For more than a decade, Mouse on Mars has projected an image of two playful laptop collaborators. But that's changing for the German duo of Andi Toma and Jan St. Werner. They still make distinctively pop-inflected abstract electronica, but their sound - which turns squirts and burps into cascading rhythms of sound data - has been almost appropriated by today's forward-thinking hip-hop producers.
2002's Idiology seemed to recoil from that unexpected attention. But their new Radical Connector is willing to meet pop and R&B on its own concise, market-driven terms. The album features definable song structure on every track and an almost bent-over-backwards respect for vocals.
I spoke with Andi Toma, one third of the touring version of Mouse on Mars, which besides St. Werner, also includes drummer Dodo who is also the singer. When you think about it, the singer should be the main attraction, but Mouse on Mars don't work that way. When it came time for me to talk to the band before their show in Vancouver, B.C., I stood beside Dodo while someone went to look for Toma or St. Werner so I could start asking questions. I was going to suggest I talk with Dodo, but it didn't seem to be an option. Mouse on Mars enjoy these ironies and inversions of the music myth.
How long have you been on tour?
This is the tenth day.
How's it been so far?
Not so good. First, we were very tired. We were touring Japan before, and didn't like the cities so much. The audiences were kind of fucked up on the East Coast. It's getting better now.
How do you mean? I was wondering what it would be like to tour during an election year?
More what I see this tour is that people don't care about politics. It's hard when you're a musician and you're in a different city every night. But in general, I see people who are disillusioned.
I was introduced to Mouse on Mars along with the Mille Plateaux label and people like Scanner and the philosopher Gille Deleuze. I wondered if you consider Mouse on Mars a philosophical band?
It was never like we read the news and discussed ideas. Actually Jan [St. Werner] and I never discussed the works. If you get philosophical it's about life. If you're sensitive to things which are going on, it changes the way to deal with music and create music. In that way it can be a philosophical music.
When we started, we heard structures and sensibilities that don't fit, sometimes they have to disagree and struggle, and sometimes they are disillusioned also.
Around the album Niun Niggung your sound started to incorporate more and more ideas. This new album sounds like a band. It sounds like you're jamming.
Yeah, yeah. Maybe over the years playing live has influenced our work.
How do you do create a live sound doing laptop music?
Yeah, it happens over a long time of creating music, of getting used to it. Sometimes you record it and it sounds so much different than the live situation. Eventually you know how to create something with a live feeling in the studio.
But on this album we were jamming. And we decided to work more with vocals, our friend Dodo from Milan. So we used some basic, simple structures. We weren't so interested in sound, which was very new for us. We were working on melody lines for vocals. Sometimes it was like country songs. And then we took the vocals into the computer and began to chop them up.
For the rhythmical side we thought about it live, so to keep this feeling of a rhythmic structure. Vocals take up a lot of space.
Has it been a challenge for you?
Totally, so difficult for us. Because if you record a voice, even if it's Dodo's, and he's very close to us, it doesn't meld into the song. If I listen to pop music, I always have to switch between the vocals and the music, because it's totally disconnected for me. It's created in a preset kind of way.
And so we know about this, and yet we don't want to be so far away from it, because when you can't communicate with this medium then it doesn't make sense to work in this direction. We have our own way, and we have to serve this "code." This code, it's like we are hacking our way in to the radio medium.
Do you think this is where your sense of humor comes into play? Would you say that there's a kind of parodic element to Mouse on Mars?
Yeah, I think so. Sometimes when it's a parody about politics, it can show more about reality than reality itself. So humor is very important, if it's openly spaced for interpretation. It's very important for life. It's very creative. It doesn't have to be funny, it can be used anywhere. I think that people who take things very seriously, they are often very humorous people.
What kind of input does Thrill Jockey have on your music?
I think they select bands for their... uniqueness. That's what we do also with Sonig [the group's German label]. We work with an artist who has his own language, his own personality. That's why we also feel comfortable with Thrill Jockey. It's not just about business. It's about working with artists who have their own identities. Chicago has its own unique aesthetic. And then other artists like Mouse on Mars, Oval, Microstoria, we go in different directions, but we somehow fit.
Have the reasons why you create music changed?
Yeah, I don't think we know the reason why we do music.
Autoditacker, for instance, that were different than what you wanted to accomplish on Radical Connector, or do things actually change that quickly?
I don't know. I can't speak for our music. I can't say if there's a big transformation. We worked on the new one the same way we worked on all the other ones. We were just more selective. Now we have a lot of experience, and we've tried many things. So for this new album it was like, "What can we do?"
The most important thing for us is to create sound. We don't think so much about songs, or structure. We listened to sounds. Now we are just more selective. Whenever I listen to music my whole concentration will focus on one element.
When you go into the studio are you just thinking about making sound?
Yeah. That's our first ambition. To create sound. Go to the studio and find something new. The longer you work on something the more difficult it gets. It becomes more fragmented. More isolated. You're waiting to hear something you've never heard before. If you have a direction, you have to take a risk and do something you're not so experienced with. We always try to challenge ourselves. And within our sound, the thing we felt we could do now is vocals. It was really helpful to be more disciplined with ourselves.
How do you know when you're done?
Oh, we're never done. Although on this record I could say we're done. It serves more what the listener is expecting. It's finished. We modify it live, but it is sonically finished.
In a collaboration, are you able to gain some distance from the material? Is it possible to talk about new songs objectively, or do you become blind to it?
You become blind to it very fast. Before we discuss what's there, we tend to destroy. Then the picture is gone. You can create something that way.
November 29, 2004