John Maus Is the Philosopher-King of Machine-Pop
*This article was altered on July 11, 2011.
Talking with John Maus is an exercise in keeping one's wits alert—in the best way. He's a fast talker and an equally quick thinker, someone happily able to bust out references both literary and of critical theory at the drop of a hat, which makes sense given such past gigs as lecturing in philosophy at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. But when the LA-born-and-raised Maus appears onstage at Detroit Bar on Wednesday—part of a bill with Puro Instinct and Geneva Jacuzzi—it'll be his elegantly energetic, atmospheric electronic pop that'll be the main draw. Then again, as Maus argues, it's not necessarily his own work in the way that's commonly understood.
"Creative work is a process, and the process is antithetical to the idea of the end product, in which you're expected to keep coming out with stuff," he says. "There's no time limit, no guarantees at all. It's coming up against impossibility, uncovering something that is worthy of being brought to bear. I would resist the whole idea that the individual is the origin, since I don't believe in the individual in the bourgeois humanist sense. Genuine artistic work is something that's uncovered as a singular demonstration or setting forth of the objective, in the same way Euclid singularly demonstrated the infinity of primes."
Maus himself seems to have released an infinite number of albums, on his own and in collaboration, in almost 20 years, starting with demos when he was barely a teenager in the early '90s. Both he and Jacuzzi are longtime associates of the similarly nonstop Ariel Pink; Maus speaks of being part of "a whole constellation" revolving around Pink, in which he and Jacuzzi have separately explored ideas each musician also worked in. His latest, We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves, comes across as a sharp bit of understated machine-pop, drum beats and precise keyboard tones set against his swathed-in-the-deepest-echo-possible vocals. What would seem to be a recipe for a downbeat stage performance is nothing of the kind, though: Maus throws himself physically into shows, all sweat and frenzy, pumping up the crowd as much as himself, all while the vocal effects and steady flow of the music create a serene counterpoint—a very intentional but pointed approach, he notes.
"There are two different gambles—the construction of the work and the live representation of it—and the live performance aims for the same goal in a different medium," Maus says. "I have this banal wager that the best way to approach that is through the hysterical body. It's transgressive in some way to become hysterical, to show the body at its limit. We can perhaps struggle to appear at that limit, struggle against what we're prescribed to be, constituted through history and culture. The hysterical body is one way of trying to betray that."
He speaks warmly about his tour mates while also looking ahead to whatever follows, concluding on a note that embraces never achieving full artistic satisfaction. "You're never totally sure you've written the best song ever; otherwise, you'd stop writing!" he exclaims. "There have been moments when something has pierced through the void: Some kind of gap appeared to me, and I was able to catch it. Not absolutely—it's an endless struggle, there's no guarantees, and it's a tremendous gamble. You see it for a moment, then it just recedes and keeps receding, and you have to keep going after it."
This article appeared in print as "The Philosopher-King of Machine-Pop: John Maus drops equal parts Euclidian thoughts and serene beats."
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