Minnesotan John Maus may just be our musical forerunner for Man of the Year 2011. With a new record (We Must Become The Pitiless Censors of Ourselves) and an explosive one-man live show, Maus floats atop the crop of low-fi, 80’s loving bedroom romanticists as the artist most capable of delivering truly transcendent, accessible works of art-damaged pop. BULLETT sat down to chat with John to discuss the prairie, mathematics, and how he’s been making music for a long time.
What was the process of putting Pitiless Censors together?
Well I did some of in it Hawaii in my office at night. I did some of it at home in Minnesota. But again it occurs to me when we talk about these things, we’re talking about it as if I’m supposed to be the origin of it and I think maybe that’s an old fashioned way of thinking about things that we should maybe be done with. I’m not the origin. It’s one of these things that’s constructed by the discourse around it – by the listeners. I mean, I’ve said before, I like this parallel with scientists as opposed to poets. You make a discovery and then you share it. You bring it and share it with the community or whatever.
But certainly I’m not the origin – maybe I set something forth but it’s that thing that I set forth that is the origin of itself. I’m just merely a passage for it. But not in a mystical sense. I don’t mean it in a mystical sense that I’m setting it forth – I mean it in the sense that I’m dealing with objective musical conventions there and trying to listen to what they have to say. Trying to wrest some kind of novelty from them. And so that was a process – just sitting there at a keyboard or musing in my head or whatever. Over and over again every night – trying things, mixing things together, trying to make some kind of discovery that seemed worthwhile – that seemed like it was something else than what there already was. And then once I was as sure as I could be that, in fact, there was something like that there, I brought it to bear. I brought it to share with other people. But with this album I was maybe a little bit lazier than I should have been in terms of that.
What would you have done differently?
I just feel like maybe I didn’t push it as hard as I could have but again, I think this rises out of some kind of instinct towards self preservation because I reached such a wall with it that it was just time to put it to bed. Time to move on and, perhaps mixing it up with people and getting out in the world will open up possibilities for doing more – doing something better, having more to work with.
So you’re a Minnesotan – living there now, right? Do you feel like your surroundings affect the way that the music is made?
Yeah, yeah, well one would want to be careful in terms of reducing it finally to some kind of landscape informing the thing. But I do like this idea that part of what we do creating music – creating art – is trying to say what the landscape can’t. To try to get beyond this idea that nature is immediate and become the mediation of it – the setting forth of it. And then certainly the kinds of sounds in this place are very desolate and open and perhaps there’s something in the work that’s about that. Being in this kind of dull prairie land with snow and stars and trying to set that free. Trying to actualize that sonically. It’s not finally that, but that’s an element in it, I think.
My friend was at a show last time you were here and he was telling me that watching you onstage it was like you were working out almost. The amount of physical labor you’re putting into these shows, I find that really interesting. It seemed like you were getting almost aggressive up there.
Well, again, I can only do what I can do. I have very few thoughts, if any, that I can call my own but the idea there is that if I’m trying to appear as something else than the world as it stands perhaps the hysterical body is exemplary in its ability to do that. There’s something, perhaps – and as old of an idea as it is – transgressive about the hysterical, schizophrenic body. Something that goes outside of the way the body is normally put to work. So that’s where I think the physical struggle to bring that about is the best idea I’ve got right now. But whether or not it works I don’t know.
It works for you.
Well it’s a tremendous gamble but that’s the one that I’ve gambled on; that that can do it. Goin’ nuts. As nuts as you possibly can; coming up against the limits of what you’re physically capable of and what you can physically withstand. Because I think that’s what we all fundamentally want. If I can commit the violence of supposing I know what we all want, I think it’s to be seen and to see each other which is, as far as I can tell, something that’s very hard to do. So striving for the physical limit is what I’m after. It’s precisely that; to share, to appear. And that’s always something that is kind of a violence. When you see another person do that it’s an eruption, it’s a tearing of the normal comings and goings of the normal flow, the conventions. It’s something that tears itself from that and that’s what we really all want to see, I think.
What’s next for you?
Well first off, I think it’s been a little bit strange to see this manufactured hype and stuff like that because it warrants rightful mockery of me. I deserve to be scorned and spit on for my dubious complicity with those mechanisms and allowing them to take this figure that was so thoughtfully and enthusiastically created by things like Maus Space – this site that is interested in some of the work I’ve done, or the work that I set forth or whatever you want to call it. They’ve constructed this figure that I have kept my hands off because they do such a better job than I ever could – for no other reason than enthusiasm! But then that gets taken from them and it begins to get constructed by people who have an interest in turning a dollar, in having some cultural capital or whatever it is. They begin constructing this image and the image they construct is silly, it’s stupid. It’s me looking out a fucking window thoughtfully or something. Versus what these Maus Space people did which was really creative and interesting. So I have some bones to pick with those channels. But the work itself, yeah, I’m interested in pursuing that and I’ve got to finish this dissertation.
What about if it wasn’t music – is there any other outlet that you’d be interested in?
Well I really regret actually that I threw my lot in with that particular procedure or that particular trajectory, looking back. Because I do think, once you’ve made your decision, once you’ve made your bed, once you’ve spent twenty years cultivating the material, familiarizing yourself with the most advanced kind of musical material, that’s what you should keep using. But if I could go back I think mathematics would have been interesting, I think science would have been interesting, because these are creative enterprises that seem to involve some kind of picture of the world that’s more consistent. They’re just pictures, just like music and art and religion, they don’t correspond to the absolute truth, I don’t think. But they’re fascinating and they have a kind of consistency that the other languages lack and I just think it would have been a more productive use of my creative energies, not the least of which being – I’m not sure how good I am with sound and music. I think I kind of picked that one precisely because I wasn’t sure I was any good at it. This whole idea that the reason we write is because we don’t think we can – if we thought we could we wouldn’t. So I think that’s what the idea was.