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Jan St. Werner and Andi Toma, the German duo behind Mouse on Mars, live in a world in which music is king and other matters rarely intrude. So naive were they about marketing that they had to be cajoled by record-company executives into coming up with a name for their group. Likewise, they pay little attention to what goes on beyond their sphere. As proof, note that St. Werner was still fantasizing about meeting John Denver during his visit to Colorado more than a week after the singer's widely reported death.
That St. Werner had an interest in chatting up the warbler of "Rocky Mountain High" will likely come as a surprise to anyone who's heard Iaora Tahiti and Vulvaland, the first two CDs by this lo-fi electro act, or Autoditaker, a new disc that marks the pair's move from a major label (Elektra Records) to an independent one (Chicago-based Thrill Jockey). No one could describe the last effort as folk music; rather, it suggests an aural waiting room in which the wallpaper sizzles obliquely and the lights, the furniture and even the carpeting are fully wired. Linger there for a while and you may never want to leave.
The combo got its start in DYsseldorf, Germany--the home of Kraftwerk--thanks to a combination of happenstance and synchronicity. "We met at a biological [i.e., health-food] store where you can acquire nature-flavored yogurt, and then again at a concert. And then we had some tea one day and exchanged some sounds," St. Werner recalls in heavily accented but linguistically rich English. "We then met often without the intention of making music--but we seemed to make some anyway."
Before long, the two carved out enough of a niche for themselves in the burgeoning electronic-music field that they were able to leave the nine-to-five grind behind. Not that they view what they're doing now as a lark. "I think music is a proper job," St. Werner muses. "It's really difficult work. You still have to get up in the morning to get things done. Perhaps we get up and go to bed later than most, but we still work with a schedule. After we got deeply involved with making music, Andi and I found there was no more time left for other pursuits. We spend time creating and then producing our music, we do remixes for other people, and we work on commercials. After all of that, there is no time or energy left."
Such exertions extend to the conceptualizing that forms the spine of Mouse's music. The title of the outfit's most recent release is a case in point. "We wanted a hybrid of syllables containing the possibilities inherent in the compositions," St. Werner explains, adding, "One word didn't achieve this, so we built one. It reminds you of a familiar scientific term, yet it isn't. And playing around with linguistics is quite fun.
"The studio is where our ideas come to life--and all of the elements in the studio are equally significant," he goes on. "The machines used to create sound, like guitars and computers, are obviously momentous, but you must think about the conservation of sound. Each sound, as it happens, as you hear it, is then gone. You hear it existing and then disappearing at the same time. This stage is very exciting, but you can't work with this exciting product until you conserve it. So the capturing and storage mediums are essential elements--the microphones and the tape decks and the memory banks. And then the mixing desk combines all of the recorded material into a whole composition. It sculpts the sound."
Behind these highbrow mind games, however, beats a romantic heart. "All of our songs are love songs," St. Werner states. "They have soft openings with gentle sounds; they have subtle melodies that push and pull and tease the way that lovers do; they have something strange and something familiar; they are warm and exciting. And since neither of us sings, they are love songs without words."
Passion and introspection are equal partners on Autoditaker, a warm broth of complex percussive electronics, simplified melodies and layer upon layer of buzzing harmonies. The jaunty "Tamagnocchi" is a sonic Eurorail train zooming through a countryside of bubble beats; "Dark FX" speeds up and softens a hip-hop riff into a pattern that's pleasant and playful; the extremely accessible "X-Flies" sports a happily intricate drum program laid over a manmade environment that resembles a field recording from a swamp; and "Sehnsud" rides along on a textured, menacing acid-house bass line. As for "Schnick Schnack Meltmade," it benefits from the presence of Stereolab's Mary Hansen and Laetitia Sadier, whose "la-la"s and repetitions of the phrase "gateaux electrique" swirl against a curtain of bustling pops and beeps.
The connection between Mouse on Mars and Stereolab is a strong one. "We have a long history with them, both in the studio and on tour," St. Werner says. "We worked with them on their last record, Dots and Loops, while they recorded it in the studio in DYsseldorf, and we collaborated on the EP Cache Coeur Naif last year. We toured with them a few years ago and accompany the band on its American tour until we jump off the bus, so to speak, in Los Angeles." In St. Werner's opinion, "the shows have been remarkable," in part because he and Toma are taking a minimalist approach to performance. "Our tour is quite different this time, because we are not touring with a full band," he elaborates. "We are only two people producing music in front of an audience. There are no visuals; maybe some spots on us, but that is all. We want nothing to encumber the music. If people want to come up and dance, that would be nice, but we will not dance. There will be no bouncing balls or back-up dancers."
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