Joel Zimmerman doesn’t like being called a DJ. The dance music phenomenon from Toronto, better known as deadmau5, rolls his eyes at the description which he sees as a hopelessly outdated way of describing what he does. His sets are closer to live performances as he assembles tracks on the fly using cutting edge computer technology including software that he’s helped to write himself. “There are no CDs involved,” he explains. “It’s a technological orgy up there and I try and keep it more my music than anyone else’s. If people come out to see deadmau5 I want them to hear deadmau5 music.”
Now firmly established as one of the most innovative and popular electronic live acts globally, Deadmau5 has had an outstanding year. His driving foresight is constantly pushing the technological boundaries of his stage show. In May 2010 he unveiled the visual orgy of the cube stage and his highly anticipated L.E.D ‘mau5ehead’. The year climaxed with a 17,000 capacity sell out show at London’s Earls Court. He is the first ever electronic artist to headline the legendary venue. Additionally the dancefloor icon’s multi award winning albums have seen him achieve that rare balance, appealing to both the clubbing cognoscenti and musical masses.
Zimmerman grew up in Niagara Falls, Ontario, near Toronto. As a kid he was obsessed with computers and started making chip tunes as a teenager. “They’re musical compositions made using the chips from old computers,” he explains. Soon, his chip tunes attracted the attention of the Los Angeles nu metal community which resulted in him contributing to Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee’s 1999 album Methods Of Mayhem. The unlikely duo remain friends as well as collaborators; in 2009 they released two electro house singles — Chicken and Redic — under the name W.T.F.?, while they also reunited to play at Miami’s Ultra Music Festival in 2010.
It was around this time that Zimmerman became involved with a low-budget dance music radio show in Niagara Falls called The Party Revolution. “Back then, cutting edge dance music in Niagara Falls meant Babylon Zoo,” he laughs. His job was “technical whizz kid”. In other words, he was the one who knew how to use a computer. “All those guys were interested in was recording two turntables onto a computer and burning off a CD so they could send it the radio station,” he explains. “I learnt about digital audio and making music on computers and new editing techniques. Every new bit of technology that was released to do with making music, I was on top of it. They were still dinosauring it out playing on turntables.”
When he tried to convince local recording studios that they needed to embrace computers at the turn of the millennium, no-one was interested. “They had an old school approach to recording music. They were really in denial about that kind of thing. It was rocket science to them. They didn’t get it.” Zimmerman did. Eventually he managed to convince a small studio in Toronto to let him install new technology and he helped to record numerous local bands.
While earning his dance music stripes, Zimmerman worked as a web developer. Together with long-term collaborator Steve Duda, Zimmerman writes music making software, including one of the programmes he uses in his live show which he describes it as “like a drum sequencer and sample player on crack”. Evolving music technology’s cutting edge, deadmau5 worked for FL Studios, the company behind Fruity Loops, and contributed to the development of an iPhone app called Touch Mix, which allows you to mix tracks on your mobile.
Zimmerman says that his dream at the time was to be a producer, working on other people’s music. He wrote his own material as a hobby. “IDM (intelligent dance music) like Aphex Twin,” he says. “Nothing to do with the kind of thing I make now.”
His first proper release started out as a joke. It was called This Is The Hook, written together with Duda under the name B.S.O.D. (which stands for ‘blue screen of death’, jargon for the dreaded Windows error message). They took a house beat and added a digitised voice explaining what was happening. They considered it to be a hilarious parody of the formulaic extreme of dance music; what they hadn’t counted on was it going to #1 on the Beatport chart in 2006.
B.S.O.D. crafted an entire album and remixed Hurt by Christina Aguilera, but the money ran out and Duda had to return to L.A. “We may do some more B.S.O.D. stuff in the future,” says Zimmerman. “And we’re still working on software together.”
One of the first things Zimmerman wrote after Duda’s departure was Faxing Berlin. He released it under the moniker deadmau5, using the same name as his one-man web developing business, which itself was named after a dead mouse he found in his computer (the unusual alphanumeric spelling is so it can function as a user name for online chat-rooms). He sent Faxing Berlin to Chris Lake, who passed it to Pete Tong, who played it on his Radio 1 show. The subsequent exposure turned it into one of the biggest records of 2007. The fusion of trance chords and house beats spawned a series of imitators. “It was quite a buzz to know that I’d influenced the course of dance music,” says Zimmerman with a smile. In 2008, deadmau5 was the biggest selling artist on Beatport.
Zimmerman’s next masterstroke was to rework his image. Part of the deadmau5 logo was a grinning mouse head with oversized ears, which he decided to turn into a mask. The first time he wore it at a club, the audience were stunned. “I remember putting it on and looking out of the visor and seeing everyone in utter bewilderment,” he says. “They were like, ‘Who is this guy? Is he for real?’ But they warmed up to it real fast. When the lights came on in the helmet and they started blinking to the beat, the place went crazy.”
He wore a crystal encrusted variant of the mouse head to the Grammy Awards, where he was nominated for Best Remixed Recording for his take on The Longest Road by Californian house producer Morgan Page. “Even though no one knew who I was, as I was walking up the red carpet, all these reporters and TV crews were stopping me. In the end I actually missed the award because it took so long.”
In 2009, he cracked the UK single chart when I Remember hit #14. This was followed by his second artist compilation album, For Lack Of A Better Name, which compiled the best of his single releases from the previous twelve months. The first single to be taken from the album was a new version of his underground hit Ghosts N Stuff, featuring vocals from Pendulum’s Rob Swire, which reached #12.
2010 saw his relentless work schedule continue unabated. In February he performed at the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver during the medal presentations. In March, he won three International Dance Music Awards including Best Artist (Solo) and Best American DJ. In April he won Dance Recording of the Year for For Lack of a Better Name at the Juno Awards
In May, his sold out UK tour included three consecutive nights at the Brixton O2 Academy as he continued to redefine dance music in the live arena. Fans were treated to the visual orgy of his new stage show, and of course, the unveiling of his highly anticipated L.E.D ‘mau5ehead’. Like a mutant rodent Frankenstein, it had finally been given life!
In June, deadmau5 won Best Electro House Artist, Best Progressive House Artist, and “most influential, relevant and forward-thinking person in electronic music over the past twelve months” at the Beatport Music Awards. He also performed live at the Electric Daisy Carnival’s Kinetic Fields section in Los Angeles, made his main stage UK festival debut at Creamfields and also embarked upon an exclusive weekly resident for Cream @ Amnesia in Ibiza.
Ever expanding his horizons, deadmau5 also became a playable avatar within the DJ Hero 2 video game, which prompted MTV to commission him as the house artist for the 2010 Video Music Awards. Everything aligned to make 2010 an outstanding year for Zimmerman and it climaxed with a 17,000 capacity sell-out show at London’s Earls Court – making him the first ever electronic artist to headline the legendary venue.
deadmau5’s dizzying upward trajectory continues in 2011 with the news that he will headline his first ever outdoor UK show at London’s Victoria Park in June. A dancefloor icon, deadmau5 has made dance music exciting again.