Zedd: Let Me Show You My True Colors
[As I noted in my initial HiFi review of Zedd’s True Colors, I am not a fan of electronic dance music, but for that exact reason I found this assignment to be surprisingly fun and rewarding. Not only did this piece show me that EDM artists can be thoughtful artists in their craft, I got to have a wonderful conversation with the incredibly genuine and intelligent dude who is Anton Zaslavski. In retrospect I feel that in my efforts to appreciate and differentiate Zedd’s work, the piece is still unfairly dismissive of EDM as a whole – but then again, the takeaway message is to show your true colors.]
Let Me Show You My True Colors
On True Colors, EDM superstar Zedd challenges the boundaries of electronic dance music, along with every prejudice you had about the genre.
Drawing on his diverse musical background, Zedd – a.k.a. Anton Zaslavski – set out to craft a concise and deeply symbolic album that represents every side of himself as an artist. Fighting against the expectations of the banger-hungry, drop-heavy EDM audience, consciously bringing in exterior influenced and styles, resulting in 11 distinct and delicately polished tracks that compose his new album, True Colors.
To visualize the many faces and feelings in Zedd’s arsenal, each song on the record is visually, aurally and symbolically associated with a different color.
Zedd took this concept to massive heights with his hugely ambitious promotional campaign, in which he threw a color-themed listening event for each track in special locations across the United States. The result was an unforgettable, multi-sensory experience rewarding his most die-hard fans.
And of course, as TIDAL’s HiFi Album of the Month, True Colors is also an impressive production of formal composition and technical perfectionism.
We had a long, amiable conversation with the thoughtful Anton Zaslavski, who talked about quality, hearing colors in music and his journey from classical pianist to one of the biggest EDM artists on the planet.
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You’ve long demonstrated an extra care to production. Can you talk about what that means to you?
I feel cheated when I hear music and it sounds like someone didn’t think it through. It’s really important to me that when I hear a song, I feel like the artist considered every detail of it. Without a doubt the biggest aspect is the music itself – the chord progression, the melody, the lyrics – but there is a big part of the song – the mixing, the production – that’s really crucial to me.
I want to make sure every snare has the right amount of transience and that the hi-hat doesn’t have extreme highs that throw other elements off balance. I take a really long time to finish a song because I really care about making the production as perfect as I can.
What’s an example of how you invest that extra time and effort where others might cut corners?
I don’t want to say that others don’t put time and effort into their music, but sometimes you can hear the same exact sample in everyone’s song. You can tell it’s the same sample pack that everyone uses, and it’s even the first file in the group. If I know I want to have a certain sound, even if I’m sure number 20 is the one I want, I’ll still go through all of them to double check I didn’t miss out on something better.
I’ve always taken steps to make sure nothing is lost in the processing, mostly because I’m paranoid. There are so many things that can degrade the quality – that’s just the way software works. I’ve made songs with other people, where we were bouncing these stems back and forth, and by the time we’d both worked them out they sounded way worse. We literally went through every step again and found that the [software] filters aren’t actually transparent.
You have an unusual background, at least for an EDM artist. How did you go from being a classically-trained pianist to doing what you do now?
My musical beginning was playing classical piano, which was all about the writing/composing side – nothing to do with production. Then I played in a band [the German rock outfit Dioramic]. We built our own studio and started recording, which was the first time I worked with microphones, compressors, EQ – but it had nothing to do with electronic music.
When I was 16 or 17 years old, I slowly started playing with electronic music, finding out how to make these sounds. I started making remixes for remix contests, so I purchased some sample packages and started working with stems and vocals for the first time. Step by step, I started gaining my own knowledge, but it was all through trial and error – no one ever taught me how to do it.
So how did you come to prefer making electronic music, after you’d played classical and rock?
I don’t even know of that’s the case. I’ve been playing rock music way longer than electronic. I think what attracts me at electronic music is learning. When I started making electronic music, I loved how I didn’t know anything about it. I didn’t even really like electronic music, but I loved Justice.
I always thought electronic music was very track based –more about beats than songs – which didn’t appeal to me, but then I heard Justice and I realized, whoa, it can sound great and still be very emotional music. So I started learning it myself. I never thought it would be anything other than a hobby.
You say you didn’t even like electronic music?
I really didn’t. Back then I was into jazz and rock. I didn’t really know much about electronic music, but everything I would hear would sound pretty dumb, in a way. That’s not very musically attractive to someone who was a piano student at the time.
Then I heard Daft Punk’s “One More Time,” which was the first time I fell in love with electronic music. I more or less went back to listening to rock music until I heard Justice. Justice kind of sounded like Daft Punk, but at the time their production level was so much higher. That album sounded incredible – the drums and the kicks were all unbelievable – but it was still very song based and musical. I think Justice’s Cross [also known as ‘†’] is still probably the best-produced electronic album of all time.
Daft Punk and Justice are definitely two of the more exemplary bands for taking electronica to a new level.
No doubt. It really doesn’t matter what genre you’re in, but I think everyone should have a mission to push the boundaries and move a genre along, or else it’s going to get really boring. [laughs]
I read that you write most of your songs on piano first.
I do. Not all of them, but on True Colors I wrote every song on a piano. Before I’d start to produce a song, I’d do a little vocal-piano demo to make sure the basic song structure was perfect. I didn’t want to love the song because of the beat – I wanted to love it on an emotional level first. Only if I loved the piano version alone, would I go on to produce the electronic version.
You said your ambition with True Colors was “to deliver an album that shows the complete extent of your musicality.”
Like I mentioned earlier, I’ve made all sorts of music. Some of my fans know that, some of them don’t. What’s really annoying as a musician is when someone tells you that you’re not yourself. You sit there in a studio and you try to make something new. Three years later that music comes out and people say, “You’ve changed. That’s not you.”
It happens with every type of music. In my rock band we got sick of making rock, so we went more into metal and hardcore, just experimenting in other genres, and people said, “Hey, you used to do rock. Why are you doing metal?” I’m the artist and this is the music I want to make.
So the message behind True Colors is to show just that – your true colors – to show what’s inside your heart. And what’s in my heart musically is a lot of different genres. There’s a lot of piano, which stems from my beginnings, a lot of these songs are very rock or Justice-like with the electric-rock combo. The song “True Colors” is almost entirely acoustic, with a piano and a live orchestra and a guitar. I tried to represent every side of me.
You also said with this album you finally got the courage to show the world who you really are as a musician.
As an electronic artist who’s known for the bangers, it’s not that easy to make an acoustic song and put it in the center of the album. It takes a lot of courage because you know some people are going to criticize you for doing it, saying things like, “Hey, that’s not even EDM.” Well of course it’s not! I never signed an EDM waiver that says I’m only going to make that kind of music for the rest of my life.
Do you think that’s a frustration that other EDM artists feel?
I can only speak for myself, but I’m pretty sure that’s a frustration that every musician will have sooner or later. Especially when you get successful, people put you in this box that you never put yourself in. And you suddenly have to explain yourself for making something that sounds different from what people have already heard of you.
Color – in the visual sense – is also a major element in these songs. You’ve said you see colors when you hear music.
I think everyone does, at least to a degree. To me it’s really easy to say whether something is cold or warm, which already takes defines the direction of the color. I think it’s a mix of memories and association.
Reverb makes a track feel cold, so when there’s a bunch of reverb in a song it always sounds like ice to me. Lyrics are also powerful at suggesting a color and temperature; a song like “Straight Into the Fire” is very clearly not blue, because in your brain, when you hear fire, you go between red and yellow. It’s not like if you play F minor, I’m going to say that’s blue, but if you play me a song, I’m going to tell you: that’s green, that’s orange, that’s violet.
So how did you conceptualize and execute this whole color idea, since every song on the album has it’s own color?
I think musically, my idea was for every song sounds different from each other. At one point I had two songs for True Colors that sounded the same color to me, so I had to drop one of them, and write “Paper Cut” (white), which sounds unique.
So did you write a bunch of songs and then pick out the ones that fit?
I only wrote 12 songs, 11 of which are on the album. I didn’t want any more songs on the records because I think there are only so many different emotions you can fit onto one album without repeating yourself.
The listening events you did sound pretty amazing. What was that experience like?
For me it was about inviting the most dedicated songs and inviting them to experience the songs in a way that I hear and see it. I wanted to give something back to the fans and let them hear the music first in a way that wouldn’t necessarily hear it themselves.
For example, “Transmission” isn’t just about the color black, it’s very cold and metallic. I wrote down every word describing what each song means to me, and then we picked Alcatraz to hold that event because it was cold, dark, heavy. The song “Daisy” is not about a girl named Daisy, but rather the flower, so we found a huge daisy field and had the listening session out there in nature.
I can only imagine how much work it took.
It took a lot of work, a lot of money, and a lot of time, but it was so worth it. I think everyone had an unforgettable time.
There was one guy who followed us around and actually made it to 10 out of the 11 events, which required fans to follow a treasure hunt after I announced the city and clues two days in advance. We would hide Zedd logos all over the city and the first 50 to find them would get into the event. This guy flew to all eleven cities and made it to ten of the events.
At the final event, when we rented out the Empire State building, I interview him and asked, “Can you say what experiencing these songs felt like to you, since you heard them all first, in all these locations?” We had just listened to the whole album in full, and he was almost in tears. He said that for every song he would see the specific color and felt transported to the location of each event. Hearing that was the ultimate accomplishment for me.