John Maus Is Making Outsider Pop for the End of the World

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Photo: Shawn Brackbill

There may be no better arbiter of the end days than John Maus, who for the last six years has been missing from our cultural psyche. He’s accredited for the task, at least, having spent that time completing a dissertation in “control societies” (i.e. ones where sharing information has mutated into an ungodly structure of social control and manipulation) and earning a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Hawaii. It’s not normally how most left-field pop musicians chose to follow up their first real spate of critical appreciation, which he received for 2011’s We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves.

After completing a degree in experimental music composition at Los Angeles’s CalArts in 2003, Maus decided the art world wasn’t what he was driving at either. Which is how he found himself living with CalArts classmate Ariel Rosenberg (a.k.a. Ariel Pink) and recording two records of ecclesiastical dark wave pop — Songs and Love Is Real — that thrashed between profundity and puerility. They’re baffling collections, even more so when considering that they predate the lo-fi and hypnagogic pop movements widely considered to have spawned Ariel Pink’s first record, The Doldrums. Attention to Maus, if any, came by way of his affiliation with Pink or by the dismissive reviews. (Love Is Real still stands as Maus’s personal favorite. Pitchfork deemed it “garish.”) The recording of Pitiless Censors was conflated with his early graduate-school studies at UH, which lured Maus with a scholarship to complete a Ph.D. Evenings were spent in his adjunct’s office tracking songs. Mornings were spent teaching. It was Maus’s first attempt at a musical praxis. He even reappropriated the album’s title from his former mentor, Alain Badiou, the Marxist theorist. “Being mixed up with the lightness” is how Maus looks back on this period where “music was an afterthought”— a way of being just as hypothetical as the theory he was absorbed in.

Despite being the darkest of Maus’s forays into dark wave, Pitiless Censors was emotionally uniform, intellectually intimidating, and a critical success. Maus toured the world, playing shows around the album. He was a cult figure with a fairly large following. Then he disappeared.

Maus explains the abdication simply: Time was needed. Time to finish his dissertation with zero distractions. Time to plot the contours of his next album. (“Glenn Gould said for every hour spent with other people you should spend ten by yourself,” Maus notes.) The time was spent in isolation with his then-fiancee back in his native Minnesota (Maus married in September). The result of this is his latest album, Screen Memories, a 38-minute treatise on the end times, “the too heavy thing,” he calls it, of the wheat being separated from the chaff.

“The apocalyptic moment is the absurd faith that everything that is uncounted will be counted,” Maus says, attempting to explain what exactly ”the too heavy thing” of Screen Memories is. As it turns out, it’s not quite quantifiable.

We met in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill Park in mid-August the same day a total solar eclipse lured much of the city outside to squint up at the sun. He made no mention of this lunar intervention. With his shoulders raised and drawn tight, Maus hunched over our table, rarely looking up at the sky through his shroud of brown hair, or at anything beyond the middle distance separating us as he spoke. “It’ll all be counted in the end. No stone will be unturned. The [apocalyptic moment] is the ideal that only when everything has a history of its own, when the concept of life is given its full due, that’s the end. That’s my apocalyptic thing on this album. The combine is coming, you know, right?” he says, shrugging. “That’s the end, when the Kardashians and Lady Gaga are crying in their dens for the rocks to hide them from the face of the most High.”

Such disquisitions are the norm when talking to Maus. They’re perhaps the least performative aspect of his onstage persona. Imagine a manic, thrashing crier; screaming, pleading, mourning, exhorting into a microphone like a Viking berserker with an indie deal. But they’re also a direct insight to the scale on which Maus is operating. Most artists work in album cycles. Maus works in epochs. According to this thought, it is his work that will be inventoried by whichever cosmic custodian is tasked with sorting the debris of humankind when it is all said and done. The scale of this thinking ignores the material stakes of an independently released record poised to sell in the low thousands, that, at best, will entertain club-size audiences. But then when you consider the variety of debasements that is a career in music, it’s not an absurd rationale. It’s logic taken to a radical border — a refusal to accept the absurdity of the times.

“Anything that’s carried out in our situation with intense dedication and sincerity is bound to appear utterly ridiculous,” Maus says. “I think that’s true, the idea of the holy idiot.”

The implication being that he has rejected more worldly methods to communicate his message, to keep neat the borders of his small, but singular, platform. For one, Maus set out to build, by hand, every piece of equipment used on Screen Memories. In his isolated studio, he soldered together the circuit boards for modular synths and drum machines, hand-wired the patches, assembled his own plate reverb. Committed Marxists would refer to this kind of labor as a “mobilisation.” But Maus, like a historian with a data set, now calls it a failure. “I felt obliged to go down that rabbit hole, to bring something entirely unforeseen into the world as it stands. Namely, nothing came of it.” Onstage, there’s no question of his dedication to summoning the unforeseen. The two shows he played prior to our meeting were his first in New York City in five years, and they held the air of holy sites for the audiences in attendance. (His first performance, at Williamsburg’s Baby’s All Right, sold out in ten minutes according to his label rep.) Backed for the first time by a band, Maus took the stage with a fury, and something like a helpless war cry, which betrays the real anxiety that overcomes him before performances. The coded message he imparted, through billowing clouds of echo, has modulated only slightly on his newest songs. “Your pets are gonna die,” he says during “Pets,” one zenith of gleeful nihilism on Memories. “But it’s not the end, the end of ends.”

After a performance, in a now sweat-soaked oxford, Maus will sincerely dialogue with anyone who asks — aging punk dudes, 12-year-old superfans, fashion models — about art, commerce, pop music, power chords, power structures, Hegelian ideals, compositional theory, the Beatles, anything as it stands against the “status quo” of our current “situation.” Other than screaming the words to his own songs, Maus told me, he hasn’t made a single statement from the stage in 12 years of performing.

Anyone looking to buy Maus’s merchandise must sign a small notepad he brings along to shows. Initially, he asked I withhold this one detail, before relenting. “It sounds so dumb, like a gimmick,” he explains. It’s not, as I first suspect, a trite attempt at amassing email addresses. Anyone can put anything into its pages. “Anything,” Maus says, “It’s a way to balance the equation. They want my signature? Who the fuck am I? When someone says your music changed my life, man, there’s nothing more humiliating than that. I think it was Agnes Martin who said that it’s always utterly humbling because you know when that moment happened it was — not to be like Oprah Winfrey new age — when you got out of the way.”

At equal lengths in our conversation, Maus marvels at the precision of Top 40 music, the works of Max Martin, and the “inauthenticity” of these productions. The wider situation, he says, is “unfortunate.” (“Sometimes music feels like that Bill Hicks routine: Diet Coke! Diet Coke! Diet coke! It’s the best!”) I point out that this very situation and its tradition of Max Martin–types writing the next “Diet Coke. It’s best!” is technically one he’s contributing to. So why participate at all? Maus slaps the table. “Because I can explode it from within,” he responds. “What am I gonna do? Fuckin’ come in with a modular synth and turn on the noise and crank the thing? Or am I gonna play a new classical piece wherever they play the John Adams stuff? Give me a break,” he says with an air of annoyance, balling his fists. “It seems to me the truth is uncovered precisely by way of following the idiom through to its absurd conclusions. Not just by banging trash cans. No disrespect to noise music.”

One past attempt to share his work with a larger audience has left a bewildering glare around Maus. In 2016, Maus appeared on Million Dollar Extreme, an Adult Swim sketch show, that also featured music from a number of other bands like Chastity Belt, Molly Nilsson, and Ovlov. The show was canceled after six episodes when the alt-right stance of its creators, most notably Sam Hyde, was made widely known, setting off internal chaos within the television network. (After the show’s cancellation, Hyde pledged $5,000 to Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website.) With the exception of Maus, the bands involved with the program publicly distanced and disavowed the politics of MDE.

Maus, who appeared on one episode mouthing the lyrics to his song “Hey Moon,” in a white tux with coattails, never publicly commented on the appearance. In a moment when ideology can be ascribed to any inaction, Maus’s silence about this association left some fans wary about his worldview and the possibility that he’s sympathetic to the alt-right. In a now-deleted Facebook post the day Memories was announced, one prominent indie music publicist reminded followers of Maus’s refusal to “disavow” Hyde and neo-Nazism. It was, according to one commenter, “Bummer knowledge.” The press cycle has recently compelled Maus to discuss these stained optics. Still, as Pitchfork swiftly pointed out, a clear “disavowal” of the alt-right is missing.

Maus’s silence on the matter, as well as the trenchant racism of the show’s ardent supporters, didn’t comport with his lecturer’s ability to riff and riff and riff on any subject. To many, not uttering the magic “D” word has come off as cagey and recalcitrant. The initial decision for silence, Maus suggests, stemmed from a frustration with the internet’s need for bite-size discourse. “I said if they let me write 500 pages on it, I’ll respond. It’s not a quip, that moment. That moment is not ‘racism is bad.’ Of course, racism is fucking bad. You want me to say, I don’t like people that hate women?” Maus says with tone bordering on disgust, referring to white supremacism as an “obscene cult of blood.” Still he claims, that Hyde & Co. didn’t appear to embody these ideals in his time spent among them. “Nothing about them suggested that they paid alms to some cult of blood. I will talk to people, I will explain, but if anybody who listens to my music, who has heard what I’ve said, honestly thinks …” he stops, frustrated by the dictates of the world he’s reemerged in.

Whether or not it’s a matter of Maus’s unwillingness, or inability, to perform penance, it is the clearest instance of him misreading contemporary internet-driven culture (it’s curious considering the several years he spent writing a dissertation on the internet and, of all things, the system’s demand for “truncation”). Maus, in his way, refuses to be reducible to statements of loyalty or disavowal. There is a tinge of scholarly frustration to his logic of silence, especially when Maus brings up his last public controversy: the time he “psychoanalyzed” Ariel Pink. In a now-deleted tweet, Maus explained away the charges of misogyny leveled against Pink, who can’t seem to defend his own habitual vitriol towards women. The attempt to impart this knowledge across the internet was savaged. “It was like writing in Greek to people. I got 50 tweets saying ‘Show us your undergraduate book collection!’ It didn’t change any minds. It didn’t make anybody think. So, like, fuck it. Never again.”

In one of Screen Memories most blistering moments, Maus declares, chant-like, that he is “the phantom over a battlefield.” As the song paces forward, his voice takes on a disembodied form, as if finally untethered from the earthly scuffles below. It’s one of the starkest departures from the arpeggiated triumphs and simple exhortations of his previous albums. Instead of the lightness of the early days, Maus says, Memories may sound too much like “the world as it is.” It’s John Maus doing his best John the Baptist. Questioning the ominousness of an opus made just for these times, Maus mused that it might be better to focus again on finding the way forward. To suppose anything else is a folly. He shrugs and quietly says: “Nevertheless, there’s something I really like about eating wild honey and wearing camel hair, explaining that the Kingdom is at hand.”

John Maus Is Making Outsider Pop for the End of the World