Do Your Homework: Musings From a Very Long Phone Call with John Maus

Take a second and do a thing: Turn up Ready For You by HAIM. Done? Cool, now try Elevate by St. Lucia*. Last one: The Less I Know The Better by Tame Impala.

If you actually took the 10 minutes or so to listen through those (I know you didn’t. You should.) you’ll hear a common thread: the 80s. Specifically, some serious synth action. And if you pay attention when you’re just listening to the radio or whatever, you’ll hear a synth element in an absurd portion of the pop songs produced in the last few years. Perhaps to state the obvious, the 80s are now current.

If you’ve been wondering *why* the 80s are back (or if you just started wondering in the last paragraph), I’ve got a quick answer for you: John Maus.

Maus is commonly referred to as an electro-pop god. In his late 30s and from Minnesota, he’s a philosophy PhD, and it’s safe to say he’s intellectualized himself into his current musical position. John is into some heady shit: he loves Medieval and Renaissance music, and his basis for thinking about anything--and notably music-- is philosophy. At the beginning of his career he was making some weird, sparse stuff, and then he met Ariel Pink, the first signee to Animal Collective’s record label, and realized that in order to make a cultural impact as a musician these days you have to speak in popular language, so he started creating pop music that’s way heavy on 80s synths (he insists they’re not 80s-related but we’ll get to that later).

Maus’s 2011 album, We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves, made him into kind of a cult figure, precisely because of those synths; they were the foundation for all the 80s-throwback stuff you’re hearing all over the place now. He did one more small release in 2012 and then went dark-- the music world hasn’t heard anything from him since, until now.

…………………………………………………………….

While John wasn’t making music, everyone else was; since 2012 we’ve seen the ballooning careers of fellow synth-users like BØRNS, Chromeo, Bleachers, Future Islands, Soulwax, Little Dragon… Actually, during his quiet years, John was instead getting his PhD, theorizing his way into why movements like this take off. He shared his doctoral thesis with me to explain a theory of his**: whatever kind of music a society is making at a given time, it’s inextricably linked to the preoccupations of that society in that time.

As an example***, Beethoven’s music totally embodied the ruling class of the day, and the degree to which everyone in that class identified with those sounds meant that a ton of composers then went on to make music that was very similar. By the same logic, something about (hipster-pop-listening) society right now really resonates in the sound of a synth. John put his finger on that truth in the early 2000s, and now virtually every pop musician after him has gone on to incorporate that sound into their music. While John resists the idea that a synth *must* evoke the 80s (it’s still an instrument now, so whatever we do with it is contemporary, right?) it’s impossible to avoid acknowledging the sonic parallel, and the fact of its popularity.

Regardless of whether synths belong to an era, it’s useful to investigate where sonic movements originate, and also to explore: why is a bygone decade back on our minds? Or, why are we now attracted to the same sounds as we were then?

He may not answer these questions for you directly, but you can catch John Maus on his grand return tour this month; it’s his first in six years, with one stop at the MoMA PS1 Warmup this Saturday. Do your homework, kick around some time ideas, and keep your mind open to revelations as you listen.

Lastly, it’s only fair to leave you with the philosophy reading list that John left me: Theodor W. Adorno, Hegel, Walter Benjamin, Ernst Bloch.

Happy studying,
Margot

 

*When I asked my friend Samantha to proofread, her first response to this was, “Omg, elevate is like the song of Brooklyn summer for me. My roommate remixed the song for St. Lucia and played it for hours every day for weekssss.” We’ll take this as proof of the point to come.

**There are many more than one.

***In his thesis, Maus quotes a philosopher named Theodor Adorno. It’s a little TL;DR, but here you go:

"If [Beethoven] is the musical prototype of the revolutionary bourgeoisie," writes Adorno, "he is at the same time the prototype of a music that has escaped from its social tutelage and is aesthetically fully autonomous, a servant no longer: His work explores the schema of a complaisant adequacy of music and society. In it, for all its idealism in tone' and posture, the essence of society, for which he speaks as the vicar of the total subject, becomes the essence·of music itself."

Listen In: A Phone call with Lorem Ipsum and Nef the Pharaoh

Nef the Pharaoh is one of the Bay Area’s most promising young hip hop artists. You’ve heard him on Big Tymin (or at least TY Dolla $ign’s remix) and you might be catching rumbles from the release of his new mixtape, The Chang Project. E-40’s protégé (they’re both from Vallejo), Nef rocks the classic Bay Area post-hyphy vibe; the difference between him and the standards, though, is that he’s got an infectious personality that warms his rhymes, so you feel almost affectionate listening to his raps about money and bitches. Clearly the Bay feels that way too-- Chang Chang is bumping out of San Francisco’s cars on the reg.

Nef has already won attention from the arbiters of hip hop cool, and you’ll hear more from him as he works on becoming the Bay’s biggest worldwide star. On that note, we wanted to get to know him a little before he comes to New York for the August 5 Warm Up. Listen in on our phone call below, and then feel extra special when you see him onstage at MoMA PS1.  


Lorem: Every piece of media about you mentions that you’re from Vallejo. Is that something you work for, or do people just find it interesting?

Nef: I make sure the media mentions where I’m from every time just because my city is so small. My city is five minutes long-- not even. Four minutes. In order to be from there and be at the level I’m on.. Some of the greats from Vallejo ain’t even did some of the shit I done. I was just talking to E-40 the other day and he told me ‘you’ve been to more places in the world than us.’ I was like ‘what, you serious?’ I’m standing here doing something for my city, you know?

How does that make you feel?

It makes me feel amazing. Both to know that, and to really come through and achieve what I set out to do. I did that. I’m living proof.

Do you want to be known as a Bay Area rapper?

I want to be seen as a worldwide Bay rapper. We’ve only got a few of those, you know G-Eazy, E-40.. I want to be up there with the greats.

Where’d you get your Chang nickname?

Johnny Ca$h gave me that name. You know.. Not Johnny Cash, Johnny Ca$h. I was fascinated with his gold and the sounds his chains used to make when they’d clink together like chang, chang, chang. And I’d be like, ‘Damn, you icin’ and he’d be like, ‘don’t worry about it, chang chang. You’ll get this one day.’ So you know I just always kept that nickname. But I’m not little no more so I added Big. Big Chang Chang.

Yeah, why is everyone still repping ‘Lil’?

Yeah I don’t know. I’m not gonna belittle myself. I’m not little anything.

Would you go by Big Nef?

Yeah I would go by Big Nef. I mean my family’s calling me that too, you know I got my son, Little Nef. 2 going on 20.. He’s a handful.

You’re fucking delightful. How much of your success do you think is because your music is great, and how much is that you’re likeable?

I think it’s 50-50. Since I’m such a loveable person it makes you want to pay attention to my art-- so you really listen to what I’m talking about. Then you notice that, my songs, the formula, the structure.. They’re not too bad! It’s actually good music.

On that note, what’s your process? How do you make a track?

I sit down, roll some of my medicine, and go through my beat emails til I find a slap, one I think is real tight, you know. Then contact the producer, get everything taken care of, and then I think about how this beat makes me feel; I think about what color this beat makes me see. I don’t know what it’s called when you see colors when you hear music?

I have that too. It’s called synesthesia.

For real? You get that too?

Uh huh.

That’s tight. Yeah whatever color I see, that’s what I try to produce on that track. If I’m feeling yellow and happy, it’s gonna be a dope yellow and happy song. I don’t know how I write songs, a lot of the time I find myself laughing at myself, saying, ‘Damn, thank you God, I don’t know how this came to my head.’

Does your synesthesia influence your album art, say, on the Chang Project?

Yes ma’am. The yellow, Chang color. That’s how I feel right now.

You’re splitting that record half and half with E-40?

Yes, ma’am.

Tell me about how you came to that decision.

Well we’re business partners. And I don’t need a record label to show me how to do things. Selling $100,000 out the trunk-- that’s going ghetto gold, going ghetto platinum. People with no label, they’ve still got everything that all these labels got, and they own the rights to their own music. They’re not signing their souls away. A lot of these artists, they don’t really know what they’re doing; basically just signing with a major label is signing a check to be in debt. Yeah you just got a $200,000 advance, but now you’re $200,000 in debt. You know? I can make $200,000 myself with no label and be in debt to who? No one. And I’ll still be on the same level as these international artists signing 360 labels, gettin’ fucked. I’m able to do everything they’re able to do, *and* have my freedom. I took that route cause I’m smart. I don’t need a record label to make me bigger when I’m capable of doing it my damn self.

Ok last question: what do you wish people knew about you?

I wish people knew how much stress I deal with daily. But never let it override my attitude or disturb what I’ve got going on. I might have just had my car broken into but I’ll still stop and take a picture with a fan. Cause it’s all about the fans, I wouldn’t be here without them. I’d always stop and take a picture with a fan, unless they suck.

Huh?

I got a new song, Knock Down a Fan. Some fans are fucking annoying. They come at you with a mouthful of food, taking a selfie without permission.. Or I’m in the store trying to buy shoes for my son, and they take a video of me all secretive. Don’t be a fuckin’ weirdo doin’ all that spy shit. Just act like a human, and treat me like a human.

Amen, Nef. Great talking with you.

Great talking with you too.