I never had any natural ability in relation to music. I moved here from Hawaii, where I’d been for two years,” he says. “But before that, I was in Minneapolis for a year. Before that, I was in L.A. for, like, seven years, and then before that, I grew up here [in Minnesota] and never really left.”
It’s no coincidence that the first single off Maus’ outstanding new album, Screen Memories (Oct. 27, Ribbon Music), is a symphonic dirge called “The Combine”—Maus lives in farm country, land with no discernible border, just heartland coordinates like the longitudes and latitudes of open water. There are fields of bio-manufactured crops incensed with glyphosate-based herbicide labeled with the neon logos of agribusiness superpowers. But there’s also the odd hobby farm, organic co-ops, an oscillating horizon of wind turbines jutting otherworldly from corn and soybean. There are the Amish, cantering highway-side in their buggies. And there’s John Maus, the polarizing and hermetic rocker, eschewing both coasts for his hometown.
“I love picking up friends from L.A. or whatever,” he says, “and driving [out] here. They’re like, ‘Where the fuck am I?’ You know, it’s a long drive with no freeways. Really the only shortcoming or compromise you have to make—in order to hear the wind blowing in the grass and see all these little flowers and feral farm cats and all that stuff—is you’re never going to be mixing it up with people, you know, doing what you’re doing, professionally, or being able to challenge yourself on that level.”
I look out the window, trees nodding in the refracted light. A goat bleats on cue. I ask how he deals with the isolation.
“Well, I enjoy it,” he says. “It’s the whole romance of solitude. But, really, the first three years after I was done touring and retired back here, there was never any shortage of things to occupy my mind. You know what I mean?”
On the table between us, there’s a DVD for Bruno Mattei’s 1988 science fiction-action-horror flick Robowar (Tomatometer unavailable), a PlayStation controller and a large stack of sheet music. To my left: a wall of philosophy books behind a piano. This is a guy who, over the next three months, will tour five states and 13 countries. An “endearingly bookish” guy who was tapped by Pitchfork to compile a listicle of his favorite things, and, under the prompt “Last Great Book I Read,” answered, “These questions are difficult because they’re part and parcel with a situation that would define us as a list of cultural commodities we’ve consumed. This is a very banal idea.” John Maus is a 37-year-old academic who studied philosophy at the European Graduate School in Switzerland and earned his doctorate in political philosophy from the University of Hawaii, and is now living in a cabin on a farm in rural Minnesota creating some of the most innovative and surprising music out there.
When he says, “You know what I mean?” it isn’t rhetorical filler—he actually wants to know if you know what he means.
After a few years collaborating with close friend and former CalArts schoolmate Ariel Pink, Maus released Songs in 2006 (tracks like “And Heaven Turned to Her Weeping” and “Forever and Ever and Ever,” with their warbling synths and doomsday bass lines, sound like Vangelis scoring Liquid Sky); in 2007, he released Heaven Is Real (a little funkier, a little tinnier, but “The Silent Chorus” knocks the wind out of you; it’s devastating); 2011’s We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves (title culled from French philosopher Alain Badiou’s “Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art”) saw Maus’ first real commercial success (“Cop Killer” is far more menacing than Body Count’s notorious 1992 call to arms, but it’s also somehow funny; “Hey Moon” is a study in pop perfection; and “Quantum Leap” is an anxiety-inducing synth freakout); and, finally, Maus released A Collection of Rarities and Previously Unreleased Material the following year (masterful songs spanning from 1999 to 2010, many of which Maus himself had to track down on the Internet). This year, we get “a career-spanning six-album box set,” including the aforementioned plus two new albums, Screen Memories and Addendum. His music is methodical, vaguely mathematical (Maus, from the German mûs, meaning “mouse,” which is funny considering the cats), at times spastic and unhinged, consistently sweeping, cinematic and beautiful.
I should mention that I sit and listen to John Maus speak for two hours and 44 minutes. “I’m rambling, sorry,” he tells me, twice. “You gotta rein me in, man.”
He continues: “...As a teenager—it was the coolest thing—you’d go to the record stores. ... And of course another thing about my age: you had the $20 bill in your pocket, and you had to pick [a record]. Then you had to live with it, even if it was a bummer. At least give it four or five listens to give it a chance that it might be a grower. Is the grower even a possibility today? And some of my favorite albums of all time were precisely these sorts of things. ...”
“...I’m the first to fuckin’ stand by Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, but ... it’s the same thing with visual art, in a way. I lose the thread at about ’68—if not immediately after the war, then certainly by ’68, the residues of the high art tradition, to my mind, completely give way to more interesting things happening with the, what do they say, the hoi polloi or something, with the riffraff, with the kids, you know?”
“...People say, ‘Well, if aliens exist then why don’t they land on the White House lawn?’ And it’s like, you don’t see a fuckin’ blue whale coming up and saying, ‘Take me to your president. ...’”
He speaks excitedly, in anfractuous tidbits, starting and restarting, trying to keep up with his own mind, casually referencing philosophers and composers whose names sound to me like nothing more than mouthfuls of nonsensical phonemes. “They’re still holding on to the modernist narrative of development in music. This thing that, I believe, today in universities, is totally rejected—the idea that there’s some sort of glorious tradition that is constantly perfecting and evolving. You know what I mean? From the plainchant to the organum to the Renaissance to Haydn and Mozart ... to the tonality kind of reaching its breaking point ... to Wagner, to Schoenberg, to Stockhausen...” I nod along. Maus’ hands tremble, his knee joggles. It’s like the guy vibrates with expansive thought, his eyes darkened by wisdom, completely unconcerned with mismatching socks.
“I spent about two, three years just finishing a dissertation and going back and defending it, and then I spent the next two years preparing the hardware necessary for what I had hoped was really going to push [Screen Memories] into a very unique sonic territory, a previously unheard- of sonic territory. That’s how I’m, like, justifying spending all this time blowing up circuit boards and stuff, trying to get it right.
“So then after the two years of getting the gear together, I started working on recording the album, which took me another two years. And in those last years, I wasn’t out here alone.”
He pauses, eyes searching.
“I don’t like to use the word girlfriend,” he says, finally. “But, yeah, a girlfriend [Hungarian visual artist Kika Karadi] moved in. Now we’re engaged. She’s down in Marfa, Texas, right now. So the last two years there was somebody out here with me, but it was just us. And that was another kind of ... weird thing. You know what I mean?”
Maus holds an unlit cigarette in his right hand that he’d plucked from a yellow pack an hour ago, gesturing with it, rolling it around, forgotten, until it’s become warped and unsmokable. He pulls out another and lights it.