He’s an emblem in dance music. Some even call him the Mozart of the digital era. But who is the man beneath the mau5head?
Joel Zimmerman, aka deadmau5, is an extension to his computer, to the point that the video game characters he grew up with have crawled out of the screen and imprinted themselves onto his skin. An electric green space invader rests on the right of his neck, and 8-bit life-up Minecraft hearts bleep on his left forearm (not to mention his full sleeve of Cthulhu tentacle porn and a paean to his Twitter-certified cat Professor Meowingtons on his collar). The Toronto-bred producer has grown to become an emblem in dance music culture, through a vast knowledge of technology, an entertaining online presence, and an unmatched aptitude to stay three steps ahead of dance music’s cutting edge.
In an interview, Zimmerman once described himself as “more of a tech guy than a musician”. Having learnt the piano at a young age, there is some musical proficiency underneath the iconic Mau5head he sports on stage, but for the most part his reputation in the music industry is borne from a meticulous knowledge of, and dependence on, computers. The term deadmau5 originated when, as a child, he found a dead mouse inside his computer monitor. He subsequently used the leet speak for ‘deadmouse’ as his username on an online forum. His home studio, which he built himself, is a ceiling- high maze of analogue synthesisers and interfaces, joined together by an interstellar ecosystem of wiring.
But his tech understanding applies itself further than just his music. For one, he designed the iconic ‘mau5head’ on which his brand is based. The mau5head has in-built cameras to record his decks, which is then live-streamed to video goggles inside the mask. He claims there’s a two-millisecond lag, which makes him feel “high” when performing. The head comes in many forms: a diamante-encrusted head sold at an auction in 2011 for $19,000 USD, and the year before he was seen around the world showcasing a high-tech, LED mau5head, with a moving mouth and animated eyes.
Zimmerman once famously wrote on his tumblr: “Anyone with minimal knowledge of Ableton or music tech in general could do what I’m doing at a deadmau5 concert.” For him, it’s all about the live spectacle on stage (and of course, the laborious work that goes into it behind the scenes). He’s been known to design his own sets, one of which, known as ‘the cube’, has been his staple stage set up for years. Also inspired by video games and the webiverse, the huge 3D cube leant towards the audience and his mau5head stood above it as if riding it through space. Though this year, his set up has changed. According to festivalgoers around the world so far this year, he’s replaced the cube with a giant, spherical LED ‘mau5cage’.
Although Zimmerman admits to having a sequence of tracks at his live shows – “we need it, for the light cues and all that stuff,” his talent in the studio is the envy of the production world. In an interview, he said “it’s all about being versatile across a lot of subgenres.” Zimmerman scrunches up his nose at the sound of the term ‘EDM’, though he consistently finds himself headlining key events for the multi-billion dollar industry. He even claims to have ‘sold-out’ once, releasing dubstep during its brief revival at the beginning of the decade, just because he could.
His boundaries as a producer are endless, having received Beatport Awards for both Best Electro House Artist and Best Progressive House Artist, and six Grammy nominations for remixing and dance music production as a whole. The dexterity of his live performances, which he often streams online directly from his studio, has also anchored infinite respect from underground producers.
His online presence has played a major role in his international fame. Unlike so many big names, Zimmerman makes a conscious effort to interact with his fanbase (whom he calls ‘The Horde’) on a regular basis – and not just through personal replies on Twitter. Often sitting down on his online forum ‘Deadmau5 Live’, he relaxes and chats with followers. In 2011 he held a competition for fans to design his next mau5head (the winner was yellow with holes in the style of Swiss Cheese). In 2012, producing his album >album title goes here< live online, he called for some help on the vocal track, ultimately using a fan’ called Chris James’ vocal track on legendary track, ‘The Veldt’.
Netizens hungry for controversy watch his Twitter eagle-eyed, as Zimmerman is well known for stirring up arguments with other celebrities. Once calling out Madonna for a loose mention of drugs to her fans, he’s also outwardly condemned Mumford & Sons as ‘boring folk sh*t’, mocked Lady Gaga’s music videos, and has gone head to head with Tiesto. His live show at Glastonbury practically spat at Katy Perry’s cartoonish dancing sharks. Almost robotically, the backlash just doesn’t seem to phase or affect him.
Zimmerman’s trolling in the real world has also stirred controversy. Last year he bought a much lusted after Ferrari 458 Spider, and painted over it with the viral internet cartoon Nyan Cat – a smiling 8 bit cat riding on a rainbow. He nicknamed the car ‘the Purrari’. To add insult to the car company’s injury, but much amusement to deadmau5 and meme fans, the Purrari was marked with a license plate reading ‘EPICLULZ’. Ferrari issued a cease-and-desist order against the car, but before long Zimmerman announced that he would be replacing the Purrari with a Lamborghini version, nicknamed ‘the Nyanborghini Purracan’.
A more recent dispute with behemoth entertainment corporation, Disney, arose after they decided the deadmau5 trademark was too similar to their Mickey Mouse ears trademark. Zimmerman fought aggressively on Twitter – “Disney thinks you might confuse an established electronic musician/performer with a cartoon mouse. That’s how stupid they think you are.” – but the feud was resolved amicably, and he walked away with the possibility of reimagining the dream-like Disney Classic, Fantasia, for its 75th Anniversary.
The legend of deadmau5 has been in place now for over ten years. For the majority of that time, Zimmerman released his music on his own label, Mau5trap, allowing total creative control. Despite a recent shift over to Astralwerks, who also present The Chemical Brothers and Swedish House Mafia, deadmau5 is still very much at the helm of his own career. Given his complete lack of boundaries, we can only speculate as to where he will go from here.