John Maus

Expectations Versus Reality Versus Reality

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Written by Andrew Stark | Photographed by Lilly Ball

John Maus lives in a cabin on a farm in rural Minnesota. There are cows, llamas, screaming goats and a lot of cats. Some of those cats were born in Maus’ house.

He is tall and imposing, his handsomeness offset by unkempt hair, a bleach-stained T-shirt, mismatched socks. He answers the door, hunched, having just woken up and looking it. He shifts an American Spirit from one hand to the other.

“I’m John,” he says. He’s drinking black coffee from a broken teacup.

We shake hands and duck inside. The living room is crowded with furniture. Maus apologizes for the mess, but it’s halfhearted, proprietary, a pantomime of small talk, something he might feel expected to say.

“I saw the cover of Malibu,” he says. “I didn’t know. I’m, like, fuckin’ Malibu? I was thinking it was literally something to do with Malibu. And it’s all these A-listers on the cover and everything like that. It looked like Vanity Fair, and I was thinking why the hell would they come out to this dump? Is this a good idea? And then Shelley [Wright], who works for the promotion for the record, explained that: ‘Well, it is just as you say, but every once in a while they’re entitled to have their one weirdo profile.’ So I’m like, oh, well then it’s an honor.” [Editor’s note: We have plenty of weirdos in each issue.]

Band members melt in and out of the periphery (“Hey, Jon [Thompson], could you do me a huge favor and fill one of those red cups up with water? There’s a tape recorder going. I’m sorry. I guess I could’ve done it myself. I don’t mean to put you on the spot there, Jon. Thanks a lot, man. Thanks a lot.”). The band—Thompson on drums/drum machines, Luke Darger on synths, and John’s brother Joe at the bass—is a new development for Maus, who’s used to performing solo.

“I did learn the lesson, now, playing with the band,” he says. “The second you’re playing live, and the sound waves become intense or powerful enough to where your body feels it, the low frequencies and all that, then the source of where those waves are coming from does really make a difference. It becomes a physical experience.”

When I ask about origins, Maus’ answer is appropriately downplayed: “I fell into toxic waste and was given super abilities.” We laugh. “No, 

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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.

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“And then this last summer, three other guys [moved in]. That was a huge adjustment. You know, coming from three years of monastic life, and then two years of essentially monastic life with another person. Never talking to anybody else at all for weeks and weeks on end. And then suddenly having three guys out here—it was all positive, in the sense that change is always positive. But it was a major adjustment. I was joking with the [band] last night, I’m like, ‘Damn, you guys should all go and take all the shit and put it somewhere else, because I want to, in a pretentious way, show the monkish solitude that I lived in.’” He laughs. “It’s much more sexy, isn’t it? Me looking out the window, like, I live here alooone. But it really was the truth for a long time.”

John Maus, for all his discursive locution, is reserved; he speaks to the floor mostly, looking up suddenly to express a point. This only makes his live shows all the more interesting: It’s a cathartic release for Maus, who stalks around the stage, headbanging, screaming, reanimated.

“The best artists are dealt their hand,” he says.

I ask if he sees his own work as transcendent.

“No,” he says, without hesitation. “I’m rapidly approaching old. But what sets the new record apart, in a sense—in the sense that it would willfully reckon with the power or the state or whatever you want to call it—I try to make my music [in response] to that. Obviously, what serves that the best is top 40. That’s the most ubiquitous stuff. It comes into your life uninvited. So, it’s that stuff I have in mind. I’m not gonna name names, but it’s clear what works for the status quo.”

There are touches of Adorno here, a philosopher who believed very strongly against this uninvited party, as it were: “Capitalist production so confines them, body and soul, that they fall helpless victims to what is offered them.”

“The wager I took on the new record,” Maus continues, “aside from the [band] thing and trying to be in complete command of the most advanced means of artistic production at my disposal, was leaning even harder into methods of music-making practices ... getting even more rigorous about the contrapuntal devices borrowed from earlier music as far back as the Renaissance. You know what I mean?”

When we’re finished (“I could go on for hours,” he says), Maus takes me back into a small bedroom. There’s a couch, a computer and a wall of modular synthesizers. He’s excited.

“I’m just showing you shit,” he says. “You’re here. You came to my house. The two [synths] on the bottom are the ones I made.” He starts rummaging around in a closet. “Oh, my disastrous closet. If I’m making a little mess here, I’m sorry.” He pulls a smaller synth from the clutter. “But these ones that I made, I’m kinda proud, you know? Making a whole modular. I mean, I thought that was cool. It’s like a little hobby thing. See how crazy the wiring is? If I knew what I was doing, it would not look like that.” He gestures with his arm. “But this is the room. You’re in the room.”

On the walls: a poster for Kirk Cameron’s Left Behind: The Movie (“Have you ever seen this joke movie? Everybody disappears.”), a life- sized cardboard cutout of the Hellraiser cenobite Chatterer (“Chatterer I gotta tack back up. He was funny for a while. But that’s the joke, right? Like, Hellraiser’s fuckin’ guy is in your room. But then I tell you, honestly, literally, after about the third year, Chatterer was a real thing, reminding me. You know what I mean? Like, ‘I’m fuckin’ Chatterer and I’m behind you all the time.’”), a Body Count poster.

Outside, we hug and say our goodbyes. I take off, passing through towns marked by grain silos and barn quilts, and I think about John Maus, the hermetic rocker hidden in farm country, bent over his toil, twisting knobs, manipulating voltage and blowing up circuit boards, prodding, transforming, testing the limits of sound and thought. MM

Holly Bieler