Interview: John Maus
Pop outsider and political philosophy boffin John Maus doesn’t want nice things written about him
Words Hazel Sheffield
Photography Erika Wall
John Maus is sobbing uncontrollably. He’s performing in the summer pavilion at the Serpentine in west London at the request of photographer Wolfgang Tillmans, who is exhibiting a new collection in the gallery’s main space. Anyone stumbling in on the gig would likely be as shocked as enthralled. Maus is stalking and screaming about the square stage in hysterics. His shirt is sodden and his hair sticks to his face. When he dares look at the audience it is with his head thrown back and through wet, white slits of eyes. He clicks through the tracks on his laptop, cutting every one short, racing through ‘Times Is Weird’, ‘Rights For Gays’, ‘Too Much Money’… until they become one ear-deafening hiss of computer noise. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m trying…” he says.
A woman with a chignon clutches tighter at her champagne glass but keeps a smile painted on her face.
A couple of hours earlier and that same woman is butting in on our interview in a messy design library. “Hello, John, I’m one of the curators here, we’re so delighted to have you,” she says. Maus rises to thank her, the picture of humility. Then, as soon as the door closes behind her, his hair flips over his averted eyes and words stream out of him.
“The main reason why I’m here is for a good kick in the ass to go and finish the next album. I went back to Minnesota last October [from Hawaii] and got this little house in the country. The plan was to work on the next album but the months rolled by and it kind of seemed impossible to do.”
He shifts in his seat while he talks, rolling up the sleeves of a tattered blue sweater that is covered in sand (thanks to our photographer) and rubbing his hands on worn, loose jeans.
“Around June, I just gave up altogether. I just tried to stop… I was doing lots of chemistry projects and chromatography experiments. I set myself on fire a few times heating inflammable solvents.”
The door opens again and a girl brings him coffee. “We have some Red Bull for you tonight, three cans. Is that going be enough?”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s great, thank you,” Maus says to a patch of wall.
The door closes. He addresses the paper cup with half-shut, brown eyes: “The work is the most terrifying thing there is. To face that kind of abyss can be a really horrific thing.”
Maus last released an album, Love Is Real, in 2007; a dense, raspberry fuzz of a record that summons a bloated nostalgia for eighties theme tunes. On top, Maus’s tenebrous, Ian Curtis-like drawl gluts like tar. Reviewers called it “creepy” and “bizarre”. Academics either hailed it as an ironic, hellish interpretation of its genre, or the very essence of the style — the truth of pop.
Only bad reviews of Maus’s debut album Roses get quoted on his MySpace (“It took this Ariel Pink cohort five years to write and record his debut, and only five minutes to become more annoying than Ariel Pink”; “blatantly grating… at almost every turn”; “the most skip-able album of 2006”) in a pastiche of misinterpretation of which he is hugely proud. “If magazines are talking about you in a positive way then that speaks to your inefficacy and the fact that you’re probably not doing something right,” he says, the drawl gathering pace. “Because that machinery is precisely the devil and, if it’s ignoring you, that’s a good sign.”
In another life, Maus was a political philosophy and theory instructor at the University of Hawaii, where he took a particular interest in aesthetics. “Pop is the truth of this moment,” he says. “I think these people that make avant-garde, artistral music are ridiculous. It’s not 1920. That’s not what’s going on right now. We live in a completely different situation that, musically, is pop music.”
Despite this, you’d be hard pressed to find another pop musician as socially awkward as Maus. I ask if he’s autistic. “No, no, no, no, I only… I don’t put much stock in those clinical categorisations in general, I suppose,” he replies, unabashed.
Well, what then?
“I’ve been diagnosed with everything at one point or another. They say you’re bipolar or whatever, but I’ve never had one of those… if only I’d had those euphoric, manic episodes where I had an exaggerated perception of my own ability, that would be wonderful. But no, I guess depression, or stuff like that.”
We move onto his relationship with Ariel Pink, who he met in 1998 when they studied together in California. “When I was still going out with [Pink], they would just spit on him or throw stuff and tell him to get off the stage, but now he’s the godfather of chillwave or chillglow or whatever!” He laughs like his stomach’s twisted. “There’s this whole thing where suddenly he’s approved by like Pitchfork or whatever. Suddenly he’s approved. I don’t know what the difference was; maybe it was that he had a label with more clout or something. It’s all a stupid, discursive regime.”
The door opens and a publicist says that Maus must soundcheck. He stands immediately. His angry eyes widen and meet mine for the first time. “Is that good?” he asks. “Is that good enough?”