Mouse on Mars have been electronic pioneers since the early '90s, being one of the first bands to successfully create electronic music for the non-raving crowd — one of the more important bands bridging the gap between samplers and indie rock. Jan St. Werner and Andi Toma have been releasing records steadily since the beginning and with their newest, Radical Connector, prove that they are still expanding their sonic arsenal.
I wanted to start by talking about the early records, like Iohora Tahiti. How were they recorded?
Since we started we had a studio. First it was in Andy's home. You could say bedroom. It was the biggest room in his house. I don't remember what the first board we had was, but now we have a Soundcraft DC2020, and a Studer 24-track machine was always there. That was Andy's baby. He always loved it. Also, lots of outboard gear. For samplers, at first we used an Atari, then Akai and EMU samplers. And lots of effect pedals — I think what was maybe not that common at that time was to use guitar gear for electronic music or to mix things like using guitar on an electronic record, like beats and guitar and breaking these clichés. You had techno, trance, and ambient for chill-out rooms, which were popular at that time. On the other end you had indie rock, and some of the indie rock opened up to more exotic sounds — a bit loungy stuff. But everything was still in its niche. We always wanted to be like a band, like the music we made somehow was abstract and was just there, but if you could imagine someplace where this was coming from it would be instruments being played. It would be a sound that is physically coming from somewhere and not having an abstract moody electronic soundtrack, strange and synthetic. For instance, I always hated synthesizers. When I was young I was a big Queen fan and I was always going for the no- synthesizer aspect of the records. I always liked that all the effects and sounds were made with tape manipulations. When we started working with Mouse on Mars, we didn't really want to use synthesizers. We didn't really want that sound.
Usually when you hear a record you can hear the process. On your records I listen all the time and never really understand the process.
What is interesting is when you make music or whatever you make, y more like a rock band made us create this kind of music that was totally a holistic kind of global idea of what music should be. In the beginning people would ask, "So what should people do when they listen to your music?" And we always said [the] best is if after they listen to what we have made, they put on a record that they really like. Something really interesting. It could be a Beach Boys record or a field recording record. It was never, "Lets make a jungle track or a movie track..." It was never like that. It was like," Look at this sound and what it does and how you make sound should just come along." The first little bit of sound gives you a hint of what comes next. And then you combine the elements, like a puzzle. We were always sampler guys. We were never synthesizer freaks. If we heard a sound that was vivid and interesting that was okay. My first synth was a very detuned, very kind of odd synth that had a lot of personality. Then I got a JD-800 Roland because that was the first digital synth with an analog surface. That was one of the ideas we had: No sound should stay the way it came from the synth or mic. Everything should be treated. So the spark of how a song starts could just be a very minute thing that we could play around with and see what it could become. On Vulvaland we had a sample by Iggy Pop. We want the samples to not be a reference to something that already exists. But more like making it abstract so it takes away from the source so it leads toward a kind of manipulated, active perception so everything you get you process in your head and throw it out. It's much more the process of treating the sound than the end product being a perfect track. So through the years this became stronger and stronger and less about how interesting the source material we used was and more and more the process of manipulating. Now we are at the point where we can create the style of music — funk, dance, R&B — and still it would not be purely it. It would still be our strange engine and this is where we are now. Having this absurd processing machine and we are connected to the equipment we have and what we get back.
Well, I think there are times with the new record where it sounds more like you're examining the music, but taking all the pieces of the music and being slower with it.
Slower, yes. But still so many parts. Single elements would be enough for a whole track. It's true. It's more coherent in a way. We slowed it down a bit, and, as I said, this machine has become so strong, this processing identity that we have, this very distinct sound and sometimes differences are not that obvious because it's all together so strongly. Sometimes I think it's sad that we have a distinct sound. As much as we don't want one specific thing, like a rock record, or electro acoustic record... as much as we don't like that we don't like all the sounds together as possible either.
I think that's where the new record is successful. I haven't heard Idiology.
That's the one that's most diverse: super slow, super fast, super, super processed, super organic, super string arrangements. When it came out it seemed like a total failure. Now with distance there are so many tracks that we like. It's more like a compilation, and we thought maybe if we had a limited time we would be more concentrated and record it. It didn't work out because in a way we produced so many things in a short period and as many ideas and directions as possible. With the new record we just had one idea and went with it and took a little more time and [were] a little more selective.
How did you record the newest record?
The same way as all of them — in our studio together.
Do you both start songs and bring them to each other?
No, every song we do together. Every track we work like two architects on the same building... one works a night session. The other reacts to it in a way. Likes or doesn't. We have this unwritten agreement that if someone doesn't like what the other one did, we just skip it and come up with something new. It's quite good to not like something, to challenge yourself.
With the new record, what did you record it on, gear-wise?
We got rid of the 24-track at some point because it was just sort of standing in the way. It was just too expensive. The last record we did the drums and orchestral with it and in the end we'd put it back onto the computer. I really loved it but I thought it was just too much work. The space we have is an old liquor factory that's really beautiful and in the middle of a really beautiful neighborhood. And there are a couple of studios and we know all the bands. In the second floor is a really big loft that we share with an artist and part of that is the studio.
Where do you live?
Andy lives in Düsseldorf, I live in Cologne. So in the building there are a few studios and we are friends with all the bands. So we all exchange equipment, etc. The Wurlitzer was recorded downstairs and then bringing the track back up. This artist who we share with converted the former liquor factory with us. Made it become this space where two companies have business and artists. Andy lives in one of the spaces that is like a Mediterranean flat. It is a total world of its own, in the middle off Düsseldorf, [a] three minute bike ride to the harbor. Our little kingdom. We share things with the other bands. Our engineer on tour, he has his studio in the same building, so we borrow and trade compressors, ring modulators, tube amps, mic stands. So this is how you lose a lot of things but gain new things as well. This is the situation of how we work.
How do you record the vocals?
The vocals go through lots of different stages. You treat them in all kinds of ways and still they keep the personality they have. The vocals have to compete with the very compressed, very pushed electronic elements and if you have a totally clean kind of straight-onto-the-reel vocal recording it is quite difficult to compete. I've always found it a strange mix, electronics and vocals, I always feel like its karaoke with the vocals on top like a very rigid basic track. I like some R&B stuff that's really interesting when things get pitched or go out of tune suddenly. But mostly they are separate entities. So what we wanted is the voice becomes an instrument, use the voice as sound samples and treat them with the same kind of programs we use, like Reaktor.
It sounds like in parts some of the sounds are actually voice. On "Wipe That Sound", Mark E. Smith's singing parts sound clean and effected.
The effected is some Reaktor patches. For this song it is a mixture of both. Something like a pitch wheel. There is a scrub thing in the EMU, and some Reaktor patches that just pitch it up, we try all different things. We modified it and cut it up and changed meter, and got a really good feeling for it, and then he sang on top. It's the same with the singing live; he sings on top of what we modified. We didn't think so much about the sounds, we just had basic ideas like a folk arrangement, melody and vocal, and then we begin to destroy it. There are a lot of stages until we have the song. Some parts of the song harmonically don't change with a break, they just morph slowly into each other. A lot of pop songs with vocals, the vocal is like karaoke with definite changes. We try to make it less calculated than modern pop music. This was the big challenge for us to work with vocals. Producing or creating something, there are so many levels and you half have to carefully watch all the elements and half of you shouldn't take notice at all. Like a tennis player who is not always aware of how they are playing. You could close your eyes. This would give you the best results.