A Scottish Post Protestant
Radical In Berlin
|Momus lives in Berlin
on what once used to be Stalinallee, a monumental avenue of palatial
buildings constructed in the late 1940s by the Soviets for the new East
German capital. Now more modestly renamed Karl Marx Allee it has become
home to one of Britainís most unusual and consistently challenging writers
of contemporary pop. Momus, alias Nicholas Currie, resides in an apartment
of minimalist style. The otherwise bare white walls graced only by two
large posters of Lenin and Marx, a enormous blow up igloo the sole other
decoration. This gives the apartment the appearance of being inhabited
by someone who can completely rely on his thoughts and imagination and
is not in need of any distraction in the space around him.
Momus is a writer of shrewd social observation, witty intellectual explorations and distinctly autobiographical songs. He is also a storyteller, with an almost uncanny ability to write sometimes shocking, sometimes comic, yet always acutely vivid and evocative verse. The things that have always interested him most in his work as a popmusician are literature, politics, but more than anything else people - both historical and fictional - and their personal and sexual habits. More recently his own experience of being a foreigner both at home and abroad, has come to be reflected in his writings. These clearly bear the imprint of someone who perceptively looks at society from a consciously chosen distance. Integration is not particularly desirable to Momus and he believes that to be foreign is one of the last great luxuries.
Often he has been accused of overloading his records with intellectual deliberations, shrouding them in literary quotations and philosophical allusions. Momus does of course make a certain demand on his listeners. Elaborating paradoxical ideas and juxtapositioning images of completely opposing nature are only two his favourite personal touches. His sureness of mastering stylistic diversity, but especially his personal presence, his wit and charm have however kept his work from ever going too far towards obscure references and becoming elitist exercises. Listening to Momus is great fun and he is entertaining and thought provoking at the same time. Ultimately he has defeated or won over his critics and continues his role as agent provocateur and playful commentator of contemporary existence.
In person Momus is courteous, serving green tea, answering all questions at great length and patiently signing copies of his early album Tender Pervert and his book Lusts of a Moron. Now having reached his mid forties he retains his striking looks, his articulate way of speaking and distinctively soft spoken voice making him instantly recognisable as the singer of all those deliciously satirical songs with which he brightened up so many bleak adolescent afternoons.
His best songs from his years in Britain, when he was signed to Creation Records and which have long been unavailable, can now be found on the double CD collection Forbidden Software Timemachine 1987 to 1993 (Analog Baroque, 2004). In Berlin meanwhile Momus has recorded his latest album Otto Spooky (Analog Baroque, 2005), an eclectic set of post modern popsongs made with sounds and samplings from the internet. He himself loosely terms it his google world music album. It may well be his most varied album, with Momus singing in French to an Arabian rhythm on 'Klaxon', voicing strong protest of exploitative globilisation politics in 'Cockle Pickers', while other songs like 'Lady Fancy Knickers' and 'Jesus in Furs' explore more of his established territory.
Wherever Momus lives and works, long may he continue as one of the most fearlessly creative artist and inspiring personalities that pop will ever have.
|You grew up in different
countries, following your parents who were teaching English. What were
your experiences of living in different cultural atmospheres? Did you
end up feeling like an outsider both at home and abroad?
Momus: My dad was a teacher of English, so we lived in Greece and in Canada, as well as in Scotland. It shaped my cultural attitudes quite a lot and made me a relativist almost automatically. I began to see my own country just as exotic as other peopleís countries. I became foreign by going to live in Greece at the age of nine. Stepping off the plane, I just felt texturally that it was very different. It was very hot and everything was much brighter than in Scotland, there were lemon trees and enormous insects in the back garden. More than that the school I went to had girls in it. For me it was a physical impression on my body as well as the change of colours, smells and such. Especially so since at that time I made sexual discoveries, like having my first orgasm in a little room in Athens. When I was in Greece I would exaggerate how Scottish I was and Iíd make myself seem terribly exotic to my friends there. At the British embassy school which I went to, there were children from all over the world and each one became an ambassador of their country. But then I was sent back to Scotland to go to Boarding school, which was probably the unhappiest time of my life. Back there I would pretend to be Greek and after that I would always pretended to be from somewhere else. I think Iíve continued to do that.
You are still moving about quite a lot today. You left London for Paris, then went to live in New York and before coming to Berlin stayed in Tokyo for a while. How does it feel to live in such diverse places in such a short span of time?
I have never lived outside of cities and cities all have common features. I could be accused of just moving to the trendy areas of this city or that city. The people that I meet always tend to be self-employed professionals and artists and they are very much the same the world over. They are part of this digital superculture which doesnít really have much national flavour anymore. So maybe despite all the moving around, I am living in a very narrow world, which is the world of arts and digital datastreams. I think itís interesting because now city states are becoming important again. I donít really find Iím living in Germany right now. Iím more living in the city state of Berlin which may be intimately connected to the city state of Brooklyn or London or Paris. It feels like there could almost be these subwaylines between cities. A lot of the areas that I would be attracted to are very multicultural areas. In New York I lived in China Town and in London I used to live near Brick Lane, right now Iím thinking about moving to Kreuzberg here in Berlin. I think creative people tend to gravitate to those areas, because they are multi ethnic and have more vitality.
The problem is usually with the 80 or 90 % of white people who are probably more alien to me. When I used to live in Britain I had very few lovers who were British. My lovers were always from some ethnic minority or foreigners who had just come to live there temporarily. Maybe that is what Freud calls the ĎNarcissism of minor differencesí, meaning that you have the biggest problem with people who are the closest to you, like your family or people you went to school with. You run away from those, because they reflect one image of yourself and you donít want to accept that image.
|Turning to your
life as a popmusican, when did you first start making music?
Momus: I wrote my first song when I was about 7. That had a language learning element to it, as my father was doing a PhD in childrenís acquisition of language. He wanted to make field recordings which he needed for his dissertation. He would just leave me with an expensive German tape recorder and say: ďMake sounds, sing a song, tell a story, do whatever you wantĒ and leave the tape running. There are these recordings of me aged seven making up these songs, more or less on the spot. The first song on one of those tapes is called ďI can see JapanĒ. This is now actually on my album Little Red Songbook as a secret track. It went ďI can see Japan, I can see the mountain-tops and I can see your images, but maybe best of all I can see your loveď and that was me doing a rip off of the Whoís ďI can see for milesď. So I guess I was a bit a sixties singer songwriter.
What instrument did you first start playing ?
Momus: Well I would say the first instrument I was really interested in playing was the cassette tape recorder I just mentioned. I also had a piano in my room which no one else in my family wanted. I didnít know how to play the piano, so I would put some tissue paper in the strings or some furniture screws and try to make it into a percussion instrument. Because my dad had a language lab in his college, I would use these two track tape recorders which had one track for the teacher and one for the student to learn English. I would take the language lessons on which a female voice was saying ďThereís an Elephant in the garden and it wants to come into the houseĒ. Then the male voice would reply ďWell donít let it come into the houseď and I would take that and make a song out of it.
You went to University in Aberdeen and got a first in Literature, when did you stray off that academic path and became a popmusician?
Momus: I made my first album, if you include my band The Happy Family, in 1982. The album was called The Man on Your Street and with made with various members of Josef K, who had just disbanded. Itís about a Swiss dictator and the Italian Red Brigades. I think of it as a bit of an oedipal record, like Fassbinder making a film about a gang of kids who become terrorists to assassinate their step-father dictator.
When did you become Momus and why did you choose that name?
Momus: I became Momus in 1985 when I went to live in London and made my first solo album Circus Maximus. I took the name from Greek mythology. Momus is the deity of mockery, an anti-authoritarian and irreverent god who makes fun of people. It also sounded a bit like Bowie, but I especially chose it because the Greek deities are not Gods that you need to worship, but have human characteristics and are all involved in some great adventures.
|Looking back on
your early career in the mid to late 80s when you made records like The
Poison Boyfriend, Tender Pervert and Donít Stop the
how would you describe yourself?
Momus: From around 1984 to 1993 Iím living in Britain and Iím on Creation Records for most of that time. Iím making records which are very political in the sense that they are direct responses to the events of Thatcherism. The Section 28 with which Thatcher tried to forbid the promotion of homosexuality as a valid alternative life style made me think ďWell, I am going to make a very pro homosexual recordĒ . This became Tender Pervert, which originally was going to be titled The Homosexual. Just the idea that the people running Britain at that time, who I saw as my enemies, were kind of telling me ďhomosexuality is badĒ, made me come round the corner and say the opposite. I took up a cultural battle.
Thatís my late 80s attitude. Itís very aggressive and satirical, always looking for a fight with the Conservatives. Marxism was my main weapon at that point, but I had to abandon that when it started to go very badly for Marxism and everyone was going to the right with ordinary people starting to buy stocks and shares in British Telecom, and all the public industries were sold off. So I thought letís use Freud instead, because he is dynamite. Along with the analytical stuff, Georges Batailleís writings and the music of Serge Gainsbourg became very important to my work. The British generally have a very big problem with sex, even today they are still very inhibited and donít see it as a way towards liberation. So I hit them with that stick for a while, especially on the Hippotomomus album which came out in 1991.
Apart from that taste for sexual transgression and voicing political opinions, you were also very well known for writing hilariously ironic songs which were thinly veiled portraits of your colleagues in the pop world. Tell us a bit more about that.
Momus: Yes, during that period I became a satirist of people who had almost the same attitudes as me, but were just slightly different. I would be attacking music journalists or other bands, and in the end started to resemble the people I was attacking. You become so obsessed with their minor difference from yourself that you donít think about life in the bigger picture anymore. You concentrate on the people who are your enemies, but are also defining you.
I eventually left Britain in 1994 when I got married to Shazna and had to run away and live in Paris because her Bangladeshi family were threatening us. Once I got out of Britain I finally started to think about a wider perspective again.
What prompted you to set up your own record company Analog Baroque and what is your view of independent music labels today?
Momus: I was actually dropped from Creation Records because of problems with my wifeís family who were running into the office and threatening the staff there. Thatís why I was dropped, not for commercial reasons! My records at that time were making a small profit. I set up my own label Analog Baroque within Cherry Red Records, which is one of the last truly independent labels left. Itís kind of immune from capitalism. Itís a small company that always seems to be there. Other independents like Creation and Mute have disappeared. Their problem was success, which can be just as big a problem as failure. Creation became the centre of Britpop and was swallowed up by its own success. If you can avoid both success and failure you can survive. Cherry Red seems to have done that, mainly by just taking over the back catalogues of lots of dead independent labels, and there are a lot of dead independent label. Luckily I seem to be the only living artist on Cherry Red records, at least I hope that Iím a living artist!
|Do you sign new
bands or musicians to your label?
Momus: Yes, Iíve released an album by Stereo Total on Analog Baroque and one by a young Californian artist called Phillip on my US label American Patchwork. But it takes a lot of money and promotion to launch new artists and I was paying for them out of my own royalties. That was pretty bad for me, as I can just about survive on what I earn right now through my recordings. This year though weíve had a global profit for the whole label and I can start paying royalties to the artists that Iíve signed. That is a champagne moment, but Iím being careful about signing other groups just now!
Whatís your new album Otto Spooky like?
Momus: Itís my first proper Berlin recorded record if you donít count my collaboration with Ann Laplantine and I think of it as something like David Bowieís Lodger. It has a restless way of exploring the styles of different cultures and I got interested in disorientation as a theme for an album. So it jumps about a lot and has a different style on each track.
One interesting thing about Otto Spooky is that is was partly financed by selling some of the songs as mp3s on my website. So it was in part financed by my audience as well as by the record label. For the first time the CD becomes like a secondary collectors object, for people who want to have a hard copy of the songs.
The internet is also the main musical instrument on the album. I would be sitting here in my flat and think of an instrument like an Mongolian horsehead fiddle. Instead of trying to find a guy who can play that instrument I would try to find a sound sample on Google. Its possibly pretty lofi, but I really like those dirty resolution samples. Iíd then download it and play about with it, play it backwards or whatever and build it into my song.
The transitions between the songs are made by a young artist called John Talaga, who takes a bit from my songs and them moves it to a murky musical area where you can get lost and then it takes you out of that valley into the next song. My songs are often too calculated pop, too tightly written with not enough mystery in them, so John Talaga adds some confusion, mystery and chaos to my fanatically organised music.
Since you started in 1985 has your style changed or has the way you produce music changed?
Momus: Thereís a kind of myth, which I donít accept, that I was a troubadour who plays an acoustic guitar and then had a road-to-Damascus-experience and suddenly shouted ďOh my God! Electronics!Ē. Itís not like in [Kenneth Grahamís] Wind in Willows where the toad is thrown into a ditch by the first car that crosses his path and after that he goes crazy for cars.
If you listen to the first Momus albums Poison Boyfriend and Tender Pervert itís a combination of an acoustic guitar with an emulator sampler playing all the other sounds. Often I didnít even own a guitar and all my early demos were made with synthesiser or cassettes. I think obviously things got more electronic, because electronics got more important in music making and also because it allows you to record very cheaply. I would say now the sampler and the internet are most important instruments to me, because you can make almost any sound you like with it.
I could make an album solely with the internet, and I think it would be much more interesting than to make an album just with a piano.
|What is your working
routine? Do you write a song everyday?
Momus: If Iím in the recording phase I can write a song a day, that is what I would aim for. I donít do that everyday though, just when I think itís time to make a new album. I like to leave a fallow period, a time when I think about other things. I believe musicians get very self-conscious and stuck thinking far too narrowly about what music can be. I prefer to do other things as well, like journalism about design, or go travelling. Then new ideas will filter through to the next project .
But the way I make a song is probably quite orientated to the title which I think of first of all. Texture is important to me, recently I was thinking Iíd like to make a record thatís incredibly intimate and sensual, like a bossa nova. A lot of my records already sound very intimate, but Iíd like to go even further with that. Once Iíve got the idea of the kind of texture, I would then try to search for words or themes that would suit that musical genre. What would a bossa nova song be about ? Once Iíve got that I would subvert it. Usually bossa novas are sophisticated love songs with poetry and a lot of sunshine in it. I would think what if we had a bossa nova that came from an icy igloo and is more theoretical and detached!
I always like paradoxes and subversions. I might also fail doing bossa nova, because thatís quite a complex musical form, but my failure might be just as interesting. Once Iíve got the concept, the song falls into place itself.
I think authorship in pop music is totally overestimated. Making pop music is all about twisting something which already exists. I often think I advance by appetite. If I want to steal something, if I have a shoplifting impulse about somebody elseís music, than thatís a good sign. I just go ahead and steal what I like and the originality comes later working with it. So itís sort of a collaboration with a stranger
Moving from imaginary collaborations to real ones. You always played and produced all the music on your records yourself. Recently however youíve been working with a number of Japanese artists, as well as The Magnetic Fields and even made an entire album with Anne Laplantine called Summerisle in 2004.
Momus: I was legendary for never working with anybody in Britain. A few years back I was included in a RockíníRoll family tree and my name was just on one side saying ďMomus: collaborating with: NobodyĒ. More recently I have been collaborating with Japanese female singers Kahimi Karie, Emi Neozawa, The Poison Girlfriend which was very liberating. I found that I had a repressed Japanese girl within me who in a sense was the real me. So I made three of four collaborations writing and producing songs in Japan and then I made a record with my ex-wife Shazna under the name Milky and now the record with Anne Laplantine. With the Japanese singers it was very straightforward. They would tell me they want a song sounding like a 1950s barber shop choir crossed with the Addams family. I would totally ignore that and write something very different.
With Anne Laplantine it was the other way around, she would say: ďSing something, make sounds with your voiceĒ and then she would build a song around my voice and if I was singing a song with a story in it, she would just totally ignore that story and chop it up into textual sound fragments and put it in a way that fitted some guitar pieces she was playing. Then she would chop that up even further. It became a weird way of making folk music by reverse engineering.
|Do you still play
Momus: I sure still do, you get very disembodied being just on the internet. My live shows are very embodied, I move and shake a lot. Thereís a part of me that wants to be a contemporary dancer. My big star when I was a kid was David Bowie and he was almost like a dancer. He was very physical, using kabuki movements and all the rest of it. Now Iíve developed my own very clumsy choreography, with gestures imitating a Japanese girl and then Iím Robin Hood or something else coming directly from the lyrics of the song. Often I just feel like acting out the songs that Iím singing.
Where did your affinity with Japan start with?
Momus: This is something I could talk about literally for years, because there are so many different reasons. I was already attracted to Japan as a child when I saw something about it on television. I saw Japan as a highly refined aesthetic country at the other end of the world. An island like Britain, but almost like an Alice in Wonderland mirror-image, like a total reverse of everything that Britain stood for. If Britain hated art and culture, then Japan was a really arty place. It just seemed like a Through the Looking Glass image of what life might be like.
I like Buddhism and Shinto, the nature worship thing. The idea that the sacred might be in any object around you and you donít have to specialise spirituality in some god in the sky. Western tradition based on Plato and Christianity was always somehow wrong for me, the Japanese seemed to be in the moment much better than we were.
When I first arrived in Japan I was struck by the horizontally of society, that there was importance in everyone and every job is viewed equally important. In Britain everything is ruined by class. People are resentful against artists from wealthy backgrounds, they say they are just artists representing a certain class. This undermines everything, there is too much jealousy and resentment towards artists. People only care about art as a representation of class, so you get someone like Tracy Emin whose work is all about having come from Margate and being an immigrant. British art is all about identity and its relationship with class. In Japan this is really not the case, there is an emphasis on everyone being in the same state of mind, nobody emphasises differences, they emphasise similarities. Nature, beauty and sexuality are the important things in their culture and they really speak to me as an artist!
And Japan is a really post-modern society in the sense that they have collapsed high and low and value might come at any point on the horizontal social plane. What really struck me when I first went to Japan was that all the art galleries were in department stores and I was playing one of my first concerts there on the top floor of a department store where they had a concert hall. If you are a Marxist you at first think, hey this is bad if everything is so mixed up with money and shopping, but at the same time itís nice that art is not separate from daily life.
You have a place as an artist in residence at the University of Hakkodate, Hokaido, what exactly do you do there?
Momus: Itís a project called Lost Radio, Found Sound. Itís a collaborative project with the people of Hakkodate, which is quite a small university town with a population of about 50.00, and is on the northern island of Hokaido. There is this weird university called the Future University and each year they have an artist in residence. Iíll be collecting sounds and making a web streaming radio station. But really just any excuse to get my expenses to Japan paid to spend more time there is fine with me.
|You told us of your
experiences feeling as a foreigner already when you were a child. Now
you seem to have almost become a foreigner by profession. How do you
feel about this?
Momus: On my web page I seem to be arguing about this quite a lot. Especially in Japan you remain foreign however long you might live there. I find that especially Americans are not at ease in Japan, they find it authoritarian, anti-individualistic and too small. Europeans do much better in Japan because they keep the idea in mind that you can never integrate and that itís not even desirable to integrate. One of my mentors is the American writer and composer Paul Bowles who lived in Tangier all his life. Bowles never learned Arabic. He actually wanted to stay foreign. I think itís a great luxury to be a foreigner, to be able to keep that distance is very useful.
When I see countries like France and Britain trying to force immigrants to assimilate and to speak French or English and to wear occidental clothes at school they are making a big mistake. There has to be a mutual distance and a mutual respect in that kind of relationship. Itís a luxury of course and not everyone has that luxury to stay detached from a society. In Japanese culture if it allows you in at all, it holds you at a respectful distance and asks the same sort of respect from you towards its culture. What I really hate is western colonialism or western Evangelism trying to convert people. So many Christians tried to convert people in Japan and the Japanese were very hostile and basically just killed the Evangelists. They even kept the traders out and closed off Japan as much as possible, which was very wise. Thatís why Japan is one of the most different places you can go to now.
A common occidental prejudice against Japan is that it is a society strongly build on visual culture, while the West prefers its literary heritage.
Momus: Yes, in the West people always say ďDonít judge a book by its coverĒ or that you are superficial if you rely too much on exterior things and you should be deep. Iím now trying to say that you can judge a book by the cover, visual impressions are very important, they contain so much information. The trouble with the West is Platonism and the belief of metaphysics that reality is elsewhere. Reality is very important but itís absent. That is a combination of ideas that I have come to really resist and dislike. Itís a mistake because people degrade their environment or their bodies and physical things, because they are thought not to think that that is important. In the west only designers, gay people and sexual fetishists have managed to resist metaphysics in the way that they will see something as important and beautiful simply because of its physical form and not because of any hidden meaning.
Why did you come to Berlin and what do you particularly like about it?
Momus: After 9/11 I left New York because the atmosphere changed so totally, it felt simply too serious to work and create there anymore. I went to Tokyo, but I just had three month tourist visas and I needed a base in Europe again.
I had always thought about Berlin, ever since David Bowie had lived here in the late 70s. Berlin seemed glamorous and I had been here before in 1987 with Primal Scream. Berlin is a place that has a liberty of mind. It seems almost a post≠Protestant city where everyone is challenging authority.
Iím a Scottish post-Protestant radical, so I find myself at home here.
Also almost everyone is an artist in some sort of a way, at least a huge number of people are artists and its very cheap to live here. In London you need to have a day job and then you do your art at night. Berlin is a paradise in that respect and itís much easier to survive as an artist. Itís a city that is changing its identity all the time and I like that very much. Streets change all the time and everything is in transition. Berlin is unfinished in a way that is very refreshing. It needs the people that are moving here and asks for our input.
A city like Venice or Paris is finished, itís a museum. You can put glass over the whole thing, it doesnít need you, you are just lucky to be living there. It doesnít say ďHey who am IĒ, because it knows already. Berlin is a bit the opposite from that, itís unfinished and unsure of itís identity and itís lucky to have people that want to come and change it.
You have frequently been quoting writers such as the Marquis de Sade, Yukio Mishima, Andre Gide, Cesare Pavese and others. Does popmusic and literature go together?
Momus: There is a DVD about Momus called Man of Letters and I have always been trying to make pop music an acceptable criteria for being a ďman of lettersĒ. Of course I had to stumble across the paradox ďCan you be a man of letters if you just make pop music, and can you make pop music if your background is really literary culture?Ē. In Britain that is not cool, people have always been seeing me as pretentious and slumming it.
More recently Iíve had some problems with literature though, because I began to see it as disembodied and I donít really trust language. Literature doesnít have a direct sensual impact on me anymore, it doesnít move me the way music does. When I start playing a guitar Iím moved and engaged and my body and voice is involved. Like when I hear the same text read by a voice, even an artificial voice I prefer it to the words on the page. Maybe now that I have just one eye I find reading more straining than I used to. Anyhow Iím still reading all the time, so I donít know why Iím saying this.
You published a volume of your lyrics called ďLusts of a MoronĒ. Did you ever think of writing a novel and what sort of writers do you admire?
Momus: I very much like that Italian word ďcantautoreĒ which means singing author. In Britain there isnít really a word for what I am doing, youíre either a troubadour or a singer songwriter. I studied literature at university and wanted to become a writer, I had an almost religious calling to write. But I most admired writers who kept a journal or wrote letters like Kafka, who was my greatest hero when I was young, or Cesare Pavese and his diary ll Mestiere di Vivere (This Business of Living). Those writings seemed even more interesting than their novels. Novels are a bit like videogames, okay here is your character and this is what he does, while the journal of a writer projects stronger ideas of a man of letters. It is a certain way of being in the world that is humanistic and publicly engaged or privately tormented or could be either. Much of Paveseís diary is about his unhappy relationship with Constance Dowling. I actually have some songs that are almost taken directly from Pavese like 'Innermost Thoughts' and 'March in Turin'. Pier Paolo Pasolini was also a substantial influence, but again it was his essays and his poetry, his role as a Marxist intellectual and homosexual artist which were more important to me than his films. So Iíve had chances to write books, but I didnít take them and probably prefer to be a writer and singer of songs.
© 2005 Nikolas Montaldi/ Davide Fornari, Berlin-Venezia