October 27, 2004

Mouse on Mars prove that Modest Mouse aren't the only mice who matter

The land of Germany has always tried its best to inform its international buddies that despite popular perceptions of its culture (i.e. people mired in those Humpty Dumpty suspenders-cum-stockings; perennial obsession with '80s television icon David Hasselhoff; and that time when it chugged that keg of Fruh Kolsch and decided to go ape-shit on Poland back in '39), it still knows how to make noise. Other noises, I mean. Germans can not only rev their fast cars on the Autobahn, but can also show off their cool European accents with a certain rotundity no one else can match. Perhaps most importantly to music fans, Germany also has the bragging rights of having reared one of the most forward-thinking and successful electronica bands producing music today: Mouse on Mars.

The duo of Andi Toma and Jan St. Werner reminds knowing listeners of the early '70s invasion of Kraütrock, that progressive and avant-garde movement made influential by seminal German outfits like Faust and Can. It was instantly recognizable for its hissing and buzzing sound waves (as much as for deporting all then-known conceptions of modern rock out of the schoolyard). But predecessors will not suffice to describe Mouse on Mars. They have consistently escaped the trappings of categorization to make music that defies attitudes and identities.

Don't misunderstand, though—their music is very much attuned to the tastes of willing youths and grown adults, people who can just appreciate a funky set of noises pulled by head-nodding rhythms. It was not surprising to learn that the group sent their new album, Radical Connector, to their guru in India. He responded by cheering for dancers who can't afford to shake their asses on a performance stage, either financially or diplomatically.

But Mouse on Mars's sound hasn't always been this infectious. Earlier efforts (like their debut LP, Vulvaland, and Autoditacker, their first disc on Thrill Jockey) come across as tame and even self-conscious. These albums are replete with shapeless clicks and clacks, stitched over undulating synthetic beats fit for that solitary lounge-chair experience craved most by insufferable neurotics and insecure hipsters. As Mouse on Mars celebrate their 10th anniversary on the scene, it's crucial to note how much their music has matured—even if the resemblance to the past is always the point of reference.

I mentioned this to St. Werner, and he spoke about this casual musical development.

He was calling from Miami as he took a break on the current North American tour, which makes its way to Chicago next week.

"I think it's true. In a way you grow up, become more self-confident," he said. "It comes through all the details and combinations; maybe we write with bigger alphabets, whereas before we were just pointing out the alphabets. Every band wants to say ‘we don't want to repeat ourselves'—it means we want the new record to consist of the basic elements that is Mouse on Mars. We didn't buy new equipment or get an outside producer. It's the same gear, the same studio where it was produced. It all comes from the same source, but it manifests itself in a different way." Listening to the new album, the comparison of an outspoken, promiscuous sibling of Girls Gone Wild persuasion to the more sober and sensitive aesthete grazed my imagination.

Whatever the significance of such shifts, Mouse on Mars' ironic sense of destiny can be traced back to the mysterious origins of the band. In 1992, Toma and St. Werner met at a death-metal concert in Cologne. Afterwards, they learned that they shared a mutual appreciation for the ambient English band Seefeel, an influence apparent in their earlier records. By comparison, Radical Connector is outspoken and robust, displaying more vocal work by the band's frequent collaborator and drummer Dodo Nkishi than previous albums. Here, Nkishi collaborates with Sonig recording artist Niobe, who lends her drowned, aquatic voice to two tracks.

True to Mouse on Mars fashion, the vocals were digitally tweaked, distorted and mangled from their organic forms to cohere with the rest of the synth structures. "We intended the vocals to be part of the music, so the vocals wouldn't stand on the music, and the music wouldn't be karaoke," St. Werner explained. "It was much more about taking the vocals and the lyric part as a challenge to make that break—the hierarchy of the vocals over the music. We cut off the vocals to have rhythmic qualities. We had [the music] more hybrid and synthetic and spent a lot of time to do that."

"Usually when you have a vocal they have the personality of the singer telling a story. We wanted the vocals partly as instruments, works, information, syntax, so that the vocals can be more hybrid. We used all kinds of techniques to mess them up—to break the predominance of the vocals in the way they're usually used."

If you skimmed through this response without much patience, St. Werner might strike you as just another rebellious musician trying to break from the system to garner attention, like a kid who complains about having swallowed a stick of gum. But if you were reading too carefully, he might just as well strike you as being completely pretentious, obsessed with the ideas of intellectual exercise (and not enough with viable aural pleasures).

There is no correct way to understand or listen to the music, according to St. Werner. He seems to think that whether one trips to the beat on a dance floor in St. Petersburg or nonchalantly listens through a headphone in domesticity like a square on a log, the aesthetic imperative drives everything. This includes the thought that "if you play America or Latin America or Russia it doesn't make much of a difference. You have different tempers, but you can have a good time. It's really about the music that's beautiful and rewarding."

The confluence of such variable spaces and interpretations (to which the music of Mouse on Mars have been continually scrutinized) has many times surfaced in the way St. Werner explains his positions and views on global culture. And it was no different in our interview: "I think we're interested in music, not the connotation or the context. It's creating a soundtrack for a certain lifestyle, entity or behavior—and you choose a soundtrack for a circumstance or a lifestyle in your life." He was certainly open to the idea of a football team adopting one of their songs as its theme—a proposition that opens the trade route both ways, to concur with a rapidly growing exchange of information and data.

When I asked him about how Mouse on Mars might feel about people downloading their music through the internet, he was not particularly humble in his response: "That is a stupid question. Of course we want people to wear our brand of shoes. We can't make our music without selling our records." It's nice to know that he's still retaining his Teutonic temper.