One of the most appealing qualities of heavy metal is the virtuosity, the superhuman speed and technicality required by the genre. When I was in high school, my friends could actually quantify their favorites by this measure, and the feud over who was a better band—Morbid Angel or Napalm Death—relied entirely on who was the faster drummer, Pete Sandoval or Danny Herrera. I tended to avoid these arguments because I lacked the requisite primary information, preferring to attend folk festivals with my dad than see Cannibal Corpse with my friends. And while there were occasional bands I loved, as a histrionic teenager my tastes were driven by a yearning for human imperfection—a scarce quality amidst the herculean onslaught of metal.
Almost two decades late for our adolescent quarrels, Jon Mueller’s CD The Whole (Type) has emerged as a serious contender—not only for marking a new peak in drumming virtuosity, but for bridging the gap between my musical interest (raw humanity) and those of my friends (speed and endurance). Using just drums and vocals, Mueller crafts incredibly sophisticated compositions that verge on the eclipsing force of metal, but ultimately present a meditative, hard-working music that has as much in common with the traditional ballads of my folk festivals.
The heart of this balance is Mueller’s aspiration to simplicity and exchange, virtues he’s linked with his admiration of Shaker culture. While it seems an unlikely source of inspiration for new music, Mueller has been propelled by his research of the Christian sect, particularly in their symbiosis of work and communication. Just as the amount of focus and dedication required by metal upends the notion of metalheads as slackers and burnouts, an examination of the Shakers’ unornamented piety reveals a deeper, universal artistry that can be appreciated by everyone. Mueller’s music stands at this intersection where labor, asceticism, transmission, and strength converge from opposite directions, creating an individually-felt new form of beauty.
On February 17, 2011, the New Museum will host the New York premiere of Mueller’s performance “I Almost Expect To Be Remembered As A Chair” based on The Whole. In advance of this performance, Mueller answered a few questions via email about his practice, his past, and what he has in mind for Get Weird:
ES: How did you first encounter the Shaker culture? At what point did you realize you could explore such themes through your music?
JM: For many years, my mom collected Shaker-inspired furnishings, and would refer to them. I didn’t realize the full scope of what they were about until the last couple of years. I began reading every book I could find on them, their history, and their ideas. It’s a very fascinating group of people to me. At the very least, I thought about ways I could nod to some of their theories in music: simplicity, long form work, non-decorative, with a fundamental idea behind it. Beyond music, there’s something compelling about living that way, too.
ES: The Whole is an album that deepens in its magnitude through patience and contemplation. How do you translate this to the live setting?
JM: I think the live situation is both more demanding and rewarding. On the surface, there seems to be much less happening, but the reality is that it’s much more complicated than a recording could ever be. I’ve had more discussions about this with people after performances than I have with them after they’ve heard the record.
You’re known for unusual approaches to playing percussion instruments. Is this kind of exploration an attempt to coax more sound out of an individual instrument, or is it a subversion of the idea of percussion?
It’s less about coaxing, and more about revealing. We’re taught throughout our lives to do things a certain way, because that’s how they’ve historically been done. But does that mean that’s all that material can produce? Drums used to be made from animal parts and used in rituals. Later they were used to keep rhythm in pop bands. There’s an inherent capability in those devices that’s worth exploring, and letting it show you the results, not the other way around. And think about how this applies to non-musical things.
Can you speak a little bit about the differences between your collaborative work in bands and with other artists and your solo practice?
No matter what situation I’m in, I try to use the instrument to find a connection between myself and the situation, hopefully creating an opportunity for others to share an experience together. For some, that opportunity never occurs, but at least that’s the aim. That’s the only root that exists, consciously. How things sound is likely quite different, or similar, depending.
Do you have any thoughts about performing alongside Colin Stetson at the New Museum?
I met Colin very briefly while seeing him at the Brooklyn Vegan Haiti benefit last year. His playing that night with Shara Worden was immense, and I can’t wait to see him play solo.
See Jon Mueller perform at the New Museum on Thursday, February 17. More info: http://www.newmuseum.org/events/524
Ethan Swan is the Education Associate at the New Museum, where he organizes the “Get Weird” music series, manages the Bowery Artist Tribute, and envisions and executes exhibition-related audio guides.
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