The story behind Jon Mueller’s unmissable final Death Blues performance.
Eyes closed, Jon Mueller pounds away fervently at his drum kit. Two other musicians methodically hammer the strings of acoustic guitars. The resulting sound feels visceral and hard yet strangely familiar, like wandering through a rustic village before being jerked awake, realizing it was all a dream.
Live in the present is the main tenet of Death Blues, the avant-garde musical project Mueller created in 2011 to translate the empowering feeling of realizing our impermanence. While his compositions contain minimal, often indecipherable lyrics, Mueller has written an entire manifesto on the subject. “We know our time is finite,” the manifesto reads, “yet rather than give in to hopelessness, we celebrate and pursue happiness.”
When Mueller plays, like on this November evening at the Riverwest Public House, he embodies that Death Blues spirit. He gives everything and leaves nothing behind. It’s intense, and so is he.
In September, he released the fourth and final Death Blues album, Ensemble, a masterstroke that abandoned the harsh, shocking tones of earlier material. The physical record comes with a book of essays from writers such as Brent Gohde, Tom Lecky and Faith Coloccia, who share deeply personal stories that reflect on the Death Blues concept. The musical scope of Ensemble is so broad that Mueller knew he couldn’t record it without some help. But destiny dealt him a good hand, and a random encounter led Mueller to San Francisco-based film composer William Ryan Fritch. The two immediately struck up a friendship, and Mueller enlisted Fritch to compose Death Blues’ lofty closing statement.
“I don’t feel I could make a record this grandiose without Will’s involvement,” Mueller says. “It’s the perfect way to end this project.”
In early 2012, Mueller first sent Fritch the isolated guitar tracks from Death Blues’ debut record for Fritch to completely rework – rerecording and rearranging entire sections. “I was so nervous if he was going to like it because I knew it was definitely busier and more layered than anything he had done previously,” Fritch says. “But based on all the conceptual stuff he was talking about – making music that was a celebration of our limited time on earth – I thought that it required something epic.”
Fritch flew to Milwaukee later that year and went into Howl Street Recordings’ studio while Mueller recorded the drum components. Other than Fritch’s mixing, the album was finished, or so Mueller thought. Unexpectedly, Fritch took the songs home and completely reworked them again, so much so that Mueller hardly recognized the tracks when Fritch sent them back. “It was really surreal,” Mueller says.
When Mueller performs Ensemble as part of the Alverno Presents series, it will be the first time the material has been played to an audience. It may also be the last. The lushly arranged, cinematic nature of the music probably requires a 30-person orchestra, but the accompaniment of five others will have to do.
Although Fritch’s dedication is astounding, perhaps no one is more closely connected with Death Blues than Alverno Presents’ Director David Ravel. He showcased the first show back in November 2012; it was an immersive, multisensory presentation that eschewed the normal concert experience for high-minded performance art. Attendees walked single-file through a labyrinth, ate a small portion of red gelatin meant to recall memories of a first kiss, then watched as a dancer moved through the crowd. While the return show will feature some auxiliary components, the focus will be on the music, which is much more elaborate this time around.
“I think Jon was externalizing his ideas and actually putting them outside his body so he could see them when he put them all together,” Ravel says of that first show. “I think from that experience, he’s able to synthesize all that material and put it all into the actual composition.”
Just before that first Death Blues performance in 2012, Ravel himself felt the cruelty of impermanence. As he writes in a powerful essay that accompanies Ensemble, his wife had been diagnosed with cancer and died just 10 days before the performance.
Mueller sees Ensemble as a fitting conclusion to his multiyear project, but he says this doesn’t cement the end of Death Blues.
“It’s a project that can be tapped any time there is interest,” he says. “Now that it exists, it can always be used.”
Inside the Mind
➞ In 2011, Jon Mueller was walking through New Orleans’ French Quarter, trying to find a record store. As he was walking, he started to ponder the post-Hurricane Katrina city, where locals had come to accept the inevitability of another catastrophic mega-storm that could lay waste to the city and claim even more lives. He got the impression that they wouldn’t wait in fear; they simply went along with their days. And the locals appeared to love the city so much that they wouldn’t leave.
“That’s insane,” Mueller says. “I’ve considered leaving Wisconsin because of winter.”
The New Orleanians’ fearless attitude eventually morphed into the thesis for Death Blues. It’s “a call to be more present in the moment,” he says, “and to celebrate everything you can.”
By the end of this walk across town, he’d found his new direction, both conceptually and musically.
“I have a lot to do,” he remembers thinking, excited to board his flight back to Milwaukee. “This is what I’m going to be working on for the next five years.” (KM)
Death Blues: Jan. 31. Pitman Theatre. Alverno College. 3401 S. 39th St., 414-382-6044, alvernopresents.alverno.edu.