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John Maus

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John Maus
John Maus (6420801209).jpg
Maus performing in 2011
Born (1980-02-23) February 23, 1980 (age 38)
Austin, Minnesota, U.S.
Education B.A., California Institute of the Arts (music composition)
PhD, University of Hawaii (political science)
  • Musician
  • singer
  • songwriter
  • composer
  • philosopher
  • chemist
Years active 1999–present
Spouse(s) Kika Karadi (m. 2017)
Musical career
Origin Los Angeles, California, U.S.
  • Keyboards
  • vocals
  • guitar
Associated acts Ariel Pink

John Maus (born February 23, 1980) is an American musician, singer, songwriter, composer, and philosopher from Minnesota. His music is frequently compared to 1980s synth-pop due to its appropriation of vintage synthesizer sounds and Medieval church modes. Much of his early lo-fi work was created using a cassette multi-track recorder and an early 1990s synthesizer soundbank, which is noted for anticipating the late 2000s hypnagogic pop movement.[8][9] On stage, he is characterized for his intense displays of emotion while performing. He is also a former teacher 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 Pink (Ariel Rosenberg), he took a greater interest in pop music. His first two albums, Songs (2006) and Love Is Real (2007), generally drew negative reviews upon release, and it was not until the success of his third, We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves (2011), that he grew more widely accepted as an outsider artist. After a five-year absence from public appearances and releasing new music, he returned in 2017 with the album Screen Memories.


Early years[edit]

Ariel Pink after a show in 2010

Maus was born and raised in Austin, Minnesota.[10] As a teenager, he listened mainly to Nirvana and Syd Barrett.[11] In 1998, he began his undergraduate in music composition at the California Institute of the Arts,[12][11] 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.[11] The first time he heard Rosenberg play was at a concert put up by students from the visual arts department.[12] 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."[11] After they became roommates,[9] he recorded the material from his first album using a cassette multi-track recorder and an early 1990s synthesizer soundbank.[12] He later completed his degree in experimental music composition in 2003.[9]

Rosenberg has called Maus "arguably my best friend"[13] 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."[14] For a time, Maus was a member of the Haunted Graffiti stage band,[15] and he collaborated with Rosenberg on the title track of Lover Boy (2002).[15] 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."[16] The two backed Animal Collective's Panda Bear (Noah Lennox) for his solo tour of Europe, where Maus served as keyboardist.[17][12][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.[12]


It took this Ariel Pink cohort five years to write and record his debut album, and only five minutes to become more annoying than Ariel Pink.
CMJ review of Songs, 2006[5]

Although Maus' first two official albums Songs (2006) and Love Is Real (2007) generally drew negative reviews upon release, he gradually built a cult following.[19] 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 lecturer. In the evenings, he continued working on music from his office.[9][20] In 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."[21] Meanwhile, he continued his studies at the European Graduate School in Saas Fee, Switzerland and earned his master's degree.[20] 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."[20]

One of his professors from the university was the French philosopher Alain Badiou, who would originate the title of his third album We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves (2011).[20] 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.[19] 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.[22]


Maus performing with his band in Colorado, 2018

From 2012 to 2016, 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.[23] Completed and submitted in 2014, the 338-page thesis "Communication and Control" discussed the influence of technology on control societies,[24] and he was thereby awarded his PhD in political science from the University of Hawaii, where his thesis advisor was Michael J. Shapiro.[25] He immediately started building the instruments[26] 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, featuring his brother Joe Maus on bass, Minneapolis musician Luke Darger on keyboards, and Jonathan Thompson on drums.[27]

Maus is set to release his fifth LP, Addendum, in 2018. Consisting of tracks that were left off Screen Memories,[28] Addendum will be available exclusively as a bonus vinyl disc on a career retrospective box set.[29] 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."[27]

Style and philosophy[edit]

Performances and rhetoric[edit]

Maus at one of his early "karaoke" performances, 2007

On stage, Maus is known for his intense displays of emotion while performing. The Guardian noted him as a "ferocious theoretician" that "pogos, head-bangs and gives vent to a succession of feral howls as he jack-knifes at the waist."[30] Until 2017, he performed one-man "karaoke shows" in which he sang over prerecorded music.[27] He is also characterized "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."[31] The BBC's Charles Ubaghs distinguished 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."[32]

In various interviews, Maus advocates for "truth" in music.[33][8] Flavorwire's Tom Hawking argued 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."[33] Similarly, Jordan Redmond of Tiny Mix Tapes wrote 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 means to be accessible.[8][nb 2] As a response to these types of interpretations of his use of the word "truth", Maus explained that he meant to refer to a tendency in popular music criticism to engage in an "at-hand genre and at-hand comparison, then it moves on to the next thing. If something remarkable is happening in the work, that’s what people should write about, not the application of some at-hand label maker."[34] In other words, to reduce a piece of work to "it sounds like x and y".[35] He added that the "truth content of any work, I suppose, is the extent to which it accomplishes something else than what it is."[34]

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".[36] 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."[16] He also denies any intention for his work to come off as "a sneering take on pop."[12][33]

Retro sound[edit]

[P]eople talk about [me sounding] like the eighties, [but] I didn't listen to the eighties! ... the whole "eighties" to me was something that comes from listening to Ariel Pink, like "Young Pilot Astray", The Doldrums and this kind of stuff. That was the first I heard a sound like that and wanted to take it up myself.
—John Maus[11]

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.[8] 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.[37][38] 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."[37] 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.[38]

Political views[edit]

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."[23] 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."[37]

Personal life[edit]

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."[21]

In 2017, Maus married Hungarian visual artist Kika Karadi.[9][39]


John Maus discography
Studio albums 5
Compilation albums 1

Official studio albums

Title Release
  • Released: March 20, 2006
  • Label: Upset the Rhythm
Love Is Real
  • Released: November 19, 2007
  • Label: Upset the Rhythm
We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves
  • Released: June 27, 2011
  • Label: Ribbon Music, Upset the Rhythm
Screen Memories
  • Released: October 27, 2017
  • Label: Ribbon Music
  • Released: April 20, 2018
  • Label: Ribbon Music


Title Release
A Collection of Rarities and Previously Unreleased Material
  • Released: July 12, 2012
  • Label: Ribbon Music

Early unofficial albums

  • 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)



  1. ^ 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).[18]
  2. ^ 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."[21]


  1. ^ Sedghi, Sarra (December 4, 2014). "John Maus Psychoanalyzes Ariel Pink, Calls Him a Nymphomaniac". Paste. 
  2. ^ Bevan, David (September 6, 2012). "JOHN MAUS". Spin. 
  3. ^ Pelly, Jelly (July 20, 2012). "John Maus: A Collection of Rarities and Previously Unreleased Material". Pitchfork. Retrieved October 8, 2016. 
  4. ^ "John Maus Book". Dummy Mag. July 19, 2011. 
  5. ^ a b Reges, Margaret. "John Maus". AllMusic. Retrieved October 8, 2016. 
  6. ^ a b Hogan, Marc (June 21, 2012). "Grab John Maus' Icy Obsession Anthem 'Bennington'". Spin. 
  7. ^ Sevigny, Chloë (October 30, 2017). "John Maus talks to Chloë Sevigny about music, movies, and solitude". Interview Magazine. 
  8. ^ a b c d Redmond, Jordan (March 30, 2012). "John Maus - We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves". Tiny Mix Tapes. Retrieved October 24, 2017. 
  9. ^ a b c d e Pemberton, Nathan (October 25, 2017). "John Maus Is Making Outsider Pop for the End of the World". Vulture. 
  10. ^ "John Maus". Upset the Rhythm. 
  11. ^ a b c d e Loscutoff, Leah (July 2011). "John Maus". BOMB Magazine. Retrieved July 26, 2011. 
  12. ^ a b c d e f Batty, Roger (May 19, 2006). "I think We're Alone Now". Musique Machine. 
  13. ^ Sanders, Christopher (August 23, 2017). "I Ate It All Up In Fast Forward: Ariel Pink's Favourite LPs". The Quietus. 
  14. ^ Bevan, David (August 21, 2012). "Ariel Pink: In Praise of Guilty Genius". Spin. 
  15. ^ a b Weirdo, Bobby (January 27, 2017). "Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti - Loverboy (2002)". Weirdo Music Forever. 
  16. ^ a b Pelly, Jean (August 10, 2012). "John Maus". Pitchfork. 
  17. ^ Fink, Matt (May 7, 2015). "Panda Bear vs. Ariel Pink - The Full Interview". Under the Radar. 
  18. ^ Maus, John (August 3, 2011). "John Maus". Pitchfork. 
  19. ^ a b Thomas, Fred. "John Maus A Collection of Rarities and Previously Unreleased Material". AllMusic. 
  20. ^ a b c d Ferguson, W. M. (October 26, 2011). "The Orchestral Maneuvers of John Maus". The New York Times. 
  21. ^ a b c Hazel, Sheffield (September 17, 2010). "Interview: John Maus". The Stool Pidgeon. Archived from the original on June 14, 2011. 
  22. ^ "PhDs And Dropouts: Killer Mike, Kreayshawn And John Maus Talk School". The Fader. August 29, 2011. 
  23. ^ a b Joyce, Colin (October 12, 2017). "John Maus at the End of the World". Noisey. 
  24. ^ Traynor, Cian (October 31, 2017). "A manic interview with John Maus". Huck Magazine. 
  25. ^ "University of Hawai'i Department of Political Science". Retrieved 12 November 2014. 
  26. ^ Gordon, Jeremy (December 3, 2014). "John Maus Psychoanalyzes Ariel Pink, Announces Plans for New Music". Pitchfork. 
  27. ^ a b c Weirdo, Bobby (October 17, 2017). "John Maus on Music, the Minnesota Milieu, Quantum Leap, and More". Weirdo Music Forever. 
  28. ^ Pequeno, Ze (October 24, 2017). "John Maus". Tiny Mix Tapes. 
  29. ^ Chris (August 29, 2017). "John Maus announces new record Screen Memories + career-spanning 6 x LP box set". Gorilla vs. Bear. 
  30. ^ Gittins, Ian (August 15, 2012). "John Maus – review". The Guardian. London. Retrieved January 24, 2013. 
  31. ^ Parkin, Chris. "John Maus We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves Review". BBC Music. Retrieved May 16, 2012. 
  32. ^ Ubaghs, Charles (August 21, 2012). "John Maus A Collection of Rarities and Previously Unreleased Material Review". BBC Review. BBC. Retrieved January 24, 2013. 
  33. ^ a b c Hawking, Tom (April 30, 2015). "Come Back, John Maus! You're the Hero Music Needs!". Flavorwire. 
  34. ^ a b Rosenberg, Rutger (January 27, 2018). "John Maus and the Atomic Bomb". 
  35. ^ Leichtung, Ric (July 13, 2012). "RE: Dear John Maus: How Are You?". 
  36. ^ Cole, Matthew (June 28, 2011). "John Maus We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves | Album Review". Slant Magazine. Retrieved July 9, 2017. 
  37. ^ a b c Bick, Emily (June 28, 2011). "Towards A New Language: John Maus Interviewed". The Quietus. 
  38. ^ a b Richards, Sam (November 11, 2011). "John Maus: 'If my music sounds 80s, you're hearing its medieval backbone'". The Guardian. 
  39. ^ Stark, Andrew (September 2017). "John Maus: Expectations Versus Reality Versus Reality". Malibu Mag. 

External links[edit]