John Maus has had plenty of time to think. The avant-pop auteur spent his formative years cooped up in an apartment with Ariel Pink, releasing tapes that no one listened to. He earned a reputation for his uncomfortable, karaoke-style live performances and gained a small but intensely loyal cult following throughout the early 2000s, one that remains active today on his bizarre fan forum, MausSpace. His breakthrough came with 2011’s We Must Be the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves, followed by a 2012 collection of B-sides and rarities. After that, he fell off the face of the planet for six years, returning to his native Minnesota to finish his doctorate thesis in philosophy, build his own set of analog synths and other electric oddities, get married, and finally, work on a new album. He released Screen Memories in October via Ribbon Music, and has been touring ever since, recruiting a backing band for the first time to help him more fully realize his arrangements. When I spoke with Maus on the phone last month to advance his February 5th show at One Eyed Jacks, he’d already gone 20 minutes over the time allotted for his previous interview. Our conversation quickly devolved from a 30-minute Q&A to an hour-and-a-half labyrinth of digressions, explications, and epiphanies. Maus loves to hear himself think out loud, and after six years of silence, he’s got a lot to say.
You’re in Portland right now?
We’re coming down from Canada, heading down to Portland tonight. We’re in the van right now, driving down there.
And you were in Vancouver?
How was that?
It was great. Very enthusiastic. That’s been daunting for us. One knows how to deal with hostility, but admiration is a lot harder to honor. And on this leg, we’re still in the process of fine-tuning the machinery involved, so that was stressful. Right before the show, everything was offline, so needless to say, we were biting our nails until the last minute, but everything worked out fine.
Have you felt more admiration on this tour than in the past?
Yeah, I guess I have. Part of me suspects I’m cashing in on goodwill, having not played concerts in so long. In my deepest pore, I really hope I haven’t squandered goodwill by still fine-tuning the new live configuration. In other words, if and when I come back, hopefully folks don’t say “Well, I already saw that. No need to do it again.” Hopefully it’s only becoming more of an interesting live concert. But I’d be the last person to ask whether I’ve been successful in that.
You’re ending this tour at Coachella. How do you feel about that?
I don’t know anything about it, really. I know that it’s considered kind of commercial, and it is a festival. My hope is to do something with it—to try. I don’t think it’s likely that I’ll succeed in doing that because of the financial limitations. But at a festival of that size, with the main acts, I would suppose the experience is primarily about the spectacle. The performers themselves are just little peanuts on a stage, suspended nine feet above even the first rows. The PA, no matter how powerful, is just a deafening rumble. So what’s that about? How does one adequately address circumstances like that? I think I’ll focus on the visual element more than I have, and then I’ll see about doing something interesting sonically, but that’s very fucking expensive, and I assume they’ll usher us up there five minutes before. We’ll line check, we’ll do our little thing, and then we’re supposed to get off. It’s very impersonal, those kinds of situations. You’re just ushered up in front of a mostly dumbfounded crowd and then taken back down. But I really want to try—again, not that I’m going to succeed—to do something more than a performance. Because while our setup is more or less perfectly adequate to a small club—my sweat’s gonna be on the first few rows; they’re gonna see my face, see what’s going on—we’re not prepared in the slightest extent to do anything provocative with something so much bigger and so impersonal… I think that earlier on, even though I wasn’t there in the ‘70s with Floyd, people were getting into 3D sound and stuff. It would be interesting to try to renew interest in these dimensions of the live show. If anything, it’s a unique circumstance in that regard. It’s a way to explore music in a way that wouldn’t be possible in headphones. So I don’t know, I’ve gotta try.
Before this tour, you said you hoped the live band would alleviate some of the anxiety you get before shows. Has it?
No, it did not at first. I mean, it did to some extent—a significant extent, I suppose. But not entirely, not as much as I had hoped. In Europe, when I would get a chance to talk to people after the show, it started to dawn on me that sonically, there were lots of problems, not with the performers but with the machinery. Most often, the speakers at any given club are flush with the edge of the stage, which means that the first five rows, in a situation like ours where most things are going through the PA, will only be able to hear the acoustic sounds. This horrified me to no end, and we immediately started to try and figure out how to infill. What has begun to alleviate the anxiety is the monomaniacal focus on mobilizing loudspeakers and signal processors, to the end of opening up some extremely interesting sounds in the live show to emphasize and highlight and supplement the undeniable competence of the performers, and my own performance. It’s alleviated because I don’t have time. I’m not just sitting there biting my nails; I’m scrambling last minute to make sure everything is well-oiled.
What does the band look like right now?
There are three guys in addition to me: a drummer, a bass player (my brother), and a keyboardist. Keyboardists are the hardest to find with popular music, because the extremely skilled ones seem to be off in another sphere altogether, whether it’s jazz or classical composition. I mean there’s the John Lennon style of keyboard—just quarter notes and triads—and there’s no end to the individuals who can do that, myself included. But in terms of being able to sight read complicated passages, the possibilities get narrower and narrower, which is unfortunate. But I hope it works, because there’s always the risk that this will be seen as a cop-out, a cowardly move to make myself more commercially accessible. I can only make my assurances that this was not the intention. Hopefully it will be a side effect, but it certainly wasn’t the guiding light. I just wanted to get into it more deeply and try to honor the folks turning up to the shows.
You’ve also entered into an arguably more important partnership in the past year. Congrats on your marriage. Surrounding the release of the album, you talked a lot about living in complete solitude during your hiatus in Minnesota, but you weren’t, exactly. How did being in such an intimate space inform your work on Screen Memories?
Well, the first three or four years, I was completely alone. But then the last two years, I think [Screen Memories] certainly benefited from that situation. It was very unusual, in the sense that there was no wider social context for it, so it was still a kind of isolation. But yeah, I think one’s work almost always only benefits from a wider and wider net of relations with others. It’s just more and more possibility in terms of inspiration and critique, encouragement, and chastisement. This is all only going to benefit the work.
I was going to ask you if you believed art is best created in solitude, but I guess you just answered that for me. A lot of your music was created in solitude, though. Can you talk about that process?
Early on, it ended up that I was in that situation. But I’ve always supposed, as I just said, that the romance of it was misguided, and the best thing for anyone in any case is being with others. Left to oneself, only to think of oneself, to not have any possibility of being mixed up—that’s a death sentence. There’s the idea that hell is other people, but I think hell is being abandoned to oneself. But there are plenty of examples of solitude in writing and music. Glenn Gould, for instance, had a whole thing about the idea of the essential solitude of the work. And I guess I understand that there’s an aspect of any genuine work that has some untouchable solitude to it, but practically, no. I don’t think being closed off from other people fosters a unique perspective, unfortunately.
Do you think that might be different for someone like Glenn Gould, who’s completely focused on a single craft, rather than trying to compose and create his own art?
I think the impulse, in his case, was to avoid at all cost the assumptions of the “they.” So in that sense, solitude would be necessary. But just purely being alone… I don’t know. Having been out of the loop, I’m less mixed up with bile. If you’re out in the world, sometimes it’s not always the acquaintances that encourage and inspire in a positive sense, but in a reactionary sense too. Someone can say something you so fundamentally disagree with that you have to run home and try to work out a way to confirm once and for all that your suspicions are the correct of the two. You don’t benefit from any of that on your lonesome. But that’s not to say there weren’t nights where it was nothing but quiet, and there was a content in that. Time seems to go different too in situations like that. Hence, the six years seemed like a moment. I mean I’ve said that before, and I’m not kidding. I was horrified. There were moments when I realized it had been so long, and I’d wake up in a panic. But I’d really hoped the mark of that circumstance would open some sort of irrefutable master work. Obviously, every musician hopes their record is going to require a new language, a new way of reflecting on music—these insanely ambitious hopes in our work. But it was just another record, this week’s release. I don’t know.
Make sure you give more than you have to give, otherwise you give nothing at all.
After you finished Screen Memories, you said you felt frustrated because the new techniques you used didn’t come across on the record the way you wanted them to. But even if most of us won’t understand your process consciously, isn’t it possible that we’ll still feel it on a deeper, more visceral level?
That’s what I had hoped. Especially in the case of of pop, one can’t hold the listener responsible for not being able to hear what’s going on. Part of what makes this music unique is that it’s supposed to do the listening for the listener. It’s not meant to require any attention or patient listening. We’re all too crushed by the business of keeping the machine going to sit back at the concert hall and listen to a three-hour Mahler symphony where the introduction to the first movement is as long as one of our albums. So it falls to the people making it to somehow achieve the impossible of doing both. So I can’t hold the listener responsible, but I would hold the critics responsible, to some extent. If their vocation is to create a language around the music that’s being made, I find a lot that’s wanting in the stuff I read. Either it’s primarily focused on the lyrical aspect of the music, or it uses some concept that’s ready at hand, just kind of sticking it in a box. As opposed to the reflective judgment where one creates a concept, we have the determined judgment that just applies a concept that’s ready at hand. And it’s not just that; it’s the dismissal. It seems to me that if one is going to bother trying to write about music, one ought to reserve one’s energy for those works that one is trying to affirm something in, articulate something in there that is just inevitably retreating beyond the grasp. So I hoped the labor would go to show. I hoped it would matter. I hoped it would stand out. And I don’t know, maybe it will. I shouldn’t be anything other than grateful that my work is mediated, and I enjoy the luxury of being able to share it with people. But I just wanna smash the whole damn thing, the whole universe, this whole unapologetic commercial for the status quo that we can’t escape. It’s always coming through our radios and assaulting us in the supermarket when we’re just going to get some food. It comes around every corner, this obscene commercial for banality. And now it’s more strangely sophisticated than it’s ever been. There’s something objective, some sort of algorithm. I don’t mean to sound conspiratorial, but it’s like they’re reading cognitive science papers on how to make the earworm.
Aside from the technology, the Baroque ideas you apply to your music definitely help set it apart from most pop. Why does the Baroque style appeal to you?
I’m a harmonic listener, so in a fundamental sense, I’d say there’s nothing Baroque about what I’m doing along the harmonic lines. There’s not the faintest trace of major/minor tonality in the strict sense, in the leading tone sense. But in terms of the decorous polyphony, I think that’s very much in keeping with the impulse of pop, because it strikes me that more and more, the tendency is to think of it all in a purely horizontal, contrapuntal sense, as opposed to the vertical chords along the axis of time. You have a four-piece band like Joy Division where you have the keys, the bass, and the guitar, and each one is following its own melody, doing its own thing. And sure, the chords that one can discern on any given downbeat are diatonic triads, but I don’t think that’s what’s unique about the impulse there. I think that more and more, it just becomes the taking place of different voices along the horizontal time axis. So just as all music before the Baroque didn’t really think harmonically and the chords were just the result of the rules of the voice leading, pop moves that way more and more. Of course, we all know the chords in our tab books, but that isn’t what sets this trajectory apart from other ones. More and more, the band isn’t going “The chords are this: C, E, A minor.” It’s just playing melodies, and each melody is moving through time in accordance with its own logic. And it just so happily turns out that it’s still consonant triadic harmony that results from this. I guess I didn’t state that succinctly. It’s a nice coincidence that there’s a Baroque element to the thing, but I see it very much as in keeping with a uniquely characteristic aspect of the music of today. It happened very quickly in the ‘50s, when this youth music began to appear. After just a few years of caricatures of basic major/minor tonality chord progressions, it immediately begins to cast that off and get into a purely diatonic, modal space that doesn’t bear the faintest traces of that adventure of key which was so constantly important to the whole grand tradition of European concert music, from the Baroque up until the atom bomb.
Right. I meant more that you’re taking Baroque techniques like counterpoint and applying them to modern popular music.
I mean, on the record, you’ve got a song like “Over Phantom” and a song like “Pets.” And there’s passages in there that come to mind. There’s a section of “Over Phantom” where I gradually introduce up to four simultaneous voices. That’s difficult, at least for my dumb brain, to make that consonant on any given downbeat. But I find that the harmonies that occur in any case are uniquely particular to our music. You’d never find that in any earlier music. It’s fucking punk, man. It’s rad, it’s furious. It always struck me at the concert hall how quiet it was. In my car, when that Baroque music was on, it was almost to the point of clipping. I’d turn it up until it deafened me. It wasn’t dainty. So that kind of complexity becomes almost a middle finger. It’s closer to the grin of Johnny Rotten than the Lutheran piety of Bach.
How do you feel about the Wendy Carlos Switched-On Bach stuff?
Yeah, that’s neat. I watched some show about synthesizers with all these West Coast vanguard electronic noise guys ripping on Wendy for using the Moog to imagine Bach pieces. They were like, “That’s not what it was for!” But no, I disagree. It’s always noble, I think, to try to introduce music from different situations into our own—to try and reimagine it, to make it live. This is the forgotten art of interpretation and translation. And so in accord with that, yes, the Wendy Carlos records are great. And for some reason, in a way I’m not prepared to defend or fully articulate right now, her records were also different from those novelty records that came out around the introduction of the Moog, like “The Beatles on Moog.” So I think she’s great. I suppose my only complaint is that she didn’t go for any deep cuts there. But especially now, having gone through it and coming to understand how difficult the patch design is, I appreciate it all the more. I mean, I found even after I’d soldered the whole thing together, I had to steal parameters from soft synths that sound designers had made, because everything I dialed in just ended up sounding like a square wave with an envelope on it. So I’d look at the soft synth on the screen and adjust the cutoff and the envelope times and things like that, because I just didn’t have time to sit there for a week finding the sound. It was just easier to scroll through the soft synth presets and find one that sounded close enough to something interesting.
I wanted to talk a little more about your live show. What does the hysterical body mean to you, and how does it inform your performance style? Has playing with the live band changed the way you act on stage?
It’s funny, because on this leg—the European one and more and more into this American one we’re starting—I’ve been trying to move from that into the voice more, but it’s very difficult. Hysterical confrontation has become a knee-jerk reaction for me. I reach for it, and I think that’s questionable. Around Pitiless, the idea was always the attempt to appear, because it’s so difficult. And certainly in the live music situation, there’s lots of play-acting. But I think the struggle to appear would very often be a hysterical, ugly affair, an evangelical furor. So that was the notion. And I know there are plenty of rejections of this idea, but what I’m talking about is authenticity—whatever you want to call it: authenticity, sincerity, meaning it. These were the tools that I could draw on; the sweat of blood is undeniable. And it’s not like I even come close to some of the really out-there performers like GG Allin. That isn’t the only way that works. I can think of some of my friends where the bet is more explicitly confrontational—giving the middle finger to the audience, for instance, even if only out of a well-intentioned idea that this is how to make the thing work. That’s definitely the case with the people I’m thinking of. To give the audience the middle finger, that’s another way of staying at it. Don’t leave anything on the field. Make sure you give more than you have to give, otherwise you give nothing at all. You don’t get any of it back ever. It’s out there forever; you gave it. And I understand that anything carried out with patient sincerity in our situation is bound to appear comical to the accusers, but it strikes me that all too often, it is merely comical… For what it’s worth, my word, there’s not some calculus in it. The inclination to give more than one is supposed to is totally not in keeping with the everyday comings and goings. Every day, more and more, it’s the accuser who triumphs—the scoffer, not the listener, not the lover. It’s the crowd who are sure of themselves, the people who don’t seem to have any suspicion that it’s always weirder than that. And they know, they know, they know, and it’s unfortunate.
A lot of people see what you’re doing and say, “He can’t be serious. He’s being ironic.”
And it’s nothing! What do they think, I get off and I’m smiling? Is it like Motley Crue in the ‘80s, where I get on a bus full of people in swimsuits and cocaine? At the risk of getting my reward here, I carry all the shit back into the van and drive with the guys for six hours, getting up at 8 in the morning, and after six years of sitting on my butt, come up to my physical limit again, just out of the belief that it’s not enough to go through the motions. If you have the privilege of holding court, it’s much easier to listen and come out clean than it is to speak and come out clean. It’s a conundrum every time you’re given the mic, to honor that moment of attention. And I understand, this really sounds like I’m paining myself virtuously, and I don’t mean to do that. But even if I’m not able to hold on to it as a conviction without any doubt, at the very least I can put it like this now. I can’t resign myself to the fact that none of it matters. I don’t believe that. It all matters, right?
I think so. My real question, though, is why do you think some people just can’t accept that you’re serious? Why do they automatically assume irony?
There’s a lot of possible ways at coming at an answer to that, but my knee-jerk response is that it’s just part of this whole situation that anything carried out with any seriousness is thought to appear comical. It’s the ugliest men. It just seems more and more that the discourse around things is filled with spite and resentment. It’s the last men. They’ve killed God only to put themselves in his place. They’re not here to create or affirm. They’re here to reassure themselves in their refusal to reckon with the death of God. They’re telling us a story about how we were backward cavemen who though the sun revolved around the earth until they came around and freed us from the savagery of being primitive. And there’s so much that’s dubious about that way of thinking. They’re the ones who laugh at the fool who believes. “He believes it matters. Let’s spit on him. He’s a fool. He thinks it matters. He thinks it’s invested with an eternal truth. Let’s rub his face in the mud and let him see how it really is.” It’s that impulse to take it all down. Cast your pearls before swine and they’ll trample you underfoot, right? They’ll tear you to pieces. This is where I just love the idea that religion is the real of the imaginary, because we have these frames through which to articulate that sort of thing, and it’s precisely the demonic in the language of these frames that comes to mind here. Why would benevolence allow such things and what’s the story there? The story, inasmuch as I’ve been able to make it out, is that the pride that came to the fall is such misery, all it can do to content itself at this point is bring more down into it, to take as much as it can out of the possibility of something else than the mud, something else than the ashes and the smokestack.
John Maus plays One Eyed Jacks on Monday, February 5 with Lukdlx opening. Screen Memories is out now on all major streaming platforms. Addendum, a follow-up EP, is scheduled to drop April 20th, along with a box set featuring both projects. For more on Maus, check out Johnma.us, or lose yourself in the threads at MausSpace.com.
photo SHAWN BRACKBILL