Hey, DJ: DJ Zlaya

The Serbian-born DJ talks growing up above a radio station, loving industrial music, and keeping the Bay Area music scene dark.

This week, the column takes a look at the industrial/experimental genre through the eyes of DJ Zlaya, a  local DJ whose musical career began in the late ‘80s in Belgrade. Describing industrial music as “an artistic expression with no boundaries” that isn’t “restrained and limited by any norm,” he’s been championing the sound through various projects, like co-founding the Cold Trinity label and by producing original tracks as Voight-Kampff Machine.

We talked with DJ Zlaya about his early days in Belgrade, a memorable run-in with the police, and almost giving up DJing.

Catch him spinning at The Hanging Garden’s Crash Course In Science show this Saturday [4/15] and Body Rapture: Industrial Music For Industrial People Edition next Wednesday [4/19], both at The Golden Bull in Oakland.

SF Weekly: You made your radio debut at just 6-years-old. How did that come about?
DJ Zlaya: Yes! That was a combination of a chance and a great passion I had for music since I crawled out of the crib. The apartment I grew up in was right under a local radio station. I was hanging out there every day after going to preschool and then elementary school for a few years solid. Once I got into more “obscure music” — Iron Maiden and such — at 9-years-old, I lost my love for that place. But yes, I made my radio debut by voting in person in studio for the Top 10 chart. It was in 1983.

SFW: What was it like getting your professional DJ career started in Belgrade?
Z: It was never really professional as there was little to no money in it at all. We all (in the scene) had other gigs to earn money to get by. But our main energy and love was put in music. Nothing else ever mattered more than music. If you feel that something is real, you gave yourself in full to it. A reward in the end is not in question. It does not have to be monetary. 

SFW: How have you seen the industrial genre change throughout the years?
Z: The industrial genre has made a full circle of its evolution. It pretty much synced with the beginning of punk-rock. Both share the same ideological background but with a different form of expression. No matter how much I love and adore punk-rock, its musical boundaries were very strict thanks to the rock form and structure it adopted. Industrial music had no boundaries in its musical expression. It could be tape loops, white noise out of the cheapest build-your-own synthesizer kit, or just playing on metal objects gathered from the nearest junkyard. That is why the post-punk era was way more artistically creative. However, the music industry realized some of that 10-15 years later and decided to cash in on it. Ministry turned into metal, and clowns like Marilyn Manson were considered industrial. Luckily, the whole thing didn’t last. Real industrial music is made in basements and abandoned hangars, churches, and lofts. Just walk around Oakland these days. Plenty is happening. I am sure it’s a case with all metropolitan areas in the world now.

SFW: Having DJed at some pretty cool places with some awesome people, what’s one of your favorite stories you can share with us?
Z: The craziest story was when I was DJing an industrial night in Pittsburgh, PA. It was just a week after my move to the U.S.A. and I was fresh off the boat. Everything was like I was in a movie. It was two nights or so after that terrible fire accident happened at the Great White gig when a bunch of people died. At around 1:30 a.m.. the full Pittsburgh Police Department squad and fire department raided the building where the club was located. We were on the second or third floor. It was mayhem. I was dragged out of the DJ booth where I almost got in a fight with security guards by trying to take my CDs with me. The music that I carried with me was the only personal belonging I had at the time.

The most memorable moments were certainly being part of the gigs with neo-folk band Kinovia, who at the time decided to play at ethnographic museums and places of that nature, rather than regular venues. No regular PA was used and the only lighting we used was candles. It was spiritual stuff indeed.

SFW: What attracts you to the industrial/experimental genre?
Z: I think that I answered this question earlier, indirectly. It is an artistic expression with no boundaries. Not being restrained and limited by any norm. No other music genre accomplished that better than industrial. If music, in general, can be written in a mathematical manner, then it has to serve certain rules and laws. Many things in the industrial genre do not care about any of that.

SFW: In 2011, after moving to California, you toyed with the idea of retiring from DJing. Are you glad you didn’t? What inspired you not to give it up?
Z: That is very true. I fully wanted to focus on music production, but totally the opposite happened. Soon after my move, I became friends with a few prominent local DJs who shared the same passion and love for dark music like I do. I started working with Bildo of CiderUp Productions, Davey Bones (who soon started The Hanging Garden), DJ Sage of Death Guild, and DJ CrxckWhxre of BodyShock. One thing led to another and I get sucked into it again. I also became good friends with Tom Ass of Device, Thomas Diablo of Strangelove, Bit of Satory, the Katabatik family, and many others. I also established close ties and collaborated with seminal industrial and electronic body music Bay Area acts like Zanna Nera, Inhalt, as well as L.A.’s High-Functioning Flesh. In such a creative music environment, it would be foolish to stand aside. Being part of it all is way more exciting.

SFW: Looking back, what have you learned from your DJ career after all these years?
Z: I learned that you absolutely have to be spontaneous and impulsive. I know the material and I live through it all the time. Being able to share that excitement and expose audiences to something they had never heard and give them an opportunity to find the beauty and themselves in it like I did is just priceless. It feels great when you manage to join the crowd by picking that one track that you know would fit the best at that precise moment. It’s an energy, emotional exchange, and connection. It’s unlike any other ritual — political, religious, or otherwise.

SFW: What’s a song you still play from your early sets?
Z: It would certainly be some numbers by Rational Youth, Clock DVA, The Klinik, Die Krupps, or Numb. Die Krupps’ “Metal Machine Music (The Machinist mix)” would make the dead move and dance. That is one of the best EBM tracks ever crafted. Sick good!

SFW: What do you appreciate about Bay Area nightlife?
Z: The dark scene is very vibrant. It’s to that point that “too much” is happening. I am glad to be part of it.

SFW: What’s something you would change?
Z: That other scenes beside punk, metal, and dark get more aware, active, and start addressing obvious issues in our society and environment. Top 40 charts have never been anything else but a means of brainwashing the masses. Representing and presenting that musical vomit is degrading.

SFW: Describe to us what a night at your monthly Body Rapture party looks like.
Z: Body Rapture night, named after the cult EBM compilation series on legendary German electro-industrial label Zoth Ommog, debuted in early 2015 at The Night Light in Oakland. Since mid 2016, it’s been hosted by The Golden Bull in Oakland. The idea behind Body Rapture was to play the best music (without any restrains or compromise). Strictly the top quality tunes, deep cuts, b-sides, cult stuff, and on vinyl only. A plethora of local legends have spun at Body Rapture (Boomer, Sage, CrxckWhxre, Bildo, Davey Bones, Fact.50, Unit 77, Sarin, Sean Dimentia, Bit, Skot B, Misfailed, Tom Ass, and Beca of Zanna Nera).

SFW: Name a song you’ll be championing in your set this upcoming weekend.
Z: Peter Bauman’s “Fremde In Der Nacht” for sure!

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