Zeds Dead are difficult men to track down. We've been chasing the Toronto-based production duo round the globe for a couple of months. Interviews were scuppered by clashing time-zones, sleep, illness and dodgy mobile phone signals, but we’ve finally tracked them down.
Actually, we’ve only tracked down Dylan Mamid (aka DC, right); the other Zed, Zachary Rapp-Rovan (aka Hooks, left), is currently still sound-checking.
“Sorry it’s taken so long, man,” explains Mamid. “The whole year has been pretty full-on. We always seem to be playing catch-up.”
He’s not lying. Alongside the usual selection of DJ dates and festivals, the duo set up two festivals of their own - Deadrocks, Colorado and Deadbeats, Toronto - as well as releasing a debut album, Northern Lights. Calling the album eclectic is something of an understatement. Defiantly striding from glam pop to hardcore hip-hop, from festival anthems to underground weirdness, it boasts an impressive vocal guest list that includes Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo, Pusha T and Jadakiss.
Was that always the plan? An album that covered every base? Or did it just turn out like that?
Dylan Mamid, aka DC: “We didn’t want to limit ourselves. We wanted to include all the music we were passionate about. The real problem we had was keeping it down to 15 tracks. If it’d been left to me and Zak, we would have had maybe 50 or 60 tracks on there.”
And the different vocalists? Did you start out with the plan of featuring loads of singers, or did you just find yourselves spoilt for choice once you got going?
“C’mon… it would have been crazy to put together an album of all these different sounding songs and then have them all sung by one vocalist. These are all people we admire and people we’re proud to work with. But the best thing is that they bring a bit of themselves to the song. We wanted to surprise people and we also wanted to surprise ourselves. We’ve got Rivers Cuomo singing on the album… a guy you don’t expect to find on a dance album.
“I’d like to think that’s always been how we work, right from the early days. Music isn’t just about doing one thing or sticking to one set of rules. If we like something, we’ll try it. We’re not trying to be eclectic for the sake of being eclectic; we’re actually interested in all types of music, and we wanted the album to reflect that.
“That’s one of the great things about how studio technology has changed… you’re no longer limited. You can explore the full scope of what’s possible. If you want a hundred different vocalists on the album, you can do that, too!”
You could argue that, in 2017, variation is what an audience expects from an artist. If you churn out the same dubstep/bass/electro/drum ’n’ bass single time after time, they’ll get bored.
“I think you’ve got something there. Dance music has splintered and changed into so many different sounds that it’s almost impossible to say, ‘We’re only going to make this kind of music’. Yes, we came through at the height of dubstep in North America, but we didn’t just make dubstep. In fact, the people that stayed religiously with dubstep ended up rising and falling with that genre.
“If you want a career that lasts, and if you really want to make your mark, you have to be open to different ideas. Not in a calculating, cynical way, because people will see through that. You have to do it honestly and passionately. That’s the key word for us: Passion.”
Passionate or not, some people still accused you of ‘selling out’. How do you react to that?
“What can I say? The criticism seemed unfair, but at the same time, I was kind of glad that it caused such a fuss. I wanted people to understand that we will try something new; I didn’t want to be in a position where we only delivered exactly what was expected of us.
“I guess that, if you’ve been listening to an artist for a long time and they do something different, you can feel betrayed. But if you’re just making music to keep your audience happy, you’re making music for the wrong reasons. We make music to keep ourselves happy; that’s the only way you can make honest music. If people like it and we’re successful, that’s great, but I hope that, even if it wasn’t successful, we’d still do the same thing.
“If you think that’s selling out, there’s probably nothing I can do to change your mind, but, personally, I think that the biggest sell-out is when you’re just making music to be successful. You release the same thing over and over again because you hope it will get into the charts.
“Musically, we’ve always been all over the place… and that’s how we like it.”
As a kid, were you the same?
“Absolutely. My musical tastes were influenced by my parents and, in particular, my dad’s record collection. He had everything from classic rock to soul, R&B, Stax, Motown, Hendrix… When you’re a kid, you don’t say, ‘Oh, I’m only going to listen to rock music’. Your imagination is open to anything. You hear a song and you think it’s cool, simple as that. When I discovered Jimi Hendrix’s Little Wing, I remember thinking it was the most beautiful piece of music I’d ever heard. But then the first record I ever bought was Nirvana’s Nevermind.
“Because of my parents’ attitude to music – they listened to it and talked about it all the time – I think I understood how much music could mean. I listened to the lyrics, I felt the emotion. That all sounds kinda vague and weird when I say it today, but I knew music was important.”
There’s a lot of difference between that start and where you are now. How did you get from Smells Like Teen Spirit to Zeds Dead?
“Every kid has to go through the rock thing, but when you get to high school, you start getting exposed to all sorts of other music. You get new friends, friends with older brothers. That’s where I met Zak. First came hip-hop; that’s what me and Zak bonded over. The golden era mainstream stuff, which then took us into some of the crazy underground tunes.”
Hip-hop and rock do seem to be the starting points for a lot of US producers who end up in EDM/dance music/electronic music.
“Not every time! I’ve met producers who started off with the early raves and early dubstep, but for me, hip-hop made more sense than what was happening in the clubs. The crossover point was drum ’n’ bass. Because it was twice the speed of hip-hop, there were a lot of drum ‘n’ bass remixes of hip-hop records… the Fugees, Method Man. That gave me a gateway into this new world.
“From there, I heard dubstep. Because hip-hop had also taken me into reggae, I could then make the connection with dubstep. All the pieces started to fall into place. And I was so excited by what I was hearing that I automatically started listening to house, electro… I wanted to have it all.”
Did you go down the DJ route?
“Not at all - we wanted to produce; we wanted to make music. The problem was that we had no idea how to do it. Can you remember MTV Music Generator for the Sony PlayStation?”
Not often that gets mentioned on MusicRadar!
“I loved it… I was obsessed with it. It was a video game that allowed me to pretend I was a producer. I must have spent a couple of years on that thing, learning everything I could. I remember being blown away by the fact that I’d made a beat. My own beat!
“Like every family, we ended up getting a computer, and that allowed me to take things a bit further. I think it was Acid, then FruityLoops. I was delving deeper and deeper into music, but it still wasn’t sounding like I wanted it to sound, so I decided to go to this big music/electronics show in Toronto.
“Man, I was so naïve! I’d saved up a bunch of money, wandered over to one of the stalls and said, ‘I want my own studio’. It was a bit like when you go into a car showroom. All you want is a car to get you from A to B, but the guy sells you a Rolls Royce, with all the extras. You get the heated seats, the metallic paint job, the sunroof, the wide tyres, the tinted windows. I was this guy’s ideal customer. He just put a bunch of stuff on the counter and I bought it, thinking that I’d get home and have a hit record.
“Ha ha! I struggled with Cubase for a while, but I ended up going back to FruityLoops. That’s when I realised it wasn’t gonna happen unless I sat down and made it happen. The long, long, long process of learning how to be a producer had begun.”
You’re amongst friends. We’ve all been there…
“There were resources out there, but nothing like today. If you want to make cool-sounding bass, all you have to do is look on YouTube, but back then, me and Zak were just throwing paint at the wall to find out which bits would stick. Making songs over and over again until they sounded OK.
“When I go back and listen to that stuff, I can immediately hear what was lacking technically, but some of the ideas were pretty awesome. I literally had no idea about EQ, panning, where samples should be placed, or anything like that. I was marching forward in ignorance, creating these crazy pieces of music simply because I had no idea what I was doing. Pieces of music that I could never create today because I’ve learned all the rules about where beats should go and how the melody is supposed to work.
“I guess that kind of goes back to what we were talking about earlier. With Zeds Dead, we try not to say, ‘We can’t do that’; we try not to make rules. We’re just making music and we have no idea where it’s going to take us. That’s how we ended up with an album like Northern Lights.”
People who start with FruityLoops/FL Studio often stay with it. It seems to inspire die-hard loyalty.
“We still use it for little bits here and there, but the main DAW is Ableton Live. I can’t pretend that I’ve tried every DAW, but Ableton just seems to encourage you to get ideas out there. You can change stuff, timestretch it, lock samples together… everything is so quick.
“A lot of the in-house plugins are pretty good, too. Operator is one of my favourite synths to play around with. I’ve got some wild basslines from that in the past, but as I’ve got to know it a bit better, I seem to have calmed down. As well as all the crazy, over-the-top patches, it’s also good for basic, solid basslines.
“The Ableton reverbs are pretty cool, but it’s such an important part of the sound that we’ve looked elsewhere too. D16’s Toraverb has those great, rich, full-sounding reverbs, but you can also push it create some out-there effects.
“We like distortion too, but we’ve learned to tread carefully.”
Some of those early tunes do sound quite… full-on.
“They were. You want everything to sound in-your-face, so you put distortion over everything. But as we learned more about production, we realised we were constantly backing-off the distortion; almost to the point where you can’t really hear it. What I often do now is put a small amount on things like kicks, snares or vocals… just to make it sound less perfect.
“When you look at real instruments, you almost have the reverse problem. You do take after take until you get the ‘perfect’ version. We’ve been experimenting with real guitar and piano - two of the instruments that are difficult to recreate in the digital world - and it does work. As soon as you play a real instrument, it pulls you back from that shiny, digital world.
“Even with the most basic of setups, you can create flawless, super-perfect mixes. When we were putting the album together, I realised that one of the biggest challenges was creating a great mix that also sounded realistic and… human. What I often think I’m doing is trying to make a song sound a little bit ‘wrong’. Does that make sense?”
Perfect sense. There has to be a market for this as a plugin. Imagine the swing function on Akai’s MPC, but it affects the whole song. All you need is a switch and a dial, a bit like an old-school compressor. The switch is on/off and the dial controls how rough everything sounds. Just a touch and you add a nice bit of raw distortion with a tweak of the timing/tuning/quantisation; it even fluffs the vocal a bit. Halfway round the dial, you sound like you’re signed to Ninja Tune, and full-whack is avant-garde jazz-metal played by a drunken pub band.
“I like the sound of that. You know the plugin I want to see on the market? Thought transfer.”
Hmm… nice! You have an idea and there’s a little gizmo that lays out your idea on the screen.
“Exactly. I’ve had so many song ideas that sound a certain way in my head, but when I put them into the computer, they sound completely different. This plugin immediately drops it into Ableton in a rough form, allowing you to sort out the final mix.
“That’s the one direction where music technology can develop: how we actually interact with the music. That’s the final frontier. I hope we’ll see that one on the market in my lifetime.”
Zeds Dead’s are wrapping up their fall tour in the US, on the back of debut album Northern Lights, which is out now. Check out their official site to buy the album and other Zeds Dead swag, including tshirts, hoodies, hats and more.