Few leftfield pop producers talk openly about shaping their songs around medieval and renaissance modes, but then John Maus is not your average artist. Since releasing his label debut Songs in 2006, Maus has built up a cult following and earned a reputation for being one of lo-fi synth-pop’s most singular artists.
Maus grew up in Austin, Minnesota. During his teenage years, he fell in love with Nirvana, Baroque music and Hollywood film scores. After performing in punk bands, he began making music on his computer and headed to the California Institute of Arts to study music. While there, he became friends with Ariel Rosenberg, AKA Ariel Pink, who would later include Maus in his touring band, Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti.
Rosenberg also offered Maus the opportunity to open for him at selected dates, and it was one of these early solo live performances that caught the ear of British independent label Upset The Rhythm, who put together Songs from material Maus had previously self-released on CD-Rs. A second album, Love Is Real followed a year later, before Maus took time out to study political philosophy in Switzerland.
He eventually returned to music in 2011, releasing breakthrough album We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves. In October 2017, Ribbon Music released his fourth studio album, Screen Memories. In this edited excerpt from his Fireside Chat with Red Bull Radio’s Paula Mejia, Maus talks at length about his formative years, unlikely musical passions and career to date.
What is the first song you remember being cognizant of?
The first song I remember being cognizant of is “Chariots Of Fire” by Vangelis. My old man was playing that record, and I kept asking him to replay it. Then I remember early MTV, Starship and that kind of thing – “We Built This City.” It was all about the way that this city, if I remember correctly, built itself up on rock & roll. Those are some of the earliest things I can remember.
What electrified you about Starship?
I think the Starship song kind of mystified me. It was probably before I had any sense of what was supposed to arouse or excite, so I was just watching the city get built up. But I do remember the Vangelis track. It seemed to be something that always escaped any attempt to frame it – hence the need to hear it again, to try to capture it.
What is the first song you remember hearing on the radio?
I don’t know if there is a first song I remember hearing on the radio. I remember hearing songs on the radio, but I never had any sort of rapport with the radio. When I was maybe eight or nine, they had the Top 40 countdown on at night. I would go to bed listening to the Top 10. It was around the time of 2 In A Room’s “Wiggle It,” that Suzanne Vega and DNA track [“Tom’s Diner”] and EMF’s “Unbelievable.” That’s what was playing on the radio as I went to sleep at night, around eight or nine years old.
When you were that age, what was your relationship like to pop music? Were you drawn to it or were you turned off by it?
I think as a child the appeal of pop music was the flamboyance. It was about identifying with the star on the screen, the Top 40 singer. Singing in the mirror, in the most good-hearted and innocent way, I think is probably unique to children. At that age kids have that ambition but it’s devoid of any sort of self-interest. I think it was more “I’m going to be a star” sort of self-identification. I wasn’t so much interested in the musical dimension of it as such.
What was the first instrument that you picked up and what drew you to it?
When I picked up an instrument for the first time, I guess I would have been around 12 or 13. I lived out in a very small town, with no boutique record stores and no college kids. Anyone older than 20 either leaves the town or goes to work in the hog slaughtering plant. Obviously this was before the World Wide Web, so the culture I was exposed to was what was coming through MTV, Top 40 radio and maybe a classic rock station or something like that.
All of a sudden there was Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I can remember vividly the first time I saw that on television. There was something wild about that song. It opened a fascination for musical details. I often lament that this was my way into it, because I think, on account of that, I have certain limitations in terms of my musical imagination. But it was my way in. I listened to both sides of the cassette over and over again, every night.
It seems like Nirvana’s Nevermind was a genuinely seismic moment for a lot of people of your generation.
Absolutely, except for the cool people. You know what I mean by that? There was a kid that I started a band with around this time, who had moved to my small town from San Francisco. It struck me that to anybody who knew about music or was too cool for this, that song was already too vulgar, too mainstream. “Oh, you like Nirvana? It’s all about Black Flag and the Circle Jerks.”
For me, it was a way into the whole scene that they were part and parcel of – American punk rock and then punk rock more generally. I had a bass guitar – a white bass that my mom got me. Everyone had guitars, so bass lends itself to allowing an easier way in [to bands].
I didn’t take any lessons or learn how to play it. I’d just kind of pluck on the bass and scream my heart out. I remember one time we played for like three or four of our buddies, and this was the only bass I had. I smashed it in front of them at the little concert we did for two or three people in my friend’s basement.
At that little basement gig we played our own songs. Immediately, there was no desire for me to at least learn other songs – I’d rather come up with my own. That was the idea from the start.
What were those songs like?
They were pretty adolescent. They were mostly imitations of what we were into. So you had these power chords, three or four chord riffs and singing. The songs were filled with fury and a sincere desire to appear as a wound on society – you know, the hatred of conformity and your parents. It’s interesting to me how dissimilar that moment of adolescent fury seems, how dissimilar that seems from the one today. Back then it would have been the most shameful thing you could ever do to give your music to a commercial or something like that. There was definitely some sense of “us and them,” in terms of attitude and the music itself. It seemed at odds with the pop music status quo. There was some sense that it was something other than pop music.
At this little art school, me and Ariel Rosenberg were actually the outsiders amidst outsiders.
That was my first band, there in Austin, Minnesota. We had different names, as garage bands would. I think at different points we were the Janitors, Syphilis and Fascist God. The drummer died five years ago, either of drugs or suicide. His mom won’t really tell anybody. And then the guitarist is in prison for child pornography, so I guess I had good company in my adolescence.
It seems like because you didn’t have record stores in your small town when you were growing up, your point of discovery for music was a little later than some other people’s.
Yeah. I didn’t leave that town until I was 18, so I don’t know if I’m better or worse off. But people moved in from out of town and they would know about stuff I might not have had access to – punk rock that would’ve been familiar in any city. As I got older, I became a kind of, “one record guy.” I really get fascinated and extremely interested in one thing and don’t shop around.
I suppose the next event for me after that was discovering Pink Floyd’s 1967 record The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn. I don’t know why in particular, but I was fascinated by the story of Syd Barrett. Obviously there’s the myth and the story of this crazy man that walked away from it all, but deeper than that is the voice and that sort of whimsy.
It’s a nice counterweight to Kurt Cobain in a way: the genius of early Floyd, Barrett-era Floyd. Then, when I was probably about 16 or 17, I became obsessed with Baroque music, Handel in particular. It was through an interest in Baroque music – and some of the classical stuff that I began to get interested in – that I wanted to learn how to write it down.
I didn’t play piano, but it was already possible to sequence things on computers, so you could kind of hear what you were writing down without having to play it. It was by way of that, and by virtue of the fact that I’ve got these middle-class parents in the Midwest, that my spoiled ass went off to private arts school in Los Angeles, at the music school out there.
Around that time I recorded a version of “Feel” from the Syd Barrett solo album The Madcap Laughs. I think one is in good company if they are admirers of Barrett. I think that album is a great example of where pop music exceeds its boundaries.
When you went to Los Angeles for arts school, what kinds of things were you being exposed to?
Right before going out there, maybe in my last year of high school, I started to get into film soundtracks, Hollywood film scores. Somehow I also discovered Einstein On The Beach [by Philip Glass and Robert Wilson]. I don’t know where on earth I would have found that, but this was the world that I was living in. Baroque and film soundtracks were what I was trying to start writing down when I went off to [art] school.
When I got there, that’s when this country boy got a lesson in life. All of a sudden my pals are guys that have been vinyl diving for the most obscure krautrock tracks and this sort of thing. I didn’t know anything. I was just a rube. I wasn’t that interested in it anyway by that time, because with the militant side of young adulthood, it didn’t measure up against the greats of Western music history, or whatever I was on about at that time. It couldn’t measure up against that – even the most obscure, lo-fi British vinyl couldn’t.
I had a ponytail and wore paisley shirts. I didn’t smoke grass, I didn’t drink, but then I had more issues than everyone who did, so my first roommate tossed me out. I know this sounds like a ridiculous idealization of my college years, but I would insist that at this little art school where everyone’s an outsider, me and Ariel Rosenberg and a couple of others were actually the outsiders amidst outsiders. Maybe everybody thinks like that.
On top of all of this there was the initial adjustment of being thrown into the reality that there was universes upon universes of pop detritus. Just garbage, whatever the word is. In the music school itself I was being exposed to worlds that were far more experimental. A composer called James Tenney, who was part of the Fluxus movement, and a famous early electroacoustic composer called Morton Subotnick were both members of the faculty. So there was a moment when I was looking down the barrel of truly experimental music. My initial reaction was probably the same as many people: “What is this garbage?”
“4'33" by John Cage is a perfect example. Four minutes and 33 seconds of silence. I was like, “That’s not music!” Thankfully, largely by way of another experimental composer who was in my faculty, Michael Pisaro, playing some other Cage pieces in his circle, I let my guard down and opened up to that sort of thing. Or it forced its way in. However it happened, I think that was important.
Was it “4'33" in particular that you had an issue with?
There’s a whole school that kind of elaborated on this idea, and even Pisaro’s work at the time involved scores where you might sit there for two minutes before the next musical event happens. Again, in the abstract, “What’s the point?” But in the midst of it, in the audience or performing it, suddenly it begins asking all sorts of interesting questions about what music is capable of meaning.
Alongside this encounter with American experimental music, there was the friendship with Ariel [Rosenberg]. In a way he was kind of the distillation of all the vinyl that I didn’t hear. I didn’t need to, because he was making songs that kind of boiled it all down for me. I let him use my eight-track and I was just blown over by this music [he was making].
He’d also school me. He’d give me the Velvet Underground lesson, the Cabaret Voltaire lesson and so on. I think that’s another thing that is unique to our generation: to still have obscurity up your sleeve.
Maybe I’m making an assumption, but with Spotify and everything else, everybody knows it all already, so there are no rocks that have been unturned in a certain sense. What I’m trying to explain is how the disparity between the music of pop or punk or whatever and experimental music set itself in relief to me, in that moment. They were two disparate trajectories. Fusing it with the other only watered one down.
I remember very clearly having a period of at least two years where I couldn’t write a thing and it horrified me. I wanted to put a garbage bag over my head.
The point in either case is to go after the truth of that distinct path. That’s the open grave I see a lot of artists fall into: to fill punk or pop with the ambition of high art. It’s misguided. I still more or less hold on to this belief, though maybe less militantly than I did early on.
When you were discovering music with Ariel, did anything stand out to you in particular from those lessons that he’d give?
It was those records largely, as I said, which distilled the boxes of vinyl that were lying around the room. Some of it turned me on. I mean, a lot of the outsider stuff was great. Aside from that it was essentially the canon of vanguard punk. People like the Germs and Cabaret Voltaire, and electronic artists such as Kraftwerk and Cluster.
For me, it was always more interesting to put on one of his tapes than to go too far into any of that. He did that listening for me, so to speak. I could never get anybody into the Baroque stuff – I learned that early on. For whatever reason, it’s like French or Italian in a room full of people that speak English. So it had to be my private passion, as it was not something I could really share with any of my peers.
When you started making music with Ariel, what did that sound like?
It was definitely out there. There’s a record Ariel did [as Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti] a record called Underground, and now looking back, I suppose that the most obvious reference. It’s kind of like early Velvet Underground. It’s this kind of thing, but I was able to articulate in a way that set it apart from everything that other privileged white kids were listening to at a fancy art school. At the time, that would have been Beck, Stereolab, Radiohead, Tortoise and Radiohead.
If anybody is familiar with basic music [theory], they will know that there’s no thirds in that music, just fifths, and it usually stays in the same harmonic spot for the whole thing. So this is where the whole comparison with what I’ve done and what others in my circles have done with the ’80s comes from. It’s not this third that makes it major or minor. It isn’t just like the power chord.
So there was that [element] in the music he was doing. Then, through the resonance between us, that element was in a lot of the tracks on my first “official” album, Songs, too. Tracks like “Maniac” and “Time To Die.” From the beginning, I’ve been interested in objective musical details. Not in some sort of disinterested scientific way, but in an affective, emotive way. Nevertheless, they can still be described in a way that has a pretense to objectivity of some sort – in terms of its language, at least.
The eight chords that I repeat in the beginning of “Maniac” came from a Josquin des Prez motet. From the start there was an interest in what details from entirely different musical situations I could mobilize and bring into the post-war popular music language. Maybe I’m getting too detailed.
Not at all. I was actually going to ask you about Songs. Besides that interest in objectivity, what else was on your mind when you were recording that album?
Because Upset The Rhythm in London wanted to pick the best stuff from all the little CD-Rs I’d made since 1998, I was really worried that it would include almost everything I’d done up until that point. It was five years of work, after all. I’m not prolific and at that time, at my maximum, I was doing one song a month.
I remember very clearly having a period of at least two years where I couldn’t write a thing in college, and it horrified me. I was in despair about it. I wanted to put a garbage bag over my head or put myself in an oven or something. It was really horrifying, because nothing worked. Nothing did what I felt music ought to do. I had to feel like I’d started to get there, at least in my mind, before I could share it with people.
Maybe it’s too militant, but that’s the sort of headspace I was in. Out of that came songs like “Maniac” and “Time To Die.” There’s always some sort of detail or idea that I’m interested in unpacking, and then the track itself becomes the demonstration or proof of itself.
Believe it or not, I really thought these songs were comparable to other independent releases and could have been heard on the radio alongside celebrated music from that sphere. I really imagined I was destined to get a breakthrough with the work I was doing.
When I first made the tracks that were collected together on Songs, in 2000 and 2001, I sent tapes to many independent record labels. I kept writing to the guy at Kill Rock Stars, which was the label Elliot Smith had been on. Finally, he actually wrote me back and said, “Dude, we don’t like your music.” So I wrote back at him, explaining the modulations in “Time To Die” and how I’m using these modes he can’t hear. It’s objectively demonstrable novelty. Then I made a bad joke about an Elliott Smith t-shirt.
I was at least able to articulate mythology that satisfied me intellectually. I was no longer able to hide behind the curtain of ugliness, fear and despair.
That’s how I was feeling as a 20 year old who was a bastard. I was like, “They’re all enemies, except for my pals.” I’m more chilled out now, but that was the attitude. I think it’s still true of a lot of people at that age.
How did you refine your approach for Love Is Real? Did you still have the impulse to want to be on the radio?
That was recorded four or five years after the tracks on Songs. By that point I had bought the party line that everybody wants to make a living out of what they love, but just have to get a job to pay the bills. But found out that we can avoid having to [do that] if we’re privileged enough by ducking into a grad school of some sort.
By 2005 that’s what I had already started to do. I’d done maybe a year or something at a program out in LA in art criticism or something, God knows why. It was probably the only one I could get into because it was private and you pay to get in. By that time Ariel had met Animal Collective and they’d heard his stuff and put him on their label. When it was time to go on tour, he didn’t have anyone to play with, so he’s like, “Dude, we’re going on tour.” I’m like, “Yeah, whatever,” but he says, “No, really!”
Because I was playing in his initial band configuration, he let me open for him sometimes. I opened for him in London and Upset The Rhythm saw me play. After that they said that they wanted to put out my stuff, which is how Songs originally came about. Coming so late, it defied any expectations that I was going to be able to do something like that and earn any bread at all.
This was the situation that I was moving into when I started to write songs for the second record, Love Is Real. At that time, I’d also had the trauma of having my heart broken. I’d been through that and had started to look for what it’s all about. I was in a deeper place than I was for the other album.
I was living in Hollywood and writing songs like “Do Your Best,” “Love Letters From Hell” and “My Whole World’s Coming Apart.” There are all sorts of people there [in Hollywood] who immediately made it less and less possible to feel bad for myself. I started to feel the joy of humility and gratitude just to be who I am. This spirit found its way into my work. Because I was doing the philosophy stuff at school, I was at least able to articulate mythology adequate to this spirit that satisfied me intellectually. I was no longer able to hide behind the curtain of ugliness, fear and despair.
That’s why I think it’s still my best record. It’s the one most filled with that spirit, the least laden down [by anguish]. There was already a sense that people were going to hear it, unlike before, and I was comfortably in my element. I had that lightness that only comes through reaching out, helping others and not just thinking of yourself all the time.
It strikes me that some of the stuff I was doing on Love Is Real, if you cast aside all of the lo-fi ineptness, has found its way into the mainstream. Some of the little musical details, particularly. I lament that – not because I think I should have got credit, but because it left me with zero tricks up my sleeve in terms of being able to adequately set the music in relief.
Is it fair to say you had to find new tricks for We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves?
To some extent, yes. With Pitiless Censors, I boiled it down to the search for the perfect pop song. I’ve never been able to do it, you know, to make music that catchy. The other day a guy had a Mark Ronson song on in his car. I can’t remember what it’s called, but it never fails to send a shiver of resentment up my spine because that’s what I’m always trying to do, but I can’t do it.
Maybe I could if I didn’t care, which isn’t to say that the people that are doing it don’t care. It’s just that for myself, it’s not objectively novel enough. That’s why everybody loves “Hey Moon” on Pitiless Censors, because on the face of it, it is just banality, but like any great pop song, it’s much more than that. That’s what I was going for, to find something that was unassailable on all fronts, from a pop standpoint. Becoming the “pitiless censor” myself. That finally led me down a rabbit hole. I was at breaking point.
What rabbit hole is that exactly?
Before I finished that record, I had never experimented with any recreational drugs or anything like that, but it’s just a cliché in rock & roll. At this point I was going into sensory deprivation tanks and just trying any trick I could think of. I became solely obsessed with this at the expense of anything else.
For the first time ever, as a 31-year-old person, I tried these things. It’s really not a good idea. I even tried one of those synthetic cannabinoids. I got it, sat down at my piano and said, “I’m going to try this thing and it is going to help me write a creative song.” Of course, I didn’t do anything for the next hour, I just sat in the bed thinking, “Am I gonna be like this forever?” I thought for sure I had completely destroyed my brain. There was a couple of experiments like that and none of them paid dividends in the music.
The last thing you released was A Collection Of Rarities And Previously Unreleased Material in 2012. Do you revisit your work a lot?
No, I do not revisit my old work very much. When Ribbon Music wanted to put out the rarities, I thought, “Well, it’s not really an official record.” I was also grateful that they thought anybody would be interested in having it. Everybody who loves music knows the experience of hearing a song they haven’t heard in a long time – it takes them back to the moment in their lives when they were living with that music. I think it’s just a deeper, even more profound version of that when it’s your own music.
It’s like this whole trip we’ve gone on in this conversation. It took me back to each of those moments, where I was and the assumptions I was operating on at the time. It took me back to different times and situations, good and bad. It was a little bit heartwrenching at times. It’s always a trip. You can’t believe what you let yourself get away with or what you managed to get away with, how it worked for you then but doesn’t work for you now.