I’ve arrived for my mid-afternoon appointment at the secluded mansion of Canadian dance-music superstar Joel ‘deadmau5’ Zimmerman, and he is not pleased to see me. Not only is he wildly unenthusiastic about being interviewed, he apparently finds the very concept deeply unsavoury.
“So do you do this a lot?” he grimaces, baffled, as if my line of work falls somewhere between sex pest and puppy abuser. He’s walking away now; I gingerly follow him in. “This is something you do regularly? So what, you need to follow me around, or…?” Well, we could do that, I offer, or we could sit and talk for a bit?
“A ‘bit’?” Well, y’know, for 20 minutes, for a couple of hours – whatever you want, Joel. “Well, I don’t want to do this at all,” he scowls, turning to reveal a truly pained expression. “OK, well…” – shrug, eye-roll, exasperated sigh – “let’s f**kin’ sit down then, I guess.” Oh-kaaay.
I was, of course, braced for this. deadmau5’s fearsome way with journalists is the stuff of legend – the few interviews he does give usually crash and burn inside 60 seconds. But Zimmerman’s infamous ire isn’t reserved solely for the media: his 15 million social media followers are regularly entertained by his bruising online clashes with the likes of Madonna, Kanye West, Skrillex, David Guetta, Arcade Fire and Justin Bieber. Fan of beef? Nobody cooks it better than Zimmerman.
“I guess I rub people the wrong way,” he sighs, blessedly unclenching a little as he leads me into his cavernous living room. Situated an hour outside of Toronto in bleakly beautiful woodland, his $5m mansion is filled with exactly the kind of kooky artefacts you’d expect of a rave kid made good: a pickled human brain, a full-sized Alien Xenomorph, a gigantic Puma Clyde shoe, a stuffed two-headed calf (real, apparently), a stuffed three-headed duckling (also real), a stuffed moose (named ‘deadmoo5’, obvs)… The Aphex Twin tracks bleeding in from the next room add to the air of surreality.
“All this Twitter beef s**t, it’s just funny – to me, anyway,” he shrugs, lighting the first cigarette in a two-hour chain. “I love the predictability of it: a celebrity says something dumb at me, then this happens, then this plays out like that, then it’s all forgotten the next day – then the next dumb thing happens. That’s why I’m never like, ‘Oh man, this is really hurting my career.’ Like, it’s not. I mean, it’s not exactly helping it either…” He grabs his phone. “But watch: I’ll tweet ‘BRB drowning a bag of kittens @peta’ right now – and see who gives a s**t in three days.” He does just that – likes, RTs and ‘That’s not funny’ responses flood in within seconds.
Zimmerman delights in idly tapping his finger on his career’s self-destruct button. The first electronic artist to grace the cover of Rolling Stone, he became a figurehead for the EDM scene before ferociously turning on it, unleashing scathing – and not unfounded – attacks on what he came to view as an ego-ravaged, greed-crazed and creatively moribund movement.
Even deadmau5 himself isn’t safe from the eviscerating judgement of deadmau5. When I tell him I enjoyed his new album, ‘W:/2016ALBUM/’ (named after the desktop folder he kept the album files in), he responds with a confused, “Huh. Really?” I like it, yeah. Does he not like it? “I dunno. I guess. It’s just the culmination of three years of s**t lying around on a hard drive.”
Zimmerman’s not affecting a shrugging, punk-rock attitude here – he really does regard his own output semi-disdainfully. Interactions with producers that he admires, such as Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor or Venetian Snares’ Aaron Funk, invariably leave him racked with insecurity. “It’s hard to talk to people that I respect like that because I don’t even respect my s**t, so how are they gonna, y’know [laughs]?” This gnawing self-doubt is something he’s learning to deal with. “I’d say there are 10,000 people within this field who do s**t way better than I do, but then there are six billion people on the planet who don’t, y’know what I mean? So you try to not get stuck in your own s**t too much. Some stuff I put out I’m pretty proud of, and some of it is just… work.”
i don't even like it. it was like… so fucking rushed / slapped together. but i mean… hey, if you like it i wanna like it too, just dont.
— Goat lord (@deadmau5) November 20, 2016
Well, if he’s unwilling to big up his eighth album, I’ll do it for him. A judicious side-step away from the plasticky insta-rush of EDM, it finds Zimmerman rebuilding his sound around the huge collection of classic and rare synths he’s lovingly assembled in his new studio. If Stranger Things had you swooning to VHS-era analogue melodies, ‘W:/2016ALBUM/’ will have you dancing to them.
“It’s so easy to load up the latest sounds that every big track is using,” says Zimmerman, explaining his shift over to 20th-century technology. “That s**t is marketable and it’ll do well, but it won’t impress the people who know. So I make music for my peers more than my fans. If I made music for my fans I’d still be writing s**t like [2008 anthem] ‘Faxing Berlin’. I’ll definitely get some fans being like [moany voice], ‘Man, deadmau5 used to be good, now he sucks’ but it’s like, no, I’ve done that sound and I’ve moved on. I do this now. You can keep rinsing the same thing but it’ll only get you so far, and you’ll eventually get knocked back into obscurity by some guy who comes along and does it better than you.”
‘W:/2016ALBUM/’ is the first album Zimmerman has released through his own label, mau5trap, having bought his way out of his contract with EMI for a rumoured seven-figure sum. “I had to experiment with the majors to really understand just how much they suck. But now I have a great team in place, s**t actually gets done, and it’s like, why the f**k was I with EMI again? What did they ever do for me? Maybe the whole major label thing works for some guys who are like, ‘Just put the music out and give us whatever you’re gonna give us.’ Ignorance is bliss, right? But it’s not just a monetary thing, it’s also about control of your own creative vision. If it was all about money I’d quit this s**t in a second and go into f**kin’ commercial real estate.”
‘Let Go’, the first single from ‘W:/2016ALBUM/’, features vocals from unsigned unknown Grabbitz, who got the gig after tweeting Zimmerman a link to his bootleg reworking of the deadmau5 track ‘Silent Picture’. Zimmerman is well aware that his tracks could be even more successful if he went the Sigma/Guetta/Harris route and roped in A-list vocalists – and it’s a temptation he admits to having entertained.
“With my previous record deal, it’d be like, ‘OK, so I have this track then, EMI– do you know any singers, maybe? Do you have any singers on your little label there?’ And funnily enough, they didn’t.” Eye roll. “But I prefer finding unknown singers myself anyway. I have this whole dictatorship vibe going here and I don’t want to be dealing with someone’s manager.”
“I don’t mind splitting publishing 50/50 – I do it with Ryan [Raddon, AKA Kaskade – a frequent collaborator] sometimes, because we split the workload 50/50. But say Rihanna, for example – and bless her, amazing singer – but she’s in the studio for two, three hours, hums some s**t out and then she wants 75 per cent of the f**king publishing? Are you off your f**kin’ tits?”
Zimmerman can afford to take frequent, gleeful risks with his career because his fanbase is not only enormous, it’s also the most rabidly loyal in all of dance music. It’s a loyalty he’s earned through years of tireless, down-to-earth interactions across Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and Twitch. He’s a one-man online reality show, so open about his creative processes that he streamed the entire making of ‘W:/2016ALBUM/’, from earliest jams to final mixdowns. (In the process, of course, he leaked the entire album, to his own cackling amusement and his manager’s head-in-hands horror.)
The obsessive adoration he’s cultivated has come with downsides, however. “I’m at about the maximum level of weirdness I can handle,” he grimaces. “I do get freaked out sometimes. I have kids hop my fence, get into my back yard and just start screaming at me. I get chicks on Instagram saying that I raped them and that they’re calling their lawyer. I do all my own s**t – Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter – and I see everything, every weird private message from every random psycho. I’m not shielded from anything. I get messages from dudes saying, ‘I’m gonna kill you at the show!’ And I’m like, ‘Well, f**k – this could be it.’ “Look at Dimebag Darrell,” he says, referring to the ex-Pantera guitarist, murdered onstage by an obsessive fan in 2004. “I’m probably at about the same level of fame as him, and there are always gonna be one or two crazies around, so some shows I’m just thinking, ‘F**k.’ And the security sucks, it’s never good. Those guys are just on their phone, not watching anything, and even if you’re f**kin’ Super Hawkeye McGee, what are you gonna do, hit him with your flashlight? He’s gonna shoot you in the face too.” A gallows-humour cackle; another cigarette gets lit.
“I nearly killed a kid once,” he continues, throwing his lighter back onto the coffee table. “I’ve never told this story. So I’m playing live, up in the Cube [his custom-made, raised onstage booth]. I’ve got this LED helmet on, I’m six foot in the air, I can barely see. All of a sudden I hear my manager screaming in my earpiece, and I feel someone grabbing at my waist. This kid has somehow climbed up into the Cube. I just panic, I kick back at him, and he just drops and lands on his back – bang. And he’s motionless. I take off my helmet and look down, and for what felt like a looong time I’m like, ‘I just paralysed or killed that kid.’ Then finally he bounces up and is all ‘Wooo!’ at the crowd. Never been so relieved in my life. Scary. “But it’s like, what were you planning to do, dude? Take over the show for me? Go for it, I get paid either way. Do what you gotta do, ruin the show.”
Describing himself as “very socially f**king retarded” with a “huge anxiety disorder”, Zimmerman is clearly happiest when the world leaves him the hell alone. “I haven’t left this house in two weeks,” he says, beaming like a man living the dream. “I’m lucky. I only have to live out here with one other person [his girlfriend, Kelly]. Going out and being nice to the world at large doesn’t make me feel good so I replace that with things, with technology that does get me excited and does get my brain spinning until one day it stops spinning and then you can bury me.” He dabbled in the party-hopping A-lister lifestyle, even relocating LA for a while, but it clearly wasn’t for him. “I’ve seen so many weird things that have unsettled me,” he mutters, hauntedly.
The mouse helmet, the reclusiveness, the cartoonish anti-social attitude, the embrace of social media’s synthetic intimacy – it all keeps the world at arm’s length and allows him to avoid having to deal with industry shysters or weirdo superfans or nosy goddamn journalists. Saying that, I feel like we’re almost getting on, so I ask him how he’d like to see himself portrayed in this piece. “F**k, I don’t care!” he laughs.
“I don’t read any of this s**t. Don’t read NME, Billboard, any of ’em. I mean I guess if you’re interested in me then s**t like this might be cool, but… Like, I’m a huge fan of Radiohead, but I could care f**king less about Thom Yorke’s inner thoughts. I read something on him when ‘King Of Limbs’ came out, and it kinda ruined Radiohead for me. I was like, ‘Wait, ‘Codex’ is about suicide? Oh man, this guy’s really bummed out!’ So really, who cares? “I’m kinda s**tting all over this interview, huh?”