With that kind of success comes a whole host of detractors. When RA ran a review of Zimmermann's latest single earlier this year, one commenter memorably claimed that he was "the Dane Cook of techno; bland, inoffensive and popular with people who don't know any better," while another asked us to never review another Deadmau5 record again. Let alone do a feature on him.
Which, of course, only made us want to talk to him more. And when RA caught up with him earlier this month in New York, Zimmermann was interesting, opinionated and much more complex than we ever thought. He talked candidly in advance of his upcoming dates at matter, The Warehouse Project and Amsterdam Dance Event about the sweat that goes into making his tracks sound effortless, his unique live set-up and why his upcoming mix CD, Random Album Title, contains little new material. And why his vision of hell is akin to being in a crowd at one of his own concerts... Did we mention it's complicated?
It seems like you got into computers at an early age. What first drew you to them?
More like who. My uncle, who was more or less the black sheep of the family, was into all things technical. He did some university stuff with computer programs when they were only a little bit more powerful than a pocket calculator. He was always the guy that the family would call to fix the computer.
Were you programming at an early age?
Nah. I was playing MS Golf and Minesweeper. And getting blown away by the amazing effects that Corel Draw could provide. At the same time, my parents were sending me to piano classes. I went to a school for eight years in Niagara Falls, where I got a lot of classical music pounded into my head.
The practical part, sure. Not so much the performance bit. Back then, it was no problem to get up on stage and do something, but I think I fried my brain at some point because I can't play anymore. It's so fucking weird. It's like, when was the last time you were on a bike? It doesn't matter—you can get on it and pop a wheelie or whatever. With things like that, though—that require intricate motor skills—you just forget.
When you were growing up, did you listen to classical music?
Absolutely fucking not. I hated it. I was that little bad-ass kid at the piano school that never listened to it.
What music were you listening to?
Skinny Puppy, Steely Dan, Tears for Fears, that sort of stuff.
Steely Dan seems like the odd group out in that list.
Yeah. My dad was one of those first people to be suckered by the Columbia House deal where you could buy 12 albums for a penny or whatever it was. So, we got U2, Tears for Fears, War, Steely Dan, there was some Metallica in the mix. It was a weird collection.
I read an interview online where you said that you don't have to feel overly happy with a track, that it doesn't have to be perfect before you put it out.
Are you sure? Because then I'm one contradictory son of a bitch. I think the point that I was trying to make was that you'll never complete anything. I'll never be 100% happy with any production. I can go back and make any production that I've done better. That's just the process of what makes you an artist.
This is a fucking mix CD."
Are there tracks that you wish you could go back and re-do?
Absolutely. I would love to revisit "Complications." It's something that you just can't go back to, though. You can. But it doesn't feel right for me.
Did you do that for Random Album Title?
No. There was one track called "I Remember" that I did with Kaskade, which was based on a track that I never released called "I Forget." It had been more of a cinematic segue-type thing, not dance music at all, which is something that I'll throw together every month—just some 50 second long thing. So I went back to that track and realized that if we expanded it, and added a vocal it might work.
Absolutely. I'd love to do a soundtrack to a movie. I don't even want any credit, I just want to do it for my own personal satisfaction. Because, you know, aside from being a club conductor/electronic music maker guy, I'm also very keen on sound design and transparent recordings. That's the goal. That's my goal.
What do you mean by transparent recordings?
Something that is very clear. Where you hear every nuance in the way that is mixed. Transparency applies to engineering, the placement of certain sounds, the honing in on and the lessening of certain frequencies. And mastering, which is really an art. A lot of guys don't do their own. Which is fair play because I drive myself fucking crazy when I have a great idea for a track and I can't quite dial it right because of the way that I've put the track together.
I master as I make it, so it's a really difficult thing. I think a lot of guys are starting to do that now, which is neat. But traditionally speaking, back when say Josh Wink ruled the planet, people were just taking their stuff to wherever and it wasn't done properly. It was all a case of making it as loud as they could without fucking up the grooves. I love listening to early dance music, but listen to the audio fidelity of "Pump Up the Jam" next to a slamming Shlomi Aber track, you know? And that's all due to levels of technology becoming more accessible.
There are still a lot of people who don't put the time into mastering these days, though.
It's like the asshole who bought the first iPhone and smashed it on purpose. It's like, "Ahhh! It's such a great track! What are you doing? Treat it right!" I'm just too strict on quality control to let that happen. That's why things with a deadline, like remixes, are such a thorn in my side sometimes. I'm really against that idea of "I don't care what you have to do, you need to bring me a polished thing by this date."
Didn't it take a long time for your album to come out?
Well, this isn't my artist album. This is a fucking mix CD. I'll blag it before you assholes on the message board do. Yes, it is a mix CD. Yes, half of the tracks are already out and you've heard them many times before, but in my defense I did sneak in eight tracks that have been unreleased or won't be released for a while. It's music for my fans, those who wanted a CD, a tangible good. In this day, that's such a rare thing to come by.
the middle of a dancefloor like that."
Tell me about your live performance. You use something called the Monome, right?
Yeah. For lack of a better explanation, it's a modern art installation piece gone functional. When you get it, it comes in a box with a power supply and a USB cable. No manual, no logo stamped on it. It's a piece of wood with some buttons. I think the reason the guy who made it does that is because you're forced to be innovative with it. You have to make your own software for it.
The one that I have is a 16x16 grid where each button will light up, and that's it. But with that, you can build your own sequencer and have each button doing a different thing. So Steve [Duda, my partner in BSOD] built this monster of an application called MOLAR, which is an extended version of MLR. Steve really has a thing for complicated machinery, so he set it up so that we can load in wav data and slice that up. It basically allows you to sequence a feed, MIDI triggers or wav data playback to a channel. You can permutate it in so many different ways that you can really jam on it.
How has that changed how you do your live show?
Every show is different. I'll make 150 loops or something and just chuck them into the directory. One of the things that I've found is that you can do a dance music live PA for hours and it'll sound like shit, so you've got to dodge it a bit because you can't bring all of your hardware up there on stage. You have to make some compromises, but you might as well make it fun, right?
It's heinous. And I'm such a sucker for it too. It doesn't destroy my life at all. I'm not making music for people that think I suck. I'm making music for people who either appreciate music or don't appreciate music, but can kind of take it in.
The internet is such a fucked-up bizzaro land. I'm not exaggerating when I say that of all of the places that I've gone, I've had a great fucking time and not one fucking person comes up to me and says, "You suck!" And then I get home. And I hop on these message boards and see, "Yeah, he's such a dickhead. I saw him at this thing once and…" And then they'll make up this midget polar bear story, you know what I mean?
I think I'm an easy target. Fair play to them: Maybe I'd do the same thing if I was in their shoes. Anonymity + an opinion + an audience? It's a recipe for… But, you know, I'm the same way. You should see me playing Counter-Strike.
I don't take any of it seriously. And, of course, after reading this people'll be like "Well, you should take it seriously. We're your customers." Well, contrary to your belief, you're .0001% of my success, so… People don't get successful because they get hated on by everybody. People get successful because people appreciate what you do and they support it. And they tell a friend. And that friend tells a friend.
In retrospect, I would have liked to have developed as an artist so that I could have been that underground dude. Take Shlomi Aber. He's not making too much noise, he's not wearing a big fucking head, he's just in there. But if he comes around and does a crossover track? Welcome to the dark side. You have to be careful with that stuff if that's kind of the way that you want to present yourself. It's just…
I'm not out to be a superstar DJ. It's just the way it fucking happened. I'm not going to take it all back and retract my Deadmau5 identity, go back to my humble underground roots. Contrary to popular belief I was very underground. I was in my Mom's basement tooling away on Impulse Tracker on a 386 just doing Nintendo music until some Loop Library company hired me as a producer.
Did you go to many clubs?
I wasn't a scenester. I didn't go to many clubs.
I remember you saying in an interview that you didn't know who Pete Tong was when he first played one of your tracks.
I didn't. I don't follow it. I don't care for the who's whos and what's whats. I'm interested in two things: music and technology. I'm not interested in clubs, I'm not interested in being in the middle of a 80,000 person crowd and "having the time of my life." That's my idea of hell. Being in the middle of a dancefloor like that.
But you're often playing to that dancefloor.
Right. But I've got my little area, in my own little world. I'm having a fun time—and helping other people to have a good time. That's great. That's a cool situation. But I could never go to a club and be that guy in the middle. Every gig, it's packed like sardines and you look at the dude in the middle and he's got the biggest shit-eating grin on his face and it's like, "What's wrong with you?"
But it's a positive thing. I like it. It's fun to watch other people have a good time. If our situations were reversed, I'd just be like, "Hey, you guys are way too close. Stop pushing me. We can all listen to this music too. Can't we all just sit down?" [laughs] My idea of a perfect techno event would be Richie Hawtin playing in a theater.