How Zedd's Star-Studded ACLU Benefit Came Together in 72 Hours

"I like what the ACLU stands for," says EDM star. "It's not necessarily anti-Trump. It fights for everyone’s liberties"

EDM musician Zedd is raising ACLU funds with a star-studded benefit concert with Macklemore, Tinashe, Imagine Dragons, Daya, Camila Cabello and more. Credit: Kevin Mazur/Getty

America is the third country Anton Zaslavski has called home. The Grammy-winning producer, who performs as Zedd, was born in Russia and raised in Germany. He now resides in Los Angeles – in his "studio bubble" – where he’s amassed professional credits that read like the table of contents of a tabloid: Lady Gaga, Kesha, Selena Gomez and Justin Bieber, to name a few.

The 27-year-old producer is hardly a political artist, but when the Trump administration unveiled the contentious travel ban, the visa-reliant musician felt compelled to do something more visibly empowering than "tweet and donate." En route to his show in Salt Lake City, Zaslavski decided to plan a benefit concert for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). He had no experience securing venues or performers. But within three days, he had both.

On April 3rd, 13 acts, including ex-Fifth Harmony member Camila Cabello, Imagine Dragons (who are taking a special jet just to attend), Macklemore, Incubus, Tinashe and his bestie Skrillex, will perform at the Staples Center in Los Angeles for free. It’s the largest-scale, youngest-skewing benefit concert organized in North America since the election and the only recent concert organized by a non-U.S. citizen who is also a millennial.

"I think you could get artists to perform for free much more if it's for something that’s connected to the world," Zaslavski tells Rolling Stone. The precocious musician also spoke about his workhorse professional style ("I'm kind of a pain in the ass to work with") and his longtime love of Incubus.

As someone who grew up outside of America, do you feel you have a unique perspective on the travel ban?
To be honest, [the travel ban] hasn’t directly affected me in any way. I also realize we're only a couple weeks into this presidency. But coming from someone who was born in one country, lived in another and then in another – without a visa or a green card – I do feel a personal connection to what's happening. And I like what the ACLU stands for. It's not necessarily anti-Trump. It fights for everyone’s liberties. With this concert, I just want to reach people and make them more aware; let them make their own decisions. 

What band are you especially proud of booking for the concert?
It was really important to me that this wasn’t just an EDM show. I wanted the lineup to be multicultural and to have each genre equally represented – some rap, electronic, rock, pop. Skrillex was obviously the first to respond – he’s my best friend. But Incubus, for example, is a band I grew up with. [They were] part of my musical education. I used to watch their Alive at Red Rocks DVD all the time, so I grew up wanting to play that stage the most. "Drive" really grabbed me and my friends. And A Crow Left of The Murder is one of my favorite albums.

The Crow single "Megalomaniac" certainly seems like an appropriate song choice.
Yeah, and do you remember the video? I was really confused by it at the time, but if you go back and watch, it’s more relevant now than when it came out.

What other bands did you listen to growing up?
Genesis, Yes, King Crimson. I tend to enjoy music with a lot of thought in it.

You decided to work with Justin Bieber on “Beauty and the Beat” because you were impressed he came to the studio on time. Are you a strict producer?
I can be hard to work with. Like, for vocals some people will be in and out after three takes. I prefer 10 to 15 times at the very least. I’m a perfectionist. With singing, each breath changes the expression of the word. Caring about every detail is an advantage and a disadvantage. I can be a pain in the ass because I’m so particular about details that don’t matter to anyone else but me. I’ll push an entire release if a detail is wrong that I know no one will see or hear. But it’s also how I achieve a really clean sound.

How did your perfectionism come out in organizing this show?
When we were designing the show poster, we went through a ton of revisions until I felt each artist was represented equally. You know, some logos appear larger than others because of the font and style. I was playing with the logo sizes until an hour and a half before the announcement. I tend to overthink things [Laughs]. 

There's a YouTube video of you at age nine playing piano. Your parents are both career musicians. What was your practice regimen like when you were a kid?
My mom taught me how to play the piano and my dad was always recording us. They set it up where learning music was like a competition, which motivated me. I wanted to prove to them I could learn a song in a week. When I got older and lazier, they got me a piano teacher. But around age 12, I made a cold break and started playing drums instead.

What's the most embarrassing thing that's happened to you onstage?
When my English was really bad, I didn’t use the microphone at all. And Skrillex, who I toured with a lot, was like, "You have to talk to the crowd." But even asking people to shine their [cell phone] lights was a lot for me [Laughs]. It took me a long time before I felt comfortable. One time, I addressed the crowd as Los Angeles when I played New York. It was really embarrassing.