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Pop Goes the Mouse 

Germany's Mouse on Mars turns years of crafting abstract electronica into pop gold with Radical Connector

Wednesday, Sep 29 2004
If you visit Cologne, Germany, and venture forth a few blocks from a square called Barbarossaplatz, tucked along a residential side street -- just past the pastry shop with a smiling doughnut stickered on the glass -- you'll find a store called A-Musik. If you are a fan of experimental or electronic music, you'll probably have written down the address before your arrival. A small, sunny boutique stocked with a few thousand hard-to-find LPs, a handful of CDs, and a trove of underground zines and out-of-print academic books on everything from sound art to free jazz, A-Musik is like the sister store to the Mission District's Aquarius Records -- but even more esoteric, if you can believe that.

Prominently displayed at the front are all the releases from the Sonig label, an imprint run by Jan St. Werner and Andi Toma of the experimental electronic duo Mouse on Mars, who are close friends and sometime business partners of the A-Musik owners. "We grew up together," explains Toma when I interview him several months after my visit. "They launched the shop right after we started Mouse on Mars, and we took A-Musik as a home base."

I had a vague knowledge of all this when I stopped by the store, and for that reason I kept my head down and hoped that neither St. Werner nor Toma was actually in the vicinity at the time. I've loved the two producers' work since their earliest recordings, amorphous outings that folded breakbeats into wispy ambience, and I've eagerly followed their subsequent zigzags from style to style, each more unpredictable and convoluted than the last. But that weekend I was in no mood for "difficult" music, having come to the city to report on Cologne's clubbier Kompakt label. Picking through the stacks of obscure Japanese noise and deconstructed bleepery, I selected a few long-deleted techno-pop 12-inches that happened to be languishing there and sheepishly carried them to the counter, hoping that no one would laugh at my purchase of a Kylie Minogue remix.

I needn't have worried, however. Mouse on Mars' new album, Radical Connector, has turned out to be one of the most unabashedly pop albums of the year, prickly with hooks and flush with singalong melodies. The record's distressed textures and digital cut-and-paste properties may bear relation to the band's earlier work, but its brash, brassy songs have more in common with the fierce energy and patchwork sensibilities of Basement Jaxx, especially on bass-heavy, funk-infused stompers like "Spaceship" and "Wipe That Sound."

Hard-core fans of the band may initially be put off. Mouse on Mars -- whose sci-fi scuttlings have, in fact, occasionally sounded like rodents gnawing through green cheese -- emerged in the early '90s with a handful of records that fused krautrock-y drones, lo-fi kitchen percussion, and trace elements of tiki-and-mai-tai-inspired exotica (hence album titles like Iora Tahiti). In the decade since, it's gone on to create drifting film scores (Glam), twisted takes on Charles Ives' Americana (Idiology), and even contemporary approximations of Raymond Scott's hyperkinetic cartoon soundtracks from the '30s (Niun Niggung). Of course, baiting its fans is nothing new -- the abrasive 2-step lark "Actionist Respoke," bristling with overdriven, hyperprocessed vocals, rubbed quite a few longtime listeners the wrong way. Mouse on Mars also collaborated and toured with Stereolab in 1997, so the group isn't entirely untutored in the world of avant-pop. But on Radical Connector, the song forms anchored beneath seething waves of choppy vocals suggest that the band has put in at a port far from any visited on previous voyages -- and this time, everyone is welcome onboard, not just Teutonophiles and completist indie rockers who feel an allegiance to the group just because its stateside label is Chicago's vaunted Thrill Jockey.

"Wipe That Sound" -- a masochistic ode to deleting the contents of one's hard drive -- counters its geeky subject matter with squelchy funk bass, delirious falsetto whoops, and a tension-building bridge that wouldn't sound out of place on OutKast's last album. "Evoke an Object" incorporates drum programming so fidgety it could send Timbaland reaching for the Ritalin, but singer Niobe -- a Sonig solo artist who fronts several of Radical Connector's best tracks -- smoothly carries the tune to a soulful climax that crests and crests. And on "Send Me Shivers," Niobe's crystalline voice powers through layer after layer of digital processing, transforming the poignant refrain "Turn back time" into the kind of riff for which you rewind the song over and over; its melancholic rush is utterly addictive.

Still, German experimental musicians don't stop being German experimental musicians when they discover verse/chorus/verse structures. "I don't know if you can call it a pop album," hedges Toma, "though of course it works with the aesthetics of pop and the traditional elements a pop song should have."

"After the last record" -- 2001's baroque, excessive Idiology -- says Toma, "we thought it would be good to be more precise, and we thought that if we worked more with lyrics, it would give us the chance to reduce things a little bit more." It's an odd way of describing Connector, given that reduction is the last quality that comes to mind when you first hear the 16-bar pileup at the heart of "Mine Is in Yours," the opening track. Dodo, Mouse on Mars' sometime collaborator and touring vocalist, sings a sweet (and almost incomprehensible, given the number of digital effects) ditty over chiming banjo, and then brittle drums, buzz-saw synthesizers, and an array of tweaked, chattering voices bury the melody in a dazzling cacophony.

Indeed, what most distinguishes Radical Connector is the prominence of vocals. Every song features them, though most of the time they're chopped, broken, edited, deconstructed, and morphed into sounds no larynx could ever produce on its own. Björk may get the avant-garde credit for her all-vocal album Medúlla, but Radical Connector is no less throaty. Despite their synthetic feel, the album's reconstructed vocals grew from an organic compositional process, according to the band.

"When we started to record, we had very simple harmonic lines, like classic folk songs or something," says Toma. Working the raw material with "a producer's approach," using the computer as an instrument -- and at the same time attempting to avoid the hackneyed "vocoder aesthetic" that plagues music from retro electro to Celine Dion -- St. Werner and Toma began hacking at the sung parts, using hardware and software alike to layer these bastard sounds into complex formations. While the strategy gives the album its trademark stutter and shudder, it also required pretty extreme patience on the part of Mouse on Mars' collaborators Dodo and Niobe, whose re-edited contributions bear scant resemblance to their original efforts. "Niobe is a very close friend," avers Toma, "so it made sense to work with her, because if you work with a well-known vocalist, you can't do anything [radical] with the vocals." As a case in point, the Fall's Mark E. Smith -- whose curious enunciation is one of contemporary rock music's most recognizable -- recently contributed lyrics to a remix of "Wipe That Sound," but understanding that Smith is "his own character," in Toma's words, the band declined to muck about with the English singer's work.

For Radical Connector, though, the strategy is such that each sound's character -- whether sung, sampled, or played -- is twined and tangled into an unrecognizable amalgam. "The elements of the songs merge into each other even though they don't really fit harmonically," explains Toma. "Each song is really like three elements morphing into each other. It was really difficult to make this happen, because if you just put them together in blocks, in parts, it doesn't work. So the song is really being created on the [mixing] desk, where we're fading elements into each other. I think it's the same if you work with genetic material -- it's really a mathematical thing." Seems geeky, sure, but on disc, it works. In Mouse on Mars' hands, a drum hit unfolds into a bass bulge or a glottal stop in the same way that a rocker's guitar string blossoms into a feedback crescendo. "It sounds kind of hippie," admits Toma, but this idea of energy and flux is at the core of the band's philosophy.

The title Radical Connector can be read in multiple ways -- as Mouse on Mars' attempt to tie all its incarnations back to the band's roots, say -- but most compellingly, the phrase speaks to the knottiness of the music itself. What's shocking, then, is how easy it all sounds, which only speaks to the band's care and precision in the studio. "Sometimes you have to be really careful," says Toma. "Suddenly everything falls apart because you want to introduce just one element, or you make one sound louder, and the whole idea totally changes. It's still very fragile."

All this suggests that despite Mouse on Mars' hesitation to use the word "pop," these particular German experimental musicians might have at least one thing in common with Britney Spears -- besides an abundance of hooks. As Spears said to Rolling Stone, "Anyone can write a boring artistic song. Pop music is the hardest shit to write."

About The Author

Philip Sherburne


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