MOUSE ON MARS' "Radical Connector" is just a bit radical -- it's the first album by the pioneering German electronic band to feature vocals on every track -- but it may well connect the group to a wider audience, thanks to such accessible dance tracks as "Wipe That Sound," "Spaceship" and "Mine Is in Yours" and moody meditations such as "Send Me Shivers and "Evoke an Object."
That shouldn't suggest that the head Mice, Jan St. Werner and Andi Toma, have in any way abandoned their penchant for deconstructing pop sounds. It's just that this time around they're working not only with voices, but with more conventional pop structures that, according to a U-wire review, "never sound labored over or forced . . . [allowing] experimental genius and packed-dance-floor-fun to coexist in perfect harmony."
"It was somehow an obvious thing to do because we always try to avoid too much repeat of what we have done before," says St. Werner, calling from New Orleans in the midst of Mouse on Mars' most extensive stateside foray to date. St. Werner's take on avoiding repetition is amusing because MoM has been an exemplar of change and reinvention in a field not particularly known for either. He and Toma met in 1993, according to rumors, at either a death-metal concert or a health-food store.
"I think they belong together," St. Werner jokes, suggesting the initial meeting may have been "at a death-food store."
Wherever. In any event, from the amorphous meld of Krautrock, techno and ambient sounds on its 1994 debut "Vulvaland" and 1997's drum 'n' bass-influenced "Autoditacker" to the more recent "Niun Niggung" and "Idiology," which added live instrumentation, some vocals and a decided lightness of spirit, MoM has worked hard at not being caught in a creative rut. This time around, St. Werner explains, "we wanted to include things that we had intentionally and obviously excluded in the past. The voice was always something that we either added as an extra when we worked on a remix, or when we did 'Cache Coeur Naif' [a 1997 EP with Stereolab vocalists Mary Hansen and Laetitia Sadier]. And on 'Idiology,' we had Dodo [Nkishi], our drummer, singing on two tracks.
"It's just to add another layer on top of the music so it becomes a very different, diverse record, [though] we wanted to make vocals be a part of the music as if they were instruments," St. Werner adds. "We were interested in having something structured more like a pop record. And we wanted to work with lyrics as if they were bundles of sound." You can hear the result on pretty much all the tracks, but especially on "Blood Comes," where Nkishi's fractured vocal loops and complex circular rhythms on the phrases "all around" and "an effect is interrupted / And we enjoy it" are cacophonous cut-and-paste classics.
According to St. Werner, "We arranged the vocals the way we arranged the music. This was something interesting to us, and I think this makes the record come across as natural. It makes it have this kind of organic, warm feeling because you feel this is not like having a backing track and then someone wrote the lyrics for that, or someone wrote the song with a guitar and he had the text in his head and he made the music be like the emotional accompanying soundtrack for the lyrics. It's not like that at all -- the lyrics are treated as if it was music."
Sort of creating a layer on top and a layer beneath, meaning and sound entwined?
"Totally," St. Werner responds. "This is how we see it, as well, which is why the lyrics were not supposed to be too specific or have a total, distinct type of topic that they try to bring across in a narrative way. It's cruising around a theme."
Certainly, there's plenty of food for thought on "Radical Connector," even on the danceable "Wipe That Sound," which has the funky energy of Basement Jaxx or "Sledgehammer"-era Peter Gabriel. Other tracks are a bit more provocative, whether "All the Old Powers" ("A ghost sneaks around / All the old powers are called about / To straighten and firm those presets of sound / Against the non-linear language of the unbound") or "Detected Beats" ("The breath remains the source of some detected beats of each and every measure / The breath remains the end of word and gesture / Blows out the light of leaving / Sensing us the ones retrieving"). Nkishi's not the only singer aboard, either, with Niobe (who records for MoM's Sonig label) bringing her Bjorkish vocals to the more melancholic tunes "Send Me Shivers," "The End" and "Evoke an Object."
"The whole thing with this album, stronger than ever before, there were themes and ideas, partly very complex and sometimes very simple." And, St. Werner suggests, they add depth to a genre of music not always known for meaning below the surface.
"The stereotypes of dance music is you have to have steady beat, you have to have someone's who's cheering you up," St. Werner says. "Dance music is so full of stereotypes, but if you look a level lower, a level below what makes people dance, is something that makes them excited, and a certain part of it is not fully revealable with your brain. A lot of dance music is, in a way, stupid. On the other hand, you can give a lot of information . . . and when you get these things in a groove, when you find a way to combine them in a kind of physical, uplifting, dynamic way, it can go straight through your brain and just hit your body and you open up.
"But it has to be connected, your belly and your brain," St. Werner says, chuckling. "It's hard to understand why people always want to have it separate. Brain music is just for the brain? Except your brain is part of your body, and if your brain is not dancing, what is it supposed to do?"
As these statements suggest, there's a lot of philosophic musing underlying MoM's music, which may explain how the group came up with "Doku/Fiction: Mouse on Mars Reviewed and Remixed," a book/exhibit project in which three dozen artists, designers, journalists and academics were invited to comment on MoM songs, albums and concerts -- all without being able to use the band's music or generate any sound at all.
Oddly, St. Werner insists that "we don't like remixes. We hardly do any ourselves, and we didn't give our music away to remix. The question is: Why is a remix always a music remix?
"Doku/Fiction," he explains, "was to see if we could discuss things with other artists and see how they recast it without the music. The pattern, the mechanism that makes you remix music in a certain way isn't music, it's what's happening in your brain, your attention on a certain sound that you want to promote, a certain rhythm you want to bring out in a voice or in certain lines. All these criteria make you create the remix, which in the end is musical, but in the translation process a lot of those things have nothing to do with music. We thought, 'Why can't we come up with something else than music in the end, break this remix process?' "
The results included commentaries and visual interpretation, not just about MoM but about music and creativity, and modern electronic music in particular. And what began as a book begat an art exhibition at the prestigious museum Kunsthalle Dusseldorf. "Doku/Fiction," already published in Germany, arrives here in December with a new MoM CD consisting of nine tracks commenting on the production of the remix artworks.
"The book was supposed to be a little box of ideas, of non-sound works and ideas and dialogues," St. Werner says, adding that, ironically, it "was supposed to be a totally anti-remix project. In the end we thought, 'Let's add a CD where we imagined how those people would have created their works, which tools would they have probably used.' "
For longtime fans who worry that MoM is more into dance music now, the "Doku/Fiction" CD is "quite experimental, electro-acoustic sounds from tools being used to create music and rhythms and songs, exactly what people think we've left behind," St. Werner says. "We're totally still interested in that and we're interested in all those things in parallel; one isn't excluding the other."
MOUSE ON MARS -- Appearing Thursday at the Black Cat with Ratatat and Junior Boys. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Mouse on Mars, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200 and press 8101. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)