Published Feb 28, 2012Just as the late '60s marked the moment rock'n'roll moved it focus away from 45 rpm singles to LPs, the early '90s will forever be known as "ground zero" for the electronic artist. While Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, Leftfield and Nightmares on Wax were just starting to put out full-length creative statements, Düsseldorf duo Mouse on Mars were gaining attention for pushing this notion one step beyond, utilizing a blend of live instrumentation and outboard electronics on their debut, Vulvaland. Nineteen years later, just as live-meets-Memorex bands like LCD Soundsystem, Hot Chip and Cut Copy are defining new millennial electronic music, Mouse on Mars are still bucking the trend with their tenth LP (and first in six years) Parastrophics, 13 tracks created almost entirely on computers. Exclaim! spoke with one-half of Mouse on Mars, Jan St. Werner, to talk about his band's legacy, travels and the many colourful characters that have influenced the overall sound and shape of Parastrophics.
Where am I calling you from?
Berlin, things have changed. I've been living here for about four years now and we've moved away from Cologne, where we were based for a long time. We moved away from there about six, seven years ago and then I had a little tour through Europe, staying in Amsterdam for a while where I worked for STEIM's Institute for Electronic Music. My daughter was born in Amsterdam, so that was quite a mark. Then we stayed in different major cities all over Europe, then we decided to go back to Germany. Basically, we decided to go back to somewhere where we could play. We decided on Berlin because it has most of all the other places that we've been to and it was sort of a mix, it was kind of an option to not miss any of the places that we liked. So, I moved there with my family, but when… I don't know how you say this in English… when the air was clear, Andi [Toma] was like, "Okay, let's move the whole thing to Berlin" and he came along with his studio, so it's been a little bit more than two years now. So, this is where we finished the album, although we had most of the tracks written over a couple of years, sketches and everything, it was basically in the last moments that we constructed the album as it is now. So, it's basically our first Berlin album.
I know a lot of electronic musicians living in Europe have recently been previewing their songs in clubs, have you had a chance to do this?
We played some of the stuff we had on the album live, for a while, actually. But the overall shape of the album hasn't been tested on anybody other than Modeselektor, and that was in the studio, checking what songs they liked and what they thought should go on the album. When they gave their vote, we went back and sort of changed things again, not necessarily completely according to their ideas, but their comments were important for us to re-consider the material that we had because it was basically just too much.
Would you say that you value verbal input more than, what some producers are going for lately, physical input from the audience?
Yes, absolutely but I don't think we're aware of which input leads to which output. We're basically a bit chaotic about these things, so even if we were to understand, "Hey, this thing really works well in the club," it wouldn't mean that we could properly construct it in the studio. We have a quite distinct approach on an album as a listening experience that we find personal rather than social. On a sense that you would listen to the music with other people in a big space with a P.A. system and it would be something that you'd rather dance to than go introspective or emotional, this would create totally a different situation and something that we would actually really not try to fix on the record unless it would be a documentation of a live performance.
You've been around for close to 20 years. Do you look at the way you and Andi approach electronic music as "first wave" or "old school"?
Well, there was so much before we started. There was all the experimentation from when the first oscillators appeared and surely all of that was more academic because that was the only platform where people could have access to those tools. Then when it opened up, it opened up to pop music and people have done so much there. I think when we started out we were kind of like new kids… on the block [laughs] and now we're kind of an in-between-generation. I think that we can say, from the response from the new album, we're still accepted as a present, rather than historic phenomenon and I don't think we're referred to a lot as having made a historic achievement towards electronic music. What has changed is, the club as a space has become much more experimental. Basically, when we started, we would have this rock venue that would offer us the platform to do things live and these days, clubs have changed so drastically, what people are accepting as music to dance to borders between listening music and dance music and experimental music and pop music and even R&B and techno. All these things have really mingled up. If there's anything that we would support in music, it would be impurity, anti-stagnation, taking promiscuity to the extreme.
Is it true that Parastrophics was completely made on computers?
Yeah, definitely, it is our most "computer" album so far. We've used computers since the beginning, like sequencing on the MIDI data and in the late '90s we started working desktop-based… and synthesizers and processing and all that stuff; which was still something that took a lot of time because you had to wait while calculations had been processed. But we still fed everything to analogue desks, we have outboard gear, we use a lot of microphones and instruments and stuff. And this album was all on the desktop, we used a lot of software, including software that we developed ourselves, it's just that these days, things are so much more flexible and varied and organic and powerful and fast and it just makes a lot of sense. What we've still had to get used to was a certain sound aesthetic; we've always relied on a certain analogue impurity, a certain weightiness that comes from feeding through desks and outboard gear and cables and we still do that, but things are coming from computers through the analogue desks, through the outboard gear through the patch gear and back into the computer. So it relied on a lot of the software experiments that we've made over the past six years. It was the first album we made that was completely visible in waveforms in front of us on a desktop. We were only using our ears when we've mastered stuff in the past and this time it was a more visual thing to do. We also had to get used to certain routines that were a bit clumsy at first and became more flexible and organic after a while, it's one of the reasons why it took so long for this album, we weren't exactly sure that that was the identity that we wanted from a new Mouse on Mars album.
Do you think that the method in which you create music influences its sound?
I'm sure it does in a certain way, and of course, we're very responsive but I think we're quite stubborn and I think we were looking for situations where things would change dramatically and things would never be the same again and in the end, we realized that we are still quite the same. Our routines are very strong, like the sounds we go for, the things we use. So what we try to do something that would put us in a state of shock where things would not be the same again… and then, it just takes us a couple of days and we adjust everything so it exactly Mouse on Mars again.
After taking six years between albums, did you have any trepidation that you and Andi wouldn't gel like you used to?
We took time off as far as recording stuff but we were still busy, we did an orchestra piece, we did Von Südenfed with Mark E. Smith, we worked on our software project, which was quite intense and it's still not finished, we've done co-production stuff and we've been touring intensely all over the world. We were not aware that we hadn't finished a record in such a long time and we realized, at some point, that it was really overdue and it's true, we had that moment where we said, "How should we approach this? Do we just release everything that we've collected over time? What's the reason, what's the theme, what would be the story behind the record?" Because each album has a story, each album is like your biography and in a way, you rewrite your biography with each record. I think that what Oval achieved with his new album, I think his sound is so amazing, it's as if he reinvented his whole sound. I think that Markus Popp is one of the rare geniuses in contemporary music because he's not doing the same sound over and over and for him it took a little while, he had to take some time off. I don't think we changed that drastically, but we needed that time to take the chance to reconsider our sound and our identity and in the end we thought, "Okay, we feel good that it sounds like Mouse on Mars." And with Monkeytown, our new label, it was good that they supported us, they said, "You have that sound and we want that from you" and it felt really good to have them around us. And now I feel that this record really is telling quite a broad story with several layers and things referring to each other, that at the end, you realize how these things link and still it has a lightness to it, it's playful.
How does Parastrophics tell your personal story?
One is, all those years that we spent between those records. Our last official, properly produced, intentional record was Radical Connector (2004) because Varcharz (2006) was a collection of tracks we had done mostly during the recording for Radical Connector. So, at one point we thought, "Let's put them out as an album but not as a 'big Mouse on Mars album'," which is also why we chose to do it with Ipecac because they're more associated with experimental music. So, between Radical Connector and this album, it's been eight years, in which so many things have happened, personal things. So, I think that all these things are somewhere in this album, it kind of collects experiences that we did in very obscure parts of the world; like, let's just say, a market in Karachi, a metropolitan experience in Shanghai, or Singapore or Tokyo or a trip to the countryside in Vietnam as much as a hike through the forest off of Los Angeles. And what we did was create an imaginary person, this person would be rather male than female, we didn't want to pin that down so clearly, and that person would be able to decide upon its own sex, its own profession, like a chameleon, who could completely blend into several environments but also be completely out of place, and even be multiple. In the final version of the record, there is text by Adam Butler who is a musician working on our label Sonig, under the name Vert, and he started writing stories, he's actually working on a big novel. We asked him to write a story along the lines of the person I just described. And then, we found those Shakers drawings, which basically we stole… or took as inspiration for the album. And the Shakers were a weird religious sect because men and women in the group were equal; they had the same rights, for within the 19th century, it was quite radical. They were great craftsmen, but also liberal in a way, very un-dogmatic. And they even had this idea of a metaphysical world that they would deal with in drawings, in craftwork, in poems. So we used this kind of worldview for the record. And there's other kind of characters as well, Gold Inferno, who is a jump-style dancer from Los Angeles, who is a modern type of dandy-esque, dramatic character. He would have people dance oddly to Belgium techno music, he wears this golden wrestler's mask and we wanted him to dance on "Polaroyced", one of the tracks off the album, but we could never get in touch with him. Someone got us as close as his sister, I think. He's impersonating one side of this character. Then we have this song, "Baku Hipsters," about music from the early 20th century in Azerbaijani where guys would do rap battles, these days they still do it, they traced it back to the very early beginnings. And they have a song about Baku Hipster, who's kind of a dandy in the streets of Azerbaijani, dressing up weirdly. People would wonder, "Is he gay, who is he?" So all these weird characters would come up and this is how we brought this record together. So, in a way, it's a whole soundtrack for a book that is kind of like our book, of the last eight years of us spacing round in this world and having music as our vehicle because this is basically what brought us to all of these places.