Seeing John Maus perform live is comparable to witnessing a self-inflicted exorcism.
Unassuming in his button-down shirt and tennis shoes, Minnesota’s own Maus created a disquieting stage presence worth seeing Thursday night at The Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis. From the very beginning of his set, Maus jumps, jackknifes and shakes his fists at a crowd that is at once distant and cultish, and his energy does not waver.
For Maus, the set seems to be more about catharsis than the aesthetic quality of the music he creates. He utters hoarse screams into the microphone several times while clutching and cinching pieces of his denim pants in his fists. The air teems with anxiety, and it makes me uncomfortable—a feeling I love.
Maus grew up in Austin, Minnesota, but headed to California in the late 90s to study experimental music. He has released four albums, and his fifth, Addendum, is set to release later this month.
To describe Maus’ music as experimental is an accurate statement, but it also perhaps does it an injustice, as it transcends something that can be categorized. The tracks Maus manifests are a mixture of synth, bass, drums and droning vocals. The music is almost reminiscent of a synth-pop version of the 70s English goth band Bauhaus, with repetitive lyrics with a monotone delivery. This is a compliment, since Bauhaus is a group I like very much.
With the release of Maus’ most recent album, Screen Memories, he also set out on his first tour with a live band backing him. Previously, he relied on a karaoke-type performance, layering his vocals atop prerecorded elements.
Though Maus performs with his brother, Joe Maus, on bass, and Jonathan Thompson on drums, the musician who truly carries the set is Minneapolis’ Luke Darger on the synthesizer. He wears a Michael Jackson t-shirt and purple pants, and dances with simultaneous recklessness and stoicism. It is a joy to watch him work.
The show is an exercise in surrealism and feels like a dive into the deep layers of the unconscious mind. Maus’ music can’t really be described as excellent or awesome, but rather as an experience that is unnerving, dysphoric and surprisingly upbeat—vampiric in a cartoonish way.
Opening for Maus and setting the strange air of the night is the duo of Devata Daun, also known as Nikki Pfeifer, and C. Kostra, also known as Ryan Olcott. Both are Minneapolis musicians.
The music they produce, which sounds like the soundtrack to a Space Invaders-themed version of Dance Dance Revolution, consists of Devata Daun as the vocalist and C. Kostra as the beat-creator.
It feels like the pair could be a house band for an 80s basement club or the entertainment for a futuristic prom. Though Devata Daun has genuine talent as a singer and performer, the short set lacks spark. While they are trying to make a point by being disjointed and jarring, the presentation falls flat and feels uninspired at times.
C. Kostra uses robotic distortion on the mic when he and Devata Daun switch places on stage, and it creates the effect of extra-terrestrial communication personified. Devata Daun, on the other hand, is most charming when her singing is high and whispery, or when she picks up her coffee cup from the floor and sips it languidly between tracks.
While the show doesn’t adhere to my taste 100 percent, it does make me feel something that presents itself as a rare gift.
As I slowly shove my way through the bodies flooding the modest venue, things become silent and I find myself on the stark, slick street, cold and wondering. I peer up at the streetlamps and stoplights and am bewildered by the jumpy brightness of them and realize Maus’ juxtaposition of emotion and sound has shrouded me like a sheet ghost, asking me to shake my fists and scream into the night because I’m still not entirely sure what I saw or how it makes me feel.