A Conversation With Momus
(Here’s a 1998 interview with Nick Currie, known to many as Momus–one of the most creative humans currently making music and someone whose work I suggest you seek out at your earliest opportunity. -dd)
Tell me your impression of America.
It’s the place of comfort and convenience, really, isn’t it? Everything is real on, real off. Basically it’s kind of reassuring and scary at the same time. I didn’t enjoy the South too much—we went as far south as Atlanta, basically picking up all the evangelical stuff on the radio. There’s a sort of fierce irrationality about all that; you’re selling spirituality the same way you’re selling fuel. I kind of liked the West Coast actually; I didn’t expect to, because Los Angeles has represented for me kind of everything evil and manipulative–but somehow, it’s quite reassuring when you meet the devil in person!
I assume this is the second time you’ve played overseas in the States?
Yeah, I played about a year or so ago, I went off in New York. But this is the first event besides New York, yeah.
How have you taken to the reception you’ve received?
Well, it’s nice. It’s almost like being a standup comedian, because songs I know like the back of my hand are kind of being heard for the first time, and lines are getting laughs. Like the line “My girlfriend’s saying she feels privileged I chose her to go straight with.” That kind of thing gets a laugh, and I feel like a comedian. Or I almost begin to feel like a British eccentric character like Quentin Crisp. The Americans like the accent and they like the strange take on things. In a way, when I’m received in Britain, it’s kind of like a lot of my songs are hostile to the British way of life. It’s a love/hate thing, but they celebrate and attack it. In the States, I guess it’s charming and quaint, but I don’t know. I hope it still does some damage.
Do you think that it’s a possibility that pop stardom, in every cliched sense of the word, could be in your future?
Well, I’ve calculated that at this rate of progress, it’ll probably happen in about 2057, so I just hang on.
Are you getting any inquiries from American major labels now, on the basis of this press? It’s confusing to me that it’s taken so very long for you to get an American release. How would you rationalize that?
I think the guys at Creation just wanted to keep America to themselves, basically. They wanted to hang out in the Viper Lounge with all these little brat pack film stars. Momus was the guy who came from a privileged background in Britain and was therefore barred from the privileges you get when you’re a self-made person like Alan McGee is. Creation always had a sort of two-tiered system, I think, but I was quite happy with that because I never assumed that what I do—although it uses the English language at quite a high level—I never assumed it could work here. It’s weird, I’ve spent most of the ‘90s happening in Japan—making all my money in Japan, having top 5 hits and things. That’s fine because I love Japan, I love the psychic transvestitism that happens when I actually write a song for a cute young Japanese girl. But I suddenly realized, hey, they speak English in the United States, and it’s the world’s biggest record market, and perhaps Momus could work there, despite the fact that I’ve never been influenced at all—well, not a huge amount—by American pop music. But maybe there is kind of an appetite there, kind of focused by things like loungecore and Japanese pop. There is a real appetite for this and for the futuristic vaudeville or whatever you want to call it that I do, which has a European feel.
How have live performances been for you? Have they been just you with the guitar? Historically speaking, your records have been very intricately arranged. You have a really great ear for arranging a melody. I wonder how that could ever be duplicated on stage.
What I do is, I’m running MIDI sequences live, and I’ve got someone playing live keyboards as well, and I’m playing guitar and singing on top of that.
What did you do in the early days?
In the early days, I did some shows with just guitar, but I had backing tapes—things like that. I tend to work at home, do the arrangements at home and then sing on top of it. In some ways, it’s not a true live thing musically, but I think people tend to forget that. Because, really, it’s about communication. My songs are so top-heavy in that they’re telling stories, and they’re very much about words—and honestly, like stand-up comedy.
Stepping back a bit to the Japanese thing—I don’t understand exactly how that happened to you. How did you get that connection?
Partly because I was on a label in the ‘80s in London called El Records, which was kind of a fantasia confection idea. In fact, I kind of think it was the loungecore revival ten years too early. Everyone was called “The King of This” and “The Emperor of That,” and I took the name of a Greek God—being a bit more modest than some of the other artists on the label. What happened was in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, people in Japan picked up on this and made it a cult fetish label for Japanese consumers, because Japan has the best record stores in the world, with everything that e
ver came out anywhere. It’s very easy to specialize and get into really obscure things there. So this guy, who’s now in Cornelius—he is Cornelius, his record’s just about to be put out by Matador in the U.S.—Keigo Oyamada, he sort of was playing our stuff, and playing the other artists a lot on his radio show in Japan. It kind of all snowballed from that. And I started working with Kahimi Karie, who was his girlfriend at the time, just after my first visit to Japan. I just started going to Japan a lot, and meeting the people there, and something clicked. I think it has something to do with the fact that Britain and Japan are both islands, they’re both kind of formal, aesthetic, maybe even a bit introverted people who have an exterior which is very proper, but an interior, an imagination, that is very wild. You only have to look at Japanese manga or Japanese pornography to see this wild extreme kind of imagination. There’s something about that that British people connect with, and that I certainly connect with.
In looking at your website, at the writings from various fans over the years, they all seem deeply emotionally involved with the stuff you write. I’ve seen this a lot, but it’s more than most cases. Who are your fans? Is there something they all have in common?
They’re geeks, in a word. They’re intelligent people, oddball outsiders. But I think maybe we’re entering the age where the outsider becomes the insider, where in fact intelligence bcomes an important commodity. I don’t know, perhaps it always was. They kind of see pop music as one of a spectrum of things that they’re interested in. Visual art, literature and stuff are equally valid for them. Most of them are Japanese, most of them are in their 20s, I guess. I was playing some college shows on this tour to some really young kids, like 20, and I was surprised that they really seemed to respond. There was that kind of laughter and that kind of sense of “Is this guy for real?” I’m singing a song like “Space Jews,” for instance, saying that Jewish people are extraterrestrials, and people are like, “are you allowed to say this?” I think people are just intrigued by someone taking risks on the lyrical level, because they don’t hear very much of that in pop music. I think maybe my greatest strength is having abandoned hope at a very early age, and saying “to hell with me becoming famous, I’m just going to be ambitious for the medium of pop music and keep myself interested, and laugh, and express myself and have fun.”
Regarding “Space Jews” and other songs: those are interesting topics.
I don’t see the point in holding back. I think I’m more interested in writing about things I don’t quite know my feelings about. Writing is a way of exploring that. Or what I do is I exaggerate a feeling I have and push it so far. Like the baby-killing song, a slight resentment of my little nephew being the center of attention at a family get-together, turns into a murderous condemnation of all infants. It’s an exaggeration. But I think art in general is a laboratory, it’s very important to keep the walls around it and say people in there are playing with mudpies and sand castles and they can do what they want. And we’re going to throw some water on it in a couple of hours, and it’s all going to go back to sand. It’s just a little place where you can make mudpies.
Are you perceived as you’d like to be by the press in general at this time?
I tend to have this rule of thumb, which is that anything the press says is true. It’s just a perspective on what I do. Everything everybody says is true. Including the NME saying it’s arch and coy and not musically ambitious enough. Or that it’s morally beyond the boundaries of decency and taste. You know, perspective. I think what it does in the NME’s case is shows that they take a middle of the road, conservative position on art, which is a bit sad because they have a big influence. I found the American press a lot more welcoming and a lot more understanding. I don’t know why that is. I think maybe the U.S. is a more experimental culture in general. We just invented cloning, for instance, in my hometown of Edinburgh—we made a sheep out of another sheep. That would be a fantastic achievement for the U.S., but in Britain everyone’s saying, “Oh, we’re not sure of the moral implications.” There were no fanfares, just a lot of people saying … basically what they say about my records. “We’re not quite sure if this is morally a good thing.”
There’s a warmth to your new record. How have changes in your own life affected the music that you write?
I think when I turned 30, I hit a weird kind of sentimental phase. Like even the Hippopotamomus album, which on the surface is an outrageous album about animals and sex—in fact, it’s kind of using a childspeak, talking about clean and dirty and making a big mess—I think that was almost like a parenting impulse I was going through there, but I’ve seemed to come out of it. I continue to try and be the child rather than the parent, I guess.
What artists do you admire and think have had successful careers?
It’d be quite weird…Somebody with a world view. Somebody who the moment you hear anything or see anything they’ve done, it takes you into a parallel universe. It’s relating to the world you know and says important things about the world you know, but it’s a totally distinctive take. Those are the people I admire. I love Kafka for that reason. Or Leonard Cohen. People who seem to spring fully formed from nowhere, who have a totally fresh perspective.
You’ve made your own CD-ROM, how was that for you? What did it take to put it together, and what would you like to do further with that?
It’s not for nothing that I’m wearing this eyepatch and sort of trying to resemble an early Hollywood director, a sort of German exiled director. I have this manic control-freak side to me, where if I can do everything myself, I will. I mean, I make my records totally myself, putting in all the cables and setting the mic balances myself. It’s quite easy to learn those skills, and I just set myself to learning dire
ctor and making a multimedia thing at home. Partly because I was living alone in Paris and not a lot was happening in my career. I just had six months to play around. I went through an interesting phase of having to decide each day if I would have an idea or a title, like the six new psychosexual neuroses thing on the CD-ROM, where there was a professor trying to come up with new sexual diseases that have never been thought of. That could have been a song. In fact, it did turn into a song, because “Professor Shaftenberg” is kind of an offshoot of that—this black German who wants to screw the pants off of Japanese girls. That takes its place among the new psychosexual neuroses. Basically, getting up in the morning and saying, “I could make a song of that, or I could make a multimedia presentation of that.” So for me, it’s almost like I don’t need to be a musician at all, I can use these new forms which are multimedia.
One of the things that I thought was probably the most interesting thing that I’ve ever seen anyone write in pop music was the thing on your website about “how to write a Momus song.” There’s sarcasm in that, certainly, but it almost seems that perhaps you shared a tad too much of your creative process. How detached are you from what it takes to be this persona that you’ve crafted?
I never quite know where Momus is and where Nick Currie is. I’m perfectly happy for Momus to be something that other people can step into. I mean, my kind of conception of Momus is that he was a Greek god who was kicked off Mt. Olympus in classical Greek mythology for having criticized the other gods. Although that was in fact his job title—the critic of the gods. He was meant to be like the R&D department of Mt. Olympus and say, “Well, you got this right Zeus, but you could have done this a bit better.” But the other gods got angry and threw him off. So the idea that I had was that Momus wandered through history, being embodied by poets or critics or kind of just troublesome people at points along the way. And that I’m just doing it in the 20th century, but there may be other Momuses later. So, I’ll pass the flame on at that point.
Do you think you’ve handled your career well, overall?
What I like about it is that it’s a long, slow-burning thing, and it’s just a very slow ascent. It’s a bit like being in a glider rather than a jet plane. And I’m slowly being towed up to a point where I can be released and just coast about. I think really unhappy people I know are people who peaked when they were like 25—got famous, and then were forgotten. That’s hard to deal with. What’s happening with me is that I gave up hope at 25—abandon hope, all ye who enter here—and after not caring, I suddenly find myself getting a bit more famous, which is nice.
This record is the first new bit of stuff from you in a while. What do you plan to do next?
Yeah, because I spent the last couple years producing other artists, like Kahemi Karie. What I’m immediately doing when I get back to London is sitting on—and I’m quite excited about this, because I’m doing a bit more journalism and public political stuff, almost—I’m sitting on a panel talking about lyrical correctness via Institute of Contemporary Arts, with Laetitia Sadier of Stereolab, and Tony Wilson, who started Factory Records, and a conservative MP, Alan Clark MP. We’re going to be sitting there saying, “is there such a thing as lyrical correctness,” and I feel very strongly, obviously about freedom of expression, so it’s something I’m looking forward to a lot. Then I’ll probably make an album with my wife Shazna, who is in Paris at the moment, and then just get back to work on Momus.
I’m going to hold up your records—I have every album you’ve done here, except one, I think—and I’d like to get your comments on each one.
The Man on Your Street. OK. The scene is Scotland, early ’80s, there’s a whole bunch of bands like Aztec Camera, Orange Juice, Josef K, signed to the Postcards Records label. I’m an English Literature student, I want to be part of this scene, I decide to start a band. Josef K splits up that same week, by sheer chance I get together with them—the bassist, the drummer and the guitarist—and I was like, this is an incredible moment for me. We signed to 4AD, which is the home of Bauhaus and the Birthday Party and people like that, and we make this socialist rock opera called The Man On Your Street which totally fails to impress all the budding goth people on the 4AD mailing list. And not very much happens, and we split the band up after a year, and I go back to studying literature.
Can you give it a grade?
I don’t personally listen to this record. But it’s got some good lyrics on it, and it’s intriguing, and it sort of sets the scene for my infatuation with Europe—the idea of Europe, which is so close to us in Britain yet culturally so far away.
Is it too much to ask to grade it on a scale of pure Momus-ness?
It’s kind of pre-Momus, so it doesn’t sound like me. The voice is very strained and neurotic, I guess I hadn’t done my primal scream therapy. One to 10? I guess about a six and a half.
OK. Circus Maximus.
I’ve moved to London. I’ve got my Literature degree, which is absolutely of no use to me at all. I’m kind of living in Chelsea, and my head’s full of the Bible, and Brecht, and I kind of decide to go off and make songs which talk about … it’s actually about my experience arriving in London as a serious young Scotsman and seeing the kind of suburban and commercial atmosphere that’s in London. Just kind of putting that against what I’ve been reading for the past four years at University and finding comic pathos in that comparison. There’s about three really good songs on that so I’d give it seven again.
The El Records thing has been fun, but it hasn’t really worked—Circus Maximus was on El—Alan McGee is running Creation Records, and they actually have money and seem to be going places in terms of the press. So I get headhunted and go to Creation, who weirdly enough think I’m going to be their most commercial act and save their skins financially. Which doesn’t happen, although this record gets great reviews and a lot of press. Alan McGee said he would jump in a river after having made an album like this because I’d never do anything as good, but I don’t think that’s true at all. I personally don’t listen to this a lot; again, I think there’s three fairly good songs on it. It’s almost like a mid-’80s singer-songwriter album, largely acoustic. I quite like “Closer To You,” actually, so I’d give it … again…seven.
It’s 1988, and I’ve begun to realize that you can shock people and you can say things which interest yourself rather than just making emotional songs. I remember there was a lot on TV that year about 20 years after 1968, and I was very interested in the whole idea of the ’60s politicalism and the freedom and everything that we’d seemed to have lost by the ’80s. And I was also getting into Japanese culture a lot, so there’s a lot of Japanese stuff. There’s also a very strong gay subtext in that, because of AIDS being a major issue, and I kind of had the sense that the gay community was being wiped out. So maybe straight people like me should step into that space and say, “Listen, that was an important community, we need to articulate some of the ideals that came out of the gay movement.” I think Tender Pervert is really my most important album. For me, it’s where the Momus style really gels, so I give it a nine.
Don’t Stop The Night?
Don’t Stop The Night is just the continuation, really, of the taboo themes that I started dealing with on Tender Pervert. With a more disco feel, so it’s got a more gay feeling, again…So there are songs about having sex with corpses and little girls and things like that. It was originally going to be titled Sexual Crimes Of The Professional Classes. I guess the idea was that under the patina of normality, British life is full of seething corruption and decadence. And I guess the end of the 1980s, people like Bret Easton Ellis were around, and American Psycho and all that stuff. So there’s a kind of definite sense of moral corruption and greed and materialism of the ’80s, turning into something quite dark and sinister. It’s my scariest record, it’s got some great songs on it, again I give it a nine.
Monsters Of Love?
This is really a Creation compilation that comprises the really early El EP, The Beast With Three Backs, and a lot of b-sides and unreleased stuff. But actually I think it works quite well as a record. It’s quite a dark and threatening record…I’d give it an eight.
I kind of like this one, it was I guess throwing away the weight of tragic genius off my shoulders and deciding to have fun. I just read a biography of Little Richard and I just love the idea of unchanneled impulse. I think what I had always done in my records up to that point was located guilt inside myself, and tried to look at that guilt and say, here are the world’s standards of moral behavior, and here are my dark subconscious impulses. And then put them up against each other and you get this smog of guilt. So what I did with Hippopotamomus was say, I’m going to throw guilt away entirely and celebrate instinctual impulses, the same way a baby decides to shit or put things in its mouth just for the hell of it. And what interestingly happened, as a result of that decision was that a mother was found—this was a critic on the NME named Betty Page who came along and spanked and thrashed me for having dirty pop music and having left some unsightly mounds. So I was kind of punished critically at this point, for having gone too far. I think in a way it’s a slight record artistically, but some people think it’s the most perfect encapsulation of some of Momus’s more perverse urges. Eight, I guess.
The Ultraconformist (Live Whilst Staying Out Of Fashion). Mike Always, whom I’d always stayed friends with after leaving El Records, was kind of looking around for any unreleased live material that he could put out, because he’d gone back to Cherry Red. I said, “Well listen, I don’t have any live tapes, but what I’d like to do is make a fake live album, in the spirit of Orson Welles. Let’s make something that was ostensibly recorded in 1910 on wax cylinders in a cabaret—a Vorticist cabaret, Cave Of The Golden Calf in London, which is actually run by the Swedish dramatist Strindberg’s widow. I think at this point I was trying to be a bit mainstream again, and doing the Voyager album for Creation. I had management at that point and it looked like I was going to be the beloved of some boring little synth band. But I’d kept a lot of Cabaret songs that I’d also been writing for my own pleasure, so I put them all on that album. It was recorded by the absolute cheapest means, so it’s not much fun to listen to, but I think the songs are quite strong. I’d give it a seven and a half.
Alan McGee loved it at Creation. It was kind of the album everybody wanted me to make to be in tune with the times. It was the era of the Orb and PM Dawn — I have some affection for that type of music, but in a way, it’s kind of a diversion from what Momus is all about. I think it’s not about “album in the electronic pop genre,” but it’s a kind of yearning spirituality that was maybe a new note in my work. It didn’t have the smug and smarmy kind of lyrical quality that some of my other records had. It’s a good record but not a good Momus record.
An achingly beautiful mistake. It goes further in the kind of wistful, spiritual direction that I think Voyager was going in. One of the things I was trying to do at that point was what I was calling in my own mind “science fiction melodrama,” trying to rediscover innocence after the depravity of the ‘80s. Trying to put myself in the point of view of a Japanese girl, a very shy Japanese girl, and the kind of feelings she would have. Also, Timelord is very influenced by The Man Who Fell To Earth, the David Bowie movie. Just the idea that the character in that film is trying to communicate with his wife who is on another planet far away. My future wife was a Muslim, and had been taken away to Bangladesh for an arranged marriage. So I was in kind of a similar situation. Muslims in Bangladesh are almost like Martians–it’s a very very different mentality. So this album came out just at a point where it looked really uncertain if I’d ever see Shazna again, and it was a really personal record for her, maybe she’d hear it on the radio when she was out there and keep her hope intact. But in the end we managed to get her out of there and we got married. That album is the low point of that whole story. It’s quite painful for me to listen to it, but I think it is quite a beautiful record, if it’s, you know, late at night. Eight.
Philosophy Of Momus?
This is me living with Shazna in Paris. I’ve always thought of Paris as a beautiful place I’d like to live, but when I get there I find that it’s culturally and creatively not very happening, and it hasn’t been very happening since 1910. Because Picasso and Matisse left long ago, and the Daft Punk and Air kind of phenomenon hasn’t started yet when I arrive there. So Philosophy Of Momus is me just kind of saying, well, “who am I,” and let’s throw out some possibilities. I’ve been listening to a lot of Beck, I thought Beck was the future of pop music, and I wanted to experiment with some of the things he’d discovered, those collisions of genres. So there’s kind of weird Balinese scales mixed with distorted guitar, a lot of musical experimentation really. I think it’s an interesting record and it is one that I can still listen to today. It’s also the first time that I’m looking at the digital revolution and saying, this is a really interesting place philosophically as well as technically. It’s the Wired magazine mentality, I guess. We’re entering the 21st century now—what’s it going to be like, and what’s it going to mean for things like personal relationships, now that our memory has been mechanized, that we remember things partially because they are on digital video, or because we have email on our computers? That’s how I remember things now. So I think it’s still got a lot of relevant topics on it, and I give it an eight.
I’m still in Paris, I’m running out of money, I say, “Help, give me some money, Cherry Red.” So I make remakes of some of my ‘80s stuff. It’s just a way to get reviews so people will remember me. I kind of felt when I was living in Paris that I was in retirement, and I just needed to wave a little flag and say, “I’m still here, I wrote some good songs and I don’t want them to be forgotten.” But it was also drawing a line across the first phase of my career, the first 10 years—that was what I did, now I’m going to go off into the 21st century and do some new stuff. I don’t know if it’s that great of an album, I’d give it a six.
20 Vodka Jellies?
20 Vodka Jellies is the first U.S. release, and it was proposed by Matt Jacobson who runs Le Grand Magestery, which is my label here. Matt I’ve known since about 1990, he was a graphics student at Parsons and then he became a magician—he’s a man of many talents, and a huge enthusiasm for the El label and for what I do, and that was kind of refreshing and energizing in itself. So I got together a lot of things I had, on DAT, demos of records I’d done. Because what was also happening while I was living in Paris was I started having hits in Japan. I wrote for Kahimi Karie who then moved to Paris and lived very close to me. This was a way to say, well, Momus still exists as a solo artist, he’s not someone who just writes for Japanese girls. Actually, I think it’s a lot of fun as a record. I think the light side of what I did with Kahimi Karie really shines through on 20 Vodka Jellies. Just the idea that you can have fun and entertain people while making quite serious points. I’d give that a nine. Some of the tracks on 20 Vodka Jellies are demos that I made for Butch Vig, because apparently in 1992, after doing Nirvana, he was looking for something very different. He approached Creation and said, “This guy Momus might be interesting to work with, can I hear some stuff that he’s doing?” And I made the classic mistake of going off and making some demos in a kinda Nirvana-esque style, because there’s a side of me that’s … I’ve never ever rocked, in any sense, and I’m notorious in the English music press for being afraid to rock. Which is fine with me, I’m not afraid to cabaret or vaudeville or whatever. But I went off and rocked, and there were some interesting elements there, so I stuck a few of those tracks on.
The most current album…Ping Pong?
Ping Pong reflects the fact that I moved back to London in 1997, and London was a stimulating and creative place for a lot of people, especially visual artists. Young British artists. I started hanging out with them on the East side of London, so it’s really a reaction to moving back to London and moving to a different part of London, and swinging with London. But in a uniquely Momus style, because it’s still about transgression. I think a lot of the influence on this came from working with—because I came back and found there’s a bunch of really young bands, like Jack and Orlando, who were listening to what I did and wanted me to produce them. I listened very carefully to the elements of what they were listening to in Momus, and what they liked. They tended to be into the lyrics, and the transgressive side of things. I think that really helped me focus what the Momus signature is, the specification and formula for what I do. It takes a fresh and wickedly transgressive perspective on everyday subjects. So I went off with this newly polished formula, and made some Momus songs almost like someone pastiche-ing Momus would. I realized that I founded a genre of music, and I could be a pastiche artist just like anyone else could. But maybe I’m better at being Momus than all those young bands are. Although they would like to be Momus, they don’t have quite sharp enough pencils. So that’s real
ly the side of me doing that – finding that I can be Momus and maybe I’m just going to be Momus for the rest of my life and do better pastiches than anyone else. I’ll give it nine. Maybe the NME had a point that it should rock more, but I think it rocks mentally. Conceptually, it rocks.