Many artists dream of having the kind of fans who will follow them to the ends of the Earth, but Zedd actually has them. The 25-year-old DJ-producer has been premiering new songs at listening parties across the country for the first 50 fans who complete a scavenger hunt, and he’s started to see familiar faces. “There’s this kid Marcel, he’s the craziest one—he bought a ticket to every single city!” Zedd says, sitting in his record label’s office just a few days before the release of his sophomore album, True Colors, out May 18. “He made it to six out of seven events. He traveled across the entire country to hear the songs first and experience that.”
That devoted behavior worries Zedd a little, but not in the restraining-order kind of way. “It’s not creepy, but it’s scary because you feel responsible for him if doesn’t make it. It’s really expensive to travel around the country and maybe make it. At the same time, it’s really exciting to see people dedicated enough to fly to a city not knowing what’s going to happen.”
Zedd spoke to TIME about what’s his fans’ blind faith, changing perceptions of electronic music and the most intimidating person with whom he’s ever hit the studio.
TIME: How have you cultivated such an intense relationship with your fans so quickly?
Zedd: My fans know I always put them first. There are a million moments where that shows, but for my tour, for example, I put the ticket prices so low because I wanted the kids that don’t have a lot of money to be able to experience a show that blows their minds. We’ve spent more on the production than I’d ever make back on the tour. I’m not going to rip them off and put a price tag on it that doesn’t deserve to be there.
Those events have been a lot of fun for me — meeting people and hearing about what made them fall in love with that music. A lot of them didn’t even like electronic music before. I love seeing the really young kids and the really old people, too, because I want to believe electronic music is not just for 18-25 year-olds. It’s for everybody.
You’ve been playing piano since age 4. Has that persuaded any skeptics to sample your electronic dance music?
My grandmother! I had my CD in my car, and she asks, “Is this music?” She literally didn’t know if this was considered music. Of course it’s easy to just hear the sounds because they’re so loud, but there’s a lot of chords and melodies underneath. My dad—he’s a musician—I gave him the album to listen to and he said he loved it more than the old one because he was able to find a lot more parallels to bands like King Crimson and George Benson. When your dad says something, you listen to it!
I had more courage to put a little more music into “dance music” than I had before. I never had the courage to make a song like “True Colors” that is almost fully acoustic because I felt I would disappoint people, but that’s who I am. I play instruments and I love pushing electronic music as far as I can. I wanted to make this the title track and tell people, hey, this is music, even though it’s dance music. If you like rock music, give it a chance.
A lot of formerly behind-the-scenes producers, like you and Calvin Harris, are now featured artists on songs, as you were on Ariana Grande’s “Break Free.” What’s driving that?
Songs live not only because of the vocals, but because of the sounds that make people move. At some point you realize, well, you’re doing all this work, wouldn’t it be fair if you had a little more credit than being written down in some booklet?
Ariana told me she fought with your co-producer, Max Martin, about that song’s widely mocked lyric, “Now that I’ve become who I really are.” What’s your take?
I agree with Max. We’re European! We hear lyrics differently. I don’t hear a lyric and think about the meaning. I hear what makes me feel good. Does it feel good to say it? I noticed that so late in the process. “Oh my God, I didn’t realize it was grammatically wrong!” But it made me feel good saying it. Sometimes you have to give yourself that freedom. Especially in hip hop, I feel that is common—saying things that don’t necessarily make sense but feel good to say.
What do you think of people who say EDM producers are the new rock stars?
I’m having a really hard time saying that DJs are the new rock stars myself. I feel really awkward, and I made rock music for a long time! Those rock stars from back in the day, they influenced me so much, and I hope I will influence someone who in 10 years will do something completely different and be “the new rock stars.” I’ll feel much better. But take Coachella as an example: you could go to the [electronic music-focused] Sahara Tent and everyone will be raging and the energy is undeniable. There’s something about that energy that almost reminds me of the Beatles, when people would scream when they would see them. You couldn’t even hear because they’d scream so loud.
Who’s the most intimidating person you’ve worked with?
Lady Gaga is for sure the most opinionated musician I’ve ever worked with. That was amazing because I don’t think I’ve ever gotten to work with musicians that would counter on the music element as well, not just on the voice element. She would say, “No, but I want this chord!” That was inspiring for me—it was the first time I really got any pushback.
I was very intimidated by meeting Max Martin [who’s produced for Taylor Swift and Britney Spears], but one minute in I realized he’s the nicest dude. I love that guy. He’s one of the only people in the industry who’s ever called me just to ask what’s new and if everything’s cool and how I am: “Alright, cool, man, hope we see each other soon!” I was like, “Whoa!”
Would you ever collaborate with someone outside of pop?
I was asked to do a country album recently and I love that they asked me—it shows electronic music has reached a level where people respect the musician. I remember a couple years ago I was denied on a lot of collaborations because people thought it was just beats with nothing behind it. People realize it’s actually musicians just making music.