Six years after a breakthrough album, punk intellectual and synth-pop savant John Maus is back to "interrupt the untrue world". We tapped into his brain power to understand why.

Six years after a breakthrough album, punk intellectual and synth-pop savant John Maus is back to "interrupt the untrue world". We tapped into his brain power to understand why.

John Maus does not talk like a regular person. Spoiler alert: he’s not a regular person.

On stage, he’ll punch himself in the head while wailing over dark but sprightly synth-pop – his eyes closed tightly, his clothes soaked through with sweat – screaming with all the urgency of falling off a cliff or being sucked into a vortex to another dimension. The crowd is never addressed. He’s not one for between-song banter.

Off stage, the 37-year-old is an intellectual of manic enthusiasm. He speaks as if he’s translating some hard-to-decipher language under great duress. There are intense strings of ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ that break into bursts of high-minded eloquence – the whole thing coming out in a storm of ideas that can leave you feeling completely lost.

After years of existing on the fringes of indie music, 2011’s We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves proved a breakthrough moment for Maus. Its catchy but cerebral qualities made him an unlikely emblem of outsider pop music. Then he retreated from view.

Maus has spent the intervening years completing a PhD in political philosophy and building his own synthesizers from scratch, all while living in Austin, Minnesota – the small, rural town he grew up in.

Today marks the release of new album Screen Memories and Maus is sitting backstage at a venue in Dalston, East London. It’s a dank, cold room the size of a toilet. Maus is hunched forward on a red leather sofa – a leak from above dripping on his light blue shirt – with a mop of brown hair obscuring his eyes.

As he dives into some of the complex ideas behind this album, the sound of his band rehearsing in the distance starts to close in on us. It’s a sound that recalls forgotten computer games and late-night movies from a bygone era – but reimagined with a pulverising intensity that reverberates through the cinder-block walls, shaking the floorboards above.

That said, there probably isn’t a better soundtrack for a conversation with John Maus and his take on what’s happening to the world.

What follows has been condensed for length and clarity – but, even still, this is a heads up: the ferocity of thought can be hard to keep up with.

Photo by Nicolas Amato.

Photo by Nicolas Amato.

In what ways are you different from the person who made the last album? How has your outlook changed in that six years?
I was out in the middle of nowhere so everything was mediated through the news feed. I had to resist the cynicism a little bit, looking at it through that lens. Fighting that became more of a battle than maybe it had been in the past.

I think it’s different, how one is plugged into all that, when living in an urban environment versus outside of it, especially in relation to social media. I’d imagine when you’re in a city, talking to people, interaction isn’t so one-sidedly through the web. But in those six years, I was also finishing my studies so that had an impact too.

Your PhD dissertation was on ‘communication and control’, looking at the technologies of social management. But so much has happened since then, like what transpired with the US presidential election, that it must feel like a different world…
It’s crazy. When I started my dissertation, the term ‘social media’ hadn’t even been coined yet. There wasn’t the faintest trace of a critical counterpoint to the Silicon Valley ideology. Now it seems there’s at least a little bit in the mainstream conversation, some resistance here and there.

It was 2014 when I finished it, which was a couple of years before this tide of nationalism, like Brexit and that sort of thing, flourished. The way the snake ate its tail in that moment was a mindfucker.

But when you were studying communication and control, did you get any sense that things would play out the way they have?
As horrifying as this reactionary rise has been over the last couple of years, I can still see it as a boil or a symptom of a much deeper, more insidious and more powerful thing: the residues of classical liberalism in government. Up until this point I would have purely regarded it as spectacle.

No power really sits there. It sits in the forces of the global market. In relation to communication and control, does it affect elections? It certainly does. But it’s become the very constitution of subjectivity on some level. It shapes subjectivity itself.

Isn’t that a much more profound example of power at work? The configuring of human beings? I mean getting robots on Twitter to influence people is part of it, but it’s a small part of a much greater beast at work.

No! No, no… It’s like the networks of AT&T, the protocols of data switching packets and all these things are more politically effective in some sense than this or that referenda. But maybe that’s a misguided thing to say because obviously those sorts of policy decisions have real effects.

So if someone was interested in learning more about this broader perspective, what would be the best way to direct them?
I guess it would be the whole canon of philosophy and political theory, especially in the last 50 years. I don’t mean quantitative social studies, which from the philosophical standpoint would be another apparatus of power.

To put it simply, you once had societies of sovereignty where power was exercised – every once in awhile – in this spectacular event where someone was drawn and quartered in the public square. And that was it. The details of an individual’s life weren’t really recorded or talked about. Or if they were, it was in hagiographies and legends. It was all lofty.

But at a certain point in the 18th century, suddenly power begins to operate through the mechanisms of discipline. The prison, the school, the factory, the barracks. It isn’t ripping someone apart, it’s ‘rehabilitating’. The goal isn’t to punish, it’s to ‘correct’.

Then, after the Second World War, these structures start exploding. The walls come down; we have a global market. All that is solid melts into air. And that only accelerates by way of the smart media. Power becomes intelligent in a way that would’ve been previously unimaginable.

I mean when I think about the constitution of the United States and Washington D.C., with its neoclassical architecture, I think of Mozart and Haydn. I think of masons and the age of enlightenment, that sort of thing. It’s really an old-fashioned frame that just persists. It’s not the real locus of power anymore, as far as I can tell. I don’t know… We’re goin’ all over the place here.

We sure are! You’ve said that, musically, part of you thinks that ‘nobody’s made the next move yet’. What did you mean by that?
As a joke, I’ll come off stage exhausted and say to a friend, ‘Why haven’t the kids come up with anything better than this so I can stop doing it?’

The fact is I’m just not that vigilant about paying attention to what’s going on. But the moves that I have seen seem to be after something altogether other than post-war pop music as I understood it: music based on riffs, on harmonies, on melodies.

With EDM or dubstep or whatever, the focus seems to purely converge on tone colour, where you have some melodic fragment just repeated over and over again, and maybe a filter sweep or something that changes the colour of that fragment. It’s as if the listening or the focus has changed.

But if the focus of attention is merely on tone colour, then the high-water mark has still gotta be ‘Kontakte’ or ‘Oktophonie’ by Stockhausen or any of these guys who did a whole integral serialist approach to timbre and this sort of thing. Maybe I just don’t know enough about it.

What if–
But if we’re talking about the same conventions or idiom going back to ‘She Loves You’ or ‘Please Please Me’ and on through the ’60s, then from punk rock up until 1999, 2000 – when I started – I haven’t seen something that made me think, ‘Oh, time to hang it up’ or ‘Follow this!’ That’s all I’m saying. I didn’t see new notes added into it from elsewhere that could help drive it forward.

What I’m getting at here is that I think it’ll end up being a blind alley. It will exhaust itself in fumes and give over to other things, like this melodic fragment repeated and those same mechanisms of control.

We’re already seeing the primordial versions of it. ‘If you listen to this, you might like this.’ These algorithms, barring some sort of disaster, are only going to get more and more precise to the point where it could even be – and this is getting very speculative and sci-fi – an intelligent net that’s been trained in everything and can give you exactly what you want in real time, including generative music.

Just a few years ago, artificial intelligence was primarily being used for classification and identification. Then comes the meme ‘Be Like DeepDream’. I think there’s no question that’s coming into music. I started playing with it on this last album: using software to see what raw musical material could be ‘dreamed’ out and then using that to fashion one of the tracks on the album. But it will get real time.

It’s that whole impulse towards summarisation or truncation. ‘Too long, didn’t read.’ [TL;DR] It knows what you’re going to do before you do it. Marketing analytics and all this stuff just gets more precise, more intelligent. There’s no reason to think that impulse isn’t going to find its way into music on the deepest levels.

As someone who was born in the 1980s, I detect a lot of cultural reference points in your music. You don’t strike me as someone who would be nostalgic. But the title Screen Memories, combined with the cover art, makes me wonder…
I think we’re the safest, kids of the 1980s, because we’re not so unfamiliar with the world wide web as Gen X, but we weren’t inculcated to such a deep and powerful degree [as today’s generation] either. We know how to use it but we also remember having only $20 in our pocket and having to live with the record we bought, whether we liked it or not, for at least 10 listens.

But maybe that leaves us rudderless in the face of having every record you want at your fingertips. I don’t have to live with anything anymore. I can give it 30 seconds and decide whether I want to skip to something else.

But as for the nostalgic aspect… The title was a Freudian play on words that came from a paper on Norbert Wiener and Cybernetics, where I read that the computer monitors from the ’80s and the early ’90s came from radar screens.

Basically I’ve been riffing on this idea that rock’n’roll is a misuse of military equipment. Like, [Alan] Turing applied a prototype of the vocoder to Churchill’s speeches, turning these profound words into nonsense. So that’s where my head was at in terms of Screen Memories. It’s indefensible as a title. It’s more of an aesthetic quirk.

I was also unpacking that idea that everything becomes mediated through the screen – even the way you remember. Then in constellation with the cover, which is an old tube television set… maybe there is some nostalgia. That giant thing that took two people to carry has multiplied and proliferated; you can carry it in your pocket. It’s the same screen everywhere, whether you’re in Dubai or Minnesota or China. It mediates everything.

What was it like growing up in Minnesota?
That’s good – it gets to the heart of what made things different for people our age, not only in terms of the web but the global market’s levelling tendency to make every place the same.

I had no access to any vanguard pop culture. In the small town where I live, everybody leaves after high school, so there wasn’t even college boutique record stories. None of that stuff. Just Top 40 radio, the classic rock station and MTV. But when I wax poetic about how a sense of the place found its way into my being, it’s the openness – it’s not as rigid and regimented as the urban environment.

Once the snow falls, there’s no roads; no use for cars. You ride a snowmobile. It’s just a free-radical thing like that. You can see the stars because there’s no light pollution. You can hear the wind in the grass and the sound of the one freeway that goes through the town – with no other aural interference. Even just the one freight train that passes by is analogous to the cold, winter night ambience of musique concrète.

I know I’m getting sappy and romantic, but how else do you comment on something like nature? It would’ve gone down a lot different, especially in terms of influence, had I access to the sorts of things I eventually discovered and the friends I later made in Los Angeles.

[At this point a bandmate interrupts to say that Maus is needed at soundcheck, cutting the interview short.]
I’m sorry. See? I hate this. I’d like to talk for an hour but you end up going over territory you’ve gone over before and what’s the sense in that? I mean… I just… what’s the point, right?

What’s the point in writing about music and talking about it if we can’t make some sort of effort to fuckin’ interrupt the untrue world? Especially a world that wants everything done for it in terms of listening and attention and everything like that.

Okay, well… Finally, then – do you feel like you have anything to prove as an artist at this point?
Yeah. I really, really had hoped this record would be proof of something, that where it lacked in lightness and the audacity that’s part and parcel of youthful innocence, it would be compensated for in rigor and attention to detail.

I don’t know how I lost the thread with that. Most of that is going to go underneath the ears of anyone who hears it. ‘Pets’, for example, is integrally just the development of that bass mode of retrograde inversion, stretto, augmentation.

I had hoped to achieve some sort of unworkable, irreconcilable tracks that would just objectively present themselves as such. You know?

That’s always what any artist ever has to prove, isn’t it? But what I worry is that maybe… maybe I’m running my course in this particular idiom of post-war popular music. Maybe that idiom is at its end anyway and something else is on the rise, the same way jazz or whatever was supplanted before.

It’s the same thing: the truth of the work is what I have to prove.

[Maus claps hands together and stands up abruptly.]
I don’t know. I’m sorry we’re pressed for time. I appreciate you talking to me. I enjoyed getting to riff on the 1980s.

[He turns away and walks out the door, still talking.]
We’re unique, I think, with the millennials on one side and the gen-xers on the other side.

[Maus keeps walking toward the venue, his voice growing louder as his thoughts keep sputtering out, unfinished.]
We’re the last true men… The last true men!

Screen Memories is out on Domino.

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