A Freewheeling Conversation With Experimental Oddball John Maus

Shawn Brackbill

A Freewheeling Conversation With Experimental Oddball John Maus

Shawn Brackbill

One of John Maus’ favorite pop songs is “Dynamite” by Taio Cruz. I know this because he sang the chorus for me a few weeks ago at a park on a crisp, fall afternoon in Brooklyn. Maus revealed his love for this song toward the end of a long conversation about his new album, Screen Memories, due out Friday. Maus is an intellectual — he has a PhD in political philosophy — and most of the time, he talks in the kind of maddeningly referential and circling way that certain smart people talk. By the time we get to this point, we’ve already poked fun at gearheads, questioned some of the insidious implications of AI, and pondered whether or not we’re staring down the apocalypse. All heavy stuff, but there’s a notable playfulness to Maus’ persona that begins to reveal itself the longer you talk to him. After an hour and 20 minutes of banter, I now possess an audio recording of Maus singing, “We gon’ rock this club/ Like it’s dynamite!” with the same unabashed enthusiasm he pays to literally any other topic of conversation.

John Maus loves to talk. This is perhaps due to the fact that he lives in relative isolation in the Midwest. It’s also a side effect of having a lot of ideas; the simplest lyrics on Screen Memories beget some of the most complex explanations, and it’s easy to pose a single question to Maus and have him loop off into a tangent at any available opportunity. (He also moves between ideas so quickly that he’s sometimes difficult to understand, hence the large number of bracketed clarifications in our interview transcript.) Unlike a lot of artists, Maus actually likes doing press, and he was receptive to every and any question I posed to him about the process of making Screen Memories and some of the themes that cushion the album.

Screen Memories is Maus’ first release since his 2011 breakout We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves. When that album came out, Maus went from being a quietly lauded outsider artist known for working with Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti to an experimental pop musician in his own right with a growing following. In April of 2018, a career-spanning six-LP box set of Maus’ work will be released by his label, Ribbon Music. The box set will include a 12-song addendum to Screen Memories, appropriately titled Addendum. It’s a somewhat curious predicament for a 37-year-old musician to be in. A box set is something usually awarded to an artist who’s been churning out critically-acclaimed work for decades, or an artist who’s already dead. But for someone like Maus, who’s put out the bulk of their work under the radar, it makes a lot of sense.

Maus has been working on Screen Memories for about six years. He recorded it in his home and built a selection of synthesizers to work with. Aside from the final song, “Bombs Away,” which was co-written by Ariel Pink and Matt Fishbeck for their band Holy Shit, Maus is the sole writer on the album. Unlike some of his older work, Screen Memories has a certain foreboding heft to it; when I first meet Maus, I describe it as being an “apocalyptic” album and he doesn’t disagree with me. If anything, he’s still trying to figure out how to talk about this album in the context of our current political moment and how to articulate some of the very personal fears that factor into the lyrics on Screen Memories.

Aside from a controversial guest appearance on the alt-right-affiliated Million Dollar Extreme (which he finally addressed in a recent interview), Maus hasn’t been in the public eye much since Pitiless Censors was released. Now that he’s back, Maus has thrown himself into the touring circuit, bringing a full band along with him for the first time ever. His live show is raucous and unrestrained, and its chaos perfectly contradicts the brooding and stoic Screen Memories. This is Maus’ bold reintroduction, a synth-pop album that is as contradictory and willfully strange as its maker. Read our Q&A below.

STEREOGUM: You built new instruments in order to make this album. Tell me a little about that process.

JOHN MAUS: I thought [building my own instruments] would allow me to mobilize the whole sonic dimension in addition to the purely musical aspect in a radically new way, if I was intimately acquainted with the gear I was using down to the level of the circuit boards and the etching and all that stuff. And it ended up being kind of a blind alley, unfortunately. I mean, it was edifying for me, for what little that’s worth, but it didn’t really… my idea was that if I built these machines, somehow they would allow me to access to a whole range of tone colors or something that was previously unheard of or whatever, but then it ended up being that I could have just saved some time and used the digital plug-ins. About half a dozen of only the most discerning ears would make out the difference, you know? But who knows, maybe in the future or something that will come in handy, I don’t know.

STEREOGUM: Well, I imagine you probably learned something of value building them.

MAUS: I definitely learned stuff, but in terms of opening up some sonic universe or something like that… I’d never got that deeply into the actual gear involved [in making my music], but I thought the music could only stand to benefit from some sort of conscious [sonic effort], you know what I mean? Because there’s a lot of people that make music and [gear is] primarily what they’re interested in, and I’d always kind of laughed at that, assuming music is something other than your fancy delay pedal or whatever, you know what I mean? And I guess [making this album] was, in a certain way, a confirmation of that initial suspicion because it finally comes back to the music itself; software now is pretty seamless in its ability to emulate that sort of gear [that I built], so I don’t know.

STEREOGUM: There are gearheads who want to talk about that stuff extensively, and then there’s people who are just like, “Yeah, I just bought it at a thrift store 10 years ago and I’m still using it today.”

MAUS: Nothing good can come from just making a fetish — in the strict sense of the word — out of the gear. I think everyone is acquainted with the figure who has all the fancy gear and then there’s no music, it’s just like they have a room full of expensive things. It’s all expensive too. At one point I did have a fancy Roland Jupiter-8, but I could only hold onto it for like a month or something, because it’s just too much dough, do you know what I mean? It’s too much dough to like… have in an object. I’m like, “I gotta pay rent! Time to sell it.”

STEREOGUM: You recorded Screen Memories in your own home — what’s that environment like and what was the process of creating this album?

MAUS: It’s a small house, very cheap rent out there in the country. Every day I would be able to get up and just work [on the album], but I can’t help but suspect it suffered from that a little bit for lack of fresh air in the sense of social interaction. That’s always very stimulating, I think. I mean, there’s something to be said for solitude, but I can’t help but suspect it’s always better to have, to be coming up against other people, you know, it keeps you–

STEREOGUM: You mean collaboration?

MAUS: Yeah, to be in conversation, that sort of thing. So yeah, I had an empty little room in the house and put the computer and all the gear in there, and I remember I thought I was gonna be done with it a lot sooner. The years were going by, and it was not even this last summer but the summer before that I thought I was gonna be done. I remember watching the whole summer go by out of the window of that room, and in Minnesota, the summer is important. [After] the whole hellish winter you’re waiting for that; even the trees are waiting for that peak, that climax around early July when all the fireflies come out. So I was just sitting there in that room all day on the computer, watching the sun go up and down. I really wanted to push [the recordings] a little bit, you know, so I tried all sorts of things. In addition to the gear, I played around with writing programs and software, anything I could think of to try to generate raw musical material to work from, you know, with the guiding principle that if we’re going to make music today we oughta be intimately acquainted with vanguard technology, so I tried to push the boundaries of all of that as far as I was able to.

I felt like a lot of the things that I had up my sleeve and was able to use to great effect in earlier work from six years ago in the meantime has already found its way into top 40, do you know what I mean? In the most generic sense, some of the harmonic ideas for example in the earlier records, some of the areas there that I was exploring. Not by necessarily [hearing those ideas] from me or whatever, but somehow [these old sounds I was working with resurfaced]. Playing those cards wasn’t as easy this time.

STEREOGUM: It’s interesting to hear you talk about pop music — I always think of your work as really great example of music attached to the quote-unquote “underground” made by someone who has a sort of reverence for pop simplicity. You don’t overcomplicate the music itself and still somehow manage to communicate big ideas with immediacy.

MAUS: That’s the razor’s edge I’ve been trying to walk since the beginning, and on this album I’m worried I let myself succumb to the temptation of, for lack of a better word: complexity. I mean there’s certainly straightforward moments on the new record, but, you know, there’s a lot of decadent polyphony and things like that on a level that maybe I would have forbidden myself [from doing before] in the name of simplicity. Because, you know, if the question is “what is pop,” right, and the answer is “the Ramones” or something like that, I start to think, you know, it’s also “A Day In The Life” and “Good Vibrations.” There’s a way to explore some of [those ideas] that isn’t giving over entirely to the sort of symphonic ambitions [heard on] the most decadent ‘70s progressive rock. But I think, as I tried to keep [Screen Memories simple] you know, with very distinct parts, this time around there’s a lot more going on, I think.

It’s dark, and I worried about that. [The album isn’t] light, so maybe it just sinks right through the ground and doesn’t ascend. Somebody made the point that “maybe that’s all you can do right now,” [and I take comfort in that]. This [album] was done more or less before the election. I had really hoped that it would come out simultaneously [because the] spirit [of the music], seems apocalyptic. I mean, it may be that now isn’t the appropriate. it’s not appropriate to say, “Everything is awesome!” and skip around — to take our shoes off and dance around in our socks, you know what I mean?

STEREOGUM: Yes, that’s a good point. I will say that although it’s dark, I do think it’s fun. There’s humor in it.

MAUS: [Laughs] Does the rigor count for anything? At the very least — even [though the album isn’t] light and didn’t have that sort of ascension that comes by way of lightness — at the very least one would still be able to marvel at the labor that was necessary in order to achieve that sort of rigor.

STEREOGUM: You mentioned the election, and I’m only now realizing that pretty much every interview I do about any album in 2017, or any interview I’ve read with an artist in 2017, the subject surfaces.

MAUS: I made the apocalypse album. I already put out the first [single “The Combine”], which is about separating the wheat from the chaff, about the “endtimes.” [I didn’t make that connection]. It’s a song about farm machinery! Or something like that. That’s a symptom of the election, [it lends simple things] a greater sense [of importance]. There are lyrics on the album [that support that], right, like the line: “standing on the edge of forever.” That [alludes to] a reconfiguration of temporality and communication — through the worldwide web and the devices and all this stuff —  it seems there’s some sort of transition taking place, a sort of reconfiguration. Lyrically, [the themes I sing about] seem to resonate right with the situation today.

STEREOGUM: How does the title of the album itself relate? In terms of that constant connectivity you mentioned?

MAUS: The whole Silicon Valley ideology, yeah, or the endless celebration of that sort of information technology. There’s, you know, there’s something horrifying in all of it, to me. That’s the happy coincidence with the title of the album; there’s the obvious Freudian reference to the screen memory — remembering, like, when your uncle diddled you instead as the time he took you to get an ice cream or something like that, in psychoanalytic jargon — and that is in concert with the actual image on the cover [that depicts] the memory of a television screen.

I mean all this is sort of the heavy, topical, ancillary, lyrical aspect of the thing over and above the purely musical dimension of it. The way I tried to bring those ideas to bare on the tracks was through the tools I was using, the media I was using. But it was a bad bet, I mean I’m privileged to have the luxury to tinker with building synthesizers and stuff but in this moment, there’s a generation that grew up with GarageBand on their Macs, [who can work] within the limitations of [those programs] and they’re able to do something 10-times more incredible than some douchebag who has the luxury of like spending a year soldering circuit boards, you know what I mean? But there’s something luxurious about using everything but the kitchen sink as opposed to just using what’s immediately at hand.

STEREOGUM: Right, and before you mentioned how so much Top 40 music recycles motifs from the past — that’s increasingly the easiest thing in the world for young people who are trying to make music to do. You have a universe of influences in front of you — it’s like you just pick, you know?

MAUS: Yeah, I mean from what little I know of it, it seems that the [trend in pop music is to] focus more and more on timbre, which doesn’t bode well for any of the work I’ve done. And by timbre, I don’t know if this is super familiar, would be the sound of the sound, you know what I mean? The sound of a piano, the sound of a violin, you know both playing in C. And so in other words, the focus isn’t so much on the vertical correspondence of notes, the harmonies as they move horizontally through time, or even on the melodies so much as maybe the colloquial notion of production, gets at what I’m trying to point towards, that the sound of the thing becomes what people are fixated on so that you might have a loop of, like, six pitches that just repeats over and over again and the attention is meant to be on the way that sounds, or something like that. It’s not so important or it becomes less and less important, you know, the chords and the melody and this sort of thing, I don’t know, is that a fair assessment?

STEREOGUM: Yeah, and once a particular sound or production aesthetic is in vogue you start to hear it literally everywhere. I’m trying to think of a good example in pop music right now…

MAUS: The chipmunks! Maybe this is out of vogue now already, and you’re not gonna be able to transcribe this, I dare you to try. [Maus makes a high-pitched chipmunk sound] Like, the producer will have their click glitch thing going like [Maus makes chipmunk sound again] and there’s a little high-pitched voice just go “MAOOOOOOOOOW!”

So, I’ve got a live band now and some of them follow what’s going on [in pop music] much more carefully than I do. One night, they were playing one of these songs [and I shouted]: “Turn the chipmunks off!” [The chipmunk sound] found its way into Top 40, but I don’t know what genre you’d call it — I can’t keep track of the microgenre names — but like dubstep or something like that? Maybe that’s the music you hear where all of a sudden [there’s] that high-pitched little squeal in the background, you know? But I think that’s almost like a meme right? Like somebody will do an effect like that and others and it will just kind of replicate itself across the landscape and then you just have chipmunks everywhere.

STEREOGUM: Production trends tend to replicate themselves until everyone’s sick of a sound. That’s what dates a song too, the moment you hear something and go: “Oh, God this song was definitely released in like 2012.”

MAUS: There’s definitely a paper to be written on the chipmunks. I just hear it and I’m like “WHY? Why the chipmunks?”

STEREOGUM: I would welcome a paper on the chipmunks. Well, let’s talk about your band because you were touring for a long time on your own — just you standing up there, karaoke style, if that’s what you’d call it?

MAUS: Yeah, I guess that’s what you would call it, and I kind of liked the affront involved in that. I mean even, you know, only up to the point where in certain places [the audience would] throw beer at my head and stuff… So, you know on certain stages, it simply wasn’t adequate to a crowd beyond a certain size. It always kind of surprised me [when people would hate my solo shows], too, because there are DJs and stuff [who perform solo], but somehow in the context of what was meant to be a rock concert, people would wonder, “Is this some kind of performance art or something like that?” So there’s definitely an advantage to getting a band together in order to put that to rest. And then on top of that, of course, [having a band] allows you to investigate and explore and mobilize different aspects [of your music] sonically that you wouldn’t have been able to do with just a little karaoke box. [A band will] draw attention to certain passages that you couldn’t draw attention to, certain songs I never would’ve done with a karaoke box because there’s too many passages where it’s too long without any vocals and I’m just kind of jumping up and down or something. There’s definitely more energy in the live sound now. The only disadvantage [to working with a band is] the worry that maybe it’s a cop out to not have to go out there naked, so to speak.

STEREOGUM: You really throw yourself around up there on stage.

MAUS: Yeah, I wonder if it translates. I’ve had the misfortune of looking at some videos from the shows five years ago when it was just me, and it’s really painful to watch because obviously through my eyes it didn’t look like that. Sometimes the exertion doesn’t translate, but I wouldn’t wanna study it too well because then [performing] would become play-acting.

STEREOGUM: What do you mean play-acting? Like timing when you’re going to do certain things?

MAUS: Maybe it’s terribly misguided of me, but we’ve all seen it on TV shows and stuff when [the performers are] smiling and jumping around and they have the cute little back-and-forth with the audience and that sort of thing. It’s like, “SHUT THE FUCK UP AND PLAY!” My brother lived in New York for a while and he had a joke where he’d go around and ask people, “Where does the fastest band in town play?” And nobody knew who the “fastest band” was, or where they played. At least from my perspective, there is enough that’s cute out there already. Isn’t there? I don’t know.

STEREOGUM: A lot of your earlier music is synth-based, but I think “Find Out” might be my favorite song on the album because I love the guitars on it.

MAUS: I should have used more guitar. I would have! I tried a little bit, and I could never get it to work. On “Bombs Away,” it should’ve been more guitar-heavy. I very much see what I’m doing [on this album] in keeping either rightly or wrongly with whatever began in ’54, going through the Pistols and the Clash and Joy Division, up until… you know what I mean? That’s the trajectory I see myself operating along, and it’s out of fidelity to that I was drawing on the synths and that sort of thing. But I did enjoy, in terms of the track you mentioned, busting out the guitar. It’s fun. I didn’t use [guitar] as much as I maybe should have.

STEREOGUM: Maybe this is my interpretation, but the song has such a raw “fuck the man” attitude, lyrically. And aesthetically, it has a very ’70s New York punk vibe.

MAUS: Yeah I like the non-sequitur aspect of the lyrics. “Your dad is gonna find out,” there’s something horrifying about that to the adolescent in all of us.

STEREOGUM: It has a very teenager-y feel.

MAUS: I think that is definitely part and parcel with this sort of music in general. It has to have this sort of teenager-y feel, doesn’t it? That’s the problem with the apocalyptic layman [character]…. it’s very grown up in a way and resigned to a kind of mortality that the reckless audacity of adolescents would not admit. The best of this sort of music always has this piss and vinegar [to it].

STEREOGUM: I think that anyone who grew up loving indie rock is always gonna fall back on that sentiment in a song. Like: “Damn, this makes me feel like I’m 15 and my parents are telling me I can’t go do what I wanna do and I’m so angry! They don’t understand me!” Going off of what you said about the apocalypse feeling too heavy or too adult –

MAUS: The metal bands can get away with the apocalypse though, can’t they? But then they command it, at least on the face of it, a more satanic revelry in the end.

Sabbath has a song about the apocalypse… I think the meditation on my album is more on the sober philosophical, theological side of it, meditative at least lyrically, standing on the end between time and its hand. I’ve been meaning to look up the etymology of eschatology because I was always wondering what it was, [and I did just the other night] and the eschatos isn’t necessarily just the end, but it’s the furthest thing, it’s the beyond, it’s the most remote thing. So eschatology isn’t necessarily the study of the end, it’s the study of the most remote thing. Maybe this is kind of obscurantis banter that I’m doing right now, but I like that idea of the end is at hand, it’s that paradoxical moment where it’s the furthest thing, the most remote thing is at hand. There’s always that paradox involved with the notion of the end in a strictly religious sense. It’s not like some sort of embarrassing evangelical “people are gonna disappear out of their clothing in five days,” it’s always immediately in this moment the most remote and furthest thing. And the most remote and farthest thing always being that somehow time could ever be justified.

This is where the whole notion of the apocalypse is really a wonderful counterpoint, critically speaking, to kind of a Silicon Valley spirituality which would have it that somehow time could be vindicated and justified from within time as opposed to from some of standpoint most furthest and most remote from some kind of impossible end of time. In other words, it would give the lie to anyone who would suppose they could explain the suffering and the horror, or vindicate that by way of progress or technology, there’s no way of ever giving an account of the suffering.

STEREOGUM: Is this what the song “City On The Edge” is about?

MAUS: I like that notion, with the way that time seems to precipitate in some sort of weird simultaneity, like it’s all one simultaneous instant all past, present and future, it becomes this forever, but it’s also the name of the last episode of Star Trek, the original series. I saw that somewhere and thought, oh I like that, “The City On The Edge Of Forever.” It feels like that’s an apt description of what’s going on. We’re at the end of history’s narrative, that sort of boundary, and that relates to the last thing if that wasn’t clear, these are the sort of ideas that make my skin crawl, the sort of end-of-history, “We’re gonna figure it all out, we’re gonna live forever, be cyborgs,” that sort of thing. That’s great, you know, because then yeah, this is then in that sense, that’s the thing, happy to be the last, hopefully they’re right because then I get to be one of the last mortals.

STEREOGUM: Are you talking about AI?

MAUS: Yeah, just that whole fetish. That whole narrative of salvation by way of eternal life by way of artificial neural nets. There’s certainly a foolish conceit in all that, but supposing they are correct, good. Just make sure you put on my tombstone: “Do not disturb.” I mean, I like that. Maybe then finally we can be mortals for real and understand what a gift that is, because our robot overlords will live forever and know all things and see all things, you know what I mean?

STEREOGUM: And then we’ll happily die.

MAUS: Those of us who do die will happily die. It’s like in the body snatchers and that sort of thing it’s like, “Drink it because it’s so much better over here, once you drink you’ll understand.” And you’ll be like, “No thanks, I think I’ll stick with my high fructose corn syrup over here, that’s enough for me.”

STEREOGUM: The other song that immediately grabbed me when I first listened is “Pets.” That lyric, “Your pets are gonna die”… I laughed out loud, I thought it was funny for some reason.

MAUS: I like the humor in that, too. But I guess some people were [saddened by it]. It’s their death, it’s their mortality that gives life its end. [Then the song] becomes this whole philosophical meditation on eternal life at the end. Maybe this is pretentious or pompous of me, but by way of direct reference to, musical reference to the string sextet “Transfigured Night,” so you have all these trills and the synths and it’s basically, even though it’s underpinned with an entirely different harmony, a reference to that moment in that string sextet in [Schoenberg’s Opus 4]. It was a tone poem and I don’t know who wrote it, but a man and a woman are walking through the moonlight and he loves her and she loves him and then she tells him that she’s pregnant by another man, and he has a heart attack then he realizes, and he says “but I love you so much” and the child is transfigured into his child. It’s very romantic. The poem is late romanticism, borderline expressionism. It’s a really amazing piece of music, but there’s the transfiguration in there, so I make the reference to that on [“Pets”]. The focus on the album in general was almost exclusively on musical details, and that particular track is full of stretto and augmentation, that theme that the bass is playing, it really almost in a way that’s entirely foreign to pop, I used all these devices of motivic integral unity like that bassline is everywhere in that song, the little riff that the bass is playing in the beginning like, if you wanna have a fun time looking for aliens and South Park episodes you can see the inversions and the retrogrades of that theme everywhere, it’s all built on that little nugget. It was an exercise in that way, for what little that’s worth.

STEREOGUM: It’s a fun song. A pet’s death is, oftentimes, the first death people experience. If they’re lucky.

MAUS: I had that with a cat. I remember I was weeping and I remember getting a sideway glance from my old man and understanding because I was already like 12 or whatever, and it was just like, “Why is the boy acting so hysterical about a cat?” But it wasn’t just that, it was the thought of the thing that had eyes in the dirt with worms, just reckoning with that when you say it for the first time by way of a pet.

STEREOGUM: It’s pets, then your parents and grandparents, and then it’s eventually you. And I think that’s the moment, when you have a pet as a kid, that’s when it hits.

MAUS: There’s something to the idea; holding fast to that thought is the most authentic way of moving through life. Not in a morbid or in a disparaging way, but in a way that you recognize what it is to be thrown towards a death. I don’t know. It’s deep stuff.

Screen Memories

Screen Memories is out 10/27 via Ribbon Music. Pre-order it here.

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