When Andi Thoma and Jan St. Werner founded the Berlin-based music project Mouse on Mars in 1993, I thought the name was oddly fitting. I had known Andi for many years and would have described him as self-deprecating (a little mouse), a space cadet, a genius who just might make it to Mars if he applied himself to the task.
I was working as an art teacher in Düsseldorf, at one of those rare German private schools for talented but difficult students who can’t cope with the rigid public school system, when a curly-haired kid came stumbling into my classroom one day. It was Andi, who later told me his parents had sent him to therapy because they thought him dysfunctional. The therapist asked him how he would build a rocket to fly to outer space. Andi got excited and came up with all sorts of elaborate scenarios and ideas. Then the shrink asked him how he would go about buying a pound of sugar. Andi started stammering, disappointed that this man had already abandoned the cool space project.
Fast forward a few decades. Mouse on Mars is releasing its 11th album, Dimensional People (Thrill Jockey Records).
My somewhat dysfunctional ex-student and long-time friend has become a cult figure with devoted fans worldwide. These fans, including many musicians, revel in the inventiveness of the duo’s compositions, which oscillate between uncontrollable chaos and meticulously arranged structures and harmonies. The two-time Grammy winner Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), a fan of Mouse on Mars since he was a teenager, is one of many stars who eagerly collaborated on the new album. Mouse on Mars has also collaborated with and written music for symphony orchestras, rock stars, DJs, robots, and visual artists.
While Andi has a visceral approach to all sound and music—playful, curious, inventive—Jan St. Werner is, quite literally, the professor. He teaches at the venerable University of Nürnberg in Germany and is a visiting lecturer at MIT in Boston. Jan will tell you that their music is "an object-based spatial composition, that they are working their own vernacular, encouraging open minded societies with their dialectical method and have an holistic approach…." By this point, Andi has tuned out.
Embed video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SbZHVaqLeBA&t=7s
Andi has always been good at tuning out when something bores him—and tuning all the way in when something fascinates him. In school he developed an interest in art, but few other subjects. “Instead of doing my homework,” he recalled recently, “I spent every free minute recording my compositions.” In those pre-computer days, before he had access to a recording studio, Andi would borrow his father’s cassette recorder, compose and record one track, then play an additional instrument, record both again with another recorder, then repeat the process until he had a tape with multiple tracks.
My boyfriend at the time was a teacher at that school as well, and we were Andi’s only semi-adult support system. My duty was to help Andi and his dozen talented yet dysfunctional classmates earn their high school diplomas. While the school system and their parents told them to play by the rules, I told them the opposite. They were great kids, sometimes even brilliant, just different. So it should not have been surprising when Andi appeared at our door one day and told us he had to get away from his parents and wanted to move in with us for a while. This might be unthinkable today, but I just shrugged and let him in. Actually, I thought it was a good idea to get him away from his parents, who had no clue that they had a budding genius on their hands. Neither his parents nor the principal intervened. It seemed that Andi dragged a new musical instrument into our apartment every day. He could play anything—guitar, bass, clarinet, piano—after about a week of practice. He taught me rudimentary bass guitar, well enough to join a punk band.
Andi was already composing songs for his own rock band. The first time I saw him onstage was at our school festival, singing and playing the guitar with his band—and it was a revelation. This insecure, bumbling, discombobulated kid strutted around the stage like a born performer. He didn’t stumble over any cables, didn’t forget his lyrics. He was confident, charismatic, and the crowd loved him. It was a total transformation from the kid I knew in school.
After Andi and the rest of my class graduated, I quit my job to become a filmmaker. I moved with my boyfriend into industrial lofts, and Andi became our neighbor. He stayed with the visual arts to make a living, learned graphic design, made enough money to buy some recording equipment. He called himself Jean Park, sent out demo-tapes, and soon landed a fat recording contract with Sony Music. “They threw so much money at me, it was amazing, hundreds of thousands of German marks,” he remembers. “But they wanted to develop me as this glamorous rock star. I realized soon this was not my thing.”
I, in turn, realized that my influence on my ex-student was a lot stronger than I’d suspected. At the time, I was an amused fan of the schlockmeister American film director Russ Meyer. Unknown to me, Andi chose to have his second music video directed by Meyer. It was shot in the Nevada desert and at Meyer’s mansion in Hollywood as a musical remake of Meyer’s most famous film, Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
Working with Meyer didn’t go over well with Andi. He was mad at me because in the scene where a big-busted pussycat tried to pin him between the front bumper of a car and a rock wall, Andi was afraid he was going to get crushed. While Andi was fighting for his life, Meyer was screaming, “More, more! Faster, faster!” Andi decided Meyer was a murderous moron, and it was entirely my fault that he’d fallen into the hands of this psychopath. It’s a sore subject between us to this day.
The contract with Sony was for two records, but Andi decided he didn’t want to be a rock star. “I couldn’t really do what I wanted to do,” he says. “I was more fascinated by interesting sounds or at the very least I would’ve liked to have a band. Jean Park was not the future, Jean Park was rather reminiscent of ’80s rock stars. So I quit.”
With the Sony money he built a home recording studio and retreated happily into obscurity, doing whatever he felt like doing, just working by himself, experimenting with sounds. As his former teacher, I was reminded of a quote from Baudelaire: “Genius is none other than childhood formulated with precision.” Andi had not become an adult. In daily life he was as hapless as ever. He still got easily bored and could concentrate only when he was enticing his instruments to produce new sounds.
I moved to New York and Andi moved to Berlin, where he met Jan St. Werner. “I had found somebody who understood what I was doing!” Andi says. “We were interested in the same things. We even made the same kind of music, which was different from anything else in existence.” Soon Mouse on Mars was born, and the duo was sending out demo tapes. “Not a single record company in Germany had any idea what to do with this kind of musical weirdness, no takers,” Andi says. Mouse on Mars widened their net and a tape reached the then up-and-coming British label Too Pure. “At least they called back,” Andi says. “But it was just to inform us that something was wrong with the tape.” Andi send another tape, and of course that one sounded just as damaged. The label informed them that the resonances were kind of woozy, and Mouse on Mars informed them that this was intentional. “They didn’t understand it either,” says Andi. “But they deemed it interesting and wanted to release it.”
The first Mouse on Mars record, Vulvaland, came out in 1994, and the music critic Sean Cooper of AllMusic felt he had to invent new words to describe this new music, calling it “a wibbly, barely digital match of ambient texturology with experimental strains of techno, dub, and Krautrock. The A-side is a prize, cultivating a weird, electronics-based avant-pop vibe as successful as it is unique.”
Mouse on Mars was on the map, and they soon had a dedicated following worldwide. They never labeled their music “techno” or “electronic.” They use computers because it’s practical, and they had to develop their own software to make the music they wanted. The apps are sold via iTunes and are fun to play with, even for a layperson.
Mouse on Mars has collaborated with visual artists, including Rosa Barba and Karl Kliem, and they’ve exhibited their work in such esteemed institutions as the Düsseldorf Kunsthalle and the Munich Kunstverein. Their new project is an array of MIDI-triggered percussion robots that play in a totally dark room. Their sounds trigger light flashes. The very last sound is processed as a lasting finale and the audience simultaneously experiences after-images on the retina.
While I think the robots themselves are impressive sculptural art pieces, Andi sees them differently. “It’s like when you look at a painting,” he explains. “You might have all sorts of emotions while you’re looking at it, but what happens to you when you turn around to go home? What do you feel then?” Andi wants to know what happens after the last note fades away. What is left? What kinds of emotions resonate? He is also of the opinion that music should be experienced with more than one sense, and so he’s trying to create what he calls a “psycho-acoustic effect.”
Despite his success, Andi hasn’t changed much over the years. He still hates rules and is still testing boundaries. His accountant keeps a file called “police” for his endless traffic and parking violations. He managed to impress on his two beautiful children that rebellion is a waste of effort, but it’s a lesson he has never fully learned himself.
I am immensely proud when Andi tells me that he considers me important to his success, though I never felt I did very much. “All you did was tell me that I’m OK, made me believe that I’m good at what I’m doing,” he says. “It was just a matter of accepting myself, to see what I could do, wanted to do, and then go and do it. Now I always have this blind trust that everything will work out, no matter what I do.”