ZHU's New EP Invites Dance Music to the 'Desert' to Save Its Soul: Interview
It's quiet in the city. The few citizens out at this late and lonely hour are spurred by the soft rhythm of nocturnal noise, rain as it falls against glass windows and gutters, the distant cry of a siren somewhere chasing something, the thump of bass behind an alley door.
This is the headspace wherein ZHU creates. Hits including “Faded,” “Working For It” and “Intoxicate” transport more than four million monthly Spotify listeners to some smoky, sensual scene of his imagining. The Grammy-nominated singer/producer is a character in his own neon noir. He writes music at night and means for it to live in dark clubs and on foggy festival stages, so it's strange to see him sitting in the bright Los Angeles sun, surrounded by bike riders and skateboarders at this Canoga Park recreation center.
He's here to oversee production of -- not star in -- the music video for “My Life,” a recent collaboration with psych-rock band Tame Impala. He says it's a love story. It starts with a deadly car crash and moves backward in time to the moment the doomed couple meet. He's joined by his assistant; a somewhat vampiric-looking woman in a long, flowing black coat. Neither of them look like they belong under this cloudless sky, but they're friendly as they suggest a pho spot just a couple blocks north for a chat over lunch.
This is rare for ZHU. He began his musical career as an anonymous, shadowy figure. He's been revealed as 29-year-old Steven Zhu, a former fringe-dwelling frat kid at the University of Southern California, raised in the San Francisco fog. Still, he prefers to let his music do the talking. Face to face interviews are few and far between, but right now, Zhu's got something to say.
“Recently, there's been a lot of bad music,” he says. “There's a lot of people who are making music for the sake of creating and manufacturing products on an assembly line, and that's not the way I necessarily want to do it. It's not good for the culture, because it's miseducating fans. Everything is saturated, like [there's] a bunch of McDonald's on one street and then one good restaurant -- but how do you find it if every street you go down is full of very basic stuff?”
ZHU lures fans to his dark corner with multi-dimensional stories carefully crafted from a combination of sight, sound and fashion. He invites fans not only to spectate but participate in his world. He made his mark with a unique sound in 2014. His debut EP THE NIGHTDAY was a true solo effort of goth-house bedroom bangers. His full-length album Generationwhy was sexy and cinematic, noted for its spotlight inclusion of live saxophone and guitar. He remembers when people told him not to bring organics into his sound. Now the two elements feature prominently in his acclaimed stage performances.
On his latest EP, he continues to experiment, drawing listeners out of the urban sprawl to a remote place of spiritual strangeness. He's fallen under the spell of that favorite escape for wayward souls and lost loners alike. Even while he slurps his steak pho in the concrete jungle, his snakeskin shoes suggest the taste of desert dust.
“In the beginning, I was a storyteller for myself,” he says. “Which I continue always to do, but I think in this project, I'm a storyteller for not only myself but for someone else. That's something that I've never done before.”
Ringos Desert Pt. 1 was released in late April. ZHU's work has always possessed a hyper-sexuality, but this seven track EP is tangled in heartbreak. Its synthetic sounds are caught in a sandstorm of bluesy Gilmore guitar and vindictive attitude. The lyrics are tortured tales of infidelity and confusion. It beats and pulses as quick as any packed club, but over its slinking melodies hangs a dark cloud.
“The origin of this project, I think it's kind of a dark one,” ZHU says. “It really started when my guitar player had a very traumatic divorce. I wanted to create a therapeutic record for him to be able to play the things that he couldn't talk about, and I've always seen the desert as a healing place… I'm very driven by location. I try to channel a specific location to make a record, and I just really felt like we had to hit a bunch of deserts to do this.”
So, ZHU and his team packed up their studio and hit the grit. They settled in an expansive home in the Galisteo Basin, just outside of Santa Fe. It's an isolated preserve with a recorded population of less than 300 in the 2010 Census. Tom Ford's ranch was their closest neighbor. At night, the sky was milky with stars.
“It's eerie, but it's also pretty magical,” ZHU says. “We saw spirits and stuff. The first night we got there, it started raining while we were eating. We were outside, and all of a sudden, the sky opened up and became purple.”
They built their studio in the estate's 10,000-plus book library, complete with a rolling ladder. The music poured out of them. ZHU says the recordings were kept raw, released relatively exactly as they were conceived in that few weeks of heightened productivity. Knowing the backstory, it's hard not to focus on the role of the guitar. The EP opens with heavy, pensive strums on “Stormy Love,” a song that pulls melodic cues from The Cars' new wave classic "Moving in Stereo." It moves languid under a confessional vocal on "Guilty Love" and wails strong on "Desert Woman," a tune ZHU debuted during his recent surprise set at Coachella.
“What happened to [my guitarist] was pretty fucked up,” he says. “Through this record, he just was able to let go, and now he's able to perform it, which I think is a super-positive thing. He's like a new person.”
As the producer had hoped, the macabre sense of space was comforting, the detachment from the outside world a welcome source of inspiration. It also provided ZHU with an important sense of theater.
“[Humans] love drama, and we also love tragedy,” he says. “It's something everybody can relate to, because life isn't so blissful all the time. Through music like this, people can figure out for themselves whether to deal with or whether they want to extract that feeling. For me, it's all about feeling. I resonate with the music that makes you feel a certain way. The message and all that is great, but the feeling is the core of live music. That feeling allows people to connect with these indescribable, intangible things that exist in life that they can't put to words.”
For ZHU, that feeling extends into an environment.
“Whenever I play a sound, I have a pretty good idea of what that looks like visually, and if that is something I'm into, I'll continue to carve out that zone,” he says. “If I don't see it, if I don't feel it, then I can't really put it out there, because it doesn't really encompass a moment.”
His passion is apparent between sips of slushed Vietnamese coffee. He leans in and gestures broadly as he talks vibes like Portishead and Massive Attack. He heralds the iconography of Joy Division and Prince, artists who embodied not just a sound but a look, an attitude and an era. He refers often of European clubbers and their generational rave culture, something he finds lacking on today's American dance floors.
He says “EDM Is very very attitude-less,” but that's why he's out here recording two-part emotional EPs in deserts across the world, pushing his slick sound through new emotional and environmental filters. He released Ringos Desert Pt. 1 independently, and the same will be true for its sequel. He's ready to outfit thousands of kids in silky, black merch of his own design to match his blood-red mood. A fall tour has been announced, kicking off in early September, and he may or may not plan to bring two-and-a-half-tons of sand in tow.
“Environment is key,” he says. “That's half of what makes a great show. The performance is only a part of the puzzle. It's the vibe, it's the setlist, it's environment, the anticipation. All of that comes together and that's what makes it great.”
He calls Ringos Desert a “redemption record.” It started as a means to rescue his friend, but in the end, there's something much bigger ZHU aims to save.
“It'll take people to step out and challenge the system, challenge themselves and take that risk,” he says. “It is a risk making something that's different. You don't know if it's going to work. You don't know if you're getting benefit from it later or not, but I think that's what's good about life. it should be unpredictable. If everything is exactly what you think it is, then why do want to live it?”
Check out where you can catch ZHU on the Dune tour in support of Ringos Desert Pt. 1 via his website.