JOHN MAUS: A Prophet for the New Generation

At the forefront of the brand-spanking-new “synth-pop deconstructionist” genre of lo-fi contemporary music is John Maus — a manic, inexplicable enigma unto himself. Maus hails from Austin — Minnesota, not Texas — and that’s just one thing that’s “different” about his sensibility and entire way of being. Exploring themes of the familiar and the strange, the real and the surreal, all drenched in a disarming expression of pure emotion, Maus takes pop music to an entirely new level. There’s no straightforward way to describe the experience of a live John Maus show other than to say that it will, without a doubt, go far beyond all possible expectations. Maus toys with notions of performance, singing over his own pre-recorded backing tracks. He sweats, spits, cries, shrieks and gasps for air. He paces back and forth, emotes with his hands and face, runs in place, jumps, pulls at his own hair. It’s not uncommon to leave one of Maus’ shows baffled, puzzled, enlightened, relieved, inspired or even unsure of what you have just witnessed. It is easy, too, to scoff or raise eyebrows when the roadies clear all visible indications of any sort of musical instrument off the stage and Maus lopes out humbly like an overgrown, misplaced frat boy, awkwardly slumping his shoulders to conceal some of his stature, dressed in a pinstriped button-down, straight-leg jeans and blindingly white running sneakers (it’s no wonder he pulls off the college look, as he taught philosophy at the University of Hawaii and is currently working towards a PhD in Political Science). Yet with a few twists and turns of various nobs on a synthesizer contraption he keeps on the floor (and kneels sporadically throughout his set to operate), Maus transports audience members into his world — a world of raw, unadulterated emotion yearning to break free from the physical entrapment of a body — expressed through jarring, fantastical manipulated synth beats and frantic, resonant vocals (we’re talking screams, howls and wails). In interviews, Maus has been known to spew philosophical aphorisms, eschew comparisons and avoid talking about Ariel Pink — with whom he attended CalArts and collaborated with musically for many years (and who was spotted in the audience at the Echoplex — word has it he lives with Geneva Jacuzzi, one of the opening acts for Maus and another member of the eclectic deconstructionist set).

Maus’ live act is like a beautiful car wreck — it’s nearly impossible not to wince as he simulates a nervous breakdown onstage; melting, crumpling and exploding into different shapes and perspiring through his neatly-ironed shirt to a soundtrack of murky, grating, echoing “retro-futurist” pop — yet this emotional metamorphosis is uncannily mesmerizing. It is an intensely visceral, interactive experience — almost more of a performance art show or a method acting piece than a concert — and, as became clear at the July 15th show at The Echoplex in Los Angeles, his cult of diehard followers (of the beer-spraying, lyric-chanting, moshing variety) just can’t get enough. His latest album, We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves, was released on June 27th after a nearly four-year hiatus from recording. 

Text and photography by Annabel Graham