Local Current Blog

‘I want to be known as a Minnesotan, finally’: John Maus sticks to his roots as his music surges forward

John Maus at The Current. (Nate Ryan/MPR)

Whenever reporters talk to John Maus, they tend to end up writing a lot about the way John Maus talks. Some phrases and sentences that have been used to describe him in conversation include “maddeningly referential,” “circular,” “nonlinear tangents abound,”  and “It is not easy to talk to John Maus.” The very first sentence of a recent feature on Maus at Huck Magazine is, “John Maus does not talk like a regular person.”

Most of these writers attribute Maus’s distinctive affect to his terminal degree — he completed a Ph.D. in political philosophy in 2014 — but I hear another ingredient too: the Midwest. Maus grew up in Austin, Minnesota, and he recorded his last two albums at home there. His long, winding sentences are equally littered with the jargon of the academy and some of our local vocal tics. I found him pretty fun to talk with.

Last October, Maus released Screen Memories, his fourth album of densely melodic synthpop. It was his first new material since 2011’s We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves, which thrust him into the spotlight of music blog stardom. Today, Maus’s label Ribbon Music is issuing a six-LP box set containing all of the music Maus has released, going back to 2006’s Songs, along with Addendum, an album of additional new material recorded at the same time as Screen Memories.

The set sold out in pre-orders. If you’re a Maus completist who missed out, don’t worry: Addendum will be available in standalone form, as a CD or digital download, on May 18. The set also comes with a 60-page booklet including photos, lyrics, and “Heaven Is Real,” musicologist Adam Harper’s essay on Maus’s music, updated to encompass Screen Memories.

This is arguably the biggest, busiest period of Maus’s career, with the tour and press cycles behind each release feeding off each other. Maus’s current round of tour dates (which took him through the Cedar Cultural Center earlier this month) are also the first he’s played with a band behind him live, instead of what he calls his “karaoke” set-up, in which he would yell over top of his own recordings.

Maus’s bandmates are all Minnesotans. His brother Joe plays bass, and drummer Jonathan Thompson is also from Austin. Keyboardist Luke Darger comes from the Twin Cities R&B scene.

“It seemed properly organic [to use Minnesotans in the band],” Maus said. “The label of course could have lined me up with people out in L.A., you know…or I could have done a tweet or something like that. It just seemed to me that reaching out to the networks around me would be more real, less manufactured.”

The choice to tour with Midwesterners was also a way to subtly push against the coastal boosterism of some of Maus’s closest musical friends, like fellow CalArts alum Ariel Pink. “I want to be known as a Minnesotan, finally,” Maus said.

Maus believes some listeners may find the Addendum to Screen Memories he is about to release a more enjoyable collection than the more “official” album he’s touring behind.

“Those tracks [Screen Memories] were the more rigorous collection of the two, the more thought-over, more developed,” Maus said, “which isn’t necessarily an appealing thing, in general. This Addendum record that’s coming is relatively spontaneous and straightforward.”

Maus is correct to call Screen Memories rigorous: its mood is bleak, with songs referencing war, death, and the apocalypse, and the most minor keys he’s ever used. The album’s process was also rigorous: part of the reason there was such a long gap following Pitiless Censors is that Maus learned how to construct modular synthesizers, so he could then build the instruments he used to record the album himself. He also experimented with methods to produce random melodic and harmonic content he could work with, including feeding instructions to an artificial neural network and seeing what it put back out.

“It’s like a 19-hour job,” Maus said of writing the album. “19 hours a day just sitting there, throwing stuff at the wall and seeing if anything sticks.”

The approach Maus took on Screen Memories was heavily dictated by his desire to do something different from what others are doing in the music world. He doesn’t claim to have directly influenced anything, but he has noted the intensification of ’80s nostalgia since he released Pitiless Censors, which inspired him to try to push into more distinctive territory.

“A lot of the tricks I had up my sleeve had in some form or another become ubiquitous,” Maus said, “so I found myself without the ability to use those devices, or they seemed much less effective, if the goal in some way or another is to push things in a direction that doesn’t seem to exist anywhere.”

He continued, “I tried to accomplish something that would make up for that by way of fidelity to devices that are relatively foreign entirely to postwar popular music, like rigorous counterpoint or thematic integrity, in the sense that a track might be a sort of development of a single motific idea. All these things are kind of alien to the idiom, but the idea was that maybe a really patient working out of that would supplant some of the cards I could no longer play.”

All this shop talk risks making the music sound unfun to listen to, but that’s not the case. Maus deliberately positions the music he makes as something intended to work within the world of pop, which he has a wonderful way of defining, as “a music that is supposed to listen for the listener” rather than demand undivided attention.

So Maus deploys his formal music school techniques like a kid whipping an Ollie on a skateboard. For example, on Screen Memories’ “Pets,” after repeating the lyric “Your pets are gonna die” over and over, there is an interpolated melody from the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg’s string quartet Transfigured Night intended to symbolize transformation or, in this case, most likely the titular pets’ heartwarming ascension to heaven.

The listener, however, doesn’t need to know what composer is being referenced in order to “get” the song — they will know this spot simply as the one where the song goes from being morbidly funny to achingly pretty.