John Maus is standing in Manhattan’s expertly decorated, businessmen-filled Eventi Hotel wearing a loose-fitting parka in the middle of May. He’s fresh from a headlining performance at Brooklyn’s Glasslands Gallery the night before, leading up to a full summer tour. The show “was OK,” he says. “I didn’t feel like I had enough energy, you know what I mean?” It’s hard to imagine him ever running short on energy, as he bursts with manic inspiration among the stoic capitalists nearby, ideas and opinions spilling out of his mouth almost faster than he can articulate them.
Maus is clearly possessed with a considerable intellect, which aids him both as a musician and as an academic. Born in Austin, MN, he studied music composition at the California Institute Of The Arts under such avant-garde luminaries as Morton Subotnick and James Tenney. Since then, he’s become a Ph.D. candidate and instructor of political philosophy at the University Of Hawaii At Manoa, financing his coursework and touring by a stipend. And his first new album in four years, We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves, builds a potential breakout release on the boundary-pushing synth-pop he’s become known for while hinting at a tricky philosophy lesson within its title.
“That comes from this philosopher that I was really interested in,” Maus says. “So everything you know—consume, communicate and enjoy—that’s kind of what the world says, right? All art and all thought is ruined if we just give over to that. We’ve got to struggle to try and interrupt that somehow with something else, you know?” That creative philosophy carries over to Maus’ mindset as a musician. “It maybe sounds ridiculous or whatever, but I’ve always kind of suspected that there’s something radical about pop, there’s something aggressively disruptive about degenerate punk rock,” he says. “I think all art in a sense, if it’s genuine, disrupts the regime of the sensible.”
Maus and certain allies of his have been disrupting musical sensibilities for several years, largely by experimenting with the limitations of pop structure. He’s played live keyboards for Ariel Pink, no stranger to confronting his audiences on record or in person, and he’s also played with Panda Bear, perpetually growing with and outside of Animal Collective as a whole wave of indie musicians struggles to catch up. Alone, Maus creates music that reflects the wild intelligence driving him, often invoking odd lyrical mantras; the new album’s “Cop Killer” repeats lines from the Body Count song, a reinterpretation that Maus says is about “the police in our head.” His solo work also shows an obvious fondness for the electronic sounds of the 1980s. Though where any nostalgia is concerned, he is vocal about his intent to do more than adopt an old fashion.
“Where I’m coming from or what I’m thinking about isn’t so much about nostalgia or some idea of retro,” he says. “It’s about these possibilities that have already been opened up in the kind of popular music tradition.” For Maus, this includes the use of synthesizers and harmonics that sound distinctly ’80s but still hold relevance decades later. “These things still live today and still speak today, and sometimes the work necessitates their mobilization.”
Maus’ inspiration does not end with the 1980s, as he’s immersed himself in works stemming from the German Romantic tradition, the Medieval and Renaissance periods, and classical music. He appreciates these other historical forms, but unlike those of the ’80s, Maus recognizes an inherent weakness in trying to work them into today’s pop conventions. “That’s what’s interesting about these older languages, like Mozart and Haydn and stuff. You can’t really because it’s a tonal language, because we no longer have the dimensions of thematic development or tonality in the sense of a whole symphony that’s about a journey from C minor to C major. We don’t listen to that dimension of it anymore,” Maus says. But if you are going to cop styles from those times, “you’re going to have to be more on the abstract.”
The deceptive simplicity of Maus’ approach to songwriting—“I just spend most of my time at a keyboard just noodling around looking for some kind of surprise”—underscores We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves, which shows Maus both at his most anthemic on songs like “Believer” and at his greatest state of compositional unity between pop songcraft and experimental influences. It’s his strongest record yet, and maybe it’s because he’s mastering ways to blur the lines of what a pop song is. “I think there’s definitely conventions to popular music, like a periodic rhythm would definitely be one,” he says. “Maybe it’s our task to wrest the radical from the periodic.”