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by Alicia Crowder

This means war! A triumphant shout is sounded against all authoritarians who would claim that one band must confine themselves entirely within the walls of the small, closet-sized room of any one specific genre.
Mouse on Mars has successfully gained recognition across the globe while refusing to cater to the masses but at the same time attempting to provide an almost spiritual light in the dark to the souls of all open to the artistic presence emanating from their style of prose and sound.
The mighty warriors of Mouse on Mars are actually soft-spoken, apparently peace-loving partiers whose sense of humor takes main stage in their conversations and as they are talking to their audience. Jan (pronounced "Yawn") St. Werner, the most talkative of the group, said in his soft German accent at their recent Houston performance, "We have heard that people in Texas do not dance. This is not so, is it?"
They seem to be whole-heartedly focused on the music they believe in creating. Their entire lives have been directed toward one form of art or another. (At least, they refuse to admit it if they once worked flipping burgers in some Germanic café.)
After meeting up with the band's touring manager inside Fat Cat's, a small, dark music club whose walls were covered with dead animal remains and a large picture of the last supper, photographer Cindy Polnick and I were taken outside to interview the band on their lengthy silver and green tour bus.
The tour bus housed three bands, Mouse on Mars (from Germany), Ratatat (Brooklyn), and Junior Boys (Hamilton, Ontario), each with their own sound engineers, and the tour manager. The three bands had been touring now for three weeks, having just come from Austin and heading on to New Orleans after this brief stop in Houston. Although the tour was initially to last longer, it would end after a total of six weeks.

SCR: Your name and your role in Mouse on Mars?
Jan: Jan Werner, and I play the cowboy in the band. Sometimes I also play the Harlequin. The instrument that I play is called the magic stick, the pipe, the pluck board, and the numbers.

How many times have you toured in America?
Jan: This is the fourth time, actually. The first time was with Stereolab. The second time was only us in a band, and then we teamed up with different bands in different locations, but it was mainly our tour. The third time we were on a bus with Vert, only one guy, from England. Then I think we did three shows together with Tortoise.

How did you hook up with Junior Boys and Ratatat for this tour?
Jan: Our booking agency just checked which bands were going on tour and what was going on. I think it was just a perfect coincidence that they got those bands together.

How are you enjoying the tour with them?
Jan: Very much! It's a really, really nice tour. The guys are super, and it's really nice to be with them. We can get wasted, talk, read books, listen to records, play Frisbee, watch DVDs, and, I don't know, get drunk. Everyone here likes good food. That is also very good because we actually do have problems with American food sometimes, so we try to get fresh stuff.

Do you feel like your style and the style of the bands you are touring with this time blend well?
Jan: I would say that they are very different from each other.

Do you think it makes a good mix for a good show?
Jan: I think it makes a good mix, yeah. Junior Boys are more into songs in a way and they have this synth, pop feel about them.

-- Mouse on Mars pic #1


Mouse on Mars -- http://www.mouseonmars.com/

Thrill Jockey Records -- http://www.thrilljockey.com/

Ratatat -- http://www.ratatatmusic.com/

Junior Boys -- http://www.electrokin.com/artists/junior_boys/

Ratatat, they mix slower beats like hip-hop-derived rhythms and R&B kind of rhythms with electronica and rock guitar, so they have a strange mix. Then, Mouse on Mars is really hard to pin it down, what it is. We just cruise through styles and genres and have a very distinct kind of spaceship way of doing it.

Are you playing songs from your latest CD tonight?
Jan: Yes, we do. We play songs from the record, they are different because life is all a different thing, but they are recognizable so when people know the record they know which songs we are playing.

How did you choose your style of music?
Jan: You can't choose it. You are your style of music. That's just how things are. You find it maybe at some point.

It's like a discovery.
Jan: Yes.

You've been called very innovative in different reviews. They said you play electronica, but taking the clinical, coldness out of it. Was that your aspiration? What has been your intention with your music?
Jan: Electronic music is actually something that we are not that interested in and very often it is true that it is very close to calculating or mathematics. With every style of music or with every genre there is so much stuff that is just boring, that is just a cliché of that genre. There are always people who try interesting things in all kinds of genres. I wouldn't want to hear reggae my whole life through and I wouldn't dedicate my whole life to electronic music and I wouldn't like to be a hardcore rock kid my whole life. I would just rather see where people try interesting things and whatever means of expression they choose, it doesn't matter in the end. Certain pop music is a lifestyle or a design, but this doesn't exist for us. When we do music, we like to listen to what we do and we like to develop things. That's maybe why people say it is innovative.

Mouse on Mars pic #2 Is your music based on feelings a lot? Do you feel like your music is full of feeling?
Jan: Yes, definitely! It is soul music. It is soul music with a certain kind of robotic edge to it, maybe, but the robotic side of it is not just machines running on their own. We structure things the way that they get this kind of edgy feeling because we find a certain funk aspect in there. We also try to humanize it. It's like we play with it. We juxtapose things to it. You pick a theme. You play with it, take it into pieces, and you try to find interesting twists.
And in a way we like this. When things are kind of edgy, but then you twist them and then suddenly they get this swing. When you start swinging, from the very first moment, you are very likely trapped in this kind of funky super musician cliché where you just go up and down the scales and you just wang on your instrument. But when you choose something that is supposed to be difficult in a way, like rigid or hard to deal with, that is really a challenge, so you really have to come up ideas of how to bend that or how to break that in a way.

More precise?
Jan: Yeah, and that's a challenge we like, so in a way we also don't like electronic music. We think it is a challenge to do something with that and we want to have a very organic and vivid sound, like something that is really eruptive and massive, as well. It has to be a whole volcano of sound, in a way. We pick things that we like from that that get spilled out and we just wrap things. Sometimes it is very fast in a way. Some things just fall on the floor and other things we structure them. It is neverending. This music thing is just so infinite and it can never stop. Anything that is considered creative, you just have to get into the listening mode. Then you as a musician, you just connect to what you actually hear and then you go along with that, rather than forcing the music out of your skills.

Do you feel like it's really developed over time, that you've really matured through your time of playing and creating?
Jan: Yeah, but you mature in a way that you can take more freedom. Sometimes being more mature actually can mean that you have more fun. You liberate yourselves from a lot of clichés or uncertainties that you have when you are younger. You understand more so that there is no one to tell us what we are supposed to do. You can challenge yourself constantly, but you can also twist things and sometimes even take a piss at it and it's okay. There is no hierarchy that you have to work for. So, that in a way is what happens when you grow up musically. So, I think that we grew up and I hope that we grow even more up, so that it gets even more wild.

A lot of times bands will start off simply and they seem to get deeper and deeper as they grow, but some will start off just completely artsy, but then they try to become more simple just to get the masses' attention. Which direction do you think your band has gone?
Jan: We actually cross-faded between those two paths in a way. We didn't start very complicated. I think our first records were simpler than what we do now, but on the other hand, we found a way to intensify things so they can be more appealing to the masses. So I think the number of people who listened to our stuff grew, but also the music didn't become more simple. It's kind of an odd thing, but we're still not selling millions. We constantly gain more people and draw them into what we do, but it's not like we now simplify things and put a hit right in the center of mainstream. That is not what we do.

Are you trying to do that at all?
Jan: We couldn't do that. There are so many rules you have to obey to do that.

So then you would lose your artistic freedom.
Jan: Not only that, you don't even get there. Like we wouldn't even get the promotional budget to do all that you have to do to put a song right in the middle of billboard charts. You don't easily get there. Our music isn't simple enough. It is too diverse to be a soundtrack for a certain specific moment. Sometimes a certain song can be just the right mood for a certain moment. It can be punk. It can be new wave or a hip-hop thing, a very angry song or a very cheery thing, but our songs have so many sides about them at the same time. We could probably do the exact song for the moment when things just explode and everyone enjoys diversity to the utmost extent, but this will never ever happen.
Maybe we could write the hymn for the moment when the world decides for anarchy to be the best way of dealing with society and politics and stuff. So George Bush or Kerry could go on stage and says, "Look we've found out something that scientists have worked on for 10 years and it is that all people are equal. We all have human rights that we have to respect, but besides that there is nothing that can ever tell us what to do and what not to do. As long as you don't harm anyone else, you are free to do whatever you want to do. You can travel. There is no nationality anymore. Your race doesn't matter. Your skin color doesn't matter. Your sex doesn't matter. You just do what you think is appropriate. But, the only problem is, you have to start thinking." Then Mouse on Mars music starts and the people just go with it and everyone just dances their own style.
I think there is something spiritual about what we do, as well, without being religious.

I read that your band has done some things for television. What are you doing with that now?
Jan: We did things for television, like we started working together on a television program in Germany. There was a new channel, but it had a very experimental approach in the beginning, so we worked on the sound concept for that, which was no melodies and only samples, collages, rhythms. This was the first time ever that that happened in German television. But then it got commercialized more and more, so we couldn't deal with that anymore. So, we kind of retired.
We still had offers to work for certain programs, but we kind of slowed it down. We make more and more music.

Mouse on Mars pic #3 What country do you feel like you are most popular in, since you tour around Japan, Europe, and the United States?
Jan: America is so big. If you collect all the people together it is probably, in the end, the country where most people know what we do. England is probably more difficult these days because the music that we are related is with is not rock music and they are going for more and more rock music these days. However, we are still there. Each time we play London it is packed. It is super good, and we sell records there. The three biggest markets actually are America, Japan, and Germany.

How long did you play together before you started going outside of Germany?
Jan: We started in England, actually. Our first label was in London, England, and this is also where we played our first show ever.

Were you playing independently in Germany before that?
Jan: Not as Mouse on Mars. We did our first record and released it on Too Pure, an English label, about 10 years ago. The record was actually released in other countries, like Spain, Germany, Italy, France, Japan, and also in America, and by that time Too Pure was connected with American Recordings, run by Rick Rubin, so our first record was released through American Recordings in the U.S. So, after the record we switched and worked through another American label. Everything kind of happened parallel then, so we always had to play in different countries besides Germany.

Do you enjoy traveling?
Jan: Yes.

Please state your name and role in the band.
Andi: My name is Andi [Toma], and I don't have a role. Both of us, we don't have roles. Umm...I am the cook.
Jan: He is the cook and he plays the pot.

And the spoons?
Jan: Yes, and the spices.

Besides being musical artists, is there any other art form that you take on or actively pursue in your life?
Jan: Bicycle riding.
Andi: I have kids.

How old are your children, Andi?
Andi: 12 and 6.

Do you have kids, Jan?
Jan: No, I don't have kids, but I am kind of involved with art a lot because my girlfriend is an artist. So I have to deal with the art scene as well.

What kind of artist?
Jan: She is a visual artist. She works with film and photography. I like visual art.

Does she tour with you?
Jan: She does visuals for us as well, but she is not on tour with us right now because she does her work and you can't always connect the schedules. Besides that, musicians have to deal with the artwork. You have to deal with people who do artwork/video stuff. You have to write, for the lyrics, even if they are odd and twisted or even if they are sometimes hard to understand. We have a label, so we also release other people's music, so you have to care for that as well. We have the studio.

Where is your studio at?
Jan: It's in Düsseldorf. That's 30 kilometers north from Cologne, where I live, so I live in two different cities.
We do a couple of things. We did an art project together with artists for a book that we did as Mouse on Mars. It was kind of a twisted release album. We said that an album doesn't have to be a record all of the time. It can be a book too, so we asked those visual artists to come up with ideas about Mouse on Mars and write something or paintings or ideas or a concept or a story, an invention maybe, a collage. Whatever they wanted that would relate to Mouse on Mars in a way. Pick it up. Rip it into pieces. Interpret it. Reject it. Play with the connotations of the music or associate with it. So, that became a book.
This became our release album and from that an exhibition was made in the Düsseldorf Kunst Palast, which is quite a big museum in Düsseldorf. So we have this museum being stuffed with art pieces, and lots of parallel things went on like accompanying programs and talks and some lectures and some concerts, as well. We did a video documentation about the artist's work. Again, interpreting/investigating what the artists actually did in reference to our music. So that was something that we did this year, as well. There is always something that we come up with and then we have to find a way to do it.

Mouse on Mars pic #4 So with a lot of pictures, it would be a good coffee table book, do you think?
Jan: It is a coffee table book. I don't have it here. We should get some tomorrow. It will be released actually in the U.S., I think, next month. It is called Doku/Fiction, Mouse on Mars reviewed & remixed. The publisher is Die Gestalten. It is a lot of stuff to read, pictures to look at. Yes, it's a good coffee table book. I always say it is a good toilet book.

How long are you going to be in the states?
Jan: Altogether about six weeks.

What is your next stop?
Jan: New Orleans.

Is this the first time that you've been to Fat Cats?
Jan: Yes.

This is your only Houston stop?
Jan: Yes. I think we've played Houston before, but I can't remember where and when. It is amazing how each time we return to the U.S. we realize how much we already saw of the U.S. and how much we already know about it. Each time it is new. You come here and you think, how will it be? What will it be like? By the middle of the tour you realize, I know so much. I actually know truck stops. I know truck stop cafes we stop at. Certain cafes in certain cities. We know which places have good food and which ones are not recommendable. But after a tour you kind of forget about that. You get back into your normal environment. But once you enter the tour bus, you just attach to where you last left the bus. It is very funny. I find it strange, but interesting.

Where did you go right before here?
Jan: Austin. Austin was awesome. It was the best gig on the tour so far. It was amazing last night.

Do you still have all of the original members?
Jan: Yes.

So, you haven't had too many creative differences that have caused too much difficulty? You work pretty well together?
Jan: No, that actually leads to the music we make. The differences. Dodo [Nkishi, the group's drummer] has played with us from the beginning, with us since 1994, and he's become even more a part of the group during the years. He's also doing the vocal parts on the new record.

You all take part the actual lyrics and every part of the process?
Jan: Yep. We shift things back and forth sometimes. One is just chopping up lyrics, like different combinations. Dodo again responds to it. Each song takes a long time for us to do because there are a lot of different steps.

What did you do professionally before you got into the music scene?
Jan: We both worked in visual before. In Germany, you cannot make your start in music.

What are your goals now?
Jan: We just want to come up with new ideas. We are about to do a live record. I think now is the time to do it. We want to collect some of the releases that we did and put these on record. We still have some tracks that are a bit more odd, more experimental maybe, and we want to put those on there as well. We have some DJ gigs that we do as well and we plan to continue these as well. Next is a 12 inch that we did, it is a version of one of the tracks from the album, but we rerecorded the vocal tracks with Mark E. Smith from The Fall. The Fall is a band from England, a kind of new wavy, post-punk kind of band and Mark E. Smith is like a total new wave icon. He is also a fan of the band so we decided to do something together.

And with that, we said our "thank you's" to one another, and shortly thereafter Mouse on Mars provided a lively stage performance for an excited, eclectic group of fans. END


All contents © 2005 Space City Rock, unless otherwise credited.