Deadmau5’s cubev3 Proves It Might Be Hip to Be Square

The legendary EDM artist previews the latest iteration of his audiovisual marvel.

The cult of Deadmau5 is very real and very hyped for the end of the year to arrive. 

Come Dec. 30, fans will arrive at San Francisco’s Bill Graham Auditorium wearing custom-designed mouse helmets and guzzling Red Bull in preparation for two nights featuring one of the most popular electronic music producers working today.

When he’s not in performance mode, Deadmau5 becomes Joel Zimmerman — a 38-year-old Canadian musician who obsesses not only over his songs, but the audio-visual components that accompany them when he’s performing. Beyond his particular mastery for warping chords and arpeggios into modern electronic anthems that balance moments of melodic catharsis with subwoofer earthquakes, Deadmau5 is renowned for giving his fans a show that transcends the mere sound emanating from a venue’s speakers.

That’s because the star of the show at a Deadmau5 concert is the Cube. Ever since Zimmerman debuted the first version of the Cube at Coachella in 2010, the artist has become inextricably linked to the technological marvel at the center of his live performances.

His current tour features the debut of cubev3, an elaborate, moving structure built on the strength of millions of lines of code. Designed using a custom version of the software Derivative TouchDesigner, the newest evolution of Zimmerman’s brainchild is capable of rendering images in real time. This added element of spontaneity sets Deadmau5’s audiovisual offerings a level above his contemporaries by being able to boast that no two Deadmau5 shows will ever be exactly the same.

In total, Zimmerman estimates it took over seven months of dedicated work to upgrade the Cube into its current form. It is, Zimmerman notes, an innovation that must be seen to be believed.

“It’s hard to explain,” he tells SF Weekly. “If you haven’t seen it before, you’re in for a treat, but even if you have seen it before, you’re still in for a treat. So much went into this, just even in terms of the engineering.”

Given Zimmerman’s affinity for coding — he’s responsible for much of the work behind the latest version of the Cube — one could fairly assume that playing a show adjacent to Silicon Valley might be seen as an opportunity to solicit feedback from the industry’s biggest players.

Zimmerman begs to differ.

“Those are more like the people who make money in tech versus the people who develop the tech,” he says. “As far as software developers and programmers, we’ve met them all across our shows, at all points in the States and abroad too, so I wouldn’t say that we can’t wait to play [in the Bay Area] because it’s Mecca and we’re going to meet all sorts of programmers.”

Instead, the opportunity to close out 2019 with a pair of San Francisco shows is more about the chance it will provide Zimmerman to celebrate with family and friends. Though born and raised in the Niagara Falls area of Ontario, Canada, he classifies himself as “no stranger to the Bay Area.”

Reflecting on the numerous friendships he’s fostered with artists in the region since his career began back in 2005, the first name that comes to Zimmerman is the Sacramento-born Scott Hansen, better known as the recently Grammy-nominated electronic music artist Tycho.

“I’ve had the pleasure of meeting with Tycho when he was with his full band and picking their brains,” Zimmerman says. “I did a ‘Coffee Run’ with them actually, which is a series of little interview things I do in cars.”

Far from considering himself above his peers, Zimmerman stresses that he greatly enjoys the chance to talk shop with other artists. Another thing Zimmerman is quick to note is his interest in not simply being a DJ who shuts up and plays the hits.

Instead, he describes his concerts as “a meetup for a culmination of a year’s worth of work.” To that end, Zimmerman has designed a system that enables him to have control and potentially create, on the fly, everything live, as it happens, during the course of a show. That’s a spectrum that covers everything from the graphics sprawled across the Cube to the music blasting from the speakers.

Fully aware that he’d likely face minimal repercussions were he to take a more ambivalent approach and “phone it in” (as some of his peers in the EDM field are occasionally accused of doing), Zimmerman instead sounds invigorated by the challenge of keeping his fans entertained while simultaneously quenching his own thirst for the latest innovations in audiovisual technology.

“To me, my shows are like a big showcase of what I’ve been doing for the past year,” he says. “That’s what I’m going for versus the people who show up, play the hits, get paid, and get out.”

Deadmau5,

Monday, Dec. 30 & Tuesday, Dec. 31, 8 p.m., at Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, 99 Grove St., $49.50; billgrahamcivic.com

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