You’ll be Bumping Zhu’s New Album All Summer

You’ll be Bumping Zhu’s New Album All Summer

You’ll be Bumping Zhu’s New Album All Summer

In conversation with VMAN, the artist shares how Dreamland 2021 leaves 2020 in the past. 

In conversation with VMAN, the artist shares how Dreamland 2021 leaves 2020 in the past. 

Text: Kala Herh

“I didn't want to make something to relive 2020, I wanted to make something to move forward and move on,” Zhu shared over zoom, one month before his new album dropped. “It was a lot of me searching for that feeling and that feeling came from driving really fast on an open road. So, that's exactly what I did.”

Since he watched his first DJ set in high school, Zhu has always wanted to head to the dance floor and urge people to dream up better worlds. And his new album does just that. Featuring collaborations with Tinashe, Channel Tres, Yuna and more, the album brings rave music to new dimensions. It opens with “Distant Lights,” a track saturated with pulsating beats, that documents music’s (and of course, dancing’s) ability to allow individuals to freely express themselves. The building reckless abandonment that’s felt in his tracks is physically manifested in his recording. Zhu recorded the whole album on the open road, alternating between car studio sessions with his laptop and keyboard and friend’s studios he’d hit along the way. 

Over the years Zhu has won broad acclaim for these boundary-pushing experiments, including Best Dance Recording nomination at the 2014 Grammys for “Faded.” And his album, GENERATIONWHY, topped Billboard’s Dance/Electronic albums chart and landed on the Billboard 200. 

We sat down with the Bay Area native to learn about the inspiration behind the album, making music in quarantine and driving really fast in the desert. 

VMAN: First, we want to congratulate you on your Dreamland 2021, it’s so good. What themes did you set out to explore?

ZHU: I think if you want one word or a couple words, I think it's just like movement. Everything about how this was made, and why it's been made is geared towards that. It's people moving, it's the world moving forward. This album was made in a lot of places, and it was made on the go. 

VM: That’s interesting. What type of places did you record at? 

Z: I mean, last year, we did some of these, you know, livestreams out in the middle of nowhere. One was in Montana on a train. The other one was in Utah in the sand dunes. And then we did want to like a mannequin gallery warehouse. So I ended up driving a lot around the country, in my whip and, and listening to music and then even like mixing and doing a lot of beat making my car because that was the only place I could really bump the music. Because there were no clubs, anything like that. So that to me was an important place in which a lot of music was made, and also played and refined.

VM: So what was the whole recording process like then since you weren’t in a studio? 

Z: Mainly it was just my laptop and a little keyboard and just getting ideas out. And then depending on where I went, if I knew someone with a studio there, we had a day or two there or I brought a pelican with like, a mic, a small rack. One day, [a song] was recorded in like the middle of that desert with the live stream for us so that shit was in open air under a canopy in the middle of nowhere and on a battery system. So that was like probably the most extreme remote place I've ever recorded anything.

VM: And what song was this for? 

Z: I think it was like the beginning of Distant Lights, a lot of the guitar ideas and just the basic kind of vibe of the songs.

VM: That’s so cool. The album opens with Distant Lights and in the song, you sing “I don’t believe that music, dancing the freedom of expression will be suppressed for much longer. They can’t that’s against human nature.” Can you elaborate on this feeling?

Z: I mean, personally, for me, a lot of the traveling last year for some of these were like just getting a lot of my energy and my, I guess, like pent up energy out. Because artists didn't really necessarily have a format to express that in front of the crowd. In general,  I'm just a big proponent of letting creative people create. It's been a pretty restrictive last and I thought that it was important to let people know that creating is still important that no one can tell you otherwise.

VM: Yeah, and you’ve got some pretty cool collaborators on this project, including Tinashe. What was it like working with her? 

Z: Tinashe is super chill. She came into the studio and we finished that record in the day and afterwards, I just made it a little bit more clubbier. She's dope, she just came off the top and put some melodies down. And I think we all just wanted to make a darker, ominous kind of vibe and a little bit like, a little bit kind of like cold and concrete. 

VM: I want to go a little bit back and look at the past. I know that you grew up in the Bay Area -- What role did music play while you were growing up? 

Z: When I grew up, it was kind of the era of, you know, I grew up in the 90s. So it was a lot of kind of hip hop and indie bands and R&B. For me just seeing a DJ, the first time ever saw someone perform by themselves with a turntable and a crowd feeling it and just like reacting I was probably 18. I was just amazed. I was like this one dude could do that, 'Why? Why isn't that one dude, me?' The ability to just be able to deliver music and experience became just much more visible. I didn't necessarily have to be in a band or have to know how to do this or that to be able to perform it.

VM: And how did you get into the techno and house music world specifically? Did your parents play it in the house? 

Z: No my parents -- I would be super shocked if they could share some techno records with me. But I think just through discovery. When I went to college all of a sudden I started to meet people from everywhere. And, you know, in that span of time of three to four years is when I consumed probably the most diverse amount of music from Prince to Animal Collective to Kid Cudi. It was just kind of like a melting pot of all different genres, which I guess, today, we don't really even, you know, we don't really even care about genres so it was just cool to see that all come together.

VM: What’s changed since your debut album Generation Why?

Z: Since that, the evolution has probably been in my voice and just like, being able to have a voice on the record. So that's been kind of a growing, a long kind of long patient development for me in terms of my music.

VM: Was there a time when you were either making music or performing and you were like this is it? I’m where I want to be and everything is in reach?

Z: I'm a creator by nature. Lately, I've been creating clothes and maybe in five years, I might create cars or buildings. I understood how to design sound and music just naturally it was my voice. And I think it's always going to have the most special place in my heart. But with that said I would love to design other things, too.

VM: Yeah, and I want to get to your clothing design too. Has fashion always been a creative outlet you’ve enjoyed pursuing?

Z: It's been a really great way to exercise a different part of my creative brain. While music is like raw and full, you know, quick moment capturing, like fashion to me is like a lot more meticulous. There's a lot more steps, things have to be kind of done, at least for me, in a much more detailed way. I really like the way a dope piece makes you feel. That's what I think of when I create for fans and for other people who appreciate that feeling.

VM: What are you looking forward to doing this coming year?

Z: It's this time to start moving again. And for me, you know, I'm going to continue making records and making as much dope new design stuff as possible and trying to expand maybe into something more of a physical realm for a lot of the art spaces. I'm pretty excited about just bring my aesthetic to different, you know, different collaborations.

Stream Dreamland2021 below.

Cover photo by Joey Vitalari

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