We spoke with Zen Freeman a few years ago about his rising career as a DJ and we could not wait to sit back down with him this week to chat about his latest collaboration with Tiesto’s label Magik Muzik called “Two Roads” releasing July 6th.
Since our interview in 2011, Zen Freeman has become an even bigger household name performed alongside everyone from Deadmau5, Paul Oakenfold and Avicii, to Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Justin Timberlake and Black Eyed Peas. His last single, “Dance Bitch,” collaboration with Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad) on vocals ascended the iTunes charts. Zen currently performs at some of the hottest nightclubs and events worldwide.
PPLA: You have a new single that comes out July 6th called “Two Roads.” How did that collaboration with Tiesto’s label come about?
ZF: There’s a vocalist on the track called Ilsey Juber and she’s got a track out now with Robin Schulz. She’s amazing! She was in Los Angeles probably a year ago now and we decided to do a session with her and her guitar and my keyboard. After about six months- I was working on this and several projects- we ended up with this future house track. It was released by Magik Muzik, a label from Amsterdam that Tiesto started (in 2001, a sub-label of Black Hole Recordings) and they work with this kind of sound and are really good, so it was an obvious fit.
PPLA: The track comes out July 6th just after the long weekend here in the U.S. Are you previewing the track over the weekend at any parties?
ZF: Yes, it comes out in record stores worldwide and on iTunes, Amazon, Beatport on July 6th. I’m playing Shark Attack which is a festival in The Hamptons on July 2nd and that’s one of the most fun gigs. I love it! It was founded by photographer Ben Watts and includes Milk Studios Founder Mazdack Rassi and AEG and it’s this really fun, fashion New York, supermodel, millionaire kind of crowd. They put on a big stage and I am going to headline that. My schedule is kind of manic actually this weekend. I play that festival from 10 to 12pm and then I’m playing an after-party in The Hamptons until about 3 A.M. Then I’ve got a car picking me up to go to JFK and I’m getting on the 6:50 A.M flight to LAX to go to Malibu. I’m playing a really amazing gig on the beach there July 3rd for a bunch of very Hollywood type people.
PPLA: Well it sounds like you won’t have much rest but a fun weekend! Have you played this track already for a crowd or is this weekend the first time you will see how people are receiving it?
ZF: I used to play the first version of this track when I DJ’d with Calvin Harris at Hakkasan (Hakkasan Nighclub at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas) and I used to kind of play it before I’d hand the crowd over to him so that was for about 6,000 people. It always sounds really good and really current. More recently, I play it at the Foxtail Pool at the SLS Hotel (Las Vegas) and also in a bunch of mixes so it’s gotten a lot of play and critique on those big massive sound systems. It should be very playable for big DJ’s and I’m hoping to get some support from them in that way because I feel the mix is pretty clean.
PPLA: You also had a track that did well not too long ago now called “Dance Bitch” with Aaron Paul from Breaking Bad which is a hugely popular show. How did that come about? I didn’t even know Aaron Paul was a singer or had an interest to produce music?
ZF: Well he wasn’t really! He shouted the words ‘dance bitch’ about twenty different ways into his iPhone and that’s basically how we got the recording and then I built the dance track around that. I emailed it to him and he really liked it, and we released it as a collaboration. That track went all they way to #29 on the dance charts which is amazing! He tweeted the link so there was of course a bit of shamless self-promotion that got us into those realms with the support of his fans. At the time it was Rihanna and Swedish House Mafia at either side of us on the charts.
PPLA: So when he sent that to you was it for the purpose of making a track? Had you ever done anything like that before?
ZF: Well what actually happened was Aaron asked me and Foster the People to perform at his wedding. It was such a cool wedding! So Foster performed then I was DJing and everyone was rocking out and the wedding was literally about to finish so Aaron grabbed the mic and thanked everyone for coming and then yelled, dance bitch! It was a joke really to keep the party going but then we said maybe we should put that on one of my tracks. It was such a quick process and we emailed back and forth and discussed the direction and then we released it and got his team involved, who were super supportive, to promote.
PPLA: When we last interviewed you a few years ago we asked you about where you saw dance music and the industry going? I’m curious to know where you see it going today?
ZF: Well all those guys who were up and coming EDM DJ’s we spoke about last time are all giant pop stars now playing shows in Vegas for four hundred thousand or half a million dollars. They’re no longer DJ’s as such because they have the social media following of pop stars, rock stars, even more than that! Before it was a lot of one-hit wonders and manufactured bands and stars- like Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Black Eyed Peas- now someone can make music in a room, on there own, on a laptop and have it properly mixed by a label. Then all of a sudden, they become the next Calvin Harris. It’s amazing what can happen. Pop music has become way more electronic then it used to be. Pop music used to be made in studios, now there’s a lot of pop songs out there that were composed on a laptop or a laptop and a keyboard, so it’s interesting. I think club culture has split off and there’s all these different sub genres now which is the same thing that happened in the 90’s in the U.K. It started off with EDM stages and then huge Dubstep stages with Zedd and Skrillex and now there are so many genres like minimal house, deep house, and future house. It’s the normal evolvement of electronic dance music.
PPLA: How do you feel about the role social media following plays in today’s world in regard to being booked as a DJ or getting branding deals? Is it a good thing or a bad thing?
ZF: At the end of the day, people were always booked based on how many tickets they could sell in clubs or for festivals. It could be a good thing and it could be a bad thing, you know (laughs), kind of like reality TV! You know people who book Pauly D (of Jersey Shore fame) it’s because the guy has millions of followers. I’m not going to slack on his music or anything, but people who book him are usually not hiring him for his musical taste, they’re hiring him for his social media following. Hopefully there are festival promoters who have taste and won’t just hire people because of their following but because of the combination (of musical taste and social following). There are still promoters who have a good gage of what’s cool and cutting edge. Also, I think the whole thing about booking a DJ that just shows up with a USB drive and his headphones is changing. It depends who it is of course, but I think people are really now looking for live elements of a show at a festival. Even if it’s not really done live, people want to see a guy on keys, a girl singing, and the producer DJing as opposed to for the last five years where it’s really been a formula where you make the music in the studio, you export it onto a zip drive, and then you go play it at the club or a festival.
PPLA: So are you talking about the push and play DJ versus a true performer? Or DJs who plan their set out versus DJs who play off the crowd?
ZF:Well, you can always plan your set out and pick what song is next because you have around a thousand songs on a stick, so in a way it’s all very easy to access music and make changes based on the crowd but what I am saying is that there will be more live elements on stage. I think we will be going back to the electronic band days. I think you will find that a lot of the DJs being booked for say Coachella next year will be instead of just one guying playing songs, he will try to strip the track out and play the bass or the keys live or have the vocalist sing live, some live elements, instead of just straight playing the track.
PPLA: Do you have any big festivals that you want to play this year or that you’re already booked for?
ZF: Well I’ve been under the radar for a bit just playing very private and posh events like fashion shows and doing big clubs. My main club circuit is San Diego, San Francisco, New York City, Atlantic City, and Vegas about every other weekend. So for me I’ve just been buried in the studio trying to finish this album. I haven’t been releasing a lot of music at all. This is really the first club track I did in a while. The last one I released was called “Switch” and it did really well in the clubs. It got a lot of support from David Guetta, Fedde le Grand, and Calvin Harris. I’ve been writing a lot of real songs and music and different collaborations with artists. What I have to do is just get a record deal in place and then think about playing festival shows again.
PPLA: How would you describe this new album or the sound you are working on?ZF: Before, I was trying to kind of make a beat and make it work in my set. Now I’ve kind of taken the opposite direction. I’m in the studio a few times a week playing chords and writing songs with a singer songwriter. I’m getting close to finishing tracks. I’ve been working with Boy George, Macy Gray, and Mr Hudson. Mr Hudson has the track “Supernova” with Kanye West, and “Young Forever” with Jay Z. I’ve been working with this amazing girl called Autumn Rowe who wrote a lot of songs for Rihanna and Beyonce. She’s got a beautiful voice and she’s just amazing, but she’s never really had a big solo career herself. She’s on a few of my tracks. So the new stuff is just really interesting songs with chords and structure and then the production of the track comes in afterwards around my sets and what I’m playing. There will also be different versions like an album version, then a club version, then a single version.
PPLA: You’re a veteran DJ but have you ever been in a situation lately where you play a song and it just doesn’t hit with the crowd? What do you do?
ZF: Well it depends, normally a good DJ will figure that out when they purchase the song and play it. It’s always better to play a song in your home first. I have a home set up. Normally you can play something and tell there that maybe it’s a cool song but it wouldn’t work in a crowd. It happens rarely but obviously sometimes you’ll play a song that doesn’t really work. The main thing is to see the reaction of the crowd and very quickly play a different song in the same key and the same tempo as the one that isn’t working so it blends out quickly and hopefully no one really notices. I’ve been DJing about twenty years so it’s just about being organized and having the experience. Experience is such a great thing with music. A lot of my favorite DJ’s are quite old guys, there’s not many that are very young!
PPLA: Clearly you are jet-setting a lot, any travel tips?
ZF: You know I just came in from the East Coast and the Caribbean and I was working this week down in Mexico. Today I’m in L.A. and tomorrow I’m in NYC and The Hamptons. I’m a ninja when it comes to travel. It’s about being organized.
PPLA: What’s your typical day like?
ZF: Today I had a meeting at Tommy Hilfiger because they are styling my next half a dozen gigs. Right now, I’m talking to you from the studio. Then, in about an hour, I’ll run into my house and grab my suitcase that’s already packed throw in new stuff from Tommy and a toothbrush and a razor. I’ll do work on the plane for a music supervision gig I have for a fashion client in N.Y. Then I’ll arrive and get to work.
PPLA: What’s the one thing you can’t leave home without?
ZF:The one item I can never forget is my laptop. It’s the most important thing at the moment because it’s got all my music on it and my production and my life really (laughs) It’s the only thing I can’t just replace.
PPLA: Anything that keeps you sane with all the travel and changing schedules?
ZF:I always try to sleep when I get the chance and try not to waste time. When I’m done with a set and people are partying, I will try to leave quietly and get sleep. I also always find juice bars wherever I go. I love cucumber, lemon, and kale and I find those juices help me stay hydrated and vitalized. I also try to sneak in surfing when I can. I rarely take my board with me but I always try to fit it in. I just played a very well known celebrity’s wedding in Puerto Vallarta and it went until about 5:30AM and I had the hotel boat take me surfing at 8am. I basically didn’t sleep at all but it was so worth it. It was amazing! They took me out to this surfing reef called The Cove. Then I went to the airport and crashed out. I don’t remember taking off or landing! I think whenever I go to a new place I try to do something cultural as well. It’s really important to me. I was recently in Punta Cana and I went to see all these old colonial buildings and churches. There is always something of culture and history in a place so I try to make time to do that.