“Your pets are gonna die / Gonna die,” John Maus sings on “Pets,” one of the darker tracks on his darkest album to date, Screen Memories. Coming more than six years after 2011’s We Must Be the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves, it solves the Gordian knot that has plagued Maus since the mid-2000s beginning of his musical career: People don’t always know when and if he’s kidding.
Critical appraisal of Maus’ early work erred on the savage side. Widely misunderstood as a hipster dipshit lobbing javelins from inside a cocoon of faux-irony, Maus sounded like he was doing an impression of a phantasm from the East German underground. It didn’t help that his live performances, although occasionally quite emotional, amounted to him singing karaoke to his own songs.
But through the course of this decade, an entire genre sprang up to meet Maus on the internet’s equivalent of the astral plane. Vaporwave, the backward-facing electronic phenomenon that reappropriates 1980s and ’90s sounds and incidental music, owes a fair amount to Maus’ moody synths and clipped, occasionally opaque lyrics. Fond of repetition, Maus can come off as a messenger even if the message isn’t always in the words, and Screen Memories bubbles with end-times anxiety. What obviates the old criticisms is that on this record, the equipment is an order of magnitude subtler and more expressive. No one can dismiss the results as a joke.
“I built it all!” Maus tells SF Weekly. “It’s hard to tell all the labor that went into it, soldering and etching and all that stuff. That’s precisely why I did it, too: to give [the album] its own space.”
As a resident of Austin, Minn., a town best known as the headquarters of Hormel Foods and the home of the SPAM Museum, Maus works on his own terms. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy and his residence and home studio are the “Funny Farm.” The high-end DIY approach in a home studio can liberate an album but the impracticality of lugging everything around on a tour could suffocate a live show. So for Maus’ set at Slim’s on Saturday, Jan. 27 (sold out), he’ll perform with a full band, which is both new for him and “something that allows me to interrogate or explore a live concert in a way a little box couldn’t.
“Movies get sound better than concerts do, with their 11.1 surround,” he adds, without bitterness. “Most musicians, myself included, are just content to plug into a stereo P.A.”
The technical advancements allow for a better communication of the music’s apocalyptic qualities. In a way, Maus couldn’t warn that things are about to get a whole lot worse until a few things got a lot better. As someone who describes his politics as “left of the left of the left,” it’s not just impotent liberal outrage over 45’s poorly spelled tweets. While Maus is slightly frustrated that the album didn’t come out in time for him to “ride the ripples of hysteria” over Trump’s rise, his concerns run more to what he calls “the whole coming-to-be of the Silicon Valley ideology, sort of becoming the default spirituality of advanced liberal democracies.”
He’s not a prophet consumed with the duty to warn, but as Screen Memories’ title implies, Maus is fixated on the ways pop culture becomes a mechanism for reproducing power relations and co-opting dissent. Nothing amuses Maus quite like the spectacle of people sharing a listicle called “The Top 10 Tracks That Spoke Truth to Power in 2017” on social media. Or take the video for “Touchdown,” an oblique criticism of football’s destructive, hypermasculine ethos that focuses on a rotating athlete. It’s making a similar point that Todd Haynes made by using Barbie dolls in his suppressed film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. Maus’ politics are like Horkheimer and Adorno’s, only with wry humor — and the desire not to have people “throw a rock at your head” by putting your philosophical interests front and center. And “Touchdown” could be about the end zone or the eschatology of the end times, or both.
Another song, “Edge of Forever,” specifically references the original Star Trek episode, “The City on the Edge of Forever,” which Maus decided he had to use once he learned about it. It was an effort to make up for his song “Cop Killer,” which is not an Ice-T cover and which pokes fun at juvenile methods of resisting authority even as it appears to endorse them.
That “was the quintessence of rock ’n’ roll lyrics right there,” Maus says, “but I’m not sure I adequately honored the one chance I had of using it.”
The paradox is more challenging and more familiar. How do you make a point about popular culture while using the idiom of popular music and without coming off as a loathe-able snob? When you’re John Maus, you use your time on stage to demonstrate that everything you do is a labor of love and not a too-cool-for-school smirk. And if nothing else, at the end of “Pets,” the pets all go to heaven.
John Maus, Saturday, Jan. 27, 8 p.m., at Slim’s, 333 11th St. $17-$41.95; slimspresents.com