While the project was produced largely in L.A., inspiration came from far outside the confines of Zhu’s homebase. He stayed on the move during quarantine, roadtripping to rural Montana, Utah and Colorado, where several of the album’s dozen tracks were inspired by the “icy, sonic landscapes that existed there.”
In May, Zhu will play a six-night run (billed as Dreamrocks) at Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheater, with a pair of festival sets to follow in October at Miami’s III Points and San Francisco’s Outsidelands. Here, Zhu breaks down what he was geeking out on while making Dreamland.
While used to the standard DJ lifestyle of airports, greenrooms, stages and hotel rooms on repeat, the pandemic mixed up the way Zhu traveled, and thus the way he made music, too. His Audi S5 functioned as a satellite studio, with a pair of long roadtrips serving as listening and fine-tuning sessions for the album tracks in production. “We were all trapped inside, so I had to get out,” Zhu says of driving to both Billings, MT and Utah’s Coral Pink Sand Dunes for a pair of livestream events. “When the pandemic hit and me and my band still had to go and play some music together,” he says, “our only options were these really remote places.”
The group camped while on the road, with Zhu finding the tiny towns he passed through throughout the Western United States to be a stark contrast to the big city, big venue lifestyle he’d gotten used to. “It was a kind of traveling I hadn’t really done and a whole different world,” Zhu says of these adventures, “and a world I respect and appreciate a lot more now.” Falling somewhere “between a fast and reckless driver” he reports he got only a single speeding ticket while on the road.
The seemingly mundane building material appeals to Zhu for its simplicity and versatility. “When it’s done right,” he says, “it’s the cleanest, smoothest shape, but at the same time it’s very porous, dirty substance.” He produced Dreamland with these impressions of concrete in mind, aspiring to create music that would “hit and be powerful and bold and strong and rugged, but at the same time [has] a lot of curves and other elements intertwined.” Particular inspiration came from the work of Japanese minimalist architect Tadao Ando and artist Michael Heizer’s 1972 installation “City,” a massive concrete sculpture located in the desert of rural Nevada.
N64 and Sega
When Zhu wasn’t on the road, old school video games provided a similar sense of escapism necessitated by the confines of quarantine. “Playing games from childhood was interesting during this period when everyone was looking to the past for some joy,” Zhu says. Gaming also provided the producer with outlets he’d typically get from his work — like a sense of community, a place to exercise his competitive streak and a means for zoning out. (“FIFA is therapeutic for me,” he says.) In terms of that competitive streak, Zhu adds: “I don’t like to be bad, so if I’m not good at the game, I just find a new game.”
Zhu, who has had a fashion line since 2015, was working on new designs while also making Dreamland. Models dropped by the studio for fittings while others involved in the line (called Zhu Merch) would come through for meetings, turning his studio into a multimedia creative hub. (Some of these designs can be seen in the video for Dreamland track “I Admit It,” a collab wiht 24kGoldn that features a Zhu Merch fashion show). “I design clothes with dancing in mind,” Zhu says of the kimonos and other long silhouettes that serve as some of the core elements of his line alongside more utilitarian items. “I wanted more movement [from the clothes] and to give people something they could touch and feel, and sensations they may have forgotten coming out of the pandemic.”