The Rise of Deadmau5

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

deadmau5 1160
Albert Watson for RollingStone.com
Deadmau5 on the cover of Rolling Stone.
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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."

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."

FUCK, FUCK, FUCK!"

The next day, Zimmerman is in rainy Stockholm, chain-smoking Marlboros at his laptop while he plays an online RPG called Diablo III. His character is named CatSmasher: "He's a barbarian," he says. "Just hack-and-slash. A lot of people like to be wizards and sit back and throw spells. But I like to get all up in their shit."

For the next few hours, Zimmerman just sits there, smoking and clicking. He ashes his butts in a half-empty water bottle. Then he starts putting them out on the carpet. Then, my coffee. At one point, a young man pokes his head in the doorway, and Zimmerman glares at him. "It's not a spectator sport," he says. The guy scurries off.

Finally, around 5:00 – after eight hours of nearly uninterrupted gaming – Zimmerman heads over to the crew room to check on his Mau5 head. The Mau5 head is his not-so-secret weapon. As a symbol, it's pretty much perfect – whimsical and childlike, but with an underlying hint of menace, with the added bonus of looking great on a T-shirt. "It's McDonald's," Zimmerman says. "No one's got a brand that strong." (As for its similarity to another famous rodent, he's unapologetic: "Someone at the Disney patent office fell asleep on that one.")

For this trip, he brought his classic carbon-fiber number and the big one with the LEDs. Over in the production room, they're doing some brain surgery on that one, the fiberglass sphere laid on the table like a giant electronic hamster ball. The problem is the camera that Zimmerman uses to see out: It's mounted at the wrong angle, so everything on his goggle-monitors is out of focus and off.

He spends a few minutes sawing at it with a butter knife, then with a blade from a wine-bottle opener. Eventually he gets it the way he wants it, and puts it on for a test drive, lumbering around the room with a glowing orb on his head like some steampunk-robot scuba diver. In a few minutes he'll go outside and play his show for a few thousand rain-drenched Swedish kids, writhing around on each other like some kind of Viking rave orgy – but you get the feeling he'd be happier just to stay here, tinkering with his toys. "I want to ask the Jim Henson Company to build an animatronic one," he says, popping the helmet back off his head. "Like maybe the mouth can move, and the smile could get bigger. Or maybe the aperture of the eyes – the pupils dilate, and you can see the lights behind them." He purses his lips, then smiles one of the first real smiles he's smiled all weekend. "That's a really good idea, actually. I need to write that down."

This story is from the July 5, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1160: July 5, 2012