To prepare for his part in We Are Your Friends, in which he plays an aspiring DJ named Cole, Zac Efron had a whole new kind of training to undertake. He was tasked with looking, if not expert, at least competent on the stage, so he set about learning the ropes of disc jockeying. He pulls it off quite convincingly, navigating the turntables and working with sounds from house to trap to rap. But the question is, can Zac Efron really DJ? Was it a cinematic illusion, or was there real aptitude behind his performance?
Efron actually worked with a few of the biggest DJs around in order to hone his performance. He practiced with Them Jeans, the alias of Los Angeles DJ Jason Stewart. According to an interview with Stewart in Grantland, they trained for about three months before shooting began. "I’d be playing somewhere in town, and he would show up and see what it’s like in the booth," Stewart told Grantland. Audiences reacted with predictable confusion at the transition when Stewart passed the controls over to Efron. He reportedly worked with Efron two or three times a week, and he wasn't the only influence on Efron's nascent DJ abilities. He also trained with renowned EDM DJs and producers Dillon Francis and Alesso (the stage name of Swede Alessandro Lindblad).
"Alesso showed me how to really feel the music and get the crowd pumped up," Efron said, according to Your EDM. Similarly, he told the Hollywood Reporter that Dillon Francis and Alesso both instructed him, "Just have fun and enjoy yourself when you’re on the decks." Despite the fluidity with which Efron pulls of his duties as DJ in We Are Your Friends, he's still adamant that his training was simply to make his character more real. At its essence, We Are Your Friends is a film about people, rather than music, he told the Hollywood Reporter. But EDM is a real career path for the musicians who helped teach Efron, not just a side hobby. (a line featured in the first trailer that says, "If you’re a DJ, all you need is a laptop, some talent, and one track," has gotten some grumbles from real DJs.) These artists have a whole lot more than one track going for them.
Them Jeans: Jason Stewart
Foodstagrammer by day, DJ by night, Jason Stewart — alias Them Jeans — was Efron's primary disc jockey coach on the set of We Are Your Friends. He regularly plays Los Angeles clubs, but perhaps more interestingly also curates a couple of podcasts: the first, a comedy podcast called "Tall Tales," and the second, a food podcast called "The Stew." And in addition to his own compositions, he's also remixed the likes of Pharrell and SBTRKT.
But Stewart got off to a relatively inauspicious start — he told Grantland that his first turntables and mixer were purchased second-hand off of Craigslist, and his first selection of samples bargain-basement rap records. He set up the materials in his living room and taught himself to DJ — "And now I know how to DJ," he concluded. When he began instructing Efron, he focused on the technical aspects of the job and hoped that the mindset of a DJ would come with the skills. "We wanted him to be a regular, cerebral DJ who eventually turns into a maybe superstar DJ," he said.
Alesso: Alessandro Lindblad
At just 23 years old, Alesso is already one of the biggest DJs on the touring circuit right now. His debut album Forever premiered to much acclaim earlier this year (though he'd been a presence in EDM communities for far longer, remixing artists and spawning his own singles). He has also appeared with mentors like Calvin Harris and Ryan Tedder, whose impact, as Newsweek noted in a review of Forever, seems to have worn off on him. His other collaborators include the likes of Avicii, David Guetta, Usher, and Madonna, who invited him to appear as an opening act on her MDNA tour in 2012.
Despite his reputation as the next generation of Swedish House music (he appeared right before Swedish House Mafia at the 2012 Ultra Festival), his choice of remix song tends to be far from the music he composes — his preferred artists include Adele, Keane, and Coldplay, he told the Daily Mail.
Francis is likely the most well-known DJ in a style called moombahton, which fuses house music with reggaeton. Currently signed to Skrillex's label, he's surrounded by a mentorship of huge names. He told Complex that he played a series of tracks for Diplo, who was rumored to be working on moombahton at the time, and the Major Lazer frontman liked what he heard. His most recent record This Record Is Fire. will include collaborations with Skrillex, Calvin Harris, Chromeo, and Bro Safari, the latter of whom also contributed a track to the We Are Your Friends soundtrack.
An aficionado of ’50s culture, Francis always envisioned himself in a job that would require him to wear a suit each day, he told Complex. Of course, he also reports that when he was young, he had to watch at least two hours of Sesame Street before he could watch television for fun, just to get a sufficient dose of education. After a brief stint at art school, Francis turned to music full-time — and at 27, he's already just as recognizable as the artists who helped define him.
We Are Your Friends constructs the ascent of a DJ, and all of the men who advised Efron for the role have encountered first-hand that very process. The mentees become mentors, and Efron's performance benefits all the more from the effort.
Images: themjeans / Instagram