Mau5 music all night long
Joel Zimmerman — the man behind the biggest ears, and hottest act, in electronica — talks to Eamon Sweeney about doing bigger and better shows and how embracing the digital world can have its pitfalls
In the two short years that have whizzed by since The O2 opened its doors for show business in December 2008, precious few dance acts have graced the stage of the former Point Depot. In fact, Tiesto and The Prodigy have been the only bona fide electronic acts to headline Ireland's biggest indoor venue.
However, another name is about to be added to that short roll call, topping off a sensational run which has a man wearing an illuminated mouse head leapfrog from The Academy to Olympia to The O2. In a scene still populated by ageing superstar DJs and reformed dance groups such as Leftfield and Orbital, Deadmau5 is the hottest name in electronica -- hands down.
"Is that O2 place where Kiss played?" asks the Canadian native behind the Deadmau5 mask, Joel Thomas Zimmerman. "Boy, that venue is big! I was playing the Olympia that same night. I'd been talking to Gene Simmons' daughter, Sophie. She called me and said, 'Are you in Ireland? So is my dad. You should go and meet him'. I saw a bit of the concert because I wasn't on until midnight, so I had time to swing over. It was all mullets. A Deadmau5 fan spotted me too, which was weird."
Considering that Joel performs wearing a giant mouse's head, getting recognised in his civvies is a bit like Kiss being clocked down the pub without their make-up and costumes. His stage name is pronounced 'Deadmouse'. Joel christened his electro project after his internet chatroom name, which required both letters and a number. This choice of moniker was inspired by finding an actual dead mouse in his computer when changing a video card.
In the past three years, the mouse has become an arena-headlining monster. The first serious stirrings were when Deadmau5 began to dominate the leading online electronic music retailer Beatport. The success of club anthems Not Exactly and I Remember began to sell truckloads of tickets for the Deadmau5 live extravaganza, a sensory sonic and visual overload that, by Joel's estimation, now consists of more than a billion LEDs.
"To keep the whole thing afloat, and keep me in the studio rather than working in Starbucks, is to do shows," Joel says. "It's win-win because I love doing shows. It keeps getting bigger and bigger. When I look at the expense sheets for the rentals and production costs and mouse heads I'm like, 'Holy shit! How does anyone make money doing this?' I spent more on a mouse head than rich people do on a car."
In addition to grasping the nettle of having a kickass live show, Deadmau5 is arguably the first contemporary dance artist to embrace the digital age in all its guises. Even though he does few interviews, he's constantly on Facebook and Twitter interacting with fans and was possibly the first act from any genre to bring out a customised iPhone application.
It comes as little surprise to learn that prior to conquering the dance world, Joel was a freelance techie gun for hire. "I was technically jobless but building websites for carwash companies out of the house," he reveals. "It was a cool gig because you didn't need anything on paper, just a good website with a portfolio.
Joel immersed himself in production and begun releasing music as B.S.O.D with Steve Duda. Intriguingly, he befriended Pamela Anderson's ex-beau Tommy Lee from Motley Crue. Lee's current girlfriend, Sofia Toufa, sings on two tracks on the new Deadmau5 album.
"Steve used to go round to all these celebrities who had all this fancy expensive kit but have no idea how to use it," Joel says. "Tommy is a bit of a wack job and likes all this crazy stuff, and Steve had given him some of my stuff, unbeknownst to me. I got an email from him then, which was weird. He invited me to a Motley Crue show. Every time he'd roll into town, we'd hang out. We're not doing a collaboration. We're just buddies hanging out. I don't work with anyone I can't hang out and have a drink with."
Joel has been a prolific producer, and releases his third studio album, 4 X 4 = 12, today. It speaks volumes about how far he's come that his record company would dare to release an album just before Christmas.
"It's along the lines of my last two albums, as in a compilation of shit that got done in between touring," he says. "One of my things is not to spend more than three seconds naming anything -- that's my rule. I hate sitting and pondering. Usually when I save it I need to name it. The thinking cap comes on when I do the music, not naming it."
Three-second rule or not, the lead single, Sofi Needs A Ladder, has an intriguing little story. "Sofi [Sofia Toufa] is a little midget, so whenever she says some kind of back-handed comment I tell her to get up on a ladder and say it to my face."
While Joel's music can broadly be called electro house, there's a lot of genre blending going on. "I love to keep people on their toes, it means I'm doing my job," he says. "I dropped a dubstep track and the whole dubstep community seemed to lash out at me. I love that. It's the best feedback you can get. If I'm listening to it from a mix standpoint, there's nothing wrong with it. If you were blind to the brand and the Deadmau5 image, I think it would have done OK, but because I've got this McDonald's-type brand, it really enrages the self-proclaimed elitists. A lot of it is all just internet. I've yet to bump into anyone who told me not to do this in person."
When Joel made some supposedly disparaging remarks about the bankruptcy of talent in DJ culture, internet nerds came out to bash him. "They'll never let me live that one down," he sighs. "It was the most misinterpretated statement of the year in the electronic music community, and probably of the whole decade. It was the combination of my profile and rising popularity." (Basically, in an expletive-strewn rant, he said DJs would go the way of the dinosaur.)
"I stopped doing press after that. Up until that point, interviews were cool. Once you've gone past that, then people just want to know stupid shit and your opinion. The interviews went from being less technical and more personal. I'm not interested in doing any of that so I gave my PR team the easiest jobs in the world."
Comforting to know. Surely Joel could have done a Daft Punk and hid himself behind a persona? "I could have but I'm not that kind of person," he says. "I enjoy interacting."
There are downsides to being so accessible. "When you open yourself up that much, you've got to be prepared to deal with some shit," he admits. "But I'm beginning to realise it's not so bad. I look at my Facebook. It's 1.6 million. Out of that, only 500 have cared to comment on something. Out of those comments, only 50 of them are nasty. So 50 people out of 1.6 million are dicks? That's pretty good going. If every city in the world had the same ratio, the world would be a much better place."