A nightclub is one of the last places you'll find one of dance music's most enduring acts. In fact, you are more likely to find them on a boat. Which is exactly where Andi Toma was when we rang up his other half Jan St. Werner in their Berlin studio recently. Together, they are Mouse on Mars, and unlike many of their electronic peers, their complex, elegant beats are driven by a manic curiosity that often has less to do with the familiar trappings of nightlife and DJ stardom and more to do with nature, cities, and dreams. I mean, really: when was the last time you heard a female rapper spitting verses in Azerbaijani based on a 19th century poem about a Baku dandy?
Jan, in particular, is constantly working on a dozen different projects and tracks at once, many of which are often abruptly reconstructed by Andi during his whirlwind stops into the studio. The organic volatility of their creative process radiates through the music. Listening to any of their ten albums over the last twenty years, including their newest, Parastrophics, is a precarious experience–you are never sure what the music is mutating into, or if it will even sound the same the next time you play it. It all seems held together by a magically holistic dynamic that is compounded by the peculiar fact that they were born on the same day, in the same hospital and have been lifelong friends. We may never unravel the mystery to Mouse on Mars’ timeless appeal, but Jan was kind enough to let us try.
Our tentacles draw back if we get too close to trendy styles. Our sense of art, and human beings, is that we’re all one of a kind and there’s no point in imitating each other.
What are you working on at the moment?
Jan St. Werner: Right now I’m doing a score for a short film (more of a loop, really), about oil drills somewhere in California. It’s a really percussive piece with some electronic elements. Then I need to go and set up an art show. Eventually, I will make it into the studio, since we have a remix to do.
What’s the other art project you’re working on?
I’m part of a group show. I haven’t decided which piece I’m going to use. I will decide when I see the spot. It could be a swinging microphone that amplifies ambient sound. I have a small selection in my book of ideas. I pick one randomly or pick one based on the location and what is technically possible. I like to do these types of things. It expands the idea of where sound can appear and what sound can do.
And the remix?
It’s for a Skweee track. We had Ya Tosiba and Mesak on this album. We used a version of one of their tracks. We were going to do a remix for them but we took over and turned into our track, “Baku Hipster.” So now we owe them a remix, especially since we completely fucked up their song, reworking the whole thing and basically just kept the voice. She (Tosiba) is rapping in Azerbaijani, based on texts from the early 19th century about a kind of dandy. We liked the concept of the song, the idea of someone whose identity is constantly changing. We thought it fit into the idea for this album and that’s how we ended up using it and owing them a remix.
How do such wild ideas find their way into your music?
It’s kind of like sonic dyslexia. We take elements and interpret music in our way. Our tentacles draw back if we get too close to trendy styles. Our sense of art, and human beings, is that we’re all one of a kind and there’s no point in imitating each other. If there’s too much sounding the same, we can’t tell it apart. So immediately for us it becomes one, and we don’t realize it. There’s always an element that distinguishes one thing from another, and that’s what makes it three-dimensional. That’s when you can connect it to something else, an organic system, where things don’t fit properly necessarily but all the moving parts push each other. We think of ourselves as conduits. People shoot things our way and we just catch it. We are always happy to open our gates to everyone. Sometimes there’s a lot of traffic, sometimes there’s nothing. We’re like an interplanetary café where we provide comfort and share ideas.
This isn’t the usual approach you hear from most DJs.
We’re more backstage people. We like people, but we don’t like nightclubs, we like to see what’s going on behind the scenes. We don’t feel like we fit into nightclubs. Sometimes people don’t even let us in!
…it all fell into place, which is how things happen with us–they happen to us. It’s like fishing. You just kind of sit there waiting to see what comes by.
If you’re not hanging out in clubs or with DJs, whom are you hanging out with?
When we moved into this studio, we thought it was going to be all musicians, but then we looked next door and saw a big hall where they build boats. They turned out to be Mouse on Mars fans, and were happy that we were suddenly neighbors and we were happy to not be surrounded by musicians. Andi specially loves it; he has his boat there and restores it in the winter. It’s always interesting to have different conversations with other people who do different things. That is more exciting for us.
Speaking of musical friends, how did you end up releasing this on Modeselektor’s Monkeytown label?
Considering how you release records these days, everything being digital, it was clear we couldn’t work with different labels in different territories. So we decided we had to work with one label with worldwide distribution. We also wanted to have someone local, so we could walk over there and talk about things. For us it’s very important to be in close contact with the label. We met them through our publicist, who said Modeselektor was talking nicely about us. They’re on the same street as our booking agent. So it all fell into place, which is how things happen with us–they happen to us. It’s like fishing. You just kind of sit there waiting to see what comes by.
Sometimes he comes in off the boat and I play him something and I’ll say, ‘What do you think, I think it’s fantastic,’ and he’ll say ‘No, no, no.’ He’s so fucking conceptual…
Another interesting collaboration was your work with Helado Negro (Roberto Lange).
He’s a great person. Again, it was our publicist who connected us. I really like his music, I follow everything he’s doing. He said the same about us. One day, I met him in New York, and hung out a playground in Soho with my daughter. We were just tripping out on all these kids running around us.
It’s been six years since your last album, how have you been spending the time?
We did an orchestra piece with the Chicago Symphony; moved the studio to Berlin; we’ve been touring to all kinds of places we haven’t been to. We’d never been to China so we went there. In the end, six years is not much time. But, you have to be so public with everything you do these days. If you don’t put out a record every year or go out on tour, or change your sound, people forget that you exist, or think that you are not making music anymore. When people say, “It’s nice to have you back,” we say, “What do you mean? We’ve been busy!” There were just so many other things we wanted to explore–developing our software, our art projects, and a lot of other stupid ideas that have nothing to do with music, things that were futuristic a hundred years ago that are still undiscovered.
You guys have been together since 1993 and your style has varied dramatically in that time. How do you work together and what do you think is the secret to your long success?
I think I’m quite lazy, really. Being productive doesn’t mean you do something all the time. It means whatever shit you do, you do it good. I think Andi is not lazy at all, he’s an amazing worker, he’s really full on, but not really focused on results. He’s constantly changing things. Where some people can do five records, Andi will still be working on one song that he’s changed a hundred times. Sometimes he comes in off the boat and I play him something and I’ll say, “What do you think, I think it’s fantastic,” and he’ll say “No, no, no.” He’s so fucking conceptual; he can’t accept it unless it’s the ultimate expression. So I’ll leave the studio, and go for a ride on my bike, and I come back, and he’s changed everything and slowly we bring it together. Things we put in the “finished” folder don’t always stay there.