François Truffaut believed that you could sum up an entire movie in one word—his word for Last Year in Marienbad was ‘persuasion’—and if there is one word that sums up Mouse on Mars’ career thus far, I would suggest the word ‘playfulness’. They have never been as ‘challenging’ as the concrete analog noise of Panasonic or Main, nor as predictable as the made-to-order electronica for the club generation (Chemical Brothers anyone?)—instead, they have spent the last 21 years seeking to challenge themselves and their audience at every turn by playful exploration while, at the same time, miraculously managing not to descend into pedantic exercises or pointless noodling.
For a long time, the myth was that Jan St Werner and Andi Toma met in the early 90s at a death metal concert. The truth turns out to be a little more prosaic—they actually met in the audience of a rock contest at Cologne’s Popkomm trade fair. They quickly formed a very close working relationship and fell easily in line with each other’s thinking—they even sign themselves ‘Jandi’. ‘It’s something very intimate, you can’t do music with anyone,’ says St Werner. Their very first recording together resulted in the single “Frosch” (frog in German), released in 1994, and people immediately tagged them with the Ambient Techno label alongside acts such as Higher Intelligence Agency, Aphex Twin, Spacetime Continuum and Orbital. However, they quickly shook off that label and moved onto pastures new. Of those early ambient/electonica outfits, few remain, and their only contemporaries (as a duo) to have built an equally solid body of work and to have kept their reputation similarly intact are Autechre and Plaid.
Looking back over their career, they do seem to have more fun than most, which must derive from the fact that Mouse on Mars have always deliberately and systematically avoided being lumped into any school of thought, trend or movement. They shun linear progression, preferring instead to sidestep any second guessing by producing each time something completely different from the time before. The one consistent element in their career is their non-consistency. In 1998, Andi Toma explained, ‘We don’t feel part of any electronic movement, or any other movement. In fact, we have just three synthesisers and two samplers, so most guitar bands are actually more electronic than we are. In the future, things will be more interesting with electronic music because there will be better computers, but if you work with computers, you have to work harder to make sure the music isn’t just code. We want to make it more organic—we see our music as a community of sounds, and we make sure the sound has a position in the music.’
This is a pretty good summary, and manifesto, for their entire output to date. Words like ‘community’ and ‘society’ have figured prominently in their thinking and approach to their work since they began making music and this sense of openness reached its apogee in 2014 with the release of 21 Again, a set of collaborations with friends and fellow musicians to celebrate their first 21 years of making music. To coin a phrase, the Future Is Now, and so to see whether or not Andi Toma’s prediction that things will be more interesting with electronic music because there will be better computers has come true, this seems like a good time to assess their journey up to and including their latest release 21 Again.
Too Pure CD 1994
Too Pure CD 1995
Their debut album, Vulvaland, is by far Mouse on Mars’ most focused effort. These early tracks were a digital coming together of three strains of music: the kinetic four-to-the-floor techno of “Frosch” (based on a sample from Iggy Pop’s Zombie Birdhouse album), the dub of Prince Far-I on “Future Dub” and the Krautrock of Can and Neu! on “Katang”. Aside from the abrasiveness of that 29-minute closing track, the rest of the album is a collection of blissed-out ambient 4/4 grooves, which isn’t surprising as it was released on the last waves of music produced by Generation E. 20 years later, it still sounds pretty damn good.
Much more structured was the distressed textures and digital cut-and-paste IDM of Iaora Tahiti, which is a contender for their most accomplished piece of work to date. Opening track “Stereomission” has a stifling bassline as the undertow, hooking and pulling us through the candy-coloured pop, but the digital surface is notched, punctured and chinked, revealing the dub effects hidden deep inside, sloshing around like soup. “Schlecktron” is one of the heaviest tracks Mouse on Mars have ever produced—the sound of a spacecraft emitting distress signals from above the seething, swirling surface of a red-hot planet. And then there’s the incredible “Bib”, with its ghostly choir intoning over the shimmering percussive rush—Mouse on Mars’ first negotiation with the blind joy that is Jungle. The Rousseau-esque “Papa, Antoine” was positively tropical with its use of kiddy roto toms, oompah bass and pedal steel guitar and the whole thing signs of with the beautiful, wistful “Hallo”, a claustrophobic listening experience, like being trapped inside a large multi-coloured balloon.
Sonig CD 1998
In the mid-‘90s, Mouse on Mars were called upon for a couple of head-scratching projects. One was to produce an album for Kraftwerk’s Wolfgang Flür (of which more later); the other was a commission from Hollywood producer George Edmunds (son of Ali McGraw) to record the soundtrack for a B-movie entitled Gangster Glam, directed by ex-boxer and actor Tony Danza. Toma and St Werner duly took up the offer: ‘We synced the video to the instruments, so the video tape was leading the computer. It has a different personality. We would never have done it that way if it had been music for music’s sake.’ The producers were completely baffled by what MoM came up with and rejected it on the grounds that it was too ‘uncommercial’. Initially, Toma and St Werner disowned the project and it looked destined never to be heard, but MoM thought better of it and, when they parted company with Too Pure after the Iaora Tahiti album, they decided to set up their own record company, Sonig, one of whose first releases was Glam. Thank goodness they did, because the album is unlike anything else in their oeuvre and, after nearly 20 years, still sounds current and relevant.
The opening track, “Port Dusk”, begins with three minutes of warm fuzz, billowing in and out of the speakers before we get a grinding crunch of clattering beats, a power drill bursting into a lava lamp. These harsh metallic tones continue on the aptly-named “Grindscore” before evolving into the flurry of the butterfly beats of “Snap Bar”. The rumbling cinematic moodiness continues over a further 12 tracks with titles such as “Mood Leck Backlash”, “Tiplet Metal Plate” and “Heizchase Nailway”. Indeed, Glam exemplifies just as well as any MoM album the fantastic wordplay in their titles, which recall and echo recognisable nouns and syntax but are always off-kilter with their own pre-lingual inventions. Again, ‘playful’ is the word. The cold presses of clicks, whirrs and burrs of sound here is as close to Isolationist drifts and drones as MoM ever got. Track after track conjures images of blasted, crepuscular landscapes and icy climates, cold and forbidding, all filtered through a dubby fluid undercurrent. This is a seriously accomplished piece of work, which (like all great art) was met by bafflement and indifference on its release, but which sounds better and better as the years go by.
Domino CD 2000
Too Pure CD 2003
Back in ‘95/‘96, MoM were producing incredible tracks that made fantastic use of dub effects, but it was many years before these early vinyl-only compilation singles and EPs were re-released as CD collections. The first of these, Instrumentals, is made up of various compilation tracks from that period and about half of them are among the finest that Mouse on Mars have recorded. “Pegel Gesetzt” begins with a slow build up of static and bass before evolving into a softly patterned children's lullaby. “Owai” is straight-ahead, no nonsense techno, driven by sten-gun bass and leviathan belches. The stray whips and cracks of sound in “Subnubus” (featured on the compilation Folds And Rhizomes For Gilles Deleuze) are the perfect embodiment of Deleuze’s rhizomes—strands of sound that grow in an organic, vegetal way, finding growth and renewal in, and through, the gaps of a song. “Chromantic” is Mouse on Mars at their softest and warmest—the gorgeous melody line is subtle and wistful, and the whole thing is earthed by its very liquid bassline. Best of all is “Rompatroullie” with its nod to the Peter Thomas Sound Orchestra. The dancehall-reggae dub effects on this track are outstandingly used to create depth and breadth in sound, and the push-pull, stop-start rhythm is absolutely beguiling.
Rost Pocks collects together the EPs Frosch, Bib, Cache Cœur Naïf and Twift and the “Saturday Night Worldcup Fieber” 12” single on one glorious CD and, although you might think it’s for completists only, it is actually a good place to start the wonderful Mouse on Mars adventure in sound. Things kick off with “Frosch” and end with its kissing cousin, “Froschroom”, a longer, loopier version. In between sit some of the most gorgeous electronic music you’re ever likely to hear: the glorious kick-ass Krautrock of “Schnee Bud” from the Frosch EP, the sublime “Maus Mobil”, with its post-breakbeat push-pull and Jah Wobbley bassline, the wiggly Fruit mix of “Saturday Night”—a breathtaking example of mid-‘90s breakbeat mayhem being applied to the gloss of minutely-programmed and precise rhythms to produce a track with squishy depth. On a lighter note, most of the fabulous “Cache Cœur Naïf” EP is included, with Laetitia Sadier supplying her voix sans vibrato on some bright and breezy chansons. My only quibble: I would have taken out the relatively one-dimensional Konkret of “Rototon” and “7000” and put in instead the wonderful ‘Lomo’ dub version of “Bib” and the equally good ‘Drykorn’ mix of “Dark FX”. But no matter, this CD is a priceless collection of totally original productions.
Too Pure CD 1997
Sonig CD 1999
For the Autoditacker and Niun Niggung albums, Mouse on Mars made a decisive move away from the long, loose 4/4 workouts, like “Froschroom” and most of Vulvaland, and started to develop their songs into short, tightly-organised squiggles and squeaks of sound. These two albums represent some kind of apogee of their working practices up to the end of the 90s and they both achieved much more attention and recognition than they had thus far, with Niun Niggung even topping The Wire magazine’s 50 Best Albums of 1999. In interview, St Werner and Toma have talked about their way of working in the studio during this period—deliberately pushing too much data through the channels, forcing the machines to improvise in order to deal with the overload. The moulded plastic surfaces of their music started to be put under stress and the music catches these disruptions and distresses. St Werner says, ‘It’s not exactly synchronised any more. This is rhythm—it’s always beside the exact point, a bit behind it or a bit before it that makes a groove. Funk…’
On Autoditacker, “Tux & Damask” continued their flirtation with Jungle while “Juju” and “X-Flies” were whirling mobiles of sound hung in a playpen, filled with pin-sharp insect detail and flurries of digital interference. The intricacy of these arrangements continues on Niun Niggung on tracks such as “Distroia”, an apocalyptic Jungle two-step workout, and was perhaps taken to its logical conclusion on “Super Sonig Fadeout”. This heavily processed track, with its crunchy glitterbeats and vocoder, is a gloriously inventive effluence of junk-filled Garage, so stuffed with ideas that it can’t possibly stay still, spilling out all over the shop. ‘I really believe in the idea of experimental as trying; working towards new possibilities and newness,’ St Werner says. “Super Sonig Fadeout” was another high water mark for Mouse on Mars and, if ever there was an obvious example needed for the playfulness in their music, this is it.
At the time of these two releases, Mouse on Mars were part of the so-called ‘Neue deutsche Wellen’—a group of very talented artists/musicians, including Gas, Genf, Holosud, Pluramon and Wabi Sabi, all of whom lived and worked in and around Cologne and Düsseldorf. One of the centres of the scene was A-Musik, a shop and record label founded and run by Georg Odijk. Adjoining the shop was Odijk’s flat, which he happened to share with St Werner and Markus Schmickler (Pluramon). These close social set-ups were reflected in their music and these two albums continued their long history of invitations to other sound and visual artists to contribute to their music and artwork. On Autoditacker, the magnificent Laika bassist, John Frennet, puts down a monster groove that fires and propels the motorik of “Tamagnocchi”. On that same track (as well as many others on both albums), the live drumming is performed by Dodo Nkishi. French chanteuse and close friend Laetitia Sadier provided vocals for “Schnick Schnack Meltmade”. To return Sadier’s favour, St Werner and Toma played on and produced three tracks on Stereolab’s 1997 LP Dots and Loops.
Sonig CD 2001
Sonig CD 2004
The abrasive 2-step lark of “Actionist Respoke”, which opens Idiology, is bristling with clatterbox beats and hyperprocessed vocals and takes up exactly where Niun Niggung left off, as does the stuttering apokalypse-disko of second track, “Subsequent”. Third track, “Presence”, however, marks one of the siesmic shifts in the career of Mouse on Mars. Drummer Dodo Nkishi steps out from behind the drum kit and stands at the microphone, delivering a set of philosophically head-mashing lyrics about, er, presence. “The Illking” is another stark departure, this time into a pastoral coming together of synths, French horns and violins. There is the spirit of Copland and Ives’ Americana running throughout, on “Catching Butterflies with Hands” and “Fantastic Analysis”, a spirit started with Niun Niggung’s “Download Sofist”. This all comes to a crunching halt with the 2-step oompah of “Doit” and gets a bit too much on “First : Break”, a self-indulgent cacophony of directionless noise. But, overall, Idiology is another fine example of MoM’s shapeshifting nature.
Radical Connector continues their zigzagging from style to style on each album, each more unpredictable and convoluted than the last. After the Baroque excesses of Idiology, Radical Connector is plush with hooks and beautiful pop melodies. The album sounds more like Basement Jaxx than Aphex Twin—an attempt to secure more mainstream commercial success? ‘We thought it would be good to be more precise,’ says Toma. The album’s tracks are split down the middle, with half the lyrics being supplied again by Nkishi and the other half by close friend Niobe (aka Yvonne Cornelius), with her synthetically pristine vocals. Two of the Nkishi tracks open the album: “Mine Is in Yours”—a cacophony of chattering voices and a pileup of beats—and “Wipe that Sound”, with its stomping funk bass and delirious falsetto whoops. For this listener, however, the more satisfying and intriguing songs are those sung by Niobe. The shudder and stutter of “The End”, the sleek sheen of “Evoke an Object” are pure pop songs par excellence. Best of all is “Send Me Shivers”, a very simple combo of mellow keys and crunchy beats and an outro heralded by strings, but a scintillating listening experience.
Sonig CD 2005
Kunsthalle Düsseldorf Book 2004
When 2004 came around, MoM celebrated their first 10 years with a live album and a book made up of commissioned artwork. As a duo, Mouse on Mars became very well-known for their very long and intense DJ sets of pounding Techno—“Twift Shoeblade” from Autoditacker and “Super Sonig Fadeout” from Niun Niggung were standout tracks that became live favourites. Since 1994, however, they also began touring as a band. London-based drummer Dodo Nkishi was drafted in to supplement their live performances, with Toma on bass and St Werner on keyboards. And what performances they were, too. I had heard that they were very good live but when I went to see them at the London Electric Ballroom in 1997, nothing prepared me for their full-on, surround-sound experience. Toma and Nkishi (wearing a T shirt that said I GOT THE CRABS) locked down the motorik dub grooves that night, nice and tight like Sly & Robbie, while St Werner unleashed a swirling cosmos of sounds from his very modest set-up of keyboards. The live album sticks to this band set-up and unsurprisingly features tracks from their most recent albums, except for the closing track, a monster version of the talismanic “Frosch”.
How many bands publish a book to celebrate their 10th anniversary? Not many, but MoM did, but doku/fiction is more of an art gallery than a book proper. Once again calling on their outstanding contemporary artist and musician friends, MoM asked them to ‘remix’ Mouse on Mars in visual terms. What they got was paintings, photographs, pencil drawings, cut-ups, collages, cartoons, installations, scans, graphs and binary print-outs. My personal favourite is Adam Butler’s “Piano score for a remix of the Mouse on Mars song “Twift” in the style of Eric [sic] Satie”. The book also contains two very long and comprehensive interviews with Jan St Werner. When challenged by the interviewer that ‘Not everyone can stomach what you dish up’, St Werner’s characteristically cryptic reply is: ‘Granted. I couldn’t say precisely who listens to it, apart from a group of musicians perhaps, but who might then probably say at some point, 7/8 would be great, but 7/8 has been done in Pop. It was prevalent in the 70s. King Crimson, Yes or Faust, Can—there are loads of them, particularly in the genre of progressive rock and jazz.’ But there is, after all, a musical element to the book. Included in the back is an exclusive CD collection of “9 Sound Models of 37 Imaginative Mappings”, which comprises short pieces of pleasant but inessential electronica/Konkret, much better examples of which are “7000” and “Rototon” on their debut EPs, Frosch and Bib.
EMI Electrola CD 1996
Domino CD 2007
Mouse on Mars have built their career on keeping their friends close, but they have also put themselves outside their comfort zone and collaborated with some singular (read ‘challenging’) figures in contemporary music. Recorded immediately after the Glam album, Yamo was the name for their collaboration with Kraftwerk’s Wolfgang Flür. St Werner described their time with Flür recording Time Pie: ‘He brought us to collapse. I think we all met at a level of what we call ‘Schlager’ [crass pop hits] in Germany. Not even Easy Listening, more like Easy Thinking.’ It’s true that the album contains some truly awful lyrics, but don’t be put off--Time Pie is one of the unsung jewels in Mouse on Mars’ crown and contains some genuinely gorgeous pop moments. The track “Aurora Borealis” has a deliciously icy sheen to it and an arctic stillness at its centre, all rooted in deep bass and dub spaciness. And, for some reason, I find the track “Naked Japanese” to be an astonishingly heavy four-and-a-half minutes, cresting and cresting to a climax before ebbing away on a wave of staccato synths.
For their collaboration with Mark E Smith, MoM renamed themselves Von Südenfed (yet another example of their jokey wordplay) and, as with Leftfield’s collaboration with John Lydon, the resultant album proves to be surprisingly robust and solid. The record is awash with Smith’s familiar barbed and droll lyrics, but the music is wildly different from the usual MoM fare. The obvious standout track is the insanely catchy, grimey, 2-steppy “Flooded”, but most of the other tracks are pitched somewhere between rock and electro-clash. “The Young The Faceless And The Codes” is just squelchy bass synths and splattery drums, as is hit single “Fledermaus Can't Get It”. “The Rhinohead” is pure Motown, “Dearest Friends” is Ladyship Black Mambazo playing Hawaii, while “Chicken Yiamas” sounds like Blind Lemon Willy, for goodness’ sake. The hilarious “Jbak Lois Lane” sees Mark E Smith arguing with a fella named Jack who is mowing his lawn. ‘You know it’s Sunday, don’t you?’ Smith asks. Singing in German for one song (“Speech Contamination / German Fear Of Österreich”), perhaps for Smith this collaboration was the nearest he could ever get to a collaboration with his beloved CAN but, in lieu of that, this will do very nicely thank you. A versatile release with a smile on its face.
Ipecac Recordings CD 2006
Monkeytown Records CD 2012
In interview, St Werner has revealed that Varcharz was made to break a publishing deal that he and Toma were unhappy with. It certainly is one of their weaker albums, in the sense that it lacks the same sense of fun as previous efforts. It also feels very unfocused. St Werner describes the album as ‘odd and free. It’s a mix of a rock and free jazz record.’ And it shows. Most tracks are just crunchy beats and deconstructed bleepery and the worst of this tendency is evident in “Duul” and “Retphase”, not enjoyable listens by any stretch of the imagination. It does, however, contain one classic killer MoM track, opener “Chartnok”, which is another hugely inventive flirtation with Jungle rhythms.
After a six-year hiatus, Mouse on Mars reconvened for Parastrophics, one of their most coherent efforts for years. The album is awash with Prince-era synths and superbly-programmed stuttering, faltering beats. “Wienuss” is classic MoM—a highly-infectious, beautifully-controlled slice of white funk. The kick drum recalls Grandmaster Flash’s “White Lines” and the track has the same HipHop forward movement. The barrage that is “Baku Hipster” has Space Invaders synths and a battering ram of bass drum. Startling. “They Know Your Name” has Dido once again on vocal duty and carries on his contribution where Radical Connector left off, although this time round the track is far less abrasive and much more radio friendly. Closer “Seaqz” is a whiplash whiteout of mad synths, cracking snare and blips and bleeps of arcade games—pure electronic propulsion.
Monkeytown Records CD 2012
Monkeytown Records CD 2014
Monkeytown Records CD 2014
Parastrophics was an astonishing five years in the making and so, for their next release, MoM did the exact opposite—WOW was created from scratch in a matter of weeks, and released just six months after its predecessor. And you can feel this letting off of steam—WOW is a totally exuberant return to MoM’s grass roots in the club scene with each track bouncing and bubbling along merrily. The track “ACD” even makes use of the much-loved Roland 303 and it’s as if we were back in 1988. The vocal presence tying the whole mini-album together is Dao Anh Khanh, whom the band met during their tour of Asia 2011. Dao’s shouty fantasy language recalls Damon Suzuki’s similarly guttural pre-linguistic lyrics for CAN. The Spezmodia EP is an equally full-on fun fest. The club tracks here are all wonky Gabba/Happy Hardcore and tap into their days as a riotous duo live act, as evidenced on their tremendous 2014 appearance at the Boiler Room in Berlin. These excellent releases are MoM at their purest and simplest.
To mark a 20th anniversary, most bands would have put out a ‘Best of’ but, once again rejecting the conventional approach, MoM instead take one of the defining features of their career—collaboration—and use it on their anniversary release, 21 Again. There are some very distinguished collaborators here, including friends old and new: Mark E Smith, Tortoise, Eric D Clarke, Laetitia Sadier, Schlammpeitziger, Junior Boys, FX Randomiz, Yoshimi from Boredoms, Matthew Herbert, composer Olivia Block and Oval. The release sees MoM up to their usual tricks of showing total irreverence for form and experimenting with content until it is bent completely out of shape: the ersatz disco of “Fertilised”, faux rap of “Purple Frog”, the quasi-soca of “Queen Für Erschein” (co-written with Dodo Nkishi) and the simulated Koncret with Oval on “Gitto Ski”. “Key My Brain”, “Putty Tart” and “Somiak” are the standout tracks and are already destined to become MoM classics. For the most part, this is a highly inventive addition to the MoM discography, bristling and brimming with ideas, but the quality threshold does occasionally drop. Somewhere in this double album a very good single CD is waiting to emerge.