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Bills, beats and killing it: 3.5 hours with EDM's man behind the mask

Jon Dekel

“I’m not overly impressed with it myself,” Joel Zimmerman types, popping a grey box up on my phone's screen. “Either I'm overly critical or it's just ‘not amazeballs.’”

The “it” in question is the handily titled W:/2016ALBUM, his latest LP under the nom de guerre deadmau5. As with most things in his day-to-day life, Zimmerman is not being tactical. One gets the feeling he’s just not a natural salesman — a nerdy introvert who translated his anxiety and obsessive nature into superstardom in a world of extroverts.

“I'm just getting it the f--k off my back so I can get working on something better," he continues. "There's a couple fun ones on there but I feel like some of them are like ... f--k I coulda done that way better. Too many distractions this past couple years, I think.”


We’re edging toward the third hour of an increasingly informal and rare interview. Originally scheduled as a light, 15-minute chat toward the end of the workday, Zimmerman’s in a talkative mood, ready and willing to jabber on about whatever comes to mind — his early rave days fawning over Cancon dance stars, his love-hate relationship with pop, selling his prized possessions, the genius of Sigur Ros, why he refuses to play bar mitzvahs, anything but Justin Bieber. Plugging away on a new song in his Campbellville home studio, the 35-year-old prefers the comfort of jumping back and forth on his screens over audio transactions so we’re writing on Skype. “I’ll get out of your hair,” I offer as the office lights go dark. It’s 7 p.m. on a blustery October night. "np" he writes, willing the conversation on. “I'm just cruising away on another project anyway.”

'I'm no Drake, and I have bills'

In 2014, when he last released an album, Forbes magazine estimated Zimmerman banked in the neighbourhood of half-a-million dollars per show for a grand total of $16-million that year alone. Since that time, despite his popularity only growing — he boasts an impressive 3.6 million Twitter followers and a staggering nine million Facebook fans — he’s had to sell his Toronto apartment (nicknamed the Mau5Haus) and his prized McLaren P1 (licence plate DATP1THO). “Stupid,” he writes. “But I'm no Drake, and I have bills.” He can live with losing his downtown penthouse with its spiral stairs and Jagermeister on tap, but the car, “I’m more bummed about that than anything.” He e-sighs, adding a frowny-face emoji.

Zimmerman grew up amongst the tourist traps of Niagara Falls. Fascinated with computers and electronics at an early age, he used his rodent-meets-leetspeak handle on early internet messageboards after discovering a deceased mouse in one of his devices. As a teen, he would often trek up to Toronto’s burgeoning rave scene, taking yellow school buses to the suburbs sporting a Pokémon backpack “just to get out of the falls,” but soon discovered “the furry thing freaked [him] out a bit.”

Moving to Toronto at 17, Zimmerman began producing tracks for a small Toronto house label. A few of his productions ended up on Tommy Lee’s Methods of Mayhem album, starting a life-long friendship that maintains to this day. He also managed to gain some notoriety on the EDM online music store Beatport with the cheeky self-narrated track “This is the Hook.” To make ends meet he took on odd jobs, including working the lights at a downtown club where he would occasionally run into scenesters like Chris Sheppard. “I was super stoked that he was there,” Zimmerman writes. “He comes up in the booth and I'm like all giddy and stupid so I told him I made music kinda and I just bought a Roland MC-303.” Sheppard, at the time a prominent radio DJ and the musical brains behind Canadian techno charters Love Inc., was less than impressed. "Oh yeah, I bought one of those and put it in the bathroom in front of my toilet so I can make beats while I shit," Zimmerman recalls him saying. “His exact words.”

Deadmau5 live

In a real sense, Zimmerman thrives on contradiction. He’s a cantankerous musical guardian who always finds a cheeky and aspirational way to bend the rules to his advantage. "We kinda live by the forgiveness rule as opposed to permission," he writes. Shades of this can be noted throughout his career: an antisocial gamer who dates Playboy models; a commercial juggernaut who refuses to make a pop album but will perform with the Foo Fighters at the Grammys. Nowhere was this more evident, however, than in his choice of headwear. As one of EDM's biggest artists, he takes pleasure in performing for some of the largest audiences in the world, yet prefers the comfort of looking at none of them. Enter the Mau5head. Debuted at the first deadmau5 gig, both as a tool to deal with stagefright and as a way to stand out, the Mickey Mouse copyright infringement in lightweight plastic shell has now evolved into a literal EDM godhead. There are multiple versions in different colours and styles, including one with a full LCD display, which has led more than one reviewer to wax on about Zimmerman’s McLuhan-esque ideology. His followers, a cult-like legion, often try to replicate the iconic head, though the man himself farms the yeoman's work to Jim Henson’s Creature Shop in Hollywood.

It’s this level of dedication to craft and show that has led Zimmerman to this critical point: of making tons of cheddar while having to sell his bachelor pad and his $2-million-plus car. It’s a bit of an awkward and confusing admission, especially when compared with the extravagant lives of contemporaries like Skrillex, Diplo and Calvin Harris. “Well ... I don't know,” he writes. “If I didn't put anything back into production, studio's equipment, I'm sure I'd be killing it.

“Most electronic acts have zero overhead. So yes, they are raking it in: shows up with USB key, saves 400k on event production.”

By comparison, Zimmerman prides himself on his psychedelic, over-the-top light show, pointing to one of his proudest moments, the sold-out 14,000-person hometown rave he put on at the Rogers Centre in 2011. “Shows up to Skydome with 2.3m of production, walks home owing,” he writes. “LOL.”

Taking a cue from his earlier comparison, I point out that Drake offsets costs by doing pay-for-play performances, reportedly earning a million dollars per 10-minute bar mitzvah appearance. Zimmerman dismisses the notion. “I’d be bored to tears.”

“I like the challenges of dealing with show logistics, production…” he writes. “Performing at them is just the reward.”

'It’ll go away, just like pants did in 1840'

Under the alias deadmau5, Zimmerman has been releasing tracks in the genre of progressive house and techno since 2006, occasionally working with guest singers to add a level of accessibility to his music. For W:/2016ALBUM, his eighth official release, the music producer tried to avoid EDM clichés by bringing on a new texture: ambient trip-hop. There’s a trick, he says, that allows him to avoid musical sterility: ignoring the zeitgeist. Or, as he puts it, “internet’s just for porn and Facebook.”

Yet the internet is where he feels most comfortable. Rather than be burdened with interviews, Zimmerman prefers chatting with his fans and spouting his toothy opinons via online chats, live-streams and Twitter — where he can speak freely with a literate audience rather than answer questions about the legitimacy of EDM.

“I sort of grew up with ‘EDM’ as it were,” he writes. “[I’m] wondering if the ‘wow EDM is really commonplace’ question will stop being asked even after it's spanned an entire generation. When I'm 60 ... ‘so we're just starting to hear a lot of EDM in everything now ... do you think this is the next big thing?’ Nah, it's just a fad. Just a 25 year-long fad. It’ll go away. Just like pants did in 1840.”

Deamau5 with cat

Despite his dismissive attitude, Zimmerman is a genre purist at heart. Unlike his contemporaries, he claims he’s only interested in working with natural talents. “While there's a pretty solid formula to follow to write a radio-friendly pop-ular track ... there's an art in itself to even do that,” he writes. “Anything with pitch correction, even subtly, I can hear a mile away, and that's automatically discarded into the f--k-off pile."

"If you can't produce, write, mix, master .... you f--king better be able to sing." he adds. "You'd be shocked to know how many people ‘succeeding’ at pop who can do none of the above.”

Though he’s yet to produce a straight pop track, Zimmerman recently reached out to the Weeknd’s Abel Tesfaye for a joint project. “Abel’s rad,” he writes. “Met him a few times here 'n' there ... super nice guy. He’s very musical. He can carry a pitch, has a good voice, nothing wrong with that. Rarely hear him overprocessed to all audible hell. I wouldn't really consider him pop tbh, he's a bonafide musician.”

Tesfaye never got back to him, but Zimmerman hasn’t “closed that door” yet. Pushed for pop acts he’d be open to working with, he writes “Abel, Bruno Mars, bleh bleh.” Then adds Jacksoul, who, I inform him, died of lung cancer in 2009. After some caps-locked shock, the discussion descends into a Cancon catch-up session and, rather unexpectedly, an offer to work with the animated duo Prozzak. “I'm sure I can get a hold of 'em,” he writes. “We have a ton of old mutuals.”


'Once it’s done it’s done, I don't rinse'

Personal feelings aside, 2017 looks bright for deadmau5. He may occasionally sound like Kanye West on Twitter, but he’s been around the block long enough to refrain from sabotaging himself. To that end, fans shouldn’t expect any Life of Pablo-like revisions to W:/2016ALBUM.

“Once it’s done it’s done, I don't rinse,” he writes. “I’ll get back on the horse again. I'm not forcing anything.”