Fifteen suppositions from John Maus on art, music, blowing up cities on film and Ariel Pink

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John Maus, the synthpunk artist based in Minnesota, is a thinking man’s musician, spouting off theory gleaned from his years studying music composition at CalArts and politics and aesthetics at the European Graduate School, where both filmmaker Atom Egoyan and Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek are part of the illustrious faculty.

(Psst... there’s a rumor going around that if you go to EGS, you either come back a wizard, unemployed or with a record deal from Domino imprint Ribbon Music. Maus was robbed of all wizardry potential and given the latter.)


Increasingly known for his transfixing, fiery and often self-abusive live shows -– punching himself till he gets a black eye is just old ho-hum sport for the kiddies to watch -– Maus named his third album after an especially forbidding line from philosopher’s Alain Badiou’s “Fifteen Theses on Contemporary Art,” which suggests a set of constraints to apply when making art.

Over the course of two years spent in Hawaii and its polar opposite, a rural Minnesota house that he rented for $250 a month, Maus made “We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves,” released in June. The collection of 11 songs veer from sounding like a soundtrack to an ‘80s robo-apocalypse film to sounding like experiments Prince made with Wendy and Lisa after dropping Quaaludes to sounding like something that would pipe through the organ of a Medieval European church that might run on the blood of small children in Druid hoods.

To talk to Maus, who speaks with a manic attentiveness that switches tracks often, is to delve into a system of thinking that isn’t the usual approach for musicians in the pop sector. In a fashion similar to Maus’ titular inspiration, the list below is a collection of the musician’s thoughts on art, music, cities blowing up on film and former co-conspirator Ariel Pink (he played in Haunted Graffiti for a couple of years around the “Loverboy” era). For the sake of clarity or brevity, some of Maus’ sentiments have been lightly edited.

The energetic Midwesterner will bring his live show to the Echoplex tonight; if he burns a printout of this blog post onstage, take a picture and send it to Pop & Hiss.

-- Margaret Wappler


1. In the title, “We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves,” the idea of censorship mentioned would be to refuse to leave the world as it stands, to try as hard as you can to share something else, to give something else than what’s already existent.


2. I just play around on the keyboard for a while and look for a surprise, look for something that seems worth sharing with others. I’m looking for something that might mark a kind of innovation or interruption or something like that. I can only wager that it does so, of course, but that’s the process.

3. The parallel that I like is science. You make some kind of discovery, or you construct a proof or a demonstration that you think is worth bringing to bear, or sharing. So what’s important about that is that no matter how much you know about math or science, there’s no way to force the eureka moment. It’s the surprise, it’s the thing that seems to exceed or interrupt the world as it stands. It doesn’t matter how much or how little you know. It doesn’t matter if you’ve read Kant’s third critique or not. You sit down, you look for it, you mill around with the language, and suddenly it erupts.

4. Language and philosophy is its own kind of creative enterprise, other than music and art. In the moment of working on the work, these ideas can’t be brought to bear, I don’t think. Certainly in respect to talking about the work, like we’re doing now, then they can be brought to bear. That’s where they come alive.

5. According to Badiou’s theses, all art is a kind of procedure where you subtract anything that you wager is superfluous to the ineffable truth of the work. In this case it would be pop music, the procedure and truth of pop music. What can we get rid of, in order to better see this impossible truth of pop music? Maybe you’ve had noise experiments or, in the middle of your song, some kind of caricature of jazz music, or suddenly breaking into some sort of faux-Baroque. It’s about getting rid of these kinds of things, just trying to subtract and endlessly move toward this question mark that is pop itself.

6. Obviously all the songs on my album have a periodic rhythm, they don’t really have any dissonance at all, there’s no atonality, there’s no thematic development, no noise experiments -- these are the kind of things that I was supposing were digressions from the way forward, which is always endless. One could never finally really arrive at this thing but we can subtract and try and get at the thing itself.

7. What is pop music? It’s not the platonic ideal resting in the heavens. It’s a void; it’s nothing. It’s what escapes the something else other than discourse. The something else other than the world, which is nothing, of course.


8. Politics is politics, not art. And of course, the last generation or so has been remarkably limp in the arena of politics. We sat on our hands while Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib and all this stuff unfolded. So while I think we might’ve done interesting things with art, music and film, there wasn’t a radical political thought, I don’t think, on the part of our situation. There wasn’t anything along those lines. So, of course my work would hopefully prompt or imagine some kind of way forward, but it isn’t doing politics in the revolutionary sense or whatever.

9. Where’s the thought on the part of our generation? So that we’re capable of entering into conversation with the kind of philosophers that are coming from a whole post-war European tradition? These guys saw the concentration camps; they didn’t grow up watching “The Terminator” and eating Domino’s pizza. The need I feel now isn’t so much about using their thoughts, but articulating our own. I think it’s imperative upon us. So far, I don’t see, and perhaps because I don’t know about it, any kind of thought that can meet these guys.

10. The shortcoming with them, of course, is that, among many other things, they don’t talk about punk rock or genre film. They talk about the contemporary art world, which to me is a corpse of a whole bourgeois European high-art tradition that ran aground, that particularly exhausted itself in, like, ’68 and exists today merely as some kind of way for people to distinguish themselves from others as sophisticates or something. I don’t see how any of that work holds a candle to some of the images and sublimity that one finds in forms of genre films and pop music.

11. For instance, in sci-fi and action movies, you have a whole team of people spending months and months and months constructing this whole CGI world, and the world always gets torn apart. There is a desire there, on the part of millions, to go see the world get torn down in glorious 64-bit CGI. We want to see the world destroyed. If art is the wounds of society, perhaps these wounds are telling us something, acting as would-be thinkers or theorists about our situation now.

12. People are always talking about ‘80s and nostalgia and retro with my work, but what is the sound of today? Should I just put a loop on my sampler and play it over and over again? Should I be playing guitars and basses, would that be today? Because it would seem that would be more like the ‘50s. Should I use the ugly sounds that the top 40 companies use in their trillion-dollar studios? It just seems to me that the work kind of necessitates this sound, these kind of instruments.

13. There is a tradition of Viennese classicism that was eminent to a particular 18th and 19th situation in Europe, but today there is a procedure of pop music. It’s abandoned a lot of dimensions that Western high-art music had, and that’s because it’s part and parcel with its master, which is global capital and the commodity form. Just as those earlier situations were part and parcel with the aristocracy, the current music will take on the character that legitimates it. That’s not to say it’s worse or better… just that it’s eminent to a situation.


14. Playing with Ariel Pink was great. It was great. It was great. It was really great!

15. It’s my wager that the European tradition, that trajectory, is done and exhausted. The whole European tradition was destroyed in the insanity of WWII and the project was given up, perhaps for the best. We are in some other world now, with the language of pop music. Who knows what this thing is?

Maus plays the Echoplex, 1154 Glendale Blvd., with Puro Instinct tonight at 8:30 p.m. $10.