Meet the Playboy-model-dating, penthouse-apartment-living, high-tech-helmet-wearing new king of the rave
The first thing you see when you enter Joel Zimmerman’s downtown Toronto apartment is a doormat in the entryway, telling you to piss off. you read my doormat, it announces in fat white block letters. that’s enough interaction for one day. Zimmerman, better known as the electronic-music producer Deadmau5, lives in a $1.5 million tricked-out penthouse – a retro-modern bachelor pad that’s all shag carpeting, poured concrete, leather this and cherry-wood that. But his favourite spot in the place is a dimly lit box of a room just off the entrance, guarded by a heavy closed door and the unwelcome mat. There are no windows in the room, just three large, glowing screens – two PC displays side by side, a television tucked into a cubby above them. The walls are bare of decoration but lined with gear: Prophets, Moogs, MIDI keyboards, effects boxes, remote controls, a circuit-bent Speak & Spell and a five-foot-tall rack of rare modular synthesisers that cost Zimmerman around $70,000.
So what if his apartment gets stellar views of the illuminated billboards and gazillion-foot LED screens of Yonge-Dundas Square, a few blocks away? The more you look at Zimmerman’s crib, the more you see the markings of a shut-in: That minimalist dining table? Littered with bags of chips and empty Cokes. The living room, down a seductive step from the rest of the place? A cluttered pit of video-game consoles. Up a spiral staircase is Zimmerman’s bedroom, where he sleeps on a Tempur-Pedic slab, and which opens out onto a vast patio. “It’d be a great place to throw a barbeque,” he says. “If I had any friends.”
Zimmerman isn’t really kidding. He isn’t home enough – or, for that matter, outgoing enough – to sustain friendships in Toronto, unless you count his cat, a rescue named Professor Meowingtons. Among dance musicians, Deadmau5 is a phenomenon the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Nineties electronica boom of Daft Punk and the Chemical Brothers. He commands $100,000 a show, he says, and grossed “at least $2 million” in ticket sales in 2010. That figure doesn’t include revenue from merchandise, all of it themed around his marketing masterstroke: a dementedly grinning mouse-head logo, a helmet version of which he wears live.
At a time when house music’s four-on-the-floor thump has become pop’s backbone, from Lady Gaga to Usher to the Black Eyed Peas, Zimmerman has carved out his own space between the Hot 100 and the club ghetto, combining body-moving discothèque utilitarianism with over-the-top, Gaga-level showbiz theatricality. As Zimmerman puts it, “I’m the Gene Simmons of electronic music.” In the past year, he headlined Coachella’s dance tent, became the first electronic artist to sell out the 17,500-capacity Earls Court in London, rocked Ibiza residencies and served a high-profile gig as the MTV Video Music Awards’ in-house DJ.
Deadmau5 concerts are events. They feature not just the mouse helmet but also a massive LED rig, the centrepiece of which is an LED cube that flashes and strobes in time with musical cues, Zimmerman standing inside. And Deadmau5’s fans are a multi(sub)cultural mélange who show up wearing their own homemade mouse heads: a level of goofy, performative fandom that calls to mind Trekkies. Zimmerman loves his cult. Helmet notwithstanding, he doesn’t want to be some faceless party facilitator. He wants to be a rock star. “The first time I performed wearing the mouse head, I noticed that people weren’t dancing,” he recalls. “They were standing there watching me. I liked that.”
On a January evening, Zimmerman is in the studio, working on a new song, chain-smoking Du Mauriers and chain-chugging Coke. Pale and famine-victim thin, he cultivates the look (and sarcasm-tinged crankiness) of what you could call a badass nerd: He’s heavily tattooed, with a Space Invaders alien on his neck and four pixelated hearts – the old Legend of Zelda life metre – inked across his left forearm. Through an engineer buddy, he’s become buds with Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee, whom he hangs with in LA, basking in their mutual gear-geekery and turning to the elder musician for guidance. “Anything I go through, he’s already gone through a hundred times,” Zimmerman says. His girlfriend, Lindsey Gayle Evans, was the October 2009 Playboy centrefold. She approached him after the VMAs, declaring her fandom, and they bonded over their appreciation of Internet humour, quoting from viral videos like they’re Shakespearean love sonnets.
An extended, ominous riff blares over the studio monitors. For Deadmau5, coming up with a melody is only the beginning. He slaves over his waveforms, fussing and tinkering with filters, switches and oscillator knobs until the sound is just so. “Building patches from the ground up makes your shit stand out,” he says. “Dance music is stuck in this place where any kid can buy some software – or pirate it – and just use the presets.”
As the melody loops, Zimmerman, wearing a tight Moog T-shirt, loose jeans and chunky white athletic socks, adds a crunchy arpeggio and other distortion effects until the riff achieves a scalding fury. Like any dance-floor maestro worth his glow sticks, Zimmerman is a technician of denial and satisfaction, his live show a finely calibrated series of teasing buildups, orgiastic crescendos and sudden drop-offs. When he’s composing a song, he starts with the money shot and works his way down. “I like to get as loud and intense as possible, and then strip parts away,” he says.
This, at least, has been the Deadmau5 MO for his first three albums, party-starting sets of anthemic synthesiser squelch and four-four thudding that, in their fist-pumping dynamics, owe nearly as much to arena rock as they do to house and electro. But for album number four – “my artist album,” he calls it, with rough plans to complete it this spring – he wants to switch it up. “It’s going to be an album, start to finish,” he says. “Actual song-songs. Get away from that fucking club shit.” He wants to be recognised for more than delighting people on Ecstasy: “I might sing on it.”
He fires up another song. The tempo is slower, heavy rock drums replace the typical kick-snare thwack and a snarling guitar, not a synthesiser, is front and centre. In a low-effect baritone, Deadmau5 himself sings opaque, vaguely melancholic lyrics. “My manager hates this, ’cause it never kicks in, you know?” Zimmerman says. “And I play it live and the people hate it, ’cause it never drops.” I ask him how concerned he is about those reactions.
“Pfft,” he says, dismissively. He pantomimes jerking off.