Autobahn road trip 

From Stockhausen to Kraftwerk, from the recesses of sonic laboratories to the crates of DJs around the world, Germany certainly has a grand tradition of electronic music. But then again (hello, Detroit!), don’t we all? As Andi Toma, one-half of Mouse on Mars, explains, "Very often people will say, ‘Well, you’re the sons of Kraftwerk,’ but I can’t understand that. They say, ‘Well, you go on with their work,’ but I much more have the feeling that we just start at the same point, as electronic musicians.

"I don’t know if we’re carrying on with the kind of culture that was created in Germany. I think we combine everything we listen to, which was created worldwide," he says.

Toma, along with Jan St. Werner, flips the switches, twists the knobs and even (gasp!) strums the strings in Mouse on Mars. By combining the tones of the avant-garde sound lab with beats from the underground dance floor, Mouse on Mars creates upbeat electronic art-pop instrumentals that sound like they’d be equally at home in an art gallery installation or cranked out of some future jukebox. Since 1994’s Vulvaland, this Cologne-based duo has been traveling down its own autobahn. And with a wink more than a nod, they turn the Tago Mago of Can into so much tamagnocchi.

"Tamagnocchi"? It’s not on any menu or in any dictionary, but there it is, a song title on Mouse on Mars’ 1997 record Autoditacker, the group’s third album. Mouse on Mars has a propensity for tagging its tunes with neological nonsense titles such as "Gogonal," a song wherein studio clanking transforms into jumping-jack squelches. Or "Distroia," which sounds like an Alec Empire parody. Or "X-Flies," which is self-explanatory. Toma explains, "A lot of stuff today is too defined. It’s defined to the end, so that everybody knows perfectly what it means. We have a fear about that. We don’t want to be defined to death. That’s what we do, ‘remixes’ of words.

"When you change words, they can grow, they have their own life, they get a new shape and they have more freedom. And that’s what we try to do with the music. Not being too defined, like ‘Oh, god, this is a funk song, and that is a rock song’," he says.

The duo’s latest, Niun Niggung, features a density of scrambled sound that they’ve avoided in their (relatively) minimalist past. The glee that Mouse on Mars brings to its audio concoctions gets tempered with the anxiety that comes with dancing in unfamiliar territory. Sinister sensations lurk around many musical corners, beginning with the very first corner turned. The first song, "Download Sofist," begins with acoustic guitar interplay and brass arrangements, the kind which you would never expect on a Mouse on Mars record. At the end, it’s transformed into a static gob of atonal distortion. Elsewhere, real-time string and brass sections get cut up in the studio, while percolating digital beats come to organic life.

As Toma tells of the creation of Niun Niggung, "It was not about finishing a record or finishing a song. It was more like searching for something, the importance of music. Listening to music was much more important than having a result. And this took a long time. As we say in Germany, the way you go is more important than the arrival."

The time spent on Niun shows in the quality of its densely layered pastiche-pop. Still, Toma says it might be time for a change. "We want to keep it simple next time," he says.

"But actually, we say that every time we start a record."

Speaking of change, when Toma and St. Werner play in Detroit this Sunday, Mouse on Mars will be a little different from the last time the duo played Detroit. Back in ‘97 the two danced in place as they constantly tinkered with a tabletop filled with electronics. Freeform beats took on lives of their own, often sounding like nothing on any Mouse on Mars album, yet still sounding exactly like Mouse on Mars. This time around, however, Mouse on Mars has a different approach to live performance. Explains Toma, "We use a drum kit, guitar, bass, two keyboards, some kinds of effects, like space echo, and a laptop, all kinds of stuff. This is our rock version, our ‘monster rock’ version of Mouse on Mars." On this tour, live drummer Dodo Nkishi complements the duo, just as he does on Niun Niggung.

"I think when we do the rock versions, the songs are quite recognizable," Toma continues. "But we play different versions. So you say, ‘Ah, this sounds like "Gogonal,"’ or ‘This might be "Frosch."’ It’s more recognizable than when we do the techno set where we just play parts of songs."

And by traversing the generic distinctions between techno and rock, between popular and avant-garde, between electronics and "live" instrumentation, even between listening and creating, Mouse on Mars maintains its distinctly buoyant personality while playing just outside definition’s reach. Greg Baise gets electric in the Metro Times. E-mail "Babaluma Bouillabaisse" Baise writes frequently squelchy sounds for the Metro

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