He’s one of the best-known electronic music producers in the world, but if you saw him in person, you probably wouldn’t recognize him.
Of course, you’d know the giant mouse head. That’s been deadmau5’s signature since a friend—a member of industrial rock band Orgy—suggested it back in the 1990s. But when Joel Zimmerman arrives at KAOS nightclub at the Palms for an exclusive Weekly interview on May 18, some 15 hours after a 3 a.m. Electric Daisy Carnival set, he’s de-mau5ified: quiet and unassuming, smoking a cigarette down to the butt and with tattoos peeking out from beneath his black hoodie.
It’s been four years since deadmau5’s last Las Vegas residency, which ran briefly at XS in 2015. It took something big to lure him back here.
It’s 6 p.m. on Saturday during EDC Week and KAOS Dayclub is in full swing. Music blares and high-cut swimsuits abound.
Inside, the nightclub is mostly empty, as the crew prepares for another wild shift. Sitting in one of the club’s booths, the 38-year-old Zimmerman enthusiastically discusses what drew him to KAOS.
For starters, he’s a perfectionist. It’s instantly apparent that the man under the mouse head is a paragon of technological knowledge—a master of coding, and now, the real-time graphics processing units that make his live experiences so memorable.
Beyond crafting some of the most popular electronic music of his era, Zimmerman and his KAOS design partner, Aiden Kemp, are the visionaries behind deadmau5’s Las Vegas residency, which incorporates elements of his legendary cube experience. The third iteration of the Cube design, Cube v3, was unveiled at March’s Ultra Music Festival, and he’s hitting the road with a Cube v3 tour in September.
Until then, deadmau5’s KAOS residency will serve as a satellite to that impressive, traveling feat. And Zimmerman has full creative control.
“It’s probably the amount of LED tech they stuck in here that got me sold,” he says. “As far as I know, it’s the highest-res single system in North America. It’s a lot of pixels—76.5 million pixels to drive, which requires nine media servers. Most club installations have half of one. So it’s been a challenge.”
A self-professed nerd, Zimmerman spends lots of his time in the production weeds, learning how to program “real-time, procedural graphic animation for large-scale systems.” It’s something that puts him in an advantageous position as an electronic music producer with free rein over his club residency. The hardware at KAOS is so advanced, he explains, modern software isn’t powerful enough to power it all.
“So we’re coming up with all these new kind of cool ways to be able to get it to look cool and cohesive and not tear—like that,” he says, pointing to an LED display above our heads. To the untrained eye, the graphics look seamless. To Zimmerman, it’s an eyesore. “We’re fixing that,” he laughs.
Further separating deadmau5’s KAOS setup from that of other club headliners: his deep knowledge of tech, which allows him to design and program exactly what he wants, and to trigger content in real time. There’s nothing else like it happening in Las Vegas.
So far, the Canadian producer has performed twice at the Palms club. The production isn’t 100 percent to his liking yet, but, “We’re almost there,” he says. “I’ve done a couple shows here, and they’ve been great. We just blasted our content on the wall and I had the cube thing going, but there was no direct cohesiveness between the rest of the club fixtures and the cube yet, because it’s a lot of work. It’s been about a month of developing custom software just for this. It’s a passion project for me.”
Many performers get nervous before getting onstage, but that part’s painless for Zimmerman. There’s no mental preparation, no psyching himself up. “I just get up and go,” he says. “The hard part is being here on weekdays and working,” fine-tuning his giant LED behemoth and, at the moment, “coming up with ways to achieve things at the highest quality and the highest frame rate.
“I’m such a sucker for frame rate. What we’re seeing here is 30 frames per second,” he says, looking to the display above our heads. “But we know the system is capable of doing 60.”
Zimmerman talks about production the way folks talk about their kids or their pets. Where other topics might bore him, his eyes widen and his voice quickens when servers and pixels come up. If his Cube v3 tour is his favorite child, the KAOS residency is a close second.
To generate his real-time content at KAOS, Zimmerman explains, he uses GLSL shaders, best known for their use in video game content building. “You know how when you play a video game, it’s different than watching TV, because the frame rates are higher? Well, those things that happen in the video game are real time, because you can move around, you can interact with objects. The same goes with music interactivity and stuff, too.”
Real-time systems, like what Zimmerman uses for his KAOS and Cube v3 shows, “let you do whatever you want,” he explains. For that reason, deadmau5’s visual content at KAOS is entirely unique.
Over on the deadmau5 subreddit page (r/deadmau5), there’s a post from Zimmerman about how he programmed his Cube v3 project using Open GPL and GPU systems. His KAOS residency isn’t dissimilar. Moreover, it has required him to create a from-scratch rendering of the Palms nightclub—in 3D.
“It’s a lot of manual, autonomous labor,” Zimmerman says. “Basically, what I need to do is model this whole club … every little square is a module, and there’s hundreds of thousands of modules, and then I build it in 3D. Once that’s done, then it’s about coming up with creative ideas, like. ‘OK, that’s great. I have this system working, and I can put the letter ‘L’ across every screen.’ But creatively, what do you want to do? How do you want it to correlate to what song, to what piece? Then I have to get creative with it, and that’s the weird part that I do a lot of back and forth on.”
His KAOS residency is such an undertaking, when asked what he’s working on in the studio (his latest EP, mau5ville: Level 3, was released in February), he simply responds, “Nothing.”
“When I’m done with this, and I’ve got it to a point where I’m like, ‘OK, we can run this for, like, a year’ … then that’ll be done and I don’t have to worry about it. And then I have three months off, because my actual tour isn’t until September.”
Why create something so vast with an even bigger tour on the horizon? For Zimmerman, delivering the best production value is synonymous with the deadmau5 experience. It’s about challenging the industry, pushing the limits of technology and not just raising the bar upward, but moving it forward.
“Yeah, sure, any DJ can come in and bring a video playback system where he’s got a VJ mashing away on buttons, but you can only do so much, because the video is video; it’s linear, it’s not modular,” he says. Real-time output, on the other hand? “It’s something I already exercise on my massive Cube tour, so they’ve kind of been developing in tandem. I’ve been borrowing things from my Cube and putting it into this system and vice versa.”
As Zimmerman nudges his KAOS production closer to perfection, fans should expect to be blown away. He knows that people come to deadmau5 shows to experience something mind-bending—combining his electronic music mastery with cutting-edge visuals. But there are deadmau5 fans who also know they can depend on him to bring something extra, which fellow coders and programmers can geek out over and potentially be inspired by.
Zimmerman says his April KAOS sets operated at about 70 percent, and they went impressively well. “People were in, people were drinking and dancing and having a good time, so that’s a win,” he says. “But for the deep, chin-stroking nerds like me?” That’s what his future at KAOS is all about. After all, perfection only comes with meticulous hard work—and in this case, brilliant, beautiful chaos.
DEADMAU5 Upcoming KAOS dates: May 24, June 1-2, June 28, July 15, July 28. 702-953-7665, palms.com/kaos.