You don’t often come across a young college kid turning down a Wall Street internship to produce and mix music in his college dorm room. I know, sounds like some sort of EDM sequel to The Social Network, right? Well It could very well be a future movie plot, but it’s actually the very true beginning of Justin Blau’s, better known by 3LAU, mega DJ career. At 24 years old, the New York-born producer and DJ can add opening for dance superstar Zedd on to his already very impressive resume. Yeah, you could say dropping out of college to pursue music was a pretty damn good life decision.
And you’d think being so huge at such a young age would give him a bit of a big head, but believe it or not he still gets a little uneasy before shows — a testament to how humble 3LAU really is.
“I’ve done shows that have been bigger than the Staples Center, but because it is the Staples Center and it is so iconic in the city of Los Angeles, it is a little nerve wracking,” he admitted to me mid-laugh.
3LAU spared some time before his L.A. performance to talk to Playboy about how moving around as a kid influenced his music, what it was like closing the door on Wall Street and what his incredibly insane schedule looks like for the next six months.
You were born in NYC but grew up in Las Vegas. How did both of those regions influence your music style?
That’s a very valid question. It’s unique to me in the sense that changing cities from New York, which is where I originally grew up, to Vegas when I was 15 and finding that the music culture in both of those cities are extremely different. When I was living in New York my taste was very narrow and I listened to whatever was on the radio and whatever my parents would listen to. My dad was a classical rock buff, so it was a lot of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. But that’s kinda what everyone was listening to up in the north east when I was growing up. No one really had eclectic taste. When I moved to Vegas — which is a hot spot for so many people in California, the Northwest, and for people out of the country — I met all these new kids who all had different tastes in music and I was exposed to way more bands and even way more electronic acts than I had ever been exposed to. My taste and influences were pretty heavily impacted by my move to Vegas and not even necessarily just in dance music. Dance music was inspired by a trip to Sweden with my college roommate who was from there.
Speaking of college, I know you had this opportunity to do an internship on Wall Street and you turned it down to do music. Were your parents freaking the fuck out?
You know it’s really funny because when it’s your own life you never really think of it as too much of a big deal when you’re living through it. And then when I do interviews, especially when I did the Forbes piece, I actually think about it and it was very much a cliche. My parents rebelled against me dropping out [of college]. It was a big battle — there was a lot of crying, a lot of yelling and eventually it was a professor who convinced my parents to let me give it a shot. It was a pretty massive risk, but I’m so glad and fortunate that it worked out in my favor.
It’s a pretty inspiring story, though. So I know you’ve been doing these guest performances with Zedd, and you have another one tonight with him at the Staples Center.
I did one this past weekend and hopefully I’ll get to do another one. It’s a pretty cool thing he has been doing because it gives me exposure to some of his fans that wouldn’t necessarily know my music, but then it’s also a cool thing for the fans that are there and might know my music and are like, “It’s 3LAU!” It’s just a cool way to show the fans that most of the artists in dance music are all friends and we play each other’s music and we are in constant communication with each other.
What have been some of the highlights getting to know and working with Zedd?
I didn’t have an extremely strong relationship with Zedd before the Phoenix show this past weekend, and we talked a little bit in passing obviously and he was playing one of my older records called “Vikings.” Our paths have crossed before and we obviously both respected each other’s craft. But in Phoenix it wasn’t as huge as a show as the Staples Center, so he had a lot more free time. I already respected him, but I gained so much more respect for him after hearing his perspective for an extended period of time. I learned just how intelligent he really is and how he makes his selections in tour and production design and how he approaches the sound, lighting and engineering process for his shows. It’s super inspiring to hear how someone so successful grew to be that successful, and he’s just on a whole other level to me. Since the Phoenix show we’ve grown a lot closer and that will make tonight even more special.
Just hearing about how Zedd really oversees every aspect of his show, I know you also are the same way and even manage your social media. So does it bother you when those outside the industry say that all DJs do includes pushing a couple buttons?
You nailed it on the head. I have so much respect for Zedd because he is so involved in every aspect of the process in ways that I hadn’t even known until Phoenix. He’s so involved literally to the point that he knows the brand of the light that does this certain thing in the middle of the set. He’s that involved, and I am too. I think people are wrong to generalize that perception and stereotype that we all party, press buttons and we get paid a lot of money to do it. But let’s just say there are some artists who are money infatuated and have a team doing most of the work load. Some of these guys don’t even make their own music. And so in that sense people aren’t wrong to criticize those types of artists.
You have a bit of an insane next few months up until December. What are you looking forward to the most?
I’m very much looking forward to the release of my new single called “Runaway” with Bright Lights, who I’ve done four records with already. It’s very different for me, it’s different for dance and I really believe it’s going to change a lot of things for my career and will gain a lot of artists’ respect for what I do. That’s going up on October 16th right before the bulk of the tour. So we are all extremely pumped for that. I have a couple more weeks in the studio before heading to Asia, and I’ll be finishing other records that I’ve been working on for 2016. I did hit a rut for a year though — pretty much from May of last year to May of this year I kinda hit a creative rut and I couldn’t quite figure out what I wanted to do. But then everything started changing super quickly and I have so many ideas I’m really pumped about. It’s going to be a really fun 6-8 months.
A lot of artists I’ve talked to have mentioned how a two-hour festival spot doesn’t always give them the chance to show off new material because fans are expecting to hear all the hits. Does that get hard when you want to premier new music?
That’s also a really good question, because as you mentioned everyone is always like, “DJs just push buttons, they are not even DJing and it’s all pre-recorded.” The reason why people say that is because they don’t understand what we as DJs have to deal with — we have a limited amount of time on stage. And so when I’m playing at club and I have unlimited time and I have no pressure, I don’t really have to prepare for it. I truly do whatever I want and I see what people like and I play based of that. But in a case like tonight, I have 45 minutes to play — the length of all my songs combined is longer than that, and I have to be really selective. When you have to be selective of what you’re playing — and there are no certain rules of DJing per se — but when you’re mixing from one key of music to another it either sounds good or doesn’t. Most of the time when you’re DJing you are mixing between keys of music that sound good, but when you have limited time you gotta just throw shit together. In an interview a while ago I said that i pre-planned my EDC set, so I knew exactly what I was going to play at EDC. That’s because I have all this music that I have to fit into a short period of time, so yeah I am bummed out when I can’t play longer especially when fans want it.
I can only imagine this for Major Lazer who have to be sick of playing “Lean On.” They have to play that song at every festival, and I’m sure they love it, but it has to get annoying at some point to just play your radio hits.
Yeah, in terms of playing the same music that’s your own, 100 percent. That’s why I’m always looking for other people’s new stuff to mix and match with my own. I have to play “How You Love Me” every single set. Don’t get me wrong, I love it, but I’ve been doing it and have played it at over 200 shows. That’s the exciting part about playing music that has been unreleased and that’s the thing I love about playing shows the most is playing new music for fans who wouldn’t know a single part and watching how they react to it. That’s the most fun part about my job.
I’m also 24 and I can’t imagine what it would be like to be so young and managing an international brand. What is it like, and do you feel like you’re ever missing out on anything?
You’re really hitting me with the best questions here.
Can I quote you on that?
Absolutely you can. Do I feel like I’m missing out? I mean that’s a really good question because I don’t know. I know there have been moments where I take a breath of fresh air and I don’t work for a day. I took my first true vacation this year and I went with my girlfriend to Cabo for four days, and it made me realize how much I am missing out on living and existing and not having to worry about all the variables in my career. I’m constantly micromanaging everything, and I have an amazing team and manager and I trust them with everything, but I care so deeply about what I’m doing. I’ve been so invested in it for four or five years that it’s really hard to pull me away from it. I literally do not stop working. So in that sense I feel like I’ve missed out on just being able to like, watch a movie on a weekend. It’s funny even driving to me is very therapeutic and I don’t drive that much. Sometimes I’ll just want to get up in the morning and even though I don’t need to I’ll drive to the breakfast place that is a little farther so I don’t have to think about anything just for a minute. Would I trade it for anything? Absolutely not. But I don’t think a lot of people realize just how much mind and heart have to go into a DJ career, let alone any kind of career in music.
You had mentioned EDM is at its peak and it might be plateauing. Where do you see this scene and even festival culture in the next five years?
Everyone has their own opinion on it. I think most people like to speak in extremes and really like to make things feel like they are bigger than they are. I maybe used to be that way, but now that I’ve had four to five years of experience, probably a little more experience than some people who are bigger than me, now that I am looking back on it and can think about it…it’s not going anywhere. I think it’s going to be around for a long time the same way hip hop never went anywhere. It had its dips and climbs but it’s always there. Dance music has always been around but it kinda broke through the ceiling already and it isn’t going to come down. But I do think the culture is going to change. I also think the types of people going to festivals will change. As kids get older they might stop going and as younger kids enter the scene more of them will be going. I don’t think it will change in numbers or business, I just think it has definitely hit its peak and now U.S. culture knows what dance music is and more people will get involved, but it’s not going to grow at the same exponential pace that it did in the past three years.