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The Rise of Deadmau5

Private jets, monster beats and a giant light-up hat: up all night with EDM's top star

July 5, 2012
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Deadmau5 on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Albert Watson for RollingStone.com

I've never been on one this new before," says Joel Zimmerman, as he climbs aboard the chatered jet waiting for him on a London tarmac."lt still has that new-jet smell."

Zimmerman, better known as the electronic-dance musician Deadmau5, is about to fly to Oslo to kick off his European summer tour. His flight was supposed to take off two hours ago, but he was late coming into Heathrow from Las Vegas, where he was performing one of his frequent gigs at the Encore Resort – for which he's paid, as his friend Steve Wynn, the resort's owner, put it, "more than Sinatra at his peak." He topped that off with a trip to the blackjack table, where he was down nearly $100,000 before winning it back in 20 minutes and adding $50,000 more. He celebrated with a $200 steak dinner with the girl he's been seeing, a curvy, violet-eyed brunette named Brittany, who works at the Encore Beach Club opening champagne bottles for high rollers, and who's currently sitting across from him, fiddling with one of the three iPads the jet has supplied.

Life, in other words, is pretty good. Zimmerman has been recording as Deadmau5 since 2004, after he discovered a fried rodent in his computer and adopted it as his namesake. Less guest-star-poppy than a David Guetta, without the dubstep bass minefields of a Skrillex, his epic, trance-y synth odysseys have triumphed thanks in part to his knack for self-promotion and a futuro-spectacular live show. Now, as dance music has become pop music and Deadmnau5 one of its leaders, his concerts just keep getting bigger, his fans more obsessive and his jets more new-jet-smell-y.

Video: Inside Deadmau5's Rolling Stone Cover Shoot

Zimmerman, 31, is fair-haired and line featured – at certain angles, he could almost pass for Justin Timberlake's scuzzy younger brother – with the pallid complexion and hunger-strike physique of a guy who spends many nights sucking down Red Bulls and Marlboros in the glow of his computer screen. His upper body is covered in tattoos, most of them video-game-related – Zelda hearts and a Mario ghost on his left arm; a giant green Space Invader on his neck – and he's dressed, as he is most days, in a black T-shirt and skate-rat jeans. Underneath his baseball cap – a brown snapback painted to look like a sprinkle-covered chocolate doughnut – his ears stick out like . . . well, a mouse.

The plane touches down in Norway, and Zimmerman hops into a waiting van. His manager, a merry Englishman named Paul Macrae, tells the group that Justin Bieber is in town, performing a free concert on the roof of the Oslo Opera House, so the tween traffic jam may make them late. "Are you fucking kidding me?" Zimmerman says. "What the fuck?" By the time the van pulls into a loading dock underneath the venue, he was supposed to be on 15 minutes ago. Like a scene out of a movie, he hops out, takes a few quick drags off a cigarette and bounds straight onstage.

The crowd of 3,000 is getting restless, or what passes for restlessness among chemically altered Scandinavians. Crouching behind his battery of synthesizers, Zimmerman slips on his trademark accessory – a 12-pound, two-foot-wide, LED-powered mouse head – and pops up waving, and the kids in their green-glow-stick mouse ears go crazy. Behind him, a huge LED screen – 24 feet by 50 feet, nearly 200,000 bulbs, designed by the same team that did Kanye West's Glow in the Dark Tour and Daft Punk's pyramid – displays a cartoon Deadmau5 running through a variety of video games: Deadmau5 chasing Pac-Man ghosts, Megaman with a Deadmau5 head. And then Zimmerman's helmet lights up, 2,000 LEDs showing a tiny Deadmau5 on Deadmau5's face, like that cat whose fur coloring spelled out CAT.

After the show – thanks to the northern latitudes, the sun is still lingering at 11 p.m. – Zimmerman is padding around his bus in white gym socks, drinking a Fanta. The bus is a Jumbocruiser: a red, 20-ton, double-decker behemoth pimped out with two refrigerators, a microwave, an espresso machine, a couple of flatscreens, and neon lights straight out of an Eighties strip club. It's a far cry from his old road-warrior days, when he'd DJ anywhere for the price of a plane ticket and a bar tab. He starts telling stories about the time in Funchal, Portugal, when he and Macrae had a sword fight at a sushi restaurant; or the time in Medellín, Colombia, when he got detained at the airport by guys with machine guns. "Now we just play big cities," Zimmerman says. "I kind of miss those days."

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