How Deadmau5—a.k.a. DJ Joel Zimmerman—came to make $100,000 a show and have four million Facebook fans
A steady August downpour drenched Chicago’s Grant Park on the final night of the Lollapalooza music festival. The rain and the force of thousands of feet had turned the park into a swampy field of splattering mud. The show should have been a flop; instead, it became a frenzied dance party, like Woodstock on methamphetamines.
Some of the dancers wore cartoonish, oversized mouse helmets that bobbed side to side and back and forth. The helmets’ eyes were blank and bulging, their crescent mouths leering grins. They were worn as a tribute to the musician Deadmau5, who was the headlining act that night. Deadmau5 (pronounced “dead mouse”) is the nom de guerre of the Toronto electronic music artist Joel Zimmerman. When he performs, Zimmerman wears his own electronically enhanced mouse mask, what fans call a Mau5head. The helmet looks goofy, but it’s important: it was key in Zimmerman’s transformation from a dance music outsider into a mainstream icon.
Before Zimmerman started appearing in his mask, his style of fast-paced rave music was typically played in a warehouse accessed via a dark alley. As Deadmau5, he fills stadiums. He stands high above the audience in a specially designed, spacecraft-like cube. He doesn’t sing (he hires guest vocalists for some tracks), but operates a bank of computers and occasionally waves at the audience. He’s surrounded by towers of strobe lights and projectors, all flashing in sync with the thump of his music. The audience screams and swoons as if for a rock god.
The devotion of his fans is cult-like: they follow him from show to show, tattoo his logo on their arms and calves, and post thousands of gushing comments about him and his music online. But cults are usually small; Deadmau5’s followers are legion. His fame has grown exponentially in the six years since he released his first recording. He has more than four million Facebook fans, though given the speed at which his following has grown, that number could double by the time this story hits the newsstands. Even his cat, a black and white shelter rescue he named Professor Meowingtons, has become a starring character in Zimmerman’s online universe. (The cat has his own Facebook page and 73,000 fans.) The Lollapalooza gig was one of the biggest shows he performed in a year of big shows. His fall tour will take him to stadiums across North America and culminate in a 14,000-person rave at the Rogers Centre this month.
Mau5head off, Zimmerman resembles many of his fans. He’s pale and skinny, with a collection of tattoos across his neck and arms. He wears ball caps and T-shirts and turned 30 earlier this year. He is often surrounded by a posse that includes childhood friends, managers, his mother, his brother and his girlfriend, Lindsey Gayle Evans, a one-time Playboy playmate. When I first met Zimmerman, a week before the Chicago show, he had a Band-Aid on his cheek, the result of a shaving experiment with a straight razor, and was embarrassed by the tiny wound. Zimmerman’s self-consciousness was strangely sweet—I didn’t expect anxiety from a guy who performs to full stadiums. Later, it dawned on me: it must be nerve-racking to be face to face with a stranger when you’re so accustomed to meeting the public in a mask.
At a rave I attended in the mid-’90s, we purchased water and glow sticks from an “E-mart” kiosk, the sign for which could surely have been used by Kmart to make a case for copyright infringement. We loved that stuff. We loved it when our ecstasy came stamped with the logos of car companies (“Mitsubishis” were a favourite). We didn’t reject the Man out of hand the way previous generations did, but we loved to think we were clever enough to give the finger to the mainstream, to capitalism, to corporate culture, applying instead our own smirking system of meaning.
A version of this subversive game is what informed Zimmerman’s decision to distort an iconic cartoon character into his own signature logo. He readily admits the Mau5head is a couple of degrees away from Mickey Mouse, the universal symbol for a corporation that has shaped the mythology of North American childhoods more than any other (especially now that it owns the Muppets, too). A few years passed after Zimmerman adopted the mouse head and no copyright lawsuits emerged, so he and his management company thought they’d really put one over on the empire of the Magic Kingdom. Then one day, Zimmerman received a call from Disney HQ. “I’m like, ‘Shit. Here it comes. I’m ready for this fucking fight,’” he recalls.
It turned out Mickey’s people wanted to offer Deadmau5 a gig at Disney World, which is home to a House of Blues venue. Zimmerman accepted, with some apprehension; he had visions of being beaten senseless by a cabal of baseball-bat-wielding goons dressed as Goofy, Pluto and Donald Duck. But the show went off without a hitch. “We met one of the junior executives at a party,” says Zimmerman’s manager, Dean Wilson, “and I was literally thinking, ‘Oh shit. This is going to be really bad.’ And he said, ‘Oh no. We think this is the coolest thing that’s happened to Mickey Mouse in the last 40 years.’ ”
In Slate’s year-end music roundup, the critic Jonah Weiner advocated passionately for Deadmau5’s inclusion as one of 2010’s most important musical phenomena. He suggested that Zimmerman is part of a larger shifting trend, not only within dance music but within popular culture in general: a very McLuhanesque ascendancy of musical culture that both exists and is consumed on screens. Weiner described a Deadmau5 show in Toronto, late last year: “The face of the mouse head Deadmau5 wore that night was one big LED display; several of the heads have little screens within them, too, which transmit to him images of the computer screens via which he manipulates his audio software. As he played, he stood inside a large, LED-screen-covered stage set. And, out in the crowd, there were never fewer than 40 people holding up smart phones, eyes on their screens, taking pictures and video.”
He’s as big with tweens as he is with the hard-partying 20-somethings who attend his shows
The character of Deadmau5 seems tailor-made for a gadget-obsessed, app-downloading consumer. (There are three Deadmau5 apps in the iTunes store that enable users to easily follow his tweets and tours and compose their own remixes of his songs.) Zimmerman’s creation has a sprawling appeal—he’s popular with tweens as well as the hard-partying 20-somethings who attend his concerts. In a 2010 episode of Gossip Girl, he appeared as himself, deejaying a fashion show (yes, he wore the Mau5head). He also made a cameo in an episode of CSI. He performed at a party for medal winners at the 2010 Olympics and served as the house DJ at last year’s MTV Video Music Awards.
Deadmau5 is his own industry. He won’t tell me how much he’s worth, but it’s possible to estimate. His most recent album, 4×4=12, has sold more than 60,000 units in Canada and over 250,000 in the U.S. His hit single, “Ghosts ’n’ Stuff,” which is featured in the video game DJ Hero, has gone platinum in Canada, and, if it maintains course, should reach gold certification (500,000 units) south of the border by the end of the year. But album sales make up only a fraction of Zimmerman’s income. He reportedly earns $100,000 per show, making him one of the wealthiest electronic musicians working. In a recent interview, he claimed he grossed at least $2 million in ticket sales in 2010 alone. And that doesn’t include the money he earns from licensing his songs to television and film productions (CSI pays about $10,000 for a featured use). It also doesn’t take into account the bounty of Deadmau5-themed merchandise—hoodies, booty shorts, glow-in-the-dark T-shirts, LED key chains, limited-edition figurines, mini-speakers and other Mau5-logoed products—all of which is available through the online store on Zimmerman’s website.
In late July, when Deadmau5 was nominated in DJ magazine’s online poll of the world’s top DJs, so many of his followers rushed to vote for him that the site couldn’t handle the traffic and promptly crashed. “I think we ddos’d the top100 site,” Zimmerman tweeted. (A DDoS attack is a hacker tactic that involves a concerted effort to make a website unavailable to those who’d like to access it.) “I guess that counts. LOL ♥ the hoard.”
The Mau5Haus—the name Zimmerman’s inner circle gave his condo—is on the penthouse level of a loft-condo building near Ryerson University. The location is a good fit for a night-owl performer who spends most of his time on the road; it’s near 24-hour fast food and a supermarket, and it’s a 10-minute cab ride to the Guvernment, one of Zimmerman’s favourite dance clubs. “It’s all location, location, location for me,” he says. “I’m taking a massive fuckin’ tax hit by living in Canada, but oh well.” He laughs.
His condo is a teen’s fantasy of a sweet downtown pad. A red spiral staircase joins the living area to the upstairs sleeping pod, which opens onto a patio. His compact kitchen has Jägermeister on tap. Keyboards and equipment jockey for space alongside action figures, Deadmau5 dolls, Deadmau5-themed artwork and Professor Meowingtons’ sprawling kitty jungle gym. The sunken central lounge area houses a group of boxy, low-slung sofas facing a formidable flat-screen TV. The space is set up for sound, although on my visit the musician can’t quite seem to make his stereo behave. After an extended period of frenzied futzing, he gives up, grumbling about the wires. A midsummer sunset through a wall of west-facing windows doesn’t dispel the sense that we are hanging out in a basement rec room.
Zimmerman can still seem like a sullen teen. He’s slow to trust, and as is true of many people who spend long hours programming a computer, he’s instinctively anti-social. He rarely gives interviews to the media, preferring to interact directly with his fans through Facebook and Twitter. At our meeting, he focuses on his cigarette instead of making eye contact; only at the end of our interview, after he has already taken me into his studio and played me an unreleased song, does he finally relax, cracking jokes and sharing stories about his latest musical experiments.
Zimmerman grew up in Niagara Falls, a tourist town where wearing a giant animal head is not an uncommon occupation. His mother, Nancy, is a boisterous visual artist, his father, Rod, an auto worker. He has an older sister, Jennifer, and a younger brother, Chris. Nancy is a brash, warm tornado of a woman and is still a central figure in her son’s life. When he’s out of town, she babysits his cat. Recently, she helped pack up his condo in preparation for renovations. Above all, she is fiercely proud of her son. She’s responsible for some of the paintings of him on his condo’s walls, and she sells more such paintings on her personal website.
By the time Zimmerman could toddle, Nancy tells me, he was displaying signs of an affinity for mechanical things. He liked experiments that had an immediate, measurable effect: putting a fork in an electrical outlet, for instance, or running a magnet over the television set to distort the image. His maternal grandmother, Katherine Johnson, helped nurture Zimmerman’s interest in gadgets. A clever, resourceful woman who’d raised seven kids on a budget, she’d forage for TVs and toasters at the Goodwill and bring them to her grandson so he could dismantle and reassemble them. One Christmas, Zimmerman received a set of precision tools for electronics. He used them to take apart household objects, leaving in his wake a trail of tiny screws, which frequently impaled the bottoms of his family’s feet.
His grandmother was also responsible for introducing him to video games. When Zimmerman was five years old, she gave her grandkids an Atari system. Nancy remembers leaving for work in the morning and seeing her older son glued to the screen. When she returned at night, he’d still be there, cross-legged and surrounded by crumb-crusted plates. (In tribute to his early infatuation, the adult Zimmerman’s tattoos depict pixelated, old-school video game graphics.)
Zimmerman found a new obsession when his mother brought her business computer into their home. He’d try to work out lines of arcane computer language, blinking at the white text on a royal blue screen. (B.S.O.D., or “blue screen of death,” would become one of his early recording names.) He’d mess around with the coded workings, occasionally deleting his mother’s business files in his quest to master DOS. One day he announced he’d communicated on the computer with a stranger on the other side of the world. His mother laughed, assuming she was the butt of some geek in-joke, but he was telling the truth: Zimmerman, a dedicated early adopter, had discovered bulletin board services and rudimentary web chats. His performance name, Deadmau5, comes with a story: it’s an old online handle, inspired by his discovery of a deceased rodent in his machines and tweaked for length and leetspeak, the ASCII dialect of hackers and gamers.
When Zimmerman was a teen, two significant things happened: his parents divorced, and he started going to raves. He dyed his hair Pokémon yellow and moulded it into spikes; he wore sagging phat pants that exposed his boxers; he outfitted himself with a Pokémon backpack, a metal chain that hung from his pants and a garland of plastic balls around his neck. Rod Zimmerman was no great fan of his son’s new look. Nancy, who wanted to nurture her children’s creativity, didn’t mind as much, though she did crash more than a few raves in unsuccessful attempts to track down her wayward son.
In the mid-’90s, just as Zimmerman and his friends were coming of age, raves became ubiquitous across southern Ontario. Teens and 20-somethings would travel to remote hangars and cavernous event spaces in yellow school buses, and wear fairy wings or elephant-legged pants or home-sewn overalls made out of bedsheets. To some, the appeal of raves was a revitalization of the daisy-chain ideals of hippie culture; party kids would scrawl the motto P.L.U.R. (peace, love, unity, respect) on their forearms with neon highlighters so the letters would glow under black light. To others, the scene represented pure escapism—it was an excuse to drop ecstasy, get blissed and zone out. Rave culture was simultaneously a space that allowed young adults to revert to an infantile state (complete with baby pacifiers as accessories), a seedy underworld that offered risk and rebellion to bored feckless youth, and an expansion of the urban nightclub scene into the suburbs and beyond.
Originally, it was a thriving outsider industry, anchored by independent promoters, alternative venues and specialized stores. By the turn of the millennium, pretty much every block along the stretch of Queen West between University and Bathurst had a boutique that catered exclusively to rave fashion. Today ravers don’t need to track down DJ cassettes in specialty shops: the tracks they want are readily available on iTunes or the dance music–oriented online store Beatport.
Zimmerman had created his own electronic music on his mother’s computer. He honed his composing skills while working with a local radio show in Niagara Falls. His colleagues were interested in traditional DJ techniques—as Beck put it, two turntables and a microphone—but Zimmerman was transfixed by the latest digital tools, equipment that would allow sampling, sequencing and looping. Curious about a particular synthesizer sound used on a Nine Inch Nails album, Zimmerman tracked down contact info, sent a message to the appropriate reps and somehow scored a response from Trent Reznor himself. (Given how labyrinthine the channels of communication could be within international recording companies pre–social media, it was no small feat.) In 1999, some of Zimmerman’s compositions wound up on Methods of Mayhem, the rap-tinged album by Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee. Lee is still a close friend, and Zimmerman sometimes goes along for the ride on the Crüe tour bus.
When he was 17, Zimmerman left Niagara Falls for Toronto. At first, he scraped together rent money by producing tracks for Play Records, a Toronto house music label. He also channelled his computer savvy into programming and web development; Deadmau5 was the name he used for his independent business. In the mid-2000s, he was offered a job working with the Belgian company behind Fruity Loops, an audio software program. At the same time as he was building the tools to create dance music, Zimmerman composed his own tracks. He showed off his keen understanding of sonic anatomy in the song “This Is the Hook,” a house track that features real-time narration (in a digitally manipulated, robotic-sounding voice) of the elements you hear in the song. It sailed to the top of the Beatport chart, a seal of approval from the electronic music underground.
Dance music is often dismissed as mindless, hedonistic repetition; narrative and storytelling are not necessarily part of the mix. Deadmau5’s first full-length album, 2005’s Get Scraped, is smarter than the average dance music. Every song is studded with in-jokes and nerdy musical references. One track is called “Waking Up From the American Dream”; another, “Bored of Canada,” is a nod to the Edinburgh-based ambient electronic duo Boards of Canada. The winks are a constant in the Deadmau5 canon, which includes such song titles as “Sex, Lies, Audiotape” and “The Reward Is Cheese.” Listeners who pick up on the pop culture allusions feel a smug tribal loyalty, and those who don’t are still wholly entertained (the same dual principal behind every Pixar movie).
A typical Deadmau5 song opens with a swarm of dense, buzzing synthesizer sounds that surround you in stereo. A few seconds in comes the thud of a steady, muscular beat. The layered chords will repeat, in a pattern that’s simultaneously fast and throbbing, hypnotic and pleasantly numbing. Eventually, you’ll feel as though you’re engulfed in a pillowy cocoon of sound.
Zimmerman designed the mouse logo while working on renderings of 3-D graphics. The mouse helmet didn’t enter the picture until several years later. It was his first official Deadmau5 gig, and he wanted to do something that would make him stand out from all the other electronic musicians. The audience was initially bewildered by the head. Then the helmet’s lights came on and started blinking to the beat, and the place went nuts.
That first head was red, but he has had several others since, in blue, yellow, black (though he lost the black one on a flight) and white (this one covered in fan signatures). At the 2009 Grammys, Zimmerman wore a diamanté head (he later auctioned it off on eBay to raise funds for Japanese earthquake relief—it sold for $19,293). To round out his collection, he has a metallic model, which he wore to the Junos this year, and the LED-equipped version, which dazzled at Lollapalooza. He commissions his Mau5heads from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop in Hollywood. Each is based on a lightweight plastic shell that resembles a big fishbowl. The ears are as light as balsa wood and slide into slots in the shell. The eyes are made out of plastic half-orbs and wired to lights to produce an appropriately eerie glow during shows. Zimmerman tells me he was initially unimpressed by the Henson Creature Shop, since it keeps its real magic out of sight. But then he caught a glimpse of the Muppet characters from The Dark Crystal and was floored. Total Geek Dream.
His fans try to replicate the heads, with varying degrees of success. There are 19,000 Google hits for “make a Deadmau5 head”; the results include step-by-step YouTube videos and an impressively detailed annotated photo gallery on the DIY site Instructables. (While some aspiring head makers suggest beach balls for a papier mâché foundation, others swear by 13-inch hamster balls.) Recently, Zimmerman solicited his fan base to help him conceptualize the next one. The contest generated thousands of entries. The winner, Lance Thackeray, produced a head that looks like it’s carved out of a hunk of Swiss cheese. In addition to bragging rights, Thackeray got a flight to Los Angeles and a pair of VIP passes to a Deadmau5 performance.
Every bachelor pad needs a pin-up girl. Zimmerman met Lindsey Gayle Evans, the October 2009 Playboy playmate of the month, at the MTV awards. She was seated up front and has said she was captivated as she watched him, perched high above in his cube. They’ve been together, more or less, since then; she moved to Toronto to live with him. In person, the skinny 21-year-old, a former Miss Teen Louisiana who was the third runner-up in the 2008 Miss Teen USA pageant, reminds me of a Freeway-era Reese Witherspoon—a pert southern belle with a ragged edge. Evans has been an easy target for online haters who view her as a gold digger or don’t understand why she’s wasting her time with such a nerd. The two have nevertheless developed a casually domestic dynamic. The day of my interview, he waits at the door until she appears with the keys to let him into the Mau5haus, balancing a filigree-embossed shopping bag from the mall on one finger. When he gropes around for smokes, she passes him a pack. And while he answers my questions about the business of being Deadmau5, Evans curls up on a nearby chair and busies herself by flipping through her own modelling shots.
Zimmerman could move to London, where his management company is based, or Berlin, where electronic music is not just a niche market, or Los Angeles, where many of his friends live. He stays in Toronto, he says, because he’s afraid of natural disasters, and this city has remained relatively safe since Hurricane Hazel. “Christopher Lloyd’s house goin’ up in fuckin’ flames? Houses sliding down a cliff. My friends’ houses are, like, precariously placed,” he says. He also likes the degree of anonymity he experiences here, where he can hang out at nightclubs like the Guvernment without being disturbed. “Everyone knows who the fuck I am,” he says, “but they don’t freak out. There’s no paparazzi, there’s no bullshit.” Toronto is home, he says, his expression softening. “Anywhere else is just awkward and weird.”
He recently bought the condo adjacent to his and is planning to demolish the wall in between, essentially doubling his living space. While they prepare for the renovations, his mom has been using the empty apartment next door as an office space. Just off the front foyer, he has a small cockpit of a studio. It’s a marvel that he can spend so much time in such a tight, windowless space.
His proudest acquisition: a Steinway grand piano signed by Harry Connick Jr. and Josh Groban
When I ask whether he’s splurged on anything major, he shakes his head. “So much of it goes right back into the production of the live shows. My one indulgence is that piano.” He shows me a stunning grand piano, tucked under a stylized painting by his mother of Zimmerman in full Mau5-king outfit, next to a regal-looking Meowingtons. “It’s a Steinway Model D concert grand,” he explains. The toffee-coloured interior of the piano is studded with the signatures of a cabal of crooners, from Harry Connick Jr. to Josh Groban, who left their marks before the Steinway made it into the hands of its current owner. “Fuckin’ rad, huh?” says Zimmerman, beaming. He’s had a drive system installed in the underbelly of the piano (the chassis is not affected, he notes) so he can easily sequence sounds using his computer. He looks as animated as a boy with his first Atari.
His mother and one of his close friends told me that, deep down, Zimmerman views touring as a necessary evil. He betrays other signs of wanting a different kind of career. In his tiny studio, he plays me a sample of a new song he’s working on, a track he’s produced for the kooky British singer and electronic musician Imogen Heap. It’s a nuanced, weighty piece of pop, and he is obviously very proud of it, and of the more traditionally vocal-oriented material he’s made. I can’t help but wonder how much Zimmerman’s remarkable talent in building such a strong brand has detracted from him reaching his full potential as a producer. Soon, it seems clear, Deadmau5 will reach his limit of playing Pied Piper to zoned-out teenagers. He’ll want to be a man, not a mouse.