JOHN MAUS

From VMAN’s Winter 2011/12 issue, VMAN 24 The Decades Issue

THE BEST OF MUSIC 2011: JOHN MAUS

FROM A NEW CULT IDOL TO A PHILOSOPHER OF POP, TO AN ALBUM ABOUT ALIENS, TO HIP HOP’S GOLDEN ANTIHERO—THIS YEAR’S SOUNDTRACK WAS WINSOME, WEIRD, OTHERWORLDLY, AND WHATEVER

Text Patrik Sandberg
Photography Hedi Slimane

“I was hoping this would be a transitional thing, as a kind of breakthrough performance,” says John Maus of this year’s We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves, the landmark album that, at this point, represents a pinnacle of notoriety and acclaim for the 30-year-old avant-pop composer. “I hoped it was going to be my Eroica or something, like when I threw down the gauntlet and moved into some transition from early juvenilia into some kind of middle period, and—God-willing—years from now some insane late period. But it ended up being a consummation of a lot of ideas I’d been working with.”

With fifteen LPs and a smattering of EPs under his belt, Maus is no stranger to making records. He grew up forging lo-fi punk recordings that date back as early as 1991, when he was only 11 years old. “In southern Minnesota there isn’t much culture,” he says of his upbringing. “Basically, the pop I knew was the pop you’d see on TV or hear on the radio, with the exception of some of the punk stuff from California. That was pretty much it in terms of my musical education.”

That is until 1998, when Maus headed to L.A. to study experimental music at CalArts—which is where he met his fated collaborator, Ariel Pink, and subsequently developed an interest in pop. “I’d be playing Christian World pieces and Morton Feldman pieces, doing roman numeral analysis of Beethoven sonatas and stuff like that,” he recalls. “The art kids had a more naïve, punk approach. Ever since then, and perhaps to my own detriment, I’ve been a little categorical and thought of experimental composition and punk as two different trajectories. The big thing with Ariel is his love of pop and his demonstrations, over and over again, that that language itself can be just as radical, just as emotive, just as thought provoking as the other languages.”

Today, Maus is in the midst of completing a Ph.D. in philosophy, studying what he describes as the idea of a community of singularities. “It’s about a community with nothing in common,” he says. “Where we each appear as we are, so to speak.” This sense of “alone togetherness” mirrors the artist’s live show, in which he stands by himself onstage, powerfully emoting to the point of rabid vulnerability. The songs themselves are at once catchy, galactic, and primitive, as though their melodies have been embedded into the mitochondria of our sonic DNA. It’s like music from the ancient future.

“It’s funny you say ‘ancient’ because that’s exactly what it is,” he says. “I find a lot of inspiration in the music we culturally associate with the medieval period, with the Renaissance, and with church choirs. There are people who are interested in new sounds. I like these old ones, too. I think we shouldn’t forget about the expressive possibilities that they afford, we should use them and explore.

“I guess I’m constantly looking for something, trying to uncover something that strikes me as worth sharing,” he says. “The stupid metaphor I use is that I’m like a scientist. I’m doing my research to make a worthwhile discovery.”

We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves is available now from Upset the Rhythm