The best-laid plans of mice and men are not for Joel Zimmerman.
The electro-dance maverick, who goes professionally by the name Deadmau5 (pronounced "dead mouse" and arising from an incident in which a mouse crawled into his computer), has earned a Juno Award and a 2009 Grammy nomination. He has performed the world over and often shares chilled Jägermeister with notorious Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee. And yet the former tech-geek from Niagara Falls, Ont., denies any schemes to dominate dance music.
"These random things have happened my whole life," says Zimmerman, "They just keep fitting in."
Speaking in the sky-lit Toronto loft he calls home - scattered about are skateboards, a BMX bike, laptops, sound equipment and unpacked luggage - the tired but talkative producer-musician answers a question about his signature headpiece, a giant, foam mouse head that rests atop his boyish frame when he performs. Zimmerman, knowledgeable about 3-D animation, originally used the big-eared logo for earlier ventures, including a stint providing music clips for sound libraries and website applications.
When an online friend e-mailed a picture of himself passed out on a couch, Zimmerman manipulated the photo to include a dazed mouse head (with eyes X-ed out, as in cartoons) and shot it back. The pal, who thought it hilarious, suggested that Zimmerman wear the mouse head if he ever performed live.
"This was before I had even decided what kind of music I was going to play," he says, drawing temporary energy from cigarettes and Coca-Cola.
The rodent-wear phenomenon is just one of many happenings that shaped Zimmerman's unscheduled career. But while mouse and musician are now inseparable, his relationship with dance music is not. Not only is the star outspoken in his attitude toward song-merging DJs - "I don't see the technical merit in it" - he finds his fandom ironic.
"Sometimes I look out at a crowd of 70,000 people," he remarks, envisioning one of his stadium appearances. "I focus on a middle spot and I'm thinking that it's my idea of hell."
That his audiences would pay to put themselves in a sweaty, jostling throng and pay silly amounts of money for bottled water is an odd notion to the laid-back Zimmerman, who no longer dances much himself. "I don't get it, but I don't question it any more," he shrugs. "They're all smiling, they're all jumping, so I'll throw 'em music."
The music comes in the form of an album (2008's Random Album Title, a trance-disco soundscape that earned a Juno nomination), remixes (his remake of Morgan Page's The Longest Road got him his Grammy consideration) and live performances. At Friday's headlining appearance at Toronto's Kool Haus, he did his excitable thing, using a laptop computer and other devices to shape and squeeze sounds, while adding clanking percussion on top of driving beats. Nobody really danced, except for a curvy, undulating woman on a podium at the room's centre. She was part of the show, as were the swiveling light fixtures and the multicoloured tubular bulbs onstage.
Zimmerman, who moved to his own grooves as he tweaked knobs and mixed music on the fly, spoke earlier in the day about the importance of presenting sights as well as sounds. "If I went to see somebody live, it would have to be better than me buying a CD and listening to him in my studio," he says. "Part of the live thing is being in the same room and seeing the guy - I get that. But a ticket is $50; I can get the CD for $12."
Laying out the details of his ad hoc ascent, Zimmerman mentioned working his way through dance clubs as a teenager on the Niagara Peninsula. Although he was a rock fan (of Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead), he filled in as a dance-club DJ. Even as a teen, when it came to the technical aspects of dance music, he was "the dude" when it came to lighting systems and software questions. Later, he learned from the "mullets" (long-haired sound engineers) and forged online relationships by logging into Internet forums populated by electronic sound pioneers.
"The Internet is a brilliant learning tool," he says. "It's the largest encyclopedia of all things to do with audio engineering."
His relationship with tattooed rocker Lee came about when another colleague (Steve Duda, the head audio technician at Zimmerman's Mau5trap Recordings label) passed on an electronic folder of "little weird ideas" to the outlandish drummer. They hooked up in person at Hamilton's Copps Coliseum when Lee was in town with Motley Crue and later formed a side-project with Duda and Lee's cohort DJ Aero.
The group, which locked itself in a basement for five days in 2007 to record a bleepy EP, calls itself WTF? You can figure out the acronym yourself, but the reference is to an X-rated expression of bewilderment.
Zimmerman is a little dazzled by his lofty dance-world status. "Who would have thought five years ago that you would have a sea of people saying 'Deadmau5,' " he says. "It's like they're talking about somebody else. It's too wild."
Actually, it's just wild enough. It's quite likely that Zimmerman's career is not as random as he'd lead you to believe, or even as random as he himself believes. Talking to him, you get a sense of his determination. Perhaps he wasn't always sure of his destination, but he was moving toward something.
A better mouse head
Toronto electro-dance producer and musician Joel Zimmerman (Deadmau5) is identifiable by the Muppet-y mouse head he wears onstage. It's not unusual for Zimmerman (who has performed in some 30 countries) to meet fans with rodent regalia even more spectacular than his own. But no longer, says the Grammy-nominated artist, who plans to unveil the mightiest mouse lid yet in about three months' time. "It will exploit some technology unseen to human eyes," declares Zimmerman, "and nobody will be copying it any time this decade."
Tell us more, please, we're all ears! "Sorry, I can't get it into it right now," he replies, with a cheese-eating grin. "It's gonna be crazy, that's all I can say." B.W.