Deadmau5 knows how hard it is for his manager Dean Wilson.
“God bless Dean,” said the DJ (a.k.a. Joel Zimmerman), appearing via video link at the Billboard Live Music Summit to discuss his ongoing Cube v3 tour with Billboard dance director Katie Bain, who was joined live and in person by Wilson and Zimmerman’s live music director Chris Schroeder. “He would love nothing more than me to just sit in the studio, stay in my lane and write music and be a normal guy. But that’s just not [me].”
Indeed, this latest tour once again combines Zimmerman’s twin obsessions — music and tech — by way of a new-and-improved version of the Cube, a giant rotating block that the DJ, who sits inside the structure during live shows, conjures multi-faceted visuals upon in real time.
“It’s taking user input from your keyboard and your mouse and your joystick,” said Zimmerman, noting that years of playing video games was what originally inspired him to create the visual spectacle. “[It was] a decade of playing video games thinking, ‘How come nobody has incorporated real time rendering for the stage?’”
If that sounds like something only a tech-head would say, it’s because Zimmerman is one. The musician/coder often spouts technical jargon that would go right over the heads of the average music fan, but which has nonetheless won him a legion of followers who are just as compelled by the cutting-edge technology he employs at his shows as they are by the music itself.
“I’ve been very open and public about the development of the show and stuff like that, and I think it’s really opened a lot of venues for interest in the technology that we’re using,” said Zimmerman, who has been opening pop-up shops on select tour stops that sell exclusive merchandise, feature in-store signings and allow attendees to check out interactive installations. “I’ve [had] a lot of really positive [interactions] talking to fans about, ‘Hey, I really love watching you develop the show. I’m a coder and that’s really cool what you’re doing and maybe you can do this differently.’ That’s the kind of interaction that I have with my fans that I don’t think other acts really get a lot of.”
The tech component is also what allows Zimmerman to sell 135,000 concert tickets without a single pieces of new music behind it.
“We are in the music business, but Joel’s never been that kind of act,” Wilson said. “He’s not the top 20, the top 40 act…but he’s known for putting on awesome shows that have his music in it. And I think that’s why people buy tickets to come and see a Deadmau5 show. It’s not that you’re coming to listen to the top 40 hits for two hours and sing along — yeah, there’s moments in it, don’t get me wrong — but that’s not what you’re selling.”
To call the Cube — the first version of which debuted at Coachella back in 2010 — an ambitious touring setup is an understatement. On the last two Cube tours, Schroeder notes, “we rebuilt almost every room, from an engineering standpoint and just being able to physically get it to fit.” Needless to say, the logistics can be tricky.
“For Cube 2.1, we actually had to get a civil engineer from the city of Denver to come out and rate the stage,” said Schroeder. “Even though it’s made of concrete…and it was rated for about 100 pounds per square foot, [the Cube is] about 150 to 175 pounds per square foot.”
Luckily for Zimmerman and his team, Cube v3 is a much-improved model. In addition to 360-degree rotation and tilting capabilities and more fluid and dynamic visuals, Zimmerman notes that it’s also a more reliable performer. “This one is a lot less problematic than the last one,” he said. “I mean, like 300 percent.”
Not that there aren’t the occasional glitches. At Deadmau5’s sold-out Nov. 2 show at Red Rocks Amphitheatre outside Denver, temperatures got so low that the Cube actually crashed. “The only thing that we really had go wrong at Red Rocks is the fact that it was 19 degrees outside,” said Schroeder. Added Zimmerman, “I thought computers liked cold. I thought they were [like], ‘Ooh, cold, I’ll work better.’ No.”
For the most part, however, Cube v3 has been the kind of well-oiled spectacle that serves to give other electronic music shows a run for their money.
“In L.A. this Friday and Saturday night, the energy was bonkers,” said Wilson. “We’ve never done a tour where I’ve seen the kind of reactions we’re getting now online. People are having their minds twisted.”
So with the massive step up in innovation, where does Zimmerman go from here? Though he claims that the team’s near-perfection of the Cube technology will allow them all to “relax” for awhile, Wilson knows his client too well to bank on that.
“I’ve heard that same statement for 10 years,” he cracked. “I’m not sure the word ‘relax’ is in my vocabulary.”