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The Rise of Deadmau5

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Later that morning, the bus rolls into Göteborg, a 17th-century seaport on Sweden's west coast. It's gay-pride weekend, as well as high school graduation time, which involves thousands of teenage Swedish girls wearing white sailor caps while riding around on the back of flatbed trucks chugging beer and squealing. After a trip to the mall to buy a new hat – it reads I ♥ HATERS – Zimmerman retreats to his hotel room and spends the rest of the day playing video games.

Zimmerman grew up in Niagara Falls, Ontario, the son of a stay-at-home mom and a dad who worked at GM building engine blocks. (Zimmerman's mom works for him now, taking care of his downtown Toronto apartment and feeding his FIV-infected cat, Professor Meowingtons, while he's on tour; his dad is still at the plant.) As a kid, he didn't like sports ("too ADHD"), and merely tolerated piano recitals ("all dressed up, your hair fucking tacked to your head – it's uncomfortable"), but he loved taking things apart. "Clocks, appliances, all that shit. I had a whole graveyard under my bed."

In high school he started doing Web design, and says he was one of the first people in the world to learn Flash. He still thinks about going back to school sometimes, just to learn about cool stuff that interests him – like, say, fluid dynamics. "But at the end of the day," he says, "I don't want to be in a classroom with a bunch of pretentious fuckheads."

Basically, you know his type: a cocky, introverted, socially maladjusted nerd who's usually the smartest guy in the room and isn't afraid to let you know it. The next morning, he's in the lobby, slumped in a chair. Thanks to the festival's noise curfew, he had to cut 13 minutes from his set – and because so much of the show is built around prerecorded tracks that he can assemble and dismantle live, that meant reprogramming software, changing visual cues and the like. He was working until 6 a.m., and now he's in a grouchy mood.

"I fucking had to stay up all fucking night to fix something that wasn't broken," he says when Macrae walks in. "Why did we not know about this earlier?"

"I told you about it in October," Macrae says, with a patient smile.

"Well, it's bullshit," Zimmerman says. "Why did we do this?"

"Because," Macrae says. "They pay us craploads of money."

Zimmerman says he doesn't make as much as you'd think. Between his dozen-plus crew guys and a $2 million stage setup, overhead eats up most of his profits. He says he only ("only") has a couple hundred thousand in cash, and most of what he earns goes back into the next tour. How true this is, it's impossible to say – one afternoon, an offer comes in from NBC worth $100,000 for a one-hour set and another $120,000 to shoot a commercial – almost a quarter-million dollars for a few hours of work.

Over at the festival, Zimmerman's attitude has scarcely improved: The bus is too far away, the dressing room sucks, there's no good food. Macrae asks him if he wants something from McDonald's, and he says he'd like a Double Quarter Pounder with cheese and some McNuggets, then slams the door. Macrae returns in a few minutes and sets them outside his door like you might for a prisoner, or a wild animal.

Pretty soon it's time for his set. From the crowd, it's hard to tell exactly what a dance musician is doing onstage. Almost all of them use prerecorded tracks; sometimes it seems like they're getting paid to wave their arms and occasionally adjust their headphones. "If I wanted, I could play a fucking .wav file and just stand there and fist-pump all night, and no one would give a shit," Zimmerman says. In fact, he says, a lot of people do just that. "David Guetta has two iPods and a mixer and he just plays tracks – like, 'Here's one with Akon, check it out!' Even Skrillex [a friend of Zimmerman's] isn't doing anything too technical. He has a laptop and a MIDI recorder, and he's just playing his shit. People are, thank God, smartening up about who does what – but there's still button-pushers getting paid half a million. And not to say I'm not a button-pusher. I'm just pushing a lot more buttons."

Zimmerman starts by building his set on his computer, programming whatever songs he wants to play into a two-hour collection of discrete six-minute blocks. Then he starts stripping away elements one by one – a kick drum here, a bass loop there, as many as he thinks he can get away with. Finally, in concert, he puts it all back together, re-creating each sound with his battalion of synthesizers. "The best analogy is a go-cart course," Zimmerman says. "Obviously it's programmed, and some bits have to be performed a certain way. But the better you get at it, the more fun you can have."

In a way, Zimmerman is weirdly traditionalist – prizing authenticity and performance and other "rock" values and rejecting anything that smells of pop. He disdains DJs ("It takes two days to learn, as long as you can count to four"), dismisses most dance music as formulaic ("Just 120 bpm with a fucking kick drum on every quarter note") and says he's rejected requests to work with A-listers like Madonna and Rihanna ("You name it, I've turned them down"). He'd much rather collaborate with a rock band like Foo Fighters, as he did at this year's Grammys. He's even trying to get Dave Grohl to remix a track for the next Deadmau5 album – "because fuck dance music, you know? I just want him to go in the garage with his boys, fire up the fucking tape deck and do whatever the fuck he wants."

Zimmerman doesn't do drugs. He says he's only tried pot a couple of times, and has never done cocaine or Ecstasy. Partly it's because of a medical condition, neurocardiogenic syncope, that makes drug use dangerous for his heart; but mostly he just doesn't like feeling out of control. Which is sort of ironic, considering he's kind of . . .

"Pandering to that?" he says. "Yeah. Absolutely. I'm not stupid. I see it – like, an 18-year-old girl getting finger-banged and puking over a rail – like, are you seriously having fun right now? But I don't think the drugs are nearly as bad anymore. That's kind of why I had that go at Madonna."

Three months ago, at Miami's Ultra Music Festival, Madonna asked the audience, "How many people in this crowd have seen Molly?" – a barely coded way of saying, "Who here is on Ecstasy?" Zimmerman raced to Twitter to voice his disapproval, saying, "Are you so fucking uncreative after a 30-year career you have to resort to drug references?" Today, he says his beef wasn't so much about a 53-year-old pop star trying to co-opt a trend ("You want to be 'hip' and 'cool' and 'funky grandma'?" he says. "Fine. It's not my place to say you're irrelevant") and more that she was hurting a scene that's just starting to recover from the News-at-11 fear-mongering that shut down raves in the Nineties. "If you're gonna come into my world," he says, "at least do it with a little more dignity. I understand she has millions more fans, and is way more successful than I'll ever be. But it's like talking about slavery at a fucking blues concert. It's inappropriate."

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