John Maus The Minnesota native talks philosophy, Screen Memories, song sequels, and the relevance of backing bands

Photo: Shawn Brackbill

If there is something about John Maus that stands out when you talk to him, it’s that he seems like a normal person trying to just make sense of things. That might come across as, well, unusual. After all, the longtime experimental musician and occasional partner to outsider phenom Ariel Pink managed to punch a hole in our psyches in 2011 with the release of We Must Become The Pitiless Censors of Ourselves, an album that is still regarded fondly around at Tiny Mix Tapes for its intensity and intellect mixed in with harmonic reverence. However, after releasing A Collection of Rarities and Previously Unreleased Material and touring, he decided to return home to rural Minnesota, where he has spent the last five years. Not playing a lot of music, just living. It’s an interesting dynamic to play out. If one were living in his hometown, they probably wouldn’t necessarily recognize him in any way more than just an acquaintance at the grocery store.

Throughout our phone conversation, during which he was cooped up at the Domino Records office in New York City, that normalcy became a form of thoughtfulness. Whether discussing details about his upcoming record Screen Memories (and its compilation side LP Addendum) and anxiety in live settings, going into philosophical debates on identity and the meaning of the term “pitiless censor,” or even bringing up controversial issues, there was an earnest attempt to get his sentiments right. He was sincere, especially when he wanted my views on something. Like anyone else, he just wants to understand the world around him.

How is it in that office?

It’s nice. They’re working, they’re spinning the plates. What can I say? This is the first time I’ve been in this office. It’s good. I got a coffee. They don’t have an M&M machine like those magazines do. Or beanbag chairs. They’re old-school. That’s good, right? It’s not the new media thing that you see on television all the time, with the beanbags and the iPads and things like that.

Well, I suppose that’s for the best.


In any case, it’s been six years since you quoted Badiou in your album title, “We Must Become The Pitiless Censors of Ourselves.” Have we succeeded? I almost feel like we have.

[laughs] You think so? I don’t think so. I think the very opposite is the case, isn’t it? It depends how one understands it: “Becoming a pitiless censor.” From my understanding of the question, it seems to me that people are more eager than ever to communicate and enjoy, rather than becoming pitiless censors of themselves. But if by censorship we mean that, like, they trim their eyebrows before they do it — which I don’t think is what they mean by censorship — then sure, they would become more pitiless in crafting that which they share.

But the thing is, it’s only gathered steam, hasn’t it? The desire to consume, communicate, and enjoy. That seems to be ever more celebrated in the last 5-6 years.

I guess the reason I bring this up is that there is a greater sense of self-criticism prevalent through certain aspects of our culture. That’s why I brought that up.

Oh no, that’s fine. I’m curious because that’s the thing about these past six years. I’ve been living in a small town on the border of Minnesota and Iowa. Most of the world at large, for lack of a better way of putting it, comes to me mediated through the newsfeed. So maybe I just don’t have a sense of it. But what is the particular critique you had in mind? Because it seems to me that, if the argument was to rein in banality or vanity, then it’s definitely not the case that these things have been reined in. Rather, they only continue to gather force, and that’s kind of the impetus. What do you mean by people being more critical of themselves?

I think you get to where I was going with that in the sense that a lot of people take this sort of approach of establishing identity as this paramount state of being. Identity being who you are rather just an aspect of yourself. Consequently, because you revolve everything around that identity, your thinking and tactics become regressive. People will go out of their way to criticize those who don’t quite match or understand their identity. It’s a common thing now with certain groups of people.

Yeah, absolutely. But this is precisely…the context of the phrase “we must become the pitiless censors of ourselves” was something along the lines of this issue of the Situationists, so sure of its ability to control things, no longer censors anything. “All art and thought are ruined when we accept this permission or injunction to consume, communicate, and enjoy. We must become the pitiless censors of ourselves.” So here, identity would be precisely the thing where one who is the pitiless censor of themselves would attempt to interrupt. Identities are what is already given. To become a pitiless censor of oneself would be to undermine those sanctioned identities.

I mean, it’s clear you’re referencing identity politics, and perhaps there’s something legitimately political to be salvaged from that impulse. But my suspicion is that the already established and sanctioned identity is politically impotent and ineffective. It can’t be mobilized to any other ends, perpetuating the status quo. So it could always be a critique of oneself, too. I already say and agree with this. It’s like dumping on other people because they don’t fit the identity. This is what you were hinting at earlier. You got to be careful when talking about identities because I know there are nations and peoples, that sort of thing… I’m more comfortable with that sort of language that can move through a situation and radically alter it. But they’re never sanctioned, are they? They appear as something inadmissible. They appear and then things come out of it. Like, take Stonewall. There’s a people there, there’s something queer. It’s different from what I understand identity politics.

I think so? I get the sense that the ultimate end-goal, then, is to reject identity.

Not necessarily. I mean, that’s why I brought in the non-colloquial sense the terms of nations and peoples. Like in the album, “The People Are Missing.” It’s never something that’s sanctioned when the people appear. It’s not a question of asking for a seat at the white man’s table. We got to take a chainsaw and saw right through it, don’t we? It’s finally an apology for the status quo and this sort of management of identity and rights. That’s all as old as the 18th century, that program of human rights. Maybe I’m getting too far out there. But it’s just how it operates, through the proliferation of identities. All that is solid melts into air. But again, that is not to suggest for a moment that there aren’t legitimate, creative, powerfully radical people out there. It’s just whenever that happens, it seems to be something else other than ordinary comings and goings. I’m just kind of speculating here. I’m not being the pitiless censor of myself.

Well, that…

Well, do you agree? I mean, it could just be whispers in the dark.

I mean, there’s something to what you’re saying. It’s hard to gesticulate the right words for it. It’s a complicated mess to begin with. It’s very easy to get lost in that sort of thing, and it just wraps itself around like an ouroboros. I know that I’ve seen things get warped really quickly, and what was the original intent just turns into something insular and solipsistic. And it’s not easy to deal with.

No, it’s not. Above all, it’s utterly complicated. That’s what I say in relation to everything I just rambled about: It’s utterly complicated and it’s always weirder than that.

Indeed. Moving on, you mentioned that you have been living in Minnesota for the past 5 years or so. How has that been for you, given you stepped off after the released A Collection of Rarities and Previously Unreleased Material?”

Yeah, I guess that would’ve been a while ago. It’s been good. I liked it out there. It made me lose sense of time to some degree. Everything seems to be quickening. I get up and I lay down, it’s been about a year. But I like that space, you know, something as cliche as the wind in the grass as opposed to helicopters and trashmen slamming on your door. So I liked it there. It was peaceful. I was alone for most of it too. I really like that whole solitude. It’s nice. I liked it down there. It’s where I’m from originally. So I just kind of went back there and finished school stuff, built some instruments and started working on the album. It ended up being however long… six years.

That’s quite interesting. Now you’re dropping two albums, Screen Memories and Addendum. What was your intent in creating two albums to be released over the course of two years? Was there a split, or is there something else going on?

It was really more that I made an album, but then I realized I had two albums worth of stuff. Plus, the record label was interested in putting together a collection of the LPs I’ve done since 2005. They thought along the lines of that to put together a rarities record, so people could hear the songs I hadn’t included in Screen Memories. By the time it was all put together, it kind of stands on its own as an LP. It wasn’t deliberate, but there’s two albums there.

Of the two, I would say Screen Memories is the more fraught-over tracks. Addendum, if I had to explain it, is what came easier, so to speak. So it wasn’t deliberate, just a way to wrap it all together. Put a bow around. Also, I guess it ends up doing me the favor of closing a chapter on these last few years.

So would you say that the two albums are one whole unit? Or is there a means to differentiate between the two?

Just in terms of the differentiation, Screen Memories is more thought over. It’s more rigorous. Those tracks stand together. The other is out of the work I’ve done in the last two or three years since I got up and going again. Just the other tracks, they’re outtakes in a way. I guess it’s much closer to A Collection… that the label wanted. I guess they wanted this retrospective as a gesture. It’s for people to pick up this collection. I think people will appreciate this record for that. I mean, I wanted to put out this new record and I guess there was enough there for an additional record.

How much of yourself do you project in your lyrics? Has that changed over time? I mean, there’s definitely some personal elements in stuff from Songs and Love is Real that is evident in the lyrics.

Yeah, and I’ve reined it a little bit, I think. I’ve never been any good at verse at all. I guess I should give penance or an apology for that. It’s music that I’m interested in. There’s a great extent to which music is something other than verse. I wish it wasn’t so mangled. In the new record, it very much continues in that direction in comparison to the first record. But I guess that’s just the consequence of the fixation on the purely musical dimension of things, aside from the lyrics. It’s like the old joke of “words were the worst thing ever happened to music.”

Verse can only serve the music, and it can certainly stand of the way of the thing if it isn’t handled right. But that whole relationship between the word and music, this whole thing… Not only do I not have any talent for it, but it’s never been one of my focuses. Even going back to the first record, although, as you said, I gave it a lot more latitude, and maybe it was all the better for it. But yeah, I’ve spent so much time work on the music part of it, by the time I get to the lyrics I just apply it, post-clean it, and save.

Considering how important the music is to you, how do you typically listen to music? Is it an act of consumption, or is there something else to it?

I think it’s harder to be disinterested while you’re in the act of listening to music. That’s the case with a lot of people who write music. In other words, there is unfortunately all too often an agenda on my part in terms of where I end up directing my attention to. The idea would be under rocks, in other words. Looking anywhere else than that place you can’t escape — the grocery store, or walking around, the music that is played everywhere. The music that is announced in your newsfeed. Things like this. If the idea is to share something else than that, then you have to look somewhere else for that. Of course, when I’m listening to it, it’s like listening to a comedian. When I’m listening, if something stirring takes place, I immediately try to figure out why that might be by way of the languages we’ve developed to try and articulate objective musical details.

I’m not saying any of these languages are adequate, certainly not to our music or the music going on right now. The languages I’m talking about are music-theoretical languages. I’ll try to mobilize those in order to arrive to the detail of what it is that affects me. Another way of putting that is, if I hear something that I really like, there’s no question that I’ll spend the next two weeks picking at it and picking at it until I can’t hear it anymore. Trying to understand what’s going on there that’s previously unheard of, that defies my expectations. That sort of thing.

So taking a critical and theoretical stance as you listen to the music.

Yes, of course. But it’s not purely that interested in that sense always and only, because there’s something there. There’s something I feel compelled to articulate somehow or understand. It isn’t just any one thing or another I bother doing this with. I guess I’m a believer for the most part of — and I don’t follow it carefully enough in regards to the discourse in popular music and whatnot — I’m a believer that one ought to affirm in things that which they wager is worthy of affirmation, as opposed to attaching the negative to something. If one spent their time doing the latter, where would that lead us? We only have so much time. I’m always looking for something to affirm, and for better or for worse, these critical languages that suppose they have this level of objectivity are certainly our best bet at getting at what it is precisely what we’re trying to affirm in the music.

Well, there is some need for an agenda at times. With that in mind, in our modern context, would you ever create a sequel to “Cop Killer?”

A sequel? I don’t know. Do you mean like “The Unforgiven Part 2,” by Metallica? Come to think I think they made a trilogy about that. [laughs] But yeah, any great song could be a sequel to “Cop Killer” in the most abstract sense. Back when that song came out, it was put to me, “What do you mean by that? Do you really mean to shoot a policeman in the face?” And maybe, no pun intended, but people thought it was a cop-out. But I often thought that “police” as a term is something that everyone has some sense of. Like, there’s always this mechanized element when we have to work to some other ends than ourselves. There’s always a kind of inhumanity that this means to me. It could be — and this has always been the case — that unfortunately there are people in certain circumstances who seem eager to become an Other. To make no exception in your case, so to speak. “I can’t make an exception for you, because then I’d have to make an exception for everybody.” In the general, most abstract sense, I think this is police.

So, this is the cops we must kill. At every moment. There’s a case to be made that the truth content in any work is precisely…”It kills the police!” I know that really sounds, I don’t know, esoteric nonsense. But finally, that’s kind of what I meant. It’s always how I understood it.

Of course, when you refer to the modern context, I’m assuming you’re referring to stuff like Trayvon Martin. I was always kind of mystified by the response to all that. I mean, you had people citing the ubiquity of smartphones and social media had brought it to the public’s attention. But I was all mystified and strategically went to my head going, “Why now?” It’s something where cell phones aren’t the answer. “Why now?” It’s been the case since the original “Cop Killer,” by Body Count. That record is about police brutality and structural injustice. There’s even spoken-word passages where Ice-T dumps statistics about the number of black men in jail vs. college. What’s happening now is certainly obscene, but it wasn’t news to me that this kind of obscenity continues to take place in our world. Structural inequalities based on race and blood is beneath contempt.

But now it’s become more and more of a concern. Like with Black Lives Matter vs. Blue Lives Matter going on in our situation. So yes, “kill the cops.” I mean, when I see a video of a child…in that [Tamir Rice] video, what made it especially sickening to me is, he was playing. He was playing, like I did when I was a kid! He was just there in the park alone pretending he was in a music video. He had a toy that just looked like a weapon. You would have that when you were a kid, so you could be like the guy in the music video or something. You’d pretend the camera was there. It was play, pretend. That’s what happened in this video before a pig rolls up and in a millisecond shoots a child for playing the park. So yeah, verily, I could imagine a video for “Cop Killer” where before that happens, it shows me in a Terminator leather jacket. Going…[laughs] You get what I’m saying?

Yeah, I dig.

It’s scandalous! And I mean this in the most abstract way! I worried sometimes you’d talk, and there’s a need to pull one fragment out of someone. Like, 140 characters out of a bigger context. But if it relates to the climate right now, it seems that the song has become more apropos, has it not? Where the image it would put into constellation with is a child being shot for playing cops and robbers in the park because he had black skin. Of course, now I’m weighing in on controversial things. But, really, that’s what I’m saying. I would’ve supposed all of this would’ve been taken for granted that it was something everyone sort of acknowledged was the case here. It was objectively the case here that there are certain disparities in the situation that operate on the logic of race. That, to me or any right-thinking person, is disgusting.

I suppose you’re right. I guess part of it is, it’s a generational thing. I mean, Body Count’s “Cop Killer” came at time when many things were going on with the LAPD, which eventually led to the Rodney King beating and subsequent riots. Then you had this… I wouldn’t call it a lull, so much as it was pushed back under the surface.

Yeah. You have a situation where the answer is, nonchalantly, “well, we record these sorts of things more easily.” But I can’t help but suspect there’s some interest on the part of something else than the noble intent at the root of the thing. That it would be taken up with such vigor all of a sudden. But it could be generational too. That record, George H.W. Bush decried it. It was a big scandal, they had to remove the song from that record. There are songs in that record about the prisons, the crack-cocaine epidemic, and this was all in 1991. I was just this teen in rural Minnesota listening to this record. So I mean, as far removed and isolated as I was from any direct encounter with it, I just always had by way of the protest lyrics understood it in advance: It was a fact of the world that needs to be addressed.

But that’s a good point, that it could be generational. It’s simply revisited again and again until it’s addressed.

Going back to Screen Memories and Addendum, is there a preferred environment you recorded in for them?

Yeah. I mean, so far it’s just been I do it in a room in my house. I held to that aesthetic again in this one. I’m a firm believer in do-it-yourself. The more mediators there are between one and their work they’re supposed to do, the more obscured the work will become. So that’s how I prefer it: I can just walk out of my bed or something and walk a short distance and begin working on the music. That’s what I’ve held up.

That said, I’m coming to the limit of that with this record. There’s the prospect of at the very least re-amplifying things in a proper studio and adding instrumental performers. More and more that’s become appealing, because I feel I’m coming up at an impasse of doing it all myself.

That’s an interesting point. Come to think, do you ever intend on bringing in a backing band for your live sets?

Oh, it’s already there. I’ve already done 5-10 dates here leading up to the release here, and I have a band for the live shows now. I mean, it would be cool, even in the recordings, to have that. I tried to go back and play as many of the tracks as I could. Tracks within the tracks. I would play the bass guitar or something like that. But a lot of the synth stuff, for example, I obviously cannot play it, it had to be sequenced. Of course, on top of that, if a human being had played it, it kind of gives it a expressive vitality it wouldn’t otherwise have, especially in terms of dynamics. There’s a reason there exists an algorithm that can “humanize a computer performance.” I guess you can see that.

But the point I’m making is that, yes, I’ve been considering bring these sorts of things into recording, and I’ve already begun to do that in the live setting.

That’s interesting, because I have seen you live before, and it’s usually just yourself entirely.

Yeah. I don’t know why it shouldn’t have been, and why it hadn’t. But certainly when the stages got big enough, a lot of people would just walk away and wonder if they’d seen a music concert or performance art. So, there’s reason enough right there to just clear that up, by way of having a band, once and for all.

Of course, there’s also the fact that instrumental performers allow you to mobilize the sonic dimensions of the live performance in a way you can possibly deal with, such as through a computer. Like in a recorded setting, the performer is going to bring attention to certain passages. It just opens up the possibilities, removing any question of what’s supposed to be taking place in a live show.

It’s worked out good. I was worried that there would be a bad set-up, in the way that you’re confronted with the possibility that you’re trying to make something and have to carry the performance. Fortunately, that hasn’t been the case at all. It hasn’t been seen as a cop-out or anything like that. So that’s the way it’s been.

Speaking of live, a few years ago I interviewed one of your touring mates, Maria Minerva. Something she brought up with me with me was that when before you hit the stage, you would have this anxiety going about you. Do you suppose that those moments are a means to store energy that you can then project on stage?

Yeah, and that relates to the last question very much in the sense that having many other people on stage does alleviate that to some degree. It’s not uncommon, surprisingly, for performers to get stage fright or terrible nerves before going out there. But yeah, I’d comfort myself with whatever I could, one of the things being that this was a necessary experience to undergo in order to do anything worthwhile. It’s kind of recognition of the gravity of it. I don’t know. Would it make any difference if I was just perfectly happy as a clam to just go out there and spit beer on people? I don’t know.

I always understood opportunities where especially the configuration is one person is the center of attention demand a sort of thoughtfulness and apprehension. You can get into trouble if you’re the one they’re all paying attention to. You’re never gonna get into trouble for being the one who listens. You’ll get into trouble for being the one that speaks, as it were.

It’s all coming around in a very long way to the question you asked, but yeah, the nerves… It’s not uncommon, I guess. I just get terribly anxious before going out there. And I don’t numb it with pills or booze or something. I have to leave it at the nerve because of the idea of “do your best.” But what are you going to say to the guy who just laughs at you and calls you an asshole, then tells you to relax? Nothing. There’s nothing you can say to it. So I guess I got to take comfort in the quote, “In our situation, anything carried out with any seriousness or militance is going to appear comical.” So that’s what I say to the “hey, you know, just chill” people.

I try sing a lot when they’re laughing. Especially the ones that are on their phone. There’s this sense of expectation now in the live shows. So it becomes more difficult to try to do something more than that.

But yeah, the nerves. Are you suggesting that they should be a form of preparation?

More that you use that anxiety as an energy to project on stage.

That’s exactly what it is. I used to joke that if it wasn’t there, then what are we going to do? If that fear wasn’t there, the show wouldn’t work. The more the fear was there, the better the show was going to be. I think that does factor into it.

I recall a certain “Frank James” writing a massive commentary in response to someone’s post on the song “Bennington.” Do you think such in-depth thinking is a lost art in today’s social media?

Absolutely. I mean, I don’t think “Frank” had anything intelligent to say. But then again, in the sense of the term TL;DR is prevalent, truncation and summary are ever more prevalent. You have precision and efficiency in terms of communicating just the facts or the essence of the thing. I mean, I’m already worried about my rant about the police because you could just tear something from that, and insert any end you want. This is an idea that this fact is related to everybody.

Context is everything, especially coming from a background in the humanities. A respect for exegesis and labor in exegesis is just one of the axioms of these disciplines in which patience and attention to detail is the whole point. It’s not the conclusion, it’s the whole dialectic of arriving at the conclusion that counts.

I think the situation becomes more and more hostile to any sort of length. Like, the 140 thing right now, or how they’re going to 280 right now on Twitter, I don’t know how to deal with that. There’s definitely people that’ll figure it out. But it’s a whole arsenal of algorithms designed to summarize and quantify. They’re proof enough that it’s an all-important impulse.

There’s plenty of indicators that the world as it stands would like to have done with whatever it is we achieve by taking the time to carefully move through a series of different points; with the end result being not about the point at all but rather the movements through the points. Like a self-help course, except for text. “Nobody’s got time! We got to make a YouTube or whatever.” It’s one attempt of showing that construct or constriction. That sort of imperative to keep it simple.

Oh I get that. I mean, I’m so sick of seeing these popular YouTube videos that appear on my feed that say negative clickbaity titles like “Everything Wrong With Your Favorite Movie/Album.” I don’t need to know that!

With very rare exception, we’re not going to run into any trouble trying to think carefully or deeply or profoundly about something. Even if it’s about how it’s impossible to do that. Maybe the argument is about chasing your own tail. It’s funny that we ended with YouTube, by the way, because on the other end you have, “We’re gonna keep it simple and short!” So why do these instructional videos they have to set it up for half an hour? Like “Yeah, I’m gonna show you how to do this thing on this app, smash the Like button to follow!” And I’m all “OK, OK! Just show me how to do it!”

Of course, it’s OK if it’s something like how to duplicate a frame on a program. You can keep it short there. But if we’re talking about politics or love or art, maybe the time for patience presents itself ever more. At the same time, the untrue world seems to say, “No no no, don’t think about it, don’t be patient. Just give it to me.” Maybe that’s when it becomes all the more important. But that’s just an angle. There’s definitely a way to explain things concisely. But the hostility towards being patient and reading, that can’t be a good thing for humanity.

Now, something I wanted to bring up was Ariel Pink. I was listening to Dedicated to Bobby Jameson earlier this summer, and listening to Screen Memories, I still felt there was some residual connections between these two albums. I just wanted to know what you had gained out of your collaborative relationship with him.

I mean, these two records — Screen Memories and Dedicated to Bobby Jameson — couldn’t have been an influence onto each other at all because he was done before he heard what I was doing, and vice versa. But in terms of our wider discographies…he’s all but said there’s a lot of that on certain songs, and there is certainly that throughout the wider discographies before he joined 4AD Records.

Now, I can’t speak to that, but on the whole, yes, absolutely. It would be one of the, if not the figure that kind of helped set for me a way forward in terms of how one can most effectively mobilize the medial dimensions of music composition: The harmonic dimensions, melodic, rhythmic, idiomatic. I always made the joke that we were research scientists in the same specialized branch of topology. I looked and studied his proofs very carefully, and I used them to my own ends, and he did the same. That’s very much the case.

I mean, we could’ve done two hours on each of those points. What I mean by that is that yes, in whatever sense we can resonate and take direction from our peers in terms of helping us find our way, there’s no question that he’s one of the guys who stands out in relation to my work. And I mean, we were close. We studied together in undergrad, we lived together. We swapped tapes for years. It was in my DNA from the start.

Unfortunately, I haven’t seen anyone in the last five years, being alone in a house in a small town. But I was still looking at older records like The Doldrums in terms of possibilities that still seem to be promising places to investigate.

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