The Confounding and Eclectic Andrew Muse
Pittsburgh musician Andrew Muse is something of an enigma, with a style and repertoire both difficult to define and difficult to find, respectively. Music writer Ben Gibbons sits down with Muse (in a cemetery) to discuss his music, his city, and his influences.
“Before I answer your question, excuse the shit, but I just love it.”
Avant-pop artist Andrew Muse chuckled as we sat down on a stone bench near the pond in Allegheny Cemetery—one of his favorite hangout spots—the ground around us streaked with white goose refuse; “That’s why I wore my boots,” Muse added. We had met up at the cemetery’s Penn Avenue gates and trekked over to the pond to sit and discuss Muse’s music, the latest iteration of which is a single featuring a moody instrumental piece and a psychedelic folk B-side about a self-immolating activist. In person, Muse is both thoughtful and irreverent, his measured pauses just as likely to be followed by an observation about an outlandish grave marker (“Aaand the titty sphinx is great; that’s my favorite thing. Take a gander.”) as they are an insight about the nature of creativity or an obscure music recommendation from the ‘70s.
It’s not surprising that an artist whose sound ranges from campy, X-rated funk to industrial noise rap to acoustic protest music would seek out a shit-stained bench near a brackish pond surrounded by dead people as an interview spot; Muse does things on his own terms. The lifelong Pittsburgher sees himself as an out-of-left-fielder; as he put it, “I kind of got into this somewhat late. I did my first show maybe two or three years ago, so I’m still whatever a newbie is, still new to the scene. I don’t necessarily have my pulse on the city.” Pittsburgh’s only influence on his art, then, is its lack of influence; the city defines him by being separate from him.
This is normally the part of an article where I’d describe Muse’s back catalogue, using a thesaurus’s worth of descriptors to illustrate the array of sounds you’d find littered throughout his projects. The problem is, Muse scrubs his Bandcamp page fairly regularly. When I asked him if this was intentional, he replied, emphatically, “Absolutely, one hundred percent,” explaining, “I was going back in my catalogue and listening to it over again, and I’m looking at it like ‘Oh, that’s had its time, you know,’ and it’s cool, because these projects are completely independent, so I can rearrange them at will. […] My Bandcamp now represents who I want people to see me as now.” It’s music as expression and outgrowth of self, as opposed to music as artifact or commodity. Muse continued, in self-deprecating style, “Somebody would call it growth, I guess, but it’s just like, ‘Meh, what do we need that for?’.”
Despite the lack of source of material, I’ll do my best to describe some of Andrew Muse’s music, leaning heavily on words I used to describe his music in the past in pieces for Bored In Pittsburgh. 2019’s Smoker’s Row was highlighted by “Funker,” which I described at the time as an “eccentric, explicit, unabashedly queer slice of skeletal sweat-funk complete with orchestral keyboard flourishes, swampy guitar licks, and disjointed vocal interjections.” 2020’s Interluder featured “Hard,” a “tragic acoustic-soul ballad done weird and avant-garde,” complete with vocal belts that sounded like Spongebob singing the Krusty Krab Pizza song. These songs still exist as files stored within the depths of Muse’s computer, and may again see the light of day, but you’ll have to use your imagination for now.
The tracks that remain on Bandcamp (“They’re still fresh”) are “Ain’t Nothing New To Me” a deceptively jaunty guitar ‘n’ harmonica bounce that includes some truly chilling lines (“Cops are like cemeteries/You hold your breath every time one comes by/You hold your breath/And then you die”), “(hotterthanagrill_bb),” a lustful reverie, featuring what sounds like the world’s biggest dentist drill, about a dude who’s “lookin' cuter than a baguette purse” and “bigger than a Deutsche bratwurst,” and the aforementioned single, “You Don’t Take Me Seriously/The Monk Of Prospect Park.” Side A is a moody, harpsichord-led instrumental collaboration with experimental cellist Eric Wiedenhof, who provides strings and sax, while Side B is a heartrendingly beautiful tribute to David Buckel, an LGBTQ+ rights lawyer who later became an environmental activist and composting advocate. Buckel, in despair over the US’s Trump-era environmental policy, set himself on fire in Prospect Park in 2018. When I asked Muse about his inspiration for the song, he said, “The story was very interesting because it immediately made me think of the monks who set themselves on fire in Vietnam to protest the Catholic South Vietnamese regime. It made me think of political protest and how that is kind of a very political thing to do, to set yourself on fire.” The lyrics contain brutal imagery (“You smelled the smoke at dawn […] You see the flame/And the monk turns black/And that is that”), but the music consists of gently fingerpicked guitar, placid organs, and ringing coils of melody; the song ends with the sighting of a rainbow.
About the A side/B side setup of his new single, Muse said, “I am kind of obsessed with the old way of things. […] I would just love if artists put out two songs and called it a single, so I’m trying to start that trend.” Recalling previous artists who’ve done this (Frank Ocean and Kate Bush were mentioned), he added, “Why did [Bush] choose to put this song back to back with this one? And then you look at it kind of retrospectively. […] Sometimes they match a vibe or sometimes they’re very different. […] I think B sides put you in the mind of the artist, in some way.”
While other artists have inspired the structure of Muse’s releases, they haven’t necessarily inspired the music itself. Sure, Muse listens to stuff (from his mental Rolodex, he pulled, among other names, George Clinton, Prince, Kate Bush, Bob Dylan, Flying Saucer Attack, Elis Regina and Antonio Carlos Jobim, Janet Jackson, Black Midi, and “some British lady” named Annette Peacock), but, according to him, “When I write, I typically don’t look to other artists […] because I think then you kind of get into parody or pastiche. Like, homage can quickly become pastiche to me.” He acknowledged, though, “You listen to these people over and over again, and they kind of creep into your music, perhaps when you didn’t mean it to.” I certainly can pick up strands of Clinton’s freakiness and Bush’s whimsy in Muse’s music, but pastiche is nowhere to be found.
When I asked about Pittsburgh artists that influence him, Muse, with the qualifier that “anybody who’s an artist in Pittsburgh, I appreciate and support,” said, “Nobody, really, recently. That’s such a ‘Where does he get off?’, but, again, maybe it’s the scene thing.” He conceded that his reaction to work he’s listened to off-the-cuff has been, “Oh, that’s interesting,” but maintained that his “influences are his influences” and that he tries to avoid imitation. He did mention Pat Coyle’s melancholy 2020 album, Well-Lit Lie, as something “fabulous” that elicited an “Ooooh, I was not expecting to love this so much.” After this bout of blunt honesty regarding the city’s music scene, Muse quipped, “That might come back to haunt me.” Thus is the lot of the outsider.
Muse is currently working on a new album, due out in late 2021 or early 2022, whose title remains a secret. About his creative process, he told me, “Sometimes I’ll write down an interesting phrase that I think about or I’ll think about a topic I want to write about. […] Sometimes things are just a little more organic than that. Most of the time, my songs are really based on melody and rhythm and backing tracks, because I’ll typically sit down and write something on the computer or play something and write around it, never the other way around.” He summed up the spontaneity of his work by saying, “My songs typically come out of thin air, or me fucking around in Logic or Garageband and writing around that. […] And I surprise myself a lot, the things I talk about, or the things I write, even the chord changes themselves.” Muse anticipates that his upcoming release will be his pop record, forsaking the acoustic balladry of “Monk” and “Ain’t Nothing New To Me” for more electronic “raw stuff” born from a quarantine-based urge to “get back in the club and hang out with my friends.” He joked, “Don’t sue me if it doesn’t make you dance, but I want people to be able to dance to it and have fun with it.” Judging from Muse’s eccentric, varied body of work, inspired by nothing but his own musical intuition, I wouldn’t be surprised if it makes you dance, ponder, laugh, cry, wince, cringe, and simply appreciate the absurdity of life. ▲
Ben Gibbons is a writer, part-time musician, and full-time music fan hailing from the Philadelphia suburbs and currently based out of Pittsburgh. He graduated from George Washington University in 2017 with a degree completely unrelated to music or writing, but, hey, who cares about majors anyway? He loves and appreciates all styles of music, and has spent the past few years exploring the local scene through his Bored In Pittsburgh blog.