Maus performing in 2011
February 23, 1980 |
Austin, Minnesota, U.S.
|Education||B.A., California Institute of the Arts (music composition)
PhD, University of Hawaii (political science)
|Spouse(s)||Kika Karadi (m. 2017)|
|Origin||Los Angeles, California, U.S.|
|Associated acts||Ariel Pink|
John Maus (born February 23, 1980) is an American musician, singer, songwriter, composer, and philosopher from Minnesota. His music is often compared to 1980s synth-pop due to its appropriation of vintage synthesizer sounds and Medieval church modes, and he is recognized as a forerunner to the late 2000s hypnagogic pop movement. He is also a former professor of philosophy at the University of Hawaii, where he later earned his PhD in political science.
In 1998, Maus left his hometown of Austin, Minnesota to study experimental music at the California Institute of the Arts. When he befriended and began to work alongside classmate Ariel Rosenberg (Ariel Pink), he took a greater interest in pop music. Much of his initial lo-fi work was created using a cassette multi-track recorder and an early 1990s synthesizer soundbank. It was not until the success of his third album, We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves (2011), that he grew more widely accepted as an outsider artist. On stage, he is known for his intense displays of emotion while performing.
Maus was born and raised in Austin, Minnesota. As a teenager, he listened mainly to Nirvana and Syd Barrett. In 1998, he began his undergraduate in music composition at the California Institute of the Arts, by which time he had formed an appreciation for experimental music, such as the work of Michael Pisaro, as well as Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque music. When he befriended and began to work alongside classmate Ariel Pink (Ariel Rosenberg), he took a greater interest in pop music. The first time he heard Rosenberg play was at a concert put up by students from the visual arts department. He recalls thinking: "You know, Okay, maybe I’m not going to do experimental music anymore, because I was ... doing all of these performances like [Morton] Feldman and [John] Cage. ... I left that aside and took up pop as the best bet, largely because of my encounter there with Ariel, and the early work he was doing." After they became roommates, he recorded the material from his first album using a cassette multi-track recorder and an early 1990s synthesizer soundbank. He later completed his degree in experimental music composition in 2003.
Rosenberg has called Maus "arguably my best friend" and "my very first fan", and in turn, Maus called him "the zeitgeist embodied. He is the figure of this situation and of this time, of the cloud, of the spectacle gone online." For a time, Maus was a member of the Haunted Graffiti stage band, and he collaborated with Rosenberg on the title track of Lover Boy (2002). He said that Rosenberg came up with most of the lyrics for "Big Dumb Man" (2000) and "The Law" (2003), but was not credited "because neither of us care enough about any 'official' credit." The two backed Animal Collective's Panda Bear (Noah Lennox) for his solo tour of Europe, where Maus served as keyboardist.[nb 1] He attempted to submit his work to several labels, including Kill Rock Stars and Animal Collective's Paw Tracks, but was rejected. Eventually, while touring London with Rosenberg, he encountered agents from Upset the Rhythm, who agreed to distribute his music.
Although Maus' first two official albums Songs (2006) and Love Is Real (2007) generally drew negative reviews upon release, a cult following gradually formed. In the late 2000s, he was awarded a scholarship to study political philosophy at the University of Hawaii, where he had a day job as a professor. In the evenings, he continued working on music from his office. By 2009, Maus relocated from Hawaii to a secluded cabin in Minnesota, where he struggled to write material for a third album. He said that he eventually gave up, and instead began "doing lots of chemistry projects and chromatography experiments. I set myself on fire a few times heating inflammable solvents." Meanwhile, he continued his studies at the European Graduate School in Saas Fee, Switzerland and earned his master's degree. He did not live in Switzerland, "but would go out there in the summers. It's like that Black Mountain thing that they did over here years ago, where they bring out all of the heavy hitters and you can study with them yourself." One of his professors was the French philosopher Alain Badiou, who would originate the title of his third album We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves (2011). After the positive response to Pitiless Censors, Maus grew more widely accepted as an outsider artist, and there was a critical reevaluation of his earlier work. In 2012, the album was followed with the compilation A Collection of Rarities and Previously Unreleased Material. Spanning recordings from 1999 to 2010, the collection selects outtakes from his previous three albums in addition to tracks which had appeared on other compilations. He envisioned that after he completed his PhD dissertation, he would return to teaching, stating in 2011 that he could not foresee a career in music.
For the next six years, Maus did not release any new music, and spent the majority of the time in isolation. Two years were devoted to finishing his dissertation, while another two were spent learning how to build modular synthesizers. Completed and submitted in 2014, the 338-page thesis "Communication and Control" discussed the influence of technology on control societies, and he was thereby awarded his PhD in political science from the University of Hawaii, where his thesis advisor was Michael J. Shapiro. He immediately started building the instruments that were ultimately used for the recording of his fourth album, Screen Memories (2017). Its release was accompanied by his first solo tour with a live band. Maus is set to release his fifth LP, Addendum, in 2018. Consisting of tracks that were left off Screen Memories, Addendum will be available exclusively as a bonus vinyl disc on a career retrospective box set. In an October 2017 interview, he indicated a desire to record an album with Rosenberg: "We’re both swamped right now ... but I've been talking about it for a long time, and he's been talking about it. It’s just a question of finding the right moment, which I think will be after this."
Style and philosophy
Maus' original self-described "karaoke shows" involved himself alone on stage, behaving erratically, and singing over prerecorded music. The Guardian's review of a 2012 London performance noted him to be a "ferocious theoretician" that "pogos, head-bangs and gives vent to a succession of feral howls as he jack-knifes at the waist." Likewise a 2011 BBC review saw Maus "as much a professional existentialist as he is a synth-pop musician" and that "reading his interviews can make your cerebral cortex pulse with befuddlement." The BBC's Charles Ubaghs characterized Maus as "a serious believer in pop music. ... Behind these retro overtones is a desire to explore our modern relationships with pop, and its impact on our wider philosophical and cultural lives." The review also remarked that on Maus' self-referential tendencies: "Couple this with lyrics like The Fear’s surprisingly frank 'What’s wrong with me, ‘cause I’ve tried everything,' and you’ve an accessibly rich portrait of Maus' ever-questioning mind."
Frequently in interviews, Maus advocates for "truth" in music. Flavorwire's Tom Hawking argues that "he's an interesting case because his music doesn’t necessarily discuss the ideas that seem to inform it" unless one considers that the "relative simplicity of his songs, both lyrically and musically, is a way of getting at fundamental truths." Jordan Redmond of Tiny Mix Tapes writes that Maus "bristles at the sort of obfuscated discourse often created and upheld by, as he would have it, the sophisticated and exclusionary contemporary art world," and that rather than aspiring to be "anti-intellectual," his music "only seeks to be the pinnacle of inclusion, and by embracing a form that has stroked the ears of the general populace for the better part of three decades, Maus looks to not only generate enjoyment but also discussion."[nb 2] Slant Magazine's Matthew Cole dismissed Maus' philosophical writings as "a parody of post-structuralist social theory" and his music as "obviously some kind of art-school mindfuckery". According to Maus, he does not think about aesthetic theory when "working over the keyboard, or musing over musical ideas in my head. But when discussing it, we want to have some new thought about this new music. I wouldn't claim that my music is new, but generally speaking pop music begs for some kind of radical new way of talking about it."[nb 3] He also denies any intention for his work to come off as "a sneering take on pop."
Although he rejects the label, Maus is recognized as a progenitor of the hypnagogic pop scene, a genre noted for its reliance on memory and nostalgia. His compositions tend to employ the use of particular modal scales previously associated with Renaissance and Medieval music, which he believes is often mistaken as an attempt to evoke the 1980s. He explains that "I'm not trying to evoke that time, I just hear that sound and it seems to suit this time right now. ... People associate the kind of harmonies that associate from the modes with the 80s sound, and for me it's not about the 80s, it's about what I think the kind of harmony is that arises from these modes - what I'm interested in." He adds: "For whatever reason, the pioneers of electronic music that came out of Sheffield and Manchester in the 1980s became interested in these ecclesiastical modes that, historically, were associated with the divine. ... The palette was there in the 80s so why was it set aside and forgotten? That thread can be taken up again." He goes on to opine that synthesizers and waveforms offer more "color and possibility" than the guitar, which he feels is an "exhausted" instrument.
On a political spectrum, Maus places himself "left of left of left of left." He believes that "it comes down to, if you don't have a sort of indignance when you see atrocities committed, you're not communing with the same humanity that I am." While some of his lyrics are reminiscent of political slogans, such as "Rights for Gays", he comments that his intention was to follow some social idioms "through to [their] absurd conclusions where interesting things are more likely to happen. That's when the politics of aesthetics [comes in]; it's not in the protest lyrics." On the song "Cop Killer", he explains, "I'm not talking about shooting or killing a human being, I'm talking about ... the cops in our heads, the cops that are everything other than us, everything inhuman, that would put us to work towards an end other than each other."
According to Maus in 2010, he had been diagnosed "with everything at one point or another. They say you’re bipolar or whatever, but I've never had one of those ... euphoric, manic episodes where I had an exaggerated perception of my own ability, that would be wonderful. But no, I guess depression, or stuff like that." When asked if he had autism, he responded: "No, no, no, no, I only… I don't put much stock in those clinical categorizations in general, I suppose."
|Love Is Real||
|We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves||
- c. 1999: Snowless Winters EP (Demonstration Bootleg)
- 2000: Love Letters from Hell (Demonstration Bootleg)
- 2003: Second Album EP (Demonstration Bootleg)
- 2003: I Want to Live (Demonstration Bootleg)
- 1999: Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti – Underground (Vinyl International)
- 2002: Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti – Lover Boy (Ballbearings Pinatas)
- 2006: From U.S. to I (Ballbearings Pinatas)
- 2006: The Human Ear Vol.1 (Human Ear Music)
- 2007: Mistletonia Xmas compilation (Mistletone)
- 2011: Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti – I'm Not a Genius EP (JesusWarhol)
- 2012: Rough Trade Shops: Counter Culture 11 (Rough Trade Records)
- After he showed Lennox Guillaume de Machaut's "Rose, Lis, Printemps, Verdure", Lennox went on to sample the piece for "I'm Not" on Person Pitch (2007).
- When discussing modern composers of art music, Maus suggests they "are ridiculous. It's not 1920. That's not what's going on right now. We live in a completely different situation that, musically, is pop music."
- One of his issues is with the accepted tendency to reduce a piece of work to "it sounds like x and y".
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