Singer Addresses Sci-Fi, Hype, Process
Interview Jason Foster
Photography Samantha Casolari
Please let it be known I am not a writer. I have worked in the belly of this biz for many years (12!) as a record label owner, tour manager, videographer, and currently as the manager of three amazing bands.
Though inspired by the artists I look after, it is sometimes hard to be excited by the truckloads of bands dumped on blogs day after day. But sometimes there is something sincere and original that cuts through the unending stench of noise. I found this hope for music in John Maus, who released his latest record this year on Ribbon Music (an imprint of Domino)/Upset the Rhythm, entitled We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves. I do not usually write, but I was inspired to do so by John.
I am glad I procrastinated this intro because it allowed John’s’ Pitchfork interview snafu to happen. John, taken out of context on the website, said that he thought that the high price of records is what is killing the music industry, and suggested that record stores either lower the price of records or just go out of business. He later recanted, kind of, saying he meant only large record superstores like Virgin or Tower, which ARE going out of business. In context, it makes more sense. I am glad to defend. John Maus is a true outsider. He makes art in a terrestrial space that is his own, and he thinks on his own as well. He can say a lot and you need to take your time thinking about his words instead of jumping to conclusions. No matter your interpretation, it’s refreshing to have an artist who is able to have intricate ideas that might take time to consume and be uncomfortable to discuss.
I interviewed John Maus – before any of that happened – about the ins and outs of the music business: the bad, the gross, and the beacons of hope.
I’ve been doing music stuff for a while, just from the inside. I guess it’s weird because I always liked bands that I didn’t know much about because I thought they had a lot of mystique. I was into Led Zeppelin and early Genesis, stuff you didn’t really have a lot of information about. I’m old enough to not have had the Internet so everything wasn’t at your fingertips. With that said, how do you feel about doing interviews, coming from an artist’s perspective?
It’s freaking me out, man, it’s freaking me out. I’m really ambivalent about it. I haven’t quite wrapped my head around any of that yet. What I suspect is that the level of discourse is maybe lower than it could be just in general, just about thoughts about culture, so maybe it’s an opportunity to stir that up in different ways. Not that I could actually accomplish that myself or anything, or that I have the answer. I guess that’s the saving impulse. But it’s a real weird thing and it gets out of your hands really quick. And I’m not sure what the use of it is. Inevitably, music in our world is accompanied by a constellation of visual media and all this kind of stuff. And I guess the idea would be to somehow make a use of that.
Is music the main thing you’re going to do? Some bands want to make this a real job, therefore it becomes a business.
I never had any interest in doing that, in the way I could earn a living or whatever. I suspect in certain ways that could make a mockery of it.
What do you mean make a mockery of it?
To turn it into something you do like a business.
I guess it’s inevitable if something becomes popular, so many other things have to happen in order for it to become safe. Sometimes I think my job is to protect the artists from it becoming too much of a business for them. I’m thrust upon doing all the mathematics, all the accounting, and everything that has to do with the business side and they just worry about the making art, the album and stuff like that.
It’s two separate things. On one hand you have the mechanisms, the things that control what’s visible and what isn’t, what is spoken about and what isn’t. And on the other hand you have the work. There are two separate things. Aren’t they?
Yes. I feel like you’ve gotten a lot more visibility for this record. This is your first U.S. record label, right?
Yeah, and that apparatus is involved now and I don’t know if I’m getting dirt on myself, you know what I mean? Manufactured hype invokes a rightful scorn. People ought to rip that down, if it’s ‘manufactured’ that comes across. And that maybe obscures it somehow. These are just my suspicions. I wouldn’t claim to have the answer or anything, but I just vaguely get that impression that the whole world that represents music, so to speak, is a bad world. More or less, from top to bottom it’s a bad world and a bad bet. And any good music probably imagines a better world than that, so therefore it’s impossible for those mechanisms to truly represent the music.
But you deserve the excitement that’s around the record, if you ask me. I see sometimes bands feeling somewhat guilty about it or feeling like there’s dirt on you because this is happening. I never write, I’m just doing this interview because I’m excited about the record.
It would be cool if somehow we could try, for lack of a better way to put it, as a generation, we could try to take it back here, right here, you and I. But it becomes something else in that?
I do agree with you, and I think it is kind of shifting in a weird way. And as much as I hate talking about Twitter and all that shit, in some way I think it’s connecting the artist so directly that it’s eliminating all these other suits who are there that don’t need to be there.
And that would be the most important thing to worry about, the music. To navigate it and negotiate it is the paramount thing. Maybe I’m just misjudging it but people seem to worry about the distribution or the visibility even more than the music itself.
This is good for me as a manager to hear you say this stuff. I’m more in it for the music aspect and the idea of creating an aesthetic and a movement and a piece of art. I work with bands that luckily like to use their money on creating better live set when they play and using their money in an artistic way. Does it bother you when you have to talk to the label about visibility and you start hearing these business buzzwords?
They start talking like that, they don’t talk about it like it’s the work, like it’s the truth, like it’s art. I know that’s a really ridiculous point to make. And a lot of intelligent people would say, ‘Good, because it’s none of those things, nothing is art or work or truth.’ And that’s fine. But I can’t shake the idea that what stands in the way of that is talking like it’s a brand or like the world just needs to be more accommodating to them. Because if they did listen to the work, and the world that the work imagines, than perhaps it would be a better world. In other words, if we’re all just essentially creative, that ultimately what we have is what we’ve affirmed or created in a certain sense. It could be that these middlemen or whatever do create something great, they create the way it flows or the structure or this kind of thing, but the picture they give us today isn’t as radically interesting as it could be.
I think you’re right. Music in some way is kind of like a double-edged sword. I’ve seen it in the last ten years, and I’m just talking about independent labels where it used to be not about what we’re talking about, a career or anything, it used to be about just making music. And now it’s come back to feel more of a business than it ever has been. And some of it’s kind of disgusting, and it makes me vomit a little.
How part and parcel is it with the whole game, the whole situation, that conversations like this are encouraged or allowed? You and I are talking about how vulgar it is to use this vocabulary unto a work. It’s perfectly part and parcel to the whole system, isn’t it? This kind of bellyaching I do all the time, about how we should imagine it differently than that. So that’s why I get a little irksome about the whole thing. And it’s new to me, on top of that.
You haven’t had a lot of time to think about it?
I had a lot of time to think about it from afar. I don’t mean to sound nihilistic, but it didn’t seem to say much when I was outside of it.
Did you grow up reading interviews with bands? Were you ever really obsessed with reading and finding out information?
I did what I did. I can remember when I was a teenager and reading some of this. I was very interested. There’s a fascination about your heroes or whatever and what kind of lives were involved in this work which seems astoundingly singular. There’s a legitimate curiosity there.
I wonder if we get so wrapped up in what we’re doing, you with your work, and me with the bands I work with, and lose total perspective on what just a normal kid in Oklahoma City thinks of it all. You’re so into the machine that you don’t actually realize what a normal person sees. I’ve totally lost touch with what it’s like to not be in this business. And sometimes it depresses me a bit because I’ve lost track.
I’ve been totally outside of it for the most part, except for occasional encounters, and I can always go back. At least I kid myself that it’s possible now. Just kind of go and sit back away from all that, to where it actually is, and look at it from there. I kid myself that I still have that ability. I’ve reserved the right to throw down a trump card.
What if this keeps taking off and taking off?
I don’t know. I never imagined it was possible. It seems to me there are two kinds of things. I never imagined that’d be something I’d have to worry about. Speaking of old interviews, I guess the last time the underground really broke through was in the ’90s. That’s what Kurt Cobain would always say, that’s the reason he always threw his lot in with a devil like David Geffen. It was this whole naïve idea that it allows me to share the work with more people, with the kid who doesn’t have access to it. But whether that’s just completely rendered moot now in the age of the Internet remains to be seen. It seems there’s a certain threshold of visibility one does not cross until one has gotten the approval of the gatekeepers, and that’s a rotten deal and you don’t want to be complicit with that. Inevitably you kind of are if you meddle with them. It’s not a question of deserving it or not deserving it, it’s a question of we all deserve it. And we all deserve to be visible to one another. So by letting them represent what you’re doing, you’re saying, ‘Well, they’re representing me.’ In an interview, you want to say something, you want to think, you want to try to say something that perhaps at the very least opens up new possibilities in the conversation. I guess my tendency in that regard is to always take it back to the work. Above all, there’s the music. I think really interesting things can happen there and we’ve got this language today that’s so unlike languages of the past. There’s pop music, there’s punk rock, whatever you want to call it, and we just owe it to humanity or whatever you’d want, to really make a radical use of this language, to really get the most out of it we possibly can while it’s the vernacular.
I have a few more things. For some reason, when I listen to your music, I connect it with Los Angeles. But not in the way Los Angeles exists now, but in this weird ’60s and ’70s sci-fi aesthetic, so it’s kind of from the future but it’s got this weird aesthetic from the past. Does this make sense at all?
Los Angeles has its own thing, this whole old scene, that’s kind of broken through a little bit. That was always kind of outside. But I’m not punk. I came out here and I was kind of a dork and I just remained, I never hopped onto any of that stuff – Don Bolles, Three Geniuses, Centimeters. It was an L.A. scene and you can see how it got involved in this Haunted Graffiti idea of culture and visual art and music and stuff like that, but I was outside. I guess in terms of my relationship to any city, the story I’d be reminded of just coming from the prairie, driving three hours north to go to the Twin Cities and seeing the skyline in the distance and what an amazing thing that was to behold when it’s not part of your every day life. The giant buildings, off on the horizon, each with little windows in them. It was like the future. As stupid as that might sound, it was like time travel into the future. There’s always been this imaginary thing about the city, seen from a movie, seen from afar, as any possibility, as any reality, the city as some magnificent possibility.
I guess I just have this weird science fiction connection with your music. But not Terminator 2, more like Logan’s Run and stuff like that.
I really don’t think the genre films get a fair shake against the heads. I really think some of these films are radical artwork. Like RoboCop. It belongs in a canon right alongside Stalker (a 1979 film by Andrei Tarkovsky) or whatever. Like something happens there, it’s radical as reality itself.
Ever seen Zardoz?
Yeah. That ’70s style that you’re talking about. The guy who did Deliverance did that one and I think it destroyed his career.
Putting Sean Connery in that outfit might do it.
Zardoz is interesting because it takes up this thing about mortality again. I like this idea that we refuse immortality and insist on being mortal human beings. Like realizing the possibilities that alone affords, our finitude has the confusion and possibility of ever doing anything. I think that’s a really interesting idea that’s explored there with Zardoz.
I think that’s why those movies are actually good.
I mean, it’s very particular to genre film, just in terms of seeing violence and this kind of thing. I could be wrong. I might be mistaken about this. It’s a novel kind of human expression that comes about when you have metal skeletons emerging from fire and cyborgs fighting their programming and ED209 squealing like a pig as he goes down the stairs, kind of a sublime spectacle that truly speaks about human beings in this situation and it shares that experience to all situations to come and some that have been. Some Viennese classicist’s fuckin’ tympani tells us about life in the courts or whatever. This is an affirmation once and for all that singular experience persists after triumph of the spectacle. Inlaid capital, something still speaks, there’s still some kind of subjectivity. People might charge me with being a reactionary by trying to hold on to subjectivity in that sense and they could be right. But what I’ve believed for a long time is that we can speak using these relatively feeble languages.
You’re talking like film and music.
And I don’t think they’re actually relatively feeble at all. I mean, that’s how it always is.
You’re talking about science fiction in particular.
Yeah I’m talking about genre film, I’m talking about pop music, I’m talking about these fucking horror novels, these fuckin’ television shows.
A lot of those films are actually really intelligent if you actually understand what the hell they’re talking about.
It absolutely is. I agree. Maybe it’s over the second it is, but where is the thought that’s risen to articulate these works. I don’t feel like we’ve yet met these things with our language, like really begun to unpack what they say about us, what they say about being here.
I think people want to pan science fiction anyway, but I’m into reading old books too, I never read Fahrenheit 451 and I just read that.
And isn’t that amazing? Thirty years before and his wife spends all that time in the theater or whatever she calls it, the screen.
She keeps watching the screen and she wants more screens.
And he describes her as fuckin’ pasty and ghoulish. Sits in there all day playing on screens with her friends playing dress up. In a certain way, this trope has become tired, because it’s easy to suppose it’s simple as that, we just get out of our matrix levels and we’re just in our real life. I kind of like this idea more. You know of course we’re always already represented to each other, there’s always some degree of mediation involved, we’ll never escape that, we’ll never get out of the pod. But we concede the fact we’re in the pod in some more interesting way. We can creatively take control of these representations towards the end of giving surplus or investigating some idea of spectral positive truth. We can pick representation and mold it however we want. It’s about that, it’s not about escaping it once and for all, you know?
Do you know that RoboCop is going to be redone, by Aronofsky?
I heard Aronofsky was going to do it, but that fell through, thankfully. I really don’t like that stuff, phenomenon, especially because it really neglects the way in which these artists are so part and parcel their moment.
I think that’s what I was trying to explain – you can’t remake movies because the time it was made is so much part of it.
But this is neglected, too. And I think that’s part of it, in some of the music we do, that the way in which we made these films 20 years ago, we could still use those techniques today and get the work demanded of it. They afford expressive possibility that still we could use today. We shouldn’t just keep trudging along with planned obsolescence. This idea that whatever’s newest is what we have to use – we can use old shit too because the work demands it.
I think they should because they’ve run out of ideas for a lot of their movies. They just keep redoing stuff. That’s a whole other topic.
In a certain way I see the envelope pushed. These are films that are by and large critically dismissed. Take for instance, the action genre, and one up itself. Push it further toward its impossible logical conclusion in terms of getting rid of any psychological inferiority or pretensions to humanism and just giving over completely to spectacle. The whole movie’s just an action set piece. I think that’s an amazing kind of human expression. The action set piece. A disaster film or something. Watching a tornado rip up fuckin’ LA.
Did you see Rambo IV?
Yeah. It’s kind of sad because First Blood is epic. That’s a great movie.
I just heard Rambo IV was a complete and utter violent blood bath and that’s basically all it was.
It wasn’t quite that. I’m thinking more of Neveldine and Taylor, like Crank 1 and 2 and Gamer, like these kind of films. Shoot ‘em-ups.
I heard Crank was amazing.
It’s a scene and it’s violent and pornographic and all these things but so is our world, and so I think it’s a good bet to that extent. Maybe one could charge them with a little more critical consciousness or something but I don’t know. You could also think of them as formalist, operating within the genre and pushing further and further.
To go back to the music, I saw your show, the first show I had seen, at SXSW at Emo’s.
That was a weird show.
I really liked it. Why was it weird to you?
I did three shows there and you get excited about what your live set up is and what you cater to. You know ideally you find what works best. For instance this first show was an Altered Zones show and that context seemed alienating in a way, and then the Emo’s show was especially; it was a Domino label showcase. And then after that I just went to this fuckin’ house party with this shitty PA and 200 people just packed in a room who were all just down and it went great. It succeeded in some way but it didn’t in those other contexts. I suppose I need to take responsibility for that but that was the experience.
The fan experience is completely different from the band experience a lot of times. I had never seen you before and I didn’t know what to expect and the first show I saw (pauses) I thought it was awesome. I had never seen someone go on stage and release so much energy. Watching you made me happy because it seemed like such an awesome release for you.
Yeah, but it’s not. Not to sound like a baby or something, but it’s difficult, it’s really difficult. It’s not cathartic. It’s more the experience of desire than catharsis, the desire to connect, to give, to share. At least consciously you know? Unconsciously it’s the worst bet on Earth that I’m cathartically indulging myself. But it really is what I’m truly striving for, which is the same thing I’m striving for in the music itself. To wrest something singular from the status quo, from the usual comings and goings, to try and have something appear, to try and bring something about that is possible, that we can do this, that we can look toward this, Something along those lines.
I guess that’s the reason I really liked it. Because some people were like, ‘He’s just singing along to his computer.’ And I’ve seen tons of shows that I don’t like. But I would probably see your show one hundred times. There’s some sort of excitement, and whether it’s your singing or whether it’s performance art in a way, it’s just awesome to see. I work with this other band called Ponytail and the singer has a similar vibe on stage. She would tell me how she would almost lose touch with herself and she wouldn’t even know what was going on. So I would watch you and just sort of wonder what was happening.
Certainly there’s something ecstatic in that sense of losing oneself, I just want to be careful and stress that, in a really serious way, it’s about love. I know that’s a stupid thing to say but I mean that in the way that there’s other people that we can try and appear as if we’re capable of becoming. And opening up and trying to remind them that they have the possibility of that as well and trying to approach that and trying to move towards that. That there’s a whole multiplicity of us, not some communion love thing where we’re all one, but where we are singularly multiple.
To reiterate what I was trying to say, I think you give off a lot of energy, which is exciting for a crowd because a lot of times you’ll go to a show and the band won’t be giving off as much energy as they can.
Or they’ll fuckin’ lie. And they don’t joyfully do it. They don’t see the lie and become more than the lie. They just lie. They just pretend. And then they’re just taking the piss on all of us, on themselves, squandering a chance to try and become more than the lie. We owe it to each other, don’t we? To use what few places are given to us to try something else than the rational, regulated comings-and-goings, to really try and do something else than that. We ought to try to if we’re given that.
I think the word ‘lie’ is a great thing. I feel like when I watched you, I could tell you weren’t lying, I could tell you were giving so much energy and I could tell it was a very serious thing and it was something you were very passionate about. It felt really good to see it.
Again, this could be the greatest lie of all. Culturally speaking, the white dude who gets up there and is like, ‘I’m really going to show you the truth!’ That’s a violent narrative that’s brought forth a lot of stupidity into the world, like that tired myth. I just don’t see a better life than to create something else than right now and I really don’t have anything else at my disposal now. To really do the foolish thing and trying to give it everything I have and really try to appear to others and to try to see them as well.
I don’t think you appear like you’re trying to come off grander than you mean. It comes off sincere.
All I’m saying is we want to be careful with the language of authenticity and sincerity to the extent that we suppose there aren’t others in the least, we’re better than them, we’re more authentic or sincere or something. With that being said, we have to be careful using that vocabulary. I mean, you’re driving in your car and a song comes on the radio and the singer starts singing, and as foolish a way as it is to put it, you’re just like ‘Liar!’ and change the channel. Because they’re lying at you, they’re lying right into your ear, they’re not even trying to do anything else than that. And they’re just praising the world, they’re not carrying within themselves the repudiation of it. This isn’t to say there aren’t beautiful things about it, but there are a lot of rotten things going on today that this situation enables that they don’t seem to carry with them an awareness of that.
And I think that was the ironic thing too, was that I was watching this performance, which I got extremely excited about and felt was extremely sincere, was at this huge music event that was filled with a bunch of horrible people clinging on to the music business, a lot of people that are doing exactly what we’re talking about. I just thought it was an interesting juxtaposition of what you came to do and what everybody else was doing. It was very refreshing to watch. It was awesome.
And that’s the thing around this, supposing other people are dupes and that kind of thing is just remembering it’s not any of us, it’s everything other than us that puts us to work towards some end other than each other. It’s the state, so to speak, it’s the cops, in this kind of conceptual sense that turn us towards ends other than each other. That’s the machinery we’ve got to grab hold of and gear towards a better picture. Not that the picture’s ever been better than it was before.
But you’re right. To me, I work with very sincere bands that work very hard at trying to create new things and I think my job is to help them do that and take the tools that are out there for us and steer it in a more positive direction.
You know this conversation takes place implicitly anyways, though I don’t know if it’s something people would think is a bad bet or not, but I think we could all benefit a little from, just kind of coming together, in a sense of ‘Where should we take this thing?’ Maybe that’s very utopian but as opposed to being individuals off on our own, we could encourage each other and unite and try to find the thread and try to verify amongst one other which direction seems the most potentially productive. For instance, I’ve got suspicions about some things that maybe don’t serve us, but maybe somebody else would argue they do, musically speaking. And sometimes the conversations can’t happen when we’ve each got to decide for ourselves and to verify our results with one another.
Maybe this should be a hotline or something? I think bands should talk to each other and discuss what they see.
That’s one of the best parts about touring sometimes. You get to meet so many people that are doing interesting things. People will bring CDs and stuff and share what they’re working on and that’s definitely the best part about it in a certain way.
Do you like touring?
I’m certainly grateful for the ability. But at the risk of sounding like a baby again, it’s a little bit grueling.
Are you going to school are you studying for something else?
I finished all my course work in my Ph.D. And I just have to write my dissertation. I think I was going to try and finish that this fall once the whole record release settles down a little bit. That’s always what I planned on doing, settling in to some kind of community college or state school or type gig.
What was your Ph.D in?
It’s in the political science department, but mainly the stuff I’m working with is old continental philosophical tradition. That’s kind of my area of expertise.
And then you think that’ll become like a thing that will bounce back and forth between – you said you wanted to teach?
Yeah, I would have to make ends meet, and it seemed like an interesting thing to do.
What if music makes your ends meet?
I never conceived of that as a possibility. It becomes a whole separate consideration. Because the work above all is important, and then making a living off this is considered, only to the extent it wouldn’t get in the way of the work.
It would seem refreshing to teach, and then take time off to make a record and tour, to bounce back and forth.
But you’re always working at home. You’re always working. As easy as it is for me to say it, when you have to spend eight hours a day doing soul-crushing labor, it really makes you use the remaining time as diligently as possible. I think a lot of interesting stuff has arisen precisely out of that desperation. We’re all kind of familiar with that. Like fucking going somewhere at eight in the morning that we don’t want to go, spending our whole day there, we all know what a horror that is. So when the work is stewing with that, its something we can all begin from together.
I guess one grass is always greener, where something is always better than another. I just wanted to ask you about a couple songs really quick. The first song that I really loved, my gateway, was “Do Your Best”. I don’t even know what it’s about and I think it’s an amazing pop song. I think you write really awesome pop songs in your way.
That’s what I was trying to do, I really was convinced for the longest time and maybe still am today, that that’s what pop ought to be about, like some consensus what it ought to be about. That’s to say, what it ought to be about is pop. Not about noise, it’s not about virtuosity, not about complexity, or maybe about all those things only to the extent that they factor in the questions ‘What is pop? What is fucking catchiness?’ We can ask that through this language that’s different than late Romantic German symphonies. They can ask questions we couldn’t, of course. But because of the unique flavor of our language, we can decipher things they couldn’t as well. What is “She Loves You” by the Beatles? Pop songs are like concentrated [bits of] all the things they have been indicted for by the bourgeois philosophers. They don’t demand any attention, you know them and you know what to expect. There’s always something that eludes any knowledge that tries to completely represent what it’s about.
I think writing a really catchy pop song that a variety of people can like is probably one of the most difficult things to do.
I always thought it was. It’s really hard for me. Of course, not claiming that I have or anything, but it’s what I try to do. It’s definitely what I’ve tried to do because I think that gets at what we could do that’s really interesting.
I really think the song “Cop Killer”. I think the title and the lyrics are completely different from the mood it sets. It seems almost very romantic to me, that song.
I wanted to do those lyrics for a long time. I wanted to do this Bee Gees-on-punk-rock thing in my mind. And in one of the footnotes somewhere, I’m like ‘This lyric sums it all up, doesn’t it?’ Like, the politics of aesthetics. What any genuine work is fundamentally about. And we have these cops and the police in our hands, and killing them. Like obviously, not killing human beings, or only to the extent that they refuse to be a human being and they become a bureaucrat instead. Beating that down. I liked this and I thought this was something to go after. And I was just looking for the right musical material to explore it with this. I’m not sure that was the best match.
I like it.
I feel like I could honor that lyric with better music.
No way, that’s why I like it. It feels like a very romantic, with a True Romance vibe to it or something.
Because it’s self-evident. Maybe that’s the difference. It’s not even a matter of anger. It’s a self-evident matter of fact. We must kill the cops, you know?
It’s like Badlands or something.
We’re against the wall. That’s precisely where we are. Know what I mean? We’re nothing else than disruptions and noises and rackets that break through that fucking wall. The wall of representation. What else could we be than that, than against the wall?
It’s a metaphor.