Interview with Zak and Alex of STFU

by Ayanna Jacobs-El

Genre-defying duo STFU, which stands for Stand Tall Fists Up, have been making massive waves on the EDM (electronic dance music) scene over the past 2 years. Currently based out of Brooklyn, NY, Berklee Electronic Production & Design alumni Zak Leever and guitar performance major Alex Waldin make up STFU. The duo has been playing shows, releasing impressive music, and doing official remixes of some of the biggest names in EDM. Recently, STFU did a 1-hour guest DJ mix for the BBC Radio 1Xtra show, Diplo and Friends, for a worldwide audience. We had a chance to speak with Zak and Alex about their exciting musical pursuits.

Berklee Groove: How did you meet each other?

Alex Waldin: Was it that Mystical and Contemplative Traditions class?

Zak Leever: Yeah, we met in like a meditation course. This “Hippie” class that all of our friends were in.

BG: What led to the two of you to start making music together?

ZL: We were working on a lot of the same projects together, and I was going over to Alex’s place every day to work. So, I basically asked Alex for some help on a tune [of mine] and then I said do you maybe want to work together on more things? We also just have a lot of the same goals so it ended up working out.

AW: I love being in New York and [collaborating] with Zak on all of the work we’re doing. It’s the whole reason I went to Berklee in the first place. It was a huge opportunity to get out of Canada and move to the states. Which was ultimately my angle. I wanted to be in a band with an amazing person and just really focus on music that we would want to create.

ZL: Was that really what you envisioned? That you would just meet somebody that you would end up working with? Or would there be like 2 or 3 other people?

AW: Um, I don’t know. I was insanely into Radiohead and electronic duos back in the early 2000s. So I always wanted someone that I could collaborate with and bounce ideas off of. I really enjoy that; being in a creative space with other people and just having [ideas] flying around. I find that really exciting!

BG: What is EDM Scene and show culture like in New York?

ZL: The show culture is just a national culture. But [specifically] in New York all these events are always behind a bar in some weird-ass club and it’s small, especially here in Brooklyn. And it’s usually on a weekday night. So I think that is a big distinction for us as to why we came to New York. It’s sort of like the club, urban scene which goes all night and happens every single night. I think that is the way that dance music gets to come out in an urban setting like this in the city because we don’t have empty fields or underground massive warehouses like LA does.

AW: It’s also amazing to see the concentration in New York as well because you find these groups of people who found their love and what they want to do in music. They found their sound and their community, which is a big part. They all have this really communal thing. If there are like 20 people in New York that are really going after a particular sound or style, a lot of the times it ends up being broadcast to significantly larger audiences by people who are in the more prolific EDM scene like Skrillex and Diplo.

ZL: I think that is what’s fun about being in New York. Is that it feels like everything that is local to us is local to the world. But, the EDM scene, it’s that international scene and everyone’s trying to deal with that. I don’t think we know what EDM is yet because last year the biggest musical events were put on with Pioneer CDJs. Berklee didn’t even have CDJs last year but they have them now. But I have a great feeling that this year, this summer, the big festivals may or may not just be with CDJs. I think people want to do more and play instruments. I think eventually people will stop saying electronic too. Everything we make is electronic but sometimes it doesn’t feel like EDM. I think there are just weird ways of how [electronic music gets received. And electronic music is weird but that’s what I love because we can make something untold. It’s the right time right now, and the energy, music, and dance are insane and it all ties into dance culture.

It’s the right time right now, and the energy, music, and dance are insane and it all ties into dance culture.

BG: How would you describe your music to others?

ZL: I would just say like electronic-whatever the style is. For example, electronic-rock. In the evolution of EDM, there have been all these sub-genres. And in these sub-genres, there’s a specific tempo that you would play, and you would have to play that tempo for the whole night. One of the things that we’re doing is just saying that EDM has gotten to the point where we’re going to play every freakin’ tempo in one night. That’s almost a challenge, and I think that’s what we’re going for even with the remixes.

AW: And I think that’s one of the reasons that it might be kind of difficult to pinpoint us. We come from different backgrounds and enjoy a lot of different styles. Zak is a jazz pianist, I studied jazz at Berklee and other styles through my performance major. So we just want to bring all these things into the music that we love and the music we want to create. We want to be able to have these songs that are beautiful, slow, and meaningful and also have these songs that people will go crazy for and dance the night away. We don’t want to limit ourselves.

BG: What would you say are each of your roles in STFU and what are some of the skills that you both share?

AW: Zak studied EPD (Electronic Production and Design) at Berklee so he’s definitely all over the synthesis stuff. We both do a lot of songwriting, right now we are working on an album that is very vocal driven, it’s got Zak’s vocals on it.

ZL: Yeah, we do whatever we can. We aren’t even with each other every single day of the week. We don’t have a prescribed thing. Our thing is also a living situation. Alex and I just want to live our lives together and if it means that we end up being on stage I’m going to accept that fact. But we just want to be in New York, be friends because we like to do some similar things, but at the end of the day, we both need space to write every single day on our own. We’re not the perfect duo, we’re not some writing duo, we’re not some epic thing, and yet we’re going to create a lot together. But it’s just about making compromises with each other and getting help when you need it or just being assertive about when you need to do something [alone]. Everyone’s equal in this thing. We have the same goal to create epic musical products.

We have the same goal to create epic musical products.

BG: How did STFU get the Diplo & Friends guest mix spot? Did your manager set it up for you; do you know Diplo; how did it come to fruition?

AW: Yeah, that was our manager Derek and just getting in touch with people. We’ve done work with Mad Decent before and some of our friends are regular residents on Diplo & Friends.

ZL: Yeah, I think Derek has had a relationship with [Mad Decent] for like four or five years now.

BG: How much time did the show give you to prepare for the set and how did you plan the set?

ZL: They gave us like a month. It was very specific we went through hundreds of songs. We went through music from our friends and artists we like. It took us a long time to figure out the whole track list.

BG: What are your live DJ sets like?

AW: We definitely want to be receptive of how the crowd is feeling it. We have a gig at The Studio at Webster Hall. We’re planning on doing about 40 to 50 minutes of a DJ set and the last couple minutes we’ll be playing some of our originals.

ZL: I think we’re always in transition. With The Studio at Webster Hall show the set is pretty much going to be engineered so that we can play instruments like keyboard and guitar during our DJ set. I think what we’re wanting to do is more intentional because we want to have a live complete show that is different in every city. That’s our eventual goal. We see ourselves more like artists rather than just Djs.

BG: How has your Berklee education helped get you to where you are right now?

ZL: I’ll always acknowledge that Berklee was a huge step along the way. I was there for three years, we would not be where we are today, and we would not have met.

AW: Berklee has a huge reputation even internationally. Back in Canada, I was working in a studio before I went to Berklee. When the people that I was working for got wind that I was fortunate enough to get a scholarship to attend college, the people at the studio said, “Oh my god it’s Berklee that’s huge!” And these were people who were like 45 years old working on incredible pop records that have been in, around, and through the industry for like 20 plus years. They know the value of Berklee. Berklee is massively important!

BG: Do you guys have any advice for aspiring producers and Djs, maybe Berklee students who are about to graduate and leave the “Berklee bubble” to go out into the real world?

ZL: Keep doing what you’re doing. We’re all in music, I’m not going to act like I know some elaborate solution in the “real world.” Graduate from Berklee, do your thing, follow your passion, and keep focusing on what you’re doing. Berklee is the most amazing place to figure out that all of your passions in art and music are true, real, and shared. It’s also a place where some people go in the opposite direction because they get so overwhelmed that they just leave music. Maybe, they’ll come back to music in the future. I would just say keep going and listen to the voices in your head.

Graduate from Berklee, do your thing, follow your passion, and keep focusing on what you’re doing.

AW: I think one of the tough things about Berklee is people establish these communities, and they’re here for four years and all of your friends are here, and then you’re just plucked out. And people have this sense of loss, but I think some people may be over exaggerating. Obviously, I’ve had the benefit of still being a part of the Berklee [Boston] community while being in New York and starting things off there. We’ve met friends from Berklee that are living in New York now and we have friends that are planning to move here after May. The Berklee community doesn’t really dissipate [after graduation] in the way that I feel that some people fear it does. People just need to make the dopest music that they can; whatever style of music they want to make because that’s it. You can’t let anyone else tell you otherwise. But it can be scary coming out of Berklee. I feel like that’s why some people end up staying in the community for a year [after graduation]. Just keep doing what you’re doing and don’t say no. Take opportunities that come your way.

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About the Author

Ayanna Jacobs-El
Ayanna Jacobs-El is a composer, producer, songwriter, singer, alto and baritone saxophonist, and DJ dual majoring in Contemporary Writing and Production and Professional Music with a minor in Writing for TV and New Media. You can learn more about Ayanna and hear her music by visiting www.ayannajacobsel.com.