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How Deadmau5—a.k.a. DJ Joel Zimmerman—came to make $100,000 a show and have four million Facebook fans

Zimmerman performing in his computerized mask. (Image: Drew Ressler/rukes.com)

Zimmerman performing in his computerized mask. (Image: Drew Ressler/rukes.com)

The Mau5Haus—the name Zimmerman’s inner circle gave his condo—is on the penthouse level of a loft-condo building near Ryerson University. The location is a good fit for a night-owl performer who spends most of his time on the road; it’s near 24-hour fast food and a supermarket, and it’s a 10-minute cab ride to the Guvernment, one of Zimmerman’s favourite dance clubs. “It’s all location, location, location for me,” he says. “I’m taking a massive fuckin’ tax hit by living in Canada, but oh well.” He laughs.

His condo is a teen’s fantasy of a sweet downtown pad. A red spiral staircase joins the living area to the upstairs sleeping pod, which opens onto a patio. His compact kitchen has Jägermeister on tap. Keyboards and equipment jockey for space alongside action figures, Deadmau5 dolls, Deadmau5-themed artwork and Professor Meowingtons’ sprawling kitty jungle gym. The sunken central lounge area houses a group of boxy, low-slung sofas facing a formidable flat-screen TV. The space is set up for sound, although on my visit the musician can’t quite seem to make his stereo behave. After an extended period of frenzied futzing, he gives up, grumbling about the wires. A midsummer sunset through a wall of west-facing windows doesn’t dispel the sense that we are hanging out in a basement rec room.

Zimmerman can still seem like a sullen teen. He’s slow to trust, and as is true of many people who spend long hours programming a computer, he’s instinctively anti-social. He rarely gives interviews to the media, preferring to interact directly with his fans through Facebook and Twitter. At our meeting, he focuses on his cigarette instead of making eye contact; only at the end of our interview, after he has already taken me into his studio and played me an unreleased song, does he finally relax, cracking jokes and sharing stories about his latest musical experiments.

Zimmerman grew up in Niagara Falls, a tourist town where wearing a giant animal head is not an uncommon occupation. His mother, Nancy, is a boisterous visual artist, his father, Rod, an auto worker. He has an older sister, Jennifer, and a younger brother, Chris. Nancy is a brash, warm tornado of a woman and is still a central figure in her son’s life. When he’s out of town, she babysits his cat. Recently, she helped pack up his condo in preparation for renovations. Above all, she is fiercely proud of her son. She’s responsible for some of the paintings of him on his condo’s walls, and she sells more such paintings on her personal website.

By the time Zimmerman could toddle, Nancy tells me, he was displaying signs of an affinity for mechanical things. He liked experiments that had an immediate, measurable effect: putting a fork in an electrical outlet, for instance, or running a magnet over the television set to distort the image. His maternal grandmother, Katherine Johnson, helped nurture Zimmerman’s interest in gadgets. A clever, resourceful woman who’d raised seven kids on a budget, she’d forage for TVs and toasters at the Goodwill and bring them to her grandson so he could dismantle and reassemble them. One Christmas, Zimmerman received a set of precision tools for electronics. He used them to take apart household objects, leaving in his wake a trail of tiny screws, which frequently impaled the bottoms of his family’s feet.

His grandmother was also responsible for introducing him to video games. When Zimmerman was five years old, she gave her grandkids an Atari system. Nancy remembers leaving for work in the morning and seeing her older son glued to the screen. When she returned at night, he’d still be there, cross-legged and surrounded by crumb-crusted plates. (In tribute to his early infatuation, the adult Zimmerman’s tattoos depict pixelated, old-school video game graphics.)

Zimmerman found a new obsession when his mother brought her business computer into their home. He’d try to work out lines of arcane computer language, blinking at the white text on a royal blue screen. (B.S.O.D., or “blue screen of death,” would become one of his early recording names.) He’d mess around with the coded workings, occasionally deleting his mother’s business files in his quest to master DOS. One day he announced he’d communicated on the computer with a stranger on the other side of the world. His mother laughed, assuming she was the butt of some geek in-joke, but he was telling the truth: Zimmerman, a dedicated early adopter, had discovered bulletin board services and rudimentary web chats. His performance name, Deadmau5, comes with a story: it’s an old online handle, inspired by his discovery of a deceased rodent in his machines and tweaked for length and leetspeak, the ASCII dialect of hackers and gamers.

 

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