“The world is big. You learn how big it is when you become a touring band,” says Jan St. Werner of Mouse on Mars. St. Werner knows a thing or two about touring. His experimental electronic three-piece, which also features Andi Toma on bass/guitar/electronics and Dodo Nkishi on vocals/percussion, plays nearly every week somewhere in the world. Coinciding with its eighth studio album, Radical Connector, and tenth anniversary in 2004, the group embarked on a lengthy tour across Europe, Japan, and the US. The result of this cross-sea trek was 600 hours of live tape that the band lovingly narrowed down to 56 minutes and 9 seconds for its latest release,Live 04.
More than a simple concert recording, Live 04 serves as a tour diary for the band, showing how the concepts of space and time that make for common themes in the group’s work translate into the club setting. Mouse on Mars also intends to release a still-secret project under an alias and is gathering ideas for its next proper studio album. St. Werner is currently working on a new release under his Lithops moniker. In the middle of these activities, PopMatters caught up with St. Werner in Cologne, Germany, to ask about life on the road and onstage.
PopMatters: How and why did this album come together?
Jan St. Werner: [Live recordings] just come to you. You don’t have to intentionally record things. People make bootlegs and they give them to you. Some shows you record yourself for some weird reason, or the clubs record a copy and give it to you. There seemed to be so many live copies around we thought why not select them a bit more carefully and just care a bit more that the bass is really there and the voice isn’t just on top of everything and it’s not just a hell of noise coming from what I do and destroying the whole structure of the track, with only the audience shouting or talking or whatever. So, we thought maybe we should give our own version of a bootleg. That was the idea. We wanted to be part of the discussion. We wanted to raise our voice and say, “Look, people, this is what Mouse on Mars thinks about Mouse on Mars live.”
PM: What’s the difference between creating space in a studio and creating it in a live setting?
JSW: I think that a live album, in terms of production, I value much lower than a studio album because it is more like a diary. It’s like a photo album. It’s capturing memories, but for me, it’s so much harder to listen to a live album. With a studio album, I can kind of read it and I always find new ways of listening to it. I’m sure I could kind of do that with a live album, but it’s capturing so much more of those moments when we are just throwing things out and letting go, not being in a situation where you reconsider things and you cut them again and you twist them and shape things with reverbs and rooms and different filterings and such. Live is such an outburst of energy and certain things you kind of take them because you know they work, but it’s not like you explore them as you would on a studio album. You use them because they hit or they have a certain quality about them. I think that the live record is much more, in a hierarchical way, a powerful recording and it is much more of a stuffed recording. It is much more tied together and glue binds it together. That makes it much harder for me to rip apart to place in my mind. I think that there is a huge difference, but it is all in the approach you have on it. I’m sure that you can take it from a different angle and there would be people who wouldn’t even hear the difference between what we do live and what we do recorded. For them, it would just be noise cut into pieces.
PM: What goes through your head when you are playing in a live setting and what do you hope to bring to all of your live performances?
JSW: I must admit that I’m quite off my head when I’m playing. I’m not thinking at all. I’m a bit weird in my mind. I don’t know how to judge it. It’s very refreshing. It’s very curing. After a concert, I feel like I’ve been on a cure. It’s a super-efficient, high-speed cure that is like a psychoanalysis session and a beauty farm and some adrenaline shock therapy. Usually, when you have a little itch here and a little problem there, it’s gone. You are very relaxed. It’s the best drug you can ever imagine.
I really love playing. I’m always excited. We have played so many shows in our lives that you would think that, at some point, I would be like “So what?” But, I’m not. I always think that I don’t know what I’m doing. This is how I approach it. I think I can speak for Andi and Dodo too. For Dodo, it’s a bit difficult because, when we play as a trio, he has to take the vocal parts, so there are bits and pieces that he has to get together. He can’t be off his head too much. We have certain breaks that we play together, so we have to be in sync. It’s not that we have to think so much about it. It’s kind of like a very weird situation where you never really know what is going to happen. You have to switch on at the start and you’re in a different situation and you don’t know what’s going on and it’s always exciting and kind of new ... Maybe it’s because it’s so short. It’s just two super-intense hours. It’s just fantastic. It’s like you’re in a movie or something.
PM: What equipment do you use?
JSW: We use some sampling devices that allow us to take stuff in real time and process it and fuck it up and play with it and some effect devices and some kind of little, precious gadgets that you can hardly get anymore these days,: drums, a laptop with some software that kind of emulates some synth sounds, and some squeaky melodic things. I think basically that is it. A microphone; things to take in real time, like a sequencer; a 303 bassline that we use in a different way, not the usual way. All these things provide us with enough material and noise to play with.
PM: What are some of your favorite places to play?
JSW: That’s difficult because you can play a nice place in a city and you come back a year later and it has kind of changed and it’s not the same vibe. You can play a great place in a city and come back and play another place and it just doesn’t do it.
I usually like playing the US because it is so big and so varied. When you are an artist, it is weird, but people like it. So, when you are in the tour bus and are at a gas station, people just gather and look who you are and people ask where you are from. I say, “I’m from Germany” and people say, “Oh, wow, BMWs! Is it true you don’t have speed limits on the Autobahn and my grandma is from Germany, she likes bratwurst and sauerkraut.”
On the recent tour, for some stupid reason, our bus was parked outside of Manhattan in a parking lot where we had a room at the hotel. It was this huge bus, where we couldn’t take it into the city. We stayed in Manhattan with a few friends after the show. We had a day off after the show. The next day, we decided to take a bus to New Jersey to get to our bus, but public transport is really fucked up. It’s so bad. It’s like in a third-world country. I think there at least you can talk to the people and ask to drop you around, y’know, give an extra ten bucks to get here or there. But this was a very weird situation. It seems like public transportation in the US is a very weird thing because everyone has a car. So, we took trains. They were okay, but the bus was weird. Until we figured out where the bus leaves and how to get to where the tour bus was parked, it took us about two hours. Once we were on the stupid bus, it took us to New Jersey but to a totally different place. We told them, “Hey, we have to get off at this space at the hotel on this street. Can you drop us there?” She didn’t really want to talk to us, the bus driver. So she dropped us off at this place, it was just in the middle of nowhere. There we were. You know all those bad movies where teenagers get slaughtered in the dark? I saw all my parts spread out on the highway. Andi and me were like what do we do now? There was no phone. Nothing. At some point, we saw a taxi driver. He was a Russian guy. He was quite serious and we started talking a bit trying to explain to him where we were supposed to go. We told him we were musicians and he opened up his heart. He was talking and smiling. He brought us to the place and charged us half the money. It was the perfect time.
There was another experience in Phoenix, Arizona, where the taxi driver gave us a tour of the city and actually didn’t charge us anything. He was so happy having musicians in his car.
It’s so weird. It’s like you’re on this different path. We’ve been in Colombia, in a weird area. I went out with our tour manager to see a band play in a club. Everyone told us, “You shouldn’t leave the city. You shouldn’t leave Bogota.” Then this guy came sneaking around. We were waiting for a cab, the same story. But the cab didn’t show up. We were in an area where once you left the club, you couldn’t go back in. The first creepy person came sneaking around. Then he started talking to us and we were like, “We’re musicians.” He asked, “Where are you from?” He knew some German bands and he was totally okay. We said, “Do you need some money?” He said, “Yeah, actually, I wanted to take all your money in the first place, but you’re really fine people. I don’t want to take any money from you.” I took a bunch of bills and said, “I do have some money and I would be happy to give you some.” He said, “Never, ever show your money in public. Are you crazy? You can get killed for that.” He was actually the one who wanted to bother us, but once he found out we were musicians, he was in a different frame of mind. I could really go on telling you these weird stories ... In German we have a word for it. It’s called a narrenkappe. Idiot’s cap. It’s something you wear as a musician. Hardly anything bad happens to you. That’s just my experience.
PM: How do you see your music as evolving over the past 10 years and where do you think it will go?
JSW: I feel that it is an ever-expanding thing. It’s like you create this chaos of sound and, in a way, it is expanding, but it is expanding in a structured way ... I feel certain things magnetically or with whatever secret force have been tied together and sort of weirdly set itself into place. I find it very fascinating to see what we created or initiated is ever-growing. I feel at some point that it might just tear and I won’t be able to control it. Maybe some other people will be taking over or something. Sometimes I feel like it already happened, like it sounds like we could have done it or it sounds like us.
Do you know what a chaotic system is? You trigger an event that is infinitely sensitive. It is endlessly moving and constantly shaping around a certain center called a strange attractor. It builds a middle where all of this stuff circles around, but it doesn’t move like a circle. It moves in weird shapes that have all kinds of ways to grab or capture it, but you cannot predict it. I don’t know where it goes. I just know it’s continuing.
Sometimes I’m exhausted and sometimes I’m overly excited and sometimes I would just love to be doing something else in a different band, but I know that there is no way I would be doing the same thing I am doing here. Mouse on Mars is providing so much space that we can put all of our intentions into it. We have side-projects, things we do aside from Mouse on Mars, but it is still taking so much attention and is feeding back so much energy and excitement that I don’t know where it’s going, but I really enjoy watching it.