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Leave it to a mouse to outdo a rat.
While the Rat Pack once used to be the kings of Las Vegas, Ol' Blue Eyes himself (Frank Sinatra, that is) would be surprised if he were still around to discover that the beats of electronic dance music artists like Deadmau5 now dominate the soundtrack of Sin City.
"I had dinner with [Las Vegas hotel magnate] Steve Wynn last week," says Deadmau5, the electro/progressive house producer/remixer also known as Joel Zimmerman, "and he said that we—meaning electronic music artists in general—were all getting paid more than Sinatra ever did. That's even after you adjust for inflation. He said that in Vegas electronic music is beating the hell out of the Rat Pack era."
While some might get the impression that the Toronto native is exaggerating, Deadmau5's year-long residency at Wynn Las Vegas' XS Nightclub and Encore Beach Resort and even Vegas mayor Carolyn Goodman's official proclamation that January 2, 2012 was "Deadmau5 Day" makes a strong case that EDM has arrived in Vegas in a very big way. In addition to offering dozens of state-of-the-art dance clubs with dazzling sound and lighting systems, Las Vegas is now also home to the Electric Daisy Carnival, one of the world's largest EDM festivals, which moved from Los Angeles to Vegas this year.
The incredible success that Deadmau5 enjoys not only in Vegas but worldwide is one of many signs that EDM is thriving in 2012. A relative newcomer to the scene, Deadmau5 released his debut album, Get Scraped, in 2005 but enjoyed his first big breakthrough when his 2007 progressive house single "Faxing Berlin" became a club favorite after DJ Pete Tong played the track on his BBC radio program. The single was featured on Deadmau5's third studio effort, the 2008 album Random Album Title, which also included the singles "Not Exactly" and "I Remember," a collaboration with Kaskade that eventually reached #1 on the Billboard Hot Dance Airplay chart. Since then he's released a variety of successful singles, EPs, mix compilations, live albums, and studio efforts, including For Lack of a Better Name and 4x4=12.
This year Deadmau5 has released two singles—"Maths" and "The Veldt"—but currently he's focused on a series of EPs that will be compiled into an album by year's end. The first EP of the series is "The Veldt," which features the full original 12-minute version of title track with vocals by Chris James, remixes, and the new track "Failbait" featuring Cypress Hill. "It's a weird EP," Deadmau5 admits. "You've got 'The Veldt' and then you've got some dude rapping about weed. I'm glad it's finally out so I can start working on something new as opposed to worrying about how I'm going to market oddball tracks like those."
While some of Deadmau5's biggest tracks are collaborations, he says he only joins forces with other artists when he feels it's appropriate: "Collaboration comes when it's comfortable. I recently did another collaboration with Wolfgang (Gartner, who previously collaborated with Deadmau5 on "Animal Rights"), but it wasn't some kind of forced thing where someone though I needed to get two other DJs or producers to do a remix. It was just a bro thing. I had a track that sounded like something Wolfgang would do, so I handed it over to him just to give it some wheels. There was no big fuss over the whole ordeal of us collaborating together. I mean, if I hear, 'Oh, you should do something with Skrillex!' one more time I'm going to puke!"
One of Deadmau5's most satisfying pairings was his partnership with Steve Duda, who is best known as the developer of several innovative music software programs including BFD Virtual Acoustic Drum Module, GURU, Lucifer VST, and Devine Machine. Together they released several recordings under the moniker BSOD (an acronym for "blue screen of death"), including the single "This is the Hook" and the album This Is . . . but their collaborations also extended to the development of a custom software program that Deadmau5 uses to perform his live shows.
"It's like a drum sequencer and sample player on crack," says Deadmau5. "Steve was my go-to guy when I was starting out. Everyone needs someone like that when you need to figure out if you're doing things right. We made some records together, and then he decided that he didn't want to be a rock star and just wanted to program. He does great work, and he does it all from the ground up. I still give him ideas and test things for him. I use a lot of the type of software he develops, so I ask if it's possible to do things like maybe have the filter post or pre fader. Those ideas may not affect the development of the plug-in, but I'm sure that a couple of my suggestions have influenced things. We talk every day, so I have a hand in everything he does."
While Deadmau5 often shares the stage with DJs at festivals, he is more of a live performer than a record selector, using a laptop computer loaded with various software programs and custom loops to play, remix, and create his own songs on stage. Over the years his stage setup has evolved considerably from a laptop with Ableton Live, controllers like a Monome 256, JazzMutant Lemur, and Native Instruments Maschine, and effect processors to an impressive array of gear that includes several keyboards such as a Virus TI Polar and Minimoog Voyager, Doepfer A-100 and Buchla 200E modular synth modules, and more.
"I'm always adding something to my stage setup," he admits. "If I've got a little room up there I'm trying to fill it up with more stuff. But I haven't bought a new synth since the Virus Polar. Now I'm less about super new technology and more about getting different flavors. I've been buying a lot of the original vintage gear that all of the new software is trying to emulate. I've gotten to the point in my career where I'm financially stable enough to afford it, so why not get the real deal instead? It's a lot more fun because it's almost like de-evolving from cutting-edge technology. You're doing things by hand instead of selecting points on a computer screen. Doing that makes the sound yours. It becomes less of a process and more of an instrument."
Currently Deadmau5's goal is to have his performance setup resemble his studio as much as possible, although he acknowledges that the working conditions aren't exactly the same. "There's a lot of smoke and mirrors involved with performing on stage," he says. "Making a track isn't instantaneous or spontaneous. I once streamed a video of me making a track in the studio from start to finish, and it lasted about 14 hours straight. Who is going to sit through watching me do that on stage? But that's how music is made. It's not done on the fly. When I perform live things are already programmed to a certain degree."
Whereas many of today's most popular EDM artists started off as DJs and only got into producing and remixing tracks once they gained some popularity, Deadmau5 took the opposite path, starting his career by producing tracks at his home studio and becoming a performer once those tracks became successful. As a result he feels it's essential for aspiring EDM artists to learn as much about the craft of producing a track as possible, encompassing everything from sound design, composition, and recording to mixing, mastering, and even marketing.
"When you're starting off it's easy to get wrapped up in one synth plug-in," he explains. "It's good to play with those things because they teach the basic principles of signal paths, oscillators, and how a synthesizer works. But don't forget to also pay attention to effect plug-in like EQ and compressors, because they are fundamental as well. You may have a great composition with a great arrangement and cool drums, but if you don't know how to mix it's not going to sound very good. You should learn how to do mixing and mastering yourself instead of having the attitude that you'll just create ideas and have someone else mix and master your tracks.
"Record labels aren't looking for kids with ideas," he continues. "Everyone has an idea. My neighbors all have ideas, but they don't sit there and engineer. When I'm looking for an artist for my label, I'm looking for someone who can deliver the whole package. I don't want to mix their tracks, and neither does anyone else, really. We're all too wrapped up doing our own things and touring. You're more likely to be successful if you can stand behind everything involved with your work. You don't want to be like (Jersey Shore cast member and DJ) Pauly D, standing there fist pumping on stage while some kid in Norway is writing and producing all of your music for you. That's just cheap, and no one respects that. If you can't do it all then you're just not going to stand out."
With his sprawling performance rig, elaborate cube-shaped, LED-illuminated stage platform, and signature illuminated Mau5head masks, Deadmau5 certainly stands out in a scene where it can often be difficult to tell artists and DJs apart. To help him maintain his uniqueness, he emphasizes that he's more open to collaborating with artists outside of the EDM scene than those already involved within it as he feels doing the latter would make the music too homogenized.
"The uniqueness gets lost when you only collaborate with artists that are similar to you," he reasons. "That's kind of scary. I'm more open to working with rock bands than DJs. Right now you have a sort of coalition of the willing in electronic music where artists think they have to work with certain DJs and always do shows with them. As the scene becomes bigger it will be easier to shake off because it will be too big to become completely unified. Right now we can't have this big utopia with everyone being happy and working together because that will fall apart in seconds. It's good to see that as the scene grows that other people like myself are stepping out of the circle and doing their own thing."