Just like many others in this twisted field of ‘creative work’ I have a background of half-hearted academic studies. I did okay and like to come back to it from time to time. But my years of actual political studies and media theories are long gone, so there was a decent amount of respect I had prior to talking to John Maus.
Maus, who just celebrated a triumphant comeback with his new record Screen Memories, has always been a musician on the verge of academic lecturing. His music: As much pop as exercise in renaissance music and electro-acoustic avantgarde, fueled by theory as much as instinct. He is a rather brilliant mind in both fields. So I was prepared for a slightly different and challenging interview – but what happened was in fact one of the most interesting ones I ever had the pleasure to conduct.
Since his latest We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves from 2011, Maus has not just been busy building custom-made Synthesizer and modular systems out on his ‘Funny Farm’ in Minnesota, he now can also call himself a Doctor of Political Philosophy – a work he completed throughout the past years by means of a dissertation on Communication and Control.
So when I called him while he was in between some shows with his pal Ariel Pink, I was prepared to be lessoned. And – I’ll admit that – to lose track at some points. To talk to John Maus as a music journalist is like interviewing Slavoj Žižek for tabloids. But I decided to throw myself into it by directly adressing his dissertation. To what extent do his analysis and examinations fuel the musical work?
JM: Years ago it wouldn’t have at all but after spending so much time on it I couldn’t help but have it in form in certain aspects of what I was doing. For example there are Friedrich Kittler’s media theories: I’ve only recently discovered articles he wrote that are specifically about Rock’n’Roll and those are where I got the idea of the misuse of military equipment; the idea of positive feedback. But there’s no guidebook, I don’t have a nice set of rule that I can follow that will open something up that I couldn’t have imagined before. You’re just rolling the dice. But that roll of the dice doesn’t abolish chance.
Listening to your new record I noticed a lot of references to American pop culture: ‘Picard has seen everything’ (Find Out), ‘Masters of the Universe’ in Edge of Forever …
JM (laughing): Yeah, yeah, that’s good. I had hoped they weren’t so explicit though.
…What interests me there is: While you’re making music, are you always aware of the fact that you’re contributing to pop culture?
Sure. This is finally an attempt to mobilize the pop language, as opposed to a vigorously experimental one. The high-water mark for me remains undeniably the classical studio electro-acoustic stuff, like Stockhausen for example. Of course that’s a tall order to try to match or add a note to. That was the whole point: To somehow shake the ghost out of that. I like this idea: The misuse of World War II equipment, you know: The scramblers, the vocoders, the tape decks, the mixers, the weapons, it’s a bunch of stupid teenagers using them incorrectly.
What is Pop?
I guess that was the first moment in which I had a hard time connecting the answer to the question. It was only later that I found out he was, once again, referring to Friedrich Kittler. Here’s the thing about John Maus: What he says is best described in his songs and sound. If he tells you about misused World War II-equipment and you listen to the songs afterwards, you can actually picture him, sitting on his farm, trying to figure out how he might extend the boundaries of pop music by implementing sound experiments people like Friedrich Kittler suggested. But we were to come back to that later…
As I tell him that I perceived Screen Memories to be less retro pop and more experimental, John Maus agrees:
Yeah, absolutely. I was left with the test of somehow trying to make the tracks unworkable.
The main idea is to vigorously pose the question: What is pop? Maybe it isn’t necessarily just The Ramones and The Beatles, you know? Certainly we also have Amon Dül and Can and Faust. So I figured: Why not give myself a little more room there? It’s definitely more experimental in the sense that I’m more drawing upon competitional techniques than I may have in the past.
John Maus‘ 2011 output We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves rose to some acclamation. And it did that because – or although? – it managed to balance out the immediate appeal of synth pop, heavy use of sloganism and a frame of reference by Alain Badiou’s theses on contemporary art (the album’s title is one of those theses).
With Screen Memories, Maus seem to have abandoned that approach to a certain extent. Of course there are notorious one-liners (‘Your pets are gonna die’), but often the lyrics come in a more abstract, repetitive pattern. Asked about that the artist admits:
Personally, I just don’t have any gift for verses – at all. There are many examples of verse meeting music to sublime effects but that’s not a skill that I’ve got or have the time to develop.
Also, I think that verse is finally foreign to music. Some of the best tracks are just in the form of nonsense syllables. Phrases and lyrics that don’t necessarily have a meaning, that strictly serve the phonetics. It is about the detourialization of language. Is it music’s fault that the world today has lost verse? In its proper sense, emancipated from music? I mean, at one time I believe that something like that really lived in the world and reached the minds of people. But poetry is a calling of language. Music is its own thing alltogether.
‘Who would believe all these things? who could you tell all these things? you can come with me/and you can see what I’m talking about’ – From ‘Bombs Away’ (feat. Ariel Pink and Matt Fishbeck)
Despite that Maus‘ lyrics are not per se deep or sources for inspiring quotes on your insta feed: There are lines on this new record that made me think. The lines quoted above remembered me of an issue I often thought about lately: The power of the change of narrative perspectives and how that’s often underestimated while ‘authenticity’ is overrated.
My question for the distinctive artist was, and at that point, the conversation slipped into really interesting areas: Do you think that there is a place of truth an artist can lead the audience to or what is his role in a world in which more and more people fall for false truths?
I think authenticity has always been impossible for a live act in any situation of music – almost. But there IS something like it that happens. How you reach it is by way of the conventional, following the idiom through by being so faithful to it that you kind of reach its breaking point.
John Maus did care to elaborate:
I have an example in mind from western classical music: Beethoven’s career starts out in a gallant form. It’s very much at home within its classicism. He doesn’t do the Wagner thing of ‘I’m just gonna start from nowhere and make up my own universe.’ No, he follows it through, by way of the development section, by being so faithful to that, that he’s able to finally arrive at the closed fugue at the end of his life. The late Beethoven is like William Turner in painting, you know? Time-wise. By staying true to ‘it’, you reach its insanity, you reach its breaking point. It has an autistic fidelity to it.
I think that’s one way to approach the truth: Positive feedback, in the sense of control systems. Turning the channels, the senders and the receivers – the media, the materiality of that media – on itself. Make it transmit that very materiality over and over again, so that in the end, there’s wild oscillation. I think that’s one way to articulate the truth. It’s about determined irreconcilability with the world as it stands. I figured, the attention to detail that I tried to give on this record would be a thorn in the side of the obligation so summarize.
Call it a dream, it changes nothing
Finally, there was a way to possibly enlighten why John Maus’ music appears the way it does: It is pop, yes, but there’s always something wrong with it. It ‘glitches and grinds’ how he would put it. In fact, what Maus seem to have in mind is a kind of subversive pop music that uses common sound concepts (at one point, he slipped into a purely musical theory digression that I will spare you), but indefinitely loops and amplifies the signals to the point of excess.
The discomfort that adheres to the new songs on Screen Memories is probably based on that. There is something wrong with them – an apocalyptic, twisted notion. When I kept on asking about that, Maus revealed himself as exactly that: An apocalyptic.
So, your music is also an attempt to irritate some of the control mechanism you talk about in your academic work?
Yes, of course! It’s always that! It’s still bubblegum out there, you know? ‘Coca Cola is great’, the whole commercialism, you know? It’s even worse, a million times worse! Commercials are just becoming more defused and insidious and ecstatic.
One can’t help but be disheartened by the fact that the heavy disaster seems to only gather force – That’s the apocalyptic element of my music. It’s that, finally, it’s come to a cataclysm. The only possible answer, the only satisfactory conclusion to the disaster has to come from the outside of it. The only way time could be justified, is from outside of time, by time’s end. In other words: some impossible thing.
Don’t get me wrong here: I dont wanna sound like the American evangelical, looking at my watch, waiting for people to disappear in six months or so. It is for me, and I think it always has been in its essence, much weirder than that. There’s the seductions of the temporal and then there’s the treasures of eternity in that moment that’s right about to come. Think about the things from the standpoint of that moment. Some of the most interesting examples of escape seem to arise out of blind stupidity or primal naivete.
Okay, so all things are about to fall apart but what’s hope then for John Maus? His answer: Enigmatic. But fascinating.
It just gets harder and harder. They wanna exorcise the ghost from the machine. The ghost of hope or whatever. It is not inconceivable that we’re heading for somekind of nuclear catastrophy. Within our life the commercials gonna know what we’re doing before we even do it. So where’s the hope in that? I mean sure, Google might know what I’m gonna do tomorrow or 5 years from now. Since in the eyes of it I’m just a factor, a data set but it doesn’t mean that that thing, that beast, that Google or whatever it is, is any more here than you or I are in the element of our being or sense. I guess that’s how I would outline my own little circuity of hope: The enemy is not any more here than you or I are. We can begin from that at least. Call it a dream, it changes nothing!
Ultimately, our interview ended with a repeated phrase that maybe verbalizes best the appeal of his art:
As long as you don’t come to it lightly. As long as you don’t come to it lightly…