John Maus: 'If my music sounds 80s, you're hearing its medieval backbone'

You don't get many political science postgrads making synthpop. But then you don't get many synthpop records like We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves

When Body Count released the song Cop Killer in 1992, it was considered so inflammatory that Charlton Heston and vice president Dan Quayle joined forces in a hysterical but ultimately successful campaign to have it banned. John Maus's song of the same name, issued earlier this year, has yet to generate a similar level of controversy; probably because Maus is a cultish synthpop crooner who's replaced the incendiary rap-metal onslaught of the original with a maudlin electronic ballad that nobody is likely to interpret as incitement to murder a policeman. Yet Maus's eerie take on Cop Killer carries just as much subversive intent.

"I've always wanted to do something with that lyric," says the excitable Minnesotan, words gushing out of him in an enthusiastic torrent. "Cop Killer is the perfect way of putting over the idea that any worthwhile political or artistic agenda should be seeking an undoing of the situation as it stands. Whether the status quo is a political state or a musical language, the idea should be to kill or overthrow that. The song's not about killing a human being, but about overcoming inhumanity; destroying the machinery that turns us toward an end other than ourselves."

Maus makes an unlikely rock revolutionary. A long-time cohort of LA freak scene luminary Ariel Pink, he delivers his desolate sermons in a lugubrious baritone over gloomily anthemic sounds, vaguely like a pre-cocktail bar Human League. Now he's beginning to amass a cult following for his curiously hypnotic songs and intense one-man shows. A postgraduate student of political philosophy, his latest album, We Must Become The Pitiless Censors Of Ourselves – one of 2011's best – is titled after a quotation from leftist thinker Alain Badiou; amid a tide of apolitical, irony-drenched blog rock, his earnest zeal is refreshing. "We live in a world where information travels faster and is circulated more widely than ever before," Maus explains breathlessly, "yet all it delivers is inanities. We're all just playing on our smartphones, popping little texts back and forth and saying nothing at all. What the album title means to me is: come on guys, we should struggle to interrupt that, we should pitilessly censor ourselves. I'm sure I sound like the most ineffectual type of clown who's just as complicit with that world as anybody else, if not more so. But the idea is that no art stands a chance unless we struggle, unless we make some kind of effort to think."

'The pioneers of electronic music in Sheffield and Manchester became interested in these ecclesiastical modes … I do feel like a douchebag talking about this'

John Maus
John Maus Photograph: Mark Blower/PR

Maus's attempts to convey his idealised vision of the future apply to his music as much as his lyrics, which is why he gets frustrated when people hear the gloomy synths and immediately dismiss him as an 80s revivalist. "I don't address my music in terms of nostalgia or retromania," he says. "I think synthesisers and waveforms allow for a sonic complexity that goes beyond the palette we're used to with guitars. The palette was there in the 80s so why was it set aside and forgotten? That thread can be taken up again. All these timbres and sounds just afford so much colour and possibility, it seems to me, whereas the possibilities of the guitar have been exhausted."

In any case, Maus argues, these chord patterns that to us might feel redolent of John Carpenter soundtracks or dry ice and backcombed hair actually have a much older historical precedent: "When people say my record sounds 80s, what they're really homing in on is this harmonic backbone that comes from mid-Renaissance and medieval pieces. For whatever reason, the pioneers of electronic music that came out of Sheffield and Manchester in the 1980s became interested in these ecclesiastical modes that, historically, were associated with the divine. So in my mind, it's not about the 80s, it's an objective musical phenomenon." He finally catches his breath, wary of how he might be coming across: "I do feel like a douchebag talking about this nonsense … Maybe I'm getting in over my head, I don't know!"

Maus's refusal to defer to the majority view is part of his charm. It's why he continues to tour without a band – his "karaoke show" as he jokingly calls it – despite encountering his fair share of audience hostility. "My wager is that there's something more interesting about doing it without a band, but I did an American tour recently and some reviewers were like, 'What's the point? He just gets up there and sings over recordings of his bad 80s music, there's no point to it.'"

Maus's agitation reaches fever pitch: "If I can get up there and nearly have a heart attack every night, if a human being can push themselves to the absolute limit of their physical existence and people can still go 'What's the point?', then that's the point! To point out how we can't take our existence for granted." And with that, John Maus thanks us politely for listening to his "tornado of nonsense" and heads off to prepare for another bout of extreme revolutionary synthpop karaoke.


Sam Richards

The GuardianTramp

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