Life & Death Blues: Interview With Jon Mueller

Photographer: Kat Schleicher

Jon Mueller is as awesome as it gets. Bio, line one: “My aim is to help people listen and communicate.” One of the most worthy goals I can think of. Plus, the dude plays drums like nobody’s business, founded the continually overlooked Pele, Collections Of Colonies Of Bees, and Volcano Choir, has worked with an insane amount of respectables like Lionel Marchetti, Swans, Bhob Rainey, Rhys Chatham, Marcus Schmickler, and James Plotkin, and has put out killer albums on labels like Type, Important, and the sorely missed Table Of The Elements.

Death Blues is a project of Mueller’s that’s been long in the works. If the project’s name is what caught me first, the statement was a close second. It talks about death, how we live our lives when we grasp that death is inevitable, how to live in the present, and the importance of connecting with others when we all have mortality as common ground. Mueller’s concepts are being embodied in every format imaginable (“writing, recording, images, movement, video, taste, performance, and more”), but the main idea isn’t the media, rather using the media as a means to spark communication.

Mueller stopped by Boston recently on his short tour with James Plotkin in celebration of their new collab 2xLP Terminal Velocity on Taiga and, knowing a little about Death Blues, I was excited to talk to him about it in person. We chatted for a bit, but after I left, all I could think about was Death Blues, what it meant to him, how it came to be, all that good stuff. I’ve been a bit obsessed with death lately, so I also saw this as a great opportunity to talk with someone other than my wife about it.

I got in touch with Jon via email, asking about Death and blues, and got answers about Life and positivity. Not quite what I was expecting but certainly a pleasant surprise. I rambled on about every question that came to mind, from the metaphysical to the musical, and although I didn’t anticipate a response to all of it, he was kind enough to humor my excess & gloom. I’ve left my brainstormy overkill questions intact because why not.
AGB: Was there an epiphanic moment that you can trace the Death Blues project to? Did you encounter a lot of death before realizing the importance of being present in every moment? What kind of important moments do you remember as laying the foundation for the project? How long were you living life as hyper-aware before the project was conceived?

JM: There was a moment. I was walking around New Orleans for hours one morning, having just come out of an intense flu and antibiotics phase. I had never been to the city before, and wanted to see the most I could on foot before my plane left. During this walk, I thought a lot about what was next for me. I had some ideas about what I wanted to do musically, but I was hoping for some kind of context to put those ideas into. That hope led me toward questioning ‘why’ I wanted to do what I wanted to do. I dug as deep as I could dig into those answers, and with New Orleans as the backdrop, it started to reflect the fact that so many people lived in that city, understanding that another Katrina could, and likely would, happen again. This really struck me – identify what’s important to you and pursue understanding why those things are important to you.

So, the project has less to do about death, and more to do with life. The thing about death is that it’s coming for all of us. What are we doing right now to make the best experience we can have in this moment, even if the situation sucks, various problems exist, etc? We have the ability to enhance any situation.

And I wouldn’t say I’m “hyper-aware.” I’m just trying to understand things, as I assume everyone else is.

AGB: Death Blues’ mantra seems to focus more on the empowering “Seize the day” rather than the bleak “I might die right now,” but the name is still pretty dark. Did you intentionally lean towards the positive? Why did you chose that name? Also, you say in the Death Blues video (above), “No one likes to think about death, yet how often do we really think about living?” How have you balanced the light/dark conceptually with this project and in your own life?

JM: The positivity is completely intentional. It’s what I would prefer to experience.

I had a good conversation about the name with some people yesterday. Yes, it does sound dark and some have even told me I should change it. But this was part of the New Orleans experience I had. The fact that we have a limited time implies a potential negative, and blues has historically been a way to not only address, but also cope, with negative situations. ‘Celebrate life’ might be a perfect translation for the name, but it lacks the urgency and heaviness of the situation I wanted to be more apparent.

AGB: How did you go from “I’m going to die” to “Life is beautiful?” How has being present impacted your life?

JM: Every moment is a chance to consider positive or negative elements. This project is a reminder for me to make more thoughtful considerations.

AGB: The site calls Death Blues a multidisciplinary project, incorporating performance, video, writing, etc, but it’s certainly seen as your project. How much of a hand do you have in each aspect? How have you chosen people to participate?

JM: I’m involved in most aspects of it, yet other people have taken an interest and simply wanted to be involved. Initially, there were a few people I had to make requests to contribute, and explain the scope of the project. Most of them got it and have continued to be involved. But as time goes on, the idea is resonating with people I hadn’t even talked to about it, and they’ve contributed in ways they might not even have intended.

June 23, Lilypad

AGB: How would you say the music relates to the theme of Death Blues? You mentioned in our conversation before that this is harder music than you normally play. Did you initially set out to make it heavier? Why have you chosen this sound to embody Death Blues? I appreciate you making death themed music without relying on the usual death or black metal sound, but was venturing into that style ever a consideration?

JM: The musical portion of the project will focus on acoustic instrumentation and voice in a variety of contexts. Some of it is very hard. Powerful sound can create a positive feeling, and that’s what I’ve always been drawn to. There will be a variety of recordings that will approach this in different ways.

AGB: What sort of physical releases will be involved? Records, obviously, but what about DVDs/books/etc? When will we be able to hear/see something?

JM: I don’t have specifics on this right now, but the goal is to communicate the idea through a variety of forms.

AGB: How long do you foresee Death Blues lasting? Is there something like an end goal for the project or for yourself to be reached? Do you think there’s potential for the project to expand in medium & participation or more honed in on a particular medium as time goes on?

JM: It will potentially last for many years. I am in advanced stages of a grant selection that would certainly help determine this if it comes through. If so, there are a lot of elements that will take place over that time – performances, group discussions, talks, film, books, and more. If not, I will do as much as I can with the project through my own means, for as long as I can.
Death Blues has a few performances in the works right now as “band only,” including a set at Hopscotch (see you there!?), and the full multidisciplinary experience takes over Milwaukee in November. Also, consider this an open invitation to talk death. I’m all for it.

One Response to “Life & Death Blues: Interview With Jon Mueller”

  1. Fred Symington says:

    I figure I better go at least listen to some of the project now. Thanks!

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