Jan St. Werner is doing the most rock star thing he can think of right now:
He's pushing his daughter on a swingset.
When Evcat got ahold of Jan in his native Germany, indeed, he was pushing his daughter on a swingset, which was later then followed by an adventure of him parking his car and getting a good view of the sunset. Jan jokes that "Yeah, bet this wasn't what you were expecting were you?" Yet for spending an afternoon with one of rock's most unconventional figures, it actually makes sense.
Jan, along with Andi Toma, forms a band called Mouse on Mars -- one of the most genre-busting, insane, delightfully crazed acts to ever walk the face of the earth. This electronic duo started out as big fans of Stereolab, initially sending their demo to that band's Too Pure record label in hopes that they avant-electronic work they were doing would get some notice in 1993. Their debut album Vulvaland came out in 1994. During this 2008 interview, a lot has happened: the band has collaborated with Stereolab multiple times, soundtracked films, changed their sound on every single album (ranging from big beat to ambient to jazz-affected pop numbers to everything else in between), formed a whole seperate band with The Fall's Mark E. Smith (called Von Sudenfed), and are still regarded as some of the most genre-busting musicians working today. During this epic, three-part interview with Globecat, Jan talks candidly about how MoM got formed, what electronic music holds for the future, and how -- yes -- he would love to produce a track for Britney Spears.
In Part I, Jan talks about the MoM aesthetic, what he's been up to since the flurry of activity the band was a part of in 2005-2007, and reveals that -- surprisingly -- he has never heard a Mouse On Mars record ... [and don't forget to check out Part II and Part III of this epic interview.]
How are you doing?
Good. I’m completely relaxed.
Well I’m of course a big fan -- have been following you guys for years. Yet I must say this is a bit strange, as normally when I conduct interviews, there’s a new album or something else to discuss, but you guys have been pretty quiet as of late. What have you been up to?
We do play a lot, actually. We travel like businessmen, we travel like undercover in airplanes sometimes like for, I dunno, completely weird travel roads to play a show in Spain and then the next day one in Italy and then in Germany [which] then maybe takes us to Russia which I think is the next concert. We do some kind of smaller … well not smaller, but kind of different things, like we played in a group or did like a project with a group, which is more like related to how to play new music, and I’m kind of in [process] -- kind of [an] event that took place in Berlin at the Academy of Arts. That was just one show and we practiced […] and now we’re going to do a couple of more shows [with them] next year. So it’s projects! It’s true like this kind of, let‘s say, the big disco ball of modern art is maybe not as visible as it used to be. But things change anyway. I mean, the music industry is changing and things change and they change for you personally, like your biography, and then things change for the band and we’ve been running for awhile, so things have to become different.
To be honest, I don’t understand why certain bands -- how they manage to make a record, go on tour -- I dunno, hang out in their whatever-it-is …
Or barns out there in the countryside or whatever and then make another record and go on tour and make another record and do this for like 10, 15, 20, 30 years? For me it’s unbelievable. We’re doing this like we’re doing like lots of different projects related to art, and then from our different musical projects ... And then we also did the soundtrack for a movie, and we did another band (basically): this project with Mark E. Smith [Von Südenfed] -- that took some time … [and] then we do some remixes, and then I do a lot of solo, like, smaller or kind of more obscure projects and releases … so we’re completely lost in music and don’t do anything else but music, but it’s not always Mouse on Mars that comes out of it -- so that’s the reason why. But, we do record a new album and sometime next year -- hopefully early next year -- there’ll be a new album and it’ll [get] more or less the same promotional push and all that stuff that you usually get.
One of my favorite things about Mouse on Mars is how you guys have never really done the same album twice: you go from dance-floor stuff to dub to jazz to big beat to abstractions, etc. I think that you have one of the most varied, crazed back catalogs of any artist working today. For jumping around to so many genres, is there any particular “phase” that stand out for you?
Um, to be honest the changes are not that obvious or not that -- I’m really not aware of these things. To me it feels like we’re still riding the same shuttle, we’re still on the same path; but the things that happen to you and the things you see and the way you speak about them and the way you fill your pockets or do your shopping along the journey … is changing, and that is probably what you want to speak about. But I think the core of what we do is still very much the same. The way we work together hasn’t really changed much. Our obsession with sound and particular qualities of sound haven’t changed that drastically. I think, of course, along the lines [that] your skills maybe change or maybe your focus within production is shifting I think we’re very much the same and not much has changed about Mouse on Mars; but, I think that’s probably the reason why we can be so flexible and so open for, like, different impressions. But it’s not that we intentionally try to be a different person [or] a different band, like change our character or change our dress. Actually, we don’t feel at all like that: we feel like we’re very, very average, completely normal people, like not sticking out in any way and everything we do is just working on “our thing”, but it doesn’t even seem like anything’s changing. But I guess if I would like look at our back catalog and compare things, I would have to say “Yeah yeah yeah, this is probably where we were still a bit more, in a way, restrained or a bit more introverted” or “maybe our attention was more focused on mid-frequencies“ or “maybe it’s getting a bit harsher and our focus is shifting a bit up to higher-frequencies” or “the spectrum is opening a bit more” … but concerning [our] development, it’s not that I think things have changed: there was no drastic change in our biography, nothing major concerning our personalities that have brought any change. There was no car crash, no loss of a band member -- nothing like that! There’s absolutely no interesting stories about us. I think we, as people and producers, we’re like completely in the back and this is basically what we work on: we work on an idea that can exist apart from us -- and that is what Mouse on Mars has always been to us. It’s kind of like a, yeah -- really like a character that is animated by us, but it just goes its own way. We have to deal with it, we have to think of it as like writing stories or something, you know? Maybe we’re kind of like the Coen Brothers in a way, you know? Not interesting as such, but trying to get out a different story each time, but in the end it’s always the same story. [Laughs.] I’m really sometimes frustrated by not being able to change as much as I would love to. I think we had so many ideas of like “Maybe we should get a producer, maybe we should just have someone else to write the music and we just play”, but then we have so much fun doing it that we just keep on doing it.
Well it’s not like we’re going to see you produce a Britney Spears album anytime soon …
I would definitely produce Britney Spears! No question! The thing is: it would never, ever happen. No one would let us do it. Even [Britney] wouldn’t let us do it, even if she was completely out of her mind.
Just yesterday I was listening to Vulvaland, and comparing that to Radical Connector and the like, and I was amazed to remember that that album was straight back in 1994, and that dance-floor feel didn’t sound dated at all. So, just out of curiosity, when did you last listen to that album?
[Laughs.] Honestly, I have never listened to any of our discs!
It’s absolutely true, yeah. It happens that I stumble across a track [of ours] or that someone else is playing it somewhere, somehow -- or maybe we want to hear something in the studio in a more analytical way, like “Ah, let’s get back to that track and see how that sounded or how we used that or how that idea was used” or something like very technical or very analytical. I never ever put on a Mouse on Mars album just to listen to it or enjoy it. It’s because I’ve run through that, like, a thousand times and there’s just so much music. If I have time to really listen to something, I just put on … whatever! Definitely not what I’ve already heard like 1000 times. [Laughs.] It’s like life’s too short for that.
Visit Mouse On Mars' website.