Ask deadmau5 about the movies, and the EDM producer-performer is of two minds. His tastes lean toward auteur filmmakers with bold ideas such as the Coen Brothers’ latest, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Other recent movie trends, such as endless sequels, he’s been less fond of, which has complicated his longtime ambitions to compose film scores.
The Toronto-based musician, best known for sporting a giant grinning mouse-head helmet, is a fan of great storytelling, he says, “not the guy who kidnaps a girl and the dad is going to get her back. Or the car that goes the fastest or the car that turns into a robot. It makes me sad. It’s not that I dislike it. It’s that it literally makes me sick. I like interesting films.”
His internal struggle between love and dismay with current movie-making helps explain why deadmau5, a.k.a. Joel Zimmerman, 38, has waited until now to create his first feature film score for Polar, which premieres Friday (Jan. 25) on Netflix (his original soundtrack album comes out concurrently on his mau5trap label). The film, an intensely violent and stylishly made thriller directed by Jonas Åkerlund, is based on Victor Santos’s popular graphic novel, Polar: Came From the Cold.
Deadmau5 responded with an electronic score that stretches from anxious to meditative, noisy to warm and melodic. “It’s a really busy, colorful movie,” says deadmau5. “I just really wanted to wait for the right thing to come up, as opposed to doing some major motion picture thing … the next big Fast and Furious 23 or whatever they’re on.”
Key to drawing deadmau5 to the project was Åkerlund, whose career as a filmmaker was established through years of creating Grammy-winning music videos for Madonna, U2 and Paul McCartney. Just as meaningful for deadmau5: in the early 1980s, Åkerlund was founding drummer in the Swedish black metal band Bathory, which was already part of the musician’s wide-ranging listening habits.
“At our first meeting, of course he’s heshed out — black on black on black,” deadmau5 says with a laugh about the Swedish-born filmmaker, recognizable for his dark threads and long black hair. Åkerlund is also director of the upcoming Lords of Chaos, a true story of murder, suicide and arson in the early years of Norwegian black metal.
“Honestly, Jonas is such a cool dude. He was so easy to talk to and work with, it felt more like a collaborative effort than a client,” deadmau5 says. “He had exceptionally good taste in music. I don’t even care what the concept is at this point — let’s move forward.”
Early in the filmmaking process, Åkerlund decided that an electronic score had the right energy for Polar, but was drawn specifically to deadmau5 last year after hearing Where’s the Drop?, deadmau5’s first orchestral album. “I was sure he could deliver the emotional beats I needed for the film,” he says. “The music is in the forefront in this movie. There’s moments where its driving the film. He did a great job.”
Like the comic source material — originally published online and later collected in print by Dark Horse Comics — the film finds master assassin the Black Kaiser (Mads Mikkelsen) unwillingly pulled out of retirement while haunted by nightmares of a past killings-for-hire gone terribly wrong. Deadmau5 described him as “like John Wick’s creepy uncle,” who then becomes a target for assassination himself.
“It’s halfway between comic gritty and gritty-gritty, so it’s not depressingly dark. It was just the right amount,” says deadmau5. “I like the whole mood of the picture.”
The movie project comes during an ongoing season of expansion and experimentation for the musician. Last year, deadmau5 celebrated Where’s the Drop? with a pair of concerts with full orchestra at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles. It was a rare sighting of the Toronto maestro in suit and tie. His mouse head was left on a nearby piano bench.
“The last two times I’m ever wearing a suit is that time and at my funeral,” he says with a laugh.
While he can imagine writing a traditional symphonic score for a future movie project, deadmau5 says the pace and intensity of Polar called for electronics. Working largely alone in his elaborate home studio, it turned out that he had a lot of abandoned musical ideas piling up that hadn’t otherwise fit into his work as an EDM superstar.
“I’ve got like 47 terabytes of ideas, ideas, ideas that I could never put out on a deadmau5 album because it’s not dance music,” he says. “It was a give-and-take process that was really cool and flexible. ‘Oh, you’re going to edit your picture around my song? F**k, that’s great. I thought you were going ask me, “Could you speed this up by exactly 3 BPMs?”’ It wasn’t like that.”
Much of their collaboration happened online with sending scenes and music back and forth, but Åkerlund did visit his composer’s “mau5 house” workshop in Canada for one day. “His studio is fantastic,” recalls the director. “I’ve never seen anything like it — it’s like walking into a spaceship.”
On the original soundtrack album, several of the collected pieces are under two minutes, far shorter than a typical deadmau5 track. “Oh yeah, I love it,” he said. “It takes the repetition out, right? In terms of EDM, that same minute and a half is looped over and over again for six minutes. So it’s half the work.”
At one point, Åkerlund asked deadmau5 to replace temporary music he’d used in a crucial scene with something similar to Pink Floyd’s “Time.”
“I remember jokingly telling him, ‘Bro, if I could make something like Pink Floyd’s ‘Time,’ it wouldn’t be on your movie. It would be on my album,” he said with a laugh. “Then I came up with that little gem that is recurring in the film in different forms. That’s the best I could do there.”
Selections from his Polar soundtrack will likely appear during his upcoming tour, including the already released six-minute track “Midas Heel.” In March, he lands at the Ultra Music Festival in Miami, where deadmau5 will debut his “Cube 3.0,” his traditionally cube-shaped stage apparatus of flashing light and graphics.
“Spoiler alert: It’s a sphere,” he said, adding that re-designing his stage is always a major endeavor, and that recycling from past tours isn’t acceptable. “You’ve got to work your ass off for six months designing something new.”
He has no other movie score projects lined up yet, but is open for more, as long as he can identify with the movie and filmmaker.
“I just think I’m going to be really choosy,” he says. “While this has been all fun and great — and I can’t believe I’ve had such a great experience on my first time –I must be lucky as fuck because one of these days I’m going to run into a director and … I’m just going to be marching to orders and not so much collaborating.
“What counts is the director, the actors, and just the workflow of the project. It could have been a movie about cartoon peas trying to escape from a supermarket, and I would still work with Jonas.”