A day before his public debut as a tattooed maestro of symphonic music, the EDM superhero Deadmau5 is reclined in a basement recording studio in West Hollywood, crunching anxiously on nuts and celery stalks. He’s dressed in a Banksy T-shirt and bright red sneakers, scrolling through social media on his phone, looking for fan reaction to Where’s the Drop? â€“ a just-released album of symphonic translations of his sweeping dance tunes.
He seems pleased but admits to being “a little nervous.” In barely 24 hours, Deadmau5 would be sharing a stage crowded with strings, woodwinds, horns and a live conductor for two nights at the Wiltern Theatre in L.A. He’ll be sitting at a computer console at stage left, providing electronic accents and a crucial “low-end growl” on Moog synthesizer. The audience will be seated.
“My wife is making me wear a suit,” says Deadmau5, a.k.a. Joel Zimmerman, sounding amused. “We’re encouraging formal attire. We’re not enforcing it â€“ if you want to show up in your raver onesie with your glow sticks.”
Sitting next to Zimmerman is his partner on this project, South African composer Gregory Reveret, who was recruited to re-imagine Deadmau5’s best-known tracks in the acoustic language of symphonic instruments. “Greg puts the weird marks on the paper,” jokes Zimmerman, who sees Where’s the Drop? as an additional musical path, not a replacement for the euphoric electronic music he creates on stages around the world, mixing and colliding sounds while wearing a giant mouse head with flashing lights and smiling metal grille.
Some EDM fans are still a little confused. Hours after the album’s unveiling on Tidal, Zimmerman examines the reactions on his phone. “That’s funny,” he says, then reads a young woman’s comment: “‘Hi, first time TIDAL user so I don’t know, but whenever I try to listen to any of your songs, dude, on Where’s the Drop?, all I hear is this orchestral music.'”
The album includes 15 songs and interludes, and was recorded over two days in February at EastWest Studios in Hollywood with the CMG Music Recording Orchestra. (Piano parts were recorded later in Toronto on the Steinway piano Zimmerman has at home with a built-in MIDI digital drive.)
Four years ago, Zimmerman first revealed his interest in classical forms with 7, an EP of seven tracks (each song representing one of the seven deadly sins) that mingle piano melody and ambient noise. The sound was intentionally stripped down. For his next step, he wanted to explore the full depth of a symphony orchestra.
His interest grew after seeing Philip Glass conduct a live performance in L.A. of his contemporary soundtrack for the 1931 film Dracula, starring Bela Lugosi. “It was so cool to watch,” Zimmerman says now. “It might not go down with EDM bros, but I’m not exclusively catering to EDM bros.”
He met Reveret entirely by chance. The composer had come to the U.S. to pursue film soundtrack work, and one day was sitting at his laptop and tuned in to Zimmerman’s weekly “mau5trap Monday” livestream. When the host suddenly invited listeners to submit their tracks for his consideration, Reveret recognized the opportunity.
“I had an immediate panic attack. I was like, ‘Holy shit, this is a moment,'” remembers Reveret, who dragged and dropped one of the fully orchestrated music files he had at his fingertips, and sent it to the EDM star. There was no immediate reaction, and Reveret figured his submission was buried under thousands of others. “I just walked away, and then I heard in the distance that my track was playing. “
“Giving it a level of sophistication was very important” â€“Deadmau5’s Where’s the Drop? collaborator Gregory Reveret
After checking out Reveret’s history as a composer and producer of a wide range of sounds â€“ from symphonic music to dubstep â€“ Zimmerman got in touch. By then, Deadmau5’s management had found financial support for a proposed orchestral project.
At the beginning of their work together, Zimmerman and Reveret first tackled “Superbia” from 7. More followed, as Zimmerman put his trust in the composer to dive into the music and come back with orchestral pieces that still fit within the Deadmau5 aesthetic. “Greg is a composer. He composes,” Zimmerman says. “I just gave him a set of guidelines, which is the music. It’s like a coloring book: ‘Use your palette.'”
As the project accelerated, Reveret cancelled a trip back home to South Africa to continue his work of scoring, arrangement and transcription. The result was less thundering than understated, leaning more on emotion and melody than big gestures. There were no crashing gongs or big EDM breakbeats.
“His melodies are the meat and the potatoes, so why bury it?” asks Reveret. “Giving it a level of sophistication was very important: Not being snooty and highbrow â€“ but something beautiful that still translates to his fans.”
Among the most popular Deadmau5 songs given the symphony treatment was “Strobe,” which closes the album and is clearly recognizable from the searing theme of the original. The producer and Reveret recorded a nine-minute version with the orchestra, which was then cut down and then attached a piano section.
Zimmerman had some concern about how the project would be received by the classical world, and imagined being confronted by a conductor in coattails seeing him as “this little fuckin’ dickhead EDM twiddle-around-on-my-computer” pretender. He instead found support and enthusiasm. “I think the butthole of the orchestral community has relaxed in the last five to 10 years,” he says. “Everyone was pretty chill.”
Along the way, the EDM artist-producer also had a friendly meeting with acclaimed film composer Hans Zimmer: “Of course, I’m thinking, ‘Ah, fuck, I’m going to meet this guy and he’s going to be in his lab with his fucking coattails and a suit.’ It turned out he was this nerd German dude, cigar-smoking fiend, and we shot the shit and found we had a lot in common.”
Where’s the Drop? is an experiment he expects to repeat, but without eclipsing what he does at EDM festivals and packed concert halls. “I’m always up for branching,” Zimmerman explains. “I’ll be doing some synth-wave shit next week. I’m not locking myself in some pre-set path. I just throw spaghetti at the wall and see what I like.”
The next night at the Wiltern, the old Art Deco theater is a full house, with many fans in elegant black, a few in glowing mouse ears. On each chair is a program listing the night’s music, like at any traditional classical concert. Zimmerman is in a black suit and tie. His oversized mouse head is placed far away: beside the grand piano on stage right.
Smiling at center stage is conductor John Beal, who leads the CMG Orchestra players into the pulsing waves of “Imaginary Friends.” For “Coelacanth,” a string melody swirls upward and the floor shakes with sound as Deadmau5 adds electronic heft. Across the stage, the motorized concert piano plays itself, controlled by Zimmerman, as the individual keys can be seen pressing down with every note. At his desk, he looks completely calm, his hands on the Moog, glancing at his two computer screens. The crowd cheers every song.
Unlike at most Deadmau5 concerts, visuals are minimal, without frantic motion graphics or flashing mouse head to distract from the live players onstage. The show ends with a standing ovation.
“To get through the first show without a single hiccup was pretty amazing,” Zimmerman says days later. “Everyone was pretty well behaved for the EDM crowd. Even back in the day, orchestra-goers were a pretty rowdy bunch, you know. I wasn’t expecting dead silence and golf claps.”
The Wiltern shows marked the end of this opening chapter of his orchestral life. Zimmerman has no future Deadmau5 symphony concerts planned, but he and Reveret will contemplate the logistics of how to take Where’s the Drop? on the road.
“Maybe an orchestral album is due every couple of years just for the fun of it,” says Zimmerman, who expects to include “The Veldt” and other core Deadmau5 tracks next time. “It’s not going to dissuade me from what I traditionally do, performing in hot sweaty venues with people running around all over the place to loud electronic music.
“It’s just putting myself in the light that I’ve always tried to put myself in,” he continues. “Look, I’m not like run-of-the-mill DJ dude who’s just around for a year. I’m approaching my 20th year of doing this on a professional level. This is why â€“ because I have to keep doing things like this.”
This article originally appeared on www.rollingstone.com: Why Deadmau5 Went Orchestral With ‘Where’s the Drop?’