John Maus Talks New Album Screen Memories, the Apocalypse, and Wanting to Write Like Mark Ronson

John Maus has an enthusiasm that’s hard to contain. From his fist-pumping, head-banging karaoke-style live performances at the turn of the last decade to the fervent admiration he inspires on his fansite Mausspace, the iconoclastic lo-fi musician brings an ecstatic energy to everything he touches. This tendency extends both to the music itself and the sort of heady theoretical language he uses to break it down in interviews.

“I think largely the details that I’m most focused on are precisely the sort that are going to be lost on most people,” he says. “Like, ‘Look, this passage has four-voice counterpoint! It’s straight, I’m using parallel fifths in fugues—it’s totally legit from the prescriptions of the Renaissance, but it’s still pop!’”

In the hours before his set at Basilica Soundscape—an upstate New York festival of experimental music that attracts a certain brand of solemn gothy posturing—this gusto is refreshing. Maus seems ready to turn the frenzy of his early solo shows into something better suited for the stage, bursting with the energy of a reunion tour. For one thing, after years of performing with only his bellowing voice, a microphone, and an iPod loaded with backing tracks, he now has a full-fledged band. In addition to filling out his sound, the musicians help to avoid “the chance that someone’s going to think it’s some sort of performance art gimmick or something like that,” he says. “Which is never what I wanted to go for in the first place.”

Maus’s recent ensemble performances follow the announcement of Screen Memories, his first new album in six years, as well as a vinyl box set, which also includes his past three records and a bonus collection of rarities. The anthology feels like the marker of an era’s end for Maus. Alongside Ariel Pink, with whom he has toured and collaborated on multiple occasions, Maus used nostalgia for pop’s “mid-century” glory days as a window into the contemporary moment, scouring for deep truths beneath a thick surface of cassette hiss. A lot has changed in the six years since his last release: The dread and glimmer of optimism evident in his fascination with the past is only more pronounced in 2017, thanks to a wave of internet-bred musicians and artists took inspiration from his dizzily conceptual approach to lo-fi. The kitschy keyboards and thin drum machines that distinguished his early work now seem oddly ordinary, after years of percolating through the underground in his wake.

Apart from his link to what now feels specific moment in music history, Maus has continued to produce some of the strongest synth-driven post-punk of 2017. Screen Memories took over two years to complete, in part because he recorded it on synthesizers he built from scratch himself. Despite the new instrumentation, it never strays very far from his past work. The spectral, reverb-slathered vocals continue to sink comfortably into the background, storming to the forefront only occasionally. Even at its harshest, there’s a heavy weight that the album never shakes. Maus speaks about the “apocalyptic electricity” of the 2016 election season, which coincided with the final stretch of his work on Screen Memories. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better phrase to describe the sound of the record itself.

So you’ve been away from music making for awhile now, with five years since A Collection of Rarities and Previously Unreleased Materials. What have you been up to since that was released?

I spent two years finishing school stuff and then two years getting ready to make the album. I really wanted to try to do something new on the record and so I made the mistaken wager and put the chips on that bet and it didn’t really pan out the way that I’d hoped.

What do you mean?

Well, you know, to go through all the trouble of building all this stuff, I thought that it was going to open up some sort of previously unimaginable sonic universe. To control voltage with a computer in a way that the modular guys of the seventies could only hoped to have done with that sort of precision. And then finally, to all but the most discerning ears, it came out indistinguishable from the plugins you can just download for 20 bucks that pretend they’re Minimoogs or whatever.

You’re performing with a band for the first time now. Is it a big adjustment going from the drum machine, karaoke-style solo performance to the band?

Yeah, it is. Logistically and bottom-line speaking, it’s a lot more difficult. But it allows the live performance to fit better in bigger rooms in a way that wasn’t possible before. It avoids the chance that someone’s going to think it’s some sort of performance art gimmick or something like that, which is never what I wanted to go for in the first place. And fuck DJs! [laughter] That’s the new joke. Because I never understood that. I’m just kidding, I don’t know anything about DJs, but I didn’t get how people in Madrid would throw beer at me for doing this ridiculous iPod performance, but then everybody has a fun time with DJs. I guess I’m making it clear once and for all which side of the band/DJ divide I fall on.

I went back and reread your essay on R. Stevie Moore from a few years ago and you talk a lot about how pop music’s standardization of tonality, rhythm, and other sonic elements comes from its position as capitalist commodity and that folks like R. Stevie Moore and Ariel Pink represent this sort of sonic transcendence, an “excess” of what makes pop music so enjoyable. Do you still agree with that?

The essay you mentioned probably reeks of a sort of wide-eyed untempered enthusiasm, but I suppose that can be forgiven seeing as how I was 23 years old or whatever. But the way you just summarized it is by and large the way I still land on the question of, for lack of a better word, the “truth” content of any given pop song. It manages to be more than merely a pop song by way of some sort of overidentification with the idiom, with the familiar itself. These many more years of looking into it seems only to have confirm that, by and large—certainly in the history of Western music in general at least since it’s been written down, in situations entirely different from post-war popular music—the best stuff seems to happen when people try to follow the contradictions of what they’re already given through to their breaking point, as opposed to just starting from scratch or doing the wrong thing on purpose or whatever.

Do you think that’s had any impact on your music these last few years?

No. I mean I do believe this mentally, but with this album, I gave myself a lot more latitude as to what the idiom is with post-war music. Even though some of my favorite music is Pink Floyd just after Syd Barrett left, and all that quote-unquote “progressive” stuff, you know, Ummagumma, Atom Heart Mother and the rest of it—the symphonic ambitions of that music, I still reject as much as I love it.

But the canon of post-war popular music has “Good Vibrations.” It has “A Day In The Life,” it has all these instances where it wasn’t necessarily about, like, the idea exemplified in a track like “Hey Moon” or something like that. I mean since the very beginning, it’s been about something more than maybe what I’d supposed it was about with the earlier records. So, I gave myself more latitude to be “complex” or something like that. And I think that it largely all was for nothing, you know because everybody writes something and thinks they’ve drawn blood from a stone and expects everyone to watch, but I think largely the details that I’m most focused on are precisely the sort that are going to be lost on most people. Like, “Look, this passage has four-voice counterpoint! It’s straight, I’m using parallel fifths in fugues—it’s totally legit from the prescriptions of the Renaissance, but it’s still pop!”

But I’ve also hedged that bet on the fact that when and where pop music mobilizes a more esoteric, foreign devices such as these, the best things are when a heavy-handed point isn’t made, when you don’t even realize that underneath your ears, it’s not even metric. As opposed to making a heavy-handed point that you’re doing something different with the time or whatever.

Do you think this plays into the songwriting process and lyrical content at all?

I hide behind the belief that I’ve always had that language is foreign to music. It’s never been anything I had any talent for. I know writers and I have encountered writers and it’s always something that’s entirely foreign to music, certainly punk music, pop music—it has no sense to make with lyrics, it’s always just nonsense lyrics.

But on top of that, the theme lyrically—and I suppose the investment of narrative into pure music is always alien to music—but the wager I made lyrically was entirely apocalyptic. That’s the theme of the record in a way that maybe certainly none of the records have had since Love Is Real. Having finished it just before the election, I really hoped that it was going to come out during the election because I felt like that sort of apocalyptic electricity had reached its zenith in that moment. And then the first track on the record, “The Combine,” what I thought was going to be so on-the-nose that it would be ridiculous to people was completely lost, I didn’t know that that was some kind of strange reference that nobody would get today.

I feel like a lot has happened in pop music since your earlier albums, both in the Top 40 radio sense and in this like James Ferraro noise-pop-turned-vaporwave-turned-whatever-else-now throughline, both of which feel very indebted to this throwback 80s retromania thing. Are you thinking at all about how your music will fit into that continuum and maybe be interpreted in that context now?

Certainly in the six years since the last album, but before that as well, some of the ideas I was working with on the first two records—and here I can be a little megalomanic and be paranoid and suppose that the R&D department at Max Martin Inc. is digging through the underground finding things that they can put into the algorithms and make those undeniably irrefutable diamonds of light. Some of the things that I did and ideas I explored, I lament that they’ve maybe been ripped off, but it’s not like, “Oh, I should’ve gotten credited.” It’s more that it took a trick that I had up my sleeve away.

Then you get to vaporwave, which I have only barely become acquainted with, and then the first thought was, “How the fuck are these kids doing that?” Because in a way, even if I said it wasn’t always about retro, I had maybe tried to do that very thing and dropped a thread there for people to pick up on in what we would call eighties music. But they do it just so almost inconceivably perfectly. I mean you can tell the difference I suppose if you have a significant investment, but it’s very close. And then I found out that there’s actually sites that sell these perfect 80s loops that have the chords and all this stuff in it. In other words, it isn’t so composed as it is like a Lego set with all the plugins emulating the compressors and tape saturation that would’ve been present. And then on top of that, the actual harmonic sequences and melodies and basslines are all sampled and you just kind of assemble it. It’s almost cheating. Lord knows if something would’ve come out of that I would’ve done it myself but I couldn’t put it together in a way that sounded like anything other than an old man who didn’t know what he was doing trying to make a vaporwave track.

So Screen Memories is out now, but then the box set, which is out next year, comes with a separate LP called Addendum that’s exclusive to the set. Can you talk a little about what’s on that record and what the distinction is between the two LPs?

Well the record itself has the more cerebral, worked-out ones that I really hoped were going to be like, “Oh, I’ve never heard anything like this before” and I admit not sonically, not on a timbre level, but on the level of the detail, on the level of the harmony, I thought that would be recognized. And the Addendum is maybe ones that came more easily. I didn’t really have a barometer to judge them by in the sense that you can always be sure that if you suss it out, it will go to show, just purely in terms of labor. The songs on Addendum are more carefree and perhaps more characteristic of my work in general, as opposed to transcending that province or whatever.

I mean the whole last two years suffered from a lack of lightness, which I’m apprehensive about in the sense that it might not be light enough to even rise to anyone’s ears. It’s too heavy, and if I were to blame something, I’d say it was a lack of any sort of social interaction and then the climate of the world, the apocalyptic thing as it’s coming through the screen at me. So, I take some comfort in somebody telling me, “Well yeah, it’s the only thing you could’ve done that would be appropriate to right now.”

But then last night, this kid kept playing the Mark Ronson song “Bang Bang Bang.” It was just so light, there’s this resentment that goes up my spine when I hear it. I’m old enough now to suss out really what it is: that really I’m just unable to do that, and it’s always what I am, what I’ve aspired to. You know, “Please Please Me,” “She Loves You”–not that the song I heard is comparable to those–but that sort of lightness can hold a vision of something other than the world as it stands, just as much as the heaviest anchor can. And so I wanna do it, I’m just unable.

Something about the impulse to historicize these things in a proper box set makes it seem like you’re intending to bring the project to a close. Do you have plans to continue making music after this release? Are there plans to tour?

Yeah, the label did me a favor. I don’t wanna talk about it in terms of a them or me thing, but let’s just say that the box set wasn’t necessarily an idea that I had. It was an idea that I found myself able to go along with and make the very best of. Because like when we sell CDs after the show, I mean nobody’s got a CD player, they’re buying it to say, “Hey man, thanks!” And so the box set in that sense, it’s a tip. But it very much does me a favor in the sense that, like you just said, it puts a bookend on it all. Because I’m not going to be able to do “Bang Bang Bang” if I couldn’t when I was 22, I certainly can’t now. And so where do I go with it? Do I just make it more ambitious in the progressive experimental sense? I don’t think so.

Have you used the Google Magenta neural network at all? It’s their synth-building AI and has all these parameters for sound manipulation in ways that feel really infinite.

No, what I did was train a neural network on a bunch of harmonic sequences and then saw what it spit back out to me. I also messed around with Markov chains by feeding them thousands and thousands of chants. I messed around with a simple process where you take an integer sequence and let the numbers one-through-six designate the scale degree of a mode and then I added the additional thing of collapsing each consecutive, each I-iii-V I-IV-V triad into it. I got some interesting things out of all of this, but my intention was never to just let it stand as its own as a sort of complete thought, but to instead use whatever it vomited at me as a surprise in that way, as opposed to the old fashioned way of digging through the bargain bin at the vinyl store. But finally the result was that it only spit back at me the rules that I put in place. The chaos just kind of shook the little machine that I made. I never heard the chaos as such, but I saw the otherwise invisible frame that I made being shook by the integer sequence.

It’s important to be in command of the most advanced means of artistic construction if you’re going to try to do it properly I think. They’re putting a ribbon around my work with this box set, and now there’s this whole new generation that grew up with GarageBand. Maybe I’m just not looking, but I just don’t see the event that has yet overcome what Ariel and I, for example, had worked out. But I very much doubt it will operate in relation to previous moments in the history of post-war American popular music, the way we did in relation to the Beatles or the Beach Boys or New Wave or the whole weird labyrinth of trajectories you can trace back to the amplified guitar and electric blues and Elvis. Somehow all these disparate micro-genres and classifications go back to a single thought in the context of history. So truth be told, I don’t know what the next big thing is. But I don’t know—it’s all speculation, isn’t it?

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