Jan St. Werner of Mouse on Mars on how there's no proper code for behaving to his music
Mouse on Mars is a German duo made up of Jan St. Werner and Andi Toma, who started the project from their respective home cities of Cologne and Düsseldorf as a means of exploring sounds and organizing them into unconventional compositions. Whether this meant using traditional instrumentation, synthesizers, samples of songs or raw sounds doesn't seem to matter to these guys. The only seeming criterion is that the songs should be interesting and assembled in a creative and compelling way. This sort of hybrid approach to making music has caused Mouse on Mars to be lumped in loosely with IDM bands like Autechre, Plaid and Squarepusher, whose own adventurous sounds are difficult to pin down.
Mouse on Mars is known for its diverse and evolving body of work as much as it is for its numerous collaborations, including those with Stereolab and Mark E. Smith, as discussed below. This willingness to absorb ideas, recontextualize them and leap off those ideas into other realms of sonic and storytelling creativity has been a hallmark of what this band is about. We recently had the chance to speak with Werner about working with Stereolab, Mark E. Smith and the trio of Mouse On Mars albums that came out in 2012, including Parastrophics, WOW and the supremely limited edition WretchUp.
Westword: How did you get interested in unconventional or experimental music?
Jan St. Werner: I guess it's still increasing, this interest. It started quite early, and there are probably various explanations why you make music the way we do it. It starts with the way you hear things in your environment and music and how you approach sound in general. At some point, you realize that if you're interested in working with sound you very likely will end up making music of some sort. Of course you can approach music by learning an instrument but even then it's not just a technical thing of playing an instrument right or wrong. Even then, you really have to listen to what you're doing and what you're intending to do.
I guess, for us, it's really about keeping your ears open and listening carefully to what you have heard, whether you play it yourself, or if it's something you find or discover in the corner of your bathroom or outside in the wild, or if it's other people making music and you sit down and listen to them. What's really important is that you realize that what you hear is not what you see and that you start separating those two senses. That's quite a profound revelation and achievement if you're able to do that.
This is something that, for some people, might come really early, even when they're kids, and for some people, it will never happen. For some people it gradually occurs to them that what they see is definitely not what they hear -- that the acoustic senses is a thing in its own right, delivering a complete world of its own. Our brain is just so amazing in catching all these different sources of information and attaching these different central inputs together and creating a consistent image. I think the path we chose is quite specific and just because it provides us with all the excitement and all pleasures that we need.
What kinds of places did you perform live early on or did you?
I think we had to start playing live quite early. Also we'd been a studio project in the beginning -- just two guys fiddling with gear and sound and recordings. Once we had signed to our first label, Too Pure, which was, more or less, an indie label coming from independent rock music. So their idea was definitely that we should bring the whole thing on stage. It was something that seemed impossible to us in the first place.
We quickly recovered from that shock and came up with a good idea, which was incorporating Dodo NKishi, our drummer and singer, into the set. Our first ever gig was in London, and we just called him up and asked him. He was living in London at that time, and we still knew him from his time in Düsseldorf because he grew up in Düsseldorf.
He brought all the percussion stuff he had with him, and we borrowed a drum kit, from I don't know where, and we got this set together, and I was playing all kinds of things, like radio and effects pedals and Dictaphone things. I had two synthesizers, and Andi Toma was still playing bass and all that kind of stuff. So our first show was in London, and that took us to many places quite early. Our first American tour was probably 1997 with Stereolab, I think.
How did people react to the live version of the band early on?
It was really good. It seemed like people were really interested in new things. The timing was perfect. We were coming from a much more obscure background. But it seemed like the time was just right because people were really interested in new sounds and electronic music had reached the independent world, which, for a long time, wasn't the case, but when we came out, it seemed to mix and merge and form new hybrids. Lots of people booked us, so it must have been okay.
People were dancing, people were watching, people were wondering, people were linking what they saw to things they knew or think they imagined. I think we were a good projection screen in a way. It seemed like various groups of people and various scenes could kind of relate to what we were doing. Different scenes were coming together at our concerts. You had some experimental people, indie rock kids, people who liked dub, noise, electronics and ambient and dance. It seemed like quite a hybrid crowd. It's hard to say, but I think that's still the case. I get the feeling that when we play live, people let go because there's no proper code of how to behave to our music.
We don't translate a specific musical or cultural attitude. It's not like grindcore, where you might have a certain length of hair, or rave, where you wear Vans shoes and square patterns on your shirt, a baseball hat and some neon elements. You have all these kinds of people, but there's no specific sign that everyone does at a certain point, like holding up your fist or something. It's very heterogeneous. It seems that puts people at ease and they can let go because they don't feel observed, they don't feel like there's something they have to do right or catch to do it right.
Going back to Stereolab. Obviously your own work impacted Stereolab's 1997 album Dots and Loops. How did you get connected with that band? Was it partly through your mutual label Too Pure?
Yeah, exactly! I quite clearly remember the first time we met them, which was in a café in Köln. They had an interview day and it was basically across the street from where I lived. They did interviews and we did too and we just said hello. There was just sympathy [right away]. We were just chatting and talking. I don't know how the indication came to tour with them. But yeah, I think that was when we were hanging out. We shared a bus together and we shared a very small space, basically, so you come to know each other quite well. Now we're still good friends, Laetitia [Sadier] and Tim [Gane], we're still good friends with.
How did you find working with them on, say, Cache Cœur Naïf?
They're very easy-going people. There's not really anything we had to change about the way we had to work. Laetitia and Mary [Hansen] contributed to [that] EP. We made the music and they did the singing and we hung out and figured out how they could become a sound in our abstract world of sound.
Andi was engineering a lot. He's an amazing engineer. He has the patience, energy and speed to record a whole orchestra. So it was quite a relaxed session. I just contributed to a few tracks. Tim was always like, "Just do what you feel you should do." Sometimes I made noisy parts, sometimes I would lay down a melody or a harmonic part. I also contributed to Margerine Eclipse later on. Electronic bits, just casually.
How did you come to work with Mark E. Smith?
He came to a show of ours. His wife is actually an old friend of ours and she took him to a show. He was just excited about the way we make music, probably because he didn't really understand how we could come up with such a sound. It was a rather pop music-oriented night, and I think we were, by far, the harshest and the weirdest of the acts, and I think he enjoyed us. By the end of the night, we parted with the promise that we would do something together.
After a Fall show in Düsseldorf, Mark and Andi came to our studio, and we had our gear set up for the show and we did a jam. From that jam we constructed the first bits for the tracks that went on to the Von Südenfed album [Tromatic Reflexxions]. Again, a quite natural progression of things.
What was he like to work with?
He's very efficient. He's really good to work with because we're easy to distract, and we usually create loads of different parts and loads of different ideas on one track and try to fit all these ideas into songs. Mark's more like one idea per song is enough. If you have another really good idea, and it doesn't distract from the first idea, add it, but stick to your initial impulse. He kept us focused on the main thing, which was really good.
What about Mark Popp's work attracted you to collaborating with him for Microstoria?
Markus is a really good friend. It is not only the collaboration that links us. He has a brilliant mind, so I am happy to have him as a friend. We met through an old friend of mine who lived in the same city at the time. He asked me if I had heard the very first Oval album and I said I was really very much enjoying it. He said we should meet and he brought us together. Markus and Sebastian Oschatz came to visit me in Köln, and Markus was the one that stayed in my life or stayed around as a friend.
When we met, we decided we should work together somehow. I went to Berlin to work in his place, and we started Microstoria and did a few records together. Now Markus is helping me with a kind of opera project I'm doing. I've always wanted to create an opera, but it's not an opera in a [conventional sense], of course. It's a more abstract idea of an opera. But Markus is writing the libretti, so he's doing the text part. I have to do the singers for the opera and the sounds are basically electronic.
I did the music and have an idea for the theme of the opera, and now I'm working with Markus on the text of the story. The opera will premier in June, and hopefully, we'll get a good record together, maybe one or two discs. Eventually, I hope Bettina [Richards] will release it on Thrill Jockey. I've been working with her again on a few things. So the next solo release will be a vinyl on Thrill Jockey, and I hope the opera will follow up. I didn't want to bring up my solo stuff, but he's like a mascot of my solo endeavors because he always encouraged me to do my own things and to be very critical and concentrated and he's an un-corruptible partner.
What's your opera to be called?
It's called Miscontinuum. That's the working title.
All of your albums sound very different from each other in a certain sense. What did you do with Parastrophics that set it apart from the rest of your body of work?
It's a bit of a difficult question for us because I can't really explain how we are changing or how it works that we're changing or coming up with new things all the time. It's all driven by the same interest, the same momentum. It just became more detailed and we're able to use more fragments and more sound events. It's more that we can deal with. It's just more that we can deal with. And how we judge the quality of the sound events. You become more of an expert at what you're doing.
I guess it sometimes makes you more difficult to be understood, but sometimes it makes things esoteric, more obscure to people. Other things you learn to translate so much easier. So things that seemed so complicated in the past that are these days like nothing. You just throw them out and explain them with a word, and that's all you need to do. I think we always explored into various directions at the same time.
I think as much as we became more understandable and more pop, maybe, but not in a conservative way. But pop is constantly changing and evolving. I think, for me, "pop" means a certain accessibility, a certain non-elitist idea of music being open and accessible to everyone and still based on even trivial ideas of a song, a melody, a rhythm and you can just jump into it and ride along. That's something we still like to have at the end of the day.
At the same time, of course, we evolved in the direction of cutting things and even more details and taking one phrase and cutting it into different categories and having another thing go out of there. So yeah, we've created so many more hybrids of even the smallest bits and parts that I think, sometimes, if I become aware of it, I would say I can't bring it together anymore. But if I'm not thinking about it so much, we intuitively grow our own way.
So with Parastrophics it took a little while until we had finished this record. In a way, it embraces digital technology more obviously than we had done on records before. I think it is, in a certain way, quite a labyrinth of a story and carries its very own story like any of our other albums have. That's something you just discover while you work on a record. You realize why you collect all your tracks and you make experiences, your travels, your personal experiences and your family life to feed into that.
Parastrophics is a kind of space all the other spaces fit into. In a certain way, it was our Berlin statement. It was our manifestation in a new environment. All the other records before have more or less been made in Cologne and Düsseldorf. The new album translates this weird Utopia of Berlin, or at least how we perceive it. The story in Parastrophics is really about a character rather than the records before going through transitions. But that's something you discover at the end of the record.
It's not that you start with a concept and make the songs fit to your idea. You think what really fits together and what songs you want to have on the record, who's involved in the album and where it will be released. Then you realize those tracks make sense and you shift and shape them in a certain direction. It's like cosmos circling around a center. Even if you don't explain that center or the inner core of that center, there still is a center.
For that record, it was a person, really. In the liner notes there is a text by our friend Adam Butler. He wrote that short story. It is a riddle, a labyrinth, the psychology of a single person trying to deal with very trivial things as well as complex, psychological things as well as the ghostly and different beings, his different manifestations of a human being--what he can be and what he never escaped from. He discovers the life outside of himself and inside of himself.
WOW was quite different. Musically, if you put tracks from WOW next to tracks from Parastrophics and vice versa, and you're not a hardcore Mouse on Mars fan, you would say, "It doesn't make a difference." It all comes from the same sound world but for us it's a totally different record. WOW is really immediate because it was made out of a moment. It carries a certain gesture.
Again, it's one person that obviously carries you through the record. It's this guy Dao Anh Khanh, a Vietnamese artist who does all these shoutings and all these weird voice things which you can't explain -- it's kind of a fantasy language. He's like the moderator, the MC of WOW. It's all about expression, immediacy, letting things out and letting things go and just expressing yourself right in the moment.
It's far less a psychological blueprint or a map of a complex place outside or inside yourself. You're here and now and you let go in good and bad ways. The title expresses it, the tracks express it. The voices we have on the record are basically shouts and sometimes you think it's a porn soundtrack, but it's not. It's this band Las Kellies. They were in the studio. In the end, Andi cut out those sounds and cut them into the track.
When I first heard it, I told him it sounded like something out of a porn movie, or beating up women or something, and I told him I wasn't sure how I feel about it. He didn't see it at all. He saw it as the abstract, best bits of that recording session. It worked perfectly with Dao Anh Khanh, who is just shouting and crying. He's like a cock you want to catch and slaughter. He's running around making these "ooh ooh ooh, ah ah ah" [sounds], like a monkey or something. They work perfectly together.
Eric D. Clark, with whom we had recorded two other tracks, we found some of these takes of him and doing other vocal sounds and it worked perfectly. We realized we were inside a story--how these things come at us and how they end up in the record. It carries a story of its own. We just have to follow it. We don't even have to look for things--they're just there and we just have to grab them and throw them into the music.
Since then, we've actually made another record so last year we basically put three records together. This record is called WretchUp. It's a record we made for all the people who supported this iPhone app we've been working on for a little while. So we made that into a crowd-funding project. We said, "We have that app on our phone. If you want it too, you have to give us money so we can pay a programmer to code it.
This is what it does, this is what it sounds like. So if you feel like you want to have it, we will make it open source so you can improve it the way you want, but to get it onto a platform you can work with, we need to find the person to program it properly." So we got the money together, and you have to give certain things, so we said we would give away some music as well, not just the app.
So from bits and pieces of sounds we made with that app, we made WretchUp, which is quite an intense and quite weird record, and it only exists in an edition of eighty. So it's not even worth talking about, but we put so much love into it, and put it together like it was a proper album. It has a sleeve, and it's hand stamped. The sleeve is actually the envelope of the record, so it's like a CD in a leather envelope.
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