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Deadmau5 to Resuscitate Dance Scene With '4x4=12'
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."
Before he was Deadmau5, Zimmerman was a graphic designer and animator, and the mouse head was his shader test model. "At the beginning or end of TV shows is some weird little tag -- that's the visual guy's inside joke," he says. "Pixar uses the lamp; the mouse head was mine."
He started "dabbling" in music using his technical know-how and developed a sound that became his signature: grittier than trance but still with energy and beauty, with a controlled squelch on the synths and humming chords that blanket a dancefloor, then burst like confetti. He adopted the mouse head as his artist logo. It's on every piece of music he's released.
Some people discovered him on blogs or from friends, but the majority first came across Deadmau5 on Beatport.com, dance music's independent online retailer. "Normally Beatport licenses music from labels or distributors, but we still receive inquiries from countless self-published artists," Beatport founding partner Brad Roulier says. "Out of that enormous pile of music, one of our content managers discovered Deadmau5 and made a case for getting him into the store."
Throughout 2006 and 2007, expansive instrumental tracks like "Faxing Berlin" and "Not Exactly" became Beatport's most downloaded ever, transcending any of dance's numerous subtypes (trance, electro, progressive) and winning fans from across all -- no small feat in the very tribal genre. Soon, young fans from throughout the musical spectrum got on the train too. "I'll talk to hip-hop kids and they know about him, rock kids too," Moxey says. "He's larger than the dance and electronic niche."
They're responding not only to the music and the mouse, but to the man himself. "From day one we knew the power of Joel being Joel," says manager Dean Wilson of Three Sixty Zero Group. "He's funny, he's dry, he says what he likes and doesn't like."
Deadmau5 fans have a direct line to that caustic humor. Through several Twitter (172,000 followers) and Facebook (more than 1.5 million fans) postings per day -- which tend to garner 1,000-plus comments -- they know his every mood; hear tracks he hasn't even finished yet; interact with him on Ustream; check out his cat, Meowingtons, lounging in one of his mouse heads; and even meet his mom. ("Hello Mother, Thank you for the many years of patience, love... and cheap rent!" reads a signed album cover on her bookshelf, snapped and posted on Facebook.)
"I'm the most transparent artist you've ever heard of. You want to know what I'm doing? Read my Twitter or Facebook," he says. "Not because I think that's a good trick -- it's something that's always come natural to me. I've always had circles of friends on the Internet and have been incredibly open with them. Only difference is now I have 1.5 million of them."
Such unfiltered honesty has bred similarly pure adoration. One need only survey the crowd at any Deadmau5 show -- from the 3,000-capacity Roseland in New York to the 10,000-plus crowd at San Francisco's Treasure Island Festival -- to see the depth of his fans' devotion. Some sport homemade mouse heads: A video showing a dad making one as a Halloween costume for his young son went viral and got a Twitter response from the Mau5 himself. ("Dude!!! just saw your video . . . amazing work, best dad ever!")
The idea of the mouse head becoming more than just a logo first came about when Zimmerman superimposed the image over an unflattering picture of his friend, Orgy's Jay Gordon, passed out on a couch. "He said, 'Dude, I'll tell you, if you ever start playing live, you have got to get that made and wear it,' so I guess it's his idea actually," Zimmerman says. "I performed for a while without it, when I was broke and playing for like $40, which I drank. It took a while for me to have the money to go, 'Hey, I want to make a mouse head.' "
The head debuted at a San Francisco gig in 2008. "The promoter called me the next day and said, 'I don't know what you did, but you've created a monster,' " says William Morris Endeavor booking agent Joel Zimmerman (no relation). "The next day in L.A., people went mental."
As the mouse head evolved -- going from a static character piece to a full digital studio, with inputs, outputs and LED light and video -- so did the live show. "Joel didn't want to just turn on the head and have lights flashing, he wanted to turn the show into a solid ticket act, which is pretty scary for a DJ," manager Wilson says. "There's no walkup like at a club; the only people who are going to come are the people who are going to buy a ticket."
Now, the full-scale Deadmau5 experience includes a cast of six heads, some synched to a massive DJ booth/Rubik's Cube structure created by audiovisual specialist Bionic League (which also worked on heavily visual tours like Nine Inch Nails' Lights in the Sky and Kanye West's Glow in the Dark). The giant neon-rimmed ears bob to the music, the Cube spews motion and color all over the room and the shows sell out nationwide.
"He's never had a hit single, he hasn't had even a top 40 Billboard record, and he sells more tickets than most of the top 10 Billboard acts," Wilson says.
"[The head] is a simple idea; it's marketing really," Deadmau5 says. "I would love to be able to tell people I'm a marketing genius, but it's only in hindsight that I'm able to see the brilliance. I'm really picky about all of my design stuff, my image, my brand. I'm a Nazi with my brand."
Wait a minute. Deadmau5, who thrives on authenticity, using the dreaded b-word?
"You'd be a retard to say it isn't a brand," he says. "Brands can be used for purposes that aren't evil. Take the Billboard logo: When I see those two circles at the end, I know what that is. If you typed it out in plain font, no one would know."
"4x4=12" brings another dreaded word, the "m" one: mature. From the aptly named opener "Some Chords" to the time-stopping dubstep ballad "Raise Your Weapon" (featuring Picture Book singer Greta Svabo Bech), the collection employs the Deadmau5 sound in fresh ways, with more energy and more nuance -- and three vocal tracks, the most of any previous albums. (Deadmau5's two vocal hits, "I Remember" and "Move for Me," were co-produced with melodic DJ/producer specialist Kaskade.) If his earlier material relished in the joy of sound, these tracks explore something deeper and more emotional.
So it's not surprising, then, that Zimmerman dreams of a future in film. "I'm dying to do a score," he says. "Not something that would be sold separately, and I don't want to write a fuckload of music and license it to the film. I want to get in there with the film monitor. Clint Mansell ["Requiem for a Dream," "Pi"] is one of my heroes."
But for now, he's not done being Deadmau5. "Our biggest problem in 2011 is finding venues that are big enough that have a flat floor space," Wilson says. "Deadmau5 fans want to dance. We can't go into a 15,000-capacity arena because the floor space is only 6,000, with 9,000 seats."
For a DJ in a mouse head, that's one hell of a good problem to have.