Jamie Macleod tells us how easy it is to develop an obsession with John Maus music. ‘Screaming his thoughts and feelings into the void’ allows you to lose yourself in it.
“Cult” can be overused when referring to artists, but with John Maus it is the minimum description. Whether or not you have heard of him. Almost everyone in attendance at Earth Hackney’s sold out show has a reverence for him that borders on the fanatic. Most have bought records before the show begins and “I saw John Maus” t-shirts which also has a covid equivalent that says “I didn’t see John Maus”. My first introduction to him was early in Lockdown. Ellen Allien was doing a series of bedroom sets from her Berlin flat. Suddenly something strange emerged in the mix. Slower. Downtempo. A synth paired with a baritone refrain of “Against the Law”. Waltzing up and down. It felt like it had been triangulated from another age or planet. It was “Cop Killer”. I went down the rabbit hole. In tracing the track back, there was not much information on the actual artist. The video obviously official or fan made, featuring scenes from the 1983 Jon Lydon, Harvey Keitel movie – Cop Killer. The density of world and his mysterious distance all adding to his appeal. Over his multiple albums his sound has leaned on his baritone, featuring classical flourishes through dense satisfying electronics. These albums are only half the story too, with Maus boasting a large cadre of unreleased tracks that his fans pore over. All having gone down the rabbit hole, everyone has their own Maus Journey. For me it is the world he creates with his distinct sonic palette that appeals. Allowing you to get lost in it. My friend describes him as having Van Gogh levels of obsession:
“Screaming his thoughts and feelings into the void”.
Snake Chain offer the perfect support, in that they are completely different from Maus but match his intensity in their own way. They begin as a tight three piece conjuring an atmosphere that is then punctured by a strange figure working her on stage in a yellow sailor’s jacket with a chair on her head. It plays with expectation as this is actually their lead singer Kate Mahony making her way to the stage. Her voice has a shrill Yoko-esque quality that recalls the early 90s Riot Girl scene too. It is a compelling counterpoint to the rhythmical heaviness of the rest of the band. She picks out some audience members to mime (what is later revealed to be a human house). Other moments include a vomit of blood down her white top that then forms a puddle on stage. It holds your attention and beyond as she even (commendably) returns after the set to mop it up. Check out Snake Chain. They mean it.
Subverting expectations is a theme of the night. Maus is always an artist who toys with your expectations. As mentioned, all his videos look to have been doctored by worshipping fans. “Bennington” has clips from the Vanilla Ice vehicle “Cool as Ice”, making it look like a cinematic masterpiece. Full of brooding desert scapes. “Castles in the Grave” features Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and looks a time travelling movie.
“Keep Pushing on” stitches Indian movies featuring dancing Hindu deities. Each their own world. Snake Chain’s setup is cleared to leave a completely empty stage – bar one solitary amp. No Instruments. Nothing else is added until Maus himself enters the scene. Not only the staging but his appearance also defies expectations. He has a shirt, denims and outdoor shoes on. He looks more like a retired American footballer gone hiking than one of the foremost electronic auteurs of the modern era. As if to pose the question. What should that look like in the first place? He bounces out to the Bagpipe inflected synth energy of “Castles in the Grave”. One of his most urgent songs. The normally all seated venue has people leaping from their seats en-masse to crowd the stage. The bare stage emphasises Maus’ intense delivery. Between the lyrics he bellows out a guttural cry as if no one is there. Like physical outpourings that just have to come out. He rocks his head and body ferociously, so they become perpendicular to his legs. Sheer energy. The awestruck crowd then match his cries. Pouring forward as much as possible. Creating a cauldron. This is rendered all the more stark by the lack of anything else on stage. One fan stage dives headfirst to the ground.
This energy does not let up. The “Combine” with its more grandiose arrangement is then chanted back by the audience as if at a football match. Bennington is met with the same devotional chant:
“I love those fucking eyes”
Maus focuses heavily on his landmark album “We must become the pitiless censors of ourselves”. Tracks like “Quantum Leap” have a Joy Division energy to them that bridge to his earlier style. “Hey Moon” offers a pretty reprieve that undulates and twinkles, a Casio lullaby. “Believer” sounds like it should be the crescendo of a movie:
“Let’s go fly all across the world”
With its grand lyrical centre point that is undercut with Mausian strangeness in the line before by referencing Jackie Chan and Hulk Hogan. It’s nocturnal grandiosity makes it fitting as the last song in the set. Marking a calmer ascendency that brings the set to a close.
He comes back out to “Pets” running the length of the stage back and forth at full speed – manically. Everyone leaves in awe at the sheer energy of the set. His next move could be anything…but one things certain. We SAW John Maus.