The story begins in Ontario, near Niagara Falls. Joel Zimmerman opens up his self-built nitrogen-cooled supercomputer to change a video card. Inside, he finds the source of the stench that has been permeating his sparsely furnished loft: a chemically frozen, very dead mouse.
Thus starts the tale of the man/rodent/brand who will go down as one of the biggest stars in dance music history.
Twenty-nine-year-old Zimmerman, better-known as DJ/producer Deadmau5 (pronounced "dead mouse"), has made a mountain out of a mouse head. Since he first donned his signature costume in 2008 -- an oversized 3-D version of his acid-smiley-meets-Mickey logo, sometimes lit with candy-colored LEDs that stream images and graphics -- he's already accrued the spoils of a bubbling-up electronic music superstar: A guest spot on "Gossip Girl." The coveted DJ position at the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards (VMAs). An in-game, playable character in Activision's forthcoming "DJ Hero 2." Sold-out, multinight stints at 5,000-plus-capacity venues, with tickets going for $25 a pop.
His first two albums have sold a combined 350,000 units worldwide, according to his management. In the United States they've sold 91,000, according to Nielsen SoundScan. His third set, "4x4=12" (Ultra), is set for release Dec. 6.
But to focus on such measures of success is to miss the bigger point. Deadmau5 is a new kind of DJ hero: One who dodges press (though he made an exception for this story); avoids the traditional trappings of DJ-dom -- like VIP parties, celebrity friends and exclusionary entourages -- and sacrifices personal notoriety to hide behind a mask, literally. Many in the mainstream dance industry, needless to say, don't particularly care for him.
"He has the purity of a metal or hip-hop artist, but in electronic dance music," says Patrick Moxey, president of Ultra Records, which distributes his mau5trap imprint in the United States. "At the VMAs, we were sitting at the edge of our chairs, wondering what he was going to do. If they had asked him to do something that was against his artistic principles, he would have refused; he could care less that it was MTV. The kids know this, they can feel it. And that's why he's got their respect."
In a banner year for dance music making the mainstream, Deadmau5 is even more of an anomaly. The Black Eyed Peas design sports-arena anthems and court corporate sponsors at every turn. Lady Gaga practices performance art while making music that 5- and 50-year-olds can dig. And David Guetta, who occasionally shares the same DJ bill as Deadmau5, launched a career by romancing pop stars while championing a models-and-bottles, high-flying lifestyle. When the mainstream comes calling, dance guys usually come running.
But not the skinny, pale software developer from a small town who makes dominantly instrumental music, wore a "Your Ad Here" T-shirt (and blue mouse head) on the VMAs' red carpet and would rather tell national press to look it up online than do an interview.
"Interviews make me feel awkward," he says. "You catch me on a bad day and I don't feel like answering the same question a million times. I just don't want to do it. Half of the stuff they ask, they can Google it."