ZHU Delivers Audiovisual Odyssey in North American Debut
Faceless artist plays HARD Day of the Dead.
Towering palm trees frame gray and lavender tones while purple lights dance in stuttered steps below.
"This is the Nightday," says Jake Udell, ZHU's manager. "Look at the sky."
The setting couldn't have been better scripted for the faceless artist's first North American performance on Saturday. The three-quarter moon hangs low and lazy over HARD Day of the Dead, spilling over into an amber halo's haze. Danny Daze's upbeat techno scores the backstage area's air of expectancy. Nearly nine months of intrigue have led to this moment, when the man behind one of dance music's most mysterious brands will step out of the shadows.
ZHU wears a maroon leather jacket and insectoid red sunglasses beneath a black MOAG beanie, representing Mind of a Genius, the Los Angeles indie label on which he released his aptly named The Nightday EP. If he's nervous, he's certainly not showing it, calmly chatting with his TH3RD BRAIN management family while holding a Scream mask. When visible, his alert eyes belie an easygoing attitude. There's a lot going on up there, but he's got it under control.
Once ZHU takes to the HARDer Stage, we move to the front while droning and beatless bass notes set a suspenseful tone. Eerie chimes and tense strings make slow and deliberate entrances, while twanging guitars stride through strangely uplifting chord progressions. Darkness falls in the form of shuffling feet, gathering crowds, whispered words of concealed excitement. Vivid lights regularly pulse from the stage as an audience forms to embrace it.
"The first time I went to Berghain in Berlin, we were literally the first people inside," I say. "They played foreboding mood music to set the tone. It sounded like this."
"ZHU picked it," says Udell, cracking a smile. "That was a crazy moment, when he decided to pick the changeover music. His attention to detail is next-level."
Cackling laughter fills the air as the damp and delicate sounds of rainfall accompany a tree's appearance on the translucent video screen. Cheers and reaching arms greet a silhouetted figure behind it while lightning crackles in the foreground.
The opening lament of "Stay Closer" rings out above a chilling swell of cheers and a flurry of lifted phones. Swiveling lights illuminate the masked man behind the ubiquitous paint-brushed logo that introduced ZHU to the Internet. Synthesizers ascend as red lights trace each of the flag-shaped logo's three strokes. V Squared Labs designed the custom stage setup to envelope ZHU in overlapping layers of lighting, haze and digital scenery, lending the performance the feel of a multimedia art experience. While the crowd is not as visibly animated as that of a typical festival act, their attention is firmly fixed ahead.
"All I ever wanted, all I ever needed, all I ever wanted, all I ever needed."
ZHU transitions into a mash-up incorporating a pitched-up cover of the refrain from Depeche Mode's "Enjoy the Silence." HARD founder Gary Richards appears by the sound tent to greet Udell. He would later tell me he "loved ZHU's vibe" and the fact that "people are starting to get it, that [they] can play more smooth on the big stage."
"I'm born with this mighty sin."
After teasing "Paradise Awaits," the sound collapses under its own weight, careening into a sizzling cloud of static before being reincarnated as a rollicking deep bass groove. A sultry blue woman appears on the screen while pitched down vocals rumble along with the beat, steadily building back the vibe.
"Ooh ba-ba-ba-ba-baby, we could be superfriends."
The swaggering bass line of "Superfriends" drops to the crowd's delight. Booming sub-bass frequencies force fans' hands in the air. ZHU's team breaks it down by two-stepping in the middle strip, singing and spinning in genuine joy.
"Los Angeles, it's great to be here tonight, to be home," ZHU takes to the mic amid cheers. "Make some noise if you came because you like music."
A crooning saxophone takes center stage, sauntering through the passionate refrain from "The One." Throbbing bass and skybound synths rise to reach it while the screen displays a series of increasingly provocative queries. Where am I? Do you think I'm sexy? Do you love me? Can we be intimate?
"Down on the West Coast they got their icons, their silver starlets, their queens of Saigon."
Dusty visuals of classic-film countdowns preface ZHU's sinuous remix of Lana Del Rey's "West Coast." The words "I Love You" flare in pulsating red lights, prefacing pensive thunder and the cackling laughter's return. Cut to the iconic synth chords from Michael Jackson's "Thriller," and the audience erupts in excitement as a dancing skeleton montage appears onstage.
"Baby I'm faded, all I wanna do is drive home to you baby."
The thumping remix provides the perfect segue into hit single "Faded," which ZHU teases in snippets before relenting to full-throated cheers. A congregation of voices takes up the track's iconic chorus in advance of its powerful bass-driven drop. We've reached the set's red meat, with criminally soulful cut "Paradise Awaits" following soon after to spur the most enthusiastic dancing to date.
ZHU finishes strong with the contemplative "Cocaine Model" and "Moves Like Ms. Jackson," the smooth Outkast medley originally attributed to an unknown artist that served as his viral opening statement in February. Paying tribute to the Atlanta duo, he mixes into a bumping rework of "ATLiens" and spurs a sea of outstretched arms.
"Los Angeles, it's been amazing tonight," he says. "Should I do one more?"
ZHU jumps into ODESZA's driving downtempo "Faded" remix, riding bristling broken beats to a sweeping crescendo while synthesized strings rise and fall with dramatic gusto. As the sound disappears and the crowds dissipate, only a painted white logo remains. Its anonymous artist wouldn't have it any other way.