The Inquisitive Mind of John Maus
Nobody can reach John Maus. He doesn’t answer the call that took a week to schedule. The next day, his publicist gives me an update from Maus’s manager. “Seems he’s dropped off the grid momentarily,” he admits. “I’m assured it’s nothing to worry about – and this is a regular occurrence.”
A day later, there’s a sighting – albeit in photo form – via Memphis underground rap legend Tommy Wright III, who tweets a shot of them, arms around each other, with the caption “The white Tommy Wright & the black John Maus.” When I finally catch up with Maus over the phone two days later, it transpires that the picture was actually taken at the end of August, at HOCO Fest in Tucson, Arizona. And the reason for his recent disappearance? He was honeymooning in Hawaii.
It’s a suitably disorientating introduction to John Maus, who’s something of a reclusive polymath. A former collaborator of Animal Collective, Panda Bear and Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, Maus released his first solo album, Songs, in 2006. He rapidly became a cult figure, renowned for his hypnogogic synth-pop and frenzied – bordering on feral – live performances that regularly collapsed into histrionics. He now lives with his wife on the border between Minnesota and Iowa, “two hours from a metropolis of any kind”, in a farmhouse they refer to as ‘The Funny Farm’. Having lived in Los Angeles and Minneapolis previously, he now prefers “the sound of the wind in the grass over helicopters and the garbage man smashing cans against your window, if you know what I mean?”
Most of Maus’s fragmentary – and often part-mumbled – monologues conclude with him seeking reassurance with an anxious-sounding, “Do you know what I mean?” or, “Does that make sense?” In truth, it can be difficult to keep up with Maus’ digressions, which careen between Freud and Silicon Valley, 19th century German poetry and human fallibility. As he becomes tangled in manifold complex ideas, you get a sense that his mouth struggles to keep pace with his brain.
Maus has been off the radar since completing touring his 2011 record We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves. When I enquire about the stretch of time ahead of his latest LP, Screen Memories, he sounds genuinely amazed by his absence: “You know, it felt like five milliseconds. I just looked up and it had been six years.” In reality, two of those were spent completing a Doctorate of Philosophy in Political Science. Another two “messing around with different compositional techniques” and building synthesisers to “open up some kind of interesting timbre”. In the final two he constructed Screen Memories and its companion album, Addendum, which will arrive next year as part of a career-spanning box set.
The new album’s title functions on multiple levels. A screen memory is a Freudian concept, describing an early childhood memory which may have been amplified or warped to hide another, typically unconscious thought. The title also refers to the album’s static television screen artwork, which was inspired by Maus’s belief that everything is mediated: “Certainly for me [living] out there in the middle of nowhere, my whole relationship to whatever world comes through the screen.” On a broader level, it references the sinister influence of technology. “Everybody wants to be a cyborg, everybody wants to live forever,” Maus explains. “By and large, it seems that Silicon Valley and that sort of techno narcissism, more and more becomes the spirituality of our time.”
Maus’s creative approach is as meticulous and scholarly as you might imagine. He describes himself as “feeling like a scientist or something”, both in his methodology and in his rationale. “I’m always looking under rocks, especially for harmony,” he explains. “Like music from the Chinese Cultural Revolution: I just think it’s really interesting, the residues or the echoes of Western triadic, harmonic conventions, they echo into these entirely different musical traditions in a really interesting way… If I ever hear something that blows my mind, for the next two weeks I’m deconstructing it. Tearing it apart, writing it down on paper, trying to figure out what is it that’s going on that’s striking me as interesting.”
Joining long-held fascinations with medieval and mid-Renaissance music, this time Maus found himself drawn to the library music released by KPM Music during the 1970s. In particular he admired the manner in which these commercial composers were able to “distil a message, usually into a very short amount of time.” With most songs hovering around the three-minute mark – and the longest clocking in at four and a half minutes – brevity appears to have been a central tenet of Screen Memories too. As for an overriding message, there’s a creeping sense of impending doom.“
"Everybody wants to be a cyborg, everybody wants to live forever. Silicon valley and that sort of techno narcissism is becoming the spirituality of our time"
There’s definitely a sense that we’re on the precipice of something,” Maus agrees, speaking of the apocalypse looming over his album. “But I was worried [the album’s] not light enough, you know? Maybe the world has enough of that? I don’t know.”
This sense of unease is often emphasised by Maus’ mantra-like lyrical approach. Ominous statements like, “The people are missing” or, “Your pets are gonna die” ring out across the album. With the latter eternal truth, however, Maus provides a silver lining: “I kind of loop it around, you know: your pets are up in heaven, be happy.”
When I raise his use of repetition, Maus gets a little defensive. “I apologise for the lack of verse, you know? I’d rather be able to write verse eloquently but the maxim or the mantra is what it is… The focus should be on the music.” And that’s precisely the point: for all its cerebral strands, scientific creation and disorientating, retro sounds, Screen Memories is more than a musical curio to be admired; it’s an immersive and deeply enjoyable alt-pop record. As Maus puts it, predictably self-deprecatingly, “I do the best I can with what I’ve got. You know what I mean?”
Photography: Teddy Fitzhugh
Screen Memories is out 27 October via Domino
John Maus appears at Simple Things, Bristol, 21 October