Jan St. Werner of Mouse on Mars on how there's no proper code for behaving to his music
How did you come to work with Mark E. Smith?
He came to a show of ours. His wife is actually an old friend of ours and she took him to a show. He was just excited about the way we make music, probably because he didn't really understand how we could come up with such a sound. It was a rather pop music-oriented night, and I think we were, by far, the harshest and the weirdest of the acts, and I think he enjoyed us. By the end of the night, we parted with the promise that we would do something together.
After a Fall show in Düsseldorf, Mark and Andi came to our studio, and we had our gear set up for the show and we did a jam. From that jam we constructed the first bits for the tracks that went on to the Von Südenfed album [Tromatic Reflexxions]. Again, a quite natural progression of things.
What was he like to work with?
He's very efficient. He's really good to work with because we're easy to distract, and we usually create loads of different parts and loads of different ideas on one track and try to fit all these ideas into songs. Mark's more like one idea per song is enough. If you have another really good idea, and it doesn't distract from the first idea, add it, but stick to your initial impulse. He kept us focused on the main thing, which was really good.
What about Mark Popp's work attracted you to collaborating with him for Microstoria?
Markus is a really good friend. It is not only the collaboration that links us. He has a brilliant mind, so I am happy to have him as a friend. We met through an old friend of mine who lived in the same city at the time. He asked me if I had heard the very first Oval album and I said I was really very much enjoying it. He said we should meet and he brought us together. Markus and Sebastian Oschatz came to visit me in Köln, and Markus was the one that stayed in my life or stayed around as a friend.
When we met, we decided we should work together somehow. I went to Berlin to work in his place, and we started Microstoria and did a few records together. Now Markus is helping me with a kind of opera project I'm doing. I've always wanted to create an opera, but it's not an opera in a [conventional sense], of course. It's a more abstract idea of an opera. But Markus is writing the libretti, so he's doing the text part. I have to do the singers for the opera and the sounds are basically electronic.
I did the music and have an idea for the theme of the opera, and now I'm working with Markus on the text of the story. The opera will premier in June, and hopefully, we'll get a good record together, maybe one or two discs. Eventually, I hope Bettina [Richards] will release it on Thrill Jockey. I've been working with her again on a few things. So the next solo release will be a vinyl on Thrill Jockey, and I hope the opera will follow up. I didn't want to bring up my solo stuff, but he's like a mascot of my solo endeavors because he always encouraged me to do my own things and to be very critical and concentrated and he's an un-corruptible partner.
What's your opera to be called?
It's called Miscontinuum. That's the working title.
All of your albums sound very different from each other in a certain sense. What did you do with Parastrophics that set it apart from the rest of your body of work?
It's a bit of a difficult question for us because I can't really explain how we are changing or how it works that we're changing or coming up with new things all the time. It's all driven by the same interest, the same momentum. It just became more detailed and we're able to use more fragments and more sound events. It's more that we can deal with. It's just more that we can deal with. And how we judge the quality of the sound events. You become more of an expert at what you're doing.
I guess it sometimes makes you more difficult to be understood, but sometimes it makes things esoteric, more obscure to people. Other things you learn to translate so much easier. So things that seemed so complicated in the past that are these days like nothing. You just throw them out and explain them with a word, and that's all you need to do. I think we always explored into various directions at the same time.
I think as much as we became more understandable and more pop, maybe, but not in a conservative way. But pop is constantly changing and evolving. I think, for me, "pop" means a certain accessibility, a certain non-elitist idea of music being open and accessible to everyone and still based on even trivial ideas of a song, a melody, a rhythm and you can just jump into it and ride along. That's something we still like to have at the end of the day.
At the same time, of course, we evolved in the direction of cutting things and even more details and taking one phrase and cutting it into different categories and having another thing go out of there. So yeah, we've created so many more hybrids of even the smallest bits and parts that I think, sometimes, if I become aware of it, I would say I can't bring it together anymore. But if I'm not thinking about it so much, we intuitively grow our own way.
So with Parastrophics it took a little while until we had finished this record. In a way, it embraces digital technology more obviously than we had done on records before. I think it is, in a certain way, quite a labyrinth of a story and carries its very own story like any of our other albums have. That's something you just discover while you work on a record. You realize why you collect all your tracks and you make experiences, your travels, your personal experiences and your family life to feed into that.
Parastrophics is a kind of space all the other spaces fit into. In a certain way, it was our Berlin statement. It was our manifestation in a new environment. All the other records before have more or less been made in Cologne and Düsseldorf. The new album translates this weird Utopia of Berlin, or at least how we perceive it. The story in Parastrophics is really about a character rather than the records before going through transitions. But that's something you discover at the end of the record.
It's not that you start with a concept and make the songs fit to your idea. You think what really fits together and what songs you want to have on the record, who's involved in the album and where it will be released. Then you realize those tracks make sense and you shift and shape them in a certain direction. It's like cosmos circling around a center. Even if you don't explain that center or the inner core of that center, there still is a center.
For that record, it was a person, really. In the liner notes there is a text by our friend Adam Butler. He wrote that short story. It is a riddle, a labyrinth, the psychology of a single person trying to deal with very trivial things as well as complex, psychological things as well as the ghostly and different beings, his different manifestations of a human being--what he can be and what he never escaped from. He discovers the life outside of himself and inside of himself.
WOW was quite different. Musically, if you put tracks from WOW next to tracks from Parastrophics and vice versa, and you're not a hardcore Mouse on Mars fan, you would say, "It doesn't make a difference." It all comes from the same sound world but for us it's a totally different record. WOW is really immediate because it was made out of a moment. It carries a certain gesture.
Again, it's one person that obviously carries you through the record. It's this guy Dao Anh Khanh, a Vietnamese artist who does all these shoutings and all these weird voice things which you can't explain -- it's kind of a fantasy language. He's like the moderator, the MC of WOW. It's all about expression, immediacy, letting things out and letting things go and just expressing yourself right in the moment.
It's far less a psychological blueprint or a map of a complex place outside or inside yourself. You're here and now and you let go in good and bad ways. The title expresses it, the tracks express it. The voices we have on the record are basically shouts and sometimes you think it's a porn soundtrack, but it's not. It's this band Las Kellies. They were in the studio. In the end, Andi cut out those sounds and cut them into the track.
When I first heard it, I told him it sounded like something out of a porn movie, or beating up women or something, and I told him I wasn't sure how I feel about it. He didn't see it at all. He saw it as the abstract, best bits of that recording session. It worked perfectly with Dao Anh Khanh, who is just shouting and crying. He's like a cock you want to catch and slaughter. He's running around making these "ooh ooh ooh, ah ah ah" [sounds], like a monkey or something. They work perfectly together.
Eric D. Clark, with whom we had recorded two other tracks, we found some of these takes of him and doing other vocal sounds and it worked perfectly. We realized we were inside a story--how these things come at us and how they end up in the record. It carries a story of its own. We just have to follow it. We don't even have to look for things--they're just there and we just have to grab them and throw them into the music.
Since then, we've actually made another record so last year we basically put three records together. This record is called WretchUp. It's a record we made for all the people who supported this iPhone app we've been working on for a little while. So we made that into a crowd-funding project. We said, "We have that app on our phone. If you want it too, you have to give us money so we can pay a programmer to code it.
This is what it does, this is what it sounds like. So if you feel like you want to have it, we will make it open source so you can improve it the way you want, but to get it onto a platform you can work with, we need to find the person to program it properly." So we got the money together, and you have to give certain things, so we said we would give away some music as well, not just the app.
So from bits and pieces of sounds we made with that app, we made WretchUp, which is quite an intense and quite weird record, and it only exists in an edition of eighty. So it's not even worth talking about, but we put so much love into it, and put it together like it was a proper album. It has a sleeve, and it's hand stamped. The sleeve is actually the envelope of the record, so it's like a CD in a leather envelope.