WEST HOLLYWOOD - A variety of sobriquets suits Joel Zimmerman. He is best known as Deadmau5, electronic dance music's big cheese. He's a progressive house trailblazer, EDM producer, composer, showman and entrepreneur.
Just don't call him a DJ.
"There's a time and place for a DJ," he says. "And that's a bar mitzvah. Or a children's party. How do I say this safely? I just have a problem with a guy out there playing everyone else's music but his own, creating a marketplace for himself in a market he had nothing to do with."
If Deadmau5 sounds catty, it's only because he spent half his 31 years mastering computers and forging original soundscapes in EDM subgenres only to be upstaged and outpaid by a digital jukebox. The image of DJs syncing beats, pushing buttons and waltzing off with fat checks has contributed to EDM's rep as an inauthentic genre, he says.
"That's the consensus of the Steve Vai types, and I can see where that anger stems from," Zimmerman says. "I sit in the studio all day and make this music, so why is this other guy my rep? I have a lot of pent-up angst about it. Maybe I need to go to Thailand and find Jesus and calm down."
Zimmerman can relax. With 6.6 million Facebook fans, the Canadian native dominates the EDM movement that's exploding creatively and commercially across the planet. In the past year, a youth culture obsession grounded in hypnotic beats and communal euphoria has swaggered into the mainstream after years at the fringes, and Deadmau5 (pronounced Dead-mouse) stands among its most visible heroes (in part because of his giant grinning headgear).
He became the first EDM act to headline a mainstream music fest at last year's Lollapalooza. In February, he performed at the Grammy Awards in the telecast's first electronic dance segment. In June, he was the first electronic artist to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone.
By pop standards, his record sales are modest (638,000 albums and 2.97 million digital tracks sold to date, according to Nielsen SoundScan), with most tunes posted online and feverishly traded. His breakthrough album, 2010's 4x4=12, was the first to crack the top 50 of Billboard's album chart, where it spent more than 100 weeks. A diverse new set of originals, >album title goes here , arrives Sept. 25 with such guests as My Chemical Romance's Gerard Way (Professional Griefers), Imogen Heap (Telemiscommunications) and Cypress Hill (Failbait).
Zimmerman sounds blasé about the release.
"It's not constructed like The Wall," he says, sporting a black cap, gold Bape sneakers and numerous tattoos. "It's stuff that wasn't released as singles and gets dumped into an album."
Planning the 'next leap'
Chain-smoking and nursing a Coke poolside at a hotel across the street from his favorite hot-dog stand, Zimmerman smiles at the sight of his bikini-clad girlfriend, model Lindsey Evans, as she braces for a dip.
"Is it cold?" he asks. "Just jump in!"
He also brightens at mention of his legendary live shows. After taking his eye-popping lighted cube show to big festivals around the world, he's plotting a grander spectacle.
"I've been kicking it around for years but could never afford it," he says. "This next leap is going to separate me from everyone else."
Inspired by French house duo Daft Punk, he's eager to pump up the theatrical elements that are vital to the genre's future and largely absent from modern rock, he says. He has been a close pal to Tommy Lee since working on the drummer's 1999 rap-metal album, Methods of Mayhem, but confesses, "I cannot watch a Mötley Crüe concert for more than 20 minutes."
"I don't like Kiss," Zimmerman adds. "I don't like their music. It's terrible. But I went to one of their shows in Dublin, and as rock theater, it was one of the coolest shows I've ever seen.
"That got me thinking. Is some kid going to pay upward of $200 to watch some dude with a cloth-covered picnic table and two CD players? I want to lift the veil and give people a real show. You not only need your own music, you need a good show. In the last few years, I've seen these multimillionaire DJ dudes finally get a clue and start building big shows."
Last month, Forbes ranked Tiesto first among the world's highest-paid DJs with earnings of $22 million and an average nightly gross of $250,000. Skrillex was second with $15 million, trailed by Swedish House Mafia, David Guetta and Steve Aoki. Deadmau5 placed sixth with $11.5 million.
While Zimmerman insists that those "ludicrous" figures are inflated, he welcomes their potential to lure investors.
Money to earn, burn
"Now we have this huge pot of money coming in, creating bigger budgets and bigger crowds," he says. "They're doing us all a favor by letting big money know we're big money."
The EDM boom has been dubbed "the death of the guitar and the rise of the laptop," says Kerri Mason, Billboard's contributing dance music writer. "It's a huge wave, and it's not slowing down. I don't think we've seen its peak yet, not that massive moment of crossover."
Deadmau5 could be a catalyst.
"He's definitely a leader," she says, noting that his sound "is big and lush, and it sets the tone for this new era of electronic music. The mouse head has become an icon and a brand and an avatar. That's a flash of genius. He's very accessible to his fans and prickly in interviews and toward the industry. That inspires a lot of love on fans' part."
Swedish house superstar Avicii, who drew global notice with 2011 dance hit Le7els and recently opened for Madonna's pair of Yankee Stadium shows, considers Deadmau5 a formidable competitor.
"I've always admired him because he has a lot of integrity, and his music reflects that," he says. "He does his own thing and he's been doing it a long time. Joel was one of the first North American artists doing really big shows. And it's remarkable how big a brand the mouse head is."
About that mouse
Zimmerman adopted the moniker Deadmau5 after finding a dead mouse in his computer, using an alphanumeric spelling to double as a user name in chat rooms. His first dance chart hit, 2007 house-trance fusion Faxing Berlin, launched a steady stream of widely imitated tracks and set a course for stardom. The mouse head, or mau5head, evolved from his logo, further boosting his profile.
"I just one day put this thing on for a laugh, and it caught on," he says. "I really hope people don't think it's an alter ego. I don't see it that way. I take it off in shows sometimes. It's like wearing a heavy hat."
A few are in active use, and about a dozen are kept in storage. Early models were cumbersome, but the current batch, made by the Jim Henson Company, are built for comfort, with a sliding visor-mouth and ample ventilation.
Not every design scored. A misguided concrete version never saw liftoff, and the LED mouse head left Deadmau5 nearly, well, dead.
"I was almost electrocuted!" Zimmerman says. "I was wearing a chain necklace, and it hit one of the contacts. It was four amps at 220 volts powering the head, and I got shocked. But I took it off and played the rest of the show."
It's the same grit and bravado the Toronto-based musician has displayed since the start of his career, when the record business scoffed at computerized music while adopting its tools.
"All the mullets caught on real quick," he says, referring to old-school producers. "The Mutt Langes of the world were on Pro Tools right away. There are ways around it. I like Dave Grohl because he likes to record on his old reel-to-reel, but he's not anti-computer. As soon as it shows up on iTunes, it's digital. Are you kidding? I don't care who you are. Folkie McFolkerson, you are getting digitally recorded."
In recent years, the self-taught computer programmer established his mau5trap label, poured earnings into a high-tech studio and splurged on synthesizers. He was unfazed by the industry's initial indifference to electronic subgenres.
"That's been good because it created a niche market where we didn't have to compete against the global consensus," he says. "We had this corner of the market where we could kick it into the wall. It needed that segregation from the mainstream."
Now he sees a backlash in EDM's glut of copycats.
"How many reality shows do we need about pawn or picking antiques out of storage lockers? That's where dance music is at," he says. "When something works, people jump on the wagon, and everyone sounds like Afrojack or Deadmau5 or DJ what's-his-face. It's time to head in another direction."
And he has a certain mouse head in mind for the task.
By Edna Gundersen