“I want people to listen and embrace and take it into their lifestyle, what they wear, the way they talk about music. I think there’s something powerful about that.“
Let the music speak for itself. It’s easy to proclaim but hard to practice in an era when buying into an artist’s persona is often an expected part of the deal. For Steven Zhu, a 27 year old musician of Chinese descent who grew up in the Bay Area and is now based in Los Angeles, one way to let the music speak for itself was to remove himself from the equation. In February 2014, Zhu debuted via an unattributed Outkast remix medley on Soundcloud, blending the duo’s raps over house beats. He ended the year with an international chart hit (the slinky “Faded”), a deal with Columbia Records in the U.S., and a show at EDM festival HARD Day of the Dead. The trick, it turns out, was to leverage his relative anonymity to build online hype — stoked by images of a mysterious logo and radio play —and draw curious fans to his music. “Faded” went on to receive a Grammy Award nomination for Best Dance Recording in 2015 (the win went to the U.K.’s Clean Bandit), and later that year Zhu released the energetic Genesis EP, a diverse set of collaborations with Skrillex, A-Trak, and AlunaGeorge among others. This past spring, he embarked on his first U.S. headline tour, a prelude to his debut album, Generationwhy, due out July 29. “For our generation, the internet is a gateway to distribute music in the same way we make it.” Before he become an internet figure, Zhu had been making music in a more traditional way for years: playing piano and horns as a kid; jazz bands and orchestral practice at school; music studies at USC; a one-year stint releasing a track a week on Soundcloud (“a self-training process”); and some low-key releases. “In terms of actually saying I make music for a living, it’s been three years,” Zhu says before adding, “but of course there’s been 10,000 hours or more put into it.” Those hours of practice are evident in the music. Beneath their polished EDM house front, Zhu’s songs are well-crafted and slick. So much so they might catch you off guard. “Orchestration and arrangement is always interesting to me,” he continues. “The arrangement of a song can make or break its success.”
Why did you choose to
hide your identity initially?
“The message behind it is something I firmly believe in. The artists I admired growing up, many had faces but some didn’t. Gorillaz, for example — I wasn’t focused on the men behind the music. I think as an artist you have to capture what the music represents.”
What is the message behind anonymity?
“Back in 2013, dance music was making big headlines and I felt like half the people had ghostwriters, others didn’t know how to perform, and some couldn’t even play music or were tone deaf. I felt everybody was using their face to capitalize off the music, grabbing fans instead of perfecting music. I was confident in delivering the type of music I had, I felt it would be a statement if people didn’t know who I was.”
What’s the idea behind “Generationwhy”?
“My concept for this record was to bring people towards a feeling of rebirth. My intention was to bring the listener on a journey and back to a youthful innocence. As cheesy as that may sound, but sometimes cheese is real! And in terms of what we’re dealing with right now in the world, there’s a lot of questions we all ask. And many people are afraid to ask them even. Artists have a responsibility and duty to create the music that describes their era. I think this record is the soundtrack to what west L.A. feels like in the past few years.”