Name: Dustin Zahn
Occupation: Producer, DJ
Nationality: American
Current release: Dustin Zahn's new EP, Feed the Fire, is out via Rekids. Gain of Function, the long awaited full-length follow-up to the deep, dark and diverse Monolith, will follow on November 26th.

If you enjoyed this interview with Dustin Zahn and would like to stay up to date with his work, visit his profiles on Facebook, and Soundcloud. Zahn also runs his own label, Enemy Records, with a highly recommended podcast, where he invites guests like Cosmin TRG, or Peder Mannerfelt to chat about a wide range of musical topics. 

[Read our Cosmin TRG interview]
[Read our Peder Mannerfelt interview]

When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?

I started in ’98. I got into electronic music at the time through the biggest mainstream electronic acts … Aphex Twin, Prodigy, Massive Attack, etc. Prior to electronic music, I was big on rock and hip hop so the fascination with drum n bass was inevitable.

I initially started writing music out of boredom. But I also loved the idea that I could create noise that loosely resembled what I had heard on the radio.

For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?

Like anybody, I definitely started in the imitation phase before finding my voice. It’s a controversial period in art, but I think it’s a great place to start learning … as long as you move on eventually.

It took time to find the crossroads between imitation and influence. In the late 90s, DNB was far more surgical about great mixdowns and mastering. They were doing 2-tracker 45 side vinyl long before Techno. So I brought that DNB mentality into my sound aesthetic.

I am still a huge experimental head, so nearly every track of mine has to be at least a little weird. I grew up in the Midwest with tons of house influence, so my tracks have to have a bit of jack or groove to them. So yeah, I needed to emulate to learn … and now I’m old and lazy so I just straight rip artists off.

I’m kidding.

How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?

In music, ‘identity’ will help you determine what you stand for, and also what represents you. An identity will inject a certain ethos into your creative process. If one has a ‘punk/DIY’ approach to life, the music will almost certainly share similar aesthetic.

It is not always a direct correlation, but some of the strongest identities / characters I know also happen to have the most immediately identifiable tracks.

How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?

Since 1998, my trajectory went from computer -> hardware -> computer -> computer + hardware. The computer made sense because I already owned one. To go any further at that point, gear was a necessity … especially for playing live, which I did more frequently than DJing.

By the time Ableton Live debuted, gear had become less of a necessity. I was also a poor teenager so piracy was kind of awesome. By 2010, I was growing extremely bored with writing music on the computer. Out of desperation, I bought a couple pieces of gear in hopes of leaving my creative rut. That’s when I realized the tangible feel of gear was still an essential part of the creative process for me.

I won’t join the hardware vs software debate. But, I can tell you that you’ll undeniably get different results by using two hands to create something rather than using one finger on a mouse. Is it better or worse? That’s up to you to decide. But the results WILL be different.

What motivates you to buy new gear: The curiosity to try new things, a specific function, something else entirely?

Ultimately, a piece of gear needs to fulfill a void of mine. Once I determine it can, then it has to jive with my workflow. Lastly, it has to have a vibe and sound that I lust after. I wouldn’t buy something just for shits and giggles.

For an actual example, I had a song where the string section was sterile. I wanted the strings to warble a bit and at times, saturate so it felt like the strings might rip apart. At that time, plugin options were strangely limited but Chase Bliss had just released one of those early Warped Vinyl guitar pedals. It did exactly what I needed and it the tone was amazing. I bought it just for that track.

Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?

Collaboration is essential if I’m working for a band/musician/vocalist in a producer or engineering role. In the original sense of the producer, you do whatever it takes to get that record as close to the artist’s wishes in the best shape possible.

Outside of that, I like jamming with friends. Sometimes those moments turn into great tracks and other times it is just something you share together that one time. And sometimes, those jams can be steaming piles of dog shit.

Lots of times actually.

For real though … music sales continue to plummet and some festivals aside, live music is taking a beating too. Without fans, all musicians have is each other, so go through the creative process together. It feels good to be a part of something.

Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?

To be honest, I always looked at it as a slow and steady ascent. Everything was incremental. There was no overnight success, nor do I think anyone could truly say “Oh this was his year!” However, I do think signing to Drumcode in 2007 was probably the biggest singular boost.

These days, I guess everybody is on Drumcode but back then it was mostly only the Swedes, Gaetano, Marco Carola, myself, and Kyle Geiger. That was a huge deal! At the time, it provided me with extra legitimacy and motivation to keep going.

There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?

I might be the wrong person to ask. I can thrive in various conditions. Sometimes I thrive in chaos where time is limited, and I just need to shoot from the hip. Other times, a clear and focused mind has really helped me answer internal questions I may have been too distracted to answer before.

At this point in my life, I know that I need to ‘live’ my music. I’m like a “method” musician.  If I want to make a rowdy party record, I need to hit the streets, go to bars and clubs, make bad decisions, whatever.

Right now, I’m actually working on an experimental record. I don’t want to hear club music. I don’t care about festivals or Instagram. I don’t want a drop of alcohol. Ok maybe one. But really, I just want to ingest art and explore new possibilities with music.

I guess the real question a creative needs to ask themselves is “what do I need to thrive?” Once you know yourself, you can’t instantly make yourself creative, but you’ll know when you’re wasting your time.

There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?

Is it actually a fine line? The fact that this discussion continues to pop up would leave me to believe it’s actually a pretty blurry line for many people.

The problem is everyone seems to have differing opinions on what is considered offensive or tasteless. Some people may even genuinely believe they’re paying homage, but in reality they’re just a dumb ass. This means there will always be room to debate.

My two suggestions: understand your source material enough to when you’re crossing the line. And two, lift people up. Be an ally to minorities rather than someone exploitive. Cover at least one of those two bases and I think you should be ok.

Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?

Strangely, I rejected the notion of being an “artist” until the last 8-10 years. It reminded me of that guy who shows up to a house party with an acoustic guitar. It’s like “Oh Jesus Christ, here we go again. Ohhh you tortured soul!”

So anyway, I’m that guy. No guitar though, just RAT pedals. And uh, accepting that really helped me weed through a lot of bullshit. It kick started a lot of internal dialogue. I keep asking myself  “does this fall in line with my artistic vision, and am I staying true to myself?”

After all, music is art, and real art requires sincerity.

What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?

One benefit music has is the strength of nostalgia. It can literally recall the actual act of ‘living.’ Words can only paint a romanticized picture. Most of the time, it will only cause a person to nod there head and go “This person totally gets it.” Put on a specific song and once that nostalgia hits, you instantly relive that life experience for a split second.

Maybe it reminds you of a shop you worked in 10 years ago. You can recall the smell, the vibe, and everything else you can’t explain. Or maybe it’s that night at Berghain … you lost your mind, and hearing this song gives you instant goosebumps. You can see the lighting and feel the exact temperature of that moment. For that split second, you recall the experience of ‘living.’