MOUSE ON MARS, WITH VERT AND KINSKI
Graceland, 262-0482, $12 10 p.m., Sat., June 23
LISTENING FOR the first time to Mouse on Mars' seventh album, Idiology, (Thrill Jockey) is like a date with a smart and unpredictable person to whom you are very attracted, where you never really know what is going to happen next: You're scared that maybe you are not up to the task—like maybe you aren't smart or pretty enough—but eventually you relax and feel drunk, glowing, even though you haven't touched a drop. OK, maybe listening to their record isn't really like that. But both live and on record, the one thing to expect from the Dusseldorf-based Mouse on Mars (Jan St. Werner, Andi Toma, Dodo Nkishi) is that you can't really expect anything. They make boundary-pushing, crunchy electronic music that ought to give any fan of modern sounds serious goose bumps.
Like last year's Niun Niggung (Thrill Jockey), Idiology is arty post-everything music that's weirdly accessible. None of it should work anywhere near as well as it does. Oddly arranged horns perch precariously atop a clatter of mechanistic, humming tones. Cartoon sound effects, ridiculously sped-up drum sounds, and farty synth squelches give way to gorgeous strings and subtle melodies. Piano tinklings, phat bass lines, ska horn parts, and skittering insect rhythms layer on top of a deep house-ish, booty-shaking gurgle. The singing (a first for the band, all by drummer Dodo) is pretty—high-pitched Robert Wyatt-like vocals on one song and a chopped-up alien chorus on another. Mouse on Mars combine so many sounds from myriad genres, asking the listener to discard their preconceptions, wherever possible, and have what jazzbos in Tennessee call "big ears."
I spoke on the telephone with Mr. St. Werner last week. Like most smart people worth talking to, he is self-effacing. He graciously rants at the drop of a hat. In addition to helping run the superlative Sonig label, St. Werner is one half of the click-core duo Microstoria (with Markus Popp of Oval), and he releases intriguing records under the name Lithops. The interview is a metalecture/conversation on the very nature of what we are engaged in—the problems of describing music at all. "It's important to try to talk about music, because everything is still hanging in this dusk of mythology of pop haziness and strange stories about what this whole thing is about," St. Werner explains. "With musicmaking, as with politics or anything else, there are criteria involved. And the more there are aspects which are really difficult to talk about, the more you have to find aspects that you can talk about. This is the responsibility, even though it is about something so unimportant; music isn't very influential and everyone can take it or leave it.
"But I think this is where the problems start," St. Werner continues. "You divide life into the important and the unimportant bits. And the important ones you can't reach because [they're] run by the big animals, and the unimportant bits you just used the way you wanted, and you can't talk about it, and it's about emotions. And I think that's bullshit, because everything is about using your brain and your emotions and your body and your intuition. Mouse on Mars try to exclude as little as possible in our music. Just by virtue of our approach and the questions that we ask, we make it different. Our perceptions are a kind of filter, of course, but there's nothing in this music that we haven't considered. The combinations are nothing that we can estimate or pre-calculate. We have no idea how people will perceive it, but this is not something that we are really interested in."
If you are interested in seeing a really fucking great live electronics-oriented act, consider Mouse on Mars. Sure, they have samples and all that, but they also play real instruments and stuff. They play bass, have a drummer, and array their pedal effects in a row, just like Mudhoney. St. Werner is not really down with the whole "live" laptop performance scene. "I think it's very pretentious to hide behind a tool, whether it's a 303 bass line or a laptop," he relates. "And most musicians are not very skilled with computers in the end. They always use Macintoshes, which are the Lego science of computers. I DJed as Lithops at a festival in the U.K. recently, and [all the performers] had G3 Powerbooks, and they were all standing in a row onstage, not even moving. In Microstoria we both use Macintosh computers to play live, so there is self-criticism involved here, too. I'm just not comfortable with hiding behind a computer screen. Sure, this music is electronic and it's made on computers. But that's always the way I never like things—when they are the most obvious."