John Maus is….
Not your average pop star, nor is he really a “pop star” in the traditional sense, or even really a “star.” However, his music does oddly emulate the sounds and tools of pop from the 80s and 90s, and well, even today. But what sets him apart from everyone is that he is the very critique of how we consume popular music today, and is, quite frankly, one of the few musical artists working today actively trying to do something different.
First, he deconstructs the essential elements of what makes a pop song. Drums, keys, bass, vocals, these are the building blocks for his records, which compose most of popular music today. However, he meticulously uses each instrument as a layer building toward some sort of fundamental truth. “I wouldn’t claim that my music is new, but generally speaking pop music begs for some kind of radical new way of talking about it,” he stated in an illuminating interview with Pitchfork.
Oddly enough, his ideas and views behind the music don’t necessarily inform what his songs are about. Take the song “Pets” off his latest record Screen Memories. Throughout the song, he wails “Your pets are gonna die!” like a maniac. However, pair it with the soothing synthesizers and poppy four-on-the-floor beat, what he’s screaming is turned oddly digestible, making you tune into or think differently about what he’s trying to express: your pet dying is your first real introduction to mortality. After that, you’re brought to the fact that nothing in this world is permanent. These views and how we talk about them are exactly what Maus is trying to get at: thinking about the genre of pop from a different perspective, and acknowledging the permeating effects and influence it has on pop culture and modern society.
But what’s interesting is that, he doesn’t think about these themes at all when slaving over a keyboard or building a synthesizer, but aims for a new approach in talking about and experimenting with the genre. Take a look at his live performances, which are often an outlet for his intense display of emotion (and are more often than not without a live band, karaoke-style). Throughout the show he’ll scream and wail frantically as he punches himself or smashes the microphone in his face. But what you don’t know is that this man has a PhD. He graduated from Cal Arts. He’s a college lecturer, has studied in Switzerand, and is a self-taught engineer who builds all his own instruments. However, when he’s up on stage, you wouldn’t assume any of that. But pair this image with the lyrics of “The Fear” (“What’s wrong with me, ‘cause I’ve tried everything,”) you begin to grasp what he’s after: a total destruction and reconstruction of pop music, little by little, layer by layer, track by track.
It’s funny how this man, who once was convinced that he could not possibly see a career in music, would become one of the few artists truly trying to do something different. There are some who believe they are doing so, but none to the sociological degree of John Maus.
John Maus is set to release a new album titled Addendum, as well as a career-spanning box set, later this year. He will be performing at this year’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts festival.