I think We're Alone Now [2006-05-19]John Maus' debut album songs is a odd mix of twisted pop and soundtrack elements. Making one of the more original and strange albums to appear in the last few years. I reviewed it here, John kindly enough to give me a email interview, were he talks about the album, his involvement with Ariel Pink and The Animal collective. m[m] First of all tell us something about your background, how did you first become interested in making music?
John Become interested in music? I am nothing except the making of music. Though I struggle to live compassionately, this is not where my significance is affirmed. It is only as induced by a truth that I chance upon my significance. Subject to a truth I become a local configuration of a procedure forcing the discernment of the indiscernible, I become the transformation of what there is.
Thinking my significance as affirmed only through subjection to a truth interrupts the current (discursive) regime's prescription of my significance as 'self-evident.' When my significance is not 'self-evident,' I become more than merely animal, more than a mere living creature, I become excepted from what there is. If difference is what there is, then subject to a truth, I am more than what there is, as I am induced by sameness.
I come from flatness - grey sprawling fields of flat nothingness - the country, my Innisfree. Throughout the night, sad cries of solitude - the shift change horn calling the horde of crusty workers back to the florescent plant for hog slaughter, the heartbreaking wail of a freight train off in the distance, the otherworldly doppler shift of semi trucks as they glide through a lonesome emptiness. These night time sounds, electrified thick either with humidity or a freezing cold, may have conditioned what I am about, though to what extent, I cannot say.
Bad poetry aside, the second-person singular pronouns in your question have been thought about, though we are still far from thinking music decisively.
Music is neither reducible to an art nor a science. The works of the integral serialists, with the medieval artes quadriviales, suggest it is not reducible to an art. Romanticism, from Weber to Schoenberg, for instance, suggests it is not reducible to a science. Cage and his circle, George Brecht, and the rest, followed by the Wandelweiser Composers Ensemble, suggest it is not reducible to our sense of sound, even where we consider silence a sound. Finally, pop suggests music is not reducible to a dialectical entwicklung; music is more than the prescription of a given (discursive) regime.
Tentatively, it is this alone - that it is more than the prescription of a given regime - that is true of music; it is thus similar to mathematics, romantic love, political revolutions, and the rest. Music, and all the procedures induced by its singular truths - from twelfth century French polyphony to the twentieth century minimalists and beyond - will not be synthesized into any prescribed totality, aside from the unknowable totality that would include the untotalizable
m[m] How did you meet and start working with Ariel Pink?
John In 1998, I had begun my undergraduate work in music composition. One evening, some fellow students and I decided to take-in a pop concert some folks from the visual art department were giving. I suppose in many ways, my first experience of Ariel's work was no different from anyone else's: astonishment. Ariel performed six or seven songs that night on three stringed guitar accompanied by a lousy drummer, regardless, I had an experience I hope never to forget. As the years have gone by, Ariel and I have developed a friendship upon what is significant: not personal and/or ethnic identification, not hedonistic pursuits, neither mutual cultural proclivities nor intellectual rapport, rather, mutual fidelity to a truth. Ariel and I both wager on some specific works of music as proceeding towards the truth of pop, including works of each other's, this is why we occasionally work together.
Several of Ariel's works proceed towards the truth of pop; they have been significant to me in this regard. Take, for instance, the masterwork 'House Arrest,' most 'critics' insist on thinking it in-terms-of the already known (e.g., it is like the Bee-Gees, it is like the Beach Boys, and all that). How underserved of the name 'criticism' is this idiocy? Assuming every thing in-terms-of some thing else? Genuine thought must not assume. Thinking only in terms as given, thought becomes trivial, there is nothing there except what was there. Even if thinking appears necessarily to assume, it has the potential to be after the undoing of this appearance, and it is after this undoing that it finds itself conditioned by what is significant: the vanishing of a truth. Regardless, from the first track to the last, 'House Arrest' is a procedure towards that which makes the truth of pop singular: precisely what resists such knowledges, or structures of classification and identification as 'it is like.'
If you will forgive a brief digression, I would suggest instead of mere comparison, a careful thinking of Ariel and his master, R. Stevie Moore, as a way for thinking to put itself under the condition of the truth of pop. R. Stevie Moore has made two or three albums a year since 1967; he is an index and a taking-part diachronically in the infinite progressive purification of pop towards its truth. There are few composers of whom this can be said, perhaps Haydn, for instance, with Viennese classicism. Conversely, Ariel turns up, conceivably at the closing of this epoch, where pop as a musical truth appears nearly exhausted. Ariel prolifically looks-back synchronically at all of pop, through his works, and proceeds towards its truth in this way. Ariel is insistent on wresting from the truth of pop that it is, in truth, inexhaustible, infinite, and as yet utterly unactualized in its singularity. Thinking as through the works of these two chronological poles-of-pop finds a privileged way of putting itself under the condition of the truth these two poles proceed towards.
m[m] you tour sometimes with The Animal Collective, how did it com about you working with them? And do you have an active input into varying songs live?
John My involvement with the Animal Collective has somehow been blown-out-of-proportion. I met them through Ariel and enjoyed the privilege of accompanying Panda Bear on keyboard for one of his solo European tours. Aside from this, and some wonderful time-spent on various Ariel Pink tours, my involvement with them has, unfortunately, been minimal.
m[m] How did the album songs come about, what influences you?
John From the Greeks through the medievalist’s music is the science of melody, coming about through ratio not the instinctus naturalis. It is not until Tinctoris - the fifteenth century Flemish theorist and composer - that we think music as something left to the judgment of the ears. It is not until the Renaissance that auctoritas - the authority of the Fathers - is interrupted, allowing innovation and inspiration to become the measure of musical significance, and music, that is, how and from where it comes about, to acquire something like its modern explanation. All this suggests that every one of these discourses on the coming about of music, including our own 'critical' discourse, is inadequate. They are the perpetuation of themselves and the (discursive) regime of which they are a necessary element, not a genuine thinking of the 'coming about' of music. Moreover, the listing of 'musical influences' always oppresses music as cultural capital, as a means of cultural class distinction.
What is significant is precisely what discourse is inadequate to oppress, the hors-texte transformative power of music and its counter-constructivist suggestion that discourse is not the horizon of what there is. That the discourses regarding the coming about of music have transformed through time suggests that there has always been something true of music that none of these discourses could oppress, otherwise one of these discourses would have, once-and-for-all, held-sway. 'Songs' is entirely my fidelity to this 'something true of music,' as it is singularly manifest in the current situation, this is what 'influenced' me in its making, and this is from where it 'comes about.'
To what extent my background played a part in the coming-about 'Songs', as I said, remains an open question. I once saw a television program about a certain kind of plankton that lives two thousand meters beneath the ocean in a pitch black freezing world that has been visited by humans less than outer space has. These plankton used bioluminescence to communicate, or to ward off predators or something. Tiny flashes, like stars, travel through the endless immensity of high pressured timeless shadows, singing their fluorescent songs: now a flash, then darkness. I mention this television program because the dark world it showed was much like the ice fields where I grew up, on the darkest evening of the year, only the vague twinkle of tiny farm houses appeared in the distance.
Though, I think these environmental impressions from my youth manifest themselves much more directly in-terms-of my experimental music interests, not my pop music interests. For instance, when passing through Boone, Iowa on the back of a train car, I went over the Kate Shelley High Bridge, the highest train bridge in America, beneath me as I looked out over the fields I saw an ocean of fire flies: now a flash, then a darkness (now a sound, then a silence). This visual metaphor is much more indicative of Christian Wolff than of The Sensations Fix.
m[m] The interesting way you've recorded the album, adds very much to its charm, giving it a strange dreamlike ambience, can you tell us a bit about how the album was recorded?
John The materials used to record Songs were a cassette tape multi-tracker, and an early nineties soundbank. Recording materials have always been essential to pop. Making use of recording materials means using them in all of their manifestations, not only those currently in fashion. Pop is singular amongst musical truths in it’s following of the McLuhanist thinking that foregrounding the materiality of its medium is part-and-parcel with its message: from the feedback squelch on 'I Feel Fine' to the tape hiss on the best Space Lady recordings.
Other music besides pop fail to use recording materials in this way, for instance, there is no multi track cassette tape recording of the Kindertotenlieder where the instruments are barely distinguishable under heavy tape compression. One would think that interpretations through out-of-fashion materials would be something all the brilliant conductors would have considered by now, but it seems that conductors, and most music groups, always choose the most expensive, 'clear,' and fashionable recording materials they can. I wager that the out-of-fashion materials I use to compose and record my works proceed towards the truth of 'pop' in a way fashionable materials could not
m[m] The albums seems to really have the influence of 80’s pop and tacky keyboard horror soundtracks, have you any favourite 80’s artist? Also any horror soundtrack you particular enjoy?
John If I am after the truth of 'pop' through a harmony arising from the 'church modes' and through 'old-fashioned-sounding' timbres, this is not because the 'eighties influence me.' It is my wager that the 'old-fashion-sounding' timbres I use are after the truth of 'pop' in a way 'up-to-date' timbres are not. 'The eighties' are not significant; rather, that which eludes such nominations as the converging on a truth is neither the marking-out a personal/ethnic particularity nor the reification of a moment in fashion, rather, the invocation of an impersonal universal.
Following the thought of Badiou, musically, I hope I 'favour' nothing but music's truth, and in this respect remain the 'pitiless censor of myself.' Likewise, do I agree that 'all art and all thought are ruined when I accept [the State's] permission to consume, to communicate, and to enjoy.' Bearing in mind these concerns, Michael Jackson around 'Off the Wall' and 'Thriller,' as well as Madonna's early work, are after some unknowable truth.
Several music videos of this period (e.g., Alphaville's Forever Young, Opus' Life is Life, Rockwell's Somebody's Watching Me, Tiffany's I think We're Alone Now, and the rest) as kinds-of Gesamtkunstwerken, invoke something similar. Though, I am on dangerous-ground here, and must remain ever mindful that I am not just succumbing to some pathetic nostalgia.
As for soundtracks: Halloween III: Season of the Witch, Romero's original Night of Living Dead, Xtro, and the original Terminator are just a few that are significant. Though, 'soundtracks' as a particular truth, are separate from 'rock' or 'pop.' Though, I am very much interested in engaging this if anybody asks!
John Jim Tenney has an extraordinary work for just intoned player piano. More or less, the work pivots on the gradual unfolding of the harmonic series. When the just intoned seventh partial is reached in this work, what we hear approximates a dominant seventh chord unchained from its tonal function as such. In a way, there is no purer instance of sound; after all, the harmonic series is the fabric of every sound and the basis of most music theories. The affect this purity had on me was one of awe and mystery, I remember wondering, (and this is a real chicken before the egg question), do these sounds invoke awe and mystery in me because they would always invoke awe and mystery in anyone anywhere, or because I have been conditioned, by medieval and Renaissance sacred music, never mind bad film scores, to relate this with awe and mystery. Regardless, the harmonic possibilities arising from the church modes, equal tempered church modes included, take harmonic advantage of the 'awe and mystery invoking' minor seventh, as it is not always functioning in relation to a tonic, in a way tonality never could. Moreover, since pop is almost incommensurable with the kinds of developmental explorations, modulations, and key relations significant in effective functional tonality, it has no use for it. I think it took pop a while to become aware of this, perhaps it was not until the mid sixties that pop musicians became aware that in place of I-IV-V-I, something like I-VII-v-I, or I-IV-bIII-bVI, worked just as well, if not better. Instead of being a bastard suggestion of functional harmony, pop's harmony could be something completely its own, something more suggestive of the church modes (which, ironically enough, where considered a 'primeval error of the human spirit' by the masters of functional tonality).
If you will forgive another brief digression, I would suggest a careful thinking about the transforming fashions of the harmonies used in pop music. What are these transforming fashions indicative of - from the bastard tonality of fifties doo-wop, to the chromatic extension of The Beatles - from the ethereal modality of eighties synth-pop, to the planning-fifths of grunge rock and back to the bastard tonality of power pop? One answer to this question is that this transformation is not really a transformation at all, rather, it is how the commodity of popular music repackages itself; as with a new Coca-Cola can, it is still the same disgusting shit inside, so too with changing fashions in harmony, it is only the dressing-up of the standardized (no matter how complicated) ideology-perpetrating song form, where there is still no thematic/motivic development, polyphonic horizontal exploration, nor functional tonal journey. Another answer would be that transforming harmonic fashions are indicative of a Zeitgeist - the ethereal modality of the eighties is part-and-parcel with cold-war angst and generational disillusion, the bastard tonality of the fifties is part-and-parcel with baby booming financial security. There are several other answers to the question about transforming fashions in the harmonies of pop music, though all of them are equally inadequate, this is why I think it is something we ought to consider.
Regardless, if I proceed towards the truth of pop through a harmony arising from the church modes this is not because the 'eighties influence me.' The eighties are insignificant, what is significant is what resists such structures of classification and identification. Proceeding towards a truth is not the specifying of a personal, ethnic, or historical particularity, it is the invocation of a universal sameness.
Thinking about film scores, and, for instance, music videos, is difficult. On the one hand, we must ask ourselves whether cinema and music videos are the instance of impurity par excellence. No painting will ever become a poem; no dance will ever become music. Cinema and music video, as the mere quotation of several arts, parasitically wrest these arts away from themselves, music is captive to and thus impurified by the image, or vice versa, much like music in commercials, music in shopping malls, music on cellular phones, and all that, where music is nothing more than the servant to, or the dressing-up of, a sales pitch. Here we have a serenade for mindless consumption, or a pathetic beckoning to press a button. On the other hand, what we have with cinema and music videos may be something like Gesamtkunstwerken, where the image provides a singular being-together and opening up of the various arts. Are not the same criticisms of cinema's impurity necessarily directed towards any music accompanied with words as well? It is very complicated and worth thinking about.
m[m] Your songs have the tendency to take the pop formula, and bring out the sneering take on pop music and culture, much like some of the more poppy Frank Zappa and the to a lesser extent the Residents - are you a fan of these?
John This is the first situation in three hundred years, perhaps a thousand, where song form is privileged over fugue or sonata like forms, and it is a basic and standardized variety of song form at that (compared to, for instance, Winterreise, Dichterliebe, Des Knaben Wunderhorn, and the rest). Is this because song form is more commutable? Is this because the current regime is unusually oppressive? Regardless, through its prescription and oppression of music as commodity and/or means of cultural distinction, the current regime has unintentionally allowed a singular way of proceeding towards music's truth: pop. I do not intend in my work a sneering take on pop. Often, though, my work has unfortunately been interpreted as sneering or amusing. Interpretations are insignificant as all of us have a different one, what is significant is the truth that interrupts all these interpretations, and that is what I intend to bring out in my work. The 'democratic' relativity of interpretations - of difference, plurality, and exchange holding-sway in preventing anything except itself, does as only as we fail in thinking and in action, to oppose to its reign an interruption. I wager this interruption is the fidelity to, and/or thinking under the condition of a truth, anything but this is a perpetuation of insignificance.
I do not know the Residents, though Frank Zappa is, for the most part, insignificant to me. I have always resisted those aspects of works I find 'Zappa-esque.'
Instead of taking-part in the infinite progressive purification of pop towards its truth, Zappa often synthesizes singular procedures of truth. The Supremes and Edgard Varèse, for instance, are subjects to singular truths; to synthesize them diminishes the transformative power of either. It is similar with so-called 'noise music' (e.g., Black Dice, Wolf Eyes, John Wiese, and all that), Stockhausen's Kontakte and G.G. Allin's Die When You Die are not proceeding towards the same truth, to synthesize them is to make a mockery of their truths. Would not it be wonderful if these so-called noise groups performed works by Lucier, Ashley, Subotnick, and the rest, instead of making a mockery of such works by diminishing their transformative potential with impurity? I am, of course, being unfair to Zappa, and this so-called noise music. 'World-music,' for instance, is a much better example of what I am thinking about. All three noise groups I mention are, perhaps, wonderful in many ways, but as pastiche, synthesizers, and eclectics - they are evil.
m[m] what are you top ten favourite albums?
John Disregarding the noun 'favourite' for the above mentioned reasons, I've been listening to Gardiner's recording of Brahms' German Requiem, Peter Davison's Winds of Space, Alfred Brendel's recording of the Schubert Impromptus, Mannheim Steamroller's Christmas Live, Michael Gielen's magnificent arrangement and recording of Beethoven's Op.133, Glenn Gould's Solitude Trilogy, Nina Hagen's 'Nunsexmonkrock,' 'Portable Madness' by Sensation's Fix, The Highwaymen's first album - and to satisfy the Pythagorean need for a decade - I've also been revisiting The Electric Prunes' Mass in F minor.
m[m] Any thoughts on releasing a single from the album? I can really see a track like just wait till next year, going places?
John I would love to get all the mileage I could out of the album, though aside from its production, all this seems out my hands!
m[m] Any plans to do a solo tour? And have you ever played live your own songs?
John I did perform by myself, the live concert is something I take seriously. I do not think of myself solely as a 'recording artist,' in fact, in a situation where the musician is expected to write his own lyrics, make his own album art, come up with his own videos, craft-his-persona, play dress up, and the rest, it is really only live performance and music composition that I think I have some-what of a command over.
m[m] How did it come about , you singed to Upset! The Rhythm records- since there a fairly new label?
John In London, on tour with Ariel, I met the kind-hearted people at Upset the Rhythm. The gamble they took on my work is something for which I will always be grateful. Many institutions, from Paw-Tracks to KRS, rejected my work, and the reviews of Songs thus far have been mediocre at best, and worst-album-of-the-year status at worst, this makes it markedly incredible and heart-warming that Upset the Rhythm, responsible for bringing so much important pop music to London, believed Songs worthy of release.
m[m] What are you working on now?
John I recently began work on my second album. Work is difficult; I am least content when proceeding towards a truth, as the truth is always cruelly indifferent to my animal comfort and enjoyment. Keeping going when I have lost my way, when I no longer feel inspired, when the truth has become obscured, it is all very difficult. There is always the temptation to betray a truth, to succumb to the temptation of enjoyment, to abandon my significance over to something that makes me content like compassion or the absence of desire. Moreover, the masterworks of music are always there, making me insignificant to myself, I often wonder how anyone making pop music can continue to do so after having heard, for instance, Beethoven's, Brahm's, or Mahler's third symphonies, but then I remember.
We diminish the transformative power of music's singular truths when we fail in action to be after one of these truths. Similarly, thinking that perpetuates the more-or-less regulated plurality wherein capital, different commodities, and uniformly insignificant particularities are reified, enjoyed, communicated and exchanged, fails in every way to think the relentless novelty of the transformative power of music's singular truths.
Thanks to John for the interview and To Mat Dryhurst from Southen for sorting out the interview. John's Myspace page is here. Up Set The rhythm website were you can buy songs directly and play a sample is here Roger Batty