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Interview with Jon Mueller

img  Tobias

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
Good. I’m at home in Milwaukee, WI.

What's on your schedule at the moment?
I recently returned from a tour in Denmark, and am planning for the final Physical Changes concert here in September, as well as working on a lot of recordings for various people, including Collections of Colonies of Bees, Nic Le Ban/Jarboe, Masami Akita, Christian Kiefer/Keenan Lawler, and my next solo project.

Your new album „Physical Changes“ is very much concerned with questions and philosophies of „change“. Can you give a glimpse of your ideas on the subject and how they influenced the shaping of the record?
I think change is an interesting topic. It happens constantly, though sometimes people perceive it as something major, catastrophic, even. There are always opportunities within these situations. Sometimes, it appears that endings are introduced, but really there are doors opening that you never knew existed, or you wouldn’t take them seriously, previously. As for the recording, I think involving various formats and various people/styles created a similar situation to this, where each person had to analyze how they would react within a situation and what they could find in it that they felt was „them,“ or something they felt they could influence, when on the surface it may have seemed oppressive.

„Physical Changes“ is essentially a different version of your „Metals“-album, which had unanimously been received with applause and enthusiasm. Why did you feel it needed to be re-arranged for the concert situation?
I always intended the music to be played live. Because it was a submergence into the drum kit in a non-band situation, I never thought of it as a studio record, but something I played with constantly at home, with the idea that it was music that could be shared. That’s the powerful thing about drums – the acoustic quality to them, that allows you to bring them to many different situations, without a lot of technological bullshit involved.

What were your guidelines and techniques for preparing the music for the stage?
For the live show, I basically wrote a new piece based on some of the stuff I did with the record, just to change it a bit, and make it interesting for people who already heard the record. Then I practiced this daily for a couple of months before premiering it in New York City. It was stressful, but also completely cathartic. Initially, it was only me solo, and that, too, was liberating.

The entire piece is based on a tape piece for 3 different sized gongs, which determine when the drum kit changes patterns. The tape is played through a snare drum, which adds another layer of texture to the already dense volume. The idea was to recreate the sound of a full band; of screaming guitars, etc., but only emulating those things, while sounding completely obscure. Part of sustaining the repetitive rhythm for this length of time relies on listening to the bombast happening around me, so that I can seemingly put my brain into it, and forget about my body; so that there is no getting tired, or any other discomfort at all. Just a surging, adrenalized experience that is, in many ways, like taking a ride or being an observer, not necessarily a cause or instigator for anything that’s actually happening.

In the end, you didn't just „recreate“ a band, however, but actually recruited a real one... How did that happen?
There is no official „band“ for the record. Actually, for both the recordings and the live performances, I just asked various people to accompany the piece whom I felt would have some understanding of how the piece functions. For each of these people, the reasons for choosing them were technical and personal. If I count everyone accurately, so far there’s been Jim Schoenecker, James Plotkin, Fred Lonberg-Holm, Dan Burke, Marcus Schmickler, David Bailey, Jonathan Kane, C. Spencer Yeh, Jeppe Skjold, Sture Ericson, Liudas Mockinas, and Johs Lund.

Was there such a thing as a fixed allocation of tasks within this group of collaborators?
Not at all. There would only be a basic discussion of the piece – what happens throughout it, and what the general intent and purpose is, and then each player was expected to bring into the music what was considered when selecting them as participants.
My own contribution within this constellation was that I simply wrote the main piece (as heard on the track „Nothing Changes“) and gave general direction when appropriate.

So after completing the album, was it important for you to get feedback on the result from the other musicians involved in it?
Well, yes, I wanted them to be happy with what they contributed and to understand how their contribution helped change this piece further. That was really the point of the record, to physically change the sound – the frequencies, the patterns, and the harmonics, from the original solo piece.

How did the recording-process work in practise – is „Physical Changes“ the result of a lot of improvisatory jam sessions or rather a precisely planned composition?
It was more conscious planning, but with sections that were open to changes or developments over time. However, the piece is very consistent by necessity, in order to achieve the desired experience.

There are several passages where the album sounds remarkable like a group of musicians playing in the same room and in the next moment, it is has a distinct „laptop“ feeling to it. Was an intriguing oscillation between these two worlds part of your aim from the outset?
Actually, I don’t think of this situation at all. I know it exists, but I feel like the nature of the piece is open enough for these changes to occur, without it seeming like completely separate music, whether live or recording. There are sometimes even when the live performance sounds completely mechanical or not played by instruments, and vice versa. My hope is that any version represents this project as a whole, together.

After the musical part was done, how did the visual part of the package take shape?
I wanted to use some type of imagery that dealt with the concept of change in an assumed way. At one time, the sun being blocked out may have signaled the end of the world. So, the eclipse became a great metaphor for the idea that all change is a mask of something else occuring than what’s expected, and if you’re aware of this, there is hope in that occurance. There is possibility. There is something we have within us all along, but have not yet recognized.

What about the world David Dinnell created for „Survival is not mandatory“?

I was not involved in this at all. I had known David for awhile and had seen his slow landscape examinations and thought they too supported this metaphor. It’s like the idea of listening – to examine what’s all there and find a deeper understanding. That’s what his work revealed to me visually. That after awhile, these weren’t landscapes we were looking at, but nervous systems, etc. It can become terrifying, yet very real.

Was spreading out the work over a CD, LP and DVD always part of the original plan?
Yes. This really was the foundation for this record along with the musical idea. I felt that approaching the music with these formats in mind would help create „chapters to the story“ as opposed to finding people to do different mixes and cram them all arbitrarily onto 2 CDs as a succession of different ideas. Three formats helped focus how we worked on the project, as each format could be given its own unique direction, while retaining the overall concept of the record.

You've posted an interesting question on your site, inquiring whether it was more interesting for artists to deliver what their audience requests from them or to stimulate them into a participatory experience. Does this perhaps hint at the fact that reactions to performing „Physical Changes“ live were mixed and possibly even confused? How would you describe the creative success of those gigs for you personally?
Well, I see the recordings and live performances as completely separate experiences, even though it’s the same piece of music. Even if you play the same recording in different rooms of your house, it’s going to sound different, and that occurs even more when you incorporate different people/ instruments, as well as different rooms. I think this is a great benefit to the audience, as they have something even more personal to behold because they are there, and it’s not like any of the other performances, in these ways.

For me personally, I had the ability of knowing what the general map of the piece is – what’s coming next, and why the change occured, which can actually take away from the experience in some ways. But I also had the opportunity to recognize the changes that occured each night within this situation. More than a few times, this became almost confusing, and I literally felt like I was lost, questioning whether to hold on and continue, or change when it wasn’t yet time to. It could easily become very stressful, yet there was always a sense of plowing on and seeing what would happen – a blind determination. Yet it was during these moments that I also became more aware of my body – tiredness, physical technique, etc., which were things better off avoided. Managing that situation was my aim each time the piece was performed; assuming a sense of confidence, often blindly, that I had some kind of control.

You closed Crouton at the end of last year after a decade of releasing exciting experimental music. Did you ever regret the decision?
I am so glad to have done what I did with the label. Nothing can replace some of the experiences I had with it. However, it’s also very fulfilling to move on without any sense of defeat, and focus my attention elsewhere. It’s very likely I’ll curate and publish things in the future, and Crouton provided a great introduction to that world.

By Tobias Fischer

Pianobread - S/T (Crouton) 1999
Raccoons (Rammel/Mueller/Rosenau) (Crouton) 2000
Castle Broadway – S/T (Soutrane Recording Company) 2000
Field Of Sound – S/T (Soutrane Recording Company) 2000
Lancaster, Byard Trio – (Soutrane Recording Company) 2000
Nelson-Raney, Steve/Jon Mueller – Cutting Off The Edge Of Time (Penumbra Music) 2001
Aranos/Mueller/Rosenau - Bleeding In Behind Pastel Screens (Crouton) 2001
Folktales No. 2 – “How I Learned To Breathe” (Crouton) 2001
Raccoons – Mother (Crouton) 2002
Asmus Tietchens/Jon Mueller – 7 Stücke (Auf Abwegen) 2003
Hat Melter (Hess/Klatt/Mueller/Turner) – Unknown Album (Crouton) 2003
Jon Mueller/Bhob Rainey/Jim Schoenecker – S/T (Crouton) 2004
Jason Kahn and Jon Mueller – Papercuts (Crouton) 2004
Jon Mueller and Jim Schoenecker – The Interview CD, (Longbox) 2004
Jon Mueller and Kaveh Soofi – Endings book (Crouton) 2004
Jon Mueller – What’s Lost Is Something Important. What’s Found Is Something Not Revealed (Crouton) 2005
Jon Mueller – Emerson Hi-Fidelity (Autumn Records) 2005
Carol Genetti/Jon Mueller/Jack Wright – Nom Tom (Spring Garden Music) 2005
The Portable Quartet – Take The Train (Crouton) 2005
Werner Moebius/Jon Mueller/Jim Schoenecker – Amalgam (Utech Records) 2006
Jason Kahn/Jon Mueller – Supershells (Formed Records) 2006
MOUTHS – 1v2e (Entr’acte) 2006
Tim Catlin/Jon Mueller – Plates and Wires (Crouton) 2007
Jeph Jerman and Jon Mueller - Nodes and Anti-Nodes (Crouton) 2007
Jon Mueller - Metals (Table of the Elements) 2008
Jon Mueller - Hollow Voices/Singing Hands (Friends and Relatives) 2008
Rhys Chatham - Guitar Trio is My Life (Radium) 2008
Melissa St. Pierre - Specimens (Radium) 2008
Jon Mueller and Jason Kahn - Topography (Xeric/Crouton) 2008
Jon Mueller - Strung (Table of the Elements) 2008
MOUTHS - 3v1/3v2 (Absurd) 2008
Jon Mueller - Physical Changes (Radium/Table of the Elements) 2009

Jon Mueller

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