Exclusive: Kaskade and deadmau5 unveil new project 14 years in the making, Kx5 [Interview]
Words by David Klemow and Rachel Narozniak
Watching COVID-19 cripple the music industry so quickly was undoubtedly a formative experience across the collective zeitgeist, from fans all the way up to industry insiders and artists—the impacts of which may never be fully quantifiable. Though, while we’re still just emerging from the pandemic’s trenches, in many ways, we’re starting to see things begin to repair themselves. Loaded lineups reflect a quickly mending festival circuit. But we may also be on the cusp of a major creative rebirth across electronic music, signaling a rousing confluence of events on the horizon. Enter Kx5, the brainchild of deadmau5 and Kaskade and the culmination of a rich collaborative history nearly two decades in the making. However, if Joel Zimmerman and Ryan Raddon have anything to say about their own creative renaissance of sorts, it’ll be one that toes the line between timeless and spontaneous; compelling and propulsive without taking itself too seriously.
In 15 years, electronic dance music has changed in nearly every conceivable facet. In club years, that’s equivalent to nearly a half a century. To provide a barometer for where things were 15 years ago, Swedish House Mafia hadn’t even officially formed yet, EDC was a single-day event held at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, and Martin Garrix was in the third grade. And while these two titans of industry were already well established as the torch-carriers of that day by then, when deadmau5 and Kaskade first convened on “I Remember” in 2008, the thought of something like Kx5—a fully fleshed out musical project that pairs the best of both producers—wasn’t even an inkling of an idea. In fact, it wasn’t even possible. “When we first collaborated, I mean, that moment in time wouldn’t have allowed us to do something like this,” said Kaskade. “I don’t know… everyone in the entire world was just discovering electronic music. Both Joel and I had our own agendas and we were, I mean, I was barely surviving 15 years ago. Trying to do [this] back then that would’ve been an impossibility.”
Even after COVID-19 forced things to collectively slow down, getting two old friends, who both just so happen to be some of the most prolific forces dance music has ever seen, together to produce, let alone talk about the project, still presents its own challenges. “We’ve never worked together in the same room ever,” admits deadmau5. “Yeah, parts were sent through email and texting or whatever it was. I think it was AIM at the time. I’m almost sure of it,” adds Kaskade. From AOL Instant Messenger to sold-out summer shows at LA’s SoFi Stadium—that’s how far all of this has come.
Though, while the origins of Kx5 are still relatively fresh, the project’s roots took hold in a now fully bygone era of dance music, perhaps proving that good things do in fact come to those who wait. Kaskade recalls, “We even tried to do a couple things together. When ‘I Remember’ was taking off, we were [both] in Detroit, I was playing at some crappy club and [Joel] came to hang out and we had a steak dinner. We were talking about potentially doing a TV appearance to promote the song and we couldn’t even get it together back then to do that. I mean, things were so crazy at that time and they have been for so long. I think both of us are just in a different phase of our lives and our career.” Raddon adds,
“I mean after COVID, I’m just like, I want do stuff that I want do. I’m like let’s do something fun, and like Joel said, we get along and make good music together, so let’s do that.”
But, Kx5 doesn’t exist simply to recapture the ethos of early 2000’s dance music, or even make something futuristic or cutting edge, but rather, to remain in a creative flow state, maintaining an emphasis on the present, and ultimately, just making the music Raddon and Zimmerman want to make. In the time since “I Remember,” there has been another collaborative outing between the two, they’ve formed a combined three record labels that launched the careers of superstars like Skrillex and REZZ, while collecting a cumulative 13 Grammy nominations. Suffice it to say, at this point, the two veteran producers have both earned the right to make whatever they want, and to have fun doing it. And while Raddon and Zimmerman share common collaborative ground that goes back to the late aughts and evidently influences today’s sounds, trying to recreate past lightning strikes is never a fruitful endeavor. “I think sonically and kind of rhythmically, [our new material] does kind of allude to that progressive house sound of the early 2000s kind of vibe. If this song were to come out 10 years ago, it wouldn’t really strike me as, ‘Oh, this is the future.’ But that’s kind of good in a way that it’s like a little bit of a throwback to that kind of minimalistic approach, to that melodic sing-songy house,” says deadmau5.
While Kx5 clearly has the legs to go further than a one-off collaboration, or even a follow up to a trio of previous collaborative works, what the project fully holds in store remains to be seen. For now, the duo are minting their new endeavor with the release of their project’s debut single, “Escape,” due March 11. As deadmau5 and Kaskade riff on each other’s energy in conversation, one listen to the new single makes it abundantly clear that the same chemistry is evidently captured in the studio. Raddon and Zimmerman share a genuine reverence for one other, and, matched with a deep appreciation for each other’s production capabilities, one thing becomes certain as they preview their new single—there’s a lot more where “Escape” came from. When prodded, the pair remain somewhat playfully coy, though, “I’ll say this. We’ve got a handful of things that are in the oven,” concedes Kaskade, which beyond just a trove of new music includes an appearance at EDC this year, and more.
“With everything we’ve done, we’ve never really sat on like 30 ideas and settled on one. Everything we’ve ever done up until this point has just been like, ‘here’s this!’ And then we just finish it and then it’s onto the next one,” says deadmau5. “Now it’s been a little crunchier because I think we’re expected to have at least more than two things or something like that. So we’re just kind of island hopping from one idea to the other and kind of finishing them consecutively versus spending too long on trying to beat up ideas that don’t resonate with either of us.”
Perhaps the greatest thing about the emerging Kx5 project is that inherently, this new tag team refuses to suffer from the same stuffiness that other major collaborative or posse projects fall into. All too often does too much star power get in the way of itself—just look at the 2021-22 Lakers or the garden variety DJ Khaled track. Within the context of dance music’s oncoming renaissance, if Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci were to join forces, they had to agree on one simple ground rule: no stepping on each other’s toes. Raddon and Zimmerman simply won’t get wrapped up in the minutiae, and they won’t force themselves to agree on something, simply for the sake of their new shared brand. Instead, expect Kx5 to deliver multiple offerings wrapped into one, including “Escape.” Zimmerman delves into the shared creative process, explaining, “We just kind of just did our own respective versions and then we did a mashup version and I think Ryan’s kind of taken the radio edit one and I’m taking the long-play club version of it or whatever. And since we weren’t really agreeing on a single version, we were kind of allowed to just do our own take on it, but it was collaborative from the beginning in the sense that [initially] I just had a basic kick drum and my melody going with it.”
But thats what you get when you bring two venerated producers with decades’ worth of respective experience shaping two very different, albeit complementary, sonic signatures and pair them in a new side project that’s specifically designed to be spontaneous and somewhat off-the-cuff. Crisp, crowd-ready final products, informed by 14 years of collaborative history, land in a matter of weeks. Says Kaskade,
“I don’t think I’ve said this to Joel before, but I think we both understand this inherently. It’s like, that’s the best part about collaborating, and certainly with Joel, because I have a huge amount of respect for him as a musician and as a human being. So for me, I sent him an idea a couple weeks ago. Like, ‘dude, I can’t.’ There’s that wall you hit sometimes when you’re working sometimes and you’re like, ‘oh, I made this track in seven hours and I love it. It’s awesome,’ and you go home and eat dinner. There’s other times you hit a wall and you’re like, ‘yeah, I don’t know what to do here.’ The best part about working with somebody that you respect so much is like, ‘oh, let me bounce this down and see what Joel hears.’ So I didn’t have to sit here and bang my head against the screen. I could just send it to him and he can make it awesome.”
Zimmerman describes a similar feedback process, admitting however that his producer’s block has lasted for a more prolonged period of time, and ultimately, having Raddon’s ear at the ready proved to be more productive than just getting Kx5 officially off the ground.
“I’ve had like about two years of literally not even stepping foot in my studio. And then just in the last, three weeks, I I went in there and then cranked out nine tracks in 10 days, you know? And that includes some of our collaborations and some new stuff that I’ve done on my own. So, it’s more of a you know, if you’re feeling it kind of thing,” admits deadmau5.
Certainly no smoke from deadmau5 or Kaskade, but if we are in fact approaching a sort of creative renaissance in electronic music, then what came before, by definition, was perhaps comparable to somewhat of a “Middle Ages” for electronic dance music. The rise of streamers gave way to a natural dilution of content that just so happened to coincide with EDM’s global explosion and massive rise in profitability. “I Remember” may have helped galvanize that wave, but imitation is the highest form of flattery, and that’s ultimately how house and club sounds collided with mainstream pop as the 2010’s began. Now, Kx5 certainly isn’t your dad’s house music by any means, but part of the project’s intention is to take the modern day house sound back into the hands of two of its creators. Why listen to the imitators when two of the originators are still up and kicking? And why not have a little fun with it at the same time?
“I think this is easily overlooked. But for me, kind of the exclamation point and one of the kind of motivators to call Joel and be like, ‘Hey man, let’s do it officially, instead of screwing around.’ After ‘I Remember’ and ‘Move for Me’ came out there were like, I don’t even know how many, hundreds or thousands of songs that came out trying to imitate that. Joel played a big part in molding that next wave of house, progressive house, whatever you want to call that, and I was coming from more of like a house Chicago kind of sound. I was in freaking yoga today and [she’s] an amazing instructor, [picks] good music, but I’m like, ‘these three songs, they all were like rip offs of what I had done with Joel a decade and a few years earlier. Why don’t we just hear from the original? Why don’t we just go back together and like snuff this stuff out?'” Zimmerman emphatically slams his hand down on the table in approval like a judge adjourning a courtroom. Champing at the bit, these two are clearly ready to just put music out together, without longterm considerations or over-trying to remake a yesteryear hit. At the time of “I Remember,” certainly neither producer set out to make one of the most enduring hits the genre would ever see.
“I’m just happy to be working with my good friend Ryan again and getting out there and sharing our creative manifestations with the world,” says deadmau5. As world continues opening back up in the wake of COVID-19 and we get to see more of these creative manifestations find their footing in a post-pandemic world, another golden moment for electronic dance music may be upon us. But with the perfect blend of playful disregard, impulse, timing, whim, and vast knowhow, Kx5 is the culmination of a nearly two-decade-long friendship in the making, and less akin to Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo forming some kind of calculated supergroup. Creative renaissance or not, that’s Kx5’s secret ingredient.
Featured image: Mark Owens