Why Zhu Used Anonymity to Put His Music First
The FADER contributor Laurent Fintoni talks with Steven Zhu, the 27-year-old musician who has subtly climbed the dance music ranks by carefully keeping his identity anonymous. Covering everything from his musical background to his inspirations, the in-depth interview lets us step into the mind behind a dance music phenomenon ahead of his eagerly awaited album debut on Friday.This article originally appeared on The FADER
The L.A. musician's electronic pop album, Generationwhy, is out this Friday.
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.
Speaking from his L.A. home by phone in early July, Zhu sounds relaxed and content (he asked for our Skype conversation to be audio only). “For our generation, the internet is a gateway to distribute music in the same way we make it,” he tells me. 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."
While his music has won him many fans, Zhu’s keenly aware of how the popularity game is played. “I think that the tools which made me successful are shifting,” he says of the platforms he used to gain a place in the limelight. “Artists might start breaking out on Snapchat; it’s the reality of the technology.” Zhu’s choice to efface himself behind a music-driven persona — an inversion of the current tropes of celebrity obsession — has brought him growing acclaim and fame. Yet, as our conversation makes evident, he wants to strive for something bigger and more genuine, “a better cultural music.” Generationwhy and its sweet, sophisticated electronic pop is an ambitious step in that direction.
Why did you choose to hide your identity initially?
The message behind it is something I firmly believe in...