Why Kaskade and deadmau5 Formed Kx5, Dance Music’s Most In-Demand Odd Couple
Kx5, presented by Carnival, will perform at Billboard Presents The Stage at SXSW, on March 18.
The show was going so well. An hour into the set from Kx5 — the electronic music supergroup of genre leaders Kaskade and deadmau5 — it was, as intended, a dazzling feat of light, sound, video and the emotional punch of those elements combined. Then the power went out, and Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum — and the 46,000 fans assembled there on that drizzly night in December — were thrust into silent darkness.
From the front of the house, deadmau5’s longtime manager, Dean Wilson, sprinted backstage — where, he says, he found “everybody running around like headless chickens, screaming, ‘Generator’s on fire!’ ”
The generator was not supposed to be on fire. However, it had turned itself off due to overheating and was emanating smoke. Its programming had then instructed three backup generators to also shut down to avoid igniting the 17,000 gallons of diesel fuel inside. Frantic staffers worked to salvage what had been billed as a landmark live performance — one that cost “almost seven figures to design and over seven figures to execute,” says Kaskade’s manager, Ryan Henderson.
Success seemed unlikely. “When you have a major failure like that, normally something then doesn’t work,” Wilson says. “Something’s not rebooted properly. Some configuration can’t restart because it has crashed so badly.” But when deadmau5 hit the button that would, in theory, restart the show, restart it did. The performance, co-produced by Live Nation affiliate and powerhouse electronic music promoter Insomniac Events alongside both artists’ teams, set a record for the biggest ticketed global headliner dance event of 2022.
“I’ve been working in the electronic/dance space since the early ’90s,” says UTA’s Kevin Gimble, who represents deadmau5, Kaskade and Kx5. “I have been fortunate to have a lot of incredible moments throughout my career. However, nothing — and I mean nothing — can compare to the emotions that were stirred within me seeing [nearly] 50,000 people inside that building singing ‘I Remember’ in unison. Pure f–king magic.”
As Kx5, deadmau5 and Kaskade have formalized a collaborative relationship that began with the aforementioned moody 2008 classic — one of EDM’s first defining tracks, the penultimate song played during the L.A. Coliseum performance and, in dance parlance, an all-time banger. In 2009, they released a follow-up single, “Move for Me.” Now, 14 years later, they are leveling up the partnership with the March 17 arrival of Kx5’s eponymous debut album, which is being released on deadmau5’s independent label, mau5trap Recordings.
The show wasn’t just a full-circle moment for Kx5: It was one for dance music itself. In June 2010, deadmau5 and Kaskade, playing separately, were among the last electronic artists to perform at the L.A. Coliseum during what would be the final Los Angeles iteration of Electric Daisy Carnival. Produced by Insomniac and featuring then-rising acts like Avicii and Swedish House Mafia, the festival created a maelstrom of headlines (and lawsuits) when a 15-year-old girl who had snuck into the event died after overdosing on MDMA. In the aftermath, Los Angeles sent EDC packing to Las Vegas, and the venue became a no-fly zone for electronic music — and, aside from a handful of shows throughout the 2010s, most other genres, too — even as EDM was becoming a major commercial force in the United States.
“We’d heard rumors they were going to start doing more shows at the Coliseum, and I was like, ‘Wouldn’t it be amazing if we were the first electronic act to do a show back in that venue?’ ” Wilson recalls. “We were absolutely the test case.”
“Kaskade kind of straddles the line between electronic and pop music,” says Henderson of why promoters book the producer in venues where dance music might be otherwise verboten. “People don’t associate him with rave culture as much as you’d think.”
On Kaskade (left): Dior jacket and sneakers, Mouty pants, Oscar & Frank eyewear. On deadmau5: Amiri jacket, pants, and sneakers.
With the December show filed as a win, deadmau5 and Kaskade symbolically marked a decade-plus run during which they became two of the genre’s most successful artists. Alongside peers like Swedish House Mafia, Avicii, Calvin Harris and Skrillex, they helped create the superstar DJ template of Vegas residencies, arena shows, festival headlining and massive paychecks. To date, Kaskade’s catalog has aggregated 736 million U.S. streams, according to Luminate, and deadmau5’s has clocked 1.5 billion.
They remain two of the scene’s most elite acts, having influenced a generation of fans and artists alike. John Summit, the 28-year-old dance phenom who opened the Coliseum show, told Wilson that deadmau5’s “Ghosts ‘n’ Stuff” was the reason he started making music. (Later in 2023, Summit will release the first official remix of “I Remember.”)
But while Kx5’s out-of-the-gate success was made possible by each artist’s individual popularity and the near mythological status of their previous collaborative output, the project is more about their own enjoyment than the new creative directions some of their peers have followed as their careers have progressed.
“It was literally a product of us saying, ‘F–k it,’ ” says deadmau5, born Joel Zimmerman, in his pronounced Canadian accent. “I’m not saying we don’t love it, but we don’t need it, financially speaking. It’s just something we want.”
On this Monday afternoon in Los Angeles, deadmau5, who’s based in Toronto, sits alongside Chicago native Kaskade (real name: Ryan Raddon), who is now based in L.A. Deadmau5 makes infrequent eye contact and uses a variation of “f–k” upwards of 40 times during the 45-minute conversation. “Dude” is the interjection of choice for Kaskade, who wears reflective-lensed sunglasses.
As they tell it, Kx5 (pronounced “kay five”; the “x” is silent) is essentially the result of friendship meeting market demand and pandemic downtime. Crowds would still “freak out” when Kaskade dropped “I Remember” in his sets and, he says, “every time I’d see Joel at a festival, I’d be like, ‘Man, we should probably do something together.’ He’d be like, ‘Yeah, we probably should.’ ”
When live events paused, Kaskade called him to make it official, saying, “OK, seriously, I don’t have anything to do. Let’s do something.” They started emailing productions back and forth, with tracks taking shape as the pandemic wore on.
Kaskade photographed on February 6, 2023 in Los Angeles. Givenchy sweater.
Kx5 soft-launched in July 2021 during Kaskade’s headlining set at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif. Produced by Insomniac and marking the first public concert at the new venue, the show sold 27,000 tickets and grossed $2.6 million, according to Billboard Boxscore. It also featured a surprise opening set from deadmau5, who returned later to play “I Remember” alongside Kaskade. (They didn’t play any Kx5 music, nor did deadmau5 don the plastic mouse helmet he has long worn during solo performances.)
Shortly after the SoFi show, UTA’s Gimble began conversations with Insomniac and Live Nation about a Kx5 play at the Coliseum. Nearly six months later, on Jan. 3, 2022, deadmau5, Kaskade and their managers met in L.A. to strategize Kx5. Discussions around the artists doing something official together had started ahead of the pandemic, when they were offered a back-to-back set at HARD Summer 2020. When that show was canceled amid lockdowns, HARD promoter Insomniac shifted the offer to EDC 2022, where Kaskade and deadmau5 decided to debut the Kx5 live show. But they still needed a lead single.
Wilson, who has managed deadmau5 since the artist launched that persona in 2006, had been sitting on a top-line demo of a song called “Escape” from U.K. songwriters Camden Cox, Will Clarke and Eddie Jenkins. Deadmau5 had been tinkering with the demo’s production but was concerned, Wilson says, that it didn’t sound “new enough” compared with his more recent output.
Nonetheless, at the January 2022 meeting in L.A., Wilson told Kaskade they had a track that might work as Kx5’s first release. “Joel looks at me like, ‘What?’ ” Wilson says. “And I play ‘Escape,’ and Ryan goes, ‘We’ve got to do that.’ ”
Deadmau5 sent parts of the song to Kaskade, who soon completed it. (“Let’s make it radio-ey,” says deadmau5 of their goal for it. “Let’s make it ‘I Remember’-ey. Strip it back, keep some of that early-2000s vibe to it.”) Released in March 2022 — three months before the debut Kx5 performance at EDC — critics and fans hailed “Escape” as a triumphant return to form, a fresh take on the dreamy, sexy yet melancholy slowburn style the duo had forged with “I Remember.”
“Escape” has garnered 47.7 million official U.S. on-demand streams. And by the time the song (featuring British singer Hayla) hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Dance Mix Show/Airplay chart in April 2022, Kaskade and deadmau5’s idea for a Kx5 EP had expanded into plans for an album. “Don’t threaten us with a good time,” the latter jokes about the project’s growth. Kaskade laughs.
In July 2022, Kaskade joined deadmau5 at his home studio in Toronto. “It ended up being a lot of hanging out, wake-surfing, chilling and talking about music,” recalls Kaskade. “We had a songwriting session that went until, like, four in the morning. I couldn’t stay up anymore.”
While they keep different hours, they agree that working together is a more streamlined process than when they record individually. “The benefit of doing it together is you get to bounce ideas off somebody else,” Kaskade says. “Usually when you’re in your own space, it’s like, ‘I think this is the end?’ With somebody else in the mix, I send it over to Joel. Like, ‘I think it’s done. What do you think?’ ” Working together, they agree, also eliminates expectations among their fans. “They don’t know what to think,” says Kaskade. “They’re like, ‘Let’s see what this is about.’ ” The resulting 10-track album is simultaneously sophisticated and tough, featuring complex and inventive progressive house productions that pulse and glow. Lyrics — largely about love and the loss of it — ride achingly pretty, often haunting melodies.
“Ryan excels as a songwriter and in arrangement and structure, where I suppose I excel in mastering, engineering and the more technical components of sound versus the idea,” deadmau5 says. “He’s got his wheelhouse, I’ve got mine, and we don’t overlap a lot. Like, I would sooner shoot myself in the leg before I’m like, ‘Here, Ryan, master this.’ ”
deadmau5 photographed on February 6, 2023 in Los Angeles. Amiri jacket.
Their differences run deeper than their production strengths. While deadmau5 has been known to stay awake for three days straight making music, Kaskade appears to sleep regularly. Deadmau5 smokes cigarettes; Kaskade does not. Deadmau5 drinks Corona. Kaskade, a practicing Mormon, is sober. He remarks that it’s surreal to be doing an interview for the cover of Billboard. Deadmau5 announces he would rather be at home playing video games.
“I call them the odd couple,” says Wilson. “They’re yin and yang, chalk and cheese, completely different ends of the spectrum, but they ultimately have a respect for each other as producers.” And respect from deadmau5 is rare: In EDM’s heyday, he used Twitter to insult everyone from Justin Bieber (“little f–king d-ckhead”) to Disney, which in 2014 sued him over the similarities between his “mau5head” and its Mickey Mouse logo. (“Disney thinks you might confuse an established electronic musician/ performer with a cartoon mouse. That’s how stupid they think you are.”) In 2015, he published a Tumblr post about dealing with depression exacerbated by social media; his team now runs his accounts.
Deadmau5’s prickly (if, by now, predictable) nature makes his creative, and personal, alchemy with Kaskade all the more remarkable. “Joel doesn’t … he has very, very few relationships like that,” Wilson continues. “Joel’s a self-contained machine. His studio is in the middle of the house. He works predominantly on his own. He doesn’t do massive collaborations on a regular basis. But I think he likes Kx5 because it’s so different than it being all about the mouse head. There’s pressure in that, but with the two of them, you can see Joel go, ‘This is a bit of fun.’ It’s much more of the relaxed, funny Joel because he’s got a sparring partner, a foil, someone he can joke with. You can’t do that if you’re doing it on your own.”
The fact remains that Kx5 has an expiration date. The pair is scheduled to play just five more shows beyond South by Southwest, all U.S. festival sets, starting at Miami’s Ultra Music Festival in late March and ending in September at a currently unannounced East Coast event. (Although “nobody’s closing the door on what this could be in the future,” Henderson says. “There’s something special here.”)
“We can show up and crush a big event, but I’m not going to f–king hammer it until we’re both over it,” says deadmau5. “I don’t want to be f–king Siegfried & Roy over here doing 20 shows a night in f–king Vegas. We’ll just do some nice, big, iconic-looking plays, then f–king Ryan’s off Kaskade-ing and deadmau5 is out deadmau5-ing.”
Indeed, as EDM elder statesmen (relatively: Kaskade is 51, and deadmau5 is 42), they can do a one-off super pairing without relying on it for relevancy or income. (That said, the impact of Kx5 “feeds residual revenue streams” like streaming numbers and solo plays for each individual artist, Henderson says, adding that Kaskade just signed a three-year, eight-figure Vegas residency deal. “I’m not saying the Kx5 brand contributed to that,” Henderson adds, “but it definitely didn’t hurt it.”)
Kaskade (left) and deadmau5 of Kx5 photographed on February 6, 2023 in Los Angeles. On Kaskade: Louis Vuitton jacket. On deadmau5: Amiri jacket.
But having come up, says deadmau5, “right at the turning point” when EDM was the world’s most lucrative genre, his and Kaskade’s brands are now foundational to the music’s culture, and their businesses extend well beyond streaming. “The money is in ancillary goods,” deadmau5 says. “Tangible items [like merchandise], appearances, shows, production.” He adds, “I don’t think I’m going to be f–king donning a mau5head in my 50s,” noting he may shift into managing mau5trap acts as he gets older and tours less.
But since they broke through in the EDM golden age, paths to success in the wider industry have become more difficult, making it harder for both emerging and established artists to score crossover hits. By the time Kx5 drops, eight of its singles will already be out because, says Wilson, digital service providers would only support two tracks if they were all released at once — and thus no one would hear most of the music. While deadmau5 has over 10 million fans across Instagram and Facebook, Wilson says the algorithms won’t allow communication with most of them. He also says that despite the success of “Escape” on dance radio and the $300,000 put behind its campaign — “We spent hundreds of thousands working that record. Who else has got that kind of money?” he asks — they couldn’t get the song on Spotify’s Today’s Top Hits playlist. “You break down those playlists, and they’re all predominantly major-owned acts,” says Wilson, who co-founded mau5trap with deadmau5 in 2007. “It’s a closed shop.”
Still, the strength of deadmau5 and Kaskade’s respective brands reduces the need for Kx5 to generate revenue. “They’re definitely investing more than they’re making,” Henderson says. “This whole project is for the fans. This isn’t getting these guys together, throwing them on a stage, exploiting their legacy and bringing in a bunch of money. It’s about making something special for their fans. They 100% sacrifice income to play together.”
Kaskade concedes that since corporate interests entered the mix during the EDM boom, the scene has become “more predictable” — or, as deadmau5 puts it, now “it’s all a bunch of little douche nozzles that know the trends, and how this is going to work, and you have to do it like this, and it homogenizes it all to sh-t.” The optimist of the duo, Kaskade believes there will always be an underground and the unpredictable music it fosters, but “just not like it was 20 years ago or 10 years ago, when the majors got involved.”
But while Wilson says EDM is often treated as the “poor relative” among other more visible genres in the wider industry, it remains “a great multibillion-dollar business with very successful festivals and a fan base that is very deep and that buys our tickets.”
“Is it commercially viable in terms of pop album sales? F–k no,” says deadmau5. “Is it commercially viable? Hell yeah. If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be doing this. I’d be your stock boy at Bed Bath & Beyond.”
In the end, the L.A. Coliseum show earned $3.7 million. Kx5 didn’t have to cover the cost of a new generator.
Penske Media Corp. is the largest shareholder of SXSW; its brands are official media partners of SXSW.
This story will appear in the March 11, 2023, issue of Billboard.