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Towards A New Language: John Maus Interviewed
Emily Bick , June 28th, 2011 10:08

As John Maus releases his brilliant new LP We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves, Emily Bick engages him in a fascinating discussion on why we need a new language for punk rock, nostalgia, and agreeing with the sentiments of Ice T's 'Cop Killer'

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John Maus is a man of many talents. He's a composer who met Ariel Pink at music school and was part of the original Haunted Graffiti lineup. His new album, We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves combines a Moroder/Jarre/Vangelis synth palette and sinister, fog-veiled images straight out of the Ridley Scott playbook with a vocal style that sounds like it comes from a monk who's spent too long in some echoey dungeon, precisely copying illuminated manuscripts. For all the talk about hauntology, retromania, and all the hand-wringing about how the current moment is a tail-eating cultural dead end, Maus' aesthetic is much more considered, and ambitious. Maus has spent years studying towards a PhD in political philosophy, and he explains how his songwriting choices are made in protest against neoliberal ideals. He's looking to write music that uses elements from the 80s soft-rock palette and action film scores, as well as medieval modes, to create something both of this moment and beyond. It's not about literal copying, but choosing the right sonic responses to articulate a universal response to right now.

Maus is a talker; he gets excited about ideas and then describes and re-describes them to communicate precise lines of thoughts, like the kind of lecturer who really wants to make sure he's understood and hopes he's challenged by his students. Transcribing this went well over 20 pages and gave me carpal tunnel, but that's cool.

His main argument is that we need a new language to talk about how people relate to each other that goes beyond lofty references to theorists with tongue-twister surnames or the kind of blogging that is so subjective and neophiliac that it degenerates into slanging matches of who got where first best. So where this conversation goes is also where it falls apart, suspended between talk of singularities and theorists and all the filler of 'awesomes' and 'you know what I mean's and lots of other vocal tics that happen when your brain's racing faster than your mouth, when you're trying to talk about important and complicated things without coming off as an alienating, pompous asshole bling-flashing the cultural capital. Can music offer the tools to bridge that gulf? John Maus is giving it a go: it's worth thinking about, until language catches up.

It seems like you met with a whole group of people that share a certain sort of romanticism for old technology, certain sounds, certain visual and sonic textures that kind of evoke a sonic spirit of video nostalgia--you know, the whole thing of hanging around in the late 80s, early 90s and just watching crap VHS tapes and hearing these kind of distorted sounds come out, sort of filtered through having grown up listening to soft rock and that certain kind of synth sound from fantasy themes. How did you find all these other people, um, I'm thinking of people like JJ Stratford (director of the web series The Micronauts and several of Maus' videos), Ariel Pink, Gary War, Geneva Jacuzzi...who have a similar aesthetic?

John Maus: Ariel and I, we go way back, when I first went to school in LA in 1998, and I met Gary when he played in the first incarnations of Haunted Graffiti. And then JJ, it was kind of interesting, she just got kind of got in contact with me, I'd never met her face to face - and said she wanted to do a video for the song that wasn't on any of the albums. We corresponded, and we have a very strong interest in Giallo film, and we both feel that this is a neglected, critically neglected form, that it offers possibilities and these kinds of things that the so called art films just don't afford. So we united around that mutual wager. She came out here a few months ago from LA and we did some videos.

When you're talking about genre, especially horror or action, as being sort of a language that you don't see in art films, you've talked about this in other interviews, about music, about pop being able to say things that serious art music can't. What are your thoughts on what kinds of different vocabularies both in film, and in sound, can contribute, how you can use them to communicate different things.

JM: There's just something about a metal skeleton coming out of fire that's really poetic and just extraordinary. The idea that dominates the mainstream conversation, is that it's, 'oh, that film, we should just forget about it, because it was merely about effects and car chases and all this kind of thing', but it seems to me that there's a tremendous amount of imagination, and even a sublimity to some of these action set pieces, that they're very much expressive and spectacular and afford all kinds of possibilities in that regard that the so-called psychological just falls short of in many, many ways, you know? It's hard to be on point in conversation like this, it's hard to articulate on the spot, but yeah, because we no longer have recourse to these ideas of high and low, none of us - I just see in these films all kinds of possibilities.

Now that we can go online and search anything in two seconds, find out the whole history and backstory of anything, nothing is really like that hard to access. But at the same time, stuff that really is accessible to everybody, like the big blockbuster action films, there isn't really a kind of language for talking about them critically. Is there's maybe a freedom there?

JM: Maybe it's over, the instance that there is, but it would seem to me that that thought has not risen for this moment, in that sense. There's plenty of cultural studies, cultural theory, but in terms of a rigorous philosophical equivalent to this language, to these films, to that music, I haven't seen it yet and I really think that that's a challenge for us, for our generation, for want of a better way of putting it, to articulate these things. I just think that we need to rise to that.

John Maus - Quantum Leap by RibbonMusic

In our situation we have no other language than the tired one of genius and the work and all this kind of thing, and it doesn't seem as well suited to us? We'll call Brian Wilson a genius, like Gustav Mahler and Goethe with their genius... but does that language really work for this kind of thing? I definitely see a need for a new language in terms of music journalism. I could be absolutely wrong, but when I read that against the old men, you know the dead old men, it doesn't seem to have the same depth. If Hegel's musical contemporary is Beethoven, I don't see the equivalent of Ariel Pink, or the Ramones, or whoever. I don't believe personally that it's blogs and Lester Bangs-type language, or David Hickey type - I don't think that's the equivalent of Total Recall. So all we're left with, all we've got are these old guys. And they're great, I love 'em, but I just can't shake this idea that they seem to be speaking to me as if from another situation. I appreciate it very much and it does indeed speak, I hear things there, but again, for want of a better way of putting it, my generation, they're old French guys who talk about 'the night of the world' and these kinds of things. It's foreign, in some ways. And that's not to diminish its truth or its singularity, it's just not pop, it's not punk rock. And I'd really like to see some kind of theory or language or philosophy that's punk rock. It probably exists, and I'm just not familiar with it.

I guess there are barriers to getting into something that requires a certain amount of prior knowledge. If you are reading a bunch of critics who are really old school, then you need to have the world of 19th century history behind you, or you need to at least have this grounding in canonical texts, stuff that you're listening to, and you've got to be initiated, and the initiation's hard work too, and it's not a language you can speak with someone who's not been initiated.

JM: We need to figure a way around it, of course, with any kind of thoughtful reflection. This is what al the old guys would indict us for, and perhaps there's radical possibilities to it, but yeah, what I'd want to say is, maybe there's an immediate apparent truth to anything that's in the artifact that's worthwhile, in other words it doesn't pose a familiarity with the conventions and everything, on the part of the listener, the viewer, whatever. But yeah, it does, it always does, right? You have to be somewhat familiar with that stuff in order to appreciate it.

A lot of the sounds you use, especially a lot of the synthesizer stuff, they are sounds that we are all familiar with, and a lot of it is through film. They're culturally familiar.

JM: they're transcultural, expressive... I really wager that there is something like that, a transhistorical, transcultural, element to things.

And you're probably going to get closer to that when you're working with stuff that was globally successful culture, because it's been taken in and adapted by so many people around the world. But what about a danger of not international or intercultural penetrability, but something to do with time? Something to do with nostalgia and how sounds evolve and they're like fashions. The immediacy of something like your work for someone who's roughly our age, late 20s, 30s, we're going to have grown up with stuff and had visceral memories that affected us before we could ossify ourselves with certain kinds of aesthetic judgments, or taste value judgments. But someone coming to this now who's maybe, I don't know, 14, 15...if this is their first encounter with this kind of sound, they'll process it in a completely different way. So if you're basing art on popular sounds or the impact of stuff that works because it works on a popular level, using those things that work to make your songs...how do you avoid the problem of what happens when fashionability and time hit? If things mean different things--how do you find a universal?

JM: I don't - I kind of resisted this idea that it has to do with fashion, or it has to do with nostalgia, even though I'm sure it does, in many ways I don't tend to think of it that way, I think of it just as a convention of the language, that is always there, it's always available to deploy. It's always available for mobilisation. So they have some sounds, some cameras that were popular to use at a certain time - I'm not trying to evoke that time, I just hear that sound and it seems to suit this time right now. It's not a question of invoking that time, it's a question of the necessity that arises out of the work. It's the correct sound for the work, and again, I'm repeating myself, it's not a matter of making us think of whatever was 30 years ago or whatever, it's right now, those sounds are available to us, and the work can include all kinds of different things, and that's the one I'm wagering is the most appropriate, the one that the work demands, you know? And especially, a lot of times, I know people talk about the 80s, but I think about it in a more fundamental way than that. People associate the kind of harmonies that associate from the modes with the 80s sound, and for me it's not about the 80s, it's about what I think the kind of harmony is that arises from these modes - what I'm interested in. And I think it's unique to pop music as a language that we can explore some of these things that were forbidden in other musical situations and other musical procedures.

Like what kinds of things?

JM: I don't know how much or how little to get technical about it, but it's particularly modality. In all the music I've done, what I'm really interested in above all else, and I'm not sure it's what one should be interested in, is the kind of - you know, people talk about work progressions, which doesn't really make sense with pop music because there is no progression, because there is no tonic, because there is no more tonality. there is no sense of key, nobody's going to jump out of their seats if I modulate to D flat from C major, and that's a dimension that's irrevocably lost, and was lamented over by the old bourgeois, that we've lost thematic development, we've lost tonality and we've lost all these things, but there's certain things that are opened up that weren't there before, and one of these things is an exploration of a kind of harmony that can arise out of using the church modes, the old church modes. And this doesn't really exist anywhere in the whole history of Western music except in the Renaissance and medieval compositions before the common practice tonal period started up and it just became rigidly tonal. Back then they weren't thinking in terms of harmony at all, it was just thinking in terms of voices.

It's really interesting, this dimension that they weren't even thinking of, this vertical harmonic dimension, we can look back at that and take some of those ideas that were there that they maybe didn't even know about, and exploit them, and pursue them and so on and so forth.

It occurs to me that they did not grow up watching The Karate Kid and Goonies. so if we want to do them an honour, if we want to respond in kind to these thoughtful and magnificent voices that speak to us as if from another generation, we do it through art, as people who grew up listening to fucking Michael Jackson records in our rooms, you know what I mean? Hearing the Appasionianata on the piano in the other room. Something like that. It's all unclear and vague and approximate, what I'm saying, but you know, going on about singing to the trace of the fugitive god, that's what poets are for, and this night of the world and this destitute time, and all this kind of thing, you know – I've got to try to say that from my own standpoint. Within our own language, using our own conventions and this kind of thing.

I was going to ask about some of the songs on the album, especially 'Hey Moon', because that song is absolutely stunning and it sounds amazing when you and Molly Nilsson are duetting… I'd like to know how you got together to work on that song, and how you chose it.

JM: It's interesting, because the way that it unfolded, of course would be impossible in any other situation than our own. We were just friends on one of the social network things, and she just sent over this thing, and then I just responded to it. At the time, I was just going to work in my office every night alone, you know, so on the most vulgar, literal level it just made sense to me. I just kind of kind of cut it up a tiny bit and added vocals and some instruments and stuff, and that's how it unfolded.

That song was really something that was going on, musically but also biographically. It occurs to me more and more that this philosophical idea that's so appealing to us as aesthetic theorists that the artist is not the origin of the work of art, and it's sort of the earth, you know, or culture or something like that - it goes out the window when you're an artist, so to speak, and not an aesthetic theorist. It's so important what you're doing in your life. It's tremendously important to the work, and no aesthetic theories take that into account. I mean-- it's all about the work, the work, but I just went into a house for three years in the middle of nowhere, and talked to no one, and did nothing but the work, and it was a disaster for the work. I kind of think today that you've gotta mix it up with people, that--yeah, I'm sorry to say, but maybe the artist is the work of art, at least on some level, you know what i mean? I know I'm confusing some things here, by just putting it so crudely, but it was a disaster, to go with this romantic idea, that I'm going to go and get a house in the middle of nowhere and work on the work, and nothing else and just dedicate myself to that...you know, you need to be mixed up with people, maybe, who are doing inspirational things around you.

I guess that's a kind of perfect song for that sort of back and forth relationship, because it's all about that kind of longing, and distance.

JM: Yeah, yeah yeah, I was worried on the one hand because maybe that should have been just one voice, but I wanted to do something with that, it really made sense to me, I was interested in it, and in terms of this conversation we've been having, I think it's a hallmark of good pop in a certain sense that if it can wrest something novel out of a really seemingly banal pop harmonic idea, again and again, it's a series of chords that we're all familiar with, it's very conventional, but somehow the unthinkable happens, and the melodic counterpoint to that harmonic idea somehow makes that banal idea come alive in a more interesting way, and I really think that song accomplished that, her song, you know. and I was really interested in working with it, and maybe it would have been a better bet to do something entirely original, but I wanted to try doing something like that instead, like a collaboration, or a cover, or whatever it is that I ended up doing, you know?

Some of the other new songs are kind of departures from what you've done before, what about 'Cop Killer'?

Cop Killer by John Maus by pandoraonrails

JM: Yeah, that's another one like 'Hey Moon', there's a credit given there too, because there what happened was, like with the Molly thing, I'm always looking for ideas to work with, and I don't mean to sound cynical or nihilistic, but it seems to me I always find them and not in the conversation that's taking place about music today but in weird places, you know what I mean, like underneath rocks and stuff. I was looking at some of this demo scene thing, some of this videogame music, like Commodores and Amigas and stuff like that. I was digging through some of that stuff and playing with it, and that was that I mean, this is all talking on the musical level, on the lyrical level, that has to do with - maybe it wasn't the best fit, but it occurred to me that the best lyric in popular music history is [Body Count's] 'Cop Killer', it gets at the essence of what it's all about better than any other lyric has.

What is it about that particular phrase, that particular message, that is so powerful, do you think?

JM: It's this whole idea, the politics of aesthetics or whatever, that any genuine work, right, is always a disruption of the police. I would hope, of course, that everybody would grant that I'm not talking about shooting human beings, I'm not talking about shooting or killing a human being, I'm talking about the police, talking about cops, the cops in our heads, the cops that are everything other than us, everything inhuman, that would put us to work towards an end other than each other.

Perhaps, in the name of each other we should stomp that out, we should destroy it, you know? We should kill it, because it isn't even alive. I would never want to kill a human being, that's not what I'm talking about at all, but a king, a cop, a thing that refuses to recognise a human being, that's indifferent to human beings, that's what we've got to violently emancipate ourselves from. Isn't it? I think that's what all genuine work absolutely does. It's a cop killing, it's an emancipation from the police, from the things that would put us to work towards spectres and nonsense? Towards the accumulation of surplus, or towards the fucking...ah, positive truth, or all these stupid ideas that are finally everything other than us. Fight re-presentation. Fight actuality in the name of potentiality. Fight the state in the name of the people. This tired metaphysical distinction, right, that we don't have a better vocabulary within that. Maybe that is the way of putting it, maybe that is the way of expressing the primacy of potentiality over actuality and our language, is in 'Cop Killer'.

How do you square that with the Alain Badiou quote that is the title of your album: We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves. I mean, censoring is rejecting things, and choosing things and having a rigid set of rules that we impose upon ourselves. If we're killing the cops, we're killing the outside forces of limitation and oppression and all that stuff, then what, we're supposed to internalize that?

JM: You know that Badiou quote, the idea there is partly like - here I was, 21-years-old, and I'd go and see some lecture on his theses on art, and they really had an effect on me. And all this was to the real chagrin of the teachers. They hated all that, and of course, maybe there's plenty of bones to be picked there and so it wouldn't be an unthinking enthusiasm, or endorsement, of some of the problems that are probably there, and maybe this isn't the best place to get into those, but you know in the thesis that that's taken out of, he says that all art and all thought is ruined when we accept the situation's imperative to consume, communicate and enjoy.

John Maus - Believer by RibbonMusic

I just couldn't - I don't mean to take up the role of the avant garde or looking down at everyone else or something like that, that's not what I'm meaning to say at all. But it seems to me there's this kind of automatic speaking that's encouraged that leaves no room for the necessity required to really say anything. We just end up saying what is and not saying what's not yet, we just go on talking, idly. Here again, I hate this language, I hate this way of putting it, but on the spot it'll have to suffice - we just kind of say what immediately comes to mind, and we put it up there, and like that - and we don't end up saying anything at all. We don't end up giving, for lack of a better way of putting it, anything about what we are, or what we could potentially become at all, we just kind of end up perpetuating what is. Which isn't to say that the immediate spontaneous automatic writing can't say anything, but usually we should maybe take a moment to look at the immediate automatic spontaneous thing and look at it carefully before sharing it with others, perhaps maybe to be certain and to wager it does.

I'd never claim that I've accomplished what I've set out to do or anything like that. But perhaps I suspect at least, or have suspected, maybe less than I have in the past today, that the world may be, might be, a better place if we thought a little bit more. I'm not saying people don't think, I'm not saying everybody's a doof and completely understandable as spoken by language, but perhaps we should - and that's a dramatic militant way of putting it, 'We should become the pitiless censors of ourselves'. And it's a pretentious mouthful, but the essence of what it's after, I agree with the idea that we should work to give ourselves, and try to be as certain as we can, even perhaps to a pitiless degree, so that we're truly giving something else than what already was. Because what already is, babies on fire and shit like that, whole continents dying of disease and everything that we all know, when we all know it's bad. So maybe if we want something different from that it's something we need to struggle pitilessly for, as opposed to consuming, communicating, and enjoying.

I hop on the computer and I start surfing around, and it's just effortless. I don't mean to romanticise the struggle, that leads to all kinds of terrible violence and absurdities that are even worse than the perverse immediate gratification, but I believe that maybe we should struggle a bit to give something more than this.

We Must Become Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves is out now on Upset The Rhythm