Illustration by Dessie Jackson
I’m trying to see Zhu at Coachella, but I can’t. Not because the famously anonymous producer-vocalist is concealed behind the oversized hood he wears to obscure his identity, but because I can’t even get inside, or close to inside, the Sahara Tent. From beneath the hangar’s arched roof, a crowd of 20,000 or so spills out into the surrounding areas. A siege of enraptured bros and house heads press closer, phones and glowsticks thrust skyward, though toward what end is unclear; others linger, almost protectively, on the outskirts, dancing in time to bass thuds and a red glow emanating from within.
Inside, Zhu is presiding over a cage of keys and knobs like an EDM Fantasia, a sweep of his arm casting the light projections upward into a honeycomb of LED panels encasing the stage; the next moment, mounting synth lines and stage fog give way to a guitarist who steps out to double down on the build. A few minutes later, a saxophonist helps push it over the edge, and the crowd dances harder. All the while, Zhu remains unseen, a faceless figure cast in silhouette even as the stage show increasingly overwhelms the senses.
It’s never quite clear where the sounds are coming from, or whether they’re from live or programmed instruments. As the set—a dark mix of deep house, electro, and sensual R&B pop—raves on, the words “Lust,” “Lost,” “Love,” and “Life” flash on the screens flanking Zhu, echoing a series of mysterious billboards that festivalgoers passed on the way to Indio from LA. It’s the kind of spectacle that’s greater than the sum of its parts, closer to Daft Punk’s famous pyramid set debuted in the same tent a decade earlier than the standard oontz fare Daft Punk’s music gave rise to in the years since. Yet it feels more like a crossroads than a callback: There’s something both uplifting and deeply lonely about thousands of kids literally climbing over each other to lose their minds for a few minutes inside the music and enigma of an artist they know next to nothing about. It’s less idol worship than a mirror.
“It’s the same way I listened to Prince records—I felt his character through the music, the shows, and then the stories that people told,” the 27-year-old tells me during a rare interview, his second in-person to date, on a recent afternoon in his West LA studio. “With the anonymity, I'm just trying to create that feeling of curiosity and mystery that I felt when I was growing up. I don't know if people feel that now.”
He seems to be doing a pretty good job: The set concludes with “July 29, 2016” glowing behind him, and a social media frenzy follows, speculating, correctly, that the date and signage mark the arrival of Zhu’s long-awaited debut album, Generationwhy.
The artist born Steven Zhu made his debut in February 2014 with a house-inflected Outkast remix posted to a nameless Soundcloud account, at a time when the branding and celebritization of electronic musicians was in full swing; it gained traction in spite of itself, and the pulsing tracks that followed culminated in “Faded,” a dark smash hit that helped land a deal with Columbia records, a surprise slot at HARD Day of the Dead that October, and, a year later, a Grammy nomination for Best Dance Recording—all without showing his face or amassing the now-requisite social media following.
If the whole Coachella to-do seems like a convoluted way to go about announcing an album, Zhu has made obscured, slow-burning reveals something of a specialty: Even his earliest shows were announced via posters adorned with only his striped “Z” flag logo and dates, with tickets only available through ultra-hip fashion boutique Opening Ceremony, at an event where phone use was banned.
“Zhu, at the end of the day, has to be kind of a consistent vision throughout all elements,” he explains. “'Cause it's as much of a story as it is one person being there for people to look at. Especially with electronic music— you have your focal point, but I think more so it is an environment and atmosphere and a vibe and a journey.”
Walking into the sunny converted cottage studio Zhu shares with Mind of a Genius labelmates THEY., it occurs to me that I don’t know what to call him. How do you address an artist who willfully shrouds himself in mystery? Steve? Steven? Mr. Zhu? No, just Zhu. That’s what his assistant calls him when she knocks on the door of his studio to announce my arrival, and how he’s greeted by Dante from THEY. when we pop in next door later to say hi. They say it without conceit or mononymous pretension, the way you’d address a pal from high school.
Reclining in front of the console in a black V-neck and choppy coif, Zhu is quiet and a little guarded at first, though ultimately proves to be a far cry from the distant “mystery man” accompanied by a black-garbed posse portrayed in his LA Times office visit.
“You know what’s funny? Those guys came with me at the last minute—I think we were going to a party together after,” he says, chuckling. “And we just all happened to be wearing black. None of that was planned, we just let them run with it.”
Very little of this, it turns out, was planned. Zhu never even intended to be a musician. He studied music business at USC, and began recording his own material only because he couldn’t get anyone to cut on the demos he was producing.
“It definitely reflects on some of the questions that I threw out there, in terms of what I might be,” Zhu says. “And I think that's the most fun part, is for the fans to, in this early process, kind of really figure their own version of Zhu out.”
He has a point. I could tell you more about Steven Zhu, the person, who was born an only child, as per Chinese national mandate, and immigrated to San Francisco with his parents when he was five. I could get into how he grew up playing piano and trombone in concert and jazz bands, how he’s considering getting a landline, that he likes Netflix documentaries and Pixar films, and that he really hopes D’Angelo makes another album soon. You probably do too.
All of which is to say none of that would be as cool, or compelling, or exciting as the hooded figure presiding over the stage, and whatever that massive crowd wants, or needs him—and by extension, the music—to be. And for Zhu, that’s precisely the point.
“Why do people go to festivals, and need to be around hundred thousands of people to feel intimacy?” he asks. “What’s that feeling that makes you unsure, or uneasy, or a little nervous, or like you have butterflies? That's a powerful, human kind of feeling. And if we lose it, if they're our ‘best friends,’ and you can go on Instagram and see what they ate for breakfast and shit like that, we're never gonna get the same connection.”
Zhu poses lots of questions like this over the three hours we spend talking in his studio, a neat space adorned with Banksy prints, and not much else (they’re redecorating after expanding his clothing line to its own space Downtown). I brace myself for “No’s” and “Next question’s,” but they never come.
“The intention was never to make the anonymity the focus,” he explains about launching the project with longtime friend and Mind of a Genius owner David Dann. “We just thought the music was great, we believed in the idea that music is faceless, and we thought it would be a crazy thing to do. It happened to kind of take a life of its own. But I guess I could’ve foreseen that—everybody loves a good story.”
If he’s weary of the buzz about his anonymity, it’s only because he’s worried it has come to eclipse his music. Zhu would rather talk about the latter, or how it relates to culture, or to politics, and he wants to know what you think about it.
It’s the same line of inquiry that shaped much of Generationwhy. If critics have spent the past year wondering what’s to come in the wake of commercial dance music’s stateside explosion, and, perhaps more critically, the hyperbolic youth culture that accompanies it, Generationwhy both reiterates the question and offers a possible answer to it.
“This record was made in a time where I felt like I was seeing people looking for this huge environment to be with everybody else, but they couldn't communicate intimately with people around them,” he says. “If you look at the album cover, it's a baby—there's no other really raw way to kind of express intimacy than a baby, right? You have no idea of the world, there's no prejudice, there's no preconceived notion. You're free to digest what you want, to listen to what you want, and do what you want. I wanted to sonically emulate that kind of progression in terms of going from dark into light, that journey of kind of feeling like a child.”
Generationwhy is almost stubbornly cohesive, a 58-minute collection of psychedelic noir rooted in deep house and punctuated by jazz constructions, guitar solos, analog drum machines, Pink Floyd references, and spoken word from the likes of Maya Angelou and In-Q. It’s subtle, more like a soundtrack or concept album than the stacked collection of bangers one might expect from a Grammy-nominated ascendant pop star’s debut. While 2014’s Nightday EP was crafted for the club and fast cars, with vocals penned as an afterthought to the music, Generationwhy gives equal weight to the lyrics, offering up message and vibe in alternating doses.
Zhu cites the light-focused sensory deprivation work of James Turrell and, less directly, his decade spent in LA, as influences on the record’s sonic aesthetic: It’s lonely but hopeful, a great late night driving album that evokes the space between isolation and the saturated intensity that is the experience of living in LA, and maybe 2016 in general. It inverts what we’ve come to expect from mainstream electronic music—less about partying and escapism than appealing to something more existential. “I’ma wake up to my nakedness, ’cause I’m walking on the beat / We feel the love and we are not ashamed,” he sings on the titular and final track, an echo of the quest for consciousness amid uncertain times spawned house music’s origins.
“I think this is gonna be a good test. In the middle of the progression of artists, there has to be something, some piece of art that's done to differentiate the people who are in it, or that aren't so sure they're in it,” Zhu says. “I think this is probably the moment where people are like, if I just want to go to a club and listen to bass, it's not for me. This album isn’t about the next hit. It’s for the people who care about music.”
Zhu wonders if ten years from now, the album will reflect what 2016 sounds like. It’s hard to say. The questions about community and connection that drive it are fundamentally human. But at a time when it’s easier than ever to both access new information and confirm what you want to believe, a record that dares its audience to do some soul searching feels particularly salient, and even political.
“If there was ever a time where the world needed artists to really step up, it's now. This turn of the century is super important for American culture and world culture,” he says. “Everybody's very sensitive. So overly sensitive. I think it's nice to hear honest opinions from people, whether they're positive or negative. At the end of the day, you can't fault somebody if they really believe something.”
Though Zhu has faced relatively little criticism in a genre people love to hate, he’s well aware of what he has been called out for: That the anonymity is gimmicky, or an unoriginal marketing tactic, or that he’s shirking a responsibility to diversity in dance music.
“I get it. This is a white and black world, there's not a lot of Asian-Americans doing music. Is it my responsibility to carry a whole ethnicity on my back into the spotlight?” he says. “I don't know. I don't have the answer to that question yet. But whatever I do onstage, and even our conversation here, and with whoever else, I don't ever want to appear like I'm hiding.”
It turns out Zhu, like the rest of us, is just a guy trying to figure out how to connect, and where, or if, we fit. Maybe that means getting lost among tens of thousands of strangers. Or maybe it’s leaving the party alone. If we’re lucky, we emerge part of something larger.
“Some people need a place to get out to force themselves to be more human,” he says. If I can make people feel some aspects of that, then I think, you know, my job was well done.”
Andrea Domanick is the West Coast Editor of Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.