Maus Haus at Mercury Lounge + Interview
Nearing the end of their week on the Eastern half of the country, Maus Haus perform tonight at Pianos on the Lower East Side. The independent San Francisco band produces electronics-heavy, rock-oriented songs that pull from countless influences without sounding like pastiches or tediously intentional bricolages. They seem to avoid these pitfalls through creative collaboration, a self-described “six-person filtering system” that lets the music drift from familiar territory to singular explorations ranging from dreamy to driving. For a sample, here’s “Winter” from their latest 7″.
Last night I heard Maus Haus open for local shoegaze trio (+ drummer) School of Seven Bells at a sold out Mercury Lounge. The band started with their slower-paced recent release “Winter” (hear it above) and proceeded through an hour or so of their work.
As on record, the music evoked a flurry of references from the past 60 years of popular music without falling into stylistic mimicry. Instead the familiarity generated an immediate connection and comfort, while fresh, original use made the content actually interesting.
Without the cleanliness of post production, Maus Haus’ live show was sonically more aggressive than their headphone experience. Squealing synths struck fearlessly at the forefront, as the performance made obvious a love for playing with undeniable “keyboard sounds.” Although musically dissimilar, the approach — complete with mod-wheel-riding keyboard shredding — was in some ways reminiscent of YMO, as strange as the comparison might sound.
Synth patterns were played, repeated, and varied live rather than sequenced, and the band threw dramatic time changes into most of their songs. These changes, possibly the most dynamic aspect of the music, were lead by an energetic, concentrated rhythm section. It was here that the set received its strongest song-to-song variety.
These guys didn’t really “make it look easy.” There was a looseness to the group, but it was tempered by orchestrated changeups. With no reverb washes or heavy noise to hide behind, they would look at each other to help keep things on track. The shifts didn’t need to be as dramatically precise as those in the music of a band like Radian, but were instead more like the variety found in Deerhoof’s songs.
For the most part the ensemble proceeded without a standout charismatic vocal presence, but an itching Joshua Rampage brought out some heavy personality for the driving, less harmonized song “Reaction!”
At some point drummer Joseph Genden switched stations with Sean Mabry, a strange site that was followed by some fun percussion interplay, with Mabry finishing drum runs that Genden would start from the other side of the stage.
Maus Haus never seemed to over-indulge in a particular direction, sound, or genre, which made for a refreshing absence of the feeling that they were “trying to be” something in particular. All the details fell cohesively into the service of good songs. Oh, and I could actually hear and understand the lyrics.
Before they came to town, I had a chance to talk with the three Js of Maus Haus about their creative process and where they see themselves fitting in musically.
Bijan: Here’s a general lineup I gleaned off the internet:
Aaron Weiss: bass, synths, trumpet, drums
Sean Mabry: vocals, drums, synths, trombone
Tom Hurlbut: sax, flute, clarinet, drums
Joe Genden: synths, drums
Josh Rampage: vocals, synths, bass, rhodes
Jason Kick: vocals, synths, bass
There are lots of “synths” in that list. What kind of gear are you guys using on the electronic side of things?
Joe Genden: Our recordings are always shaped by what’s on hand – junky yamaha keyboards, old casios, microkorgs, a few old analog mono synths, various drum machines, an omnichord, an old lowrey organ, and some soft-synths here and there. In the live show, we try to keep it minimal and digital, and sample any of the sounds we can’t replicate. There are a lot of those.
B: Ultimately you get grouped into a sort of indie, rock-oriented realm, with the common note that nobody’s a dedicated guitarist. Why do we make such a big deal out of this fact?
Jason Kick: It’s an easy characteristic that separates us from other bands–no guitars in any sort of rock band is odd to most people. For us, it was not a conscious decision from the beginning, but no one picked up a guitar until well after we had a lot of ideas going. We had a lot of other instruments to play with. There may have been a moment where we said, “well I guess we could/should add guitars”, but then thought, “hey, maybe we shouldn’t.” There’s still no hard or fast rule, but we’ve managed to avoid it for the most part, save some brief moments on “Lark Marvels.”
The guitar sound of a band is often the definitive sound of the band, and it’s a very cathartic instrument that sounds quite different depending on who’s playing it. Synthesizers are viewed as less idiosyncratic and physical, but it’s fun for us to make synths the noisy, cathartic center of attention that guitars often are, and get physical with them. They also make good basses. And drums.
JG: People do make a big deal about the guitar thing, but really, we cheat. We use a lot of bass in higher registers. Doesn’t anyone notice that a bass and a guitar are pretty much the same thing?
B: Some reviewers refer to your band like a 60s throwback, while others relate your sound to the futuristic. Where do you see yourself between this discrepancy? Is there some relationship between the two?
Josh Rampage: The 60s served as an important generation of new and interesting sounds that were previously unheard of. thinking of the 60s and their idea of the “future,” it’s interesting to consider what has occurred musically over time – we think about how we can integrate the same sort of forward thinking that created such compelling sounds back then, while bearing in mind all that has been made musically in the 50 years leading up to this point in time, 2010.
JG: In the 50s and 60s, musicians got their hands on synthesizers and tape machines, became scientists and engineers, and saw a future of alien music completely unlike the past- without acoustic instruments or human performers. I’m sure we don’t sound like Milton Babbitt or anything, but maybe we like the idea of looking into an imaginary alternate musical future, and make music with that in mind.
B: It’s funny to read reviews of your music, because people really struggle to describe it. The most common approach is to use comparisons, but these are wildly varied, I assume matching the diversity of your influences. What do you think makes your music so particularly difficult to describe?
JR: We have a 6-person filtering system that typically vaporizes any semblance of evidence of the ideas we steal from in the first place. We have such varied tastes and influences among us that when combined, the results take on a unique sound by a convenient default.
JK: There are six of us with pretty varied tastes and influences, reaching into all kinds of pop and experimental music, so schizophrenic comparisons make sense. When we’re working out new ideas, we cook up all sorts of things, but the ones we develop into songs are the genuinely unique ones, as we are most excited by combinations of sounds we haven’t quite heard before. Also, a song has to have a nice melody or two that reminds of music we’ve listened to all of our lives–but haven’t quite heard yet.
B: With six people, how do you bring it all together for a composition/recording? Is there some complex bureacracy at work?
JR: Goes something like this: idea suggestions that lead to lengthy email debates, fish fights (getting slapped with a salmon!), and inevitably ending in hugging it out and the resulting recordings.
B: Where do the lyrics come from?
JK: Many of the lyrics come from us filtering real-life experiences into a state of mind that is slightly beyond reality.
JR: Absurd, dada and surrealist leanings, creating a lyrical atmosphere, real-life experiences, and trying to tell a story in a way that has never been told before.
B: Your songs have some dramatic (and enjoyable ) stereo imaging. What’s your ethic or approach with this?
JK: Stereo by nature is a special effect. It seems that stereo was created because we have two ears. Our ethic might be “to keep both ears engaged.” Extreme panning, like on many 60s records, can be tiresome, but when it helps create movement and helps the whole mix seem more visually imaginable, we pan like crazy. Panning also helps manage a lot of ideas at once.
Bijan: How do you make these songs work live? Did touring Lark Marvels material inform the production of Sea-Sides?
JK: Sea-sides is a mixed bag of songs that were older and newer to us, but if anything, we felt less obliged to represent the recording, because we found from the “Lark Marvels” songs that live renditions could be different and still work. The first three songs on sea-sides were auditioned live before finishing them, but the production on all of those went beyond the live versions, quite a bit, with around 100 tracks for each song.
B: Who does your visuals, and what’s the guiding aesthetic there? I noticed an image from Richard Heffner’s Open Mind in a performance photo…
JG: We’re always into the idea of our music as accompaniment to visuals – partly because a bunch of guys pounding on keyboards might not be as visually interesting as guitars – but also because we’re influenced by the effect of a lot of old soundtracks – Spaghetti Westerns, Bollywood, etc. We aspire to be a soundtrack. In our earlier shows, we used found footage of early computer graphics, psychology experiments, and a clip from Open Mind. Since then we’ve played with a couple visualists – Tyler Freeman, who uses a Wii controller to interact with his visuals, and Miko Revereza, who does live video feedback with an old camcorder and editing deck.
B: Any favorite / memorable shows that you’ve played?
JR: NP 2010 at the mezzanine [in San Francisco] with !!! and a show in Oakland on Halloween where I broke aaron’s glasses and we all almost died.
B: What do you think makes a good live performance?
JR: Avoiding computer malfunctions and making sure everyone has used the bathroom beforehand. Emilio Estevez jokes seem to lighten the mood for certain audiences. Above all that – genuinely enjoying ourselves while hoping to help the audience in getting on the same page as we are – we love when people get down while we are.
B: Any recent releases you guys are enjoying?
JR: GonjaSufi, ambient (dolphins into the future, the caretaker), Cosmogramma, flying lotus’ new one.
JK: The new Charlotte Gainsbourg, Sonny + the Sunsets, Add N to X (not new, but listening a lot), Nite Jewel, + still shocked at how good the new MGMT record is, as I never cared for them before but I think they’re doing something interesting with their vast recording budgets.