“I started making blips and bleeps with basic tracking programs.” Growing up in Niagara Falls, Ontario, the middle son of an artist mom and an auto-worker dad, Zimmerman took some after-school piano lessons, but from the moment he laid hands on the 486, he says, “electronic music was in the cards for me.” His mother, Nancy, recalls that, as a kid, “Joel kind of isolated himself and was even ostracized, because he was a little weirdo, a little nerd.He liked the kids who had the same interests as him, but when he started with computers, that was the end of that.There are no windows in the room, just three large, glowing screens — two PC displays side by side, a television tucked into a cubby above them.The walls are bare of decoration but lined with gear: Prophets, Moogs, MIDI keyboards, effects boxes, remote controls, a circuit-bent Speak & Spell and a five-foot-tall rack of rare modular synthesizers that cost Zimmerman around 870,000.“My manager hates this, cause it never kicks in, you know? “And I play it live and the people hate it, ’cause it never drops.” I ask him how concerned he is about those reactions.IMMERMAN HAS BEEN A computer geek since early adolescence, when his uncle gave the family what Zimmerman refers to, lovingly, as a “crappy 486.” “It was amazing at the time,” he says of the primitive PC.For Deadmau5, coming up with a melody is only the beginning.He slaves over his waveforms, fussing and tinkering with filters, switches and oscillator knobs until the sound is just so.
“Dance music is stuck in this place where any kid can buy some software — or pirate it — and just use the presets.” As the melody loops, Zimmerman, wearing a tight Moog T-shirt, loose jeans and chunky white athletic socks, adds a crunchy arpeggio and other distortion effects until the riff achieves a scalding fury.
At a time when house music’s four-on-the-floor thump has become pop’s backbone, from Lady Gaga to Usher to the Black Eyed Peas, Zimmerman has carved out his own space between the Hot 100 and the club ghetto, combining body-moving discotheque utilitarianism with over-the-top, Gaga-level showbiz theatricality.
As Zimmerman puts it, “I’m the Gene Simmons of electronic music.” In the past year, he headlined Coachella’s dance tent, became the first electronic artist to sell out the 17,500-capacity Earls Court in London, rocked Ibiza residencies and served a high-profile gig as the MTV Video Music Awards’ in-house DJ. They feature not just the mouse helmet but also a massive LED rig, the centerpiece of which is an LED cube that flashes and strobes in time with musical cues, Zimmerman standing inside.
So what if his apartment gets stellar views of the illuminated billboards and gazillion-foot LED screens of Yonge-Dundas Square, a few blocks away?
The more you look at Zimmerman’s crib, the more you see the markings of a shut-in: That minimalist dining table? The living room, down a seductive step from the rest of the place? Up a spiral staircase is Zimmerman’s bedroom, where he sleeps on a Tempur-Pedics lab, and which opens out onto a vast patio.