Part 1

Name: Jon Mueller
Nationality: American
Occupation: Composer / performer
Bands/Projects: Solo percussion and drumming / Volcano Choir / Collections of Colonies of Bees / Pele
Labels: Type / Table of the Elements / Taiga / SIGE / Important Records
Musical Recommendations: Laura Cannell and Benoit Lizen, because they are from another time and have graciously visited ours, and a third, The Gurdjieff Ensemble, because they bring us to another time.

If you enjoyed this interview with Jon Mueller, you can find out more about his work in his homepage. Or read an earlier version of the 15 Questions interview with him at tokafi.

When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences?

I have thought about musical ideas since I can remember. Early on, I couldn’t do anything with them, but my imagination was always working – a guitar part, a vocal thing or lyric – and this active imagination lead me toward eventually learning how to play instruments. After I started playing drums around the age of 14, I was in a variety of bands and some of that early imagination now had a way to get put to use.

Around age 15 or so, I started making my own tapes of improvised songs of guitar and drums. They were quite unlistenable, yet I dubbed a few on to cassette, made collage and photocopied covers and gave them to friends, who likely didn’t want to listen to them either. But for some reason, going through the process of turning ideas into things was important to me. It was these kinds of experiences that struck something in me, and likely why I went on to start more serious labels later in life.

For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?

I was always interested in energy, and if there wasn’t enough of it, the music didn’t strike me. So, even though I focused on a variety of genres, even when I was really young, energy was the key element.

As for technique, at some point, I realized that I could never really do what anyone else was doing. I could only do what I did. That became very frustrating and I knew that if I didn’t find a way out of it, if I didn’t find a way to make my relationship to the instrument personal and independent, that I might end up quitting. It was then that I began working with vibrating drums via external sound sources. For years after this direction, I didn’t actually play the drums with my hands, even though I still considered that what I was doing was playing drums. This phase became very personal and I understood the drums in a completely different way. I saw that what I could do, or did, was not necessarily so important, but that the drums themselves contained a much larger range of interesting results beyond what standard technique enabled them to produce.

What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?

Looking back, I’d say the main challenges were ambition and ideas getting in the way of producing something more rooted. I needed to figure out why I was doing what I did, and that takes time and thinking.

Tell us about your studio, please. What were criteria when setting it up and how does this environment influence the creative process? How important, relatively speaking, are factors like mood, ergonomics, haptics and technology for you?

I think environment does have an effect, but not necessarily in a way that determines “good or bad” music. For me, I’ve done really satisfying work in relatively dull or even unpleasant spaces. It all depends on the energy you’re able to bring to the work.

But I do think, in terms of practice and writing, that organization is important. You should be able to easily access what you need to create in a moment’s notice. I’ve recently remodelled my studio and now it feels much more organized, allowing me to focus more on the work and accomplish tasks without too many distractions or delays. 

What are currently some of the most important tools and instruments you're using?

Really, the most important tools for me are repetition and energy control. With any drum I’m working with, my approach is to repeat patterns or phrases over extended periods of time while keeping some sense of development happening. It takes practice but I think the results can be very satisfying. Right now, the instruments I’ve been focusing on are 4 different sized tom toms and using their different tones to create bubbling melodic patterns that hopefully cause the listener, over time, to forget that they are listening to drums and experience something entirely different.

Many contemporary production tools already take over significant parts of what would formerly have constituted compositional work. In which way do certain production tools suggest certain approaches, in which way do they limit and/or expand your own creativity? Are there any promising solutions or set-ups capable of triggering new ideas inside of you as a composer?

The ability to loop vocals has allowed me to approach the voice in a similar way as I do with percussion. This technology has enabled me to make both the instruments more aligned, almost considering them in the same instrument family. This has been a very important part of my work in recent years.

Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where do ideas come from, what do you start with and how do you go about shaping these ideas?

Generally, it starts with a single idea. With my recent record Tongues, I had a melody stuck in my head for quite some time. I would wake up in the morning, and there it was. I would get out of the shower and it would be playing in my head. No matter where I was, this thing kept reappearing. I thought, “What can I do with this?” I began thinking about how percussion and vocals might work with it. I had a few ideas that I started mapping out on paper over a few months.

Eventually, I felt I had enough to go into the studio with. I had two long structures that I felt I could turn into something once I began to work. After recording all the percussion and vocal foundations, listening back brought a barrage of ideas for what to do next. And this is generally what happens. As productive and creative as it might seem, it’s also a time to be critical. If the new ideas go too far and take over too much, then you realize the process can potentially never end, that there’s always more you can build, and that can be a labyrinth you never find your way out of.

With more and more musicians creating than ever and more and more of these creations being released, what does this mean for you as an artist in terms of originality? What are some of the areas where you currently see the greatest potential for originality and who are some of the artists and communities that you find inspiring in this regard?

I think it’s important to not do things simply in an attempt to be different. I would rather focus on understanding what my interests are, why they are important to me and what I want to translate about those things that seems meaningful to me.

I am interested in traditional folk music that wasn’t created with the intent to be a product or public performance. And I’m curious about how that direction might reveal something that changes our understanding of the role of music today.

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