Mouse on Mars is recognised as one of Germany’s most defining and versatile electronic music projects. With their anarchic mixture of sound that oscillates between uncontrollable chaos and meticulously arranged structures, Jan St. Werner and Andi Toma have forged a unique musical language, which is readily decomposed by the unpredictability of its myriad mutations. This dialectical method, coupled with the capacity for continuous reinvention, is the only constant to be found in the duo’s cooperation. Free from schools of thought, genre conventions, and from the constraints of the music establishment, they have worked under the Mouse on Mars alias for 23 years, mapping their own idiosyncratic trajectory through a no man’s land between pop, art, club music, and the avant-garde. The duo represents one of Germany’s few experimental pop acts to have stirred wide international attention and acclaim. Four Peel sessions alone, recorded at the legendary BBC Radio, attest to their influence.
Mouse on Mars originated in Cologne and Düsseldorf in 1993 during a time of general musical upheaval and an awakening interest in experimental yet non-academic electronic music. Despite this context, however, the project began and has remained an entity that first and foremost pursues a singular agenda, metabolising scenes and trends rather than aligning with them. Since their first album, Vulvaland, was released in 1994 on British label Too Pure, Mouse on Mars have released 11 albums and numerous solo and collaborative projects, relentlessly pushing forth their uncategorisable sound. Their hybrid style constantly synthesizes new influences and a wide variety of genres. A disorienting mix of pop and experimentation running from noise to strange beauty, their music is at the same time resolutely avant-garde and playful, though always charged with a destructive compulsion. Brimming with fragmented melodies, spacey dissonances, edgy breaks, strange streams of sonic particles, and chaotic overlays, Mouse on Mars’ fluid sound aesthetic reflects their general mutability, which is deeply rooted in their restless ingenuity, quirky sense of humour, and fearless non-conformism.
In 2012, following a six-year hiatus, two further Mouse on Mars albums appeared in quick succession on Modeselektor’s Monkeytown label. The critically lauded Parastrophics and the somewhat wrongfully overlooked WOW both saw Mouse on Mars nonchalantly commandeer the most kinetic new club sounds (trap! juke! grime!) in order to once again completely break free from their previous approaches. As always, Jan St. Werner and Andi Toma’s work displays no separation between the cognitive and physical effects of music. The duo playfully combines a profound exploration of sonic structures and textures with a hedonistic sensory experience that, at times, verges on the brutal. Over twenty years strong, Mouse on Mars still incite dancefloor frenzy like few others. Even in its most complex moments their music is never purely intellectual, and even at its most experimental it is never inaccessible.
While rigorous sound research, stylistic flexibility, and uninhibited inventiveness have brought Mouse on Mars’ music to international attention, their uniqueness lies not only in these traits but also in the willingness of both artists to cross all limits and veer in all directions over and over again. They very deliberately position themselves between all poles. Over the past two decades, they have built and continue to nurture an extensive network of relationships and collaborations that interconnect diverse disciplines such as music, art, theory, music theatre, literature, radio drama, science, and technology in intelligent and unpretentious ways. In doing so, the two self taught artists bridge the gaps between pop and art, DIY and the cultural establishment – gaps which remain especially wide in Germany.
Mouse on Mars view their finished creations as byproducts. Their universe rather focuses on ideas, which they explore through open-ended experimental setups and with an ever-changing cast of collaborators. Best-known collaborations include work with Stereolab and the group’s vocalist Laetitia Sadier, with Oval’s Markus Popp in their Microstoria project, and with English punk legend Mark E. Smith of The Fall, with whom Mouse on Mars formed Von Südenfed. Other projects include Jan St. Werner’s solo work for his Fiepblatter Catalogue, and his collaboration with Brazilian Candomblé drummers under the name Black Manual a meeting ground for western, rational electroacoustics and the magical and imaginative sonic elements of Brazilian Candomblé ceremonies. Other artists Mouse on Mars have collaborated with are Tyondai Braxton, Stereolab, Laetitia Sadier, Matthew Herbert, Junior Boys, Errorsmith, Puppatmastaz, Atom TM, Eric D Clark, Helado Negro, Siriusmo, Modeselektor, Machinedrum, Tortoise, Bon Iver, Schlammpeitziger, The National, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Musikfabrik a.o.
In the same synergetic spirit, Mouse on Mars created their own Sonig label with Cologne based photographer and a-musik member Frank Dommert in order to provide a platform for experimental, genre defying music, and to support exchange with a wide range of artists, such as F.X.Randomiz, Patric Catani, DJ Elephant Power, Fan Club orchestra, Kevin Blechdom, Schlammpeitziger, Kai Althoff, Nathan Michel or Adam Butler.
Due to his curiosity for new sound technology and machine interfaces, Jan St. Werner served as Artistic Director of the renowned STEIM – Studio for Electro Instrumental Music – in Amsterdam from 2005–2007. Mouse on Mars’ ongoing collaboration with software developers led to the foundation of MoMinstruments a software label for which the duo has developed music applications such as WretchUp or fluXpad. Most recently Jan St. Werner has been directing a new field of studies on the future of record producing for NYU Berlin and is a lecturer for Kinetik Speakers and Experimental Sound Creations at the Arts Culture and Technology ACT program of Massachusetts Institute of Technology MIT.
In their 2011 orchestral work, Paeanumnion, Mouse on Mars attempted an unusual exchange with the world of contemporary classical music. Commissioned by Köln Musik and directed and co-orchestrated by André de Ridder and composer Stefan Streich, the composition was performed on the occasion of the Cologne Philharmonic’s 25th anniversary, together with Musikfabrik, a leading ensemble in the interpretation of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s late works. Paeanumnion was subsequently performed at the Barbican in London, and with The Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Chicago. Repeated collaboration with Berlin’s Solistenensemble Kaleidoskop, and Jan St. Werner’s electronic opera, Miscontinuum, created in 2013 for the Bayerischer Rundfunk (Bavarian Radio) and the Munich Kunstverein, represent further ventures into the world of contemporary classical music. Another collaboration with Musikfabrik, the electro-acoustic hybrid De Umbris Idearum incorporates Sonic Robots - an array of midi triggered percussion robots. The piece premiered in autumn 2016 in the Sendesaal of German public radio station WDR, a historic venue where Stockhausen’s early electronic Studien and Kontakte were first presented to the public.
Collaborations with visual artists such as Rosa Barba, Karl Kliem and projects at art spaces such as the Munich Kunstverein or the Düsseldorf Kunsthalle, for whom Mouse on Mars designed the 2004 doku/fiction exhibit, belong just as much to the duo’s artistic universe as does the intensive collaboration with author Dietmar Dath, whose dystopian sci-fi novel Die Abschaffung der Arten (The Abolishment of Species) was set to music by Werner and Toma in 2012 for the Bayerischer Rundfunk.
Within the theoretical field, Jan St. Werner and Andi Toma uphold a longstanding exchange with media theorist Siegfried Zielinski or chaos theory pioneer Otto E. Rössler. Werner is also a member of an interdisciplinary group created by Austrian writer and cybernectician Oswald Wiener, where he participates in developing and presenting models for understanding the perception and cognitive processing of sound.
Interest in theory and language led Mouse on Mars to collaborate with Klaus Sander, head of Supposée, a small independent publishing house that puts out what Sander likes to call “Audiophilosophie” (audio philosophy), “Wissenschaftsgeschichte im Originalton” (his- tory of science verbatim), “akustische Literatur” (acoustic literature), and “Audiokunst” (audio art). This nexus also led to the 2005 Edition Suhrkamp publication of the book Vorgemischte Welt (Preset World), co-authored by Werner and Sander, and to contributions to audio compilations dedicated to Gilles Deleuze.
Precisely such wide ranging collaborations reveal the core of Jan St. Werner and Andi Toma’s project: Mouse on Mars is not built on formulating and defending a consistent and hence readily recognisable aesthetic, but rather on processes of thinking and operating within relationships. This might be seen as an expression of Mouse on Mars’ belief that something like “ego” exists only in relation to others. We cannot fully see ourselves without constant feedback from others, who mirror our own behaviours, desires, and expressions back to us. This blind spot – a black bead on the retina that will always remain opaque to us – contains our core self. Back in 2001 music critic Aram Lintzel drew near to this idea in his Mouse on Mars album review for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: “No meaningful recognisable reference lies at the core of Idiology. The album’s centre remains as empty as a big black hole, into which the entire world of sound comes reeling and crashing.”
Through this attitude and approach, Mouse on Mars’s work can be seen as a kind of counterpoint to German electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk, also from Düsseldorf. While Kraftwerk’s conceptual rigour, cool efficiency, perfect accuracy and discipline, retro glamour, and techno euphoric engineering spirit keeps struggling with German angst and its problematic relationship to authority, Mouse on Mars prefer to leave this arena behind. From the beginning, they have asserted themselves within artistically, culturally, and geographically broad perspectives, swerving away from rigid identity constructs. While Mouse on Mars is, of course, an identity based project, its members attempt to create a more fluid, productive, and less anxiety ridden understanding of identity – one that strives to break through the firmly entrenched structures of authority and social constructs, so that the resulting energy which is released may be channelled into unconstrained artistic processes.
Multiplicity and diversity, in all of their cacophonous glory (including failure), form the crux of Mouse on Mars’ artistic agenda. Imprecision, noise, dissonance, intuition, speculation, spontaneity, improvisation, imagination, connectivity, loss of control, and overload constitute some of their many vehicles. Mouse on Mars’ musical and artistic universe thus emerges only through a holistic consideration of their extended constellation of collaborations, projects, and references. Even then, the full picture is never quite clear.
Jan Rohlf / CTM Festival