John Maus' hysterically confrontational performance at One Eyed Jacks on Monday night was as sweet as it was unsettling. 

John Maus photo
John Maus, by Luke Berhow

Watching John Maus perform is like drinking Cherry Coke. It makes you queasy and tastes vaguely poisonous, but it’s so sweet, and the tingle on your tongue makes it too addictive not to drink. 

On Monday night at One Eyed Jacks, Maus thrashed at the edge of stage, howling while beating his head and chest. Maus walked the line between performance art and music concert, but the complex synthesizers and Maus’s bellowing voice wove nostalgia and dissolution into the show. The music posed the past against the future while Maus expressed confusion and fear. The show was uncomfortably earnest.

Maus released Screen Memories last October after a five year hiatus. Audience members questioned if he had spent that time going insane while he was perfoming. Some may lose a few nuts and bolts in solitude, but rural Minnesota appears to have complimented Maus’ creative spirit nicely.  

Maus spent two years building his own modular synthesizer, which he used to record enough music to make two albums, Screen Memories and Addendum, the latter due out later this year. The personalized synthesizer has not changed his sound significantly. Maus continues to make hypnogogic pop, which he pioneered in the mid 2000s along side Ariel Pink. 

At the time, Maus was unique. He adopted pop sounds into dreamy soundscapes. This acted to examine modes of communication rather than to satirize popular culture. His albums Songs and We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves tapped into a niche audience that valued a critique on how material connections affect authenticity. 

This approach to music is now on trend. Bands like Homeshake, Mild High Club, and KWJAZ have popularized and built upon John Maus’ original style while Maus has done little to change. That’s not to say that Maus isn’t consistently thrilling.His deconstruction of culture and apocalyptic themes resonate more now than in 2006. When the personal is political, the threat of Judgment Day becomes a shadow over everything we do. Maus captures that feeling on Screen Memories and lets the listener stand between time and its end.

Maus’ music may be similar to his previous work, but his live set has transformed. Maus is known for his intense one-man shows, but this tour includes a live band featuring a drummer, bassist, and keyboardist. Maus has discussed how a live band helps to express a vitality within his music that computers cannot. The band may have supported Maus’ Frankenstein-esq performance at other shows, but at One Eyed Jacks, the four performers were out of sync. The drummer appeared to be nervous and looked toward the bassist for approval, causing him to sound timid in his supporting role. A more confident drummer would have played with Maus’ confrontational performance. This drummer merely tried to mimic a drum machine.

Maus was hard not to watch, but the glare that keyboardist Luke Darger gave him throughout the show was unsettling yet comical. Was the disapproving frown and flaring lip part of the cryptic nature of the performance, or was Darger genuinely upset to be on stage? Darger opened for Maus as LUKDLX in a performance that was, frankly, awkward. Darger used his guitar as a prop as he thrust his hips left and right around the stage and groaned into the microphone. Half the audience fled to the bathroom and eyes rolled when he returned to back Maus.

Darger became the focus of Maus' dissatisfaction after he'd beat on himself and thrown the bassist's water cup on the ground (which caused the audience to errupt with glee). Maus typically rages at and with the audience, so his focus on the band into the interaction added another dimension into the show at first. At one point he turned to Darger, yelled directly at him, and pushed his sheet music off the stand. Darger has been performing with Maus since August, so his use of sheet music itself was strange, but what was particularly irksome was Darger’s reaction to Maus. While Maus was in midst of a musical, emotional fit, Darger stopped to gather and organize his paper. He exited the stage and presumably asked the soundman for the volume on his keyboard to be turned up. When he returned, the keyboard's volume matched Maus' voice. This only lasted till the end the song, but Darger’s attitude on stage remained off-putting and distracted from Maus’ fierce performance.

The first half of the show was dominated by Maus’ wails, hair pulling, head hitting, and body thrashing. The depth of his voice could be heard on “Do Your Best” midway through the set. Maus’ baritone voice is on the edge of a human’s frequency range. He reached his hands up to the sky while singing, “Tonight you’ve gotta do what’s right, in your city.” His voice echoed to mellow out the previously wild performance. Maus alternated between low bellows and harmonic growls while singing “Bennington,” waiting till the end of the song to let out a series of heartfelt roars. The untamed spirit that was freed from the audience in the first half of the set was given a sense of richness during this track.

By the end of the set, Maus was completely drenched in sweat. He turned to the audience with a blank face and walked off the stage. The crowed cheered for an encore for about two minutes. Some people left, assuming that anything longer than a 30-second exit meant the show was over. Maus and his bandmates returned and played “Believer,” the perfect song to end the show. The audience jumped in bliss. 

As the lights came up, the dreamy atmosphere began to disappear like the last few drops of Cherry Coke. It would have been nice to have a few more sips.