At just 21 years old, Ansel Elgort attended his fourth Electric Zoo during Labor Day weekend. For the second year in a row, the actor — who has built an impressive career as a leading man in teen blockbusters like The Fault in Our Stars and the Divergent series — played an early afternoon set under his DJ alter-ego, Ansolo.
After a year of gaining exposure as a DJ — playing festivals, headlining Pacha, establishing a SoundCloud — Ansolo is ready to take his music career to the level of his acting. He’s off to a good start after inking a deal with Island Records. “I went to a few different labels and was playing everyone my music, and Island was really interested in stuff I didn’t think labels would be interested in,” he tells Rolling Stone. “I played them some tracks and said, ‘These are more poppy. These are more clubby. These are more radio-friendly.’ The ones that were more radio-friendly, they were like, ‘No, we’ve heard this before. We want the different ones. We want the special records.’ I was like, ‘Major labels aren’t supposed to like these records!’ I thought the point of a major label was to just release crap! But Island totally proved that wrong and was like, ‘We want the best record that all the kids at the dance-music festivals are going to love.'”
Before his Saturday set, Elgort is visibly stoked for his time onstage. While performing, he shows his youthful enthusiasm, jumping around the stage and fist-pumping voraciously to his eclectic mix of funk, disco and straightforward EDM tracks. Elgort spoke with Rolling Stone about his new signing, his forthcoming single, “To Life,” and what he’ll add to the world of dance music.
When did you first start to get into music?
I did musical theater a lot growing up, so I was singing and dancing and stuff. Then I started playing piano and writing songs. I’m really inspired by John Legend. I heard this remix of a John Legend song, because on iTunes sometimes the songs are packaged [with remixes]. It was the Laidback Luke version of “Heartbreaker.” [Singing] “You’re in my mind/You’re in my heart.” I thought it was really cool!
Then I heard some of the really early Avicii stuff and the really early Skrillex remixes before he had released his EP. Just like his remix of La Roux’s “Going in for the Kill.” I thought it was so cool. I was writing music all the time and had just written seven or eight songs on the piano — just piano and vocal. With piano, I thought of it as just two channels. That’s it. Whereas with dance music, it was like writing whole symphonies. I had no clue how to do it, but then I downloaded Ableton during senior year of high school. It took me about a year before I ever made anything I was happy with. I would write melodies, but I had no idea how to produce. Over the next year, my production really came together, and now it’s been a little over three years. Four years in October.
The whole thing… it’s more than just writing and performing. It’s engineering and producing. It’s magical. It’s something on your computer you can do all by yourself. It’s the same thing as piano and voice, but now you have tracks that are 70 channels. You can write lines for all these different synthesizers and make unique things. With a piano, everyone’s heard what a piano sounds like, but with dance music, every month there’s a new track with a sound that everyone’s like, “What is that sound? How did he do it?” That’s so exciting to me. That was like Avicii and Skrillex early on, and now it’s all these other guys.
“Everyone’s heard what a piano sounds like, but with dance music, every month there’s a new track with a sound that everyone’s like, ‘What is that sound? How did he do it?'”
All these songs are so epic and beautiful, but they also make you dance. It’s euphoric. Then I went to a festival and was like, “Forget it — this is incredible!”
Then my life sort of came together. I was in school for acting. Obviously, I’ve had such amazing success, and I’ve been so lucky to do so well in that. But I was always making music. It’s something I loved doing since I was 12. Now I’ve come this far in music. With this new track, “To Life,” every DJ I’ve played it for is really excited by it. To me, it’s the best thing in the world when Axwell and Ingrosso or Steve Angello are playing my record. These are people I look up to, and my goal was to have one of them play my record. Now they’re playing the music I’m creating for thousands of people, and they’re all going nuts. That’s the best feeling. Now I’m the one who will actually be DJ’ing. I’m not playing the headlining slot yet, but with the energy and kids here, I’m so stoked. There’s playing other people’s music, then playing your own music, music you’ve spent so long in the studio working on. It’s a new sound, and if they like it and are excited by it, that’s the same thing Avicii and Skrillex did to me years ago.
But you’ve also been playing a lot over the last year, from your first headlining gig at Pacha on your 21st birthday to Electric Zoo last year. Where else have you had the opportunity to DJ?
I’ve played a lot of opening shows. I played a lot of shows with Ansolo as the last guy on the block. I played Pacha in March and EZoo last summer, but I played the first 45 minutes to nobody because I played the first slot. Our goal is really to make sure we weren’t abusing me as an actor to get slots. The last thing I want to be is a joke or to not be credible. I want to enter the music industry and be respected as a musician, not just as a celebrity trying to become a musician. So I played a lot of shows but was always opening. I didn’t headline until I knew that I had a fan base. I wanted people to care about the music and not just say, “Oh, the kid from The Fault in Our Stars is DJ’ing.” That’s the last thing I want in the world. That’s why I started Ansolo, started different social medias and kept them separate. There are crossover fans, and I love that, too. But it’s really important to have core fans who care about the music.
How have you balanced building this career separately from your acting career? How do you hope to continue balancing it with the major-label deal?
It’s sort of my obsession. When you’re obsessed with something and love to do it, it’s not hard to find time to do it. I came to EZoo yesterday and left early after Don Diablo. I went home and just worked on music for today. I love to do it, and it wasn’t because, “Oh, I need to get something together!” It’s what I love to do. My favorite thing to do is just to sit and work on music on my computer. If I’m shooting a movie, there’s so much downtime on set. If I’m in a different state or country with people I don’t really know that well and everyone is tired from working, I go home and make music. For my studio, I brought monitors in there, plus an interface, a laptop. The turnarounds [on set] can take an hour, hour and a half, so what are you gonna do? Sit and do nothing, or actually do what I want to be doing, which is making music?
The fact that I don’t have a 9-to-5 job actually makes my life easier. I mean, even if I did, I guess I’d do [music] after work. Acting can be a 12-to-12 job, but it can also mean you have nothing to do for an entire month. So for that month, I’m making music.
You have mentioned a lot of names before, but who are your heroes? Who has inspired you as a DJ and producer?
I love the Swedes. Those guys are really, really epic. What they’ve done is come from a place where everyone in the industry respects them so much as the tastemakers. They’re making the coolest music. Then, they go and make a pop version of it, and they’re all the biggest record in pop music, which is Swedish House Mafia.
Then there’s Daft Punk who are doing different music every album, but every time they re-create their sound, it’s special and people always gravitate to it. It’s never not credible. Everyone thinks Daft Punk are the coolest. The idea of being cool and credible but also commercial is really cool to me. It’s a really tough balance to find.
Now that you’re with Island, what’s next for Ansolo? Do you have an album in the works? Any touring?
First thing’s first before we plan a tour is having the music come out and having people relate to it. I don’t want to force a tour. I want the tour to be something everyone is so excited about and say, “Wow, I loved his last EP or his last album. I can’t wait to hear the songs live.”
With Island, we’ll be putting out the single “To Life” first. I already have an EP done with just four tracks. I’m going to work with some top-line writers to get vocals on top of them. For “To Life,” there are a lot of real instruments in the track, which is a great way to mix nostalgia and this new thing. I’m going to try to get disco-inspired musicians and people playing great bass lines. The next EP will be like a new version of disco that will also have my groovy, clubby sound. It’s something new.
It’s great with how I’ve built my relationships with these DJs, I can show them to artists like Axwell and Ingrosso, and Steven Angello. Yesterday, I played them for Don Diablo. If they react to it like, “This is sick,” then I know I’ve done something right, because they are the tastemakers. With this EP, it’s going to be something fresh and different. It’s not just going to be radio pop. It’s going to be real dance music that will hopefully work in any setting, from a festival to a radio.
How would you describe what genre of dance music you align yourself with?
I suppose everything today is described as progressive house. The definition of progressive house today is so broad. I like to say it’s groovy house music, or groovy, driving club music. I’m starting to make some records that aren’t just club music but are catchy, vocal kind of records with a lot of club-inspired elements. But it’s real club music, not just pop club music. It’s such a hard thing to say what genre or form of dance music it is. Now you say “deep house” and there are, like, 10 different kinds of deep house. It’s blasphemy, and the real deep-house artists get kind of mad and are like, “Oh, Oliver Heldens isn’t deep house.” But other people are like, “Oliver Heldens is deep house.”
I guess I would call [my music] groovy club music, a bit progressive. It can be euphoric at times, and it can be intense at times. It makes you feel things.
What’s your biggest goal as of now? How are you hoping to see your DJ career progress alongside your acting?
My goal is just to make the records. My goal is to make the records that people know and people love that will last for more than a year. I want people to say, “Oh, wow, that Ansolo record… remember that one from five years ago? That one’s sick.” I’m going to start my set off today with a Jamiroquai record that’s going to go into a new dance record that no one’s ever heard before. [The Jamiroquai record] is “Canned Heat.” Everybody knows “Canned Heat”! Everybody remembers it. That record didn’t go away in a year because it’s an amazing record.
“The big thing is that I make the right, great record that people say, ‘Yeah, he’s not just an actor making music, and he’s not just a musician. He’s someone who can make really magical things.'”
The problem with dance music right now is that if you play a song at a festival right now that’s two years old, then that’s really old. And that’s ridiculous! A really good record should last forever. I want to make really good music, and that’s my goal for now. Yes, I want to play all the really big festivals, and I want a lot of people to listen to my music, and I want to sell a lot of records. Sure. But the big thing is that I make the right, great record that people say, “Yeah, he’s not just an actor making music, and he’s not just a musician. He’s someone who can make really magical things.” That’s who I want to be as an artist.