Last week brought the first trailer for We Are Your Friends, the Zac Efron–starring film about an aspiring dance music star in Southern California. It’s the first major-studio film set in the world of EDM and is set for release this August. While stories of actors going through boot camp for war movies or basically living in the gym to play boxers are now de rigueur, making sure Efron looked like he knew what he was doing behind the decks was a new challenge. So the filmmakers hired Jason Stewart, the Los Angeles–based DJ and producer also known as Them Jeans.
Raised in Orange County, Stewart started as a party promoter in the early 2000s but soon realized he could probably do as good a job (and make as much money) as the people he was hiring if he started DJing himself. He teamed with a pre-caking Steve Aoki for the long-running Dim Mak Tuesdays party at Cinespace in Hollywood and has now become a regular at spots around the city, including his weekly Rap Party at Los Globos in Silver Lake every Saturday night. He also hosts the music and comedy podcast Tall Tales, which has featured extended and digressing chats with guests including A-Trak, Flosstradamus, and We Are Your Friends director Max Joseph.
Here Stewart talks about what it took to have Efron pass for a pro, the DJ lessons side hustle that happens around Hollywood, and accepting the reality of millionaire DJs who can’t actually DJ.
How did you get the job teaching Zac Efron how to DJ?
A couple of friends of mine are helping out with the music supervisor on the film. About a year ago, they needed someone to train him, so they asked if I wanted to do it, and I said, “Sure, that sounds bizarre and amazing. I’ll give it a shot.” It worked out well. He actually lives pretty close to me, so I would just go over to his house. He bought all the gear that I told him to buy and we just went for it.
Had you ever taught anyone how to DJ before?
I’ve showed friends a little bit, but never a full, comprehensive lesson for someone who has never DJed in his entire life, then taking them from 0 to 100.
What equipment did you teach him on?
I taught him on CDJs, the same way I play — which is CDJs and having your music on a USB stick. For contemporary dance music DJs, that’s pretty much what 90 percent play. Some people will play vinyl and a few people will play Serato with their laptop, but most DJs playing dance music and EDM are on CDJs with USBs.
How long did you work on it?
I spent probably three months or so with him before filming started.
Was he practicing every day?
I would go over there two or three days a week. He would come check out my DJ gigs. I’d be playing somewhere in town, and he would show up and see what it’s like in the booth. I would throw him the headphones and he’d mix a couple songs, then everyone in the club would be like, “What the fuck is going on?” He loves hip-hop, and I do too — I’m a DJ that plays hip-hop and dance music equally. That’s what we bonded on. We were playing some groovy house music, but he really has a soft spot for rap, so we would spend most of our time playing rap music and just vibing out.
Were you recommending music for him to buy and check out?
I made playlists for him for different scenes in the movie. There’s a big club scene, there’s a scene where he’s playing a pool party in a backyard, there’s scenes where he’s working on music in his bedroom. So on the pool party playlist, there’s a lot of summery disco, like this group called Classixx from L.A. that are friends of mine. He took a real interest in groovy, deep tech house, which was very interesting.
Were you just teaching him the practical aspects of DJing, or would you talk to him about mental approaches as well?
I was not really talking to him about the mind-set of a DJ as much as showing him, from personal experience, what my body is doing and what it looks like when I’m really in a zone. So if I’m mixing a couple songs and it’s a really long mix — like a minute or two of two songs blending together and everything is right in the world — I’ll sort of squat down lower. I showed him how you’re paying attention to knobs and faders and things like that. I was showing him that so hopefully he could re-create that magical feeling you get every once in a while when you’re DJing. We wanted him to be a regular, cerebral DJ who eventually turns into a maybe superstar DJ. I guess you have to see the movie for that, but you could assume he becomes a bigger DJ than in the beginning of the movie.
I once heard a story about Jon Favreau hiring an L.A. DJ to teach him how to scratch and do more turntablist-style stuff. Is there a secret industry in Hollywood of stars hiring DJs to teach them?
Yeah. I’ve heard a couple stories like that. I know Tom Cruise’s son is a DJ, and I think some DJ people I know were asked to come over to the Cruise crib and give him a lesson; and now Connor Cruise is an up-and-coming EDM DJ, whatever that means. Because EDM is so big and blown out and ridiculous, the agencies like CAA and William Morris [Endeavor] that represent movie stars, they also represent DJs. You can be a relatively midlevel DJ and be on CAA, then they tell you that Taye Diggs’s cousin wants to be a DJ and you can get $100 an hour to train Taye Diggs’s cousin to be a DJ. Then you do it, because it’s hilarious.
Do you know who they hired to train Adrian Grenier for the movie-within-the-movie in Entourage?
I really wish it was me. If they make an Entourage 2 and the character becomes an even bigger DJ, they should give me a call.
You did those Dim Mak Tuesdays parties for years at Cinespace in Hollywood. You guys booked a bunch of celebrity DJs or non-DJ DJs. Would you be up there giving them pointers?
We would just let them go and do whatever it was. Usually they were not great or just playing off of their iPods, but it was 2007 and it didn’t matter.
Have you ever been impressed by a celebrity DJ or non-DJ DJ, where it kind of seemed like they knew what they were doing? I don’t even mean from a technical standpoint; I just mean not being a mess.
I haven’t seen him play, but I’ve heard that Elijah Wood is an actual vinyl collector guy and he knows how to DJ and respects the art and blah blah blah. But I’ve never seen a celeb DJ who’s actually impressive.
Have you had that experience where you’re at a gig and you’re doing OK, but then you have to get off and let a person who doesn’t know what they’re doing DJ because that’s how they got people there?
Yeah man, that’s the life of a DJ that has medium-level success. You have to open for people who are shittier than you, but make more money and are more popular. Which is fine, that’s how the game goes, I’m not mad at it.
When the trailer came out, one of the things that DJs and longtime dance music fans really latched on to and got upset about was the line, “If you’re a DJ, all you need is a laptop, some talent, and one track.”
Obviously a lot of DJs would be pissed off because they’ve put in years, if not decades, of work. I’ve been DJing for over 10 years, so I understand. The whole point of that line is basically to show how naive he is at the beginning of the process and how most people are at the beginning of the process. A young teen who wants to become a famous DJ, that’s literally what they are thinking, that all you need is a laptop and one track, because technically that can be true. There are a lot of people who have never DJed in their entire lives, and if they have one track that’s big, they’re going to get booked for a DJ gig, and then get paid tens of thousands of dollars. The first trailer was explaining the process of starting out as an amateur DJ, then as more trailers come out and people actually see the movie, they will show the progression of him actually learning all the crafts and the skills, with the mentor from the old school of DJing in the film teaching him how to play analog instruments and play on vinyl and showing him the ropes.
It’s tough, because it’s a trailer and that line is an idea that’s meant to grab your attention, but if you take it out of the context of the movie, it can seem insulting.
That line was not trying to glorify the fact or show how unfortunate that fact is. It’s just saying, “This is how it is, and if you’re denying that this is how it is, then you are wrong.” Unfortunately it is true. There’s a big EDM guy named Zedd who you’ve probably heard of. One time I opened for him, and he’s a very huge producer and a skilled musician (he plays a million instruments, has a big technical background), and he showed up with his DJ setup that he just got from Traktor or whatever in the box. He was like, “How do you set this up? I’m supposed to DJ.” But he’s a millionaire and a huge success. And all he needed was a track and a laptop, and he was technically DJing. It is what it is, but as more of the film comes out and more trailers come out, you’ll see the progression of that not being a statement that the film is making, but simply an observation of the current state of EDM, for better or for worse.
How did you learn to DJ?
By buying shitty turntables and a mixer on Craigslist and going to the dollar bin at Amoeba and buying a bunch of old rap records, then setting up in my living room and figuring out how to do it. Eventually I got slightly less shitty over time. And now I know how to DJ.
Eric Ducker (@ericducker) is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles.