By Graeme Wiggins
VANCOUVER – Often musicians let their music do the talking, making interviews short, occasionally insightful but rarely treading into philosophical implications of their art and how it’s talked about. John Maus, whose apocalyptic new album, Screen Memories, deals with fairly complex issues in a synth-heavy pop vein, takes things even further in discussion. It probably helps that during the six-year hiatus between albums he took time off to finish his PhD in Political Science.
Music writers often describe his music as outsider art with a cult following, which is something Maus is keenly aware of. When it arises in conversation, he notes, “I’m wondering now if you’ve found the one or two towards the end where I personally lamented this precise definition that you’re bringing up now.” There’s a sense in which he gets it, that there’s a sense in which his music is a little off the beaten path.
“I guess in the sense that some of the things that I’m trying out are so outlandish that the only comparison that can be made is with some of these weird records at the bottom of the vinyl bin — weird born-again, or family in a trailer somewhere made. Other than that it’s just an easy way to box it up and put in on a shelf where it belongs, conveniently easy.”
He thinks this classification in music criticism stems from a deeper issue in artistic evaluation; that judgments about music are often made without really attempting to bring anything new to the table. Putting things into genres is an easy out for a music writer. He explains, “I have three records out or whatever and each time I’m a different genre. The first time it was hypnagogic pop, and last time, I can’t remember, something like ’80s retro, and now I’m a retro-futurist.” The problem is this brings nothing new to the table. “ I keep making this point that opposed to reflective judgment in relationship to people’s work, it’s a determinate judgment that takes place. Everybody has got a concept or genre at hand to affix to the work talking about as opposed to trying to reflect on what sorts of new concepts they can tease out of what they’re discussing. That would be ideal.”
To be fair Screen Memories does have an ’80s feeling. It’s synth heavy, it’s dark, and like a lot of eighties music, it does seem to ruminate on the ideas of apocalypse. One would have figured given its release this year that much of it must be inspired by the political situation in the U.S. right now, but the apocalyptic theme runs deeper than that. “Most of it was finished during the time a Trump presidency was still more or less a joke that the media was having. There was no conceivable way. I distinctly remember some press conference where Obama was somewhere and he was reassuring everybody that Americans were not that stupid that they would elect a reality star. The apocalyptic theme I had in mind was more the Silicon Valley ideology. The technocratic, techno-gnostic, ideology that holds sway more and more.” But given the advent of Trump, its timing was a little off to capture that as well: “The election happened and I was kind of bummed that the album didn’t come out corresponding with it because I could say I told you so, it was in the air. I could have rode the crest of that really well as a major emblematic event of that sort of force.” So while, Screen Memories might not have quite capitalized on the world’s apocalyptic turn, it is a fitting record for the current zeitgeist.
John Maus performs January 24 at the Biltmore Cabaret (Vancouver).