Music

Experimental synth-pop artist John Maus ponders the function of live performance

By February 5, 2019 February 7th, 2019 No Comments

John Maus (Photo: Shawn Brackbill)

“When does it become like an old-man-in–assless chaps sort of thing?”

John Maus doesn’t know if he’ll ever tour again. And, glad as he is to be touring now, he doesn’t seem totally certain that he should be.

“I’m not sure anyone’s going to come,” he said in a tone of matter-of-factness that only a Minnesota accent can achieve.

For one thing, there’s no new record to promote. While this tour (sort of) functions as an additional leg of a run Maus did in 2018, “I get worried,” he said. “I get worried, because when I first went out early last year, I hadn’t been out for, like, five or six years. So a lot of people turned out [because of that.]  Now I feel like I’ve worn out that welcome.”

Circumstances were different last year. The culty avant-synth-pop performer had recently released Addendum, a companion record to 2017’s Screen Memories, his first record in six years. And rather than performing alone, as he had in the past, he was playing with a full band. Then, in July, while in Latvia, his brother and bandmate Joseph Maus passed away. The rest of the tour was canceled.

Since then, he’s spent a good chunk of time in the solitude of his Austin, Minnesota home, and is looking forward to a change of pace. Though he’s been fine-tuning the technical aspects of performance and reflecting on the function of performance itself.

“A lot of this [tour] was put into play when the situation with the live show was different,” Maus said. “And – to not beat around the bush – when my brother was playing with me, when there was a whole band there; I think some things were put into place in those days that were just kind of left on the table after the fact.”

So, if there’s any kind of hook for this current run, it’s probably this: “It will very likely be the last time, certainly for years, certainly for a year or something,” he said. “Then I’ll be older than what the cutoff date [for this career] was in my head. But when does it become like an old-man-in–assless chaps sort of thing? I’m right on that edge right now.”

I have to take Maus at his word here. His approach to the music business has always seemed a little counter-intuitive. After his critically-beloved third record, We Must Become Pitiless Censors of Ourselves, for example, he dropped out of the public eye to finish his PhD in political philosophy. Like any philosophically minded academic who spends a lot of time alone, he’s probably prone to other-thinking.

Regardless, he holds a valuable place in the musical landscape. There’s an underlying sense of apocalypse and doom at the center of much of Maus’ work, but he uses deadpan language and mass-culture signifiers to cut the dread into palatable little bites. He’s intellectual, but unpretentious (TV is his favorite vice, and he claims to watch all of it.) Lyrically, he’s often absurdist, and sometimes genuinely subversive. All with a beat you can dance to.

Maus studied experimental music composition at CalArts in Los Angeles in the early 2000’s; there, he started working with his then-roommate and fellow harbinger of the hypnagogic pop movement, Ariel Rosenberg, aka Ariel Pink. (On this tour Maus is bringing along former Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti member Gary War as his sound/production guy.)

From there, using vintage synthesizers, Maus developed his sound. Drawing from Gregorian chant and medieval modal scales, his records evoke gothic cathedrals as much as the chilly neon of an 80s action movie soundtrack.

There’s a thread of the sacred running throughout his work, even (or especially) in a song like “Pets,” which reminds us that death comes for all Fidos and Fluffies.

“I think this goes as deep as music in the west, in general,” Maus said. “I mean, it could be a cynical answer, [but] for instance I remember seeing a paper years ago about affect in cinema: There are certain modes that John Williams will unleash for ‘The Dream’ and things like this. And for something sacred it would always be these sorts of harmonies that I’m working with in my music. And it’s intentional in as much as that was the space musically and harmonically that I always felt drawn to dig at, that held the most promise.”

There are few sub-genres more prone to nostalgia and schlock than retro-synth and sacred music. But Maus’ sense of subtlety may be his strongest asset. These are not fraught reminiscences; it’s not devotional, he’s not working through personal religious residue.

“It wasn’t there in my youth,” he said. “I mean, from a musical standpoint, the lip-service that my middle-class family here in the midwest paid to the middle-class duty of religion on Sundays …it was after the second Vatican council so it was all this lukewarm pop, people with guitars and stuff singing really bad; really, really, really famously terrible songs: famously uninspired, that would do the very opposite of raising anybody’s heart to the mystery.”

In passing, Maus describes the experience of a live concert as feeling somehow liturgical, though not necessarily in a religious sense. That leads to broader questions. What is the live concert about? Why is the audience there, and what should be expected of a performer?

“I’ll go see a friend of mine, and he’ll just start giving the audience the finger and calling them all losers, and they all cheer when he does it,” Maus said, laughing. “Or the person who can just walk off if it’s not going well. I could never pull it off, is I guess the way I would say it.

“In other words, this most important thing is doing it correctly. And I guess that means that if walking off is the right thing, then that’s the thing. That’s the thing to do, if the true thing is to give everybody the finger and walk off. There’s no formula.”

If dropping out of touring for a few more years ends up being the true thing for Maus, he figures he’ll work on his own projects, or he’ll get work writing incidental music for TV, or something like that. “Because, unless you can still cause problems with what you’re doing …” he trailed off.

In the meantime, he’s happy for whatever illumination his music can offer. “If I can bear witness to the light, I will not have died [in vain], because what else are we supposed to do?” he laughed. “Please, tell me if you have a better idea than that I’d love to hear it.

“I have to think about it, you know, especially when I’m playing,” he added. “Cause that’s what I’m looking at out there, I mean, I’m too much of a coward to look into anybody’s eyes, so I’m looking up at the light.”

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