Photo by Will Oliver/Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz

John Maus at the End of the World

The Minnesota songwriter reemerges from a six-year absence to a world that looks entirely different. But has he changed along with it?

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Oct 12 2017, 3:58pm

Photo by Will Oliver/Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz

This is the end. Staring down the swirling wood grain of a picnic table on the roof of VICE's Brooklyn office, John Maus explains that apocalypse is in the air. It's a thought that feels pretty resonant on a brutally humid day at the close of one of the hottest summers on record.

"The end I'm talking about is always immediately at hand," he says in a low register, twirling his fingers nervously. "We stand between time and its end, which is obviously our death."

On October 27, following a six-year hiatus from releasing music, Maus will put out his fourth album, Screen Memories, on Ribbon Music. The milestone should be cause for celebration—except here we are, sweating on a roof and talking about the end of the world.

Not that Maus is necessarily all that worried—mostly, you get the sense that he's just happy to be talking about this stuff. During his years out of the spotlight, holed up in a house in a small town in Minnesota called Austin, he says he spent a lot of time alone, "sitting in the same chair in front of the same computer, just watching the summer go by." First he took a couple years to finish his long-in-the works PhD dissertation in political science—a treatise on "control" he says would get "byzantine" if he tried to explain it. Then he decided to rethink the way he made music entirely, learning to wire circuit boards so he could build his own synthesizers from scratch, which took another two years.

Once he did that, he wrote Screen Memories. Ultimately, he admits, it doesn't really sound all that different from his previous work—there's still hints of the neon, baroque pop compositions that comprised his last record, We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves, and the bizarre mantras of 2006's Songs and 2007's Love Is Real (he was once equally likely to chant "Love the world and love all man," as he was, "Sex with car / Sex beneath the car / Sex while driving car .") That said, you can sense the extra care that went into this one—the pointillist modular work on "Touchdown," a computer-funk anthem that leans on a dead-eyed football metaphor, reveals a clarity and molecular attention to detail I hadn't heard in his previous work.

And then there's the apocalypse, which looms over the album from start to finish, sometimes in a drolly hilarious way. "The Combine" imagines the rapid encroachment of harvesting threshers, coming to swallow us all. Another track, "City on the Edge of Forever," deals with Silicon Valley's obsession with immortality. "Pets" features the album's sole moribund lyric: "Your pets are gonna die."

It's pretty heavy stuff—which is only fitting given the way the world's gone in the past year especially, as we deal with the cataclysmic effects of long-ignored climate change and teeter on what feels like the brink of nuclear war. "We're talking about nukes again!" he says with some amount of disbelief. "People are getting bomb shelters on the West Coast as we speak."

I have never talked to anyone whose brain moves quite as fast as Maus's. He tends to free-associate, stumbling over half-explained thoughts when a more interesting one strikes him. In the midst of explaining, say, the ins and outs of "the end of ends," he's liable to pillory the scientific establishment for their abandonment of liberal arts values. It can be hard to figure out exactly how you got there from a question about his music, but it feels enlightening nonetheless.

Over the course of two hour-long conversations, Maus opened up about the new record and his six years away from the spotlight. We also got into the controversy that surrounded his appearance on the Adult Swim show Million Dollar Extreme Presents: World Peace in September of 2016—which was cancelled three months later, following the publication of reports that the show was attempting to sneak "coded racist messages, including swastikas" onto the air and that its co-creator, Sam Hyde, had become a celebrated figure among the alt-right.

Many musicians in the broader world of indie rock—including his collaborator Molly Nilsson, Chastity Belt, and Ovlov—also appeared or had music used on the show, but unlike many others, Maus did not respond publicly after Hyde's views came to light. Below, he explains how he ended up on the show and why he hasn't spoken out about it until now. He also criticizes "obscenity" and "disaster" of the viewpoints associated with the show.

The below interview combines two conversations, and has been edited for length and clarity.

Photo by Shawn Brackbill

Noisey: It's been six years since your last record. What's gone down in your life since then?
John Maus: It feels like a millisecond to me. It really feels like it was at most a year or something. I'd wake up in tears some days when I actually realized how much time was passing. I moved to a very small town in Minnesota right on the border of Iowa, the town that I grew up in, and was just living in a little two-bedroom farm house. I spent at least two years of that completing some school stuff. Then I ended up spending another two years just trying to confront the media in a way I never had before—for example, building modular synthesizers. For lack of a better way of putting it, I'm a professional musician now, and I felt obliged to understand the most advanced means of artistic production available in our situation today.

There's more to understand about music production than there ever has been.
I know! The takeaway was that, aside from learning some interesting things about following a circuit diagram or whatever, it didn't really make that much of a difference sonically, which was a huge disappointment to me.

I understand that impulse though—you feel like you have to do the work.
A perfect example of this is the early studio electronic music or the BBC radiophonic stuff—the fact that these guys had to spend six months with a tape. You can hear the struggle or the effort. It can only lend it a significance. That was definitely one of the guiding lights that kept me going as I exploded one circuit board after another, trying to get it right.

"In order to avoid the horrors of the abyss, one of the best things you can do is Legos. You follow the instructions and the thing works"

Like, literally exploded?
Yeah, literally! I didn't know anything. So I'm blowing things up and going, "What the hell!" Once I've figured these things out, maybe I've learned something! There's a little bit of satisfaction in that.

So eventually you got to a point with all this stuff when you felt like you could make songs out of it.
Maybe I was just dodging—it was just some unconscious way of avoiding. I'm open to that possibility. It's Legos. In order to avoid the horror of that abyss, one of the best things you can do is Legos—following the diagram. You follow the instructions and the thing works. You're like, "I did it!," but you aren't making anything new.

There's no rules for the real thing. You're always up against this limit that is secured by nothing—not by truth, not by the Gods, not by will. It's just an impossibility every time.

Long story short—then I put this away. I messed with computers a lot too in addition to the circuits. [The record] started to happen, and that would have been the last two years of the six missing years.

Tell me about the album's title. In past interviews, you've talked about how technology is woven into your life. Is that what Screen Memories is about too?

Well, there's a television set [on the cover]. There a sense of remembering when it was so much more of an enclosure, which has now exploded into the television in our pocket. Everything now...everybody knows it's all mediated through that device. Our social relations, our news feed—everything. Our memory.

There's [also a] tongue-in-cheek intellectual reference to the Freudian screen memory—where [in] the place of trauma, where the mortuary owner diddled you, you remember the mortuary owner buying you ice cream instead. It's a screen trauma. All of these things concocted a nice brew that made the title seem kind of self-evident to me.

"There is a way that great art can reconfigure things right alongside politics. [But] the second art washes itself down as politics, the chances of it doing [that] can become less and less."

Tell me about the themes you were thinking about while working on the record.
The album is entirely apocalyptic. It was more or less finished around the election too. It was in the air. Everybody was just hysterical, [and] I was like, "Oh man, this is the end!"

But [on] "City on the Edge of Forever," I refuse the conceit of understanding immortality as some indefinite continuation of life in the body. If this is some notion that Silicon Valley or certain public intellectuals within it would apologize for or promote, this would be the edge we're falling over. The Cyborg thing.

You see it in universities, right? The talk show host making fun of jackasses like you or me who thought it was important to learn the residues of the humanities which have existed since the Renaissance. Well, you know, you can't program a computer using that! And, you can't make money doing that!

What's gonna happen now with the straight A [students] who got perfect scores on their SATs and have never read any literature in their life, but they've read The God Delusion? Not [ The Brothers] Karamazov nor Kierkegaard, but a book on string theory or whatever. Science is only gonna suffer for it, but it's also very advantageous to the methods of control that we abandon these 19th and 20th century conceits about the Human, Poetry, and the Word. Fuck the Word! Let's go with the emoji. Everything must be fragmented! All that is fragmented must melt into air!

Is that dissolution of language one of the signs of the end for you?
Those are the signs! [Though] I understand that this is just a folly, just a language. The end doesn't exist. The end I'm talking about is always immediately at hand.

The world is always ending.
"The kingdom is at hand." "Read the signs." Do you see the language I'm playing with here? I love this messianic concept that's explored by some of the European philosophers. As the Silicon Valley technocrats might put it, "We've got it all figured out. It's all perfect now. We're all progressing towards it. Once we balance the equation, everything will just be perfect. There will be no more suffering; there will be no more evil. It will be the end." That's precisely the blasphemy maniacs like me utterly and completely reject.

How does the song "Pets" fit into that?
There's people that are really sad to hear this, that our pets are gonna die. It's harder to make out, but then they go to heaven at the end. That's what I'm babbling about at the end.

One of the things I've always been interested in your lyrics is your use of political slogans. You have songs like "Rights for Gays" and that seems to speak to this current moment.
I mean, look at my lyrics. I have no gift...very little interest and less aptitude for verse. A lot of the great tracks in post-war popular music are infused with spellbinding verse, but my interest has always been exclusively in what would be proper tuned music. I repeated this several times around the time of Pitiless. My interest is in the moment where you follow what is familiar to us through to its breaking point.

In relation to the "Rights for Gays," I can give a perfect example. Coming from where I'm coming from with lots of caveats and apologies, the notion of the homosexual as far as I know is really an invention of the 19th and 20th centuries. Of course men have been making love with each other and women have been making love with each other since time immemorial, but it wasn't until certain institutions and apparatuses took an interest in it and started to classify it when the so-called "sodomite" became a type of person. From my perspective, the whole notion of human rights was an 18th century invention that was heavily critiqued by the radical left in how much it would fail to approach radical equality.

It's following the idiom through to its absurd conclusions where interesting things are more likely to happen. That's when the politics of aesthetics [comes in]; it's not in the protest lyrics. Which is not to say that there isn't totally revolutionary music that has these sorts of lyrics, just like there is totally revolutionary art that in its situation and its own discourse was explicitly feminist or explicitly addressing racial inequality.

There is a way that great art can reconfigure things right alongside politics. [But] the second art washes itself down as politics, the chances of it doing [that] can become less and less, in my opinion.

Do you feel like this record can "reconfigure things" in that way?
I'm pretty pessimistic there, because my favorite records that I've made, the one right before Pitiless, I think they're infused with a lightness. With a gratitude. This record lacks that, but even in a more banal sense there's nothing you could dance around in your socks to, either. That's not a good thing. I've always been suspicious of digressions from "She Loves You" and "Please Please Me" and "Satisfaction." These are the archetypes and the Idea with a capital "I" of the language that unfortunately I'm meant to mobilize.

Photo by Shawn Brackbill.

The last thing I wanted to ask about, which I'm sure you've gotten some questions about, is your appearance on Million Dollar Extreme Presents: World Peace. When the show was cancelled, you didn't put out a statement. I guess I'm curious why.
I've talked about it with people. I was out in Minnesota, and the label got in touch and said, "A show on Adult Swim wants you to be on it." I was like, "Oh, Adult Swim."

I love TV. I watch a lot of TV. I knew Space Ghost and I knew Tim and Eric. I'm like, "Cool. This is awesome." I said, "What's their name?"

I googled, and I just see this video of a guy in Roman armor taking a piss on a TED lecture. Now after everything we've said, obviously I'm like, "Right on. Fucking TED." Then I saw some other stuff, where they were taking a piss on, whatever, cool people in Brooklyn and stuff like that. I liked their target so far as I could see.

I said, "Oh yeah, they look like cool dudes. I'll go and do this." I said, "I want to sleep on the couch." I didn't want to come in and just sing a song and go. I wanted to be on the set and see. It was cool, the whole place, and to be on a TV set. They were super nice.
Then a few months later or whatever, one of the people from the label was like, "Yo, did you see this? You gotta say something." "They're Nazis," or something like that.

Shit. A cult of a race and blood—that's an absolute obscenity. That's nothing other than disaster. That's just inarguably obscene, that sort of ideology.

If the question too is why not just throw in your two cents about it or whatever, it's just so insanely complicated the way the biopolitics and the cults of race and blood, the residues of that, are rearing their ugly faces again in our situation. That's too complicated a thing to try to touch with [140] characters without running the risk of just turning the screw.

I don't want to make any apology, but I also didn't want to... The guys I met were nice. They weren't burning crosses or doing anything like that. In other words, I never had, from what I know about it, any indication that anything other than certain instances of a sort of trolling was going on. What did they do that made them Nazis? Maybe I haven't looked into it. Or why were they alt-right people?

Even the show itself has been accused of having racist characters.
The one I was on, there was a sketch at the beginning of it where these guys are sitting at a wine-tasting party or something like that, and their wives are there, and they make a point of the character—one of the wives is off-putting. She scowls and things like that. One of the guys trips her, and she falls through glass, and it tears up her face, and she's bleeding.

Now immediately, I'm thinking of Metalocalypse. I'm thinking of phantasmagorical humor, like a person gets their arm ripped off or something, and there's something absurd about that. I didn't think much beyond that about it.

Then people were like, "This is a misogynist sketch." Then in that sense I'm thinking of the French feminist theory, this whole reading of it from that standpoint: the men do not acknowledge the woman as an agent, as having any subjectivity. She's just an object in their patriarchal economy. In that sense, it's like a feminist critique of where a woman is made to stand in a patriarchal, heteronormative reality. The idea that it just encourages violence against women, maybe I'm just too dumb. I didn't see that or something like that. I don't know.

Are you receptive to hearing stuff like that—to being challenged by people?
Absolutely, but I've always considered my own politics, in whatever sense you can put them on a spectrum, left of left of left of left.

By and large, before any of this, I regarded the media and Washington as more or less a spectacle that was finally not where the locus of power in our situation lies. The networks of AT&T, the management of data packets—all these sorts of things seem to me to be more politically effective than the residues of some 18th century dainty Whig representative democracy chimera thing going on. Then of course, this all has real political effects. Just little quips and soundbites don't lend themselves to any sort of change. It blew my mind, the whole thing. I didn't know where the way in was.

You were shocked that they were accused of being Nazis, basically?
Maybe I didn't look into it hard enough. What sort of imbecile is going to pay alms, as I keep saying, to some race or something like that? To me, that's beneath contempt. It's taken for granted that such a thing as that is beneath contempt.

These people do exist.
I know they do. I saw it certainly in the election. It's so complicated. I don't want to do one of the easy positions on it, because it's all the vulgarity of biopolitics, as it's called. It's already much deeper than the clowns that don't want the statue of the Confederate general torn down. I get why that is obscene. I understand that, but where the conditions of possibility for that sort of obscenity finally lie is in a much broader... I don't even like touching this with a stick. They exist, yeah. Help me out here. What am I trying to say?

This is gonna sound like a weird way in, but are you familiar with the band Prefab Sprout? There's a solo album by the guy from that band called I Trawl the Megahertz , which should be totally unrelated to this conversation, except that Sam Hyde mentioned that album in an interview as something that he liked. Now there are people posting racial slurs on a Youtube video for that album. How does that make you feel, as someone who's also associated with Sam's work?
You can't do that. I used to think for a super long time when I saw YouTube comments and Yahoo comments, like, "I can't believe this." Then I only found out a couple years ago, way behind the curve, that these were all 15-year-old kids or whatever, just trying to say the most scandalous, outrageous, horrifying thing they could say, for shock value or whatever. No, you can't do that. You can't do that.

After Auschwitz, [German philosopher Theodor] Adorno's over here, having escaped, and his friends, [Walter] Benjamin included, died in this disaster, and he's like, "Look, Auschwitz gives us a new categorical imperative, and that's that Auschwitz never happen again"—and anybody who would argue with it, they've already lost on the face that they're showing themselves to be barbarous. Anything—any action—that seems to go in that direction is precisely ethically what ought to be avoided.

Maybe this is a naïve version of the question, but if those people are aware of your music now, do you want them listening to it? Do you want them at your shows?
If you would stand by and watch a pig smash the head of a trans person because they're trans, fuck you. If you would watch a pig shoot a toddler in a park and not try to stop him, then yes, fuck you. Finally it comes down to, if you don't have a sort of indignance when you see atrocities committed, you're not communing with the same humanity that I am.

Colin Joyce is an editor at Noisey. Find more on Twitter.