Midnight in the lobby of the Encore Tower Suites, Las Vegas.
Aside from it being the lobby of the most exclusive hotel on the Strip, it’s the same as any other hotel lobby. Time for an entourage checklist. Bodyguard, same physical dimensions as a Portaloo? Check. Girlfriend, seemingly pre-airbrushed? Check. Tired-looking management, flustered PR lady, besuited Vegas hotel staff with discreet earpieces? Check, check, check.
There are 12 women – or four Destiny’s Child tribute acts – and each has a bottle of champagne, but they’re not with us. They’re with P Diddy. He’s pacing up and down on the other side of the lobby, angrily shouting into a telephone about “going to party with Paris”. We’re not waiting for P Diddy. We’re waiting for deadmau5. Deadmau5 doesn’t come.
A lift opens. Joel Zimmerman doesn’t look like he should have an entourage, particularly when you’re in a room with P Diddy. He’s dish-rack bony and covered in video game tattoos. This is our man. We are go. The entourage snakes through the casino floor. There are a million lights, all the colours of hazardous chemical signs. Or money. Depends how you see the world. We are flanked by a rolling security detail. No door is closed. No one is in the way.
We wind through cold service tunnels. “Good luck!” “You rock!” High-fives and handshakes. Then, “Here we go, stay together” through a big black door into the club. Very dark. Extremely loud. I put my hands on the bodyguard’s waist as if in a conga. He looks at me, eyes like boxing gloves. I let go. Up some steps on to a small bridge over a giant pool to a little island in front of a 60ft waterfall, a gaudy reminder of where in the world we are.
Joel lifts on the mask, a deranged Mickey Mouse nearing climax, and begins a two-hour set of synth-led electro-house at weapons-grade volume. The roar makes my ears pop. This is deadmau5.
Steve Wynn, the resort’s owner, says Joel earns more playing Vegas than “Sinatra at his peak”. Our photographer informs us that there’s $100,000 in cash nestling in Joel’s suite.
As deadmau5, Joel is at the forefront of what in the US is conservatively called EDM: Electronic Dance Music. There has always been EDM here, as long as EDM has existed, but only recently has it achieved the mainstream popularity that turns a niche interest in a dingy club to a multimillion-dollar arena-filling industry. More amazing still is that it can be co-opted from what we in the UK know of the scene’s tropes – 20,000 people in a field in Cambridgeshire, some guy wearing a Sainsbury’s Bag For Life as a nappy, or an Ibiza nightclub where the powerfully high flex their facial muscles in time to the beat – into a commercially viable product for the clean-cut American mass-market.
In the mid-Nineties, everyone said that the DJ was the new rock star. Deadmau5 and his peers, David Guetta, Skrillex, Tiësto and so on, are selling tickets and shifting records in every major territory, between which they commute using private jets. Why be a rock star when you can be a brand? That’s something Elvis figured out in this very city.
Vegas residencies, the biggest money-spinning live slots in showbusiness, were once the exclusive terrain of Elton John, Celine Dion or the mysterious witch commonly known as David Copperfield. Joel’s deal with Wynn is vast because Wynn knows that he can fill his 8,000-capacity venues merely by slapping a grinning deadmau5 poster on the door. Not just once a month. Every night. The crowd is middle America, the sweaty guys in white shirts, the girls in heels walking like Tina Turner after two mojitos. Of course EDM would wind up here. This is money, and, as sure as water running downhill, money is where music always goes.
Deadmau5 is, in performance, not strictly speaking a DJ. True, he’s standing at a set of decks and a laptop, pushing buttons and twiddling knobs, but it’s with showmanship, bombast and an all-important sense of its own absurdity. Because thousands of people turning up to dance to metronomic beats coming from a laptop owned by a man in a mask is by its very nature absurd, no matter who is putting the noises together and how they’re tweaking the sound. It’s like going to a poetry reading done in Morse code. A deadmau5 show shares a lot in common with those of EDM’s spiritual fathers Daft Punk. Its deployment of alluring iconography – the mask, lending face to the faceless, and a lightshow that’s a laser jigsaw of the deadmau5 grin eating up giant Pac-Man ghosts is pure spectacle. By contrast, attending a David Guetta show, fist raised, face glistening, is like watching Richard Branson pulling tunes off an iPod at a wedding.
The set, a triumph, ends two hours later. The entourage reassembles, this time with no touching, and we creep back to the Encore Tower Suites. Everyone but his manager slowly peels away, and we find ourselves almost alone at perhaps the most prestigious blackjack tables in Vegas.
“What do you think?” says Joel to no one in particular, “fifty or 100?” Seems frivolous, I think, before I realise he’s dealing in thousands, not singles, which seems very frivolous. Unless you’re a resident musician in Vegas. I sit and watch him burn through his chips, playing three separate hands simultaneously. At five in the morning, I opt to leave him to it. We’ve not exchanged a single word. He shakes my hand, somehow behind his head, without taking his eyes off the table.
“I’ll call you tomorrow,” says his manager. Later I hear that Joel stays seated until 1.30pm the next afternoon. When he leaves, he’s not in the red.
Joel is 32 and was born in Niagara Falls, Ontario, a place used to impressive visual spectacle. He has been recording as deadmau5 since 2004, has four Grammy nominations to his name (plus many more plaudits besides) and is about to release his sixth studio LP, >album title goes here<. Before he was a dance music superstar he was (and remains) a tech nerd. He claims to be one of the first people in the world to have learned Flash. Now his budget has improved, his toys are a little harder to come by. In the studio he’s built in his Toronto home is a Red camera, the kind they often shoot feature films on. One day he wants to make his own video productions, but until then he just films cute videos of his cat, Professor Meowingtons. A Red camera costs £40,000.
His verve for technology meets his music in more than just its production. Deadmau5 is an accessible internet fixture, streaming live from his studio, uploading new music to Soundcloud, fielding fan questions on Twitter – all the faintly disheartening stuff you’d expect to read on a modern electronic musician’s biography in an age where we want to have our celebrity and eat it. Except in this instance, it’s with merit and without cynicism. It’s not some record company work experience kid tweeting on his behalf.
There is a song on the new album named The Veldt. It began life as an instrumental track that Joel made and put online. A fan, Chris James, watching Joel do this on his studio stream, quickly recorded and uploaded a vocal track to fit it. Joel heard it and was on the phone to him within the hour. This hasty, crowdsourced, impromptu collaboration is what you’ll find on the record. It’s a thoroughly modern and almost uncharted straddling of media – taking music from bedroom artist to world platform in one step. It’s enough to make your head burst, but it undeniably feels like the future.
SIN AND SPECTACLE
It’s 10.30pm by the time I see Joel again, and I’m hoping he’s in a good mood. He insists on doing the interview at the blackjack table he’d retired from only nine hours earlier. He is in a good mood. He opens up about Prince Harry’s ‘strip billiards’ incident (also at the Encore Tower Suites), revealing more about this unguarded, gonzo attitude to celebrity. “People blame the security guys, but it’s his fault, man,“ says Joel. “You gotta be on some next level sh*t to be taking all your clothes off anyway. No way would I ever do that. Not even if I wasn’t deadmau5. But then again, if people did take photos of me doing something bad, would I care? Let’s say your magazine ran a story saying that deadmau5 spends all of his time and money on adult websites. So? Who cares? Stuff like that depresses me. We’re just all waiting with bated breath for the next scandal.”
Without pausing, he bets $5,000 on a single hand. “This is the only thing these days that stimulates the sh*t outta me. I play a nightclub and everyone’s freaking out: ‘I love you, deadmau5!’ I’m desensitised to it. If you wanna really get my heart rate going, gimme $100,000 credit in a casino, let me burn it down until I have $20 left and then I’m in a panic.” It’s not that he isn’t enjoying being interviewed, more that he’s enjoying the blackjack, which just about makes the additional scrutiny bearable. If it wasn’t blackjack it’d be Twitter or video games. It’s an impressive display of multitasking. I ask if he hopes the way he lays his life out online would, in an ideal world, lead to a situation where he can cut out the press altogether. He perks up immediately.
“Yeah! I really do. That’s why I don’t really give a f*ck, right? What layer of transparency am I gonna offer someone through a magazine that’s localised in one country as opposed to a global network who, in real time, I can show what I’m doing all the f*cking time. What, then, is the point of sitting down with a journalist asking me ‘What I really feel’? No offence, by the way.”
None taken. You’re the face of EDM, I tell him. That’s why the media are interested. He gets it. All reluctant spokesmen get it. “There has always been a stigma about America being late to dance music. Bullsh*t. We had dance music. What’s happening now is it’s become an industry. So then the media pays attention. Money, then attention. Money, then attention. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.” It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy allowing deadmau5 to spin a chip worth $25,000 between his fingers. I ask him where he picked up his sense of showmanship.
“Know what? The big turnaround for me was… I went to a Kiss concert. They’re terrible. They suck so bad. I hope they don’t read this. But their show is a f*cking show. They put a lot into making it entertaining. At one point, the guitarist pulls out a fricking bazooka and blows off a bit of the stage. How things have changed. I remember when Trent Reznor used to bring out a crappy old keyboard and smash it up, and everyone would say: ‘Oh wow, that was so cool, we were [lucky enough to be] at the concert where Trent snapped and smashed up his keyboard!’ Bullsh*t. He used to do that every night. I loved the theatrics. It’s about spectacle. That’s what I realised.”
He throws down the bet. He wins. I’m exhausted. I leave. It’s more spectacle than I can take.
Deadmau5’s >album title goes here< is released on 24 September on Mau5trap/Parlophone
(Images: Rex Features)