The Untitled Magazine hit Vegas for an exclusive photo shoot with DJ’s Paul Oakenfold and Zen Freeman with photographer Jonathan Bookallil. Amidst his packed touring schedule, Zen spared some time to chat with us about some of the incredible events he’s performed at, his work as a music supervisor for Tommy Hilfiger, Chanel and Prada, and his secrets to keeping his energy levels high.
Indira Cesarine: I would love to hear about some of these incredible events that you’ve been doing around the world. I know that you performed at Cannes Film Festival, at the SuperBowl, the Emmy awards party… How did you get started as a DJ and get involved with performing at such high profile events?
Zen Freeman: It almost sounds a bit cliché now but I started when I was about 13. I was mixing audio around the age of 9 or 10 in my own kind of way. I was getting old record players. My mum and dad collected a lot of vinyl records, so I used to just take the old record players and line them. When I was about 14 or 15, I actually had a real set-up for turntables — Gemini belt drive turntables and a Gemini 2 channel mixer. I started playing in clubs when I was around 15. It was a hobby, and it remained a hobby for a very long time. In between being at college, being a model and traveling the world, I would sometimes take my records with me and DJ in Tokyo, or Sydney. If I made 500 bucks for a show in Sydney that I was half promoting, I would spend 700 dollars on vinyl records. It was never really a career. When I moved to LA, I was initially a little bit scared by the scene here. It was very much, you know, Mark Ronson, DJ AM, Adam 12, Sam Ronson, Z-trip – all these sort of scratch mixers. I just waited my time, got a job, did some PR, and got some cash in LA. When the time was right, I DJ’d an event that RedBull’s PR company was hosting. I did that for a friend just for fun and from that one gig, I got booked to do Harvey Weinstein’s Golden Globe after-party. And very quickly after that, it became almost like a full-time job. There were a lot of events back then as well, so I was very lucky. It went from me playing Harvey Weinstein’s after-party to Nick Jones’, who owns Soho House. He also wanted me to fly around and do his Cannes Film Festival party — this was about 10 years ago when it all kind of kicked off.
I’ve been producing my own music as well now for 7 years, and honestly for the first 3 or 4 years, I was making some absolute crap. I was just kind of playing and learning. But it’s a new world. I always had a good ear for mixing. I could always identify the key of the song, and mathematically work out the tempo. Even from the vinyl days, I used to write notes out. It’s different now that it’s digital, but I was always quite good with very technical DJ things. And now, translating that into music takes a long time. It’s almost like pursuing a degree, you know? It takes a few years.
IC: So tell me what was your most memorable event that you’ve ever performed at? Where you look back and think that was just insane!
ZF: Paul Oakenfold was doing New Year’s Eve at Perfecto in Vegas, and he really wanted me to DJ for him. He was going to drop the New Year’s Eve balloons and do the count down, before I started my set on stage. So on the 30th, I was playing at St. Barts. Abramovic’s yacht was next door. I was DJing and every single Victoria Secret model was dropping in on the floor — all the power couples featured in that month’s US Weekly Magazine as well. I rocked it, and I played until five in the morning. The sun was coming up. I got my bag, and it was just one of those moments when I thought, ‘I love my job. I’ve got the best job in the world.’ I jumped off the side of the boat into Paul Allen’s tender. They took me to a helicopter that took me to St. Maarten, and I got on a plane and flew to Miami. I did a quick change, and flew from Miami to Vegas. I landed in Vegas at 9:30pm. I had time to go to the room, shower, put on a suit, go for dinner, and then start my set. Everything was kind of perfect. Then I started going on tour with bigger DJs, and saw the way they traveled. All of a sudden, with a blink of an eye, it was my driver coming, and it was my headline show – it was my tour. It was a really nice transition. One of the most spectacular moments of my career was when I played the Google Dreamforce Festival in San Francisco. I got to San Francisco pretty early and they said it was going to be hectic since there were 75,000 people coming to the event. The streets were closing down. They said, ‘Just get there early.’ I got there, and there were already 25,000 or 30,000 people there, and they were pushing up against this barricade. There was probably a 150-foot wide stage in front of San Francisco City Hall, and there were another 50-55,000 people. The house audio guys were playing a reggae CD, and all these people were coming on. Red Hot Chili Peppers were coming on after me and I just walked on stage kind of cold. I just introduced myself, looked at the sea of people, and played a ninety-minute set before the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It was just a great feeling. It was really fun and they were really interactive.
IC: That sounds amazing.
ZF: There have been loads of epic moments.
IC: I heard that you played for Brad Pitt?
ZF: Yeah, that was at Cannes last year at his villa. It was a post-party for his movie. There was a main event on the Croisette, and he and Harvey Weinstein hosted a party at Brad’s villa. His wife wasn’t there, for some reason. He’s really nice, he just walked in, had a white tuxedo jacket on, and hung out at the bar all night. He had a couple of guys watching over him, and there were about a hundred people there. On that same trip, the night before, I did the music for Sean Penn’s Haiti event at the Carlton. I just pre-mixed and beamed it in. Then we all went out to a yacht later that night, and I DJed a party disco set, and it was pretty entertaining, everybody was rolling around the floor.
IC: And this was in 2013?
ZF: Yeah, yeah. I’ve been going to Cannes for about 8 or 9 years now.
IC: Yeah, Cannes is always brilliant. There’s always just back to back incredible events going on there.
ZF: There are always celebrity things for me to play — at hotels, at Cannes, the Carlton, the Martinez. I play at Paul Allen’s every year, and he gets me a really nice apartment on the Croisette for seven nights, so I go there and hang out. Every now and then, I’ll play the Monaco Grand Prix. It just depends what the date is. It’s sometimes hard going in and getting out, but I love that circuit, it’s great.
ZF: Yeah, they’re all different. I have an ongoing relationship mainly with Prada, Chanel, and Tommy Hilfiger. For example, Prada’s always very different. They have a lot of influence and do a lot of events in cities where they have stores. They just did a fundraiser in D.C. last week. I flew in and played music for them for a few hours. They did an art installation in Atlanta a couple weeks ago, and I was the music supervisor for that. Miuccia Prada does private collections. They have the top clients and buyers who haven’t gone to the regular shows in New York. She has a penthouse in New York, where they’ll do a viewing of the collection Monday through Friday during fashion week from 9 to 6. So I create a soundtrack for them – something to turn on in the morning. It’s all sorts of different things.
Whenever Chanel does a store launch in a new city, they usually try and fly me in. You know the Chanel No. 5 launch? I love Baz Luhrmann; I’ve always been a big fan. He directed the short film for the campaign, and the stills were shot by Karl Lagerfeld. I came in at the point where they took the Lo-Fang cover of the song, “You’re the One That I Want.” That was basically me giving some creative direction… I know the songs that they like and the ones that they don’t like. The designers took all the graffiti from the short film and for the arrival area at the event, Gisele, Karl Lagerfeld, and Baz Luhrmann sat at the front, as people were coming in. It was a warehouse with teal, fog, and old leather furniture. So I did this French minimal disco ambiance, and it was very happy, but also very flow and progressive… It was a 90-minute mix made to last during arrivals. And because of the Lo-Fang cover, the Chanel team had built a jazz club inside the venue, which was normally a photography studio. I put together a whole collection of French covers like “Son of a Preacher Man.” It was played in between speeches by Baz Luhrmann and Karl Lagerfeld, and when everyone was eating dinner. Everyone at Chanel has a little say in music supervision, even for an event. So we did some big band things during the dinner, like a cover of Paul Ankert singing “Wonder Wall.” It was cool, fun Chanel tongue-in-cheek stuff. After that, my turntables were set up, and I got to DJ. Catherine Martin, Baz’s wife, was the first one up and we had a little bit of fun. At the end of the night, everyone was dancing around the DJ booth. When it comes to music supervision, everything’s different. I’ve done stuff for fashion brands, for CDs, and for film… I love the fashion stuff because it comes in part with my touring. I can play an EDM show in Mexico City, but on the way, I can fly to New York and do a fashion event.
Baz liked what I did for Chanel No. 5, so he booked me to do the installation sound for the Baz Dazzled Barney’s event in December. LACMA just hired me and I think Gucci paid the check on that one. LACMA does their big huge blow-out music forum and they do the winter gala. [For their recent Art + Film gala] I took songs from trending Parisian blogs, New York, LA, and London blogs, and I mixed it all together in relative keys, musically. I mixed it for the arrivals, and then I mixed a down-tempo mix for their dinner party. Then Boy George performed “Son of a Preacher Man.” Quentin Tarantino did the speech, and then I started the mix. They wanted a kind of disco where people would dance, so I did a 90-minute soundtrack for them. We’re talking like a really warm, kind of beautiful lounge covered in flowers and chandeliers. There were loads of carpet and velvet drapes. The mix started with an edit I did of “Stuck In The Middle With You,” by Stealers Wheel, in a disco version.
IC: Do you have a favorite track that you know always gets the crowd going?
ZF: I always look at the history of things when I play live shows, because a lot of time, I’m grabbing music. Sometimes, nothing’s really rehearsed. But I know what works. Depending on whether it’s a fashion gig, or me playing for 6,000 people at Hakkasan in Las Vegas, I know what works. The important thing to know is that certain songs only work in certain situations… I also have secret weapon songs for certain situations. This “Jolene” disco edit that I have would be great for film festival parties, where people are a bit more cool and mature. But if you play it for a nineteen-year old kid, they’d hate it.
IC: Yeah, I’m sure it depends on your crowd. So I understand that you have a couple of tracks that you released this year and last year, notably “Dance Bitch,” and the “Hypnotist,” right?
ZF: “Dance Bitch” was a collaboration with Aaron Paul, who plays Jesse Pinkman on Breaking Bad. It was a funny idea that we both came up with. I actually recorded vocals from him on my iPhone. During the last season of Breaking Bad, he blew up, and he got so many offers. He was shooting movies on hiatus. I didn’t go down to see him in New Mexico where he was shooting Breaking Bad, so we met in LA. We recorded it on an iPhone, I had it for a couple of months, and all of a sudden, the show was about to finish. I made the song in two days, and then released it. He tweeted it and it got to number 29 on the iTunes Star Chart, which basically meant it sold over 10,000 copies in the first 24 hours. It was just a laugh, really. And we had fun doing it together. I wish I had more time to spend on the actual music. It was kind of my fault. Sitting in front of the computer for 48 hours, going ah, I need to finish this! He’s a personal friend of mine. We both moved to LA around the same time, and have gone on trips to Vegas together, trips to Sundance together, and have had many dinners. He’s just an amazing and talented young man. It took him a while to get spotted though.
“The Hypnotist” was just something that [had to do with] a dinner party with Paul McKenna, who is the most renowned author on Hypnotherapy. He’s a household name in England and he’s a very famous hypnotist. We were having a laugh about putting a trance on the crowd, and he was like, ‘I could do it.’ I was like, really? You can put a spell on 10,000 people? I invited him for a glass of wine at my studio, and I promised to prepare what he calls “triggers” — for releasing happy thoughts in people. Paul McKenna’s had a show on TV, where he was like, ‘3, 2, 1, you’re under.’ He’s done all that stuff. It was just a funny thing to do – a novelty thing. I recorded him in the vocal booth, and he gave me way too much content. So much content that it took me hours and hours and hours to dig through the tape. Oakenfold had brought up the conversation. I said, ‘Listen, let’s do it. It’ll be great.’ Then I did it with Paul and we released the track. The first people I played the track to wanted to put it out and it just seemed like a good fit. It’s a trance label that was started by DJ Tiesto in Amsterdam called Black Hole, Magik Muzik.
IC: You did a track, “Switch,” with Calvin Harris’ record label. Can you tell me about that?
ZF: Calvin and I met through his manager, Mark Gillespie. He introduced us and asked if I could be his supporting act for a number of shows on the road. He offered me 26 shows at Wet Republic in Hakkasan to open for him… We played a lot of shows on the road together. We were bouncing and stopping a lot of music. I made the drums to “Switch,” and put a melody over it. I emailed the mp3 to Calvin and said, ‘Hey what do you think of this?’ He said, ‘I love this, this, and this, but I really don’t like this and this.’ So I changed this and that, and he said, ‘Love it. Do you want to put it out on my imprint, on my label?’ So we put it out on Fly Eye Records! It was such a cool thing to be able to do. It did really well. Through Calvin playing it in his set, the track was distributed to all of the greats. Within the week of promo release, David Guetta played it on his radio show, which is huge. The Ultra Music Festival was happening in Miami, and Fedde Le Grand, who is one of the biggest DJs in the world, played it in his set.
IC: You currently have a residency at Life club at the SLS Vegas?
ZF: We’ve signed a one-year deal. I’ve got another 26 shows in 12 months. They can’t remove dates, but they can add them. They just added New Year’s Eve!
IC: What other events do you have lined up that we can look out for you at? Did you play at Art Basel Miami this year?
ZF: Yeah, yeah I love Miami’s Art Basel. It’s the best time to be there for sure! My Facebook page has all my tour dates, so you can check it out. It’s Facebook.com/ZenFreemanMusic, and you can just tap on tour dates.
IC: Do they include private events that you’re doing?
ZF: They might say private event, but sometimes it’s hard to translate. Tonight I’m playing the Cadillac launch party at Milk studio in LA. I finish at 10, and then I’m catching the 11:30 red eye to New York to do the Whitney tomorrow (Wednesday). I’m playing Hyde, Mexico City on Thursday, and then I’m playing 1Oak in Mexico City on Friday. On Saturday, I’m playing Vegas. Monday, I’ve got a billionaire party up in Bel Air that I’m playing. It’s for the guy that owns the New England Patriots. Then Chanel is opening a store in Houston, so I’m playing that. And I’m doing a Burberry event in Boston after that…
IC: Just back-to-back really. So what’s your secret to keeping up with all of this and actually staying upbeat and positive with your crazy schedule? How do you keep it together?
ZF: Well, when I was a young lad, I was an athlete. I used to run long distance. I was considering a career in soccer, but that didn’t go according to plan. I just have a lot of energy! My name is Zen! My mum was the biggest hippie ever. I was brought up on organic vegetables for my energy. I eat chicken, I eat salmon, and I have a juicer that gets used twice a day. I just really try to read my energy levels, so that I know how to recharge. I’m a good sleeper – I sleep on planes. Last week, three nights out of seven, I went from show to red eye, and then would only have a couple of hours’ sleep and then I’d work. It’s just about not burning the candles. Calvin Harris just had an irregular heartbeat, and had to take a week off work. He’s probably got a crazy schedule as well. I used to DJ through my twenties, and I would drink to excess in all areas, but it wouldn’t really matter – I could bounce back. In my thirties, it was a different story completely. I need to think ahead, and the payback is that sometimes it’s nice to just go have a nice healthy dinner, a glass of red wine, and drink tons of water.
IC: I would imagine you need to pace yourself.
ZF: I kind of have this a reputation for having a Zen-like personality. I’m always positive and I can’t stop smiling. A little bit probably comes from my genes — maybe what my parents handed down to me — and a lot of it comes from the fact that I absolutely love what I doing. It’s my dream job. It took me until ten years ago to get a paycheck for it, and there are still so many, many different avenues.
IC: I imagine you live on a lot of adrenaline!
ZF: It’s just really exciting stuff… It’s like, people pay to go to these places – and I get paid to go and play. And you know, I’m English. I come from humble upbringings, and I’m really blessed and really happy, and I don’t want to fuck it up.
IC: So do you have anything exciting coming up we can look out for?
ZF: I’m really excited about the Life Las Vegas residency. The guys that own it are kind of like family. They helped me and they kind of got my club career off the ground, 8 or 9 years ago… And I’ve just been taking time to write my album. I’ve written about 10 new tracks in the last six months, and a lot of them are all sorts of pop lines. I’m working with different musicians, some other producers, and all sorts of different collaborations. I took three months off from releasing music with labels, just so I could work on my own identity and my own sound. In a few months, I think I’ll start shopping for some bigger labels and go from there. That’s just part of my strategy: maybe start slowing down the touring a little bit and reaching people through iTunes and Spotify, as opposed to playing a club.
Intro image: Zen wears a white suit, shirt, and tie pin by Top Man.
Interview by Indira Cesarine
Photography by Jonathan Bookallil for The Untitled Magazine
Check out Zen’s latest mix from Art Basel Miami 2014 on Soundcloud: