Interview by email with Natasha Pickowicz
I first encountered the Milwaukee percussionist Jon Mueller at an event titled "Peripheral Observations," a concert presented at the grand Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal in conjunction with a visual arts exhibition by Ceal Floyer. With his unruffled, cool demeanor, all-denim outfit, lanky frame, and closely cropped hair, looking like a serene monk patrolling the grounds, Mueller was the last featured musician on a program that included Richard Garet, Charles Curtis, and Xenia Pestova. In his "I Almost Expect to be Remembered as a Chair," a roaring, tremendous percussive drone composition from his most recent Type record, Alphabet of Movements, Mueller was perched at the center of a broad stage, surrounded by a complex, shimmering array of percussive instruments, huddled over a simple snare drum and gong. As the 20-minute piece droned on, I tore my eyes away from the blur of his fingers and wrists to notice his own eyes tightly shut, as if deep in a trance. The dream continued with a late night moonlit walk through the cobbled streets of Old Montreal with the rest of the musicians, during which we discussed our passions, ideas, and future plans, including this exclusive interview for Paris Transatlantic.
Could you talk about your earliest experiences with music growing up?
Music was involved in my life very early on. I was born in 1970, and my parents' taste reflected what was happening with rock music at the time, with a couple things on the fringe. They didn't have a ton of records, but what they did seemed very good to me. For instance, I remember shopping with my mom at a pharmacy my grandpa worked at. There was actually a music section in the store. This was around 74. She picked up an LP and put it into our cart. It was Black Sabbath's Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. I saw the cover and immediately asked her about it. We were very poor, and my mom was very nervous about spending money on the record – little did I know then but my parents' marriage was in bad shape and financial worries were always a source of arguments between her and my dad. "This is a good one, though," she said. She's right. It is. I'll always be grateful for her taking a chance on this one and bringing that record into my life.
It's interesting to think back about discovering music pre-internet. Once my parents' records didn't cut it anymore, and I had an allowance to start buying my own stuff, I visited the local record stores constantly. Even if I couldn't afford to buy anything, I would spend hours looking at all the covers, judging and analyzing the groups based on their cover art as well as their band photo on the back. Criteria developed as to what was good and what wasn't. On an extremely limited budget, those criteria became essential. A bad choice ate limited funds, and caused weeks of frustration.
My tastes quickly went to extremes, and I found myself going from Kiss to Gary Numan to speed metal, which had just begun. I bought everything I could in that genre – it covered my previously mentioned criteria pretty well. Everything looked like a safe choice for quality, though of course that wasn't the case as time went on. From there I discovered punk rock around 84 or so and realized I was late to the game. Entering high school I met others who became great resources for info. This was the first time that music really became an identity for me, one I could manipulate and control, as much as it controlled me.
By 1987, I'd met a guy in my high school art class who seemed completely removed from everything, and into a whole other subculture I knew nothing about. He was my connector to so many new things. I was tired of the fashion associated with music – the uniforms, the violence at shows, and all the "rules" that existed within the genres. I then discovered that there was music even more interesting and more individualistic than punk rock or metal (and that in fact those genres were pop in some ways). I was taking my interests to another level, and many friends got upset by this. That only proved that something that demanded such a ridiculous allegiance was not what I wanted to be a part of.
I sold all my records, and started collecting multiple new directions in music: free jazz, Industrial, art rock, avant garde, 20th century composers, improvised music, anything on the creative fringe that seemed distanced from what I'd listened to previously. And of course, over time, I realized that there was certainly fashion and politics in some of this music, too. But overall it was liberating to discover a new direction, and I think that if I hadn't found it when I did, I would be a very different person today.
Aside from your listening, when did your training as a performer begin? Did you start with percussion?
Because of rock music being a heavy part of my developmental state, my imagination instantly attached to not only the music but the whole world it represented. About the time I was six or so, my uncle had an electric guitar and small amp he didn't use much anymore, and he gave it to me. This was a profound moment, the gateway and the bridge from the imaginary world to reality. I was going to play guitar in a rock band someday, I thought. As good as my intentions were, I found myself mostly making a lot of noise with it, but liking that just fine. I was frustrated some with the fact I couldn't play it in a standard way, but I loved laying it down on the floor in front of the amp, turning the amp on full blast, and controlling the feedback and noise that would occur via touching the strings, running a bottleneck along the strings, etc. Those sounds, to me, encompassed the imaginary world of rock that was in my head: total face-melting volume and uncontrolled chaotic sound.
Of course, that didn't work for mom, who I now lived with exclusively. So, knowing how into this stuff I was, and being the amazing person she is, she made some kind of sacrifice and paid for me to take lessons. My first were with a college kid who was actually a really nice guy, and understood what my interests were. Eventually he quit giving lessons, and I was bounced to an older Mexican jazz guitarist, a really serious guy who began criticizing me at my very first lesson for not holding my hands correctly when playing. He made me sit there and listen to him play jazz guitar, to watch his hand positions, for ten minutes. I didn't like jazz guitar. I didn't like him. Playing guitar for me ended on that day.
When did the transition into percussion happen?
Later, when I was 14, a friend of mine inherited a drum set from his grandpa, who was a semi-professional jazz drummer. At the time, we were all listening to [Slayer's] Hell Awaits and the first Bathory record, so this kit seemed a bit "insufficient" for my friend. But it was a drum kit and no one else had one. My friend quickly became obsessed with playing. Of course, everyone wanted to play it. It was the new toy of the neighborhood. The first time I sat down at it, I remember feeling the awkwardness of trying to play it. It was like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time – very strange coordination. But I also realized that even though it was all "wrong," the sound being produced wasn't bad. Hitting the drums and cymbals sounded good, no matter the combination. There were no major or minor keys to complicate things. My brain instantly shifted to this perspective: just hit them and listen, then hit them some more. Find interesting combinations of sounds. Try to get a feel for the coordination, but don't worry too much about it if you can't. Focus on the fun of playing. I was sold. Like most kids excited about something, I went home and told my parents, now remarried, that I "needed" a drum set.
Nice. I definitely remember having to 'prove' to my parents that I was dedicated to the piano.
They disagreed, but made a small concession based on my intense excitement. They would rent me a snare drum, and a snare drum only, as long as I took lessons. If the lessons stopped, the drum went away. If I kept with it, they'd reconsider. For one year I took lessons on snare drum. I don't remember any of it. All I cared about was fulfilling this prerequisite for getting a drum kit of my own to play. And I did it. After a year, proving my interest wasn't just a phase, I got a drum kit for Christmas.
I went through years of metal and punk bands, later expanding the kit to include other material: metal, a vacuum cleaner, balloons, bells, whistles, all sorts of stuff. By the time I was in college, I decided to take lessons again, and fell into an opportunity to study with Hal Russell in Chicago. He was inspiring on so many levels, as a player, but also his attitude. I would always bring up drummers I thought were cool and he would say, "they're bullshit." He was obsessed with Albert Ayler, so I discovered a lot of music I was unfamiliar with through him as well. By the time I moved back to Milwaukee, we agreed that I would try to book concerts for his NRG Ensemble in Wisconsin, which I knew nothing about doing at that time. By the time I finally made some connections, he'd passed away. But I'm so glad I got a chance to learn from him, and spend time talking and watching him play. He was an absolutely killer player on whatever instrument he picked up.
You've been a member of a wide variety of groups, including Pele, Collections of Colonies of Bees and Raccoons. What kind of considerations do you have when thinking about collaborating with someone?
When I started improvising, I wanted to play with as many different people as possible, to challenge myself, and to find interesting combinations that might become other opportunities for music. The band stuff was sort of separate from that. When I met Chris Rosenau in the early 90s, I felt a real affinity with him, based on the music he liked and wanted to do. My participation in the bands you mention was largely due to an interest in working with him. Together, we moved over the years to try different things in different configurations with other players, instruments, etc. Working with Rhys Chatham on his Guitar Trio, getting an understanding for how that functioned and having the experience of it with the whole group, also really encouraged ideas I had for music with Collections of Colonies of Bees and definitely furthered me on the path I was on.
These days, I'm much more critical about what I do, not only because of limited time but also interest in specific things I want to accomplish. Even going way back to when I was young, I was always interested in a particular personal feeling that music provided, that it could tap imagination, mystery and adventure, all while making the hairs on your neck stand up. I want to focus now on work that brings me to a personal place. I'm less interested in experimenting with that process, or taking the chance that I won't find that place. The situations that seem conducive to those personal criteria are the ones I'm interested in participating in. Life is short.
Are you currently collaborating with anyone else at the moment, or just focusing on your solo work?
James Plotkin is at my house this week while we work on a new record. I'll also be playing with Jason Kahn again in fall. Otherwise, I'm deeply involved in working on solo material. Whether solo or collaboration, the aim is to pursue and experience personal satisfaction, and the pleasure of developing an approach to an instrument while discovering unknown things in the process.
What was the impetus to begin your label, Crouton Music?
In 1999, I was out of work and recently married. We spent our dwindling money on a belated honeymoon to Europe, which also acted as an experience to hopefully inspire me for what to do next. While in Amsterdam, I visited the Staalplaat store, and felt something different there than any store in Milwaukee I'd been too. It was focused on a particular range of music that catered to unique interests. Leaving there, I thought a lot about it, about my own path within music, and started considering ways I might get involved with music in ways outside of playing an instrument. I knew that many of the records I enjoyed were unique in some way – not just musically, but in how they were presented. So I wondered about producing things that seemed like records I would like to buy.
I'd already dabbled in this with Chris Rosenau on some self-released music and it seemed like it was something that could be a lot of fun, and would potentially introduce me to more music and people I was unfamiliar with. And it did. Over the years, I met an incredible range of people who I never imagined working with before, and got to share their work with the world, at least those who were interested. It was a big part of my life, and I'm so glad I got to experience it. As time went on, the industry changed a lot, and with those changes came the demand to work longer and harder to stay relevant. This, on top of all my personal music projects, became too much, and so something had to go. In 2009, I closed the label to focus on my own music. It was not a hard decision, but I will miss it.
Have you managed to sell all the remaining stock?
The only Crouton release still in circulation is the last one, Robert Haigh's Written on Water, which has sold mostly through Daisuke Suzuki's connections in Japan. He's been releasing a trio of CDs from Robert on his Siren Records label so he's currently sort of the source of attention for those interested in distributing Robert's work. As for the others, there are likely people reselling copies online in various places, and I may sell certain things I have a few copies of from my site over time, but that's about it. I'm happy Crouton was able to release a lot of great music to the world, and it's nice when I hear people are still interested in the label and the music.
Could you speak about your approach towards live performance? I was quite taken with how active and focused you were at the Montreal concert earlier this spring.
Live performance is an opportunity for a personal experience that can be shared with a group of people. So, as I've mentioned, I've started focusing more on working with sound and playing in a way that gives me that type of experience. I think starting there, and developing that personal experience makes the chances higher that it will translate to the group. It is super-focused because the aim is to find a specific experience for myself. This has some to do with technique, but in the end, it's about the sound taking over in ways that have less to do with what I'm doing, and the frequencies bouncing around in the space so that each person has a different experience with the sound. That's personal. It's not dictated as much as interpreted, and that interpretation allows people to think about all sorts of questions, rather than focusing on a musical genre or idea. To me, this is much more fulfilling than entertaining. It's a shared experience we're all having in our own ways.
Are your solo works written with the idea of the live concert formal in mind? What do you see as the difference between the recorded document and a live performance? Are they mutually exclusive or do they inform each other?
I think about performance and recordings differently, yet try to maintain some connection between them. With recordings, you don't have the opportunity for sonic phenomena to take place based on the room, size, shape, personal proximity, etc., so I try to approach the music differently by focusing on different instrumentation and structures, things that would be challenging to orchestrate live, yet might create a pleasant listening experience when heard in different combinations on a recording. For example, with The Whole, I wanted to use only acoustic instruments, nothing amplified, which is not how I generally perform.
What about for the piece we saw, "I Almost Expect to be Remembered as a Chair"?
That piece was created originally only for live performance. It was the performance piece to support 'The Whole' which I mentioned could not be performed live as is, at least not by myself. After playing it for a year, I thought about documenting it, which seemed impossible, seeing as the piece changes depending on the situation it's presented in. I'm happy with how the recording turned out, but those who have heard it live are likely to know the difference.
Is it exhausting to perform?
It is a structured piece, but I'm playing less within the confines of percussive notation and more within blocks of time. While working on it, I started to find interesting lengths to maintain certain sounds, and when to change them. Within these blocks, there's not a lot of improvisation, but certainly room to increase or slow the tempo of the snare roll based on how it feels. It's ironic in a way that there is a lot of rock-type energy to the music yet I'm basically playing a snare drum roll for 30 minutes. To deal with that energy, and getting tired, I discovered that when I focus on a particular tone, and begin singing that tone, or around it, or in a continuous pitch decrease from it, I start to forget that my hands and arms are getting tired. It's almost like a form of meditation. I focus on the sound, and that's where I think I share something similar to the audience. I forget I'm playing, and get lost in the massive density of frequencies around me and hear choirs, whispers, people yelling my name, all sorts of things. It's quite invigorating – instead of getting tired, I actually become super-energized. Often, after playing, I feel like running as fast as I can. It's like an intense burst of adrenaline.
I definitely noticed that you had this almost serene expression on your face — eyes closed, totally immersed in the power of the piece. I also noticed the unique drum setup that you have. What led you to set it up that way?
It started with playing the drums with objects, which at some point involved using small tape players on the drum heads. I pursued that further and began creating specific recordings that I could play at high volume through a number of different drums, generally, bass drums and snare drums. Gongs have such an intense frequency range, so they became my source of choice. Because of all those frequencies, and the way the setup creates a natural processing of the physical sound wave, there's a mystery to what's being heard, which in turn raises other questions for the listener, and hopefully creates the personal experience I've described. All of my work I've done with this setup in the past seven or so years has used lengthy live recordings of different types and sizes of gongs.
Does the audience play a role in how you feel about the show? It seemed as though many people were so enthralled your set that they were almost exhausted watching you. Have you had any unusual experiences learning about the effect your music has on the audience?
I've had many interesting conversations with people after performing, which are really refreshing in terms of how they perceive music. Usually it's more about how the sound affected them, what it made them think of, what they thought they heard, etc., as opposed to a series of compliments about technique. Compliments are great, but a discussion about something more personal is better.
How did you first get connected with Type, the label you're currently affiliated with? Any future plans with them?
I met John Twells in Chicago while sharing a bill with his project Xela and the group Zelienople. We talked a lot about music over dinner. I'd admired his label for some time, and when I heard him describe the wide range of music he was interested in, I was even more curious about it. In some ways, it seems to offer a general direction in style, but if you really look at it, he's put out a really diverse mix of stuff. That's what I also did with Crouton, so I appreciate the approach.
I was working on material for The Whole, and figured I'd send him a note about it, since Table of the Elements, who I previously worked with, couldn't take it on. He was just preparing an email to send me to ask what I was working on, so it was perfect timing, and he's been a great friend since. I have no plans for new stuff with Type right now since the record recently came out, but I'm hoping the door will be open for future projects.
What was the compositional process in Alphabet of Movements, your most recent album with Type?
Mostly I had ideas for what elements to use: snare, amplified gongs through snares, and then I worked with time. I tried a few different durations for each particular section until it seemed comfortable, not overdone, and getting to the point where the sound takes over the room and how to deal with that. Adding too much movement in particular sections would create disconnects between what's happening sonically and how the audience might be distracted by what I'm doing.
Also, there's a trick at the beginning where the acoustic roll occurs for an extended time so that the listener might start to question if anything will ever change. Once they seriously consider that, it begins to change very subtly, and they might not even notice it at first. That's when it really starts to get interesting. Working out times and durations for those types of experiences to occur was how I worked on structuring the piece.
I'd love to hear what you've been inspired by lately. What sort of musical traditions do you draw upon when you're creating or performing music?
I listen to a lot of guitar music, and country 78s, so I'm not exactly sure how this informs what I do. It certainly plays a role, but in an indirect way. I like things that have an old feel to them, hearing an idea from long ago and thinking how it still feels good to listen to today. I'd say that I'm greatly influenced by sensibility, how something seems outside of what it's being presented as, or what's behind it. I look for characteristics that match something I either sense in me, or wished I had more of. It can be found in the face of an animal, the way someone talks, how someone designs something, the performance of an instrument, body language, all sorts of things. I like looking for what sensibilities seem inherent in any situation, and I value the ones I enjoy, very much so.
Writing is still important to me too, in terms of communicating different ideas. I haven't seriously worked on fiction since the series of short stories Crouton published, titled Endings, but since starting Rhythmplex, I've spent more time writing a variety of things, dreams, thoughts, insights to my own creative process, etc., which in turn has helped me thing about my ideas differently. Writing seems to help in a variety of ways in terms of how ideas get constructed, how they might change, and finding the true aim of what you want to communicate.
What was the impetus behind Rhythmplex?
I'd had my own website for a few years, and posting news on releases, concert dates, recording, and other details specific to the production of music started to feel dull. I wanted to launch a new site, one not focused on my name, but on a broader concept – I thought that much of what drives the work I do, and the approach to what I'm interested in, revolves around listening. And listening is a process that involves all sorts of external and internal input. So Rhythmplex is a place for me to talk about all the concrete data of releases and concerts, but also post about some of the thoughts I have about approaching creative situations, interview others about their insights, and even document strange dreams, all of which have a place when discussing my ideas, interests, and approach to creative activity.
You're currently based in Milwaukee. How would you characterize the atmosphere there for exciting local music, experimental or otherwise?
There are a lot of people doing interesting things here, but audience support can sometimes be fickle. Certain people only go to certain places, which makes me wonder how much the interest is in the music vs. the social experience. I think this is typical of many cities, though. But on the artist side, I think there is support. It's a small enough community that it isn't unnecessarily competitive.
When we met you mentioned an excitement for the American South. Why is that?
I think it's a fascinating place. There's something about it, in certain areas at least, that make me feel different when I'm there. I'm curious to find out if that feeling would exist if I lived there, or if it's just a part of traveling. Chances are I'll never know. I'm really interested in cities that make me feel different. I'm not exactly sure how to describe it. New Orleans has it. Eureka Springs has it.
Where do you see your work fitting into the continuum of contemporary Western music, and where do you see your music going in the next 20 years?
I'm really not sure. I was at a record store in Portland recently and they had my records in the techno section, which I thought was very peculiar. I'm not really concerned how people want to label it, just as long as they find something interesting with it. All I can really focus on is the project at hand, a new project which I'm hoping will involve some things that I haven't considered before, and yet a culmination of much of the work I've done in recent years. We'll see where it goes from there.