The rockers don’t know what they are doing or how they are doing it. The dancers are often perplexed at a seeming lack of structure. And the deejays couldn’t and wouldn’t dare venture into such dangerous territories. And all the while, despite their experimental endeavors, Mouse on Mars intrigue music appreciators of all types.
This German avant-garde electronic band is an especially eclectic outfit that can’t possibly be grouped into any specific category. Their discography ranges from ambient chill-out to abstract bombastic sonic onslaughts—and most times a combination of both. Deconstructing source material and rebuilding it piece-by-piece, Mouse on Mars juxtapose obtuse oscillations with anxiety-filled clicks, clangs and hisses, provoking chaos, just to tame it later and massage it into a blissful soundscape or straight up dance beat.
I was blessed to catch up with Jan Werner over the phone from his home in Germany for an interview to preview their recent North American shows. Together with collaborator Andi Toma, Mouse on Mars have covered more sonic landscapes than most other electronic outfits and Werner’s descriptive mission statements about the band’s sound are some of the most profound and poetic that I have ever heard—not bad for someone whose first language isn’t even English.
The photos and videos that follow are exclusive from the band’s February show at Great Scott in Boston, Massachusetts.
Is Jan there?
Yup, I’m on the phone. Hi.
This is Nolan from Boston. Is this an okay time to talk?
Yes, It’s a perfect time. How are you Nolan?
Not bad, how about you?
I’m good. I’m on the couch.
What time is it over there?
Yeah, here too. I think its -20 Celsius here. I don’t know what it is in Fahrenheit.
When’s the last time you toured the US?
The last time was a really long time ago– 2006 or 2007– much too long.
So, you went 6 years between records, yet you released 2 records within a couple of months. Was that due to a wave of inspiration or was there a preconceived timeline in your minds made it that way?
We’re just timing things. We have a very special approach with timing where people prefer a predictable schedule. We are kind of free for a few years and then suddenly have far too many releases at once. If you think one way or another we might not go that way or we will. It’s all part of our path. We want to keep the unpredictability and that transcends our touring and release schedule. But we haven’t been unproductive. It’s just that we didn’t make any records. It’s not that the band split up or anything. The records are vastly different. Did you foresee the path ahead of time or did you have different ideas going into each one?
Parastrophics was basically a record that we had five years in the making and WOW was obviously a record completely out of the moment and a few weeks in production. It’s much more casual and actual and contemporary. I think that’s basically the concept. In ways those records are blending together basically where Parastrophics is basically a riddle and a map or a house of leaves, where WOW was about a much more immediate expression of a feeling and a moment that in an instant takes everything that would need reflection or need a sentence or even a word to express would be a waste of time. I feel like Parastrophics Is the complete opposite of WOW. Parastrophics is really rhythm encrypted and has edges and angles for a type of situation. The way those records back each other up and belong to the same sound and same cosmos describe the same planetary system relationship of sound and size of sound and sound material.
Back when I last saw you in 2001, you guys used a lot of live instrumentation and were said to use a lot of live instruments in the studio. To what degree has that changed? Do you record and perform primarily digitally now? Is it mostly computer based now?
It’s a good point actually. We use a lot of computers and programs nowadays because computers and software have become so incredibly complex and flexible in different ways and various ways, and definitely we’ve become more interested in software these days than with real instruments. It doesn’t mean that we’ve thrown it completely overboard, but I have to say that the computer possibilities are especially attractive—especially as a group who grew up with computers and digital technology where there’s no better time than now. It’s in all of our genes and we’re bathing in technology at the moment. Even in the visual way we work with computer generated visuals and we bring a video beamer, which makes the live situation more complex than if we would have brought instruments. The way we produce music is with controllers and a few hardware things that we still have, but less than if we had a hard band in a more traditional way.
How do songs change from recordings to a live setting, and what part does improvisation play live and on record?
Improvisation for us is important because it makes us aware of the moment. It means more to let go and try different directions. If you were to just reconstruct songs the way they were on the record or on paper, it would just be repetition of a formula that we don’t fit good in. Which leads me back to your first question. It doesn’t fit our rhythm or our behavior. We have to have the possibility where things are cut or stretched– the dynamic range has to be maximum for us to even be interested in what we are doing. This is what triggers our attention, and what translates live to an audience. That’s why it makes sense for us to play live—this tension. You never know what you’re going to get at the end of the night, but we know we’ll get through it and it’s the experience you have after all these years. You don’t know how it will work or what will happen. How does being a duo (like you’ll be on this tour) change things? Does that change the sound and setup entirely?
Yes, it changes the sound quite a bit. Working with our drummer and singer, he has a laptop linked into our laptops and we send sounds back and forth and we change his drum sounds and trigger new sounds. I would say the duo thing is even more immediate and even more improvised because its quicker and throwing out different interests to what each other is doing. Also, standing next to each other live at the table is definitely different to the other live setup where we’re spread out. It’s definitely different, but I can’t say what it’s like in the audience. I’ve never seen Mouse on Mars live [Laughs]. I don’t know how different it is in the end, but I know how I feel and I know how the duo thing has a more immediate and punchy sound and it is more driven and more improvised and chaotic at times. Is it more electronic sounding at times? Yes, it’s probably more electronic sounding at times.
Were you guys really born in the same hospital on the same day?
Yeah, that’s what we say. I have no memory of it at all. I think my earliest memory is of age 4 and I don’t remember Andy until later. So we are kind of like twins, you know?
Is there something that each of you bring to the table when you’re recording? Do you each have different strengths that are different from each other, but come together as Mouse on Mars?
Yeah, for sure. By making music together and the different ideas—sometimes I think we are so different that I think I don’t understand at all what the other person is about or why they want to do things that way. Sometimes I think there’s a massive discommunication between us, which is actually very creative I think—trying to figure out what each of us wants on a track and that, for some reason, creates part of the sound. That is one of the recipes of why we’re still working together. None of us understand what each other is doing. I can’t tell you where Andy’s music energy is coming from. I know he’s infinitely musical and incredibly restless and manic and he seems to have an infinite sound supply and idea supply, but then again each of us could do a record on his own. I could do a record on my own, and so could Andy. He’s not dependant on me. But, either way we come together and create Mouse on Mars and it’s really different and it’s just so tense and it’s such a challenge for us. The music we’re doing together is a massive challenge– one of the great life challenges that we have at some point. You meet and you realize that this is really dangerous. If I hang out with this person I will end up in a mental hospital—it’s dangerous and you enjoy that. It’s a bit like what happens when you very deeply fall in love with a person. You see this person and you think I’m falling and I’m falling endlessly. You want to escape it, but you’re also hyper-attracted to it. And that is what happened musically with Andy. It’s kind of weird, but it’s endless. You start making music with this person, but there’s no end to it. Coming back to your question, I can’t tell you that Andy is very good at making a crazy bassline, or that he’s the weirdest hi-hat wizard you ever met. He’s just so great at everything and he can do whatever he wants to and it’s great. But it’s not so much his or my talent. It’s what happens when we sew these qualities together and see this massive music monster appear and we feel like we’re fighting it and we feel like Jedi knights and we’re fighting this beast of sound. This is our job and this is our task. Sometimes I feel like… like right now, I am at home and I have a nice home and I have a beautiful wife– she is traveling right now, she is an artist, she’s also quite busy at times. But when we are together at home it seems like the perfect world. And I don’t want anything but to be hanging out with my family, but when Andy’s calling I know we have to go on tour or we need to do something in the studio. When that happens I know I need to face the world and I know I need to go and fight this beast of doing music… and I know that only Andy and I can do it. I’m so sorry, I know. I’m so sorry. I don’t know if I’ll ever be back, and my kid is crying and wife won’t let me go, but I can’t help it. I have to do it because this Mouse on Mars thing is back out there and the only people who can contain it are Andy and me; and that’s our job.
Um, well, we started in the studio. We started there and you never lose touch with that. I think the studio is our home and it’s really the source of where this Mouse on Mars thing comes from. We do enjoy playing live and we are very curious people and we like to strut around and each of us have our own paths in ways, but we are like cats in ways as well, playing live fits that attitude pretty well. You just go up there and see what happens. You create your music, and it was new and it was fleeting and then it’s gone. It was just for that moment. You don’t have to struggle at how you would record a track properly or how you would master, or which tracks will go on there. You just throw it out there each night and turn your back on the club and leave. It’s great. iI’s fantastic. The studio, though, it’s there everyday and it’s really like a dungeon. But again, this is where we started and this is still our home.
What happens if a computer crashes onstage, and has that ever happened to you?
Um, KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK, it’s never happened. But it would have been a nightmare, even from the very first gig. The computer isn’t just a sound producing machine, it really links the elements together. We’re using MIDI and we’re still linking through MIDI and these days its also processing the visuals which are happening in the moment and which are computer generated and different each night. Yeah, it’d be a nightmare if that happened, but at the same time, it’s life. If it were to happen it would be worse to have a stroke though, right?
I remember when Nobekazu Takemura was playing with you live and his computer crashed and he just got up and left the stage. The show was over.
Yeah! Wow, crazy! That was probably the only time we have ever played together, ever. I can’t believe you remember that. Maybe we had a gig in Japan?
This one was in Austin, Texas in 2001.
Wow! Crazy! Who else was playing, do you know?
I think it may have been Tortoise headlining.
Yeah. Absolutely. That can happen. We can still find a way. We have two computers and even if one would crash, we could just work and do something else with the other computer and find a way. We could find something to do…maybe a song contest with the audience or….
Do you ever consider the danceability of songs when you create them, or does that not matter to you?
To be honest, we have no idea. Our mind is very concerned with every person and individual. So, even if you play a show for a lot of people, for us all of the people out there are different. If were trying to make them dance we would assume that each one does their own dance. We would have to say “Everybody dance now” [laughs] which is already happening. We wouldn’t start a concert and say “everybody dance”. We don’t know how each person responds to what we’re doing and if people dance they do so for their own reason. Each person might start dancing at their own set point—we wouldn’t want to synchronize people, so we don’t think about what track would make people dance. We only know which tracks make us move and get us excited. We don’t have a recipe, though. Like if we said let’s put in a drum roll here. I know people can do it. I know deejays who know exactly when to make the drop and when to bring the bass back in. Plus, we don’t really think in track terms. We think more in story terms. Each song has a narration and has its peaks and ups and downs and comes back together. Each track is really a story, or a drama rather than a set of codes. People usually dance though, and we are happy about that. But if they don’t, we are not sad.
What is the state of the iPhone App that you’ve been working on?
Oh, don’t mention the iPhone App; it’s a nightmare. No, the iPhone App is going great. We are also working on an iPad App for a long time and it doesn’t seem to be coming together. This iPhone App is just the nicest project and is coming together really well. The person who coded it, Peter Kern, he is really just a great person. We kind of have a demo version together and in a couple of weeks we should have it ready. The biggest thing for us is to get this iTunes store running. It’s something that we are really bad with. You need all of this legal stuff and accounting stuff, so for that reason we need a bit of help. But once we have out iTunes store up and our own account, we can throw the App up there and people can download it and use it. I don’t know how long it takes for things like that to happen with applications, but it might be another three months and it will be in the store.
But do you think that over-simplifies what you guys do, or the effects that it creates? Does it give someone too much power who doesn’t know the technique? Is it cheating?
I see it as part, not of the bigger picture, but I see it an element within the picture. This App is definitely something that doesn’t substitute for a whole track. It is obviously a very specific element that you can dip your head into and you can really dig deep in that element and trying to explore it, but it won’t provide you with a full thing. For us it was really important to consider this as an instrument instead of a full production platform. It’s not like you throw in a couple of beats and then you throw in a bunch of synth sounds and then you put the track together. Also, some people won’t be able to use this at all. It can drive you crazy. It is really a thing of its own. It’s an uncontrollable device within its own right and I think for that I think its great. I think it’s super that you can have it on a phone and it’s cool that it’s simple. It’s important to realize we are not trying to do something complex in a simple way. It doesn’t pretend anything. It just stands there naked and tells you look, “I’m just a simple instrument and if you give me too much information I just produce a massive amount of feedback”. But if you just want to come up with sounds you’ve never heard before and find your way, then you are right. That’s what it does.