Filed under: Interview
In 2004 Mouse On Mars, celebrate their 10th anniversary. What started out as experimentation in electronic music and philosophy, has grown into one of the most important exports from Germany. They have just released their newest album, Radical Connector and we caught up with Jan St.Werner, Andi Toma and Dodo Nkishi.
Interview by Laura Brown (ArcTokyo)
HRFQ : You will be playing at the Metamorphose festival this weekend. Is this your 1st time to be at Japanese festival? H
Jan St.Werner (JSW) : We also played at Electroglide, which is quite a big techno thing.
HRFQ : You’ve gotten such rave reviews from your last album. Can you tell a bit about how this project came about?
JSW : We’re quite spoiled with the press. It’s good, it’s going very well. It’s amazing each time because you are in the studio and you try things, you want to try different things and with this record we had different ideas of what we wanted to achieve and the music being more condensed – more focused on the actual songs this time. But you do all this and you don’t really know if it works. At some point you’re done, but it’s all us, so at some point, you have to set it free and then you see what happens. Again we got really good feedback this time. And it’s a bit better because people realize that there is a change without having become another band, but there is an obvious progression and shift within the music. You can still take it as MOM, so there is something that gets good feedback from the outside. But we’re not that dependent on the feedback — it’s not where the music comes from. We collect everything that happens to us, when we play live, or when we do interviews. At some point you collect so much that you think that you have to open up another file, to get the stuff stored. And it was this record. It contains a lot of life experiences, the rejection we had against lyrics or voices or whatever. We wanted to make an album that is less diverse and less eclectic direction-wise, and have it be more together, more focused, more dense. So this is what this record is carrying.
HRFQ : You just released a book this year on doku/fiction(doku/fiction: Mouse on Mars reviewed & remixed) and had gallery events to go with the release. What a wonderful project and collaboration with so many different artists. Do you frequently work in conjunction with so many new media?
JSW : We do like art and it was nice to work with visual artists and writers. But the project we did with this book is actually like an idea of making a remix album. Different suggestions, interpretations, ideas of other people that are linked to this music. But we were more the initiators. We didn’t actively do that much. We just talked to people, getting our ideas across. But this wasn’t as much our work as the record is. The book was really more like bringing people in and inviting them to do something and then the book led to a very big exhibition in Dusseldorf — it was a big space, so the whole thing grew exponentially in a way because it’s a huge space. So out of this book, came the idea for the exhibition. But this is all new ground and it was good for us as an experience and it was very good for us to work with the people and I’m sure it was inspiring on many levels. But again when it comes back to the music, we go back to our work space and shut down and work on our own.
HRFQ : How did you find your new DJs Collapse 12″ collaboration with Matthew Herbert? You’ve worked with him a few times now. What was your artistic process when working together?
JSW : It comes from liking each other’s music. The collaboration has a certain kind of friendship idea about it and it’s not that we have so much intentional expectations about what should come from it. It’s really like, let’s do something together and see what it will be like. He did something on our record and we played around a little bit and realized that we would just bring this into our record. It could be something else or become something else. And then we did on his record, but that was very minute stuff. And then we did this together and we thought what should we do with that? So we just made it a band of its own. A band that is kind of a DJ thing — for people who play records and DJs. But it’s still a band, so it’s not really working perfectly for the DJs, so we called it DJs Collapse, for the struggle of the DJ. But it’s very loose and we’ll see what comes next. We don’t really have a plan. We’re happy to listen to new music from Matthew from whatever he’s doing. And I guess he likes what we do. But this interest in each other doesn’t necessarily lead to new music each time. It’s just sometimes you crash into each other or sometimes collapse. So it’s more like an admiration for each other and this kind of leads to music sometimes. But even if you don’t make new music, the admiration is still there. The music is just a side-project from being interested in each other.
HRFQ : Are there any other artists you’d really like to work with, but haven’t yet had the chance?
JSW : Prince and the guy from OutKast – Andre 3000. Tony Allen we’d like to work with. We always wanted to work with Nicolette, but it just didn’t happen in the end. But we aren’t like collaboration freaks. We’re really happy to do our stuff. It’s enough happening — already too much happening. And when you’re working with someone else, it needs discussion, etc. In the 10 years we’ve been working, we’ve only done three collaborations. A single with Laetitia from Stereolab, and other projects helping them.
HRFQ : It seems that you get inspiration in so many forms. When beginning new work, how do your non-musical ideas develop into music?
Dodo Nkishi : It’s just perception. It’s all the same thing. You said before that we seem not to be interested only in music, but also in visual. It’s all part of life — the same experience. It’s not so much a question of how you do it, it’s a matter of, if you see it, feel it, sense it, then you’re going to include it somehow. And ideas come from everywhere if you can perceive them. It’s not such a conscious effort to think of a non-musical concept.
JSW : Even if you have a concept of how to translate something, the initial spark is somehow hidden. It’s really hard to bring to life what is really the link between an inspiration or source of something. Visual or audible or central. And then understanding how it translates into something else. This process is always quite sinister. You can try to find out things. Try to find out how you work. You can learn about yourself but immediately when you understand the mechanisms, you want to modulate that. You want to improve it or patch it differently. So the creative act is already happening when you understand how you work. You already start to rework yourself. Everything you do — if it’s music or art or writing or something, it’s more like a side-effect of something that you work on. If you think of a lot of musicians, they kind of get rid of this. They feel like they get rid of things and this is quite funny. For people who are quite productive, if you talk about, ‘where do you get your ideas from, or how can you come up with something new?’ You don’t think like that. You just want to get rid of it. When I didn’t make music yet, I was listening to bands that I liked. And after 3 or 4 records, I though those records always sound the same or they have something very similar. There’s a sound or there’s a thing. And I thought, why don’t they change this? There are some really big examples, like REM or U2, they always sound the same. It’s not that I don’t like it, even us we sound the same all the time. And it’s because people don’t care. You give it out and you channel it through all the time. You want to make it be appealing, you want to produce it. You try to get a distance from it, but in the end, it doesn’t matter that much. What’s really interesting for you is not what you produce. It’s more what you don’t understand yet. And what you’ve produced is behind you. Of course you accompany it. You play your record live and maybe you give it to someone to do a remix. Already having someone else making a remix, it shows total disinterest in your own stuff. Because why don’t you yourself make the remix. If you give it to someone, it’s like you don’t care anymore. So artistic production is like a side-effect or even a neurosis. It prevents you from thinking about yourself. If you really understand how you work and how things sum-up in your brain. And how the process of creation is actually really happening, you would be able to not create anymore. I always admire artists who at some point who stop producing. Or people who really take a long long time and try to create something that has the biggest distance from themselves. But we are more like the loose characters who do it from the hip. You don’t have to think so much about it. And in the traditional way, maybe that’s a good musician, but on the other hand, I always like when people try to change or be different.
Dodo : That’s why the last album took two years to make — that’s a big hip.
JSW : I always liked Sun Ra who said, that’s not me playing, I’m just channeling through. It’s cosmic music. A lot of spiritual music has this aspect. Or Moon Dog who tried to find a cosmic harmonic structure or scheme, to bring this into the music.
Dodo : But again, it’s a matter of perception isn’t it. Because in the end, it’s probably the same for anyone who expresses anything. It is some sort of connection to some place that we call inspiration or the hidden place. But Sun Ra or Moon Dog maybe address this issue whereas other people may not be so aware of it. But in the end, it’s just like garbage coming out. Like Jan said, you try to get rid of lots of stuff.
JSW : For me in the end, this is what really matters to me. A lot of people who put on a record say that they ‘play’ it. And for DJs who already play other people’s music, it’s like they make music and I think that it [this acknowledgment] actually matters. I really respect people who actually stand back and acknowledge it.
HRFQ : Do you then interpret any of your music spiritually?
JSW : No. It isn’t my way of talking.
Dodo : Then that’s the thing. It’s like the album Radical Connector, it’s the ability to connect to different different levels or be able to realize their inherent coexistence. He has his view of what he does and when it comes together in the end, it’s all the same thing. In some strange way that we don’t understand.
HRFQ : Quite often if electronic music is connected to philosophical ideas, it can actually sound too cerebral. What are your secrets of keeping the dance-floor moving and embracing these concepts at the same time?
JSW : I think we are passionate about philosophizing, so it’s like then the area of thinking or the area of reconsidering things and trying to reshape them thought-wise. I mean when the audience is there when you play live, how can you not see the audience. They are so there. Sometimes I’m really shocked by people who do their thing as if there was no one in the room. I wouldn’t be able to do that. That’s it. It’s not a concept, it’s just perception.
HRFQ : Regarding the structure in your live sets, what new technologies are you currently using?
JSW : I take care of the electronics and certain sound aspects. I use a Sampler, a synth, some software, etc.
Dodo : I take care of drums and vocals, or vocal sounds, and then he takes some of my vocals and “electrifies” them. The point is not what we use, it’s how we use it. For example when he hears what I’m doing, he will respond to this with his machine and his fingers and at the same time, I hear what he is doing with my voice and I can respond to that. AT is doing the bass and he can manipulate the sound that eventually the audience can hear. It’s very spontaneous and interwoven. Whether it is what I would call magic, it depends on our performance on the night and how people respond to it.
HRFQ : What have you been focusing on as of late, with your Sonig label?
JSW : Sonig is quite a test-ground for the people because we don’t have this distinct sound or distinct aim that we go for. We really want people to come up with idiosyncratic and I think that every artist that’s on the label has an artistic background and vision, so the people are very strongly developing their own musical language. And a lot of them even have an art side as well. They have a whole concept of how they live and some of them are really, very intense characters. And we’re very happy to have a label that provides a space for them because it’s not easy to squeeze someone into a certain genre, if he’s like so many genres in himself. So a lot of the things that these people try could already work on different labels if you would produce it more clearly. Someone like Niobe, she works with her voice and she samples her voice and instruments in quite an odd way. She has so many different tempers and personalities to herself, but all of this together creates this character Niobe and so the label kind of gives space to that. The label is big enough to, the test-ground thing. And then someone like Jason Forrest is coming from more a breaker background, but he’s also into rock and disco stuff. He can really make people dance, but he’s also… he chops up things. And then Scratch Pet Land from Brussels, they are incredibly rich in their heads and one of them is a DJ and he tries DJ techniques and he tries to combine the DJ thing with the Electronic thing. And the other one is a visual artist (they are brothers) and they come up with so many ideas and they kind of squeeze it into Scratch Pet Land. And then they are in Sonig and Sonig is related to us and we introduce the public to the label, but the label is really like, once you discover an artist, it goes into so many directions. That’s why it isn’t like a house label or an electronica label — it’s channeling things further. And then we have a band like Workshop and they are so intense as a band and they have so many different ways of expressing themselves, like new folk, rock, experimental kind of band and the main guy in workshop is a visual artist as well and is really successful with his visual art. He’s like one of the main painters Kai Althoff, he has a big exhibition in a museum in Boston right now. So, he’s really successful with his art, but not too many people know about his music. And it’s really difficult for him to find a label that works or deals with this music. Most labels have a certain direction of what they want to take and what they don’t want to take. They are happy to have a label that says ‘do you art however you want it’ and we can offer you the spread of some of your records. We don’t have the problem with the art scene or this kind of scene or that kind of scene which makes it difficult in the market because you really have to be strong about labeling your statement and our statement is that we don’t want to label it. So it’s kind of contra-marketing.
HRFQ : You are going on tour in the U.S. next month. How do different audiences differ in their reception and acknowledgment to your music?
Andi Toma : It’s not just a certain audience. It depends on where it is going, on the weather, there are different nationalities or different behaviors. Actually there was one concert we did in Belgium that was our worst concert ever and we ended with big feedback because we thought the people were just not interested, so we tried to hurt them… We ended up hurting ourselves very much. Ha. And then we didn’t go there for like six years, we forgot about that. And then suddenly we came back without knowing because we had tried to erase our memories. And we were in the room and we realized that we were in the same club again. And they people there came up to us and they said that ‘the people still talk about that show six years ago.’ Of course because if they had a half an hour of feedback, visiting their doctors and they have diseases from it. We then played again it was such a great concert! They didn’t want us to stop and they were dancing — a totally different thing.
HRFQ : So which audience is the best? The ones who enjoy.
JSW : But this is proof that you have to give space to the audience because this was the place that we had played. It seemed that they needed time actually and it doesn’t mean that they don’t appreciate it. It means that after six years, they were really ready.
Andi : And then when we play in Germany, they have their arms folded, waiting for us to do something. They want to hear something good or bad. I get the feeling that they don’t really listen. They just try to compare and be proven, so it’s an uncomfortable feeling. In America, it’s different, they want to have a party. They want you to do something. In Japan, they really listen. Even if something goes wrong, there’s a strange noise or accident in the music, they listen. And then you also listen. It’s strange because if they audience is listening, then you are listening. If they audience is waiting, then you also wait for something.
End of the interview
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