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Dance of the Dialectic: Ten Years of Mouse on Mars

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Michael Crumsho caught up with Mouse on Mars on the Lower East Side as the German duo prepares for the release of their eighth full-length, Radical Connector.

Dance of the Dialectic: Ten Years of Mouse on Mars

An incessant fascination with the young has almost always dogged most varieties of musical performance and production. Save for a few shining examples such as Sonic Youth or Faust, it's difficult for any group of artists to maintain the same level of vitality, energy, and artistic singularity ten, fifteen, or even twenty years along in their existence. What with taste being a mutable and ever changing concept, today's aesthetic and ideological heroes can quickly become next year's hackneyed and well-worn cliches. Apparently, no one ever told this to Jan St. Werner and Andi Toma, the duo who have for the past ten years comprised Mouse on Mars. Far from retreading the groundbreaking material that has made up much of their back catalogue, the duo are still pushing the boundaries of their own ideology and creativity after seven albums, a host of EPs and singles, as well as a variety of collaborations, solo efforts, and remix and production projects.

Unsurprisingly, it's hard for two free-thinking individual to even grasp the scope of their accomplishments over the past decade as they prepare for the release of their eighth full-length, the taut and compelling Radical Connector, and a comprehensive North American tour this fall. "We don't really realize it's been that long," shrugs St. Werner near the beginning of our talk. "We don't really count the years." And when pressed to reflect how things have changed for them during a period that has seen numerous electronic movements rise and fall, Toma responds simply, "We have a washing machine in the studio now."

Without much effort on their own part, Mouse on Mars has always resided at the forefront of whatever electronic movement has been on the hearts and minds of fans and journalists, be it the so-called "ambient" electronica that was swelling around the time of their debut Vulvaland, or the more laptop-oriented glitch set that was dominant around the release of both Niun Niggung and 2001's Idiology. "It's not a goal to be a part of any movement," maintains Jan St. Werner. "The music we like, the music we make, the music we relate to is not part of any scene. It's not about being pretentiously extreme; it's about trying to go for your ideas as far as you can, to see what there is and what you can do and stretch it to the most possible extension." The duo also does not find much affinity with the consistent pigeonholing of their music as purely electronic. "What is electronic music?" asks Andi Toma. "It's not a style. We are not an electronic music band. We use electronic tools to make music. A guitar band is recorded and edited electronically." St. Werner summarizes their view on the issue more slyly. "We're real people so we can't be an electronic band."

Assertions like these may seem like so much lip service, but anyone who has seen their energetic live performances can attest to the fact that there is more at work in their sound than simple double clicks. "Our music doesn't want to compete with people who use laptops," St. Werner continues. "Some people are stuck when they use a laptop - the world shrinks into tiny events." But then again, their concert buoyancy isn't just a pose either. It comes from somewhere real and distinct, an actual response to the music they create, and not some series of preordained moves designed for maximum public effect. "Bands who pose, who do a lot of show, it doesn't really touch me. That's not the music," he sighs. "If the music moves me, I don't mind the gestures. In that sense, we are quite conservative - the way we play and move still just comes from the music."

But where does the music itself come from? As much as there is a perceived influence coming from all types of boundary pushing music (be it free jazz, hip hop, or grindcore), there is a distinct philosophical element that in many ways colors the sounds they produce, an almost Marxist dialectic approach to exploring all the music that surrounds them in pursuit of their own singular sound. "Electronic music is quite synonymous with the problem of being trapped too much in the possibilities of just one field; you can't see what's going on around you," St. Werner asserts. "You have to be intense with what you do, but you have to have that ability to stand back and see that this is not the whole world, but it reflects part of the world." While some would be quick to point to individual tracks as emblematic of specific genre influences, a closer inspection of the band's oeuvre reveals that these are really just pieces of a larger puzzle - a simple desire to represent themselves and their multifaceted personalities through the music they create.

Their philosophical approach extends beyond the boundaries of just the creation of their music. In fact, it also goes a ways towards describing how they perceive music. This much becomes evident when examining 2004's Doku/Fiction: Mouse on Mars Reviewed and Remixed. What started as a book quickly extended into a gallery exhibition, as the two invited a host of friends and artists to "remix" their work, with the only ground rule being that no sound could be used. "If you remix music, there's always music coming out of it," St. Werner says. "We kind of twisted the term. It's more translation. It's seeing what it is you refer to. Can you name that? Can you grab it? What can you do with it without making music again?" The results of the project ranged from pieces of writing to a variety of different visual interpretations, all of which went a ways at describing different examinations of their work without resorting to a simplistic reinterpretation of a grouping of sounds. "Music doesn't just translate into music," he continues. "What makes it interesting is what you make with the music. And then you communicate what's going on in your perception. What draws your attention in music, and how would you describe it?"

The group's focus for the remainder of 2004 will be their newest record Radical Connector, and the tour they plan to launch in September to support it. Questions as to any sort of oblique meaning in the title yield a steady stream of responses. "It's shifting, it's not a stable thing," begins St. Werner excitedly. "Things are connected, they belong to each other. But if you have to connect something, it's also about separate parts. There's a platform or structure or force or logic where all these things belong to each other, but even if they're separate entities, things that stick out, they need a context or a surface on which to perceive them." Or more simply, he presses on, the title is an attempt "to get away from this idea that music is all a flow. It's units, it's entities, they work together, and you perceive it as you have a feeling towards the music or you have a sound."

When talking with Jan St. Werner and Andi Toma, there's a sense that you arrive and leave in the middle of sentences and thoughts. The time you spend with them is simply a brief window into the minds of two of the most creative musicians at work today. That window reveals their minds to be as bustling and brimming with invention (if not more so) as they were when the group first began making music over ten years ago. Far from celebrating a host of achievements that many would work multiple decades to call their own, Mouse on Mars seem to view everything they do as just another piece of the whole that grows in size with each new idea, a springboard towards the next series of creations and perceptions. Far from being another trend or generic signifier, the work of Mouse on Mars to date seems only to be an indication of the possibilities still yet to come.

By Michael Crumsho

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