September 14, 2017 - John Maus is an American musician, singer, songwriter, composer, and academic from Minnesota. He has released several albums that incorporate elements of 1980s synth-pop, post-punk, and Medieval music. While writing and recording his new album, the soon to be released Screen Memories, Maus built his own modular synthesizers. This fall he'll also tour with a full band for the first time. In discussing these changes to his process and presentation, Maus has seemingly mixed feelings. "There are songs on the album where I'm playing with new devices for the first time," he says. "I really dug into that hoping to find some kind of sound that seemed adequate to the current moment, but it's like you can't escape the fact that it either just opens up and that's the moment you pursue, or it doesn't. It's unlikely that it's gonna open up into something entirely unforeseen."

As told to Gary Canino, 2346 words.

Tags: Music, Process, Production, Inspiration, Anxiety.

John Maus on changing your approach

From a conversation with Gary Canino
September 14, 2017
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Screen Memories begins with “The Combine”, a darker track with no vocals that lasts for two minutes. Was this intentional as the first music from you in six years?

I thought that it was apocalyptic. And it has more or less felt that way since the election, so I was actually a bit bummed the album didn’t come out back then and ride this tide of apocalyptic energy that’s in the air. I was worried this new record wasn’t light enough. Pitiless Censors and Love is Real both had this sort of lightness. Part of this has to do with the difference in my age, too. I like the philosophical idea that the only thing that could possibly excuse evil would be that evil in time is like the end of time. But yeah, there is the sense that it lacks in lightness. The album doesn’t have toe tappers, so to speak.

You’ve spoken before about how music is indicative of the current climate, even politically.

It always is. But you’ve got to be careful in terms of music that’s explicitly political. Music will have a political effect, but my way is just to the extent that it pursues the question of music. I feel like if Green Day has a song like “I hate the President,” or whatever, it’s not necessarily the Joan Baez way of doing things. Whereas Throbbing Gristle’s music itself is the wound on society, just the sound of it.

Music relates to the times in a lot of the ways. These European intellectuals, in the time before ours, critiqued with steady pulse and rhythm, and their music didn’t really develop in motific fragments, but just repeated the same thing. Skip forward, and all of this is analogous with the assembly line and Motown, which was very consciously modeled. While all of that might be true, none of those critiques adequately address what could perhaps be affirmed in this new music, which is all about using all this surplus equipment we have. All of this equipment was developed for the present; the radar, the quarter inch patch cables, etc. So it’s like we’re using this weapons of the status quo against the status quo, ideally, right? That’s the general idea.

And is your wager that synthesizers are the best way to do that?

Yeah. But you gotta be careful, because theoretically we can control every possibility of tone color there is with the synthesizer in a way it never has been before, and this is unique to our situation. Previously, the sound was physics: the resonating cavity, or the vibrating string, but this can be manipulated down to the level of the electron now. Just like our bodies can be manipulated past this molecular threshold, I think certainly if we wanted to talk about different epochs, we’re rapidly approaching one that is molecular in a sense, where power can operate across thresholds that it wouldn’t have been able to even imagine before.

In the past you mentioned how the perception of an individual’s time accelerates as you grow older. Does the six year gap between Pitiless Censors and Screen Memories have something to do with that?

That’s a really good point, because though Pitiless Censors came out six years ago, it’s as if it came out 10 minutes ago. Although maybe it’s because I was literally in this cabin in the middle of nowhere by myself everyday for three years. I was also finishing going to school, so it didn’t really feel that long. There are songs on the album where I’m playing with new devices for the first time. I really dug into that hoping to find some kind of sound that seemed adequate to the current moment, but it’s like you can’t escape the fact that it either just opens up and that’s the moment you pursue, or it doesn’t. It’s unlikely that it’s gonna open up into something entirely unforeseen.

The next movement hasn’t come yet. I’ll be the first to admit how ignorant I am of what’s going on in music. Somehow the greasy producers in America that make Top 40 always seem to get their hands on these English house kids and bring them into the think tank, and stop them from going after their own demons. That’s when I’m like “Oh, shit, I’m old.” These kids probably just grew up with GarageBand. Up until I was 24, it was still 8-tracks on the tape cassette recorder, so I think I’m a little bit more guileless when I can have 500 tracks open at one time. Recently, I was opening up computer sessions for some of my older songs, in order to show them to my live band. I just remember weeping at the time, because if I had too many digital plug-ins open at once, my crappy computer would crash.

So the whole point is, I’m looking at 8-tracks, and I’m like, “Life was so much better.” It’s not like the new music is much better for having 500 tracks and for taking two weeks to mix. Why? I think it’s the necessity of pushing yourself. It’s the only way. All the artists that I admire did this sort of thing. That’s one of the things that’s always confounded me about rock and roll. It seems so inextricably tied to being a young person, whereas with visual art or the music in these older situations, they seem to age like wine. Especially “the late period” so and so—“the late” Beethoven, etc—where the idea is, “I followed the rules, I kept following them and finding the contradictions in them and now I’m just in Outer Space.” But this is done through the rules, not just out of nowhere.

Positive feedback is the idea, like the noise and the channels. In our situation, there are singularities, to use the fancy word. A control system is designed to stabilize the overall system using all this fancy math by tracking these perturbations. If the system itself is hysterically rattled, what is it going to do about that? Nothing, it’s just gonna explode. That’s the kind of loose approximation of how I understand this older way of expressing creativity as the subjective expression of the objective thing.

You created your own synthesizers for this most recent record. As you mentioned before, this presents the opportunity to dial in exactly the tones you need.

Yeah, but in the end, unless you really know what to listen for, it might as well have been a digital plugin, because they’re so close in sound to the old synths, and I am trying to mobilize it for this idiom. In noise, classical, or electronic settings, pitched tones were the last thing they were dealing with. They use all these inharmonic waves.

Suddenly, I have an immense respect for these patch designers. I don’t know how much or how little the music we’re listening to today plugs in the presets that were already using the Soft Sync, but if I’m any reference point, all these Jean-Michel Blanchet types are really hugely important figures in terms of the way music sounds today. Inevitably, I was using those patches as reference, looking at the settings on the Soft Sync and trying to dial it in on my modular because, short of just running it square way through a low pass filter, I didn’t know how to make it sound cool at all.

Maybe I’m just a curmudgeon, but it’s like, “Come on, you’re not the Ramones, you’re not Stockhausen, you’re just playing with Ableton Live.” But the labor factor of it is interesting. Why should that make it any different? But it really does. The point I’m making is, these people using vintage equipment had to spend weeks with tape and everything just to make two minutes of music, and even though the sounds are exactly the same as for the people now using plugins, it sounds better. I really can’t tell if it’s just because I now know of the labor involved or if because the labor was really there. With this older music, you know that weeks were spent to just get the sounds going. I feel like you can hear it, it really matters, it makes a difference.

You’ve been playing with a live band for the first time. Before, you’ve spoken about how the recordings really aren’t a live band.

And how that’s a misfortune for me, because a band has everybody. A band has Nick Mason, Roger Waters, and David Gilmour. It has the Paul and John and everything seems like it would be so much easier if egos could get out of the way. Everybody brings their own genius into the equation, but if it’s just one asshole sitting there…

I thought about capturing real reverb in a church. Eventually I just built a plate reverb because I didn’t have the nerve to go up to the Pastor, and be like, “Hey man, can I play my song “Grandma Peed Her Pants” out loud through the speakers next to the tabernacle?” So the point I’m making is, I think the next step for me is to write it all down, get it all out, and then record in real living space with performers. I had intended to do that, but time runs out. It might be cool next time.

In the live situation, I was a tiny bit ambivalent about playing with a band because I felt like there would be some people that would view it as a cowardly move, because it’s been so much more difficult in certain situations to go out there, performing naked by myself. But by way of this last album, I’m now interested in playing with acoustic forces live. With a band going through the songs, it’s the only way you can approach the mobilization of those dimensions. If you just have stereo mastered things coming through a PA, that’s all you’re gonna have, but if you have drums and a bass amp, they’re blocks, they’re real.

Especially in a live situation, that’s one of the places where that stupid analog versus digital debate really makes more sense. I realized in headphones that it makes much less difference if your dynamics processor is digital or outboard, but when you’re live, somehow the discrete sound of the zeros and ones comes to the floor in a way it doesn’t in headphones, because the continuous infinite continuum of voltage can be felt perhaps.

Previously you’ve spoken about how being on stage is your chance “to appear,” basically. You’ve also referred to the stage as having “bad politics.” Has that changed for you by playing with a band?

I think the band primarily has to do with the sonic element. In that sense, it’s unrelated to the wager I was originally making. I got assailed after a recent gig by some really far out European leftist, with a, “What are you doing playing at the MoMA in Brooklyn? You could be changing things!” sort of lecture. Part of me took it to heart, but my only defense was, and maybe it’s not as effective as it once was, it’s not an, “Everything is awesome, let’s go to the club, pornography, obscenity, let’s have fun, let’s have a good time, let’s go buy an iPhone,” situation. Previously, the live show was instead to see this man with no Kung Fu at all, kind of giving himself a hernia, literally. That part wasn’t supposed to be ugly, it was supposed to be sublime. Now, more and more, I’m starting to think of it in terms of perhaps the exorcism-istic.

In terms of that, I’m thinking of moving the focus from the body to the voice, and somehow keeping with this realness. The leftist’s ideas weren’t very good. What am I supposed to do, do the banter thing? Stop between songs like, “Hey guys, I want to talk about the market now. I want to talk about structural inequality now.” It’s like Bono or something. That’s not gonna do it. What I’m doing already does more than that, doesn’t it?

You live in a small town in Minnesota, and one of your first shows in years was this sold out show in Williamsburg. That has to be quite a change.

Part of me was like, “Will anybody care anymore?” I really would rather avoid ever being quoted as saying this, but with the caveat that I might not know anything that’s going on, but part of me thinks that nobody’s made the next move. The kid that’s out there that hates me more than anything is the one that is going to do it, and then he’ll meet me in person sometime and he’ll be like, “Oh, he’s not such a bad guy even though I hated him when I was 22.”

I’m saying nobody has, at least in our little hurricane in a teacup, done something that says it’s time for me to go fishing. Maybe I’m wrong, but where is it? Even if I’m not speaking for myself, I see my friends have a lot of imitators and the imitators are more listener-friendly, and less ugly. Which isn’t to say they’re not perfectly nice people with the best of intentions, but it’s just a more user-friendly version of the same idea.