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Our lost conversation with John Maus

Interviews June 10, 2020July 3rd, 2020
Interview by Robin Pailler . Photos by Yentl Touboul .

Interview by Robin Pailler. Photos by Yentl Touboul.

This conversation was originally recorded in July 2018.

We’ve been fond of John Maus for many years here at Wasted Talent.

So imagine our excitement two summers ago when the man behind “Cop Killer” and the monumental “Screen Memories” was playing a show in our beloved Biarritz.

And what a performance it was. All the Maus trademarks. The off mic screams. The head punching. The glazed over stares.

If you’re familiar with John Maus, you’ll know he’s several wavelengths above the rest of mankind’s consciousness. After all, the man has a PhD in political science and used to teach philosophy for a living!

The following day he played in Bordeaux and somehow after several persistent emails back and fourth, we managed to secure a number and lo and behold, interview the enigma known as John Maus.

But then for whatever reason, our transcript got wiped and the original voice memo disappeared only to somehow be retrieved through an random iCloud backup. So two years later here it is. Better late than never.

Wasted Talent: Is it your first time playing on the French south west coast?

John Maus: No, I’ve been here years and years and years ago. I think I was here with Ariel Pink’s original outfit and we played here but I haven’t been here for a while. We were just here in between Primavera and then a thing up in the Netherlands. So it was cool we could pick up some dates around France. I wonder how bad the train strikes are gonna affect the shows though? I figured a lot of people might’ve missed earlier trains from surrounding places so that might mess things up with those train strikes huh?

Yeah that’s a speciality here. Going on strike seems to be engrained in French culture. 

I guess that’s good though right? It’s better than no unions at all like America has.

Since you have a PhD in political philosophy, in particular communications and control, I wanted to talk to you about the American political system right now. Do you remember where you were when Trump won?

Yeah I was in my hometown of Austin, Minnesota and I really didn’t think that was gonna happen.

Because Minnesota as a whole actually voted in favour of Hillary but it was so tight, like 1.5%.

Yeah the whole midwest of the states that are still holdovers of the old, new deal blue or however you say, labour blue kinda leant in his favour. Like the soul searching pieces that TIME or whoever did after the election all but spelt it out. It’s become a whole moral conversation. They’re still the butt of every joke on the television. The flyover folks. Their morals and their values or whatever are only worthy of contempt and mockery so they get the feeling that they’re left out in the rain. I think that was large part of why so many of them voted that way.

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Are you surprised that it’s got to this point? Where someone like Donald Trump is President? 

Well no, I mean isn’t that the whole… I mean I haven’t looked at the paragraph in a while but the whole situation of government, I mean, of course it’s going to be these spectacular figures. I mean Idiocracy, that Mike Judge film where Camacho is President or whatever, I mean it was in the air. I think what freaks people out obviously is a nation state government has real effects on people, but I don’t think the locus of power today is in the residues of the sorta, 18th century, wig wearing, classist government of the United States. I mean how much more money does Apple have than the United States? Don’t all those clowns finally do the bidding of Mr money bags? This was more than the apocalypse I had in mind. I mean the coming to prominence of the Silicon Valley tech billionaire ideology. Maybe I have a weird standpoint on all of it but it seems to me that’s the sort of narrative that holds more and more sway of the presuppositions about what’s right and what’s wrong, and what one can and cannot say. If anything there’s an argument to be made that the reactionary nonsense was merely a reaction against that. There was a weird ascents in the midst of it that the right and all of it’s reactive madness had almost reached a point where the snake eats its own tail on the radical left. You had Sanders supporters that would’ve been behind tariffs and things like that. You had these weird, fringy public intellectuals out there just trolling and things like that and the left had nothing adequate to that, it had no real alternative to match the reactive forces at work there.

So I felt in a sense that the album, which was completed before the election results, I hoped would come out at exactly that time as I felt it could’ve ridden the wave of hysteria in it’s apocalyptic tone. But from my standpoint that was really just a very cataclysmic symptom, a breakdown that came about largely on account of these other mechanisms much more powerful, much more macro you would say than American government. I mean the flows of global capital. Isn’t this what the Roosevelt, the fly over states were finally bellyaching about, y’know? All the box stores that sell goods manufactured the three quarters of humanity that’s too poor for debt.

And then on top of that, this all that is solid melts into air moment. You know the famous paragraph of all the bonds of futilsm disintegrates. It seems to follow that expediential curve, the tech folks are so fond of pointing out from the industrial revolution, certainly after the second war it really begins to sky rocket, this disintegration. This disintegration of the individual into some kind of vector of sets, of features, y’know what I mean? It goes without saying, and this is the moment where the snake eats it’s own tail, it goes without saying those impulses towards disintegration are totally part and parcel of the schizophrenia of capitalism. I mean I guess that’s what I heard the bells ringing for. With all due respect for the effects of immigration policy and racist language and the real and violent effects that can have, again since the second war, since JFK, it’s like movie star celebrities smiling for the camera. Big politicians y’know. Trump was just a logical extension of that in a way.

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I feel it’s not even politics anymore. It’s become this 24 hour reality tv show, warping people’s perspectives on the real important issues.

I agree and that’s why there’s these radical leftists that like to reserve the word ‘politics’ for real politics, that is, real politics is what’s happening when the tanks come out, it’s the mass line, it’s the people in the streets. That whole spectacle is merely part and parcel of some sort of regime of social management along with the culture, along with the press, it’s just a way of putting things in order. The vote in other words is not really politics.

In the States, the left really suffers with this. It still appeals to, again, this 18th century like, constitutional, human rights, jargon. These ideas that are so quaint and old fashioned and inadequate to our situation. You know, asking for more rights, and individual liberty, I mean what is this? 1776? Over here (in Europe) there really is left activity, I feel like I’ve seen more creative politics. I mean in the States we had it for a fleeting moment. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to politics with the OWS (Occupy Wall Street). I don’t know if you know the invisible committee but they wrote some pamphlets, they kinda diagnosed  that whole OWS movement. They put it nicely on their second pamphlet to our friends where they see it’s shortcomings and where it was finally doomed from the start, the minute there was twinkle hands. Some sort of consensus so the maniac on the fringe is kinda abandoned in that moment. The moment of being shouted down by the twinkle hands. The moment of consensus. In the element of their inadmissible singularity y’know?

We gotta be cautious here because the pitch is so hysterical now and everybody is looking to name names and call somebody alt right or something but there has been a far left critique of identity politics in as much as it plays the game of identity and identity is always something that can be put to work by the mechanisms that serve only toward anyone other than us y’know? I mean…..(sighs) I don’t know.

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Do you have hope for future generations? I feel like whilst humanity is regressing, millennials have this huge opportunity to create real change through the evolution and accessibility of technology and information, but instead they’re all so blindsided by nonsensical bullshit and social entertainment.

Yeah I mean take the phones. That whole network, very conditioned in possibility, is precisely this huge amount of wealth from Silicon Valley tech and somehow they’re able to dodge, at least from the standpoint of any newsfeed that I scroll through, any targets, any sort of bullseyes on their head. I think it’s a really precarious time. I’m sure every Apoc has had this sort of doomsday sense that power has never been more equipped than it is in any moment people are writing.

But I think the case can be made very objectively that power did indeed cross a new threshold, a previously unimaginable threshold, especially after the second world war. First with molecular biology and all that, but now with artificial intelligence, not in any sci-fi sense but I just mean these endlessly capable nets trained to classify, predict and control. One almost gets the uncanny sense from time to time, that the event or the singularity, or whatever they call it, has already taken place years and years ago in as much as the worldwide web itself is some sort of complex network that demonstrates non linear behaviours. In other words I feel sometimes that when I’m compulsively checking to see if I have a new mail that I’m like a serotonin molecule inside a brain. I’m just transmitting a message at the behest of the over mind.

So in other words, it’s a half joke, sci-fi, dystopian thing but it serves a purpose of critique just as would any sci-fi dystopian fiction, where it’s already calling the shots and we just don’t realise it. So the future of politics in that instance becomes evermore grim but it’s foolish to throw your horns up. I think every moment, every new transition in the mechanics of power holds emancipatory as well enslaving or controlling possibilities. Hackers for instance. I mean we see that with leaks and the exploits and the Snowdens, this sorta thing. I think they’re gonna benefit in the future maybe, from as I said, moving beyond the libertarian liberal essentially, the liberal “we want our freedom” thing. They’ll move past that to a weirder vanguard kinda thought and then they’ll be totally catalysed to create and articulate the counterpoint to all of this. It’s just a shame the only thing resembling that on the planet right now, to some extent, as grotesque as it sounds, is terror. I mean that’s certainly where all the guns are pointed.

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Moving away from politics, since you’re an 80’s kid and your fourth album is titled ‘Screen Memories’, what are three films that had a profound affect on you growing up?

Yeah, that’s good. Definitely Ghostbusters, well look I’m gonna say Back To The Future right? That just pops to mind. And then Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. I feel like there should be a Spielberg in there or whatever but Bill & Ted’s one I thought about as an adult more. I could ramble about them but I mean, I was just riffing there. What about you? What do you really remember growing up?

I mean ‘E.T.’ I guess?

Right! I mean I’m 80’ so that came out just after and it was that weird moment where there wasn’t really VHS until 86’, 87’ so by the time I see E.T…….it’s like Star Wars, I mean [Return of the] Jedi was already done by the time I was cognisant so it was an older thing. It was certainly an event when I did see it but do you see what I mean? It was slightly not the correct moment even though it was E.T. and it was this grand thing. That of course is the greatest exemplar of that moment in genre with that film but somehow like Star Wars, y’know it wasn’t in theatres so to speak.

Big Trouble In Little China’ too.

Oh man! We just watched Prince Of Darkness man. Me & Gary, we were like “we’ve seen it once, don’t put it on”. It’s like Halloween III, we just knew, there’s something really rotten about that film y’know? The way the pea shoots out of their mouths and stuff. [John] Carpenter must’ve just been going through a rotten time because I wouldn’t say the same thing for The Thing right? But it’s just as gruesome. Big Trouble just made me think of it, it’s another fun one or Starman. Halloween III is just another totally, totally, totally fucked one. Maybe it’s when he gets to the technology aspects, cause that one has the television signals. Prince of Darkness has like the tachyons and reverse particles. Oh I gotta go soundcheck, one more.

Ok, three artists or tracks that perhaps don’t have the recognition you feel they deserve?

Gosh. I’m tempted to go on a philosophical scree about this but god forbid these things are given up to visibility in a way. I guess that immediately the Double Heart track by Robert Rental comes to mind. I’m surprised Nick Nicely isn’t more…um… I don’t have any sense of how much or how little he is visible in the situation but Nick Nicely springs to mind. I mean you see what the problem is y’know, like I know The Strokes guy said Ariel [Pink] doesn’t get enough clout relative to that, whoever, top 40 singer that was on Game Of Thrones or whatever, y’know what I mean?

In that sense you could even say that of Ariel Pink but I think we’re talking about more obscurity. So I’ve got Nicely, Rental, um, who else? Who else is a sort of obscurity that I’m deeply touched by? I mean I guess Sensation’s Fix, those albums like Portable Madness and Fragments of Light. I mean they’re known both by heads and hipsters but y’know what I mean? I don’t know how much actual clout they enjoy. It’s a weird thing. We’re talking about millennials. I mean there was a time and a place when the obscurities of kraut rock were reserved for the vinyl diggers but now with Spotify, everybody’s ahead in fifteen minutes. They just gotta hit Wikipedia or whatever, house, trance, whatever, go through the top ten list and then they can weigh in at the cocktail party.

But I mean those are three that sorta touched me deeply and I don’t know how much or how little they’ve managed to permeate and find a seat at the table of the legendary or whatever.

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