deadmau5 and Kaskade on Kx5, the perils of signing for a major label and why we should “unleash the beast” of AI-written pop songs
Joel Zimmerman and Ryan Raddon reveal the creative process and concepts behind their upcoming self-titled collaborative album, Kx5, changing their classic tracks, and why AI might help real musicians do better work.
Credit: Fiona Garden for MusicTech
Deadmau5 would rather not be here today. The iconic producer, real name Joel Zimmerman, makes that known when he walks in for MusicTech’s interview and photoshoot. He’s flown to the UK for his six-hour Printworks show with Kaskade (aka Ryan Raddon, Zimmerman’s longtime collaborator and legendary producer in his own right) the following evening – unsurprisingly, he’s contending with the rapid change in climate and time zone.
When Ryan walks in an hour later, however, the cloud hanging over the room evaporates. The duo, now producing and performing as Kx5, start bouncing off each other and bantering. Ryan is also jet-lagged and, frankly, seems like he could do with some rest, but is keeping the energy up and recharging his friend with it.
Maybe that’s what Kx5, the pair’s new project, has been borne of – two prolific producers who deserve a well-earned break but just can’t stop making music. They seem thrilled to be sitting side-by-side, joking and jabbing about each other’s tunes. “I’ve never heard any of Joel’s music,” Ryan japes when asked what his favourite deadmau5 song is. Joel chuckles and says his favourite Kaskade track is I Remember – the duo’s first collaboration, released in 2008.
As longtime fans of deadmau5 and Kaskade know, these media stints can be a chore to them – you might feel similarly if interviews were keeping you from building beats in your studio, or performing them for audiences of thousands over the world. We won’t complain. The result of their time in their respective spaces is the Kx5 album – set for release on 17 March – a stunning collection of electronic music that harks back to late-00s progressive house while intertwining contemporary, intricate sound design and emotive vocal performances. Some 20 years after both of their careers began, the pair remain in the spotlight, with a legacy that producers today dream of leaving.
Kaskade and deadmau5 have been collaborating intermittently over the past 15 years, notably on the dancefloor-filling tracks I Remember and Move With Me. But Kx5 is the first time the two have landed on a distinct shared sonic identity. The music is heavier and grittier, but retains the euphoric nature of both artist’s signature sounds. “It’s a new creative outlet,” Ryan says. “So, for me, there was more experimentation and sound design; just trying different things. It’s not very Kaskade – that’s the point. It was kind of cool to be able to do that. Because [we] can do anything [we] want.”
Joel adds that it’s also a fun way to share the workload of producing a record. “It’s 50 per cent effort to make 100 per cent of the song, which is pretty cool.” Joel prefers to take on mastering duties; “the finalisation of the sound, the maximisation making sure the dynamics nice and the image is good and all that stuff.”
Even after 15 years, though, their collaborative workflow remains unchanged. Ryan recalls to Joel his first interaction with him, which swiftly led to the creation of I Remember. “I messaged you on like, whatever messenger it was – AIM or something. I’m like, ‘Hey, what’s up, your stuff is dope. You should let me write on top of it.’ Then you sent me I Remember, and I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll write something on top of this.’”
For the most part, their partnership has always been an online affair. Joel says that, for Kx5, the pair set up Dropbox folders to upload “pretty near-complete [tracks] and just say ‘thumbs up,’ or ‘thumbs down.’ [We] don’t really kick the can too hard – it’s straight to the curb until we get something else.”
Ryan adds, “if I hated something he sent me I’ll just be like, ‘yeah, let’s not do that one.’ We focus on stuff that we like at the start, and then refine it over time.”
Did they finally work together in-person for the Kx5 record? “Well, we were supposed to do that in my house,” Joel says. “But we just ended up going wakesurfing instead.”
You can’t blame them, in fairness. Joel has been posting wakesurfing videos online for the past couple of years and they even did an interview while out in the water. And it looks bloody fun.
“Let’s not discount the importance of wakesurfing,” adds Ryan.
Kx5 is an album brimming with deep rolling basslines, thumping techno-style kick drums, uplifting supersaw chords and, much to Joel’s delight, some serious 303 acid leads.
“I felt some of the tracks could really use a 303 Devil Fish” – a celebrated mod of the Roland TB-303. “So I might have commandeered Ryan’s for a little bit,” Joel chuckles.
“It’s a great thing to share,” replies Ryan, with an emphasis on “share”.
“I have an idea that I want to use it on. Which will be awesome. If I ever get it back. Meanwhile, I’m like…” Joel interjects in an amusing voice: “using a plugin.”
You’ll hear the Devil Fish most on Avalanche (feat. James French), which centres around an enormous 303 lead that, as we saw at the Kx5 Printworks show, is set to be a crowdpleaser at raves.
It’s easy for producers and beatmakers to get hankered down in which gear will help them make a chart-topping track. Both members of Kx5 have jaw-dropping studios but even they realise that it doesn’t ensure the creation of a hit record.
“For me, fun isn’t struggling on a laptop monitor, trying to find a plugin and doing everything in the box,” Joel tells us. “But then [I’ll] possibly make a great song [that way] and release it and make more money off of that piece of shit than I ever did sitting down behind a Neve desk and applying some of the stuff I’ve been saving up for for 15 years of my life. And [I’m] like, ‘Damn, that really hurts.’”
Ryan laughs along with him, pretending to speak to his audience: “You don’t like the good stuff! I can’t convince them.”
Previously, the pair have said they’d love to alter the production of their earlier tracks, if only they could. We wonder what they’d tell their younger selves if they could go back in time. Joel exclaims: “Don’t sign with a major label!
“Because now I’d be able to do that shit; if they weren’t able to sit on it for seven to 10 years, you know what I mean? Yeah, there you go. Don’t sign with a major label. Ever.”
“That’s easy to say while we’re sitting here,” Ryan says.
“I don’t feel that any one major label ever helped me out so much that I can say my career would have gone down the shitter if they didn’t,” retorts Joel. “Yeah, sure that little bit of money up front is always nice and stuff like that, but…”
Ryan smirks and says “I needed the money…But I would say to an aspiring producer: if you can, retain as much control as possible.”
Joel continues: “20 years later, after you’ve written a track that people still love and play to this day, you’re like, ‘Wow, it’d be really great if I could just really redo this or reimagine it…’ and then someone’s like, ‘No, you can’t actually.’
It has indeed been 20 years since Kaskade set foot in the dance scene with a collection of deep house tracks that wouldn’t feel out of place at an underground event today. He still has a connection to the scene, often DJing deep house sets. “I was making the right sound at the wrong time. Like, it resonated, for sure. But yeah, I still have a passion for it.”
Coming from a DJ background, deep house music likely came naturally to a young Kaskade. Deadmau5, meanwhile, has almost always taken to the stage with a collection of MIDI and OSC controllers to play and manipulate tracks on-the-fly. In 2020, deadmau5 released OSC/Pilot, an app for producers to create digital performing environments using the OSC platform. It’s come in handy not just for deadmau5 shows, but now for Kx5.
For the Kx5 performance, Joel created a “custom-built interface that I did in OSC/Pilot using OSC/Par to communicate to the show server, which runs the Ableton file more or less. So what we have are two control systems, one being able to either override the other, but they both kind of show feedback of what I’m doing on mine, and [Ryan’s] on his. And then he can interject by triggering loops, effects, channel post effects, like crossfades and delays and reverb.”
Ryan continues, “Coming from someone who didn’t come from that world, because this was new to me performing that way, but who’s comfortable with Ableton Live, it was It wasn’t like a huge leap but –”
“I had to kind of like Fisher Price it a bit,” Joel laughs.
“But it is fun to play on,” says Ryan. “It’s super fun. It’s like a very playable version of Ableton to me.”
Much like the Kx5 live performance, many aspects of the duo’s craft are forward-thinking and futuristic. For their first single, Escape in 2022, Kx5 released a browser-based 8-bit platform game for fans to accompany the release. They’ve both also tip-toed into Web3 territory, releasing NFTs and performing in the metaverse.
We wonder what the pair think of the impact of these innovations on fan-to-artist relationships. But the conversation quickly meanders into the topic of AI and how it might change music production and compostion Clearly Zimmerman has already been testing the water, and gushes over an AI-assisted audio sample browser that is capable of detecting the instrumentation of a sample and categorising it so..
“It knew what a snare drum was and where the kick was, and all that stuff. And it took all these billions of samples and pooled them together, so you could like surf through them like that,” he exclaims.
As for things like ChatGPT and the potential for machine learning to actually start writing hit songs and possibly replace human musicians, well… Deadmau5 believes that it might end up being a blessing for real musicians, beatmakers and songwriters.
“It’s pretty scary,” says Joel. “But it’s scary in the sense of how stupid music already is anyway, so it’s not that frightening. Like, ‘This thing can make a pop song!’ Have you heard a pop song? Great. Let it go. Unleash the beast, you know – holy shit would that ever open up the niche market for actual musicianship.”
“[ChatGPT] is good. But it’s only as good as what it knows. It’s a huge training model, right? So take the collective stupidity of the world and make a robot fucking barf it out. It’s not gonna be that genius, but it’s gonna get you what you want.”
Now sunken into his chair, our interview and photoshoot still haven’t lifted Joel’s spirits. But the following evening, in the cavernous halls of Printworks alongside Kaskade, is where the producer truly comes to life. The two artists are having a blast, laughing with each other on stage and amping the crowd up with a remarkable light show and heavy drops. Perhaps we won’t be inspiring the next media gig for the duo but, instead, we can look forward to the music that’s soon to come.
For more information on Kx5, click here.
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