EDM superstar and music producer Zedd found himself in an uncomfortable situation this week. After traveling to China last month for a show, he came back to the United States and faced extra questioning, which he hadn’t previously experienced in his six years of passing through customs.
“I’m on a [O-1] visa, which allows me to go to America at any point in time for three years at a time until I renew my visa, and I have global entry, so I can go through [customs] really quickly,” says Zedd, who was born in Russia and raised in Germany. “And now, and I don’t know what the reason for that is, I got an ‘X,’ so that means you have to go have an interview when you go in. … It’s like, “Why are you here? What are you doing?” — just those little things that are really scary. I can’t even imagine what it must feel like to people who are actually directly affected by this.”
The 27-year-old is referring to the executive order President Trump signed in late January that banned travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries, including those who already had travel visas granting entry into the U.S., and suspended the country’s refugee program. A federal judge placed a temporary restraining order on the travel ban the following week, which was later upheld by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
But before the order was blocked by courts, Zedd jumped into action, tweeting to fellow musicians, including Macklemore and former Fifth Harmony singer Camila Cabello, to join him for a concert to benefit the American Civil Liberties Union. Just three days later, he announced the date, venue, and full line-up for WELCOME!, with 100 percent of the proceeds going to the ACLU. Macklemore and Cabello answered the call, and they’re joined on April 3 at Los Angeles’ Staples Center by Bebe Rexha, Daya, Halsey, Imagine Dragons, Incubus, Machine Gun Kelly, Miguel, Mija, Skrillex, and Tinashe.
Below, Zedd tells EW why he felt so compelled to do something, why he considers America his home, and how the opportunities he’s had to collaborate and make music probably wouldn’t have happened if not for living in the U.S.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Your idea for this ACLU concert came out of the president’s executive order. You were born in Russia, grew up in Germany. You weren’t specifically targeted by this ban, but it’s clear this is something that really struck a chord with you.
ZEDD: Totally! And I think it absolutely doesn’t matter whether you’re Muslim or not — this is really about the fact that people who want to go to another country, even if they’re technically allowed to do that, suddenly aren’t, and just that thought alone, without any factors surrounding that, is terrifying to me.
Do you recall your first trip to America?
I do, yeah. It was really eventful because the first time I went to the U.S. (in 2011) was a really last-minute thing. I was waiting for my visa and literally got it the night before I had my first show in America. My flight was delayed and I missed 90 percent of my set. However, I remember the whole immigration process took forever as far as loads of questions and you’re almost always kind of being put on the spot, almost as if you did something wrong — I’m sure there’s a reason why the [immigration officers] do that and ask really strict questions. But it didn’t feel very comfortable.
Aside from the process of getting here, what was your initial impression of the States? Was it what you expected?
It wasn’t necessarily the way I had expected just because I had no idea what America was like — the only impressions I had were movies and certain computer games that simulated parts of a specific city. I really didn’t know what America was like. Also, I flew into L.A., which also doesn’t represent all of America. The more I traveled, the more I realized that America is more comparable to Europe in a sense where every state suddenly is completely different — you go to a store, and suddenly they add a different amount of tax on top of it. … And as somebody who didn’t grow up in America, you suddenly don’t know what’s happening — different states, different laws, different age restrictions. It’s definitely not what I imagined it to be like.
There are also a lot of great things. This is probably more personal and doesn’t apply to everybody, but to be fully honest, the weather in L.A. is something that’s amazing to me because where I grew up, it just was mostly rainy, and there would be sunny days and really nice days, but they were rare, and being in a climate where there’s always sunshine is just, personally, something that I really love. And I’m a big food person, so the option of being able to get food at any time is really huge for me considering in the city I grew up in, 9 p.m. is the cutoff for anything you want to buy. There’s a lot of really talented people [in L.A.] — that’s one of the first things I’ve learned coming from my parents’ basement in a small town in Germany to the big city L.A. There are so many people in town every day. No matter who you want to collaborate with, they will probably at some point in the next four weeks be in L.A. There are just so many more opportunities to collaborate and meet people.
How have your feelings about the country changed from then to now?
Well, if I had to pick one specific point that has changed in my mind, I would say that the first few years I was in America, I was just touring, so I didn’t have a place to stay or stay in any city more than two or three days. I was pretty much touring for two years by myself. And then I got an apartment specifically in L.A. to work on music and Lady Gaga’s album (ARTPOP) and my own album, and that was my first taste of what it could feel like to be in the same city, but still I would wake up and immediately shower and leave my apartment to go to the studio for at least 12 hours a day for a really long time and then come home literally just to sleep. So it didn’t feel like I was living in L.A. just because I was working all day. And then when I bought my house I had to spend some more time finding furniture and doing regular things like every normal person does — grocery shopping and all these things — and that’s when I realized how it felt to live in L.A., and that is something that really changed me. I always said I live in Germany, but I have a place in America. Now, after living here for a little bit, I fully say I live in L.A., but I also have a place in Germany. I really have my friends here, I have my house here, my brother moved in with me — I would say the whole center of my life is around L.A. now. I really love it and I’m kind of sad every time I leave.
You mentioned earlier the ease you find now in collaborating. “Stay,” the one you did with Alessia Cara, is new and climbing the Billboard. How do those happen — is it you reaching out because you want a certain voice on a song, or are those singers coming to you?
It’s definitely both. We try to plan as far ahead as possible. This year, for example, my studio dates are pretty solidly locked in almost throughout the end of the year because I have so many specific songs I want to work on. There’s always people who happen to be in town and then we move schedules around to collaborate and meet and write. But there’s also many times that I reach out to an artist. I remember we were in the car… I was listening to the first demo of “Stay” and thinking about who the vocalist could be, and then immediately in my mind I was like, Alessia would be a perfect fit, but I’ve never met her, I’ve never really had anything to do with her. Randomly, we happened to get an offer to play a show together, for a TV show, and I met her there, realized how great she is, and asked her if she was interested in working together. And then the week after, I believe, we went to the studio and started recording “Stay.” It’s not something that probably would have happened if I still lived in Germany.
The WELCOME! benefit came together really quickly. You tweeted to Macklemore, Sia, Camila Cabello — ultimately, how did you get the artists you got?
It was a really interesting mix because it was pretty much 72 hours from the beginning till we announced it, and those were 72 insanely stressful hours.
Which you also tweeted.
[Laughs.] Yeah, I did! Some agents wrote to us and said, “I just heard about this tweet. We think it’s a great idea, and we think our artist would be down.” We made a list of all these people who were down, and my managers reached out and [their] managers are like, “Oh yeah, he’s not available” or “She’s not available. They’re not in town.” So we get two different [answers] from the same camp. So then I reach out to the person for which the manager said they’re not available, and the artist was like, “This is so important to me. I need do this. I will fly in, I will make it happen.”
The concert is basically a month away. The artists are locked in, and I’m guessing there may be some surprise appearances. What are you working on right now in terms of planning?
One of the things we’re working on most at the moment is figuring out all production elements because we have to build a stage that is extremely flexible considering there are so many artists — it has to be a 360-degree stage so you can turn and basically have the follow-up artist build their stuff [on the opposite side of who’s performing], and you just twist it and you’re ready to go. … And then with that comes the running order, which I made sure to make this clear to everybody — this is not like an arms race, this is not about who’s bigger or who’s smaller; this is strictly about what running order will be done quickest so that everybody can play as long as possible. And obviously, we want to have a musical flow that kind of makes sense, that takes you through a journey, not just a random back and forth. … I’m sure there will be a lot of surprises and artists will work with each other — I mean, there’s probably going to be a lot of surprises on the spot, I would imagine.
When “Stay” came out, you said in a statement that you’ve “been trying to knock down barriers around music genres.” Is that an issue you’ve come up against, that you’ve been put in a box as “an EDM DJ”? Or do you feel like people have been open to letting you try new things?
I think people have been receptive of me trying new things, but those people tend to be new fans. I started with very complex — back then it was called complextro, which is complex electronic music — and I kind of did this for a while, and I was kind of getting sick of it, and I wanted to try something new, and I did the kind of opposite, which was electro but with very little sounds that are really fat, so the less elements you have in the music space the bigger you can get each element. And then people are like, “We miss the old Zedd, the one with the complextro sound.” And a year later, when I was kind of sick of that and went more melodic with songs like “Clarity” and “Stay the Night” where I wanted to put a little bit more focus on the vocals, people were saying, “We miss the old Zedd,” meaning the one with a few elements and the fat bass sound. After I wanted to try something new, went to different BPMs, people say, “We miss the ‘Clarity’ Zedd.” Now, I’m really into songs. I wanted to make a song with “Stay” that is not focused on the drop. Of course the drop was important and everything, but I want people to just enjoy the entire song — the verse is just as important as the intro and the drop. I’m sure two years from now when I do something else people will say, “We miss the old Zedd,” meaning the one who made “Stay.” [Laughs.] So I think it’s really important as an artist to just focus on your vision, and, of course, fans are important and I wouldn’t be talking to you if my fans weren’t there, but I think it’s really important to be you and just do whatever you as an artist feel is right, no matter what people say or think.
The WELCOME! benefit starts at 7 p.m. PT on Monday, April 3 at L.A.’s Staples Center. Go here to buy tickets.