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The Boston Phoenix X factor

Mouse on Mars's Rorschach pop

By Chris Tweney

OCTOBER 20, 1997:  On first listen, the latest CD from Mouse on Mars, Autoditacker (Thrill Jockey), is apt to come across as a user-friendly experiment in pop techno. Mid-tempo tunes loosely built around the circuitry of electronica and its spacy chillout cousin, trance, are filled to the brim with melodious beeps, clicks, whirs, and dubby bass lines. Even the inevitable machine noises sound as if they came from, well, happy machines: this is a well-oiled mix.

After a couple more hearings, however, Autoditacker reveals a more unsettling side. Spookiness is common to three-quarters of all electronic music, but Mouse never resort to the cheap thrills of horror-movie samples. Their music is frightening because you're never quite sure where you are. It's like those random-dot stereogram posters that show a sailboat when you defocus your eyes: if you can't see the sailboat, paranoia ensues. And Mouse's founding tricksters, the German duo of Jan St. Werner and Andi Toma, like it that way. They've created a complex, multidimensional musical stereogram with an image buried inside. The catch is that everyone is meant to see a different image.

Making subtle fun of the audience is a favorite tactic of Mouse on Mars. Over the phone from Germany, Werner says that the band kid about getting arena gigs and sending up the usual stadium-crowd animation: "We thought about saying, 'Everybody say something different,' and people would say, 'Something different!' " The joke gets at the way Mouse want to be heard. Their music doesn't invite you to figure out the technique or get lost in the beat, Werner says -- it's "more something that makes you smile or makes you feel a bit more sure about what you do [because] these people had some freedom about what they wanted to do."

Like their previous work on Vulvaland and the recent Cache Coeur Naïf -- an EP featuring Stereolab chanteuses Laetitia Sadier and Mary Hansen -- Autoditacker perches uncomfortably in the space defined by experimental techno, ambient, and krautrock. (Mouse on Mars will be embarking on a tour with Stereolab that hits the Paradise on November 7.) Krautrock is perhaps the closest match. Fans of the influential Kraftwerk and Can will find Mouse's sophisticated reworkings of pop formats more or less familiar. But this music is far from being a rehash of '70s electronic experimentation. Indeed, Werner claims, "We never really listened to Can and Kraftwerk at the time when we started doing music. We are our own heroes."

That said, Mouse seem to absorb musical influences through osmosis, or just by breathing the electronic musical air of Düsseldorf and Cologne, the band's double headquarters. Parodies of techno's stomp-stomp-stomp rhythm and synthesizer corniness show up on tracks like "Twift Shoeblade," which sounds like a MIDI sequencer played through a speaker that's being flushed down a very large, acoustically perfect toilet. "Tamagnocchi" melds electrified fishtank bubbling sounds with an oddly out-of-place guitar groove to create a captivating psychedelic noodling sequence.

But nothing on the CD is quite so eerie as the track "X-Flies," which (to my ears at least) has distinct snippets of the ambient theme to The X-Files. Werner protests, "I don't know it! I swear I don't know it! We just like this 'X' thing because everything is 'X' at the moment." It's possible that Werner is having another little joke at our expense -- the X-Files theme was a mass popular hit in Europe last year. But if he can be trusted, then the coincidence is startling. Is this a global musical conspiracy, or just another sonic Rorschach blot that lets you hear what you want to hear?

The band would probably answer "neither." In an almost Zen-like approach to making mixes, Werner says that the goal of Mouse on Mars is "getting rid of your intentions," a quiet, middle-of-the-road transcendence. But, he adds, "that doesn't mean that we totally get weird or something, because the intentions are so strong . . . you still have a certain personality to everything you do, and this reflects your intentions." And indeed, the duo make this point without the usual hippy-dippy eclecticism seen in some "Eastern-influenced" electronic musicians (think of the way Brian Eno uses Taoist-cum-Kabalistic flashcards to inspire creativity).

Ultimately the music of Mouse on Mars is not this or that, not one particular genre or another, not the product of some Left Bank philosopher, though traces of familiar genres, philosophers, and beats and melodies are everywhere to be found in it. Their sound is slippery, undulating, devoid of any message. And that anti-statement statement is exactly what Werner and Toma want you to hear. Or not.

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