He's the biggest name in music you may have never heard of. Kiwi-born Zane Lowe tells Chris Schulz about his career as Apple Music's star DJ.
Elton John likes to prank call Zane Lowe. "He calls me once every month or two," says Lowe. "He generally calls me during my radio show when I'm live on air, and he'll go, 'Hello darling, are you doing a show?' And I'll go, 'Yes.' And he'll go, 'Good. How's the show going?' I'll go, 'It's going great'." He'll go, 'Have you heard this?' I'll go, 'Yeah, I love it.' He'll go, 'You're an idiot. It's terrible'."
Being called an idiot by Elton John would be a death blow for some. For Lowe, a Kiwi DJ at the top of America's music industry, it's just another day at the office. That office, by the way, is in a state-of-the-art studio in Culver City, Los Angeles, where Lowe spearheads Apple Music's star-studded radio service, Beats 1. Lowe's daily show is Beats 1's linchpin, and he's the boss. His PR team requests that he be called "Creative Director and DJ behind Apple Music's Beats 1 radio".
But Lowe's not in his office today. He's in Sydney, four flights up in the Hotel Palisade, with a massive team of Beats 1 staff where they've set up a mini studio to record a weeks-worth of shows to coincide with the Aria Awards.
Yesterday, Lowe, 44, interviewed Amy Shark and Lorde, stayed out past midnight celebrating at the Arias, then was up at dawn and on air by 10am, broadcasting his show to more than 100 countries. When I arrive, halfway through his show, Lowe, wearing blue track pants, a skinny-fit black T-shirt and Vans, requests a coffee. He doesn't seem to need it.
He's known for his jacked-up puppy levels of energy, and today's no different; he becomes ridiculously excited about new music, which is mostly what his Beats 1 show plays, often singing over his favourite songs. "Dance with my dogs in the night time!" he yells over his current favourite, Migos' Stir Fry. He'll Facetime artists on a whim, talk off-the-cuff about almost every artist, live mix and regularly repeat catchphrases like: "Beats 1! Worldwide! Always on!"
If he really likes a song, he'll stop it after a minute, hype it up some more, then play it three times in a row, something the producers hate him doing because it loses them listeners.
His frenetic style has been fine-tuned since his days on Max TV, before he left New Zealand for the UK to host XFM and MTV. He would go on to host the BBC's popular Radio 1 show in London for 12 years.
In 2015, Lowe was headhunted by Apple to launch its music streaming service. He, his wife Kara Walters and their two boys, Jackson and Lucius, took the plunge and moved to Los Angeles. The role is all-consuming and he feels like he's only just starting. "We're not there by any stretch of the imagination," he says. "We've got a lot of work to do."
Lowe's not on his own at Beats 1. He's friends with Apple boss Tim Cook, comfortably takes calls from Pharrell and Dr Dre, and has meetings with musician Trent Reznor and producer Jimmy Iovine. He's also built up a star-studded roster of DJs and artists who produce weekly radio instalments for him. Drake has OVO Sound Radio. Frank Ocean has blonded RADIO. Pharrell has OTHERtone. Dr Dre, Charli XCX, Lars Ulrich, DJ Khaled, Run The Jewels, Future and Jaden Smith also contribute.
Can you guess who else has one? Yes, Elton John, whose show Rocket Hour is "one of my favourite radio shows of all time, period, one of my favourite experiences, period", says Lowe in his hyperbolic way. Elton likes to mix things up, playing a hardcore UK guitar band one minute, an obscure Brooklyn hip-hop act the next. The 70-year-old's ultra-dry sense of humour brings everything together.
When Elton calls Lowe, he's often checking that he's got an exclusive on a new single. So when he labels Lowe an idiot, the joke's on him. Lowe is Elton's boss. But Lowe doesn't see it that way. "Being able to call him a friend blows my f***ing mind," he says. "He just really, in a very fun way, prods me that when it comes to music, I've got a lot to learn."
When Beck Hansen released Colours last year, he wanted to talk to someone he could trust. The 90s alt-rock legend had spent years perfecting his 13th album, with some songs requiring hundreds of takes to get right. His previous album, Morning Phase, had won several Grammys. He had a story to tell.
Beck ran into Lowe regularly at industry events and parties during this time, and he kept hassling him about how long the album was taking. "I felt bad. Every time I asked you, you'd wince," Lowe told the singer on air recently.
When Colours was finally finished, Beck went straight to Lowe for the tell-all. It's an attitude shared by many big names. Since moving to Apple Music, Lowe's recorded immersive exclusives with Jay-Z, Eminem, Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus and Justin Timberlake across interviews that sometimes last an hour.
After Lorde wrapped up her Australasian Melodrama tour last year, she was about to go on holiday. But she agreed to one more interview with Lowe. In his temporary Sydney studio, he got her to reveal things many were wondering: Why did she only play Auckland's Powerstation when she could have played an arena? What made her choose that bizarre interpretive dance routine at the MTV Awards? She also tells him her five-year plan: "I want to entirely do a record, everything. Write it completely myself, produce it myself."
When asked why everyone wants to talk to Lowe, Beck offers a simple answer. "He's a musician's musician. There's a depth of love that he has for musicians, a distinctive enthusiasm for the music and what's happening. He's very interested in what musicians are doing — and the process."
Lowe's interviews are friendly. They get personal. Often, it feels as if you're eavesdropping on a catch-up between long-lost friends.
"It's partly where I'm from," says Lowe. "Being from New Zealand, it's a very matey environment, there's a friendliness that's just in my DNA." He doesn't have pre-planned questions. "I've never gone into the process with a hard-hitting game plan ... I want to go in and get to the core of it. I want to get to the gold."
Beck remembers first meeting Lowe in London around 2000, and was struck by how different he was to other interviewers. "I remember when he was younger, he was always up for fooling around, breaking down the journalistic fourth wall, going into another space and letting some weirdness happen," Beck says.
But those high-profile interviews don't always go to plan. In 2016, Lowe flew to Japan to interview Frank Ocean. The R&B singer had just released Blonde, his first album in four years. The reviews were overwhelmingly positive, the hype immense. But Ocean had refused all interviews. Lowe had interviewed Ocean before, so asked him again. The reclusive star, now based in Japan, sent him a text: "Yeah, do it, get on a plane."
Lowe boasted about the interview on social media, and spoke repeatedly about it on air. He admitted to London's Evening Standard that he didn't have a confirmed time, or location, for the interview. But he flew to Japan based on Ocean's text. Then things went quiet. The interview didn't happen. Or, if it did, Lowe's never aired it. And he never explained what happened.
Today, Lowe says the incident taught him a big lesson. He chooses his words carefully. "Frank is an incredibly deliberate individual. I am, like many other people, an obsessive fan about his music, his art and his delivery," he says.
"I've learned now that Frank is better left speaking for Frank. Even at my age I learned that lesson, and it was really valuable, and I'm really glad I learned it, as painful as it was at the time: Don't speak for the artist. Don't jump the gun. Respect the process from start to finish, not just at the start. Understand that this is a process for artists — all the way through. If you are privileged enough to be involved in that process, respect your position."
Lowe's career started in an Auckland mall. "I think Zane saw me going down an escalator at Mid City on Queen St," says Oliver Green, a former rapper who still keeps a close eye on the industry. "We knew of each other. He started this thing."
He's talking about Leaders of Style, Lowe's early hip-hop group, which soon changed its name to Urban Disturbance. Lowe, Green and DJ Rob Salmon armed themselves with a wardrobe full of caps, beanies, sweaters and flannel shirts, gave their accents American inflections, and released their debut album, 37 Degrees Lattitude in 1994.
Lowe hasn't told anyone at Apple about Urban Disturbance. "Why would I?" he laughs. But he's not embarrassed by his early attempts at hip-hop. "There are moments I'm really proud of. I'm not ashamed of them," he says. Green says they went their separate ways after struggling to finish their second album. Apart from singing along to his favourite songs on air, Lowe doesn't rap anymore.
But his talent, as a producer, was obvious, says Green. "Ever since we were little, we were hobbyists, Zane was a careerist. He had this amazing drive. Zane, from the moment I met him, was on another level. He was making proper beats. No one in this country was close."
Green gave away music long ago, but Lowe has continued his studio work while his radio career flourishes. His music wins awards. Breaks Co-Op, his mid-2000s collaboration with Andy Lovegrove and Hamish Clark, won Song of the Year for The Otherside at the New Zealand Music Awards in 2005. The song was recently covered by Kid Rock after he discovered it during a late-night YouTube crawl.
Lowe's written and produced for rap stars Future and Tinie Tempah. He contributed the song Restart to Sam Smith's Grammy-winning album In the Lonely Hour.
"I don't understand why he hasn't been making music in the pop scene for longer," Smith told Digital Spy. But since joining Apple, he's had to put all that on hold. "I'm all-consumed by this goal," Lowe says. It's a big goal: to make Apple Music's subscriber numbers overtake Spotify's. The Wall Street Journal says that at current growth rates, that could happen later this year.
Green points to how Lowe introduced grime — a hardhitting UK take on American hip-hop — to America as a key example of his influence. "He singlehandedly took grime to America. There's no Skepta, no Stormzy … they don't go there without Zane helping them get in front of Pharrell. That happened because of Zane. That's a kingmaker," he says.
Lowe's father, Derek, was one of the original Hauraki pirates, a team of broadcasters forced to run their show from a rickety boat in international waters in the 1960s to bypass the era's strict broadcasting laws. He says of his son: "He's the most talented broadcaster that I know. To be in the studio with him is just incredible." Derek doesn't think his son gets enough recognition at home for his efforts. "That's understandable, he doesn't get a lot of exposure here."
But Derek thinks his son's future might not be in DJ-ing and broadcasting. "I think his first love is writing and producing music. Deep down, I think that's where his soul is. One of these days, it wouldn't surprise me if he fell back on that."
At Hotel Palisade, Lowe's at the halfway point of his two-hour Beats 1 show. At least a dozen people are crammed into a room no bigger than a teenager's bedroom. There are producers, engineers, assistants and social media staff all coming together to produce Lowe's signature show. There's also a full-time photographer buzzing around taking photos that will later end up on Lowe's Instagram account.
With headphones fixed to his head, the 44-year-old moves dials up on a mixer, then down, twiddles with knobs, then swings around to his computer and grabs the mouse. His hands, in perpetual movement, move to his phone. He picks it up, checks a message, puts it down, turns it over, then covers it with a piece of paper. Moments later, he repeats the ritual.
Lowe is at the centre of everything. He tweaks his Lorde interview moments before it airs. At another point, he asks one of his producers to fix "a ghost" showing up in his headphones. He throws a new song into the mix, and explains: "Elton wanted us to play it". Rising Australian singer-songwriter Winston Surfshirt stops by for a chat. Lowe interviews him on air, then they head out on the balcony for a more personal catch-up. "You're in a special situation," he tells him.
Lowe's style is a high-risk way to make radio. NZME's chief music content officer, Mike McClung, says there are few DJs in the world who can pull off what Lowe does. He's in awe of Lowe's multi-tasking skills, saying it takes years to learn how to live-mix a show, deal with multiple producers and keep meddling with schedules. "He's definitely one of a kind. What he does is extraordinary."
Lowe admits it's not easy, "But it's really exciting and when you get it right." He's constantly striving for more. When he talks about his show, he fills his speech with boardroom buzzwords. "We're addicted to the moment … That's what we're morphing into, less of a schedule, more of a moment." He says: "I want to be more like a social media feed, as essential to what's happening as possible. That's my obsession right now."
Lowe refuses to take credit for any of his success. At one point, he tells me, "I'm not one of those amazing broadcasters." Asked what he means, he points to his Beats 1 staff hunched over laptops — Macbooks, of course — in his studio: "I'm lucky. I have a lot of really smart, really talented people around me ... I'm too ADD, I need people to feed me.
But, for a brief moment, Lowe is forced to sit still. He's instructed to get his make-up touched up for a photo with Winston Surfshirt. Lowe complains, reluctantly heading outside to the balcony and sitting down. The makeup artist does her thing, then sparks up some small talk, inquiring about Lowe's accent.
"I lived in London a long, long time," he replies. Then he clarifies: "I'm a Kiwi."