By Emilie Friedlander
John Maus didn't seem very eager to belabor the details of his biography when he sat down with the Altered Zones editorial staff in Brooklyn's McGolrick Park last month. The lo-fi militant and PhD candidate was wrapping up a national tour in support of his recently Zoned In third LP, We Must Become The Pitiless Censors of Ourselves, and ours was one of several interviews he was conducting that day before going to Glasslands to headline a sold-out show. Gesticulating wildly and speaking faster than most people can think, he dived into the theoretical profundities of his long-running solo project without looking back, seemingly disinterested in the kinds of talking points that make for colorful press releases and easy journalistic introductions-- his years teaching philosophy at the University of Hawaii, for instance, or what it was like being college buds with Ariel Pink.
Instead, Maus spoke of the revolutionary potential of pop music, and of the need for a generational musical language capable of answering to the economic, political, and social realities of its time. He insisted upon the independence of art and politics, but described genuine radical art as one that "anticipates a world to come." Peppered throughout his responses were references to RoboCop, Beethoven, and "singularities"-- a holdover from his study of critical theory that he was kind enough to spell out for us in layman's terms. "Philosophers [like Jean-Luc Nancy and Giorgio Agamben have wagered," he explained, that "there's this infinite multiplicity of singularities that aren't men or women or black or white or reds or liberals or gay or straight—they're such that they are. And importantly, they're always already with each other. They're separate, but they're always with." John Maus' wager is that his live performances-- with their spectacle of a singularity struggling to express itself through the objective musical material at hand --will incite the people in the audience to realize that they are not only irrevocably alone in this world, like a performer on a stage, but together in their aloneness.
There was something ironic about conducting an hour-long interview with Maus, chaperoned by a Domino representative with an eye on the clock. It wasn't just that he seemed to have way more to say that he could possible squeeze into our allotted time-slot-- or even that his critique of the music industry and its absorption, commodification, and neutralization of radical art seemed to be in direct conflict with the success that had brought him here. It was that his critique of this state of affairs revealed itself to be at the heart of his artwork itself-- and that interviewing him was like asking him to struggle with these contradictions out loud. John Maus is particularly good at this, and his insights on authorship, the political ramifications of lo-fi, and the state of music journalism today should speak to anyone who has ever put faith in pop music as a means of "breaking through."
AZ: So you've started playing a lot of shows. Do you like playing out?
John: How do you answer that? I don't want to be a crybaby. I'm not sure it's the best use of creative energy-- getting up on stage and doing that every night. But it's a chance, so I've got to be grateful for it.
AZ: How have you seen your live performance develop in recent shows?
John: The limit that I come up against gets closer, smaller. I’m able to do less and less.
AZ: What do you mean by less and less?
John: If the idea is partly to appear as something else than the world as it stands, and if my wager has been that the hysterical body has somehow transgressed-- or that one is able to do that through a hysterical body at its limit-- the body becomes incapable of going to the same level every night in a row.
AZ: It seems like you're really inhibited by your body. When you're performing, it's like you're trying to break free of yourself, and even when you're speaking, your mind is clearly going faster than you can.
John: Yeah, I’m trying to break free of the situation. We all want to see one another and be seen. There are very few situations where that can be explored or attempted, because I believe we're largely spoken not for, but by language-- or culture, or history. We're largely reducible to the objective dimension of existence, so there's only a few places where we can try to interrupt that and betray something else.
AZ: Where would you say those themes come up in the album?
John: Well, that's what the album is: an attempt at doing that through music. That's the only theme. It's to try to be a passage for the work-- not in a mystical sense, but a passage for what the objective musical material wants to say in this historical moment and setting that free in a singular way. I believe that "the historical moment is constitutive of artworks; authentic works are those that surrender themselves to the historical substance of their age without reservation and without the presumption of being superior to it" [Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, 1970]. This is the whole idea of going deeper into the locker, instead of finally emancipating one's self from it. In other words, only through its historical characteristics does music acquire its relation to the unattainable, i.e., the subjective, precisely as a singular setting-forth of the objective. That's the theme, the thread, what I'm trying to do. Although, of course, I’d never claim I accomplished that.
AZ: How do you sit down and write music with all these ideas you're wrestling with?
John: I see them as two separate creative enterprises, thought and music. They can respond to one another in some way, but the bottom line is it doesn’t matter if you’ve read Third Critique [Kant, 1790] or Origin of the Work of Art [Martin Heidegger, 1950] or whatever. You're faced with the same abyss, and there's no tactic that’s going to make that any easier.
On a separate note, there's politics as its own medium, as well. I see politics and art as separate trajectories. There's a political dimension to music, to the extent that it would be a disruption of the regime of the sensible... but it certainly isn’t collective mobilization against the state in the name of radical equality. The protest lyric is a poor substitute for radical political thought or a new idea of politics.
John: The idea there is that sums up the impetus, lyrically, of all genuine art. It's an explosion. It's a molotov cocktail in the fuckin' police station. It's rights for that which can have no rights, to the extent that it anticipates a world to come-- not this world.
AZ: Is it about art's inevitable failure to act directly?
John: Yeah, but it's not a failure; it's art. It anticipates that world. It is the only example we have in this world of the world we desire.
AZ: Why do you feel like you've been sort of married to Ariel Pink?
John: Because I hit the knee before Ariel. I'm Alfred Russel Wallace to his Darwin, at the best. It was a mutual discovery, but something happened there in 1999-2001... to understand what happened, you had to hear it then. It's harder to hear it today, but I see that as the birth of what we call "lo-fi." Of course there was lo-fi music before this, but it arose out of an economic necessity, or inability to access these high-class production technologies.
That wasn't the case in 2001-2002, when Ariel was going to the Musician's institute, when he had already learned how to engineer music in a much more "professional" way, and yet still insisted on using lo-fi production techniques. We tried re-recording his songs "Young Pilot Astray" and "The Bottom" on Pro-Tools, on these fancy computers, and both us were like "something is wrong here." Thereafter, his continued insistence upon recording it on an 8-track anyways, even when he had the skill set and the means to make something that sounded much more "professional," thereafter it became a conscious use of these possibilities. Ariel Pink marks not only the resurrection of a certain pop sensibility, but also the birth of lo-fi. Not because it was the fad or the hip thing to do (no one was doing it yet!), but because he really seemed to wager that it could be an integral dimension of the work. It's a way of thinking about popular music that is more interesting than following this thoughtless imperative towards clarity of signal. But I don't know near enough about the history of pop music to be making claims like these. Perhaps I am wrong.
Perhaps no thought and no art stand a chance unless they bear within themselves a repudiation of that kind of high-class production technique and this division of labor that would have all these million-dollar producers, all working on different aspects of it, manufacturing this commodity.
AZ: Though there is the possibility that the lo-fi sound itself can become a cliché, a commercial selling point, and then you might want to move away from it.
John: But I think too, it's especially interesting if the question is, "What is pop, over and against other musical languages that have existed?" Because production, while it's not the focus, is certainly an integral dimension to the work. We're able to explore the textural dimension of the musical material in a way an orchestra, or a string quartet, or a piano couldn't, because they didn't have compressors and equalizers and tape saturation and all these kinds of ways of enveloping a signal that are available to us, so that becomes a dimension of the work in this language of pop. Low-fidelity speaks to that; it's just [not] interested in being perfectly in-step with technological evolution and planned obsolescence.
AZ: How do you feel when writers say that your music sounds very '80s?
I must have done something terribly wrong that I can be so easily be put into this generality of "'80s." I have no idea what they're talking about. I mean of course I do, in one sense, but I would totally resist that. If that’s '80s, what is now? Is it Animal Collective? Is it Wavves? What is the sound of now? Is it Kanye West? What's right now? And see, I think that's right now. And moreover, my "'80s." comes mediated to me through the early work I did with Ariel Pink.
I never listened to any of that, aside from in my childhood I may have heard a lot of it, but a lot of these guys-- I had no idea who they were until people started telling me I sounded like them. And that's fine-- that stuff is wonderful, and it's certainly a thread we ought to carry over, but it's not nostalgia. Maybe it is remembering in the sense that remembering is always mimetic, representational-- a singular re-expression of some kind of idea. So it's not finally a perfect copy. It's contemporary.
AZ: All the artists today seem to be self-professed sums of their own influences.
John: Again, there’s stuff you can work with, and it's been my experience that most of the interesting ideas I've found have been-- as cliché as it is-- found under rocks. With respect to aesthetic theory, there's no question that the artist isn't the origin of the work of art, or that the artist is an individual. To talk about [my music] as if it's something I created is such a bad thing to do, because obviously all these peers constructed this cultural figure that is starting to become more and more visible. Speaking politically (not artistically), we want redistribution-- not only of wealth, but of visibility. And so I become dubiously complicit with these mechanisms, and the intention there would be that somehow I could try to tear them down from within.
AZ: Is there a sense that now that you’re signed with Domino…
John: It's wrong! Because what happens is, there are people who talk about this thing, including myself. When I sit down to work, it's not about expressing myself or sharing myself; it's something that I bring to share, that I uncovered, so I'm enthusiastic about this thing too. And so there's this group of people, we're all enthusiastic about it and so together, we create, in turns, the figure that supposedly made the music and, in turns, the music itself. We create something much more interesting than people whose interest isn't in the thing, but in making a buck off the thing. They have an interest in putting that to work in making it family-friendly, in the same way television shows make queers family-friendly.
AZ: If you chose the language of pop music, though, can't you kind of expect that you'll have to act within these mechanisms?
John: Yeah, there's the fact that much greater people in much crueler times had to share and represent their work… I'd like to know more about this: Did this only become a question to this generation? I know they struggled with it, but did Beethoven and Chopin and all these guys have as many political bones to pick with their publishers?
"Can’t you expect," you said, "that you'll have to deal with this?" No, I can expect with pop music that I’m going to have to deal with the conventions of pop music: the harmonic, the rhythmic, the lyric, and all these things. That's what I want to make an intensive use of, or to take up singularly, and that can only be done abiding these conventions. But in terms of how it's represented; visibility hands you over to power, so anonymity becomes something maybe more interesting, because the work is the work. And I have this naïve utopian faith that if it's uncounted, there comes the day when finally everything is counted. So it doesn't really matter. All you can say is that you're making it easier for the aliens to come and find you, putting it high enough in the strata for when everything is being counted up. I mean, the naïve and old-fashioned belief that made me throw my lot in with the devils was that same one that has always been out there: there’s some kid out in the country that can’t get it otherwise. There's nothing wrong with wanting to share it with as many people as possible. These were the kind of naïve intentions I had.
AZ: Do you feel like you're just recapitulating all of these other philosophers? Do you feel like you're saying anything new?
JM: No, I don't. I'm not saying anything new at all and that's really bothered me now that people are talking and asking me about the work. It really occurs to me I've had no thought of my own…
John: But let me qualify that, that at least I recognize I have no thought of my own, and at least the thoughts of my own that I have at my disposal offer up radical critiques of the un-thought that is constantly going on in the rock journalism conversation about subjective responses to music and this ridiculous word-painting poetry of music, and this "it sounds like this or it sounds like that." The thoughts that are not my own that I have at my disposal would completely reject that, and could completely and clearly demonstrate how that's a violence that completely stomps out anything that's interesting about the work. If there is anything worthwhile about the work, it's precisely what isn't reducible to any of these particulars or generalities... It's only something if it sounds like nothing we've ever heard before. So I've never had a thought of my own, but at least I'm not one of these clowns that talk about nothing.
I'd definitely like to sit down one day and try to approach some kind of thought, especially because I feel like a lot of the guys I've spent time with come from another situation than our own... If we want to enter in a conversation with them, we have to do it through this objective historical moment, which means as human beings that grew up eating Doritos and watching genre films and listening to pop, not as people that looked at Rothko paintings and read Mallarmé… "What’s the thought of Ariel Pink? What’s the thought of the Ramones?" I haven’t seen that articulated yet and I’m very interested in that. The French had their moment-- they told us about Beckett and now it’s our time to tell them about Nirvana or Robocop.
[Time limit of five more minutes given. Papers shuffle as we search for the right last question.]
AZ: I was interested in hearing you talk about more of the classical reference points you use in the album. I mean, we've talked about the '80s thing-- we’ve talked about the language of the present-- but you're also reaching into the deep past.
John: I think every moment's been kind of obsessed with itself and itself alone. But it seems to me that, for instance, the 18th century guys were kind of familiar with the early 18th century and the 17th century Baroque. They knew it. It was part of their vocabulary. Even though they were disparate musical truths, they all had a relationship. But then we get to this moment and nobody knows about anything but pop. They think that this or that rock band is really radical because they've never heard Luciano Berio. You can take a Josquin mass and quantize it into quarter notes and there's triads there, there's chords that are modal and don't adhere to any kind of major-minor tonality scheme. Then you can just add a drum beat and a vocal melody over the top, and it's something slightly resembling a pop song. You can only speak English better and understand etymologically what’s happening with English if you speak French and German. Just as we'll make a better use of pop knowing about Romanticism and Viennese Classicism and the German Baroque and the High Renaissance.
AZ: How do you think we’ve gotten to pop now?
John: Every musical moment is almost entirely reducible to the discursive regime and the mechanisms of power. Pop music is how it is because our master today is commercial capitalism. Just as bourgeois aristocratic court music was what it was because it was part of pleasing the aristocracy.
AZ: And what is your role in all this?
What we would-be artists and musicians all need to remember is that it shouldn't fall to us to transform the world politically, it should fall to those who would make a creative medium of politics instead. That Joseph Haydn didn't refuse to serve the Esterházys, or J.S. Bach the Lutheran Church, and so on, makes little difference with respect to the music they made. Transforming the world of who-serves-who-and-why, finally, fell to the Saint-Justs of the world. We would-be musicians are not political innovators in the strict sense (Joan Baez was not substitute for MLK). Let those who would make a medium of politics articulate a way forward for our world, we'll met them with enthusiasm when they do this, I promise! The world where music is used to sell shoes and useless gadgets made by slaves in the "third world," and, meanwhile, we'll keep trying to make revolutionary music.
We Must Become The Pitiless Censors of Ourselves is out now via Domino-affiliate Ribbon Music