EDM acts often hide their identity. For Asian American star Zhu, that’s always had two meanings
When the house lights dimmed at Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheater on May 3, the producer and singer Steven Zhu, known in dance-music circles by just his surname, walked out into a snowstorm. It was the first of a six-night headlining run, his first major live crowds in over a year. Compared to a pandemic that had shut down the concert business since March 2020, inclement weather wasn’t going to stop him.
“The cold was so piercing that my cheeks were almost frozen,” Zhu said from Denver, on a morning off during his string of shows. The icy feel in the air matched the moods of the 32-year-old’s new album, “Dreamland 2021,” which came out on April 30.
“The feeling of being onstage was almost a distant memory. It took some time to settle into the reality of being in front of a crowd again. But I think everyone was just stunned that this was back in some way.”
But as with so much happening in a world that’s slowly lurching back to life, it’s all mingled with grief and bewilderment too.
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Zhu is one of the most prominent Asian American musicians working today, and even with new signs of hope after COVID-19, he’s still shaken from the racist violence that AAPI communities have endured during the pandemic, often fueled by hateful political rhetoric. Earlier this month, in San Francisco, near Zhu’s Bay Area hometown, two Asian American women, one 84 years old, were stabbed in the middle of the day on a busy central thoroughfare.
“They have been difficult to see, because most of the attacks I’ve seen in news clips have been on the elderly and the weak,” he said. “They could be my parents. In Chinese culture, respecting your elders is a pretty big thing. So when you see someone attacking someone old, it’s so disturbing. These people are defenseless.”
When Zhu first emerged with his 2014 single “Faded,” his identity was very intentionally put in the background. Like H.E.R. and The Weeknd, Zhu kept a tight grip on personal information and images as his single, a liminal, falsetto-driven house track, made the rounds at clubs and festivals. He was just a guy fresh out of USC without anything to hide but already he was aware of how being an Asian American producer and frontman could shift expectations about his music or public image.
“Music in America is pretty black and white,” he said. “Asians have always had their own stories to tell in America, but maybe it wasn’t until now that the general public has opened their ears up. Maybe it hasn’t always been as relatable because the struggles are different.”
He’d soon become a major star in the post-EDM-boom dance scene, earning a Grammy nomination in 2015 and collaborating with Skrillex, Migos and Tame Impala (and with onetime presidential and current New York City mayoral candidate Andrew Yang, who cameoed in his video for “Came for the Low”). Now, three LPs into his career, and crawling out of COVID’s wreckage for dance music, Zhu desperately wanted those after-hours feelings again.
In lieu of his usual itinerary of sold-out shows, Zhu spent a lot of time last year driving through some of the Rocky Mountain states. He craved that scenery’s expansiveness after months of being cloistered.
“Up to that point of my life, I had never really driven across vast parts of America in that way. I’m used to flying from city to city and bypassing all the rural parts of the country,” he said. “These trips to Montana and Utah had really opened my eyes to a whole different side of our country. I definitely connected with nature, through thousands of miles of insane terrain.”
But “Dreamland” was his way to reconnect with the feelings of interiors — those foggy, racing, disembodied moments in clubbing where everything hits just right for a second, and you wonder if that feeling can remain.
“How Does It Feel” is narcotically funky deep house with the suave-voiced L.A. fellow traveler Channel Tres; “Sky Is Crying” ramps up and down with flickering atmospheres and hard-cutting arpeggios. Zhu’s silvery vocal delivery blends right in with Tinashe on “Only,” straddling the lines between house and mercurial R&B.
It’s a record about profoundly missing the club and the shot at connection it offers. While those nights might be a ways off yet, “Dreamland” just about re-creates the feeling for now.
The LP was “definitely fantasy-driven,” he said. “Many of my great club memories came from Europe, and I was envisioning a lot of concrete and steel. I really tried to put myself in that sweaty, dark and pulsing dancefloor.”
But if the last year proved anything, it’s that escapism only goes so far.
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2020 and 2021 each saw waves of anti-Asian violence in the U.S., inflamed by former President Donald Trump’s crude invective about “kung flu” and culminating in the fatal shootings of eight people at Asian spas in the Atlanta area in March.
Zhu’s music isn’t often political — it’s better suited to the murk and allure of warehouse raves and 4 a.m. loneliness. But whereas he once felt a need to let the tunes speak for themselves, he’s been shaken by recent events, which pushed identity questions and racism to the forefront of American life.
“American society has inherently been racist and will probably remain so,” he says. “Each person makes their own choices on how they want to treat other people, and there’s no system in the world that can override that.” But now, he adds, “People have no choice [but] to talk about it.”
Artists such as indie rocker and memoirist Michelle Zauner, a.k.a. Japanese Breakfast, have spoken with fresh candor about how their particular angles on Asian American cultural belonging (or outsiderdom) shapes their music and sense of self. Sometimes it doesn’t land, like a widely mocked Instagram post of a yellow square from the largely Asian rap label 88 Rising, in ostensible solidarity against violence.
Zhu works in a genre deeply rooted in uncompromising expressions of identity, but as one of the most influential Asian American musicians today, he’s sorting out what that means right now, and what he should do with it. Even as Zhu grudgingly admires the incendiary qualities of Kanye West (“an infinite loop so jarring and controversial that we have no choice [but] to talk about it,” as he described West), he’s more than happy if “Dreamland” is a reprieve from all that.
“I wanted people to just be able to lose themselves without having to make some gigantic artistic statement,” he said, of those first shows back at Red Rocks. “Once the nervousness dissipated, it was just like, ‘Hey, this is back.’”
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