Life, the universe, and Jon Mueller’s Death Blues
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While Jon Mueller may be involved in a number of different projects across the musical spectrum, he almost always approaches percussion with a pummeling sense of minimalism, one that overwhelms and hypnotizes at the same time. So Mueller’s latest project, Death Blues, seems like a bizarre and excitingly maximalist turn for the local musician. The multidisciplinary project, which reaches its first climax in the form of Death Blues (No Time Like The Present) at Alverno College’s Pitman Theatre Nov. 16 and 17, is a show that involves music, dance, visual art, food, and smells. (Yes, smells.) Along with Mueller himself, the show will feature choreography from Molly Shanahan; design work from Dylan Schleicher; music from members of Altos, Field Report, Testa Rosa, and Juniper Tar; and food from pop-up restaurant And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Crumbs. In order to keep everything straight, The A.V. Club sat down with Mueller to talk about all things Death Blues.
The A.V. Club: So what is Death Blues all about?
Jon Mueller: Death Blues deals with the fact that we all have a limited time, and what we do in that time is really all we have to work with. What I’m trying to do, from a project perspective, is address that in a number of ways: through writing, through music, through experience. In the past I would just come up with an idea and say, “I want to make a record about this that may or may not mean anything to anybody.” But for this project, I think that it addresses more of a universal concept. I thought that limiting it to just a record would not be complete enough, so I’m trying to take different approaches to it this time.
AVC: Previously, your work has been very minimal, but this project incorporates so many different things, and the live show involves a dozen or so musicians. Do you feel that Death Blues is a natural progression from these ideas?
JM: I want it to connect to the older stuff, although it may not seem like it on the surface. For the most part, the music is singular instruments: all acoustic, very natural. But in order to pull off what I did on the recordings live, I needed that many people to do all these specific parts. If you take those individual parts—like, for instance, the hammer guitar—that has ties back to the Strung record I did. There’s a whole other record that’s going to be in a bigger, orchestral direction; but, again, it’s these singular instruments functioning on their own. I think it ties into the past, but it does it in a way that doesn’t become a repeat of the same idea. It’s trying to play with minimalism in a different kind of way.
AVC: Because of the different approaches you are taking, are you working with other people?
JM: Definitely. Musically, there are a variety of people involved. I’ve never worked with dance before. Scent is involved, taste is involved. I’ve done things with taste before, but it was practice, I think, working towards something on this scale. I haven’t done anything with any of the senses on this sort of scale.
AVC: What are some forms that Death Blues have taken so far?
JM: Mostly, it’s been a musical focus, because that’s the most usual thing for me to be working with. But there have been a few people who have written things that have been posted at the Death Blues site. I have a manifesto that will be published on a site that distributes writing about creating change. I think that Death Blues is, at some point, about creating change for yourself and your perspective on things.
AVC: Do you feel that those collaborations have changed your thinking on the central concept?
JM: Oh my god, yes. The whole process of doing this is really interesting. The idea inspires you to do all this stuff, but in doing all this stuff it makes you reflect on what the core idea was. Everyone I’m working with on this project, not just collaborators, but everybody surrounding it, is this constant reminder that there is something ironic about the importance and necessity in analyzing each moment and being present in a specific time and place and not worrying about the future. Not worrying about what you are going to do next because you don’t really know what that is or what it will be. Because of all the work that happens when you start collaborating with other people, when you start planning things for the future with other people, instantly you start to realize that you’re contradicting a lot of what it is you are trying to express, and that’s been really challenging for me. It’s been really stressful, to be honest, because I felt like in order to execute some of the things I wanted to do, I had to contradict it in some ways.
AVC: Do you think the contradiction is important to get through?
JM: I think it’s important because it’s real, and no matter what kind of ideas we come up with or what philosophies we want to consider, there’s always that creeping grey area that seeps in, and it’s not as easy as you thought.