Mouse on Mars
By Sheikh Ahmed
Sheikh: Hello Andi, thanks very much for speaking to us. I only managed to get a copy of the new album 'Idiology' yesterday and have listened to it several times as well as on the way here. It's a very interesting album and I wondered what kind of process is executed to create a Mouse on Mars album? Is there a theme, sound or style?
Andi Toma: You are in a better position to tell. The basic idea to create music that has enough space and doesn't function in a hierarchical structure. Because a lot of music is produced within a grid structure that has a rhythm then harmony and melody. We really strive to avoid using a system and have a non-hierarchic structure in music.
S: Would it be fair to say that you're one the few bands that can straddle genres between Rock and Jazz. Especially with the work on your previous albums, is the inclusion of Jazz intentional? Did you both grow up listening to Jazz?
A: Both of us grew up listening to different styles of music, but I see our music having more parallel ties with Jazz rather than any other kind of music like say, electronic music. People say that it's easy to make electronic music, people like Kraftwerk made everything possible. But the thing is that to work in an electronic way is not important, electronic music is not a style.
S: Absolutely I agree.
A: It's just an easier way for us to get the result we need.
S: I listen to a lot of electronic music and I have difficulty in categorising Mouse on Mars. I assume that you use a lot of synthesisers, sequencing and electronic composing equipment but it doesn't sound electronic.
A: No. That's wrong, we don't really use that much. We basically use one synthesiser, the rest is sound processing software and samples. We do use sequencers but with processed samples loaded into a synthesiser, it's almost like every band works in the same way.
S: Can you explain the meaning of the title of the last album?
A: Niun Niggung? It's actually comes from the Niggung music, from a Jewish background. Niun simply means new. But confusingly enough, the album has very little to do with that (laughs).
S: Listening to that album, it contains a more 'glitchy' style of percussion. Since then other artists, mainly US-based, who have used this form of percussion. Artists like Kid 606, Kit Clayton and numerous others. Where did that sound originate from?
A: The rhythmic process comes from the same process used to create harmonic sounds. We don't really see rhythm just as a basic thing to back harmony. Rhythm can also be very harmonic, that's mostly how we work. We don't want to simply use a dub rhythm all the time. We like the idea of breakbeats or Drum'n bass which also has harmonic elements in it.
S: Yes, I think that the junglist rhythms fits in with your music very nicely. You had a couple of tracks on the last album which were very upbeat.
A: But it's like people have difficulty pinning us down, with each new album they say "Oh, they're a breakbeat band" or "It's two-step!" but we don't really see any differences. Like on the new record, there's a track 'First:Break' and I listened to it again the other day on a train journey. We actually listen to our own records! But it sounded like an orchestral instrumentation, where the rhythm could have been played by an classical orchestra. This seemed very interesting to me.
S: I was speaking to some friends in Turkey who really like the sounds and rhythms that you guys use and they found it no problem to dance to the irregular tempo's you played live. One of our favourite electronic acts is The Black Dog, and they use very eastern percussion and timings and your work reminds me of them.
A: Yeah, that was really true. They seemed to do this quite easily, this strange Arabic dance they did. Fantastic. It seemed like those type of countries have less on a reliance on the stereotype dance culture of the 4/4 beat. Which is why the reaction of crowds is different and we have different releases for the Turkish market to cater for this.
S: On the new album has the added bonus of featuring vocals. How did that come about and who does them?
A: Yeah, that's the drummer (Dodo Nkisihi) we thought about wanting to use a wider range of elements in our music. So on the previous album, you could say we worked for nearly a year. Working in different studio's in Italy and back in our home base of Dusseldorf and in the end we ended up with eight DAT's of sounds and we made up this record. We were more interested in looking at software and as a result, 'Niun Ninnung' was almost like a training session for this album. We set ourselves a limit of three months, so to avoid spending the same length of time producing 'Idiology' as we did with 'Niun Niggung'.
A: The aim was to produce something more accessible....no, not accessible, more clear. Something with less elements and working on one statement for each song, not for the whole album. The other idea was to introduce more classical elements and ultimately vocals. We did think about using a vocalist, but then we thought it would be quite difficult. Because if we worked with someone who already has work out there as an artist then they couldn't work with us the way Dodo would have. Because we knew him for a long time, he knows we wouldn't use the vocals in a normal song structure, but more like a sound or as an instrument itself. It was easy, because he is a singer anyway and he really got into it because he sang like he was drumming.
S: Live duties wise, you are very different than on record. I would almost regard you as a party band.
A: It's like on the record, with 'Idiology', it felt like a different band for each track, even like a compilation of different bands. That's sometimes the idea we have. Each track containing different personalities. For us, the track isn't finished once it's been pressed onto CD.
The live situation is another possibility to go on with the material, where it feels different. Different to say listening to the same track at home or in front of a band where we are trying to reproduce that in a audience setting. So we just reproduce parts and add parts and just see what happens. It's also quite relaxing for us because in the studio, we prefer to play something and then listen to it. It's a very nice concentrated process of working, which works over a longer time span. Live though, it's like everything happens in a shorter time frame, with also three people who are interacting.
S: Watching you play live, you seem completely in tune with each other. Watching you at the Wire gig in the Embassy Rooms, you started with 'Download Sofist', all three of you jamming with guitars which we found surprising before launching into heavy drums. I mean, your drummer, where did you get him from?
A: We knew Dodo from Dusseldorf, through a friend. When I was very young, I actually saw him playing with his brother in a reggae band in a youth club. At that time, I still thought that an electric guitar was a guitar plugged straight into the mains! I was so naive, because I grew up in the country and not in the city, but I thought this was amazing. I really remembered him playing drums, bass and singing.
Then I had another friend when I moved to the city he mentioned Dodo, but at that time he was living in London. But we met again in Dusseldorf, so when we signed to Too Pure they asked us to play live. We didn't have any ideas or plans to play live, and so I thought about Dodo, because we didn't have any money to hire a session musician. So we phoned him, and asked him does he want to play drums with us, he didn't even have a drum kit. So we put together a drum set and rehearsed for three days. And it's worked since then! We also have another set up which is just me and Jan on electronics, which is more of a dancey techno setup.
S: That'll be good to hear. A couple of quick questions about your side projects. Are you the one in Microstoria?
A: No, that's Jan.
S: Are you in any side projects?
A: Yeah, I have kids! (laughs)
S: Right, what about the label, Sonig. How did that start?
A: Actually we started Sonig because there was a deficit of vinyl production in Germany. Too Pure and the German labels didn't have any capacity to produce vinyl and we really wanted to produce vinyl. So we started the label to just sell our records, have an alternative platform and to be more independent. We managed to sell quite a lot of vinyl and when the split from Too Pure happened we just licensed to companies from our own label. Then we also started to get other artists to appear on our label.
S: How did you get other artists for Sonig? People like FX Randomiz and Vert.
A: We are really happy about FX Randomiz. He's a friend actually, he and Jan went to the same school.
S: Watching him play live, I've never heard anything like that before in my life.
A: Yeah, It's crazy. He's really outstanding and he inhabits his own musical world.
S: I still can't get hold of any of his records. It's very difficult. I only have the Stack 12".
A: We are still waiting for him to release his first album on Sonig. It was nearly finished and we wanted to go with him on tour in places like Japan, US. But he destroyed his hard disk and lost all his work.
A: Well we're not so sure. Maybe I thought he wanted to do it. Because he says he's more interested in creating or working with software than making music. He demonstrated it to us by taking a sample from covermount CD off a magazine, a guitar lick and creating thousands of different sounds from this one sample. He's really crazy, he doesn't sleep and plays with this stuff, creating amazing sounds and rhythms.
S: How interested are you guys in the software revolution of music making? As time progresses, software gets more and more easier to produce sounds. Artists I know who refuse to use laptop driven software to perform live.
A: Me, personally. I would never use a laptop to perform live because it's not physical enough. But it's actually a very simple and powerful tool for performing with.
S: I feel it's got a strange power to it, seeing Pole, Stefan Betke, play live last year. Large venue at the South Bank and Pole playing on a tiny Powerbook, which crashed halfway through the set. So obviously you do use software.
A: Yes of course, but when produce we also use a 2-inch analogue tape machine. But we think most of the software is used by people who don't have the analogue equipment. Because the software synths have the same structure as the synths that have been around for several decades. That's actually very boring, because we want to use software that has a different setup and is different from traditional platforms. But software like Reaktor by Native Instruments is different.
S: Yes, I was going to mention that. An incredible bit of software. It's interesting how some artists are purely using singular pieces of software to create their music. Like Kid 606 using Reaktor and nothing else.
A: Yeah, it's the perfect platform for him. Maybe he just uses the demo tracks! But we don't like simply using that because it's not flexible enough.
S: Quick question about the video for your latest single 'Actionist Respoke'. Who did the production?
A: Have you seen it?
S: Yeah, I have. Have you? (laughs)
A: It's actually the first time we've let someone do a video out of our surround. And, yeah, it's not a company but it's this one guy who does a lot of advertising stuff. He was really interested in doing a video for us and we had a lot of talks about how the video could be. Both parties had good ideas, but in the end it was quite difficult to get the vision that we wanted. It's quite a commercial video, we think it's not extreme enough. But that's quite a good thing, because I saw it the other day on TV and it allowed you to focus on the music more. Which couldn't be done with previous video's because the images were so strong.
S: How important is the visual representation of Mouse on Mars? I saw the imagery on the website and I think the images on there couldn't be for any other band. It fits in with your music perfectly.
A: Our presentation on the web is, I feel, the perfect way to show Mouse on Mars. And I wish we could somehow get that on video. But, yeah, we don't have the background or money to do that. I really, really like the idea of presenting images on the Internet and using multimedia and different platforms instead of traditional music videos
S: Unless the videos themselves are interesting enough.
A: Yeah, but in the end, the media and stations want videos to conform so that people can simply sit back and watch. But on the Internet you can go further and harmonise the audio and video to produce things. So soon we will have online sequencers ready that make creatures and is very organic.
S: So are obviously moving towards a more multimedia platform, because that follows on from the claims, by some quarters of the music press, that your band are futuristic. Can't really see that myself.
A: What you mean the music?
S: So it makes sense for that sound to follow into areas such as CD-ROM, DVD and the Internet. Agree?
A: No, not at all. I think that the idea of producing multimedia as something very futuristic is very cheesy. It's just another way of communicating ideas and shouldn't be treated differently. Just like using the audio software, it's another method of communicating ideas quicker and more immediate. But basically, I like the idea of presentation through the Internet, you don't have to represent Mouse on Mars as people. It can be more abstract.
S: How important is that. Because nobody knows really what you look like. Are you worried about not being recognised?
A: We don't really feel like Mouse on Mars, personally. It's just a platform. That exists for our music and financial contracts. We are not really happy with the name either!
S: Really? Why not? I mean when I first heard the name, I immediately thought you were an indie guitar band.
A: The problems with the name was the connotations of images of mice living on Mars. Conjures up sweet children's TV which is not what we're about. The images do also project loneliness and sentimentality. But we thought about changing the name to something like 'Mouarseon'. Which we think is much better. But we'll stick to being Mouse on Mars for now.
S: Thanks very much for that, Andi. Hope the rest of the tour goes well.
A: Thank you!
"Firstly, Mouse on Mars have always been one of my favouite bands. I think the first record I ever reviewed was a 12" by them ('Bib'). Secondly, the gig at the Embassy Rooms was nothing short of astonishing, not only for their show. But also for the jaw dropping performance of labelmate FX Randomiz."