Jon Mueller on bringing Death Blues to an end
The experimental project closes up with a June 10 show at the Shitty Barn in Spring Green.
Jon Mueller has pursued his Death Blues project, which started in 2011 and concludes with a June 10 show at the Shitty Barn in Spring Green, amid what was already a physically and intellectually demanding few years, for both the Milwaukee-based drummer and his audiences. The project has explored the concept of mortality and the importance of being present in each moment, using the fact of death as a motivation for deliberately basking in the fleeting wonders of life. Across four albums (2012's Death Blues and Here and 2014's Non-Fiction and Ensemble), video works, live performances, and written material including the Death Blues manifesto and the book that accompanies the vinyl edition of Ensemble, the project has engulfed dozens of collaborators. The music itself has spanned from the kind of abrasive, disciplined experimentation you'd expect if you're familiar with his solo work (especially on the two extended tracks of Non-Fiction) to the more accessible orchestration of Ensemble, which goes unabashedly for big emotional moments, like the swirling bewilderment of “Loss" and the graceful, hopeful crescendos of “Reentry."
The undertaking is all the more impressive in light of everything Mueller has had going on before and during Death Blues. Consider some of his solo performances in recent years in Madison, which centered around hypnotic, grueling solo-drums pieces. In 2010, Mueller played his piece Metals at the Project Lodge, concluding it by shining a blaring set of stage lights into the audience (in emulation of a metal-show tradition). On a Wednesday night in 2012, Mueller opened for guitarist Bill Orcutt with a different 30-minutes-straight-of-drumming piece in the coffeeshop area of Union South, disrupting a few nearby study sessions and even provoking one student to walk right up and yell at Mueller during the set. Last October at the Dragonfly Lounge, Mueller achieved similarly pummeling yet entrancing effects with just a Turkish bass drum and his own looped, jabbering, chanting vocals. The past few years have also seen Mueller touring and making two albums in Volcano Choir (a collaboration with Justin Vernon and members of Collections Of Colonies Of Bees and All Tiny Creatures) and playing a couple of reunion shows with his late-'90s/early-oughts band Pele, whose instrumental rock combines conversational, flowing melodies with a deceptively tense rhythm section. Mueller has also been turning his site Rhythmplex into a label and publishing imprint, and preparing a new piece, Initiation, which he will debut at the Eaux Claires music festival in July.
For the final Death Blues show at the Shitty Barn, Mueller will perform selections from all four Death Blues releases here, with help from collaborators Marielle Allschwang, Nathaniel Heuer, Jim Warchol, and Ken Palme. Ahead of the show, Mueller talked with me about why he's ending the project, how it's changed his approach to music, and his idea for having more shows in the morning.
Tone Madison: Why are you ending Death Blues now, and how did you decide it would be with this show?
Jon Mueller: That's kind of a complicated question, I guess. The reason to end it is that, I mean, from the beginning, even, it was created to be a project. It was never a traditional band, per se. It was a project that sort of had a story to tell, and I feel told it over the course of all the things that it did in terms of music and text and visuals and events. Once things got to the Ensemble stage, that was sort of the climax to the arc. I felt that the Ensemble event at Alverno Presents could have potentially been the end, but when Shitty Barn approached me about doing something there, it really spoke to an idea that I had at the very beginning of the project in terms of their format for how they present things, being a more intimate crowd and having it be a little more personal and communal. I felt that spoke very strongly to the project and would have been a great place to do something at any point in the project's lifetime, but certainly a perfect way to end it in that situation.
Tone Madison: It seems like given the themes that you're trying to explore with the project, it makes sense that it would be a finite thing, where for at least some elements of it, an audience member has to be there in the moment to take part.
Jon Mueller: Exactly, right. Something like Alverno Presents was a challenge in terms of having access to a larger audience in a theater setting, and it can be harder to have a personal interaction with people in that situation, and we tried to deal with that in a number of ways, but I think something like Shitty Barn, by nature is built around interacting as a group of people and sharing something together and it not being a presentation, so to speak, where you have somebody on a stage saying, “Here's my work" and that's it. I hesitate because that's still fundamentally what's happening, but it's in a situation that's not so formal. What I appreciate about what the people at Shitty Barn are doing is, they're doing things on a very serious level. I think there's a lot of times in music where you have people with some sort of dilapidated situation or space saying, “Oh, hey, we could have music here," and just sort of allowing access to this space and saying, “There can be music here, so why don't we have music here?" And then you book something and have some people randomly show up. I think the way Shitty Barn is doing it is sort of inviting people to an experience to say, “Yeah, there's this weird space and certainly we could have music here, but let's take it very seriously and build upon the things that are possible in this kind of situation that aren't possible in other situations." That's a really important way to look at it that I think a lot of people are missing.
Tone Madison: What do you have planned in terms of the material for the show?
Jon Mueller: It's gonna draw from all the Death Blues recordings, actually. There's going to be a wide range of stuff covered and nothing that we haven't done before, but just sort of all blended together in a different way. We're all excited about that part of it, too, and I think it will be a nice overview for people who have seen some of the performances in the past, but also, for someone who hasn't seen any of it, I think we're covering the whole range of energy that was sort of put forth in some of the music. There are definitely differences in energy from each record, and I think the performances of that material had a different level of energy, and part of the goal is to cover all those points in one performance, which I think will be pretty exciting and potentially exhausting. [Laughs]
Tone Madison: Especially having Non-Fiction and Ensemble come out pretty close to each other last year was interesting, just given how different those two recordings are.
Jon Mueller: I mean, that's one of the challenges, to sort of pair all this music together, but I do feel there's a thread between it all. There are differences, certainly, between all of it, but the fact is that Ensemble began with the guitar tracks from the self-titled record, so there is a thread through it all, and I feel like in the live performance, that does allow a way to sort of bring some of that cohesiveness out more so than what's seen on the recordings.
Tone Madison: How has your perspective on the project changed since you started it?
Jon Mueller: One of my hopes for it was that it would just allow me to do something differently with music. At the time I was thinking about what project to work on next musically. I certainly had some ideas, sonically, of what I was interested in pursuing, but it was speaking to a lot of these older forms of music and instrumentation and playing, and certainly there's a lot of stories that are involved with that, so then I started thinking more about those things. I happened to be in New Orleans at the time, and that experience spoke a great deal to me as well. All these things came together to say that, at some point, on some level, as musician, music isn't really all you're thinking about or all you're really working with, at least in my opinion. I'm not interested in only thinking about sound or something. I think there's a whole experience around what music is. Really, my hope was to do something different, [and explore] how I could sort of deal with a broader idea than just simply playing a drum. In the end, what it ended up revealing was that it was very satisfying to think about a project in this way. It's sort of influenced, going forward, other things that I'm interested in doing, and what even my role and experience as a musician is has sort of changed because of that, and it's moving me further away from the idea of pursuing any opportunities to say, just play drums in a band. I'm so much more interested in these larger experiences, or at least trying to find situations where I can help build onto a larger experience than just playing a very specific role in something.
I think it's just made me a little bit more—"critical" is the wrong word, because its not about a judgmental thing. It's not about saying, “This is the way things should be done, and just playing in a band is not the way music should be handled." I'm not saying that at all. I feel like for myself personally, I've become a lot more concerned with meaning and purpose in whatever work it is one does, so I feel, again, as a drummer, trying to figure out what it is I'm involved in and sort of what that says on a bigger scale beyond just playing. Any opportunities that have come up over time, certainly since Death Blues started, it's made me think a little more intensely about why I would do something or what it's saying and what it means beyond simply being able to do it. Again, the Shitty Barn thing is a great example of that. Instead of just saying, “Yeah, we have a room, let's have some people play some music here," it's like, “Well, what does that mean? What could you do with that, and how do you communicate that experience to the world and the people you're inviting into it." This project has made me do a similar kind of thing with just being a drummer. I have a drum kit and I can play drums, but that doesn't mean I'm just gonna start—I mean, you know what I mean? I'm not gonna just do anything. I'm not gonna just jump in anywhere and be a session guy because I can play an instrument. It's just thinking about it a little bit more and trying to understand what potential effect it has, with whatever I do, on the community, the listeners.
I've played on a lot of records, and one of the concerns I have, looking back on that as I get older, is what did that all say? I feel like when I was younger, there was really this sense of hustle and wanting to do as much as possible and play as much as possible and collaborate as much as possible, and just quantity. That's not to say that a lot of it isn't quality. I felt very good about a lot of it. But it felt a little bit more on the driven side as opposed to on the considerate side and purpose side, and I feel like I'm just moving more in that direction now.
Tone Madison: And I think that's a process a lot of people go through in their lives, starting out young and hungry and gradually finding a focus once they've really thrown themselves into a lot of things.
Jon Mueller: I think some people get it earlier on than I did, and I feel somewhat envious of that, but that's the way it goes. You live and learn, and hopefully find whatever it is you're looking for at some point.
Tone Madison: What do you want this project to really leave people with? What's the posthumous life of it, once people have taken part of the finite experience and also spent more time with the recordings and other more permanent elements?
Jon Mueller: I don't know if I really have a very distinct definition of what people are supposed to have from this. I just know what I wanted to say with it and what it meant to me and what I wanted to do. Part of the idea with that was to create something that in some ways seemed very direct and very directive, but then cloud it up enough with enough obscurity and enough potential for questioning that that's where everybody's role sort of steps into it and where they define some ideas they have based on the project. At the very least, I would hope the project was an impetus for people to think about certain things that are very personal for them that they don't even necessarily need to talk to anybody about, but that just sort of raises some questions about what they're doing with their lives and how they see that and how they might want to see it change or reevaluate certain things. I can't say what that is for everyone, but my hope is that at least the project created an opportunity to inspire some thoughts like that.
Tone Madison: Do you feel you've succeeded in what you wanted to say?
Jon Mueller: Yes, and that's really why I feel like the project has sort of fulfilled its purpose in that, again, all of the material, from music, text, the video stuff, the event stuff, everything that I sort of had in mind around it, and even some of the organic things that started, I feel like they're complete. They've sort of said or explained or shown or whatever what they needed to. There's not too much more to do around it in order to make the point, and I think just continuing it on and waiting for new ideas to happen would just become redundant at some point. I feel like that's sort of contradictory to some of the ideas in the project, so to do that would just seem sort of pointless to me. There's been invitations to do other events throughout the rest of this year, and I've just had to turn them down because I really feel like everything about this project has been very purpose driven and every activity has been very considered, and I feel like it's said what it has to say.
Tone Madison: In the course of doing this, you've branched out into creating a publishing imprint, Rhythmplex. How do you see that panning out in the future?
Jon Mueller: It feels really good to have some direction with it beyond the scope of Rhythmplex being something about any musical activity I'm involved in. That was something I was sort of grappling with for a while. I feel like there's a sense of direction and I came out of this project with that, and I feel like it's created some opportunity to do some new projects and feel like there's a place for them to exist within. Some of the stuff that I'm interested in doing doesn't involve a lot of typical stuff from the music industry, so it sort of acts as a place for some of these projects to exist. For instance, the Initiation project that I'll be debuting at Eaux Claires, again, it's a record that's not any kind of physical or digital format. I can't seek out a record label for that. Some of these more conceptual, complex projects, I think Rhythmplex will be a good way to present them. There's some other stuff in the works involving video that, again, will be a way to sort of publish these things and be the owners of these things, rather than try to find and convince somebody else of some sort of crazy idea that I have that will take work to get somebody else to understand, I can just easily produce these things on my own and jump over that initial hurdle of trying to explain it to somebody.
Tone Madison: How have these projects changed the way you spend your time from day to day?
Jon Mueller: Well, on the downside, I would say that it does take away a lot from the actual music playing. There's a lot more, I guess, office work and business thinking involved in terms of how things are going to work and all the different moving pieces that seem interesting, and arranging those and facilitating how they're going to work logistically, and things like that. It has taken its toll to some degree on the hands-on playing. But then again, that's no different necessarily than being in an office from 9 to 5 and working for somebody and coming home and doing it in your spare time. It's kind of a different way of thinking about it, I guess. I think in the end, it's all good, because it's all feeding into the idea. That seems a little vague. I feel like working on some of this more office kind of stuff inspires the idea to the point where the playing is a little bit more directed and vice versa. The playing can directly inspire ideas, too.
A lot of my work over the past year has been sort of on this inference-based, very long-form pieces that sort of build over time and are very repetitive. I've been working on this acoustic drum piece and I'm trying to get to the point where it's sort of this two-hour performance of continuous playing and building energy over the course of between an hour and two hours. I've just been doing that as sort of an exercise, and then because of that playing, it started giving me ideas for performances, and what would that be like and is anybody interested in something like this, and what kind of context would it be in? Something that has been interesting to me for many, many years is having shows in the morning. There's a system to everything, right? So the system is, a music show happens at a bar at 10 p.m. and it's somewhat noisy and there's alcohol and there's sort of this scene that exists. There's the people you see and the stuff that happens, and that's sort of the way things are done. I've always been interested in fucking with everything, and that's no exception. What would happen if a show was in the morning? How would that make people think differently about what it is even to go out to an event and how that feels and how the aesthetics of that scenario affect a person in terms of how they are paying attention to music or experiencing music. And what venues are willing to have a show in the morning, and what's that like, and what are those people like, and how is that different from people who are booking bar shows on a Thursday night or something? It's sort of taking music and using it to find this whole other experience. So, to get back to your question, just playing sort of inspires all these ideas for, OK, now I've got all this office work to do, now I've got to figure out how to put something together and talk to other people and see if it's even possible. It sort of feeds off each other. That's sort of what's happening now with Rhythmplex.
Tone Madison: What else is next for you?
Jon Mueller: I do have a number of solo things coming up. Initiation, there's some other events with that in the future as well, and part of the work is to pursue other opportunities for those performances. But I really am also interested in sort of focusing on kind of reevaluating my solo performance and what I do with that. I kind of just described to you one aspect of that, and that's something I feel is more of an experiment than a real focused project, but I feel like everything is sort of tied together in some way. I think what that experiment reveals, some new ideas will come out of that. I just did a three-week tour of the U.S., and in February I did the West Coast, and that piece has evolved and changed to some degree, and there might be some stuff I do continuing or elaborating on that. Then there's some potential group stuff that I'm going to be doing that I can't really talk about right now, but that I'm very excited about. We'll see how it comes together, so I can't really say much more about that until it does become something.