interview: John Maus
John Maus’s 2011 synth-pop masterpiece We Must Become The Pitiless Censors of Ourselves, replete with vintage synthesizers and infused with medieval music theory, has been credited with sparking the current goth-pop resurgence. Maus recently finished touring for the first time in six years; his exile from the public eye was partially spent completing his doctorate in political science from the University of Hawaii, and his remaining time was given to building the synthesizers used on his latest album, Screen Memories. Screen Memories contains Maus’s signature songwriting and tone, while heavily weighted with a sense of impending doom. In interviews, Maus often addresses an impending political and environmental apocalypse. We spoke with Maus after a performance at Lincoln Hall in Chicago, the last show of his six-month tour, where we spoke about his songwriting process, leaving academia, clandestine chemistry and the end of days.
This Chicago date was your last show after six straight months of touring. Are you drained out? Is there any feeling of catharsis?
JM: Drained, yeah. I don’t see performance as cathartic, though. There’s tremendous weight; it’s not a release, it’s an effort. It’s not like Steve Jobs and crew or whoever are doing scream therapy. It’s not for my catharsis. I don’t like catharsis as an event. It’s indecent to do something cathartic in front of people. That’s just how I’ve always felt, superficially. We could get deeper into it, but that’s my knee-jerk reaction.
Is it based on the idea that real catharsis is private, that it can’t be forced or contrived on a stage?
JM: Maybe closer to an exorcism. Not that I would suppose they’re in need of it, the audience, but just the world, right? You know, you’re up there on stage and what are you thinking about? Especially after six months. It’s the lights, you know? Think about light. Like, I’ve already talked about sometimes I’ve seen people looking at their phone. It’s been a way into this idea of an uncreative light, so to speak. These people are looking at their phones and they’re lit up in the dark, but they aren’t looking at the light. They’re looking at whatever it is on the black pixels. They’re looking at what obscures the light. Then, finally, we all die. Very soon. Not “very soon” meaning when we’re 80. So, there’s that. Choose.
Getting into the subjectivity of feeling time’s passing, this is your first run of touring in about six years. You’ve mentioned in an interview that you felt that time pass very quickly. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve felt as if time’s passing has sped up. It seems to be a common phenomenon.
JM: From what little I know about it, the take of cognitive science is that there are fewer novel experiences, so when you’re a child, everything is novel and time appears to move slower. I like to jokingly put forth that we are actually falling into a black hole of some sort and time is actually accelerating. With children, it’s their first experience of time, but it’s still getting faster for them. It’s getting faster for everybody, objectively, in whatever sense you can talk about time objectively. I think that that’s a funny joke. It’s definitely getting faster. Faster and faster and faster, shorter and shorter.
The feeling of time on tour definitely moves slower, because you’re waiting, you know? A lot of it is waiting, waiting to go out and play. I still get nerves—bad nerves. The band alleviated some of it, but then there’s the grueling nature of doing it every night. The dreaded moment doesn’t necessarily come too fast or come too slow. It’s just a weird time, that time before one goes out and hopefully accomplishes the opposite of catharsis.
You definitely accomplished it here at Lincoln Hall tonight.
JM: I hope so.
You did. I saw everyone out in the crowd, transfixed. People seemed to respond the most to your older song “Cop Killer.” It’s interesting how your art can change meaning, for yourself and others, as time passes in ways you can’t predict or control.
JM: Right. “Cop Killer” is topical. It isn’t a cop out, pun intended or whatever, when I say that only superficially is it law enforcement that I question there. It’s more the law, the enforcers of the law—those who would hold us to account if we try to do anything but uphold the status quo, anybody who stands for that sort of policing. But then in the literal sense it’s more topically relevant than ever, it seems.
It feels like an acutely painful historical moment.
JM: The theorist in me would try to step back, patiently, and wonder why something that’s been happening for years has come to the forefront now. The obvious answer is the cell phone cameras, but I don’t understand. I’m more suspicious in that regard. The inhuman part, the cameras, may serve power or capital in some way.
That type of questioning is present in the content of your new record, Screen Memories. I read about you soldering circuit boards, how you built all the synthesizers used on this record. Did you write the songs while you were building? What’s your songwriting process usually like?
JM: Well, thinking about it abstractly, there’s a couple different ways to go at it. There might be other ways I’ve yet to uncover. There’s the fortunate moment where it falls from the sky, like the light bulb goes on, and it comes out. You’re humming a tune in your head or there’s a lyric you’d like to work with and you’re just permutating it melodically in your head.
Those are the best moments.
JM: Then there are the more laborious moments, sitting at an instrument playing different melodies, humming in your head, and then something happens that’s interesting. There’s the mistake, which is cool, too. That’s when you’re messing around with things that are already recorded or transcribed in some way, and, by chance, they overlay in some way you couldn’t have intentionally brought about. That opens up an idea. Then there’s the cooperation with machines. With the precedent, aleatoric, or serial methods—a roll of the dice that gives you raw material to work with.
But with songwriting, and everything the Top 40 has going for it right now, why would you want to listen to anything other than a machine that knows what you wanna hear?
Like the 12-person teams who write Top 40 pop songs? I’d like to think there are still some lone prophets writing on their own, channeling songs that fall out of the sky.
JM: I hope, I hope. We could be on the precipice of some historical, creative reconfiguration. But, again, you see these conceits already in the 19th century with the invention of the gramophone. I mean, there are texts where they’re talking about living forever through machines. Vannevar Bush, that sort of thing. Seventy years ago that seemed ridiculous, so maybe it’s all the same. As then, the whole focus is on machines.
Maybe we’ll be the last ones left, before the machines take over.
JM: Well, that’s what I stand by: the Do Not Disturb on the tombstone. Last Mortals. That would be just fine with me, too. It may be a sort of cold and alien world to live your final days out in.
It often seems as if we’re in some sort of transitional time. There are so many harbingers of mass environmental and political disaster. Apocalyptic themes are present throughout Screen Memories. Do you usually write music when you are feeling a certain way? Do you write when the mood strikes you?
JM: No. I mean, I’ve had the luxury the last three years of just writing no matter what, militantly, 14 hours a day, sitting at the computer. It makes all these concerts difficult. I’ve been sitting on my ass for six years, you know what I mean?
Ha, yes. You’ll have to start running around the block between work sessions.
JM: Totally. I’ve been in the middle of nowhere, alone for most of it, so it didn’t really matter if the mood struck me or not. More seemed to have gotten done, almost, when I had to sell my time on the market like everybody else. It somehow makes you appreciate the few hours you have to yourself when you’re giving most of your hours away to get your daily bread.
I hear you. There’s an urgency to make art with your precious free time. I’m also a PhD student, and I write music when I’m not working on the thesis. I always wonder which world, music or academia, I’d choose if I had a real chance at music. You have a philosophy doctorate, so you’ve sort of lived in both worlds, but chosen music.
JM: I don’t know if I chose it. I’ve been out of the loop, so to speak, in academia. Every time I’ve been able to sort of check in on it, very superficially, on the road, maybe run into some people, it seems to me the humanities are still working primarily with the French theorists. From what I can tell, there’s not been a turn of the page in any sort of radical way. Primarily, these are the thinkers. There was a moment, from 1967 up into the 1990s, that was a sea change in and of itself, but you know, in the familiar landscape of critical philosophy and American pragmatic thinkers, then the prototype for the analytic, you sudden had Foucault and the people who came after Sartre. I mean, there was certainly the precedence in Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, too, but you know, that was a big event. The head of my department in Hawaii was one of these guys who took a hard left out of quantitative political science because of his encounter with Foucault, to some degree.
There’s the cliché of post-structuralism that the status quo seems to be aware of, and you can’t blame them for having that idea because the pompous, condescending grad students they encounter probably don’t do much to make it seem otherwise. The humanities, it seems to me, are more and more exorcised entirely from the university as it becomes exclusively focused on the quantitative sciences, that sort of knowledge. Then, it strikes me that 99 percent of the people I talk to at my shows are involved in the humanities.
I’m a biologist, so there are some outliers.
JM: The sciences are much more interesting to me at this point, even in the political sense. If it weren’t so expensive to set up a clean room, like a laboratory, I would be interested in macromolecules. I have a sonicator. I’d love to shatter some cells from plants, purify the enzymes, investigate with PCR. I’m interested in how plants can avoid, or survive with, all the noxious, dangerous chemicals they’re exposed to in the environment—how they can do the things they’re programmed to do. Learn the organic chemistry of the thing. You’ve got these ribbon monsters—these macromolecules are so fascinating.
I always try to explain to my many friends who make music with a do-it-yourself ethos that you can’t really do “DIY science.” You could, but it’s prohibitively expensive.
JM: The kitchen chemists and clandestine chemists kind of represent this, to me. In my dissertation I took up [Alexander] Shulgin and his circle as examples of this—sort of a radical counterpart to the familiar and oftentimes critiqued sciences. I’m interested in these psycho-mimetic molecules; they’re interesting scientifically and politically. They have the potential to be instruments and create discourse, same as the apparatuses in psychiatry and the sciences. This apart from merely recreational dropping-out impulse—it’s something else from that.
I lament [that] there’s no context in our situation, probably owing to the Judeo-Christian prohibition on these things, as a way into the mystical. The whole thing where the kids from Brooklyn go down and sit with a white guy with a ponytail in the jungle doing ayahuasca—all this is bad. The closest thing to an appropriate context I’ve come across is the Berkeley Shulgin circle. There must be others.
Now the knowledge required to engage in clandestine chemistry is so widely distributed online and across the dark web—there must be so many circles of people interested.
JM: It’s suspicious to me that these things are legislated. Then there are all these dietary supplements and all these people profiting and encouraging people to take supplements.
And supplements are barely regulated at all. They’re always finding out the capsules don’t really contain what they’re supposed to contain. It turns out to be sawdust.
JM: All these people can continue to put bills in place to stop research on these chemicals because a few dumb teenagers snorted a line of 2C-E and ate somebody’s lung, you know. What’s needed here is education a la Erowid or something like that.
Interview by Sarah Jane Quillin.
Photography by Bryan C. Parker.