agenda by Ari Simon

The indie pop icon explains the creative process behind his intense compositions and live performances.

reading time 5 minutes

John Maus has a lot going on. The indie pop icon is widely praised as an experimental musician, but he’s also a philosopher, holding a PhD in political science. He’s been described as an “apocalyptic” “oddball” who launched a career thrashing about by himself on stage, but he’s also simply a friendly open-minded Minnesotan. His creative works draw on musical influences from centuries ago to recent kitsch, yet his approach to making music is loaded with science. We discussed his unique musical approach, how it’s evolved, and the vulnerabilities of live performance.

You released Screen Memories late last year and are about to follow up with Addendum. Walk me through John Maus creating an album. How do you come up with the songs or how do they come to you?
It all boils down to three different ways. One way would be you’re just singing in your head, and stumble on some interesting idea that falls from the sky. You don’t have to argue with it or hold it to any standard. There’s an immediate sense that it’s worthwhile. Another way would be sitting at the instrument, messing around, but with some relationship to making sounds happen and uncovering something. And the best way — no, sorry, not the best, but the final way — is through the accident. You’re moving the pieces around. It’s all messy and doesn’t seem to work then suddenly a few pieces land on top of each other and it opens something up that you never would have stumbled on.

I totally understand your hesitance to claim one way as “the best”, but what is it about that final way that particularly resonates with you and your creative process?
I stammered there because when it falls fully crystallized into your mind, that’s perhaps the most inspired way, because it’s the most singular to one’s own existence. But that final way is the least suspicious. It arises out of the material itself and what the material seems to desire. By and large, those events, the happy unforeseen coincidence, is undeniably truth in its own right.

Let’s talk about how your lyrics come into play, especially for how uninhibited they seem. Your lyrics don’t seem afraid to be bogged down — there’s a freedom in your use of words.
Similarly to where I get musical ideas, sometimes you see that slogan or diddy or line of a mantra, and it seems like it works. So you store it in the filing cabinet of your brain waiting to be used. Another way is through improvising, just playing on the piano to get some nonsense. And as much as I might want to put something more profound or meaningful, I can’t escape the precise combination of needing a certain set of syllables to fit the music at hand. I’m first thinking about the musical aspect, so for the lyrical aspect, I’m looking for something that’s bulletproof, invincible. Given that belief, I honestly hold and appreciate the sense of the notion that anyone’s understanding of the lyrics is as good as mine.

Do you feel like you explore comedy or cheekiness with your lyrics?
From my standpoint, the fact that it’s perceived comically doesn’t concern me, unless its reduced to something trivial or frivolous. The same goes for the idea of creating a character. I wish I could do that, but I’ve gone too far in the other direction to do this silly voice that’s in conversation with my regular voice. Sarcasm seems like a blind alley to me. Like if I sang, “It’s the party tonight, everything is awesome, let’s have a party,” everyone in my audience would understand that I don’t really think that.

God forbid you accidentally make the great party banger.
Right, right. Or hopefully I would, since I have plenty of loans to pay off. But if I did it, I would never want to do it sarcastically.

Are there any artists or lyricists who you were inspired by coming into these new albums?
It’s strange, the lyrics that work the best from my standpoint don’t necessarily represent the way into the thing I’ve taken myself. I think about The Byrds’ song “Eight Miles High” – “nowhere is there warmth to be found amongst those afraid of losing their ground.” Things like that stick with me. Certainly having come up with a much more rigorous curator than myself, Ariel Pink, he opened up this bizarre world for me where the rock’n’roll cliche is embraced. But it’s not sarcasm. There’s an ineffable quality to it. There’s a dark sincerity to the language.

The last album also marked the first time you toured with a full band. How was that experience after a career of doing stage shows by yourself with a karaoke set?
I always kinda figured if I went back out again I would try to do that. I think it’s better with live instruments. Certainly from a sound standpoint, and perhaps from an aesthetic standpoint too. It’s pop: there’s supposed to be some sort of dimension of it that does the work for the audience. The nature of the medium itself is that it doesn’t ask for too much attention or willingness to make some sort of effort. Playing in bigger venues proves itself in a way I don’t think would have been possible with the solo configuration. Some of the hostility or disbelief I might have encountered before is taken care of. For example, back in 2011, there was a show where everybody threw beer at me. With a band it’s not quite as leading with the chin.

How did you deal with that kind of adversity, and what does it feel like having less of it now?
There’s a strange aspect of things where hostility is something that seems easier to negotiate than admiration and enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is more difficult to honor. When I first began, half the battle was changing minds, opening it up. So the hostility is much easier because it requires me to approach it by way of something like hostility myself. When there’s admiration, that’s much more difficult to intensify into some sort of radical event. All these thoughts are in keeping with this Agnes Martin quote I like, how “every artist feels uncomfortable when they encounter praise because they know anything they’ve done that’s actually good does not find its origin within themselves but within a discovery outside themselves.”

John Maus’s Screen Memories is now available on LP, CD and digitally. A career-spanning six album box, including his new album Addendum, is coming out on April 20, 2018. Addendum will be available by itself on CD and digitally on May 18, 2018.

All photos by Shawn Brickbrill.

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