Toronto-native Joel Zimmerman, better known as deadmau5, is one of the most iconic names of dance music of all time. Go to any major music festival across the country and without fail, you’ll see at least one homemade mau5 head. He’s extended his reach into nearly every domain, from his breakthrough For Lack Of A Better Name LP in 2009 into questionable dubstep territories on productions like “Raise Your Weapon,” co-produced by Skrillex; he’s defined electronic music for generations to come.
I was introduced to deadmau5 about a decade ago, and he was arguably the first electronic artist who really made an impact that would define some of the most important years of my life thus far. I remember in high school, my friends bought a Launchpad, built a mau5 head, and would throw ‘raves’ in their parents basement, closing the whole night out with “Strobe.” Fast forward a few years, and the experience was much the same when I got to see Joel himself, but on a much grander and greater scale.
I’ve seen a lot of deadmau5 sets over the years: the first, in 2011 at the now-defunct Virgin Mobile FreeFest. To provide insight into the realm of dance music at the time, Porter Robinson played an electro set at 1:45pm in the afternoon, followed by Calvin Harris, who was not the top-earning DJ in the world, on the small dance stage, and deadmau5 closed out the festival on one of the early iterations of mau5’s Cube live production.
Since then, from Toronto to Miami I’ve watched him play a variety of crowds, sounds, and stages. Standouts include a performance at Veld Music Festival in 2013, named after his production “The Veldt,” which was inspired by the short story from Ray Bradbury which shares the same name, as well as his performance at Armin van Buuren’s A State of Trance stage at Ultra Music Festival in 2016. He played out a remix of the nursery rhyme “Old McDonald Had A Farm” and demonstrated his willingness to do anything and everything.
That same evening, I also saw deadmau5 perform alongside ATTLAS and REZZ in the early stages of their careers, for an intimate performance at the maybe 300-person capacity club, Treehouse, to close out Miami Music Week. That was the first time I saw Joel play a majority techno set; furthermore, there was no mau5 head or strobe lights — it was all about the music. Foreshadowing nonetheless, in several months deadmau5 would announce Testpilot, his techno moniker and a debut performance at Detroit’s staple house and techno festival, Movement.
In a world where techno artists are now garnering Las Vegas residencies over the long-standing popularity of big room or electro house, the genre is hotter than ever before. When I heard deadmau5 was bringing Testpilot to a warehouse in Brooklyn over New Year’s Eve weekend, I had this feeling I just had to be there. That said, he brought a set to the table that was anything but safe with a BPM that never dropped below 140. Testpilot is the greatest iteration of deadmau5’s career, and both his most genuine and impressive offering to date.
I want to preface this story with the fact I self-identify as much of a ‘dubstep kid’ and even though I’m no longer much of a kid, it feels the most representative of who I am. I entered the Testpilot warehouse with an open mind, hoping not to hear a single track I’ve heard before (unless a deadmau5 original). It was fast, really fast, but at the same time tinged with a hint of darkness. The BPM climbed and climbed with the only familiarity being the a capellas from deadmau5 productions. Aggressive. Unrelenting. He was an absolute wrecking ball.
He performed for the first two hours as Testpilot, bringing forward a mix of heavy-hitting, yet classic productions with his own sense of innovation. The first ‘eureka’ moment was a Testpilot rework of deadmau5 and Kaskade’s “I Remember” into a menacing, techno machine. At one point, the whole room was echoing “sometimes things get complicated,” as he mixed into Maceo Plex’s “Solar Detroit” into a Testpilot rework of Morgan Page’s “The Longest Road.” It was pure euphoria, and then before you know it he would reel back into the essentials like “Speakers R-4” and throw the crowd for a complete spin.
For the final hour, deadmau5 played a number of his original productions and switched back from techno. The two-hour performance had become a three-hour extravaganza in which it was impossible to predict what was coming next. He played the full 11-minute version of “Strobe,” much like my early high school experiences, but then pulled a Joel and does what he always does — playing out Avicii’s “Levels” and pounding a beer on stage to close out the night.
Watching Testpilot that night, I’ve never seen Joel have more fun on stage and more in-tune with the music he’s spinning. With a massive sound system shaking everything in its vicinity, deadmau5 brought forward a performance that was beyond innovative but genuine, and true to himself. I’m not sure I’ll ever see a set quite like that again, and that’s what makes it so particularly special. deadmau5, while one of the biggest acts of dance music, has managed to one-up his whole career and present his greatest offering thus far.