Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Interview with Jon Mueller of Death Blues

The final Death Blues event will take place on June 10, 2015 in Spring Green, Wisconsin. After several years, percussionist and musician Jon Mueller will hang up his Death Blues moniker, a multimedia, experimental meditation on "the inevitability of death as impetus to become more present in each moment." It could be argued, however, that Death Blues had been in gestation long before its first recordings surfaced: as a spiritually inquisitive person, Mueller has studied religion, metaphysics, and spirituality since his time as a youth in private school - it's a lifelong pursuit, and a noble one, that has greatly informed his work as Death Blues.

In 2014, Mueller released his most elaborately packaged Death Blues material in the form of Ensemble, an LP with a conjoined book of seven essays and pictures of Lillian Rammel's handmade masks, striking and enticing in appearance. The music and essays are both representative of the word "ensemble" as each essay is the work of a different person and the music is an interwoven dance between Mueller himself and composer/multi-instrumentalist William Ryan Fritch.

Where Death Blues succeeds is in its universality. The spiritual bent doesn't begin and end with one religion or mystical tradition: rather, it ties together strains from all over the world. The "coming-together-ness" of Death Blues is its strongest facet, and in a strange, metacognitive, metacomprehensive way does a better job of this than most religions. Simply put, it's inclusive rather than exclusive. It's a worthy lesson in worldview, one that will be missed, though not forgotten.

Jordan Reyes: Let's talk for a minute about the mantra behind Death Blues that Death Blues is a "multi-disiplinary project by Jon Mueller that addresses the inevitability of death as impetus to become more present in each moment." Does Death, for you, appear as something liberating? As much as it may allow one to become more present, does it still embody something frightening?
Jon Mueller: Death is a profound change. It is only as liberating as it might be perceived. The aim of this project wasn't to look at death itself, but what to possibly consider before it happens.

JR: Death seems to unify people too. I only really see my entire family at funerals. Does the idea and theme of death directly impact the collaborative nature of Death Blues?

JM: Again, death is not the focus, but the life before it, which can also be a unifying experience, and a reason to work together, build relationships, and experience positive things that human beings can do together. The majority of the people you'd see at those funerals were alive. That is the focus. 

JR: You've traveled a lot too. I know you've performed around the world in various different projects. Do your wanderings tend to inspire things in your artistic output?

JM: Absolutely, but maybe not as direct as expected. New Orleans was were the idea for Death Blues began, but what inspired it were factors outside of any musical influence. Often, the sensibility of places seeps into me in strong ways, and yes, that affects my thinking a lot in some cases.

JR: There's also something, I guess, literary about Death Blues. The titles of your albums often seem to come from genres or academics. There's also the collection of essays connected with Ensemble. Do you think that literary genres or categories are more applicable to Death Blues than music signifiers?

JM: I don't think one weighs more than the other, which is why I wanted to approach this from a multi-disciplinary standpoint. I think that the aim of this project can be understood in a variety of ways, which also helps make the idea more absorbed and understood in an individual way. Words can often seem too directive. Sound can be overpowering. And visuals, taste and smell might be very distinct. And together, they can create a real change in an experience.

JR: Another important aspect of the Death Blues project is its wide net, I'd say. Your website features religious or mystical symbols from a bunch of historical traditions and geographical beginnings. Knowledge on these topics doesn't just happen overnight. It's clearly been an undertaking. When and where did you begin learning about the world's spiritual and metaphysical traditions?

JM: I have studied traditional and non-traditional spiritual thought for much of my life, both personally and academically. It began during my youth in private school, and continued a long and winding path from there. Along the way, I have experienced a few negative things that to this day I regret, but other things that have been very insightful and positive. The book within my recent promo shot is an antique called Story of the World's Worship that details a variety of ancient disciplines from a number of different cultures. It's interesting to read about stories like these, to see how people have developed systems of understanding and a relationship with the unknown throughout time.

JR: Were there any specific books, events, or people who spurred your interest in religion and spirituality?

JM: Many. And I am still continuously learning more. In recent years, I was very fascinated by Ann Lee, and will hopefully visit her grave in a few weeks time.

JR: Do you follow any specific beliefs? How does spirituality impact you on a day to day?

JM: Infinite power exists whether one believes in it or not. This comes through our beings in ways we don't fully understand and has an effect on everything, everywhere.

JR: Let's talk about the multimedia aspect of Death Blues. You're a writer, musician, artist, and more. An idea can be reflected well through any artistic medium (like a prism), but how do you determine whether to use an essay, a piece of music, or something else to broadcast a thought or idea of yours? Is it conscious?

JM: It just sort of happens. Some of the elements were intentional, task oriented pieces certainly - the Death Blues records, the manifesto - but other times coincidences and circumstances brought people and ideas out of unexpected places, and if they made sense within what was happening, it was like a widening river, more pushing through toward the aim.

JR: Was there anything especially surprising in the creation, gestation, and eventual fulfillment of Ensemble, as music, as a physical object, and as art?

JM: The whole thing, really. The music was a continuous surprise throughout the whole process. The essays, somehow, just came together as if waiting for a place to appear. And the package and presentation started as an idea, a few email exchanges, and revealed itself as something I couldn't believe holding in my hands. It was truly unbelievable to understand that it existed.

JR: Where do you see the ideas behind Death Blues continuing in the future?

JM: The final Death Blues event will be on June 10, 2015 in a barn in Spring Green, WI. It will be a grand, intimate finale to the entire project. Hopefully throughout the past few years it all accomplished something. At the very least, I am grateful for the experiences it brought my life, the friends I got to work with and meet, and the participation in the greater scope of what music and art is in people's lives.

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