Miami Beach, Fla.—If the EDM world saw one breakout artist within the past year, it was undoubtedly Deadmau5.
The Toronto native—pronounced “Dead Mouse,” born Joel Zimmerman—seemed to spring up from nowhere as his name suddenly began to dominate the playlists of a diverse group of top DJs—Tiësto, Armin van Buuren, Pete Tong, James Zabiela, and Chris Lake. To give you an idea of his suddenly skyrocketed status, Deadmau5 had, at one point in August 2007, produced or remixed five of the top 10 tracks on Beatport.com.
The Deadmau5 signature style is immediately recognizable for its bass-heavy analog grooves that incorporate elements of minimal house, electro, and trance—hence, the relatively wide appeal among divergent-sounding DJs. Most importantly, his tracks destroy dancefloors wherever they’re heard.
His remix of Daft Punk’s “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” and his ethereal vocal remixes (like “Not Alone” by Gianluca Motta feat. Molly) demonstrate Deadmau5’s unique ability to produce material that maintains underground credibility, yet can still attract a wider audience. Along those lines, in fact, Deadmau5 recently won a Juno Award—Anglo-Canada’s version of the Grammy. His crunchy, electro take on Billy Newton-Davis’ “All U Ever Want” took the trophy for Dance Recording of the Year.
But, don’t pigeonhole the man in the mouse mask—he still does the down-and-dirty for DJs seeking such things. Along with sound designer/studio wiz Steve Duda (Nine Inch Nails, Methods of Mayhem, Rob Zombie), he’s formed the manic techno/electro duo, BSOD. And his collaboration with Duda, Tommy Lee and DJ Aero—collectively known as WTF?—pushes the limits of banging electro-house to new extremes, as witnessed on his lively and unpredictable YouTube videos (search for “WTF Chicken,” a squelchy electro stutterfest). [Editor’s Note: Four new tunes, including “Chicken,” have been released on Beatport.]
So, from Canadian computer geek to global sensation, it’s been quite a ride for Deadmau5. DJ Times caught up with man and mouse on a sunny afternoon in Miami Beach this past March during Winter Music Conference. He explained how he went from the world of software coding and web design to world traveler and much-sought-after producer. Let’s dive into the weird world that is Deadmau5.
DJ Times: You don’t seem to have done a lot of press. Do you intentionally avoid it?
Deadmau5: No, I just want to work. I don’t want to do any of the media shit. I don’t want to do interviews. I don’t even really want to gig. I just want to do the thing in the studio, pay rent and make money.
DJ Times: How did you come up in the scene?
Deadmau5: I’ve always had a knack for music. I started out real young, like 14 or 15. My parents put me in piano boot camp, where I played from 3 to 5 after school. And this was the dawn of the personal computer music era. PCs that were under $1,000, you could load in tracking programs [that] make this video-game-sounding music. I was on the computer all the time anyway, so it went hand-in-hand. I was pretty fortunate because I got to see the development of personal computers and music. It was exciting times and I got to see it all happen from Day 1 until where we are now–crazy-ass software at a very reasonable price point which was impossible three years ago. And that’s where I think I owe a lot of my success—because I got into the development of these applications. I did a lot freelance for FXpansion, ImageLine, etc.
DJ Times: Were you doing coding?
Deadmau5: Very poorly. I won’t take credit for being an awesome coder, but I could make a mean U.I. [user interface] because I was also a graphic designer. I’ve only ever had one real job in my life and I was a graphic designer for a software company in Toronto called S.I.T. We developed a “Made-to-Measure” clothing application for tailors. The president of the software company was also a beta tester with me for the early versions of Fruity Loops back in the day. He met me through there and said, “Hey, you’re a Flash coder genius. Why don’t you come over and work for me?” And I said, “Sure, I’ll put on a suit and go do this because its guaranteed pay every week.” I did that for a year and half.
DJ Times: What did you do for Fruity Loops?
Deadmau5: I was doing some U.I. stuff and I developed two of their plug-ins–like the really shit ones, The Crusher or something–I don’t even remember. But, the real benefit to having me on the team was doing content. I did a good portion of the demo content and sample packs that they’d sell on their web site. It was really good working with them because it introduced me to other developers who were doing more forward-thinking programming.
DJ Times: And this whole time you were messing around with computer audio?
Deadmau5: Yeah, it was an amalgamate of music and graphic design because I was doing all these U.I.’s. I was a freelance web developer and did a lot of Flash stuff. Even though I sucked at audio code, I really excelled at Flash. I’ve never been that passionate about making something work better than I can make something sound. I kinda always thought I would pursue a career as an artist doing my own music, but, safety net-wise, it would better to stick with the programming, Flash, and graphics. So, it was a dream come true when S.I.T. called me and offered me a job as a lead designer. That was rent.
DJ Times: Was that a problem?
Deadmau5: Before that, the only way I was making money was selling loop libraries to a stock music company called KillerSound. They sold music packs, like construction kits for songs, to be used in Flash. Flash was all the rage and they were making a killing selling these packs. Then the whole Flash thing was a “flash in the pan” and people were over it. And like making music, new technology was coming out every minute and you gotta learn it. So, during my final days at S.I.T., it was getting over my head. I couldn’t catch up and my contract was up. So, I moved back to Niagara Falls to chill with mom and figure out a new plan. So, I was back at home getting back into the music thing.
DJ Times: So it was a blessing in disguise?
Deadmau5: Well, at the time I was gutted and pissed—almost suicidal. But, I got back into the audio thing and did some freelance gigs for another web-design company. I did that for about a year. Then I met up with Mellee Fresh in Toronto. She wanted me to help her grow her label, Play Records. I got her web site going, but I really wanted to do music—so I also did a couple remixes for her. And they came out proper bangers! The first good house track I did was the “Beautiful, Rich, & Horny” record [Deadmau5 Remix by Melle Fresh N’ Dirty 30 on Play Records, released August 2006]. It actually “broke” for me because Pete Tong got a hold of it somehow. But, it wasn’t like, “Oh, this is the next big thing.” It just spat my name out a little bit.
DJ Times: Were you working under the Deadmau5 name at that point?
Deadmau5: Yeah, I’ve been working under the Deadmau5 name for six or seven years. I was developing my talents way before Play.
DJ Times: Was it released digitally?
Deadmau5: Well, I mentioned to Melle that we need to go digital on this. So, I started up Play Digital with her. We started putting out a couple releases here and there and they started to get a little attention. And let me tell you, I owe my entire career to Beatport! The ease of being able to put something out digitally at such a low cost and low risk…not everyone has $5,000 to front out to press 500 vinyls, which was the way to go only like four years before that.
DJ Times: What came next?
Deadmau5: Then I did “Faxing Berlin” and Max Graham was the first guy I sent it to. I wanted to work out a deal with him but it fell through. So, I gave it to Johnny Williams who gave it to Chris Lake who gave it to Pete Tong. And that’s what kinda started it. I was getting money from Play to do my own thing. So, I decided to do this full-time, rent out a shitty little basement apartment with what little gear I have and just do this.
DJ Times: Was “Faxing Berlin” released on Play?
Deadmau5: Well, we kinda had a falling out. They wanted to go one direction and I wanted to go another. So, that’s how Mau5trap [Deadmau5’s digital record label] came to be. “Faxing Berlin/Jaded” was the first release on Mau5trap. Now, I am self-sustained and I couldn’t be happier, because I oversee everything. I do all the artwork, the mouse logo is mine, the helmet, everything! It’s so cool to have that kind of creative freedom.
DJ Times: You have a very distinctive persona. Does that come from doing everything yourself?
Deadmau5: Well, I’m not the pioneer of that. There are plenty of guys out there all doing their own show. But, I bring in additional help because I’m not an accountant or a lawyer and these things are very vital from time to time. That’s something I’d like to see more in the music industry–labels or identities of artists that are encompassing all of the person, not so much just what their sound is. I am very satisfied with the way Deadmau5 is [perceived].
DJ Times: How would you describe your sound?
Deadmau5: Well, to some, I guess Deadmau5 would be eighth notes. But, that’s not true. Other people are like, “No, dude, this guy was doing IDM shit three or four years ago,” or “I love his dirty electro house with BSOD,” or “I love his fluffy, floaty shit with Glenn Morrison,” or “I love his hard banging shit with Tommy Lee.” I love to be able to differentiate with different groups. But I don’t want to pin the Deadmau5 persona to that half-house/half-trance sound. It’s just what worked. And it was the breakout. A lot of those type tracks that I’ve done were all done in the same month. I think I even have one more of those coming out that has been done forever.
DJ Times: Are you going to break away from that style in the future?
Deadmau5: Yes and no. Sample CDs pushed the electro house movement up to the front and people got so tired of it so fast. Now, it’s going more minimal or progressive. And this shit’s hot right now, so I’ll write some tunes like that. But, I’m gonna play around and see if I can come up with a more original idea. I don’t want to say I invented the Deadmau5 sound–that type of composition was coined in the ’90s. I’m still putting a kick on every down beat with a syncopated hit-hat. But, that’s dance music for you. How much further can you go without breaking into some other genre?
DJ Times: So, you’re not hung up on house music.
Deadmau5: I’m not hung up on house music. I’m not hung up on electro. I’m hung up on music of the electronic variety–music made with computers.
DJ Times: Do you draw from specific influences when composing the Deadmau5 material?
Deadmau5: Not really. Admittedly, I’m not really an avid listener of what’s out. Not because I can’t keep up, but it’s just not my thing half the time. I wouldn’t write a track with the mindset of, “You know who’s hot right now? This guy, and I should go that way.” In the back of my mind from time to time, I’m like, “I do like the way he did that.” And, I’ll try to play off it, but not too much.
DJ Times: So it sounds like you didn’t really come up as a DJ?
Deadmau5: No, but I did come up in the club world, though. When I was 16 or 17, I was a light tech at Anaconda Nightclub in Niagara Falls, which has changed names more times than any other club–same space, same owner, same failing club. I was also helping this radio show called “Party Revolution.” And I was learning the computer stuff at the same time. I was generally known around the club land of Niagara Falls as the tech, the wiz kid, the computer guy. And that happened in the studios with computers as well. I was a handy guy to know in the scene because I was the only one who knew anything about it at the time. I was always messing with music–never with the idea of being an artist. I was all over the place, but they were all interconnected—doing lights goes with the clubs, which goes with the music and computers with Flash. I took the total shotgun approach to life. But, there is some unification behind it all and it’s helped me because now no matter what I do, I can pick it up like that!
DJ Times: Are you leaning more hardware or software in your studio now?
Deadmau5: I’m getting into hardware now because I can. But, there is no difference between hardware and software now, people! There is hardware that blows software away and software that blows hardware away. But I like tactile feedback. I like turning a knob and hearing the analog sound. Whatever sounds good, really. The Moog Voyagers—I love them to bits. GForce does make a MiniMoog emulation, but it’s great to have the actual hardware—it may be half vanity, but who cares? But we’re not purists. Sometimes you want that shit-can sound. It is what you make of it—you don’t have to have the most pristine gear to make the most pristine tracks.
DJ Times: What does your studio setup consist of now?
Deadmau5: Kind of a bit of everything really. But, the main program is Ableton Live—just for speed. I’m a keyboard-shortcut ninja. I just get fast and comfortable with it. All my early tracks were done in [Fruity Loops] for the same reasons. But, it’s a combination of everything—a little bit of Reason. A lot of rendering from app to app and I use Ableton to tie it all together. I try to keep it real flexible, though. In a lot of my newer stuff, you’ll hear sounds you won’t get out of anything because of the way I patched up modules—like two MiniMoogs to Moogerfooogers patch randomness. And the only way I could get that sound back would be to take a picture of it. A lot of those are happy accidents that just work.
DJ Times: When you DJ, are you using Ableton as well?
Deadmau5: Yeah. But what I’m trying to do now is take it out of DJ mode and add more live elements to it. In my current setup, I have a Lemur [by JazzMutant] and a Monome going at the same time. This Monome is a matrix of 256 buttons with no labels on it—no manual, no software. But it makes you have to be creative. I make a lot of pre-made content—one- or two-bar loops, little snippets, a cappellas—and I fire them off with the Monome. And I have a Lemur that Daft Punk made famous. I use it as a mixer before the mixer. I run four channels into a Pioneer DJM-800. A lot of that mixing could be done on the 800, but it just seems so awkward and it’s no fun! It’s still a work in progress because you can’t really do good dance music live. You can do really terrible dance music live for hours! But now we have all this new software and new plugs-ins. It’s all about finding a kick-ass control surface so you’re not looking at a screen and without clicking a mouse. So it’s not, “What’s he doing up there? Is he making music or checking his friend requests?” That’s been a huge stumbling block for me. Right now I have it to where people say, “What the fuck is he doing?” which is better than, “He’s not doing anything.” But my ultimate goal is, “I see what he’s doing.”
DJ Times: How’s that?
Deadmau5: I want to be able to put on a show that can exploit all of my skills sets. Me and Steve Duda are, not so secretly anymore, working on a live rig. We have three computers up there—one sending master clock to two Ableton machines—and it works perfectly! So that’s “BSOD.” Me, Steve, DJ Aero and Tommy Lee is “WTF?”
DJ Times: How does that work with the four of you?
Deadmau5: It works well when we’re not drinking our asses off. What happened is Steve introduced me to Tommy before I was even making dance music. I used to do a lot a hard, grindy, IDM, glitchy, madness beats. Tommy wrote me an email telling me that Steve sent him my stuff. Then he emails me again and says, “I’m coming to Canada—come backstage and check out the show.” It was the Mötley Crüe show. I’d never been to a rock show in my life, but I’ll go so I can go backstage and be the cool guy for a day.
DJ Times: What did you think?
Deadmau5: In the middle of the show, he gets hoisted up and plays an electronic kit with full-on breaks that I would’ve played—I was really impressed. He was the nicest dude—he makes you feel welcome even though you’re nobody. And we just hit if off. Then we would hang out every time he came to Toronto. Then he started DJing, so I gave him some more of my stuff. So, it was years and years of us saying, “Bro, we gotta do a track.” So, like, four months ago I had a couple shows in L.A., so I came a week early and we did four tracks in five days. Aero was naming the files “WTF1” and “WTF2” because we were like, “What the fuck is it?” And, that’s how that all came to be.
DJ Times: OK, so where did the Deadmau5 name come from?
Deadmau5: There was a stink in the apartment. I couldn’t figure out what it was. Me and my girlfriend at the time cleaned out the whole place and we couldn’t find it. A couple days later, it goes away. About a month later, I had to change the video card in my computer. And a mouse must’ve crawled in the back where the fan is when I had it shut off and then got zapped. I was on IRC all the time and telling people the story, so every time I go in they would be like, “Oh look, it’s the dead-mouse guy.” So I changed my name, but you’re limited to eight characters and the “5” is geekspeak for “SE.” It was just a joke that went way too far. •