Academic proclamations, a virus-free voice instrument and a sci-fi aesthetic. ‘AAI’, the new album from Mouse On Mars, is just the sort of extreme boundary-pushing we’ve come to expect from one of electronic music’s most innovative duos

From the very start of the video call with Düsseldorf experimentalists Mouse On Mars, technology attacks. My computer screen should be showing Andi Toma and Jan St Werner, the two childhood friends who became IDM’s most uncategorisable act. What I get instead is Jan’s image replaced by a cat, and Jan cheekily miaowing down his microphone.

When he does switch on his camera, he sounds like another animal altogether – a distressed chipmunk, maybe – his words disappearing into cyclones of high-frequency distortion.

“It’s hard to understand you, Jan,” says Andi. “I think there’s compression on your microphone from the settings we did yesterday.”

We’re here to talk about tech or, more specifically, the futuristic world of artificial intelligence. AI. You know the kind of thing – computer programs beating humans at chess, drones delivering your loo roll, alien androids invading Earth. Mouse On Mars have taken the subject one step further. The title of their 12th album is ‘AAI’ – ‘Anarchic Artificial Intelligence’. Let’s break that down.

The “artificial” bit is the software. Patched together with Berlin AI brainboxes Birds On Mars (no relation) and former SoundCloud programmers Rany Keddo and Derrek Kindle, they’ve created a speech instrument that manipulates the pace and mood of voice inputs, parameter by painstaking parameter.

“We had this browser interface where we played the voice like we would an old-fashioned 1950s synthesiser,” says Jan. “We typed in commands, uploaded them to the server, waited for it to do the calculations, and then downloaded the result. It was reminiscent of the early days of digital tools.”

It’s a far cry from 2019’s collaboration-heavy ‘Dimensional People’ – and well timed, considering how 2020 progressed.

“It was a voice learned by a machine, and it couldn’t spread the virus,” comments Andi dryly.

The “anarchic” part of the album title refers to the human element, and it’s worth us focusing here on one specific human, Louis Chude-Sokei – a Boston University scholar whose academic writing includes impressive phrases like “sonic cartographies” and “technopoets”.

When advising Andi and Jan about the album, he produced a mini-essay that explains the escalation of AI through a political filter, looking at how humanity has coped uneasily with the rise of robots. It’s super-short, about half the length of this article, packing several textbooks’ worth of ideas into a tiny space. It’s as if Louis’ brain is a living zip file.

“Artificial intelligence was defined by its capacity for growth,” reads a sample section. “Authentic intelligence began to lose its sense of superiority. All human beings had left was the power of their prejudices.”

photo: AAI

In contrast, the Wikipedia entry on AI runs to nearly 300 citations and explanatory notes, and my own research for this feature resembles nothing less than a chalkboard from ‘A Beautiful Mind’.

Andi and Jan faced a mind-melting challenge to translate those thoughts into something resembling an electronic music album – until it occurred to them that their conversations with Louis were akin to machine learning, like chatbots jabbering at each other, evolving with each interaction.

“This led to the idea of using an artificial voice,” recalls Jan. “Since Louis was already talking to us, we said, ‘Hey, why don’t we use yours?’.”

And so Louis Chude-Sokei became the primary speech model for the voice instrument, his academic proclamations spliced across 20 tracks, all controlled by machine.

“The whole record is born out of the audible spectrum of his voice,” says Jan. “He gave birth to all the guttural sounds and the little spits and clicks that happen when you speak.”

Much of it, you’ll be pleased to hear, is intelligible.

“New life always announces itself through sound,” recites automaton Louis against blaring foghorns. “Desire is the precondition of knowledge,” he continues over sinister static.

But then there’s the “blah blah blah blah” babble on ‘Walking And Talking’, and the “teebla-blop” he seems to utter on another track. And you begin to wonder how real this Louis is. It sounds more like a bionic baby getting its titanium tonsils around the vagaries of human syntax.

“There was a moment when Louis was like, ‘Holy shit, these guys could ruin my whole life now because they can make me say anything!’,” laughs Jan.

So, onto the “intelligence” part of the title… which could come from how cleverly Mouse On Mars handle what Jan calls “the two giant planetary systems” of voice and language. Separating the two was essential when designing the speech instrument, which had to understand the difference between noise and words.

“Language can live perfectly without any vocal articulation and a voice can exist without a single word,” explains Jan. “So the interface for the voice dealt with sound and all the granulising and modulating and filtering, while there were also features that dealt with language, juggling words around or connecting a vowel with another vowel.”

This is beginning to sound unnervingly like my linguistics A Level (which I failed miserably, as it goes).

Let’s get back to an Electronic Sound comfort zone. Another aspect of technology, of course, is studio equipment. After nearly 30 years in the business, the duo have enough gizmos to construct their own Frankenstein’s monster. Andi seems especially analytical, having gained a reputation for dismantling and reassembling electronic equipment from a young age and somehow managing not to electrocute himself along the way.

“I don’t know how Andi is still alive,” jokes Jan.

The pair have no trouble wrestling with the C15 synthesiser from Stephan Schmitt’s Nonlinear Labs – a handsome beechwood keyboard devoid of MIDI, LFOs or similarly useful controllers.

“It made complete sense that the keyboard didn’t have MIDI because the rhythms on the record are hardly metric,” says Jan. “There are polyrhythms and counter-rhythms, so it was much easier to play stuff by hand.”

They both revel in these limitations, pointing to Sierra Leone’s Kelvin Doe, who as DJ Focus became an internet sensation at the age of 15 when he built a radio station from salvaged trash.

“It’s not just Central Europe or North America that are avant-garde,” argues Jan. “What’s going on in Asia and Africa is insane. There’s this snobbish Western idea that ‘we’re so advanced with our iPhones and our little Apple Macintoshes – we’re the Captain Picards on Earth’, but people in the rest of the world are just laughing at us.”

This brings us back to Louis Chude-Sokei’s studies. These link the concepts of “the made” and “the born” with “masters and slaves”, no doubt recognising that “robot” can be traced back to an old Slavic word meaning “forced labour”.

He also refers to the common assumption that technological wizardry is the domain of the skinny white geek – a fallacy that underplays the legacy of producers of colour, who were central to the rise of dub reggae, electro, house and techno.

“We’ve been thinking about this for a long time,” says Jan. “Why isn’t AI representing those who don’t have such a strong voice in the mainstream political or cultural arena? Why isn’t AI being used to help translate ideas from ethnic groups who have yet to gain access to this technology?”

Because ‘AAI’ addresses artificial intelligence directly, it’s been touted as Mouse On Mars’ most sci-fi work yet. For those of us with an overactive imagination, that raises images of Terminator cyborgs with glowing red eyes or Transformers films replete with confusingly-shot metallic rampages. But it’s not the tech that’s the problem. It’s the humans.

“Technology per se isn’t a bad thing, but we’re creating an endless number of bad things with it,” reckons Jan. “People want the best weapons, the best surveillance devices. Music technology is about injecting the excitement of music through your eardrums right into your neural system. If that space is lost, it’s not worth having that technology.”

“I’m quite positive about it, but I’m not so positive about the people who would take advantage,” agrees Andi. “There will be some who use this opportunity to create cheap food, sell it expensively and not take care of society. Technology works best without the advantage of money and power.”

Photo: AAI

At the time of our video call, Elon Musk had just become the richest person in the cosmos and was flashing his massive rockets on Twitter. Jan admits he wouldn’t want that kind of responsibility.

“I’m not pleading for socialism, but it’s a problem when individuals can get so incredibly rich,” he reasons. “They’ll use any tool available, and technology is the easiest tool of all.”

Andi is keen to make the case for an open-source approach.

“There should be a rule about sharing this income,” he offers. “That would solve a lot of problems in our world.”

This leads me to wonder if Mouse On Mars are Musk-style innovators. I’m pretty sure they could build a rocket, especially considering their band name. Have they, for instance, got a smart fridge?

“Are you best friends with your fridge, Andi?” asks Jan.

“My fridge is very stupid,” replies Andi firmly. “I don’t want to talk to my fridge, and I don’t want it to take care of what I buy and eat.”

“We are technological people,” continues Jan. “But we’re not just going for anything that has an LED in it.”

This comes as a surprise, considering they must spend endless hours holed up in their studio surrounded by gear and tripping over wires. But the guys see technology in its broadest possible sense, with Jan referring to it as “a basic tool that extends our thoughts”.

“If you have a hammer, you get new ideas about what to do with that hammer. If you have a wheel, that wheel serves you very well and might trigger an infinite amount of new ideas,” he explains.

Mouse On Mars aren’t even that bothered about how you listen to ‘AAI’, whether you’ve kitted out your living room as a multi-speaker aural bath, or you’re plugged into 10 quid supermarket headphones with the audio capabilities of a bag of own-brand frozen peas.

“I don’t want to force anyone to listen with a super 360-degree system,” says Andi. “As long as the music works, it’s OK by me.”

Although it must be said that Jan seems slightly less convinced by this line of argument.

“It’s tough how people listen to music on their phone without headphones. They’ll hear it on some crappy system and go, ‘Oh, there’s the bass!’. And it’s not bass, it’s just boosted lower-mids.”

He sounds genuinely horrified.

Although ‘AAI’ wears its theme on its sleeve, it does feel like a distinctly human piece of work. The heavy reliance on Louis’ voice helps, as does the energetic and precise percussion of their long-time drummer Dodo NKishi. This is not the work of androids, but of living and breathing producers who have even chosen to work outside the constraints of MIDI.

“It’s not an AI music album,” maintains Andi. “The interesting thing about it isn’t the technology.”

That said, Jan is clearly quite taken by the new software tools now under the band’s control.

“This is just the beginning – the shellac times of sound,” he says, referring to the early, pre-vinyl era of phonograph records. “We should really start working on a much more elaborate synthesiser.”

With a lockdown-delayed ‘Spatial Jitter’ sound installation in Munich this summer, and an AI-themed project at Berlin’s CTM Festival, ‘AAI’ has come at a good time for Mouse On Mars. Not that they’d rave too much to a music magazine. They’re pragmatic to the end.

“I read a tweet from some dude who said, ‘My debut album is the best electronic album ever made’,” says Jan St Werner. “That could be a sticker on everybody’s record because everyone thinks that they’ve made the most amazing one ever. Even after you’ve done 10, you’re super-excited by a new one. And we do feel good about ours.”

The conversation is winding down when – as if jealous that we’ve moved on to flesh-and-blood feelings and away from mechanical circuits – technology attacks us once again.

“Sorry, my phone is empty,” says Andi Toma as his mobile battery fails, bringing our discussion to an abrupt close.

Perhaps, in the end, the robots won.

‘AAI’ is out on Thrill Jockey

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