SAN FRANCISCO A feeling of calm but eager anticipation filled the sold-out Great American Music Hall Thursday night as the German duo Mouse on Mars brought their intricate, bubbling electronic sounds to life. It was the fourth show of their North American tour, the duo's first since opening for Stereolab in 1998.
Somewhat timid yet nearly always smiling, the organic-techno tandem of Jan St. Werner and Andi Toma appeared content to focus on their music, which mixed elements of dub, electro, digital-cut-up rhythms, ambient and musique concrete. St. Werner spent most of the night engaged with his two laptops and synthesizers while Toma hopped joyously in place switching between bass and guitar, occasionally indulging in a bit of knob-twiddling.
The duo were also joined by a live drummer, London-based Dodo Nkishi, who is touring with Mouse on Mars for the first time in the U.S. The group made the obvious choice not to attempt a re-creation of their recorded material, opting instead to redefine their songs in this live setting.
"We didn't think about performing live when we started to make music," said Toma. "It's a little like theater. It's like we create a rock version of Mouse on Mars."
The show opened with "Download Sofist" (RealAudio excerpt), from the duo's recent album, Niun Niggung, with all three performers plucking guitars to the accompaniment of programmed beats and melodies. As much jazz as techno, the song melded live improvisation with the band's distinctive version of electronic post-rock.
The rest of the set, which focused on material from the new record, revealed a stripped-down funkiness that owed a surprising debt to the styles of Prince and even disco. Mouse on Mars, however, refute the influence of other artists' music. "Records are not that important in a way," said St. Werner. "What we experience is what influences us. For us, what's important is the process of making music."
That approach was apparent on "sui shop" (RealAudio excerpt), from their 1997 album Autoditacker, which stretched out and inhabited newer terrain than the original, featuring drop outs that a dub engineer like King Tubby would be proud of. On "Kanu" (RealAudio excerpt), from 1995's landmark Iaora Tahiti, the whir and hum of analog synths led into one of the group's characteristically skewed takes on drum & bass, with skittish wah-wah guitar loops creating subtle yet elaborate tapestries of sound.
San Francisco Bay Area electronic composer and producer Kit Clayton opened the show, with his laptop as his sole musical device. He coaxed from it meditative musique concrete, gravelly static and sustained drones, which washed over the talkative crowd and created a bristling, mesmerizing sonic environment.
"It's rare to see a bill like this," said audience member Andrew Law. "These acts make serious music but don't take themselves too seriously."