Photo by Rosa Barba
Sometimes a thing isn’t really what it seems. That is, sometimes music that attempts to pass for pop is only pretending. And then sometimes self-proclaimed theory-laced avant-garde music is in actuality a great bunch of dance tunes.
For 10 years, Jan St. Werner and Andi Toma, the German duo known as Mouse on Mars, have practiced a form of electronic music that is equal parts progressive-art experimentalism and philosophical excursions into the nature and purpose of sound; they’ve also filled dance floors in Europe, the U.K. and beyond with what have been called state-of-the-art beats and, recently, glossy and melodious funk ’n’ soul. Their sound links them to the club-music scene, as do their many remixes and collaborations with members of the dance-music world.
That association has always seemed tenuous and even ironic, because placing electronic flies in the aural ointment is de rigueur in Mouse on Mars’ methodology. If dance music’s predictable repetition is a kind of fulfillment of expectation, MoM seem intent on dashing that expectation. They proclaim an affinity with pop, but, far prior to the current wave of laptop rockers, they stretched pop’s conventions through major advances in electronic music’s onstage presentation (incorporating live instrumentation) and recording techniques (they design their own sound patches).
MoM have released eight full-length records and numerous remixes, each one a marked departure from the last, from the ambient-house ectoplasms of 1994’s Vulvaland and 1995’s slightly more structured Iaora Tahiti to the flighty and funny electronics, spluttering horns and acoustic-guitar samples of 2000’s more “organic” Niun Niggung, to the forest of sonic porcupine quills that is Idiology. MoM’s newest release, Radical Connector (Thrill Jockey), further granulates the MoM aesthetic into nine sort-of-pop-oriented songs, ever heavier on the beats and increasingly hinging the tunes on the vocals and drumming of longtime collaborator Dodo Nkishi. Nkishi’s voice — most prominently in the album’s opening dance-floor cavestompers “Mine Is in Yours” and “Wipe That Sound” — is more likely than not diced in a Cuisinart and poured in gnarly chunks over artfully hacksawed rhythms that flow across the terrain but spasm and wander like a human brain; vocalist Niobe adds sexy Vocodered vocals on several tracks, including the gorgeously tech-housey “Send Me Shivers.”
Working like research scientists in their St. Martin Studio in Düsseldorf, Toma and St. Werner took three years to write and produce the new album. They believe it’s important to dive further inside music and its capacities for both cerebral and corporeal satisfaction.
“This one is just a lot deeper,” says Toma by long-distance phone. “And that is sometimes hard to do, to face the limits, and your own expectations. It’s not that we tortured ourselves, but we really wanted something fresh. The album is well-produced, for sure, but not, like, overcleaned. It’s quite immediate.”
The rough-hewn or sensuous vocals and funkily unclichéd beats do give the new MoM work an immediacy that has reared its head only sporadically on past albums, but as always you get the strong impression that pop-type physical/emotional appeal is just another constituent part in the duo’s search for the perfect equation — it’s like an intellectual game. Whether that approach somehow should disqualify Mouse on Mars from the category of “genuine” pop music — which is almost by definition very direct, and lyrically literal-minded — seems beside the point for these guys, whose apparent aim is the somewhat quaint idea of erasing the borders between “serious” and non-serious music.
One way MoM achieve this is by a superexacting microscoping right down into the cycles of the tones they choose to employ, which, especially on tracks like “Blood Comes” and “All the Old Powers,” can be extraordinarily exciting to the mind and soothing to the body. It takes a long time to pinpoint these tones and cycles, then to combine and set them in motion.
“It’s not like a scientific thing,” says Toma. “We experiment with different sounds, and we listen to them from different angles and in combination with other sounds, and how they behave toward each other. You have to make the signals do something, so you have to find an approach, and you have to find the best way to make them move. Then, when you have this combination of sounds, often a song kind of shows up, and you have a path to follow. And by this time you know a lot of things about the path, and you just go through it.”
Like much of MoM’s previous work, the songs on Radical Connector are, texturally at least, often mind-boggingly complex, yet there is a persuasiveness that results from all that tonal shock — it’s as if your brain is being tickled. A hoity-toity way to term that prodding effect of head massage atop booty shake would be as a contemporary Gesamtkunstwerk (total art). Some might say it’s a holistic experience.
“The intellect is not always clever,” says Toma. “The intellect can be quite stupid. So you have to use both parts. It’s the tension between the two that really makes it interesting for all the senses.”
The sculpted spontaneity that defines MoM’s recording process is at the core of the best modern art. At least one side product of this method is that Radical Connector’s aural information is not just extraordinarily visual, it has — with some very careful listening — an effect somewhat like a hologram, presenting constantly morphing images you can see through. The sound gives the impression of literally surrounding the listener, as well. For these reasons alone, the disc’s worth buying, ’cause you’ll definitely be getting your money’s worth.
MoM music constantly subverts the idea of ear-friendly pop: When tones are pitted against each other, they collide and explode, opening up whole worlds of sound. But sounds and effects aren’t music per se. A plethora of new electronic machines and sound patches gives the modern musician access to thousands of variations, and the technology makes it easy to fool yourself into thinking you’ve done something. St. Werner and Toma key in on the idea that you can reduce sound radically while retaining complexity.
“The whole trick is to see how far you can reach before realizing you’re on unstable ground,” says Toma. “Music comes from gains of energy — things that shouldn’t really work, and then they do. That is something that can happen very quickly. And if you listen carefully, it’s incredible what’s in there — total noise, drones, any and all rhythmic patterns; it’s too much to take. So what you do is you strip it down, you focus on one aspect, like a visual aspect, and make it a language of sound. It’s not a situation where you’re just impressed by the production; it’s that you created a new kind of nature. Then you build a house, and you go and live in there.”
Toma thinks simple common sense, rather than science, should help us get better and better at matching beats to brains — humanity, after all, isn’t evolving much.
“No mathematician or scientist is able to really interpret and predict and clearly explain this kind of chaos of the head, of the brain,” he says. “Even if we know more and more about genetic code, more possibilities come up. We’re still at the same level we were at 2,000 or 3,000 years ago, and I find that totally encouraging. Even if we’re able to create recording machines with 5-million-bit resolution, in the end, the music of the brain will remain the same.”
Mouse on Mars perform at the Knitting Factory, Thursday, October 7.