Ah, the Union of London University, the ULU, that's a venue that takes me back to my gig going days in the 80s. It was good to return to an old stomping ground (literally) after 15 years or so. This time around it was headliners Mouse on Mars that tempted into the heart of London's university district. I'd caught these three Germans last November but thought they were somewhat outclassed by one-man support act FX Randomiz. Still, I like to think I'm open-minded so I thought I'd give this trendy trio another shot. DJ Vert played Miles Davies as the Moog/krautrock band T-shirt wearing nerdy shufflers filed into the modest hall.
But first I had Pram to contend with who were out promoting their new album The Museum of Imaginary Animals. I turned to a pal, curious to discover what Pram were like, and asked "Have you heard any Pram?" "Yes" he said, "I saw them live with you a few years ago!" Some juggling of memory cells recalled that they had supported Broadcast at Dingwalls in Camden two or three years ago. Then my heart sank as I remembered just how dull they were. There's no denying their musical abilities however - one female member switching from acordian, to flute, to keyboards, to clarinet, to guitar. There are some slight similarities with Warp stars Broadcast mostly notably in the female vocalist who, when she really put her mind to it, managed a fair impression of Trish Keenan. Much of the rest of the set was too po-faced and muso. Only when they made a mistake on one song and had to start again from the top did they fully come across as human. The sour-faced lead singer looked like across between a dowdy housewife and the woman from your local chippy.
Spacey chimes added a floating, rambling air which was an improvement on most of the twee prog-pop that they churned out. At times it was like feeling obliged to listen to a friend's band that you're not particularly interest in musically but you felt you ought to out of duty. It's a shame that the most notable musical elements, theremin, trumpet and early 80s rhythm box backing percussion were largely drowned out by the live drums and guitars throughout. But clearly I was in the minority in my views, as the enthusiastic audience cheered their heroes onto and off the stage.
Mouse on Mars
Jazz, percussion, groove and noise are all part of the Mouse on Mars approach. A warm welcome was awaiting the German rodents tonight and suddenly the dance floor was packed, jammed solid with bodies ready to respond to the eclectic sounds created by this three piece. Homage was paid to Cabaret Voltaire in the opening track with its ballsy but funky groove. When I saw MoM last year, I thought their diversity was their undoing. Tonight, however, they seemed determined to unleash a more unforgiving, cohesive and heavier wall of noise. It didn't always work convincingly, but their driving live instrumentation (drums, guitar and keyboards) combined with a bleepy electronic backing track did provide some golden nuggets. Although they like to play down the krautrock references in their music, Mouse on Mars undeniably reflect some of their older influences but, tempered with the noise of dialing modems, crashing live drums (countering electro percussion backing) and farty synths, the result is an odd fusion of funky electro, dub, reggae and post rock.
It was like listening and watching some kind of controlled experiment in live jamming and improvisation. The contradictory tension between improv and control is what gives MoM their edge. Like Pram before them, the band are clearly 'serious' about what they do, by MoM show their maturity and intelligence over their predecessors by ensuring that fun, usually in the form of unpredictability, is given plenty of space to roam. Pumping rhythms are brought to an abrupt halt in oddly placed pauses, before a slow build returns us to more churning and grinding. Air-ish vocoder voices float around one song but the set is otherwise instrumental.
Mouse on Mars are at their best when they find that heavy, funky groove and simply floor it for six minutes. Yet, there's no denying that their knob twiddling and hi-tech production style adds an unexpected and most welcome twist to the proceedings. The band were at their happiest when a member of the audience jumped on stage and began dancing, only to be ejected within 10 seconds by a bouncer. "Dancing is okay... and also on stage" said one of the mice. Looking off stage at the bouncer, he then tentatively asked "Maybe we can discuss it?". Serious fun.