Techno icon Richie Hawtin noted at the beginning of his "in conversation" SXSW panel with EDM superstar Joel "Deadmau5" Zimmerman that they were both Canadians, but then they proved it when asked what it was about Canada that had resulted in two of the biggest names in electronic music coming form the country. They both replied, "Tim Horton's doughnuts and the double-double."
"I had one across from my studio," Hawtin added.
"Really, I have one across my studio, too," said Zimmerman, noting sardonically to the crowd, "There's a Tim Horton's on every fucking corner in Canada."
But if they fulfilled Canada's doughnuts-and-coffee-loving cliché at the conference, they certainly didn't pull off our nice polite stereotype later that night when the pair delivered an unprecedented joint-DJ set, not quite a back 'n' forth tag-team, but one in which both men were constantly working with each other's beats, jamming out two hours of dark, pounding techno.
And I do mean dark and pounding. The set boasted maybe the loudest sound I've ever heard at SXSW to the point where the bass was making your clothes vibrate, and it leaned far more heavily on Hawtin's outré oeuvre than the couple thousand tech heads who had showed up at webhosting company Media Temple's Interactive closing party at Stubbs' amphitheatre could have expected if they were only familiar with Zimmerman's giant mouse head.
In fact, Deadmau5 went mask-free last night, leaving the big ears behind so that he could show of his lesser-known moves to his electronic dance music elder, Hawtin. (At set's end, Joel even gave Richie a "we're not worthy" "Wayne's World" bow.)
"I don't mean to blow smoke up your ass, but if 10 years ago someone told me I'd be playing a set with Richie Hawtin...," Zimmerman said, grinning, during the afternoon panel. "It's pretty cool, I'm absolutely honored. I like to do what we're going to do tonight also on my own in clubs — sometimes — especially in Vegas, because they wanna hear the cheese and I love just going off."
Deadmau5 was quick to re-affirm he feels little need to pander.
"You have a certain name, a certain status, you're playing in Vegas, can you get away with playing Dubfire?" asked Hawtin.
"Absolutely," Zimmerman responded. "I do it all the time, but I don't force it like I have to remove this big stigma of this mouse head and all the hits that got me where I am today. I should be proud of that, and I am, but as a listener I've always aspired to be a little more underground, a little more technical, less big room sound that's eating up all the market with these palatable hits.
"I listen to techno, to dubby old stuff — to all your old stuff — and I like, so I play it. I don't force it. But it's nice to know I can break out of the mouse head and not play 'Ghosts N' Stuff' and maybe take the tiny snippet of that vocal and slip it on dirty drive. I like listening to that. That's what gets me moving, not the puppy mill stuff."
Hawtin, who's a legend to a small if fervent niche of techno connoisseurs, then noted that Deadmau5 is "the number one gatekeeper in electronic music right now. You open the door for young kids, new kids, to electronic music so I think it's important you're playing both your own sound and just a wider sound. It's your responsibility to open up the doorway as wide music as possible.
"Absolutely," Zimmerman agreed. "It's also a thing I fear at times, too, you don this mouse head, you gain this broad, broad spectrum of stuff — you've got the yo'bros that wanna hear the dubstep and the yo'bros that wanna hear trance and the yo'bros who want hear ghosts and stuff. Nobody wants to piss anyone off and misrepresent what they do, but I don this mouse head and it's, like, what am I? I've always just shotgunned all of EDM."
This seemed to be a struggle for Zimmerman throughout the talk. Though both artists felt clearly comfortable in their own skin when geeking out about electronic BBSes, the technological precursors to today's web, or taking about gaming (Zimmerman claims he's logged 1,300 hours in "Diablo" so far, including two hours earlier in the day spent "mostly farming"). And they delved deeply into the intricacies of modern electronic music creation and performance, from plugins and modular panels to low frequency oscillators, a perfect intersection for a crossover day when the Interactive portion of SXSW came to a close and the Music portion began.
But while Hawtin, a Windsor native who made his name across the river in Detroit and released his first techno record in 1990, is one of the most universally respected artists in music today, Zimmerman seems less sure if he's where he wants to be.
"One thing I kinda don't like, well, I can't say I don't like it, but 'You know, my five-year-old daughter really likes you,'" Zimmerman recalls being told. "I'm like wow, is my brand really that strong? I can see that, maybe if I was six or seven and saw this big 'toony mouse head bobbing up and down, I'd like whatever they played. It's in effect their first hint of electronic music."
"Everyone needs a door to walk in," reassured Hawtin. "I didn't jump into Underground Resistance or Basic Channel. I remember trying to be a breakdancer and getting into electro, but then really getting into things like Erasure and pop side of electronic. That was thing that sucked me in, and then you're always following new doorways. If I was a five-year-old and heard your shit, who knows where it might have taken me?"