John Maus by Leah Loscutoff

John Maus—musician, philosopher, gentleman—speaks about Ariel Pink, Alain Badiou and the application of pop-music strategies to radical politics.

John Maus

Photo by Mark Blower. Courtesy of Domino Records.

John Maus’s music is not the sort that is easily categorized, or even described. My own futile attempt is to describe his sound as the outer planets, meaning that it’s moves beyond the sounds we already know, but is still there, barely visible and within reach, waiting to be discovered.

Maus is interested in creating a new language, and you can’t really compare a new language with anything else, because it’s still in the process of being created. According to Maus, lyrics are just an afterthought and the music is foremost (although his are a charming afterthought). As he says below, “the protest lyric is a poor caricature and a poor substitute of a radical political philosophy or some kind of guerrilla entering into the logic of insurrection.” A philosopher himself (and former professor at the University of Hawaii), Maus is working towards a PhD in Political Philosophy. Needless to say, his intellectual pursuits inform his approach to music-making.

He just released his third album, We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves on June 28th, out on Ribbon Music in North America and Against the Rhythm in Europe. It took two years to make, a rapid gestation compared to the five years it took to make his seminal debut album Songs, released in 2006. John was kind enough to take a break from his busy tour schedule and sit down for a brief chat before his show at the Mercury Lounge in NYC.

His Mixtape reveals his love of Renaissance compositions, Baroque composition, beautiful film scores and obscure Italian synth prog. Just a side note: the mix is really just about the music and not the video content … except for maybe Musclor!

Leah Loscutoff How is the tour going?

John Maus It’s good. We are about half way through and its grueling but it’s going well.

LL Did you just come back from Europe recently?

JM Yeah, I had a little bit of a break but I was recently over there for about a month.

LL Didn’t you live in Switzerland in for awhile?

JM No, I didn’t live in Switzerland, but I would go out there in the summers.

LL When you went to the European Graduate School, right? Can you talk about that a little?

JM It’s like that Black Mountain thing that they did over here years ago, where they bring out all of the heavy hitters and you can study with them yourself. It’s a little unorthodox with respect to academia, but there’s a real appeal if you want to work with all of these people in person.

LL Are you still teaching at the University of Hawaii?

JM No no, I was teaching out there but then I moved away two years ago. I moved to Austin, Minnesota, where I’m originally from. I got a little house there and that’s where I finished my last album and I’ve been working on my dissertation. I thought it would be a good idea because of the solitude, the romance of solitude, but it wasn’t for me. You’ve got to be surrounded by people. I’ve come to realize that’s the most inspirational thing to do. You know?

LL What do you presently feel inspired or motivated by?

JM I kind of feel motivated by … that we need to develop our own language in this situation. I’ve spent a lot of time now with these older dudes and they certainly did a remarkable job of singularly articulating their own time and their own situation, of emancipatory potentials. Their thought rose to their time. I don’t think—not by far—we’ve done anything close to that. That is what I am interested in today, and what I’d like to see unfold.

LL I’ve already read a little bit about the title of your album and how it was derived by Alain Badiou’s “15 Theses on Contemporary Art”, so how do you censor yourself? Was the isolation part of it?

JM Oh no, not isolation—in fact the opposite of isolation. I mean censorship in this sense would be not leaving the world as it stands, and the world as it stands is precisely this world of isolated individuals, which isn’t to say that I am interested in some kind of communal situation. I am interested in precisely the opposite of that, of the pre-individual singularity that is always already with others. But it appears in the element of singularity. So we would have this infinite moment of multiplicity of singularities that are all absolutely disjunct, but it’s pre-individual, it’s not some self-evident human being that’s defined in terms of rights and things like this.

LL Is your idea of utopia still sharing mix tapes with Ariel Pink?

JM Yeah. But that was a little bit taken out of context. But yes, very much my idea of utopia is us sharing our tapes with one another, but really what I meant by that of course was that whatever medium we feel calls to mobilize and take up … it could be mathematics, it could be ideas of physics, it could be new ideas about collective mobilization against these inhuman mechanisms that put us to work towards something other than each other. These are all creative enterprises. And I think we want to share and give ourselves … in the sense of sharing our mix tapes with another it would be something like this … sharing work with one another, whatever our work is. In other words, I don’t think that in a conversation like this, or in run-of-the-mill, everyday life we appear very much, where I kind of take advantage of these old-fashioned ideas, and that by and large we are reducible to language, culture and history, and by and large we are prescribed or spoken by that language, and that agency is not something that is self-evident. Where there is the singular human being there’s nothing, there’s just kind of a police controlling everything. But every once in awhile there is an eruption and the work is definitely one of those places where something else then erupts, and so that’s what I’m saying. Bring it to there, bring it to share with others. That’s utopia. Its precedent is—it is anticipated in mind, precisely in the community of literature, in the community of musical works. These are the … the constellation that’s created when the singular artworks are in constellation with one another, and anticipates the kind of utopia I believe we politically should be converging upon. So that’s kind of what I meant by that.

LL Is there anyone presently that you are interested in collaborating with?

JM Oh yeah, I’m lucky that … well, I’ve got to be suspicious of myself because it is mainly people I know, you know, like Gary War is someone that I’m interested in collaborating with. I think he really took up the thread with … even though it’s not the focus of his work, he really took up the thread with technology and production using that as an expressive dimension of work in a really interesting way. Geneva Jacuzzi is another one, her use of a rhythmic section, so to speak, is really complicated and interesting. It would be interesting collaborating with both of them. Of course, I would be interested collaborating in the future with Ariel Pink again. But yeah, besides a handful of my friends there are not really very many people that I know of. It’s not that they don’t exist. Then there are people that do interesting work but it’s in with another musical procedure like pop music or punk music … whatever you want to call it. Then you have Michael Pisaro at Cal Arts, and he’s doing really interesting experimental music. That involves longer durations of silence and re-imagining the live situation. These kinds of things are interrogated in the way that they only could be, working in the ideas of Cage and Feldman, and stuff like that.

LL Well I was just thinking about this because I just saw her last week, but what about Genesis P-Orridge? I also just think she has really intelligent things to say about the state of the world.

JM Oh yeah, I do too.

LL Especially along the lines of ending the patriarchy and a long overdue feminine takeover?

JM I haven’t spent enough time with Genesis other than Throbbing Gristle, this initial encounter with it, but of course you recognize that immediately as an event, as something profound, as something that needs to be reckoned with, and something … and even though I’m not as familiar as I should be, I see myself as kind of exercising a fidelity to. You know the YouTube video of them doing “Discipline” together, you know that is it, that is the event of rock n’ roll, or pop, or punk or whatever you want to call it.

That’s what I see myself trying to have a fidelity to. Yes I know she—this whole idea … I know that on the cover of my album is a lighthouse. It didn’t occur to me until long afterward that this is some sort of phallic image and I’ve been troubled and bothered by this idea that a part of what I’m doing musically and part of the way that I contextualize it can kind of be seen as this violent, old-fashioned, phallic going-for-the-truth kind of thing. But if we always understand the feminine jouissance as an explosion and there is no representation for it in a phallic symbolic order, if the feminine position only appears within that scheme as an eruption, I would say that’s what I’m marching towards. The economy of desire is not towards my phantasmic object of desire, my narcissistic projection. It is the woman, it is the woman that would explode with the only precedent for this which we have, which are the mystical intoxications of, you know, like Hildegard of Bingen or something like this, and the famous Bernini sculpture of Theresa.

It’s the kind of enjoyment that isn’t bound up with restrictions and conventions that put us all to work. Of course I’m interested in that above all, but perhaps this is a political question as opposed to an artistic one? Emancipating humanity from this cruel scheme. I actually have a song on this album called “Pussy is Not a Matter of Fact” and there are many different ways that you can read that, the most obvious and vulgar being that I don’t have sexual intercourse as much … you know it’s just not a matter of fact for me. Hopefully it’s more thought provoking than that in the sense that firstly, gender could be something that we can all agree, by and large, is symbolic. It’s an effect of language, it’s an effect of culture, down to the materiality of the body in the sense that it would name genitals and name the differences, it’s an effect of language. Gender is purely and simply an effect of language.

Above that there is an even more radical thought there, I think, which is that there is this kind of Draconian idea, right, that woman has no language. Woman, within the bounds of the economy, is just a symptom of man which becomes a commodity whose enjoyment is not admitted, for even when a man has intercourse with a woman the pleasure he receives is really just imagining other men giving him a high five for it. So, like pussy in that sense is not a matter of fact, and that’s what we ought to possibly make a matter of fact, because then we are done once and for all with matters of fact all together, and we’ve exploded into the chaos of the feminine.

LL So, words were the worst thing that happened to music? Which is a Beckett quote, or you attributed to Beckett?

JM Yeah, I attributed it to Beckett but I’m not sure who exactly said that. It might have been …

LL Actually, I don’t think it was Beckett, but my question is more about, are lyrics more of an afterthought for you?

JM Oh yeah.Yeah, the way I sort of think about lyrics is, I’m interested in this language of pop, a conventional language, a language that I see as part and parcel with our world, and I believe we should have no pretense of being superior to it. If we want to undo it we have to mobilize these languages and stuff and with that in mind alright, is that the idea in mind is that the lyric is merely a convention of this language. Like pop songs have lyrics just as symphonies didn’t or whatever, so we need to use them. But I resist this idea and I’ve said this before that these kinds of things can’t be put alongside poetry or something, or philosophy, which language itself answers that question. I mean they really are just … . the music comes first and foremost of course and so it just arises out of a necessity, an objective necessity of using this kind of language, is what I kind of think of it.

LL I know that when you first met Ariel Pink at Cal Arts, he was listening to Faust and Amon Duul. Did he turn you on to that stuff at the time?

JM No, no, no I know exactly the context of that … I did this little video and talked about that experience. Coming from rural Minnesota and before the age of the Internet—although I don’t know how much difference that actually makes today—the only culture that I could really discover was what was on TV or … there were no older kids that were reading Julian Cope’sKrautrocksampler that could make me feel stupid for liking what I liked and turn me on to cooler stuff, know what I mean? There was nothing like that there, so when I got out to L.A., everybody just had much more at their disposal. Much more to draw upon. And yeah, yeah he was definitely a fanatic in that regard, everything that has kind of become fashionable in the last several years I mean he had already digested pretty thoroughly, all of the kraut rock and lo-fi Cabaret Voltaire type of no-wave British stuff, all of this stuff. He played it for me and I appreciated some of it but just like so much else, any relation I have to that comes mediated through his music. I think this is especially interesting when people talk about, John Maus sounds like the eighties, because I didn’t listen to the eighties!

Obviously I’ve done something terribly wrong where I could have been taken up into a generality like that. Besides from maybe stuff from my childhood that was just on TV and everything like that, as a teenager I was just listening to grunge, I was listening to this kind of thing, maybe Syd Barrett. You know what I mean? But, ugh, the whole “eighties” to me was something that comes from listening to Ariel Pink, like Young Pilot AstrayThe Doldrums and this kind of stuff. That was the first I heard a sound like that and wanted to take it up myself. Which isn’t eighties at all, and moreover, not only is it not eighties, but being in music school and getting all of these silly frames to think about music through, it occurs to me that prior to being some kind of genre of popular music, just in terms of the pure harmonic ideas, this is modal harmony. Maybe I’m getting too technical, but it’s the kind of chords that would arise if one was not within a major/minor tonality scheme but rather the kinds of scenarios that arise if you are using a Dorian or Mixolydian, so it has nothing to do with “eighties” but has something more to do with modal harmony or whatever, but I don’t know.

LL Yeah, that’s interesting because I don’t think your music sounds eighties at all, it’s more like outer planets or something else. I don’t know.

JM Oh yeah, yeah.

LL Is there an album that completely changed your perspective on music?

JM Oh yeah. Three pop albums—because it becomes more and more problematic when like blogs ask me what I’m currently listening to because I don’t know much about what is going on today. I spent the last 15 years digging through Mahler and Schoenberg and that kind of thing, and you can’t cop anything from that. It’s just you behold it as if you are listening to another language. But in terms of pop it’s pretty mundane. You know I’m living in Minnesota in 1992, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” comes out and then for the next ten years I subject my harmonic imagination by, like, listening to Bleach and Nevermind, and you know what I mean, it’s wonderful music but just imagine what that does to you, to a fragile harmonic mind to hear power chords repeated over and over again like four times. I subjected myself to that, not to say it’s not wonderful music it just might have foreclosed possible avenues at such a critical age of musical imagination, so that was the first one of course, that early event, a teenage event. And then, as I said, later on in high school, I got into Barrett, Floyd. I’m in the Midwest, we got classic rock stations and there wasn’t really anything else to reach for.

And that was around the time that I got interested into all of this other older music, Baroque music.

LL You like Monteverdi?

JM Oh yes, of course, he’s like the threshold right there. A really radical … you know the Florentine Camerata? They were a radical event in music that kind of shifted the high Renaissance to the Baroque. I spent a lot of time with that stuff. So I go to composition school thinking that this is the kind of work I’m going to be doing, interested in this, and then I meet Ariel and so we’re peers, we’re friends and things but he reminded me that this thing—the pop sensibility, right—is a question mark, just as radically provocative as any other question marks of German romanticism, or the Renaissance or whatever. It became a possibility to be reckoned with, or a truth to converge upon, and I didn’t really see that anywhere else in our situation. That was really an event for me, those initial collaborations and the work he was doing on his own, that was kind of the deciding factor in moving forward with that, throwing my eggs in that basket. You know, Okay, maybe I’m not going to do experimental music anymore, because I was doing that kind of stuff, like working with Pisaro and doing all of these performances like Feldman and Cage. I had pieces, for instance, where it would just be a tone that goes up a half step for 30 minutes or whatever. You know, interrogate the concert situation. I really think that stuff is interesting and easy to mock if you’ve never experienced it, like 4’33”—that just sounds so stupid, it’s just silence—but then listening to it, Wait what’s going on here? But I left that aside and took up pop as the best bet, largely because of my encounter there with Ariel, and the early work he was doing.

LL It seems like early on when you got started you received a lot of negative criticism, but that seems to have changed as of more recently …

JM Yeah, yeah, I was lucky. That was a sign that I was doing something right. We could have a whole conversation about … In fact in my thesis on punk rock, in a footnote I claim that it usually speaks to a work’s untruth if it can be easily taken up into these mechanisms, you know, and then in a footnote I actually mention Pitchfork and NPR by name. They both represent it. But I also leave a space there, because then I say what can also happen there sometimes is that, and this happened with Nirvana, and I claim it happened with Elvis Presley and the Beatles, none that I could fancy I am anywhere close to the radicalness of, but what could happen also is some kind of rupture so potentially catastrophic it opens up the mechanisms of power that just closed around it and names it, and begins describing it and begins talking about it to kind of bound up that potential within its actuality. Know what I mean? It’s kind of like this idea of the reversal of the political axis of individuation where previously maybe things that had names were the things that had power, like kings and whatever, you know? But now today it’s the things that have names that are the things that are put to work by power. With his idea that the reason everyone went to … the state went nuts over the Beatles and the state went nuts over Nirvana, the discursive regime created so many things around Elvis because they were trying to arrest this emancipatory element. But of course, I can’t claim to be anything like that. I suppose I’m just lukewarm enough that I can be taken up into the conversation, the conversation that perpetuates a world of barbarity and subservience so easily.

LL From those 15 theses from Badiou the one that really stood out to me was, “It is better to do nothing than to contribute to the invention of formal ways of rendering visible that which Empire already recognizes as existent.”

JM Yeah, nothing at all. I love that. I’ve had this conversation before. Because it would seem like, No we ought to try, but its importance is that it’s better to do nothing at all then to contribute to formal ways of rendering visible that which empire already recognizes as existent.

If we wanted to put it into some other terms—like musical terms or political terms—then essentially what this is saying—like, using Twitter or something as an example—it is better to do nothing at all then to post something up there on the footwear that you just purchased. That, of course, with a mind towards its imperative to use that, to get us the collective organized against the state. Like, it is better to do nothing at all then to keep perpetrating and endlessly praising this world that we see on our television of, like, a naked human pyramid of Guantanamo or Abu Graib detainees with American soldiers giving the thumbs up. And what that is met with is the satire of John Stewart or something. That’s our answer to that?

I really believe in the last ten or 20 years there has been radical art. People have done interesting things with pop, people have done interesting things with cinema, but in terms of having a militant political thought, our generation has got to be—so far as I can tell—one of the most reprehensible generations that has hitherto ever existed. We really sat on our hands, we really just sat on our hands. I could be making another caricature out of the ignorance, but the few tightly-controlled marches through the streets and these ridiculous satires that don’t come up against the limit of satires … And then some stuff on the internet, but no Molotov cocktails. If someone would make a medium of politics that could articulate an idea met with at this time, I think it would be met with enthusiasm. Met with enthusiasm on all sides. Then what happens, of course, is that all of our theory, and all of our revolutionary guile is put to work standing in line at the primaries to make sure Obama gets in there this next time round. I mean, couldn’t you just feel like you were being duped in that situation? Like, Yeah, he’s better than Bush, and yeah—it just goes on, it just goes on. I’ve completely lost any shred of hope that liberalism is our salvation, or that there is any hope of that way of thinking about human beings like that in the world. But I think that music can anticipate this world to come.

Some of my favorite theorists talk about the idea that, in the world that we want to bring about, art would no longer be necessary. Art imagines a utopia that once fulfilled, will no longer need to be necessary to imagine. I don’t know about any of that, but I like that idea, and in what is anticipated in music, and of course music is always political to the extent that it does mark a redistribution of the sensible, and imagines those people … but it is just not a substitute for the collective action against the state. The protest lyric is a poor caricature and a poor substitute of a radical political philosophy or some kind of guerrilla entering into the logic of insurrection. That’s all that I’m saying. One is great on its own. Art is great on its own, politics is great on its own. Let’s not mix them. It would be to the disadvantage of both. Just like mixing science and music. They are both great, but to mix them together into this childish science where we have computers making the tones and stuff, it seems to conflate two disparate creative human enterprises.

LL Would you ever consider performing live with a live band?

JM I don’t know, I don’t know. I’ve tossed it around but I think that there is … I still really feel that there is something more interesting in the way that I’ve been doing it. It’s too bad that some people are really rubbed the wrong way by it. It’s not the intention whatsoever. I think it speaks to performing in a more accurate way. It’s objective in that sense that of representing the world as it stands. Some guy asked me in a magazine, what was it, about Brittney Spears at the VMAs or something, about that moment when the karaoke went haywire or something. This has happened on Saturday Night Live and stuff, when the lip sync goes off and everyone is just stupefied because the curtain is lifted and the heart of the situation that has opened up before that is just … and they have no idea how to behave and no idea how to act because the things that control all of that are gone, suspended for a moment. Something like that is what I’m after perhaps.

What is a live performance about? I mean this live situation has been interrogated in so many ways, by theater, avant-garde theater and experimental music. Pop music—punk rock—hasn’t asked very many interesting questions about the live situation. Perhaps it could. Is it about watching people play instruments? Is it about people coming together? I don’t know. Getting up on stage and standing above everyone else. I don’t know. I don’t have any idea. It seems, by and large, that it is assumed by some kind of mentality that it is indeed about people playing instruments or something live in front of you and recreating a recording. I certainly hope it’s not about this metaphysical thing of presence, like, They are really there with me. Am I really that much more there with you then as on the recording? I mean, I don’t know about that. So yeah, it’s a big question mark that I don’t have any answers for.

LL You should write a book.

JM That’s what we’re doing right? Aren’t we after the book? When the book no longer makes a difference, this becomes the book. It could become the text.

Sensation’s Fix, “Fragments of Light”

John Maus’s Mix

Sensation’s Fix, “Fragments of Light”

Alan Silvestri, “Robot Romp”

Josquin Desprez, “Agnus Dei”

Alain Chauffour, “Musclor”

G.F. Handel, “Waft Her Angels Through the Skies from Jephthah”

We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves is available now from Ribbon Music.

Leah Loscutoff is a California native, who recently relocated to New York and now resides in Brooklyn. She is an occasional writer for the music zine “Savage Damage Digest” out of Oakland, California and she is currently working as a Digitization Archivist for the Brooklyn Historical Society.

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