JOHN MAUS: AT THE EDGE OF FOREVER
illustration by abraham jay torres
It had been over six years since we last heard from John Maus. Following the release of 2011’s magnum opus We Must Become Pitiless Censors of Ourselves, the Minnesota-born musician and previous Haunted Graffiti collaborator quickly disappeared from the public eye. Many believed that he was somewhere in Hawaii, where it was rumored Maus was teaching philosophy and pursuing his PhD. Others predicted this mythical creature had returned to whatever planet—or cavern—he’d come from, hopefully to create more wonderfully powerful synth-pop. In the meanwhile, devotion to his experimental majesty magnified in his absence as eager followers waited for his eventual reemergence. In October, Ribbon Music released Screen Memories, the latest effort by the wizard himself. At last, John Maus has returned. He will perform on Tue., Jan. 30, at the Teragram Ballroom. This interview originally aired on KXLU. This interview by Bennett Kogon.
Where have you been this whole time?
John Maus: I moved out to a small town where I’m originally from—like right on the border of Iowa and Minnesota, about two hours from the Twin Cities. I finished up some school stuff that I was doing at the time and that took about two years. Then I built all the synthesizers and stuff for the record which took about two years. Finishing it all took another two years. It seemed like a month to me, but it’s been … a long time. I was freaked about it. I can’t believe anyone is still paying attention.
Oh, we’ve been paying attention.
John Maus: I woke up in a terror, you know? Like one morning I was like ‘God, it’s been five years. What the hell.’
Has your upbringing and time spent in Southern Minnesota impacted your outlook and work as a creative thinker?
John Maus: I’m sure it has in the sense that during the winter, we get four hours of light a day and it’s twenty below outside. Then there’s the wide-open spaces and the whole romance of solitude. I’m sure wherever you are, it comes out in your music a little bit. My first few years back in Minnesota were great, but the winters have caught up with me. It’s just too much. And the lack of the fresh air socially I feel made my work on the new album suffer a little bit. The grass is always greener.
Were there any major highlights of your life from your time away?
John Maus: The whole thing has been a major highlight for me, I guess. Just been trudging away… getting something ready. Or at least I’m trying to.
And now you’ve got something ready. I read online that your last record was in part inspired by the work of French philosopher Alain Badiou, and sonically you’ve referenced music from the medieval period. Would you say there are any primary influences on this new record?
John Maus: In general, I think it’s pretty apocalyptic. I’m a little worried about that because people in the past have told me that their response to my music is that of grace—more of an assumption of lightness or pop music. Screen Memories is definitely one of my heavier releases. Most of it was done before the whole election happened and I was kind of hoping to release it right around then. It was in the air. But every time I would talk to someone about it they would respond ‘Well, it’s only getting worse.’ I guess that’s what it’s inspired by. The whole sense of standing at the edge of forever. And then the coming final triumph of the techno crash in Silicon Valley. It seems like that’s all but an accomplished past.
What kind of energy do you feel that you channel into each set that you perform?
John Maus: I don’t know what it originally was years ago, or even what it meant. It was something else, even though it may look exactly the same today. The idea was really just to put as much as I could into each performance, and not lie about it. Whatever that meant, I just wanted to be totally honest. Now I feel it’s almost like an exorcism or something. And not of myself, either. I just want to draw on that sort of energy to drive some of the obscenity out of this situation. It seems to me that everything is getting ever more pornographic and obscene … not in a provocative way, either. In a totally sanctioned and irregulated way. I just want to be like in that scene in Little Nicky where Adam Sandler is like ‘Release the Good!’ And all those butterflies and rainbows come out of his hands.
Release the Awesome! That said, do you feel that someone must see John Maus live in order to get a greater understanding of the music?
John Maus: I don’t think it is necessary one way or the other. It’s different now because I’ve got a band playing with me for the first time. That gives me more possibilities sonically that I didn’t have before. And I am less likely to be confused as a performance artist or something. I’m only really trying to play punk rock or whatever.
In 2016 you appeared on an episode of the television show Million Dollar Extreme, which was later cancelled due to its affiliation with the alt-right. Were you aware of that connection when you got the offer?
John Maus: Was it an alt-right show? Like Richard Spencer and the cult of race and blood, that alt-right? It’s all an obscenity—it isn’t just one evil among many, but a very grave evil that divides human beings toward some other end and above all, under some sort of white identity. It’s lower than low. It’s unfortunate, but it speaks to the worth of the situation in general. Like it wants you to say something about it and will only give you 140 characters to do it. I’m like ‘No way, man—that’s not going to happen. Give me two-hundred pages to talk about it, especially something as complicated as that.’ But as far as the show … I never saw it as any sort of alt-right planned thing. I’ll curse any sort of cult of blood, in any form of obscenity that it is. I just didn’t see the horror of a group of comedians, and one comedian in particular, as being directly equivocal to hate crimes. I mean it’s all very complicated. There is politics of music and of aesthetics, but it’s almost like a secondary affect. By making good music, maybe we are already imagining a better world. Not John Lennon’s one either. That sounds like hell to me.
JOHN MAUS ON TUE., JAN. 30, AT THE TERAGRAM BALLROOM, 1234 W 7TH ST., DOWNTOWN. 7 PM / $18-$20 / ALL AGES. TERAGRAMBALLROOM.COM. JOHN MAUS’ SCREEN MEMORIES IS OUT NOW ON RIBBON MUSIC. VISIT JOHN MAUS AT JOHNMA.US.