Mouse On Mars

For a dozen years, Jan St. Werner and Andi Toma, the German duo known as Mouse on Mars, have pursued a kind of electronic music that straddles audaciously experimental art and a calmly scientific and philosophical investigation into the nature and purpose of sound. Yet these two pointy-headed young gents have also filled dance floors in Europe, the U.K. and beyond with world-class blistering beatmeistering, successful stabs at glossy and melodious funk ’n’ soul, and more recently a return to the most brutally brainy of techno-glitch skull-scratchery.

MoM’s sound links them to the club-music scene, as do their many remixes and collaborations with members of the dance-music world. Yet their association with the formalized and utilitarian world of dance music is ironic, as the band’s raison d’etre is to place electronic flies in any aural ointment they choose to muck through. A series of 10 albums and numerous remixes has come off as primarily intent on dashing expectations, 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. Radical Connector (2004) further granulated the MoM aesthetic into nine vaguely pop-oriented songs, ever heavier on the beats and increasingly hinging the tunes on the vocals and drumming of longtime collaborator Dodo Nkishi.
Mouse on Mars 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 by incorporating live instrumentation – heard to head-slamming effect on the Mouse on Mars Live 04 album on the band’s own Sonig label -- and have even further kicked over the high-art/pop-trash wall with radically arty recording techniques, which includes the design of their own sound patches, extensively employed on their recent Varcharz (Thrill Jockey).
Working like research scientists in their St. Martin Studio in Düsseldorf and in St. Werner’s home recording lab in Amsterdam (where, under the nom de plume Lithops he also creates solo electronic works like the recent Mound Magnet on Thrill Jockey Records), Mouse on Mars take their sweet time making new records, proceeding painstakingly in the belief that it’s important to dig ever deeper inside music’s capacities for both cerebral and corporeal satisfaction. When it came time to assemble Varcharz, says St. Werner, he and Toma sensed that the times called for something uncompromising. Yet how it would all unfold was, as always, a mystery.
“You work on a record, and form it, so it is as conscious as you can be,” he says. “Is Varcharz a conscious departure from Radical Connector? In a way, yes, it is. But as always, ambiguity plays a big role in our music; not because it stands for a paradox or something that is inexplicably connected, but because there’s a kind of tension with these ambiguities that really holds things together.
With at least superficially contrasting results, on both the more traditionally structured Radical Connector and the harsh and loose Varcharz, ambiguities somewhat paradoxically generate a dynamic that drives the pair’s focus, whether in the decision to expand the sonic parameters of a track or to drastically limit them. This is their method of bringing about music where, says St. Werner, “it’s something that just happens.
Radical Connector and Varcharz are both ideas of music in a time when pop music is the predominant idea for what music should do; i.e., that it should make you feel,” says St. Werner. “That idea needs to be explored, that music doesn’t really have a specific purpose, it’s just for the sake of being music itself – then you can identify with it, and thus have a kind of harbored interest. Radical Connector and Varcharz are pop records made in a world where differences are really very minute when it comes to who listens to Mouse on Mars, or where would you listen to it, or if you have access to it -- it could be someone in China downloading it as much as someone in Cologne.”
The avoidance of vocal tracks on Varcharz made the process of creating it more free, as if the music could more easily roam into uncharted terrain, even if in the back of their minds Toma and St. Werner were aware of their tenuous link to electronic dance or rock, the one that acknowledges that they’d like more than four people to appreciate their music’s nuance. MoM’s strictly functional (dance dance dance!) responsibilities make St. Werner a tad uncomfortable, though he considers it a challenge of its own kind.
“I’m aware of it,” he says, “and when we play live, we’re aware of people dancing. Ideally we would be heard for the sake of music itself, but we still chop things up in a very predictable way -- it’s still records and songs and a certain amount of minutes that you have for that kind of thing. And we accept that. But again, that tension also provokes a certain move -- what you’re opposed to makes for a lot of energy. You want to overthrow it.”
The anarchic impulse returns again and again to St. Werner. And to illustrate his belief in the importance of music’s context in gauging its worth, he tells me about the inspiring result of falling asleep to the sound of an interesting mechanical device called an “electric fan,” perched on his night stand to ease the balmy summer air of his apartment in Amsterdam.
“It was on a wooden box with some things on top, so there was an incredible resonance,” he says, laughing. “I was just coming back from the U.S., and I had been in London in the meantime and I was still very tired, but I tried to stay awake to re-establish my body rhythm, and I kind of faded away, and I had this kind of lucid sleep. And there was so much to listen to in this fan. My brain created an amazing piece from this thing. And of course you could never put that on a record, you could never ever have this experience twice . . . and I didn’t have to buy it.”
Within the framework of “pop” groups, MoM consistently motivate with their studious inquiries into an art form that can, like a book, open up one’s eyes to the world as it is and create an awareness that one would not have otherwise had (thus giving that book its value), and can, in an equally legitimate sense, be used to aerobicize to. In a live setting, the funky steams of the band’s performances are quite unlike the more considered aural bedlam of their studio productions. It’s apples and oranges to St. Werner, each aspect having its requisite points and parameters.
The live setting, he says, “is a compressed time frame, pressing together all that energy we spend when we work for weeks and months and years in the studio. When I try to do an improvised kind of set, it can be really noisy and very intense in volume; sometimes I’m shocked what comes out of me, how aggressive I can be [laughs], because sometimes I feel, like, I only get 20 minutes? Yet it’s a calculated form of freaking out that is so noisy and over the top and really like rave, techno or something, in a kind of perverted way.”

The studio is for St. Werner a preferable place to work, a place to consciously consider what one is doing, and why, and to try out plentiful combinations, additions and subtractions of song parts, recording techniques and instruments and effects. The recording studio, he says, is a place for an ongoing study of music as an art form, as well as a philosophical quest.
Says St. Werner, “We do have custom software that we use, and software that we use in general. But software is such a wide term for what you actually do sound-wise. It can help you create sounds from scratch, it can help you edit the sound in a very precise and minute way, it can help you to process the sound, make alterations in infinite ways.
“Software can mean whatever helps you to organize all your sound events, whether in a sequencer or an arrangement software, which is like a platform from which you can re-form specific sounds if the initial ones don’t work well within an arrangement. But you can also start with a stand-alone piece of software, let’s say Reactor, and just play with the sound, and at some point decide that you want to continue with that particular sound that you’ve achieved.”
While Logic is often the basic software that helps MoM arrange their pieces, they typically bring in platforms that work with effects or acoustic treatments such as compression or equalization. Absynth is also used, largely for the advantage of its vast modulation possibilities, as well as the free version of SonicWorks at the editing stage.
For Mouse on Mars, the software itself is not as important as the open-minded attitude it’s approached with, and how effectively it can be interfaced with instruments and techniques found in the analog realm. For the most part, says St. Werner, “we use what we’ve always got along with, and I mostly use the software that everyone has. There’s no specific super tool or magic thing we would use that would explain the mapping of our sound. The secret is always how flexible the software is, how much will it allow you to play with it, have layers of recording possibilities.”
Thus carrying equal weight in the development of MoM’s pieces are non-computer-world instruments and procedures such as guitar and bass and the choice and placement of microphones. “We really love to record drums,” says St. Werner. “Sometimes we have a real drum mixed with an electronic one, or a very heavily processed one, which then starts to become its own little drum kit. Sometimes when I have too many processed sounds, I play a drum kit and I basically have to track it up again and make that become a drum kit of its own, because I can’t play the beat anymore -- it’s too complex -- and that would be a piece of its own. Then the bass often creates the body of the track; it’s like something that plays with everything but is not so obviously audible.”

MoM’s music constantly subverts the idea of ear-friendly pop: When tones are pitted against each other, they collide and explode, opening up galaxies 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.
Ultimately, pop’s physical/emotional appeal is just another constituent part in the duo’s search for the perfect equation. “Mouse on Mars,” says St. Werner, “is like a group of researchers which presents their results to a wider audience.” Whether such a studied approach should disqualify Mouse on Mars from the category of pop music — which is by definition very direct and for the most part literal-minded — seems irrelevant for these guys, who aim to smash the borders between “serious” and non-serious music.