Jan St. Werner of Mouse on Mars on how there's no proper code for behaving to his music
Mouse on Mars is a German duo made up of Jan St. Werner and Andi Toma, who started the project from their respective home cities of Cologne and Düsseldorf as a means of exploring sounds and organizing them into unconventional compositions. Whether this meant using traditional instrumentation, synthesizers, samples of songs or raw sounds doesn't seem to matter to these guys. The only seeming criterion is that the songs should be interesting and assembled in a creative and compelling way. This sort of hybrid approach to making music has caused Mouse on Mars to be lumped in loosely with IDM bands like Autechre, Plaid and Squarepusher, whose own adventurous sounds are difficult to pin down.
Mouse on Mars is known for its diverse and evolving body of work as much as it is for its numerous collaborations, including those with Stereolab and Mark E. Smith, as discussed below. This willingness to absorb ideas, recontextualize them and leap off those ideas into other realms of sonic and storytelling creativity has been a hallmark of what this band is about. We recently had the chance to speak with Werner about working with Stereolab, Mark E. Smith and the trio of Mouse On Mars albums that came out in 2012, including Parastrophics, WOW and the supremely limited edition WretchUp.
Westword: How did you get interested in unconventional or experimental music?
Jan St. Werner: I guess it's still increasing, this interest. It started quite early, and there are probably various explanations why you make music the way we do it. It starts with the way you hear things in your environment and music and how you approach sound in general. At some point, you realize that if you're interested in working with sound you very likely will end up making music of some sort. Of course you can approach music by learning an instrument but even then it's not just a technical thing of playing an instrument right or wrong. Even then, you really have to listen to what you're doing and what you're intending to do.
I guess, for us, it's really about keeping your ears open and listening carefully to what you have heard, whether you play it yourself, or if it's something you find or discover in the corner of your bathroom or outside in the wild, or if it's other people making music and you sit down and listen to them. What's really important is that you realize that what you hear is not what you see and that you start separating those two senses. That's quite a profound revelation and achievement if you're able to do that.
This is something that, for some people, might come really early, even when they're kids, and for some people, it will never happen. For some people it gradually occurs to them that what they see is definitely not what they hear -- that the acoustic senses is a thing in its own right, delivering a complete world of its own. Our brain is just so amazing in catching all these different sources of information and attaching these different central inputs together and creating a consistent image. I think the path we chose is quite specific and just because it provides us with all the excitement and all pleasures that we need.
What kinds of places did you perform live early on or did you?
I think we had to start playing live quite early. Also we'd been a studio project in the beginning -- just two guys fiddling with gear and sound and recordings. Once we had signed to our first label, Too Pure, which was, more or less, an indie label coming from independent rock music. So their idea was definitely that we should bring the whole thing on stage. It was something that seemed impossible to us in the first place.
We quickly recovered from that shock and came up with a good idea, which was incorporating Dodo NKishi, our drummer and singer, into the set. Our first ever gig was in London, and we just called him up and asked him. He was living in London at that time, and we still knew him from his time in Düsseldorf because he grew up in Düsseldorf.
He brought all the percussion stuff he had with him, and we borrowed a drum kit, from I don't know where, and we got this set together, and I was playing all kinds of things, like radio and effects pedals and Dictaphone things. I had two synthesizers, and Andi Toma was still playing bass and all that kind of stuff. So our first show was in London, and that took us to many places quite early. Our first American tour was probably 1997 with Stereolab, I think.
How did people react to the live version of the band early on?
It was really good. It seemed like people were really interested in new things. The timing was perfect. We were coming from a much more obscure background. But it seemed like the time was just right because people were really interested in new sounds and electronic music had reached the independent world, which, for a long time, wasn't the case, but when we came out, it seemed to mix and merge and form new hybrids. Lots of people booked us, so it must have been okay.
People were dancing, people were watching, people were wondering, people were linking what they saw to things they knew or think they imagined. I think we were a good projection screen in a way. It seemed like various groups of people and various scenes could kind of relate to what we were doing. Different scenes were coming together at our concerts. You had some experimental people, indie rock kids, people who liked dub, noise, electronics and ambient and dance. It seemed like quite a hybrid crowd. It's hard to say, but I think that's still the case. I get the feeling that when we play live, people let go because there's no proper code of how to behave to our music.
We don't translate a specific musical or cultural attitude. It's not like grindcore, where you might have a certain length of hair, or rave, where you wear Vans shoes and square patterns on your shirt, a baseball hat and some neon elements. You have all these kinds of people, but there's no specific sign that everyone does at a certain point, like holding up your fist or something. It's very heterogeneous. It seems that puts people at ease and they can let go because they don't feel observed, they don't feel like there's something they have to do right or catch to do it right.
Going back to Stereolab. Obviously your own work impacted Stereolab's 1997 album Dots and Loops. How did you get connected with that band? Was it partly through your mutual label Too Pure?
Yeah, exactly! I quite clearly remember the first time we met them, which was in a café in Köln. They had an interview day and it was basically across the street from where I lived. They did interviews and we did too and we just said hello. There was just sympathy [right away]. We were just chatting and talking. I don't know how the indication came to tour with them. But yeah, I think that was when we were hanging out. We shared a bus together and we shared a very small space, basically, so you come to know each other quite well. Now we're still good friends, Laetitia [Sadier] and Tim [Gane], we're still good friends with.
How did you find working with them on, say, Cache Cœur Naïf?
They're very easy-going people. There's not really anything we had to change about the way we had to work. Laetitia and Mary [Hansen] contributed to [that] EP. We made the music and they did the singing and we hung out and figured out how they could become a sound in our abstract world of sound.
Andi was engineering a lot. He's an amazing engineer. He has the patience, energy and speed to record a whole orchestra. So it was quite a relaxed session. I just contributed to a few tracks. Tim was always like, "Just do what you feel you should do." Sometimes I made noisy parts, sometimes I would lay down a melody or a harmonic part. I also contributed to Margerine Eclipse later on. Electronic bits, just casually.