Before the first interview I had with Jan St Werner, possibly best known as one-half of Mouse on Mars (Andi Toma being the other half), Jan's tour manager advised me: "Be careful, he wanders." Nothing of the sort happened however. The day was slightly warm and sunny and we went only across the street for coffee. Thinking back, it was me that initiated the jaywalking.

Throughout the time we spoke, Jan was focused, purposeful, engaged - hardly the wanderer. But having followed his solo and collaborative work, I know he is not beyond following an idea down a fresh trail. Those trails lead one to the river or trestles, places another craft will take you even further, if you hop on.

At the risk of unnecessary parallels to other sound work and compositional form, to describe St. Werner's work becomes tricky, as lines are drawn through and around disciplines and practices, which is a fantastic strength. The sound is alive and at times very wild. There is an awareness, sometimes referential, other times of their own language. Some of it is immediately recognizable as being of a certain hand. From early releases up to present time, there is a progression, strengthening, and refinement of sound and structure. Even while some ideas dovetail back to earlier pieces, they seem more of another aspect to that idea, something passing beyond time to speak its mind in another way.

Our initial interview was lost to a fussy memory card. The phone interview that follows approximates what transpired.

Where possible, online examples of discussed work is presented below.

– Eric Jordan

(Jan St. Werner, left, Andi Toma, right)


Eric Jordan: Your collaboration with Dietmar Dath is a particularly interesting and well contoured piece of work. How did that come about?

Jan St. Werner: Dietmar is an author whom we know actually for a little while now. He's one one the most prolific German left-wing, I think even probably Marxist-driven, chronicler of our times. At the same time he's a science fictionist, as well. He's very capable of turning a contemporary word-scenario within an instant into a totally utopian, totally politically-charged and yet very science fictionesque scenario that exists in between many worlds. He mixes a lot of knowledge that he has about science, mathematics, philosophy, and, of course, politics into stories which have undercurrents of genders transgressing, as well as genres, personalities, and species.

And that was the story of Die Abschaffung der Arten, which is the extinction of species, basically. So creatures, living things, can become kind of hybrids of humans beings, animals, plants, and unknown species as well come in. There are even robots coming in and merging with the species. It's kind of a mess. And it's kind of like the Bhagavad Gita. It's quite crazy and really epic!

To make it into a audio play is is basically an impossible, totally absurd idea. I think the director managed to do it quite well, but sill, having actors speaking the different roles, it already slows down the whole action that Deitmar is able to bring into his stories. This spin that he brings into his stories, they basically don't work with actors having certain roles because even one character might sound different from different perspectives. His books are very unstable. You might want to read them several times. You might want to read it once and not really get the whole story.

The problem was the hierarchy was totally clear: it was Dietmar Dath's story and I think he had made his statement. I think his book is great in its own way and is using all of the possibilities and all of the potential the book has: it triggers your fantasy; it plays with the images that it might evoke; it plays with the sounds and smells and triggers the senses in a subtle and very delicate way.

I think the audio play, in the end, especially when it comes with music, is okay in how it turned out. I think everyone did really well with a task that I think, in the first place, probably not doing the book right.

EJ: Mmmhmmm...

JSW: Not giving the book what it would deserve. So you see that Dietmar is already quite a special part, a special character. To do him right is not really easy. He's a very particular protagonist in German cultural production. I really admire him highly, but he's really difficult in many ways. And that is something great about him; there's no way to pin him down easily.

EJ: How did you and Andi approach that then, knowing that you'd be taking something from the written word and doing it as a radio play? For your own work how did you approach that?

JSW: Oh man, it was actually really hard for us! These kind of things, they are several things at the same time. (chuckles) It is not always easy to have all of these different obligations on the screen at the same time, so it's like trying to mix a difficult piece, which contains many tracks. If it's too much rhythm, it doesn't do right. If you add too much room to it, to make it all fit together, by adding reverb and make it blurry, or make it spacious it's not right to the material.

I think what we tried to do was to satisfy the book, or the story of the book, and be eclectic or abstract in a certain way. Although I don't really like the word "eclectic." The context in which the word "eclectic" occurred to me so far, makes it sound like you are in a supermarket and you pick whatever you like. To me, it has a very consumerist and very weird connotation. I don't really understand it. To me, it is not a cultural term, it refers to trash culture rather than a philosophical conviction, an insight, an enlightenment, or a moment of awareness. To be "eclectic" seems like you are lost in options. (chuckles)

What we tried to be is not eclectic in any of these senses, but to be eclectic in the way that we could not be pinned-down with our choice of music. And it would really be difficult to understand what the basic score of the audio play was. So our ambition was to crate a very heterogenous, kind of absurd soundtrack which still each piece or each thing would make sense in its own way and it would be soundtrack-y because we did not want to too experimental or too deep into a musical idea. We wanted to keep a certain surface overview, to see things from above because we felt we were working on a soundtrack for a movie, rather than the book.

We thought if we had made sound for the book, we would have needed much more time. Things would have blended differently within a different timeframe, a different scale. We knew we would make an entertainment type of audio series which people would listen to like War of the Worlds by Orson Wells, or this kind of thing. So people would want to stay tuned and would want to hear the next episode. So we would give it a certain kind of tension, a certain kind of drama, or a certain kind of easiness and make it into this kind of thing.

So we thought, okay, we make it into a Hollywood thing, rather than be true to Dietmar, which would be the exact opposite of a Hollywood thing - it would be a deconstructed, structuralist, intellectual orgy, a joy of associations. We thought no, we want to do one thing after the other, we want to make it into a serial.

But seriously, each project for us is like a new thing. When we start, we jump into it as if we had never done anything else ever before. Any of these projects to us are just like, "Okay let's see what happens. We start this adventure and we have no idea what we will end up with." Kind of like this dramatic scene where you jump into this hole and you don't know which floor you end up.

We've done radio plays before, but not such elaborate ones. Usually they are one hour or two, but mostly one. I actually sometimes enjoy this because you do not have full responsibility, you are just a part of the thing. And it's usually a quite relaxed way of working. For me, radio is a fantastic medium. It's a format I totally adore and love and whenever I can, I come up with ideas for what to do with radio myself.


I just recently did a thing for Stockhausen, which was also for the WDR radio station. They have this department for Akustische Kunst, which is basically Acoustic Art. And I did this forty-something minute piece based on a phrase by Stockhausen, which I time-stretched and deconstructed and made it into a sound piece. It's based on a tiny piece of a speech that he gave at a university lecture where he was predicting time-stretching. He said, in the future, if we take a few seconds of sound and stretch it to twenty minutes, we would hear the structure for a whole composition in there. So I thought, "Okay Karlheinz, let's just do that and see what happens."

And I did that and it became piece that is beautiful on radio, you don't have to show anything with it, it is just listening and imagining.

EJ: Was that a piece in collaboration with other musicians or sound artists?

JSW: Yeah, I had three classical musicians with the piece. My friend Michael Rauter, who plays the cello, Matthias Engler who played percussion, and Clemens Flick, who played the harpsichord. It's pretty much a sound-piece. It has a structure, it's a musical piece, but it is very much definitely based on sound resonance of the full-spectrum overtones.

EJ: I wanted to touch on just a few performances. One is Sun State that you and Andi did with Diango Hernandez. Can you tell me a bit about that?


JSW: That was this idea we had to be a band, but then be invisible at the same time, not being a band that you would watch. We wanted to be a band that was a bit like an art piece, or an installation. At the same time we wanted to be loud and noisy. So we had this show in the Kunsthalle loft, as a part of an interdisciplinary series of sound-meets-art festival. It was a really beautiful space where we had this Mouse On Mars doku/fiction show there a few years before, which was us working with visual artists who were reinterpreting Mouse On Mars sound worlds, or worlds of whatever. It was all visual works trying to remix or re-establish what Mouse On Mars is about.

So, for Sun State, we used this upper balcony space and were just playing under these layers of fabric, which we projected onto from the outside. We had a camera on the inside, which Diango was executing, and this camera would project the image of us playing onto the wall of the museum space. So you wouldn't really know if the music coming from the inside of the tent was live or what was going on, no one had an idea. You would see the video, which was actually live, but you wouldn't know if it was pre-recorded, so we were playing with timing, representation, and authenticity. And whatever you want to interpret into it. What we liked about it was that we could go mad in that space, in that tent, and we would be this thing that we would usually not dare to be.

At the same time, it was totally about esthetics, totally clean. It was really within an art space, a pure work of art, like a sculpture, you know. I have no idea if it worked perfectly, because I was inside sweating and going crazy. I just saw Diango moving the camera closer and further away and going crazy with his camera, and it was quite a sweaty thing in this tent.

And then we did another Sun State show in a gallery sometime after that, which was more installation-type pieces. It had a weird theme, it was cosmic pornography, kind of, in a weird way. We made a little edition of records for that one.

EJ: That makes me think about a piece, how to mute a speaker from a distance. What you were just talking about, does that have any bearing on that piece at all? Because it did seem to be more of an object, hung on a wall in a gallery...


JSW: Definitely. It also represents the visualization of sound. It's not as much as it is a piece.

What I liked about it, was that it was an obsession of mine for a long time, to be able to do that, to execute that piece. I had made sketches about the piece, I had laid it out in my head. It was just a fantasy, because I didn't know if it would really work.

But I thought I liked it for various reasons. It is super simple, it is a stupid idea. It's just one stupid idea. But, it touches quite subtly, and at the same time, rudely. At the same time it's a beautiful piece, because you witness the birth and death of the piece.

And I liked it because it's also about the visualization of what you hear. Everyone hears a gunshot and sees a gun. And it might be a different thing depending on the circumstance, mainly a gunshot is a very strong cliché, and to watch a speaker is a very strong cliché. Speaker is synonymous for sound, bass, and power: sound power - something that goes right in your face. The speaker symbolizes full-on sound in your car, in a club, or even at home. But to see a naked speaker, that has always been a very macho icon, to boost your car stereo system. Dub or reggae sound systems love to have it as a symbol of ultimate power.

And I just love the idea that the gun, which is equally a symbol of power, especially dominance. And those together are a horrible duo! (laughs) I just liked that those two guys would kill each other. The gunshot is amplified, that gives it the boost, because the gun that I used was not that impressive, but when it was amplified, it _was_ impressive. So I thought, those two guys work together, and then you just see them take each other down by screwing each other up.

At the same time, it's just a simple piece. It's just one player - the shooter. The piece ends when the shooter's shot the speaker. It's interesting to watch because it's performative, it's exhaustive, you think, "How much longer will it last?" The initial piece was 45 minutes. Some people left, some people were like watching a football game. People were watching me sweating, and bending down to reload the gun with each shot. It was really, totally enduring.

No one ever asked me about the piece, I've never really spoken about it with anyone but Dodo (NKinshi, drummer, vocalist, and collaborator in Mouse on Mars). He said, "Hey, Jan watching that piece made me really so sad. I just didn't like to see you using a gun. Why do you have to use a gun?" I said, "Ah, man, Dodo, I just had to do it. I'm so sorry." And he said, "You don't have to do that. You're so full of stuff. You could have skipped that idea. No one needed that idea from you." (laughs)

EJ: You were mentioning some work that Thrill Jockey is releasing. That is a series of work?


JSW: I'm working with Rupert Smyth, who has been doing lots of artwork for Mouse On Mars and friends, artists. He is doing the art direction, and all of the releases feature artworks or collages I've made. I'm happy to be in there. It's more casual.

My series is like a sub-label or sub-series within the flow of their new releases. It's called the Fiepblatter Catalog. What I'm doing is treating all of the interests I have musically, visually, and whatever in other fields as well, and treat it like a catalog. I would choose from it to compile releases, so each release is like a compilation on various levels. And even within one piece, I would feature recordings I've made some time ago with quite recent things and it would mix more noisy and even field recording type of things with more laid-out, more composed work. It's all this more casual and more random stuff comes together with more minutely, accurately edited, composed, scored music as well. I would choose from that and include the visual parts.

EJ: Well, I don't want to take up any more of your time, Jan...

JSW: Thank you Eric.

Jan St. Werner:

Groups: Mouse On Mars, Microstoria, Von Südenfed, a.o. Labels Gefriem, Sonig, RR. Compositions for Solistenensemble Kaleidoskop, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, MusikFabrik. Artistic director of Steim, Institute for electronic music and interface technology. Book "Vorgemischte Welt" with Klaus Sander. Radio works for WDR, BR, SWR German public radio. Installations, Paper- and Video works.


Eric Jordan lives and breathes in Portland, Ore.




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