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ZHU & A Psychedelic Journey Through Ringo’s Desert

If you’ve never heard of him, ZHU is the stage name of Steven Zhu, an American DJ, singer, producer, and multi-­instrumentalist. His music is hard to pigeonhole, since it sits in the pocket of a growing—albeit paradoxical—genre: electronic dance music (EDM) with an artful nod. In general, EDM is designed for people in clubs to bounce mindlessly to while touching a dozen strangers and sweating enough to ruin their shirts forever—not exactly a challenging listen. Art­-pop, on the other hand, has the opposite connotation; it’s shrill, over intellectual, and most damning of all, not danceable. However, ZHU’s music breaks down the wall between mind-bending prog­pop and the catchy EDM we all love to mosh to. All that to say—compounded by the rave reviews I’d heard from friends regarding ZHU’s live show—I was biting my nails in anticipation of his concert in DC.

We saw the show at Echostage, a venue on the Northeast side of DC. It’s a pricey half-hour drive away from AU, and Metro rides take well over 90 minutes. We chose the lesser of two evils and ordered an Uber. By happy accident, we ended up in a murdered­- out Escalade on our way to hit up the club, an absurdity that kept me laughing hysterically from my shotgun lookout.

ZHU was set to go on at 10, but we showed up late—not that it mattered. Even outside, nondescript house beats were blaring loud enough to feel them in your chest, so we knew we were in no hurry to make it through security. After a brief ID fiasco between my friend and a bouncer in a yellow polo (“Does this gift card count as state ID?”), we were in with plenty of time before the show.

When 45 minutes had elapsed past set time, the lights fell and our view was obscured by backlit fog. Ambient noise filled the room, building to a deafening crescendo before the fog cleared. Onstage, ZHU was standing atop a glowing pyramid, the front of which was fitted out with tens of thousands of LEDs. Bars of lights to his left and right supplemented his DJ pyramid, and a bank of spotlights aimed outward delivered on demand blindness to the audience. He wore a round, flat brimmed hat with sunglasses, and the tails of his duster wavered in the breeze. As he looked out into the crowd, I couldn’t help but notice he looked a little like a dollar store Morpheus, with his brooding stare. He called out an obligatory “How y’all doing,” then cut the crap, and started the show.

ZHU began to play his new album, Ringo’s Desert , from the top. The first track came on, whose buildup is based around a Spaghetti Western-­style guitar riff, deep and foreboding. Lights and fog again filled the stage, and when they faded, there was a guitarist playing the intro atop a smaller pyramid to ZHU’s right, lit dramatically from above. The song continued, pulling the same trick again, this time revealing a saxophone player flanking ZHU’s left. All at once the beat dropped, and ZHU punched out house instrumentals so loud you could feel your floating rib wiggle while the sax and guitar players traded solos atop banks of psychedelic lights delivering insane geometric patterns.

At this point, I began to notice similarities between these art-­EDM beats and the psych-­rock that governed underground music in the 60s. The signs are hard to ignore; it’s a crowded room of weird young people watching another weird young person play music so loud and so strange that no one older or more rigid than them could understand it. Look at the lights showering concertgoers in vibrant color, the fog and the pyramids and the sheer theater of it all ­ I was watching history repeat itself. In fact, I’d posit that ZHU and his contemporaries are the closest things our generation gets to insane psychedelia. These shows are our Woodstock, these artists our Jefferson Airplane and our Hendrix, and anyone under 30 who doesn’t see an art­-EDM show at least once is doing themselves a cultural disservice.

Then I noticed yet another parallel between house shows and psychedelia: the drug experimentation. Watching the guy to my right trip out on something powerful, it seemed that he may have had the right idea. Sweat­ soaked and with pupils like dinner plates, he gestured urgently at the stage, palms outstretched and fingers grasping at something no one else could see. The only difference between Woodstock and last year’s Coachella is that one show was psych-­rock, and the other was EDM. Between these two eras, the tweakers are indistinguishable, and it occurred to me that this particular tweaker must be having some sort of religious experience. I just wonder if his life feels drab now by comparison.

We spent what I assume was another hour or two jumping in place to dance beats imbued with a vicious and perpetual energy, such that it felt like no time had elapsed when I looked at my phone to see it was almost 1 AM. ZHU closed out his show with one more taste of the madness, this time in the form of “Faded,” his most popular track. The hook, “Baby, I’m wasted/ All I wanna do is drive home to you,” repeated with mantric rhythm until it faded into nothing and the lights went down and ZHU had vanished from his pyramid.

That was the final nail in the coffin of my thesis here, that whole house/EDM­-as­psychedelic-­rock thing. Here was a lyric about escapism, needing to get out of a life that has moved beyond control, being out of your head on drugs and just wanting comfort. If that doesn’t equate this generation with the disaffected youth of the 60s and 70s, then I don’t know what does.

Strange times are here, and more and more young people just want to get out, no matter how they do it. And standing in that crowd of sweaty, gawking weirdos, I couldn’t blame them. This music is release in its most celebratory, a vacation for the whole body from the mind. It’s an excuse, as Timothy Leary immortalized back in 1966, to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” The sentiment is alive in ZHU, so do yourself a favor: buy that ticket, and take that wild ride.

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