With We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves the experimental electronic musician John Maus just released his third and probably most uncompromising album. We’ve talked to him about the relation of lyrics and music and why it’s better to not follow the philosophy the title of the album suggests.
John, on your new record, even more than on the ones before, you make it almost impossible to understand the lyrics. Why do you hide the words?
John Maus: Yes, maybe in a way I hide the words. I always considered the lyrical dimension superfluous compared to the musical dimension. It’s partly because they are just a kind of convention to that language we are using and that’s not where the focus should be. I hope that answer isn’t too banal, but you know after all isn’t music music? Isn’t that what’s interesting about it, and what the attention should be drawn towards to?
»I think that the right combination of words can supplement the music in an interesting way, it can somehow actualize it or collapse it or direct it in some way that is ultimately more open; it can unbound it in an interesting way.« Do you still think lyrics can add something to the music that’s more than the sound of the words? John Maus: I think that the right combination of words can supplement the music in an interesting way, it can somehow actualize it or collapse it or direct it in some way that is ultimately more open; it can unbound it in an interesting way. I think that’s what I hoped I would aim towards. That the lyrics wouldn’t get in the way of the music. Sometimes you hear a song where the lyrics get in the way. They say »ice cream« or something like that and you’re just like »oh, gross« you know I was enjoying this music and now they are talking about ice cream clouds. That spoiled it for me, that their surrealist poetry has spoiled the music for me. So, whatever the opposite of that is, to not get in the way at all, that’s what I aim for.You’re a philosophy teacher as well and working on your PhD in Political Science. It’s emphasized in a lot of articles and press releases about you…
John Maus: …I don’t know why it is. It certainly isn’t remarkable, a lot of us spent time in school, I don’t know why its emphasized.
Does your interest in those things trigger your composition in any way? John Maus: That’s what I was doing for a job a couple of years ago, I’m very interested in that stuff, but I see it as a separate creative enterprise from music, from art and I’m not sure how much you can bring aesthetic theory or philosophy into the musical work. When I sit down to write some music, i.e. Kant’s critic doesn’t help me. But when I’m talking about music with people it’s the only help I have which is funny. That’s the only way that we can think about music. It’s the thoughts about music that others have had. And I don’t think I had an original thought in art, language or music, I didn’t have a thought of my one so far. Maybe one day I’ll sit done and try to do that.
»When I sit down to write some music, i.e. Kant’s critic doesn’t help me. But when I’m talking about music with people it’s the only help I have.« Your latest record is called We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves. How did that requirement work out for you while producing the record?
John Maus: There was a moment with this record that did not happen with the other two. I had to put it to bed even though I was not certain that I was finished with it, just out of personal necessity. And here all the high blown philosophy goes out the window, too, with the whole question of personal necessity. We must become the pitiless censors of ourselves – this was a philosophy that I’ve really sworn by, militantly sworn by for years and I hit such a wall with it. I came so undone, just personally, for my personal concrete life. I became so miserable and so unhappy and this whole thing of being willing to do anything for the work – I really saw where that comes apart. If you jump off a cliff for the work it ends up you can’t do any work at all. Here all these philosophies and aesthetic theories which say that the origin of the work of art is not the human being: Yes, that’s interesting, when we’re speaking as philosophers or aesthetic theorists, but speaking as artists: I’ll be damned if I’m not the origin of the god damn work of art.