming an artist and putting your face on things, unless you’re Daft Punk and you were really smart years ago, you decide to give away the biggest portion of your life to share with everyone. It’s like the stock market almost, everyone can have a piece of you, and everyone might be pissed if you do something they don’t like, but if there’s one portion of me that I try to keep for me, it’s my personal life. That’s why I never comment on these things. And I feel like, once people know, "OK, he gives everything to the fans, but he wants to keep a little bit of his personal life private," I think there will be less personal questions. I’m trying really hard to keep a little piece for myself.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
See more photos from the listening party below.