Los Angeles-based producer Zhu burst on to the mainstream dance scene in 2014 with “Faded,” a single that brought an inebriated night to life with a sinister bassline and obsessive repetition. At the time, a new wave of vocal house was proving crossover friendly – Disclosure’s “Latch” peaked at Number Seven on the Hot 100 the same year – and “Faded” climbed to the top of Billboard’s Dance Club Songs Chart.
But Zhu was set apart from his dance music peers in intriguing ways. He never showed his face, managing to earn a hit and land a record deal with Columbia while remaining a man of mystery. His 2014 EP, The Nightday, was inky and dissipated, especially when compared with breezy fare from competitors like Disclosure, Duke Dumont and Clean Bandit.
Zhu released Generationwhy, his full-length debut, last Friday and once again he’s celebrating sensual pleasures. “In The Morning,” which could take place the night after the debauchery of “Faded,” finds the producer longing for someone’s touch and issuing a Weeknd-esque come-on: “I only call when I’m alone.” But Generationwhy is a somewhat brighter and cheerier sound from Zhu, his wispy falsetto frequently paired with bouncy synth-disco.
Rolling Stone spoke with the producer about following up the success of “Faded” and his love for Pink Floyd.
When did you decide you wanted to be an anonymous figure behind your music?
The Nightday EP felt very anonymous. Everybody has that moment in their life when they want to be that low-key, behind the scenes, almost secret agent. I don’t want to say that, but a character of like, this blur. That’s what the record sounded like, so I took the shape of that character. The artists that I admired – the Bowies, Princes, the Pink Floyds – they took the forms of their music.
Does it become more difficult to remain a blur when a song like “Faded” becomes a smash?
We tried really hard to make it seamless. In some ways, having an early hit record can be detrimental to certain artists, in terms of the longevity of their career. But I really wanted to slow it down a little bit and come back to albums, projects, making it not about one huge hit. Even if that meant we had to say “no” a lot of times, not reveal too much, and not jump on the bandwagon to capitalize off the hit.
So was last year’s Genesis Series EP a conscious effort to avoid being pigeonholed by that hit?
Yeah. Also just to be able to work with some other people, have a diversity of sounds. I’m not in the mindset to make ten “Faded”s. Artists need to progress. We all have to strive to move.
How do you see the album in relation to your two EPs?
It’s less clubby – more of a record that you would listen to at a concert.
Since you’re identified as a guy who makes music for clubs, is it hard to step outside of that space?
I don’t know if I’m actively thinking about making club music. I do enjoy it, and I do recognize that’s a big part of my musical background. When I made The Nightday, I was deep in the clubs. Now I tour theaters and festivals. I’m not at the ground level of the clubs as much. I’m hearing different things.
Does your approach change when you’re working with collaborators?
You can always learn something new. Learning where my voice fits, if at all. A song like “Good Life,” I’m not really on it at all. I’m really just doing some whispers here and there. I don’t think they needed my voice. Georgia’s [from Broods] voice is so powerful, I don’t need to be on that record.
The title Generationwhy has a manifesto sort of ring to it.
With this record, all I want people to do is ask a couple questions. That’s the beginning of a lot of different things – they might start realizing things that they never knew.
Any questions in particular?
The best kind of music, you listen to it, and the music is able to describe something in a way that you can’t. Listen to Dr. Dre’s 2001 – I can hear what L.A. feels like without ever being there. With my record, hopefully people will start to get a feeling of what it’s like in Los Angeles in this time frame. There’s a depth of isolation.
How do you maintain regional identity when you’re on the road so much?
Part of this album was made in New Orleans; I’m going to Santa Fe to do some sessions. But a lot of the album was finished in L.A. There’s a loneliness to it, and a togetherness to it, and they’re tugging at each other.
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Where do you see yourself fitting into the rest of the electronic music?
I don’t think fitting in is a concern of mine. I make a lot of shit. The stuff that I don’t know what it sounds like is the most interesting to me.