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Interview: Mouse on Mars
Published on November 21st, 2011 | Jonny Abrams
Mouse on Mars are one of those great bands whose every major work is blessed with its own distinct personality, yet still flaunts the same basic traits that snared your affection in the first place. In Rocksucker’s case, those traits were shuffling-yet-punchy beats, unorthodox melodic instinct, felty synth parps, brain-massaging mini-swarms of glitch, an architect’s eye for production (headphones advised) and a swashbuckling-yet-crafty way with arrangements. And our gateway album, so to speak, was 1997’s Autoditacker, their third.
What a world of immersive sound Autoditacker opened up for this listener: the psychedelic cartoon jungle of 1995’s Iaora Tahiti, the nocturnally ambient puzzles of 1995-97 collection Instrumentals, the sun-monged subtlety of 1998’s Glam, the squelchy space-jazz of 2000’s Niun Niggung, the orchestra-infused eclecticism of 2001’s Idiology, the beserk electro squiggle-clash of 2004’s Radical Connector and the funky robot-that’s-had-a-cup-of-tea-spilt-on-it assault of 2006’s Varcharz. Heck, that’s not even taking into account various EPs and their splendidly named Von Südenfed collaboration with The Fall hero Mark E. Smith, which spawned 2007’s thumping, eccentric Tromatic Reflexxions.For those looking to delve even further, Jan St. Werner – one half of Mouse on Mars alongside Andi Toma, one third if you include live drummer/occasional vocalist Dodo NKishi – released seven albums as Lithops, most recently last year’s Formationen, and another six alongside Oval‘s Markus Popp as Microstoria.
It may have been a while since we had much in the way of significant in-tandem activity from St. Werner and Toma, from Köln and Düsseldorf respectively, but now is a truly exciting time to be a Mouse on Mars fan. A brand new studio album, Parastrophics, is penned in for a February 24th release on the band’s new home, namely Modeselektor’s Monkeytown Records label (click here to read our interview with Modeselektor), and this Friday they come to the Barbican Hall on London’s Southbank to perform their Paeanumnion project, a collaboration with André de Ridder’s musikFabrik orchestra that “doesn’t play by any of the rules”. (Click here to book tickets and/or listen to a couple of tantalising Paeanumnion excerpts.) Oval shall provide support on the night, and Rocksucker can’t wait.
An ambitious, as-yet-unreleased piece of music to be performed live with ample instrumental accompaniment? It kind of reminds us of going to see Brian Wilson airing SMiLE at the Royal Festival Hall in 2004 when that project was first resuscitated. And, from speaking to Jan St. Werner, as Rocksucker had the great pleasure and honour of recently doing when he was able to step outside of his hectic schedule for a moment or two, that would appear to be an apt comparison to make…
Congratulations on signing for Monkeytown. How did that come about? Did Modeselektor approach you directly?
It actually happened through a friend we both have who basically suggested that we should just meet, without any clear purpose, just like, “Well, you don’t know them and you live in the same town.” There’s a mutual appreciation so we just met and it all happened really fast. It made a lot of sense because I think they’re really motivated with their label and have some really great new ideas. It’s kind of a very fresh idea, like, “Why not? We should just do that.” We call it ‘a belly decision’.
Like ‘gut instinct’?
Yeah, it’s ‘stomach’ rather than ‘belly’. Maybe it’s also a little bit like a belly decision.
I prefer ‘belly decision’. I’ll start using that from now on. Now, I’m really excited about your London show at the Barbican on Friday: can you help me out with the pronunciation of ‘Paeanumnion’? (Takes a laboured stab at pronouncing it.)
With our titles, you should just always pronounce them the way you like. We say (pronounces the word, with considerably more flair than, as roughly “pay-ah-num-yun”) but you don’t have the umlaut so we can’t expect you to say it the way we would say it.
The Paeanumnion sound clips available online are tantalising to say the least. Do you plan to release an album of this stuff as well as performing it live?
Yeah sure, we have to record this. At the moment it’s not the right time to do it because we are finishing this new album [Parastrophics] – we have to master that – but I think the next thing we’ll do is try to record that…thing (laughs), this composition!
Your albums are invariably very different from one to the next. What can we expect from Parastrophics? The press release says it will be “glamorous, funky and deep”.
(Laughs) Er…hmm…hard to say. I think for us it definitely has a different sound from what we’ve done before. For us it’s like a journey: the movement and transition is what’s interesting to us much more than the place where you finally arrive, or the goal that you might have. It’s hard to say…I think everything I would come up with [to say about it] would also work with any of our previous records. I guess it’s more club-related in a way. It’s quite a journey in itself, probably less neurotic in detail. It has a certain relaxedness, I guess. It’s probably the most digital-sounding record so far, without meaning that it sounds clean or harsh. It’s not the stereotype of digital, I just think it has a different sound to it.
We try to find a sound, basically, something that I think we had very strongly with Iaora Tahiti; we had a very different sound aesthetic and then we worked on this. The first record [1994’s Vulvaland] was like a ‘hello’ kind of thing and we didn’t even understand ourselves what was going on; it was just a collection of things we had done without any purpose, without a band name, just these tracks that we wanted to make and we didn’t really know where they would fit and what this would be. Then with Iaora Tahiti we were suddenly a band, really existing as a musical thing, and I think this is basically our first record as the band. To me, Iaora Tahiti, Autoditacker and Niun Niggung belong together, and then for Idiology and Radical Connector we had a very distinct, very dense sound, a weird mix of analog and digital stuff. We used computers but it was still very much based on feeding the stuff through an analog desk and having all these pedals and effects, having very elaborate, very broad ideas like styles, intensities and sounds, sound aesthetics and all this. It became broader and broader.With this new album, we found a new sound, you could say. It’s still very much our sound – it’s the sound that we want, that we want to hear, that we want to be – but we had to find this again by using basically digital technology and less analog equipment, or at least samplers which still have an analog input/output kind of interface. It’s very much based on computer processing but we still wanted something very organic and that has its own unique sound, like a Beach Boys sound in digital or something. I don’t know, it’s hard to explain.
A Beach Boys sound?
Something where you’d be in the studio for years, reworking stuff, cutting and slicing tapes, using lots of effects and ideas to monitor, set up microphones: this type of sound.
“Die Seele Von Brian Wilson” springs to mind. It used a snippet of the SMiLE song “Wind Chime”. Have you heard the recently released version of SMiLE?
Yes, exactly; I think there is a lot of that in there, all this technology. Kind of like what My Bloody Valentine did as well. You have all this fantastic technology available – super high-class, super expensive stuff – and then you come up with a sound that’s actually pretty weird and not that easily…I mean, people don’t usually relate it to such a high profile production, you know what I mean? It doesn’t sound expensive, it just sounds very otherworldly. I think this is what we tried to do with this new record of ours, to have something that sounds like it is coming from somewhere else. It’s quite club-related in a way, too (laughs).
There are a lot of things in there and I think we actually feel quite at ease with what has been going on in electronic music for quite a while. It seems like kids are becoming really playful again: they’re risky, they cut up stuff and they do unconventional things. This is very in line with our approach and, although we still probably don’t really fit into a specific style, it made a lot of sense to team up with Monkeytown for this record because, in a twisted way, it’s a rave-y record (laughs). Without ‘rave’ meaning a whistle and a straight bass drum.
Your music is often commended by people for combining elaborate production with danceable rhythms. That’s definitely a big part of why I latched onto Autoditacker, my ‘gateway’ Mouse on Mars record.
Rhythm is always important to us, of course, and I think maybe with this new record that the rhythm is quite prominent in certain tracks. But we still haven’t finished it so we still might select other tracks. We still don’t know exactly how the overall feel will be if we throw out one track and take in another one, so the spine is there but we’re still working on things, still editing down some of the mixes. We still haven’t mastered the album so it might still change. With us, things always change until the last second, so…yeah.
Am I right in thinking that the album contains vocals from Dodo?
He did vocals on some tracks in the end because we’ve been working on this for such a long time. We kept for sure one track where he’s singing; maybe two, I’m not so sure at the moment. I think he’ll add a bit more of his voice live. The songs are quite weird on this new record so sometimes you don’t really know where the vocal bits or certain things are coming from. In a way, it’s less obviously a band. Maybe it’s like a soundtrack to a movie that we haven’t seen (laughs).
The Glam album was going to be the soundtrack for a film starring Tony Danza, wasn’t it?
Yes, but that was the soundtrack to a movie we had seen! It was quite a weird production. The new album would rather be, as I said, for a movie we haven’t seen yet. But you could imagine it, and it might be different each time you watch it (laughs).
I love imagining Tony Danza listening to Glam and thinking “what is this?”
Yeah. It’s weird; he’s an evil guy in this movie and he’s also not too prominent in the movie, so maybe he didn’t even watch it that often in the end.
What was Mark E. Smith like to work with?
He has a reputation but he was very sweet with us, I have to say. I guess it’s because we’re not The Fall, so he felt a different obligation and I think he felt quite relaxed with this project. It was actually very helpful to have him around because usually we take much longer over a track and it goes through so many stages. But, with him, things became so much more efficient and focused. He’s really good in that sense, really good to work with because gets things done! He doesn’t like to just hang out in the studio for twenty-four hours.It’s a clash of cultures, I guess: us Germans have a bad conscience and we think if we work more that it will make it okay again, or something. We’re okay at the end of the day because we didn’t do anything bad, because we were in the studio all day long. I think Mark has a different work ethic: he’s a real worker and also he’s self-employed so he sees himself as a working man who should only work a specific amount of hours each day, and anything more would be exploitation. Something like this! It’s a vague suggestion of how things are.
It was really good to work with him and I hope that when we’re done with all these things – we’ve taken so long to finish our new record and then we have this orchestra thing going on, and then we’re still working on a software project – everything takes so long with us, I don’t know why – and I hope once we’re done with all this that we can team up with him again and work on another record.
What’s the software you’re working on?
It’s a music software obviously, a kind of graphic sound idea. It’s another thing that’s been going on for quite a long time and I think next spring, quite soon after the record is finished, we’ll be able to publish this. I hope you’ll hear about it! (Laughs)
Is there any Lithops activity on the horizon? And did I pronounce Lithops correctly (“Lit-hops”)?
Yes, perfect! Although, again, you can pronounce it however you want. For me, this has stopped. I did a record on a-musik called Formationen, which was a vinyl-only release, and that was kind of a swansong, kind of a ‘goodbye’ record for this project. I felt like, I’ve done this for a long time now and it was always based on songs and microstructures and all this, and I felt that I didn’t want to explore this any further, and rather go and do things that are probably more installation-based, also certain compositions which take more time.I felt like the album format in a certain way wasn’t appropriate anymore for what I wanted to do, which didn’t mean that I wouldn’t record any more records, but maybe not with this project. I felt like this was okay for now. There are lots of new things coming up but I’ll probably give them different names, maybe just my own name. I’ll see how that goes. For now, I’m actually really happy that we’re having a lot of things to do as Mouse on Mars. There’s not much space for anything else at the moment!
Jan, thank you.
Parastrophics, the new album from Mouse on Mars, will be released 24th February on Monkeytown Records. For more information and a list of live dates – including Friday’s Paeanumnion show with André Deridder’s musikFabrik orchestra at London’s Barbican Hall, with support from Oval – please visit mouseonmars.com