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 favorite 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 synthesizers that cost Zimmerman around 870,000.
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-Pedics lab, and which opens out onto a vast patio. “lt’d be a great place to throw a barbecue,” 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 mas- terstroke: a dementedly grinning mouse-head logo, a helmet version of which he wears live.
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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 discotheque 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 centerpiece 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 melange who show up wearing their own homemade mouse heads: a level of goofy, performative fandoni 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 meter — inked across his left forearm. Through an engineer buddy, he’s become buds with Motley Criie drummer Tommy Lee, whom he hangs with in L.A., 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 centerfold. She approached him after the VMAs, declaring her fandom, and they bonded over their appreciation of Internet humor, 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 synthesizer 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 recognized 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 synthesizer, is front and center. 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.
ZIMMERMAN HAS BEEN A computer geek since early adolescence, when his uncle gave the family what Zimmerman refers to, lovingly, as a “crappy 486.” “It was amazing at the time,” he says of the primitive PC. “I started making blips and bleeps with basic tracking programs.” Growing up in Niagara Falls, Ontario, the middle son of an artist mom and an auto-worker dad, Zimmerman took some after-school piano lessons, but from the moment he laid hands on the 486, he says, “electronic music was in the cards for me.”
His mother, Nancy, recalls that, as a kid, “Joel kind of isolated himself and was even ostracized, because he was a little weirdo, a little nerd. He liked the kids who had the same interests as him, but when he started with computers, that was the end of that. They’d come over and see this blue screen and say, ‘This isn’t fun, Joel, let’s go ride our bikes.’ He wasn’t social, and he still isn’t. He lives in his computer.”
In high school, Zimmerman wore parachute pants, had spiky yellow hair and wore necklaces he’d fashioned out of the bouncy balls that fill toddlers’ playpens. He went to raves, even though his tastes tended toward Nine Inch Nails and other heavy industrial acts. “My friends were going, so I was like, ‘Fuck it, 111 go see some cool music,'” he says. He wasn’t some hip-pieish, Peace-Love-Unity-Respect type. He doesn’t even do drugs. After he’d tried LSD once and weed a handful of times — freaking out miserably with each experience — a doctor diagnosed him with something called neurocardiogenic syncope and recommended that he forswear drugs entirely. “My brain and my heart don’t communicate the way they’re supposed to,” Zimmerman says. “Drugs can make it worse.”
Which means something oddly poignant: Zimmerman will never experience his music the way 99 percent of his audience does. His ability to appreciate dance music from a sober, often ironic distance, though, is the hallmark of his career. After high school, he moved to Toronto, where he rented a basement apartment for $750 a month and became the in-house producer for a local dance label called Play Records — a job that paid $800 a month. “I had a $50 food budget,” he says. “My apartment smelled like piss from the guy’s bathroom upstairs. That was fun.” (He came up with his name when a mouse crawled into a computer he was fixing and fried; the mouse-head logo was originally a shadow-testing model Zimmerman designed while rendering 3D graphics.)
His breakthrough hit was an ironic-distance tour de force. Produced with his pal Steve Duda in 2006, “This Is the Hook” is a house track, Zimmerman says, “about how simple it is to make a house track.” As the drums pound and the synth line chugs, a computer voice leads a guided tour of the cliches on display: “Now it is time for the breakdown….Let’s filter the high-hat….Let’s filter the chords…” Calling themselves BSOD (an acronym for Blue Screen of Death, a Windows-themed joke), the pair posted the song on Beatport.com, a dance-music version of iTunes, where it went to Number One. “We were like, ‘What the fuck?'” Zimmerman says. “I figured that if I took this more seriously I could actually make something of it.”
Today, Zimmerman balances his cynicism-flecked sense of what tricks work and a genuine sonic adventurousness. “You don’t think of electronic musicians as necessarily having great senses of rhythm they just punch a bunch of buttons,” says Tommy Lee. “But Joel’s beats are crazy.” Adds Patrick Moxey, president of Deadmau5’s label, Ultra Records, “There’s almost a sense of humor with his music. The sounds take all these unexpected twists and turns. It’s not a formula — it’s alive.”
So it’s funny that Zimmerman, so adept at soundtracking communal experiences, is so anti-social. More precisely, he’s post-social: While he crafts his tunes in solitary confinement, he likes to AIM with his mom, text with Evans, update his Facebook status, videotape himself and Professor Meowingtons horsing around, and post the clips to YouTube. Last year, he fell in love with Minecraft — a low-fi, multiplayer online “sandbox game” in which there is no objective but to build stuff. He devoted a server to hosting games, naming it Mau5ville and inviting Minecraft players to log on and go wild. “When I go on, people just follow me around, watching what I’m doing,” he says, incredulous. “I never get recognized on the street, but in Minecraft, I’m mobbed. I had to designate areas that only I can enter, just so I could play in peace.”
THE DAY AFTER I WATCH HIM at work, Deadmau5 plays a concert downtown, to be broadcast live on Canada’s MuchMusic cable network. The venue is small, with about 400 Deadmau5 fans — girls in party dresses slightly outnumbering boys in sweatshirts — cramming in. Many wear glowing plastic mouse ears for sale in the lobby, but a handful sport heads they made themselves. Alex, a burly 22-year-old student, tells me that the papier-mache job he’s wearing took a month to construct.
When Deadmau5 takes the stage, he wears his current favorite helmet (he has six) — its face is one big LED screen, wired to flash images in time with the stage. Several of his mouse heads are air-conditioned and have screens within them, displaying software interfaces. As his music roars, fans bop up and down rapturously, holding smartphones, taking pictures. At the end of the set, they deliver a spirited rendition of “Happy Birthday” — Zimmerman turns 30 in a few hours and, even though he didn’t make an announcement or anything, they all seem to know anyway. He comes out of the cube, doffs the helmet and, waving his skinny arms like a conduc- tor, beams. Backstage a few minutes later, Zimmerman says, “What the fuck is that?” Someone from his label ordered a cake topped with a basketball-size Styrofoam mouse head. “Is that edible?” he asks, poking it. Zimmerman’s mother is here, as is his older sister, Jennifer. His mom is a first-class doter. She gives him an alarm clock made from translucent glass, so you can see its inner workings — it’s a gift she’s passing along from someone else. “I told her how you used to take things apart as a kid, to see how they work,” his mom explains. Joel plunges his hands deep into his jeans and, eyes trained on the floor, retreats into the shell he cracked momentarily during “Happy Birthday.”
After some cake, Jennifer says goodbye and goes for a hug. Joel leans into his sister and, looking the other way, mutters, “See ya.” (It’s not a rebuff, his mom says: “That’s just the way he is.”) He suffers through some photos with label folk and other assorted well-wishers, responding to their small talk with as few words as possible. “You going out after this, man?” one of them asks him. Zimmerman doesn’t pantomime jerking off, but you can almost see him consider it. He shakes his head, frowns and says, “I’m going the fuck home.”