Before he touches down in the UK for a couple of shows, the cult music hero discusses his new album Screen Memories
John Maus is one of modern music’s true cult heroes. There are Tumblrs dedicated to him; there’s a semi-active message board where fans congregate; and he’s even had a book written about him. In particular his last album, 2011’s We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves, has proven to be one of the more enduring underground records in recent memory, constantly finding a new audience despite Maus’s relative inactivity over the past six years.
Not that he’s really been aware of any of this. Maus has been living in rural Minnesota – in a house he calls the ‘Funny Farm’ – for a few years, where his focus has been intensely insular. He worked on a PhD, built a modular synthesiser, and slowly recorded the music that forms his newest album Screen Memories. The album will feel familiar to anyone previously aware of Maus’s sonic language – there’s still the unconventional songwriting, the analogue synths and drum machines, the distinctively weird lyrical turns, the unvarnished textures, and most of all his unforgettable baritone – but it has a more fervid and apocalyptic vibe. With the album he’s also changed his approach to touring, performing with a live band rather than returning to his confrontational one-man solo shows. “It takes a lot of the anxiety out of the equation,” he says, “but it also makes me sound a lot more interesting, too.”
Maus is hyper-intelligent and speaks at a mile-a-minute. He can sometimes be confounding – a relatively straightforward question will inevitably see him slip into the language of critical theory, and it’s difficult to rein him back in – but he’s always interesting. With the musician and his band about to hit the UK for shows in Salford and Glasgow, we spoke to him about the apocalyptic tone of Screen Memories, his love of UFO lore, and having pets.
It’s been six years since Pitiless Censors came out. How aware of your fandom are you? Have you noticed that the cult popularity of that album since then?
John Maus: I haven’t kept up with it, but I’ve been surprised to see younger people turn out (at my shows), a ‘How did they ever find out about it?’ sort of thing. I’m a ‘cult’ figure now, that’s surprising to me. The connotations of that, I don’t know if they’re good or bad. It might mean somebody who’s counter to the usual comings and goings, somebody outside of the status quo. But then it also has connotations of a ‘cult leader’, whereas I see myself as very much as – and I’ve always tried to make this point – that I’m part of a group of likeminded musicians, at least in my mind. Obviously the biggest one was Ariel Pink, but then there’s Geneva Jacuzzi, Matt Fishbeck…
Screen Memories opens with ‘The Combine’, which has quite an apocalyptic tone to it, and that continues throughout the album. Do you believe things are actually coming to a head at the moment?
John Maus: There’s a lot going on about that whole idea, about The End. Maybe one of the most familiar forces that I had in mind was the whole technocratic, Silicon Valley ideology – that sort of speculative futurism, that faith and belief in progress and technology, and the sort of ways in which those impulses finally exorcise or drive the last residues of the hallowed truth from the body of the thing. I don’t think it’s too unreasonable to speculate that we might be the last folks who didn’t go in for wearing interfaces, and for genetic modification, and that sort of thing. So in that sense we might be at the end of some longstanding configuration of the human.
Aside from that, there’s just the general theological idea of The End. I looked it up, eschatology, which is the theological study of end times. I was pleasantly surprised to find the etymology of that – the ‘eschatos’ – isn’t the end, it’s the most beyond, the most remote.
But I don’t know, it’s just fascinating. It seems to be in the air, and other people have said as much.
Do you read any conspiracy theory websites?
John Maus: No, no, no. What do you have in mind? The critical theorist in me has to be like, ‘Come on guys, there’s no ‘big Other’. Use your imagination.’ But at the same time, I do like this AM radio programme in the US, Coast to Coast AM…
John Maus: That’s right. It’s conspiracy theories, UFOs. And sometimes I will watch a video, like The Century of the Self and Mind Control. It makes you scratch your head at least, because one of their theses is that mind control works by traumatising, (using) images of trauma, and it certainly seems to me that popular culture is filled with rape and pornography and obscenity and horrific violence. So it does make you take pause for a second. But was there something specific you were thinking of?
No, I was just interested in what your general take on that sort of–
John Maus: (interrupting) I like UFOs! Maybe I’ll retire and be like that guy, I can’t remember what band (probably Blink-182’s Tom DeLonge), who started a UFO thing…
(At this point the phone call cuts out for about six seconds. When the sound recovers, John Maus is breathlessly talking about UFOs. I can’t tell if he’s talking about his own beliefs, or talking about the culture surrounding UFOs more generally. Either way, I don’t want to interrupt him.)
...you’ve even got popular scientists on the newsfeed talking about finding bacteria on Mars and things like this. And I’m like, ‘Well, what about the Belgian wave? What about Rendlesham Forest? What was going on there?’ I mean I’m not saying aliens, I’m not saying anything! I have no idea. But what was going on there? Was it just will-o’-the-wisp, was it swamp gas? Those air force folks in Belgium certainly didn’t think that (about) the mile long triangle that four thousand people saw. I guess it’s just ridiculous when you say this. I just became really interested in this little quirky thing. In the 40s and 50s and 60s would’ve been in the Washington Post and Life magazine and everybody knew there was saucers, but now it’s just a ridiculous joke. I don’t speculate one way or another, other than it’s just a matter of fact that lots and lots of people have seen unexplained objects in the sky.
“I’m a ‘cult’ figure now, that’s surprising to me. The connotations of that, I don’t know if they’re good or bad” – John Maus
Have you seen any unexplained objects in the sky while living on the Funny Farm in Minnesota?
John Maus: No, no, I haven’t! I don’t keep my eyes skyward enough. I’ve never seen anything that I couldn’t immediately explain.
What’s life like on the Funny Farm more generally?
John Maus: It’s great, the only issue is the lack of social interaction. If you do creative work, it always stands to benefit from having an interesting social circle. But where it lacks in that, it makes up for in (being) wide open, where you’re not ever up against the brutal inhuman mechanisms (of city life). In LA they would pull my car away everyday, and sorting that out was a whole day in line somewhere. You always have these obstacles that frame everything else. Out here, birds come and fucking nest in the window of my house. I like that. Some people love the city, but I got my fill of that living in LA.
What do you do in your spare time there when you’re not doing music or academic work?
John Maus: There wasn’t any spare time! That’s the weird thing about not punching a clock, I would just roll out of bed, then I’d work for 12 hours, then I’d fall asleep watching TV. It was pretty much non-stop, for 12 hours or 16 hours, just all day long. After I stopped doing the academic stuff I immediately went into building instruments and making music. Time seems to go faster and faster, there’s less and less to do anything with it now. A week would go by in the blink of an eye. Six years, that’s where it went. I thought it was, like, a week!
Do you have any pets on the Funny Farm?
John Maus: No. The nearest neighbour has dozens of feral cats. Their cows are always making noise and the goats scream in the morning. They’ve got llamas out there, but I don’t cross paths with the llamas too much. But no, no pets – knowing that they would die…
Right, I’m sure you can see where this line of questioning is going. Your new song ‘Pets’ has a very memorable lyric, ‘Your pets are gonna die!’ Have you ever owned a pet?
John Maus: When I was a kid, we had cats and dogs. With that line, (having a pet) was the first time the whole concept (of death) was even able to present itself. You come up against that thing, like, ‘Where is it?’ ‘It’s in the ground, and worms are going through its eye sockets.’
I really like that line, but I also know you’ve always said you don’t consider yourself a lyricist. Are there any lyrics you’re particularly proud of?
John Maus: I marvel at some of the lyrics on the first record, like ‘Sex with Ringo Starr’ and ‘Sex with Harry Partch’ and stuff. I think that’s pretty unto itself, perhaps. But no, I wouldn’t know offhand what lyrics I really like. With the reaction to this album, I forgot how much the lyrics remain the exclusive focus of any (critical) engagement with a recording – and that’s too bad for me, because there’s not much there lyrically.
I think anyone who makes music half hopes, at least to a minor degree, that the work they’re doing would require new efforts on the part of language to articulate what they’re doing. ‘There’s something here, but there doesn’t exist a concept for it yet. Let me try and create something adequate to what’s going on that I have no determinate concept for.’
You’re revisiting your whole back catalogue by releasing a boxset of your past albums next year, as well as a compilation of tracks that weren’t on Screen Memories. What’s the value in doing all this for you?
John Maus: It’s nice that it’s happening, that it’s putting a ribbon around everything I’ve done to that point. It wasn’t my idea, which isn’t to say that I don’t appreciate it. Now that Screen Memories has landed, I’m looking forward to that addendum record, as I think it captures some of the tracks that weren’t so fraught over and laboriously worked out, that are maybe lighter and easier. Maybe Screen Memories was too much in its heaviness.