Interview: Jon Mueller

Mueller is one of a handful of artists that has really, really excited me over the past couple of years. Many of his recent releases have centred on duets between drums and the wordless voice, digging deep within solitary ideas over vast stretches of time, dragging me beneath the surface of seemingly primal acts. His new album “Tongues” (due for release on May 27th 2016) arguably stands as his most powerful and declarative engagement with vibration and persistent gesture. Below, Mueller and I discuss the maximisation of mental and emotional states, his relationship with the wordless voice and the possibility that “Tongues” might be his most personal work yet.

How long have you been working on Tongues?

It was made in stages over the course of a year or so. I liked having some time in between each phase to see how it might change or develop. Oftentimes, I approach records like capturing an idea and inspiration before it disappears, but with Tongues, there was a long development, giving it a chance to be realized in a way that is different from the original idea.

You worked with Cory Allen and William Ryan Fritch for this one. At what point in the creation process of Tongues did it become evident that you wanted them to be involved?

The record was already very far along, potentially done, before they became involved. Yet I still had doubts about it. So I wanted to see how their involvement might change the record. It didn’t seem like a risky idea at all. I had lived with it a long time and saw it in a very specific way and it was difficult for me to imagine it any other way. I needed to think about it as a different record and I knew their work would help that.

You mentioned to me that you consider Tongues to be some of your most personal material yet. What is it about this record that makes the personal connection particularly strong?

It is definitely the furthest I’ve pursued the combination of percussion and vocals. So on one hand, I feel it’s something of a technical achievement for me, but also, because of the amount of vocals, there’s another layer of ‘me’ in the mix that I haven’t explored before. I already think about percussion in a very personal way, so with the degree of playing and singing on this record, I think it is the most involved I’ve been in any music I’ve ever been a part of.

How easy was it to invite Allen and Fritch into this composition, particularly given your personal connection with it?

I trust and admire both of them, so it was a very simple and understood decision to ask both of them for their help.

The drums on Tongues sound wonderful. There’s a real physicality to their capture; with headphones on, it sometimes feels like the drum skin is running along the inside of my head. Do you feel that your approach to recording drums has changed over the years? Have you noticed any changes in terms of what you look to amplify/accentuate in the recording?

The recording approach really hasn’t changed since I’ve started working with Shane Hochstetler. Years ago, I recorded Alphabet of Movements with Greg Norman at Electrical Audio, who, knowing I was from Milwaukee, asked if I ever worked with Shane. From what I understood, Shane generally recorded loud and heavy bands. So, when it came time to record the first Death Blues record, I contacted him, figuring that would be an appropriate record to work on together. We really got along right off the bat. He’s an incredible drummer and definitely considers the sound of the drums very critically. I think my work allowed him to put even more attention on the drum sound than he might when working with bands. Needless to say, I’ve worked with him ever since.

To my ears, your use of wordless vocals feels stronger and bolder with each release. How has your relationship with the wordless voice changed since you started using it?

That is a great question. I think an easy way to describe it is that it’s become like an instrument I feel very comfortable with, and that relationship feels very similar to the one I have with percussion.

Are there plans to play Tongues live? If so, would the pieces adopt a different form than on record?

I don’t have any plans to reproduce this material live. I think it works great as a record and a lot of work was done to make it that way.

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Are there any particular sensations or emotions that arise during or after performing these pieces?

Listening to them is an opportunity for something to happen but I’d rather not imply anything specific.

Your recent releases have all worked with a consistent set of themes: intense repetition and layering, wordless voices…do you feel as though there is a central objective/sound towards which you are working? If so, do you feel as though you’re getting closer with each release?

Maximizing certain mental or emotional states is what I’m interested in. It’s been the basis of my interest in music since I was very young. That is my focus and hopefully that keeps on developing.

When we last spoke, you mentioned that there was a time when Dutch drummer Han Bennink was a particularly important source of influence to you. Is there anyone else occupying that sort of influential role at present?

I’m really just influenced by certain sensibilities. When I discovered Bennink’s playing, it was like seeing a battle of chaos and beauty when listening to him. I listen to a lot of music from many different styles and my main concern, no matter who is playing or what style, is what I can feel going on within the music. When I strongly sense something from someone’s work, it definitely influences how I think about the ways to turn ideas and my personality into sound.

What other music are you listening to at the moment?

I bought a ton of music on tour last year and a lot of my favorites were released on the Ocora label. I’ve been pretty absorbed with these and have even sought out others on the label, though they aren’t easily available in the US, unfortunately. I’ve also been stuck on Laura Cannell’s records. They’ve captivated me unlike anything in recent time. It’s experiences like this that always make me wonder what else is out there, and has been out there for some time, that would change my life if I found it.

What’s next for you and your music?

The first part of this year is focused on solo percussion performances, culminating with a recording session and concert at the first Shaker settlement in Albany, NY. The goal is to put together a document from that experience in book form. In late summer I’ll be part of the Eaux Claires festival again, doing a special performance of A Magnetic Center with Dawn Springer, Christal Wagner, Ania Hidalgo and Teresa Mueller.

Tongues on Rhythmplex – rhythmplex.com/product/jon-mueller-tongues-lp