Zedd, 2017
Cover Story

Zedd, Dance Music's Anti-Bro, on Making Hits for Selena, Kesha and Liam and Why DJs Should 'Speak Up' On Trump

When Zedd hosts poker night at his place, an impeccably decorated $4 million home high in the Hollywood Hills, there are no cigars smoldering in ashtrays, no clinking tumblers full of brown liquor. Instead, there’s chill jazz wafting from speakers at a modest volume, and the host standing in the kitchen holding some rectangular blue foil packages, asking, in his polite Teutonic way, “Does anyone want a Rice Krispies treat?”

The ensuing three hours of Texas Hold ’Em -- held on a late-July Monday with 27-year-old Zedd, born Anton Zaslavski; his jokester older brother, Arkadi; DJ-producer Alvin Risk; Tim Smith, the manager Zedd shares with Skrillex; and other pals -- are replete with nerdy flair: bad puns galore, a “Bohemian Rhapsody” singalong, deep-tactical poker talk, and the shrill, birdlike cry that Zedd and his brother make each time the dealer “burns and turns” the cards on the table (“Byuuurrrn and tyuuurrrn”). The stakes are low at $40 a pop, and the competition is stiff but friendly: When Risk eventually knocks Zedd out, everyone claps for their fallen foe, who compliments his executioner: “Perfectly played.”

“Sometimes we will just play board games all day and go to bed and be super happy about it,” says Zedd the next day. He and his pals are particularly “obsessed,” he says, with Settlers of Catan, a strategy game in which players take over and develop an island. It’s a fitting hobby for the guy who -- starting in 2012, with the Grammy-winning No. 8 Billboard Hot 100 hit “Clarity,” featuring U.K. singer Foxes -- pioneered the pop-conquering DJ-producer of today, the dance dude who smartly allies himself with a female star.

Billboard Hot 100 Fest 2017

Cashmere Cat, Kygo and the Skrillex-Diplo team-up Jack Ü have since made careers on the formula. And The Chainsmokers might not even exist were it not for Zedd (and his similar-minded friend, Calvin Harris). From the start, says Interscope chairman/CEO John Janick, Zedd was “forward-thinking, creating his own lane while changing radio.”

Ramona Rosales
Zedd photographed on July 24, 2017 in Malibu, Calif. Styling by Jeffery John Lewis.

Zedd, who was born in Russia, reared in Germany and only mastered English in 2014, delivered his biggest hit as a lead artist this year: the simultaneously moody and bouncy “Stay,” featuring Alessia Cara. The track topped Billboard’s Hot Dance/Electronic Songs and Mainstream Top 40 charts and reached No. 7 on the Hot 100 in May. He followed that in July with the sultry “Get Low,” featuring One Direction’s Liam Payne in his most grown incarnation yet.

Zedd shares the story behind his hit Liam Payne collab "Get Low":

Like more and more artists these days, Zedd has no immediate plans for an album, just a series of event-level singles, which shouldn't be a problem for him. (He’s also headlining a North American tour this fall, and holding down a Las Vegas residency at four related clubs.) Looking out from his Zedd-branded PokerStars table at all the ultra-modern light fixtures, geometric art pieces and bespoke furniture -- including a $13,000 side table that casts rainbows when the sun hits it -- you’d think you were in the living room of a silver-haired executive instead of a 20-something artist, and the names on the record plaques in the hall reinforce that impression: Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, Selena Gomez.

Except Zedd’s not the paternal higher-up minding these artists’ income streams -- he’s the collaborator pushing them to some of their greatest commercial heights. Zedd says he’s “slow and picky” with the singers he invites onto his songs. “Oh, he’s definitely a perfectionist,” says Payne, though “it felt like I was [recording] with a bandmate or friend.” Hailee Steinfeld, who worked with Zedd on the top 20 Hot 100 hit “Starving,” agrees that he’s a “perfectionist,” but adds, “Most importantly, he cares about the people in the room.”

“I’ve never met somebody so particular in the studio,” testifies Julia Michaels, who worked extensively with him on his 2015 album True Colors, and also calls him “an awesome dude.” “He’d make me sing [lines] in, like, three different keys, over and over and over.”

Or as his friend Jared Leto, who collaborated with Zedd on a to-be-released 30 Seconds to Mars song (and has also taken him rock climbing), puts it: “He is a relentless worker and really puts in the time. He is not someone who just shows up and takes selfies all day.”

?Zedd’s first place in the United States was a cramped Santa Monica apartment with walls so thin he’d be woken by the neighbor’s cellphone vibrating at night. The spot had one advantage, though: It was paid for by Lady Gaga, who wanted Zedd to have somewhere to crash while drafting songs for her Artpop LP, often with no more to go on than an email of word cues like “dark” or “metallic.”

Now Zedd puts up his brother Arkadi, 30, who is working on his own music. (Arkadi just produced a song for Bryan Adams, a gig that Zedd handed off to him.) From age 12 to 20, Zedd drummed in Arkadi’s metalcore band Dioramic, which was big enough in Germany that the boys often skipped class to tour. Dad was a guitarist and schoolteacher. Mom was a piano instructor. When Zedd was 3, they moved from a Russian port city to a woods-encircled village in southwest Germany called Dansenberg, population 3,500. “There is one store there,” says Zedd, “if it is still open.” He started on piano at 4, and by 9 -- well, you can watch him on YouTube in a too-big navy sport coat crushing Chick Corea’s “La Fiesta” at a competition he was technically too young to win. “I wanted to prove I could do it, so I gave my sheet music to the judges,” says Zedd, who played the song by memory. When I meet his parents -- they’re in town, staying at Zedd’s house -- they’re petite and friendly like their sons. Zedd keeps a second house near them, in Kaiserslautern (it boasts “a yard, a parking space and a shed”), and always spends Christmas back home.

Courtesy of Anton Zaslavski
Zedd around 5 years old in Germany. 

Although he is a handsome multi-millionaire who constantly tours the world and hobnobs with talented and beautiful women, Zedd is not a playboy, and he doesn’t party hard. (“I drink neither vodka nor beer,” says the Russian-German, well aware of the irony.) The one time his romantic life went public, it did so in a huge way. In 2015, word got out he and Selena Gomez were dating. (Zedd’s song featuring Gomez, “I Want You to Know,” reached No. 17 on the Hot 100 in March of that year.) “Reporters were calling my parents. People were hacking my friends’ phones. I was pissed. [Though] I kind of knew what I was getting myself into,” he says. “She is one of the most talked about people in the world, but I had no idea how much that would change my life.” He won’t say if he’s dating anyone currently.

Being gentlemanly is kind of Zedd’s deal. In early 2016, after reading about Kesha’s legal struggles over her record contract, he tweeted this at her: “very very sorry to hear about the whole situation. I’ll be happy to produce a song for you if you want my help.” She took him up on the offer, and they redid his song “True Colors,” assuming that due to Kesha’s battle with Dr. Luke and her label they wouldn’t be able to release the track. “It was just a therapy thing,” says Zedd, “making music with someone to help them feel better.” But when Dr. Luke, a fan of Zedd’s, heard about it, he gave them his blessing. It was the singer’s first release since 2013’s “Timber.” “Zedd reaching out was such a kind gesture,” says Kesha. “It resonated with my heart and soul and really touched me.”

Ramona Rosales
“When I make music I need eight hours of sleep,” says Zedd. “I can’t work any other way.”  Zedd photographed on July 24, 2017 in Malibu, Calif. Styling by Jeffery John Lewis.

Zedd made a much bigger and more politically pointed gesture this year, after President Donald Trump announced the travel ban. He put together an April ACLU benefit called “Welcome” with a wide-ranging bill -- everyone from Halsey to Incubus to Macklemore to Skrillex. He had trouble getting corporate sponsors and even faced resistance from a few artists’ teams, so he called people directly, asking them to donate a performance. Imagine Dragons singer Dan Reynolds was expecting twins that day, and his wife still told him to do it.

“No matter how big the scandal is, no matter how insane a [Trump] tweet is, it just keeps going. You feel powerless, and that’s terrible to me. Take that to a bigger scale and you end up in North Korea, where people are slaves of their own country,” says Zedd of life under the current administration. (He’s in the United States on an O-1 nonimmigrant, which is to say temporary, visa.) He thinks his peers in dance music censor themselves too often. “They don’t want to lose fans. I understand where they are coming from, but I disagree with that being a good reason not to speak up.”

Where the DJs don’t hold back, however, is in good-naturedly roasting Zedd on Twitter. While the merciless harasser Diplo is the “one person” Zedd admits he has beef with, Harris, deadmau5, DJ Snake and Dillon Francis (who tells Billboard Zedd is “fucking awesome”) have all taken shots. Here’s deadmau5 while actually defending Zedd against Diplo, who called him out for a song he recorded for M&M’s: “We all know Zedd’s sh-- sucks. But we love him.” Porter Robinson, one of Zedd’s first DJ-producer pals, guesses “people tease because he’s always had a boyish sweetness to him, polite, mild-mannered, funny.” He is different, in other words, than the average beatmaking bro. He doesn’t even use headphones during his performances because he plans them to a T and “just [doesn’t] know why it would be so important to tell people I didn’t prepare my set.” His next remix, if you can call it that, will be Jeff Buckley’s haunting head trip “Dream Brother”; he has the original tracks and outtakes and is just waiting for an open week where he can “light some candles” and dig in.

Theo Wargo/Getty Images
Zedd, Cara and Payne performed on Good Morning America in July.

Zedd made his inaugural dance song at age 18, when he was eliminated early from a poker tournament in Germany and had a few hours to kill while his friends finished. He spent his first year out of school trying to invent a new genre -- “extremely complex songs you can still groove to” -- until he came across “this weird-looking dude doing the same thing, but much better.” That dude, Skrillex, took him under his wing -- they are best friends to this day -- kicking off Zedd’s incredibly fast rise: signing to Interscope, moving to the United States, working with Max Martin, producing A-listers, touring five continents. “When I got a nomination for a Grammy, I was like, ‘Wait, these people actually know my music?’”

“It’s really refreshing when you see someone who works hard and has earned [recognition],” says Leto, “and not be a total fucking asshole while doing it. We have plenty of those [people]. You can take your pick.” Even now, Zedd hates blowing money and doesn’t get status signifiers -- he drives a Tesla because it’s green, avoids private jets because they’re costly and wore plaid button-downs for the first two years of his career because “a T-shirt wasn’t enough, but a jacket was too much.”

When Zedd invited Kesha to perform with him at Coachella in 2016, she found him to be “the true definition of a gentleman”: “I’ve been going to Coachella for over 10 years and this was the first time I got to sing there,” she says. “I got there two hours before we took the stage and I just remember him being so concerned with me being comfortable. He even came to the car and helped me carry my bags. I hope we’re friends forever.”

Zedd’s posture is charm-school perfect as he sits at his electric piano, fingers spanned out over the keys, playing an original piece that in vacillating waves calls to mind Nine Inch Nails, The X-Files and Elliott Smith. Sometimes he’ll get so lost in moments like these he forgets that an artist is waiting for him on the couch. More often it’s like what happened in a recent session with a young, multiplatinum singer-songwriter: “He was singing and I turned around and started improvising,” says Zedd. “He’s like, ‘I didn’t know you could play piano.’ I was like, ‘How am I going to make music if I don’t know how to play music?’”

Zedd’s home studio is a mini-facsimile of the one at Interscope, where he made his last two albums. He actually hired the guy who built that one to do his, but, he says, “I realized way too far into it that his ears didn’t work very well anymore.” The studio was under construction for months last summer and fall, so Zedd, who plays up to 200 shows per year, tried something he had never really done: taking a vacation. He flew a few old friends out from Germany, laid down some mattresses and had a month-long sleepover. They swam, hiked, played video games (Zedd owns “every console possible”) and stayed up having salon-style discussions about ideas. For instance: If you had a button that could turn off the internet for the entire world, would you press it? (Zedd would.)

Ramona Rosales
Zedd photographed on July 24, 2017 in Malibu, Calif. Styling by Jeffery John Lewis.

“I was overworked and uninspired,” he says. “By the time they were gone, I actually wanted to do something new.” The first song he made was the runaway hit “Stay,” and he’s still in that relaxed space. As Zedd plays me unreleased material in the gorgeous wood-paneled room, a diffuser in the corner puffs out botanically infused mist. He’s wearing a black tee and tapered sweatpants to match, a few rings and gray slippers that somehow look design-y and sleek.

First up is “The Middle,” where “Stay” co-writer Sarah Aarons sings a big vocoder-ed hook over pop-rock guitar, kalimba clicks and dolphin-y squeals. “Are You Happy Now,” which will feature Norwegian upstart Sigrid, opens on melancholy guitar before becoming a bounding, chiming pile of percussion. An untitled, vocal-less track is summery and super funky. He even cues up a raw soul vocal from Texas teen Khalid that’ll wind up on a “mellow” duet with labelmate K.Flay. “As you can tell, the music I’ve been making is very far from the bro-y side of things,” he says. “But I’ve never made bro-y music, in my opinion. I don’t think I’m good at it.”

As we leave the studio, I notice Zedd’s abysmally stocked wine rack. “I just bought the $5 bottles that had the best-looking labels,” he says. I suggest he pick up some Ace of Spades, aka Armand de Brignac, the Instagram-ready champagne that comes in distinctive, metallic-gold bottles. “Is that just a baller thing?” he asks earnestly. “That’s a different type of world. I would be ashamed of that, personally. If I had that, I would try to hide it.”