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MOMUS interview
by Alexander Laurence

For years Nick Currie has been working under name Momus. While he has managed to build a cult following, much media attention came when Momus announced in 1998 that his next album would be composed of commissioned portraits. Thirty people paid Momus $1000 each to write a song about them. Even though the proceeds from the Stars Forever album were used to bail his label Le Grand Magistery out of legal trouble, it was a major work. Before that album he released Twenty Vodka Jellies, Ping Pong, and The Little Red Notebook, which were big successes in America. Last year Momus came out with Folktronic and toured with Stereo Total and Toog. Currently, author Jeremy Reed is writing a book about Momus. Momus lived in New York City for two years. He staged his farewell gig there in early 2002. Momus and Emi Necozawa have just finished two tracks for a soundtrack for a new Japanese film called Bambi Bone, directed by Noriko Shibutani

These days it seems Momus is paying more attention to reconciling his relationship with the music industry, in part by starting a record label of his own, American Patchwork. He has been touring with The Super Madrigal Brothers, Phiiliip, The Gongs, and Rroland, all of whom appear on the label. In June and July of 2002, they all traveled in two cars across America, starting in Williamsburg, and ending in North Carolina. I was able to speak to him right before he took the stage before a maddening crowd.


AL: How has the American Patchwork Tour going? You are sort of on the last leg here.

Momus: It started off with many disasters. At first it looked like we wouldn't be able to release any records that we were promoting here. It didn't look like I was going to get my Visa from Japan to come to the United States in time. I literally got it on the way to the airport. Then we had problems renting the cars because of the credit cards. Someone was mugged in Philadelphia. Phiiliip went missing in Boston and had to take the Greyhound bus to catch up with us. We thought we were going to go on without him. Everything in the end has turned out fine. It worked out. I am enjoying it.

AL: You spent two years in New York City. Were you there during the September 11th bombings?

Momus: Yeah. In the last nine months I have been going back and forth between Tokyo and New York. I had just gotten back to New York four days before the 11th. I was just fitting back in that very hedonistic and luxurious lifestyle of going to art openings every night and thinking "this city is so wonderful." Then, kaboom. Everything changed. I watched it from my roof. It was horrible. It did seem like an end of an era. The whole thing with Bush being given a standing ovation was pretty silly. Things were canceled. CMJ was canceled and we did that a month later. I canceled some engagements that involved flying. I was pretty paranoid for a few months.

AL: What is American Patchwork about?

Momus: We have five artists and we have to start early some nights. This is a tour of my label American Patchwork. The idea is that it is mostly American artists. I come in as a European curator rather arrogantly and say this is what is good about America. What I am choosing are artists who live in America but are doing madrigals or playing on a Nintendo Game Boy. It is all cosmopolitan and global. It's not necessarily a down-home America thing. It's not emo-core or whatever Americans are consuming. They are not consuming these bands. We are the left of the left, the alternative to the alternative label.

AL: There is much music that is honest and sincere.

Momus: We are against anything honest and sincere. If there is any tradition we are part of it's the American tradition of the outsider and people like Harry Partch. The Gongs are very much a part of that tradition. They are students at Oberlin College in Ohio. They make their own instruments out of bits of old driftwood. They have strange tunings and scales. They have mysterious lyrics about red steam and gigantic omelets and things like that. It's in the American Primitive outsider tradition like Grandma Moses.

AL: What happened to Le Grand Magistery after the Walter Carlos/Wendy Carlos lawsuit?

Momus: Le Grand Magistery survived that thanks to the "Stars Forever" album. We made the money back that we spent on attorneys. I am still very happy with that album and I am glad that we have snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. Finding a solution that attenuated the perfect crime itself, in a way, making an unauthorized portrait of Walter Carlos led to me making thirty authorized portraits of all these people who gave me 30,000 dollars combined to write a song about them. That gave me a huge amount of material as a writer to celebrate their diversity, their otherness, and their difference from me. Sometimes you get bored with your own personality as a writing subject. It was great to have other people give you the details. It was a double album.

AL: What songs are you playing on this tour?

Momus: Folktronic came out in 2001, about a year ago. I am working on a new record in Japan. I am playing some tracks from Folktronic, some that still appeal to me from the older albums, and some unreleased stuff. Everybody always wants "I Want You But I Don't Need You" or "Hairstyle of The Devil." I am not doing any hits or semi-hits. Whatever those are? I have made fifteen albums. There's a lot to choose from.

AL: What was Folktronic about? It's started out like a Folkways thing.

Momus: Yeah. Having being a fan of David Bowie who was the chameleon rock star of the 1970s. He stole people's styles and made them his own. Bowie mixed Jacques Brel with Philly Soul or whatever. I came to America and though "That's the essence of America really." It's that capacity of Americans to reinvent themselves and make that fakeness or plasticity a virtue. So I basically reinvented myself, as Americans do, whether it's Irish American or Afro-Americans. They get a hazy romantic reinvented idea of their own roots. Then they celebrate that in their exaggerated way. I did that with my Scottish roots and made a really plastic version of Scottish music. Appalachian fiddle music comes from Scotland. But I mixed that with electronic music to emphasize the plastic-ness of it. The concept peters out and it becomes like prog rock. It's just a collection of songs.

AL: What are you doing in Japan? Are you doing any collaborations with Kahime Karie?

Momus: I haven't done anything with Kahime this year. She's looking for a new contract. It's a hard time for Japanese artists because they are having a recession. I just did a soundtrack with Emi Necozawa for a new Japanese film called Bambi Bone, directed by Noriko Shibutani. I just did a piece for MOCA's digital gallery.

AL: Are you still involved with the art world? All the galleries on Hoxton Street with Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst?

Momus: When I lived there. I was a fellow traveler. I think that I met Tracey Emin once. I had a one man show in New York in 2000. But that was really an extension of Folktronic. I used to go to galleries in Chelsea all the time. I don't see myself as a visual artist. I find that world very interesting.

AL: So you collaborated with Cynthia Plaster Caster?

Momus: That documentary about her has been doing the rounds. She does numerous interviews where she invariably mentions something about the size of my foreskin. I keep reading these comments. It was a dismal failure really. I wasn't excited about the situation. She became exasperated. We had to do three or four different attempts. She got something in the end. She came to our show in Chicago. She started the Plaster Caster foundation. The idea is to sell some of the casts of all these penises. Some people actually use these as dildos. You can now have sex with Jimi Hendrix long after he's dead. Then she is going to donate the money to important artist's causes.

AL: You have been writing about Classicism a lot lately?

Momus: Right. I have always tried to steer clear of the standard rock or pop romanticism. Whether it's the romanticism of "Baby, I Love You" or the romanticism of Radiohead sense: I am an artist and I am special, and I am suffering. Or "I want to fuck you like an animal" or whatever the Nine Inch Nails version of that is. Classicism I would define as something which is a little bit detached or restrained. It's about the proportion of balance to harmony. It's architectural and even aristocratic. Historically it has its roots in Pre-French Revolution. It's about the old order of the court life, where you have a court composer and a court poet. It was very temperate. What I like about that is then you can juxtapose that with outrageous provocations. So you can write a song called "Coming In A Girl's Mouth" and set it to courtly and beautiful harpsichords, and make it seem like it is a witty little squib that may have been written by Alexander Pope in the 18th Century. I sang that song in front of Mormons in Salt Lake City and nobody's hair fell out.

AL: What books are you reading?

Momus: I tend to buy old books. Educational books. I have been reading about Kabuki Theater and early ideas about post-modern architecture.

AL: Since you have lived in America for a few years now what do you think about ideas and the practice of Democracy as opposed to classes, and then European models of Socialism?

Momus: In Europe, we have a techno-cratic uber-class. It's the commissioners of the European Union. They are not very democratically accountable. As I am getting older I am thinking that Democracy is over-rated because people don't really know enough about things to vote. Even if they are given genuine choices between the parties they don't really tend to know enough about genetic engineering or whatever the crucial issues are at the time. I like the fact that you have these legislators who are liberals and know all about atomic power, but maybe they don't always do the right thing. In Europe they tend to be more left wing than the people would be. Unfortunately when people are given free reign, as France has shown, they tend to vote right of center politicians or fascists. When you let commissioners decide things you get social democratic ideas basically. I am happy with the European model. I don't things should be made more democratic. I would love for everyone to get involved in politics and it would be all liberal and cooperative. But it doesn't work like that because most people are deeply conservative and that's the disappointing thing.

AL: Have you seen any films?

Momus: I don't see too many Hollywood films. The one that I was working on, Bambi Bone, will be coming to festivals in 2003. That's good. I saw Harry Potter. In Tokyo I have been watching a lot of Kabuki Theater. I love the theatricality of that with the actors and the masks and the costumes, and especially the music. The musicians play on stage.

AL: Did you have a hit record in Japan?

Momus: No. With Kahime I had some hits. I am not big in Japan as Momus. I am relatively bigger in Japan than I am in other countries.

AL: What do you think of Britpop stuff? Pulp, Oasis, Suede, and Blur?

Momus: It's all passé now. Isn't it? I am not very interested in them. I met a couple of them in the early days. Suede came knocking on my door ten years ago trying to get on Creation Records. I met them when Justine Frischmann was still in Suede. I was trying to date her. She was so attractive, but that never happened. Pulp actually ask me to produce one of their albums. I never wrote back to them.

AL: Why were all they guys trying to go out with Justine?

Momus: She was with Brett. She's cute. She's from a very rich family. I was at a party for Jesus and the Mary Chain and she was waiting to talk to me. I was wondering who is this girl waiting to talk to me for hours. It was Justine. Suede always had a nice place to live because Justine's daddy paid for it. He is the architect for some of London's greatest landmarks like the Centrepoint Tower. It's at the end of Oxford Street.

AL: How is your eye?

Momus: It's stable. I got some amoebas on my contact lens and they started living in my eye. They blinded me in one eye. I had a few years where I had a lot of nasty operations. They tried to save the eye. It's there but it's not seeing anything. It's not going to see anything. We lost that battle.

AL: Today I was watching this movie Alive. They crashed the plane in the mountains and survived for ten weeks by eating flesh. If all the people on the American Patchwork Tour were on a plane and you were stranded in the mountains would you eat flesh?

Momus: Everyone is so skinny. There's nothing to eat. We would all starve. I don't know. We would have to eat the merchandise. We would have to eat Phiiliip's T-shirts that haven't been selling very well. We could live on cotton. I would do what Scott of the Antarctic did, which is that he knew that there wasn't enough supplies for everyone so he left a note saying "I am going out for a while." But he just went out in the snow and was frozen to death out of pure altruism. I would find that in myself and save these young artists.

AL: American Patchwork has been around for a year Is it part of Le Grand Magistery?

Momus: Well, Matt from Le Grand Magistery was instrumental in setting it up. He did the deal with Darla for his own label. Then he told me that James at Darla would be interested in me releasing records too through Darla. At this stage I don't know if my next record is going to be on Magistery or American Patchwork. In fact it might have both logos on there. My deal with Matt and Le Grand Magistery was a five record deal and that's over so we would have to re-negotiate anyway. Things are changing. Matt is getting married and he was going to move back to New York and work on the label more seriously. But now he is living in rural Canada. He went through a tough year and a horrible legal situation because Stars wanted to sign to Palm Pictures. He has been travelling a lot and concentrating on his magic show. I think that he wants to continue to do the label.

AL: What is the next record going to be like?

Momus: It's going to recorded in Japan from September. It's going to be in a style I call "Spooky Kabuki" which is a mixture of Kabuki and Cantonese opera. But then that's going to be a decoration on my usual vaudevillian stories. I am getting more interested in sound for sound's sake. I might even get The Super Madrigal Brothers involved. They don't even know this yet. This is a world exclusive. I would like to get them to work on the files because they are amazing what they do with sound. It will have vocals and stories. I am also interested in experimental radio from Germany in the 1950s and 1960s. You can have narrative but you have experimental soundscapes. It's not going to be songlike, but knowing me there will be songs and it will be pop in the end.

AL: You have left New York early this year in March. The first show was at Warsaw in Williamsburg and Brooklyn. What do you think of Williamsburg?

Momus: It's a nice ghetto. It's like the Castro District in San Francisco. People can be with people like themselves. Personally I like to be in a more diverse place. I was happy to be in Chinatown because you have all these neighborhoods to choose which are nearby. Now I live in Tokyo which is not a diverse city at all. But Tokyo is a city, although they are Japanese, where they eat, think, have sex very much the way that I do, so I feel very much at home in Japan. I like to visit Williamsburg but I don't think that I would like to live in Williamsburg. There's a bunch of young people who live on their parent's money and want to be artists and that's fine. I just saw Yoko Ono's exhibit yesterday in San Francisco. That's how she was. She lived with a trust fund, and she went to Sarah Lawrence, and she would have fit in the Williamsburg scene. I don't condemn that at all. A stimulating and culture scene is necessary.

AL: Do you have any advice for young people who want to do music?

Momus: Don't try to get a big record deal. It's a waste of time. Do totally fresh and original music. Hope that the world notices. When I was younger I was on 4AD when it was new. I am a very niche person. I don't think that you should try to interest everybody. It's a dilemma whether you are in a ghetto or you are in a diverse place where everyone thinks different that you. A lot of my music tries to capture the center ground. I am like a politician. My natural tendency is to be quite elitist and focus on a little group of people whom I consider hipsters. I am both for the visionary and the common touch.

AL: What do you love about music?

Momus: I suppose it's music capacity to conjure up pictures in your mind of other worlds. To build very cheaply the most elaborate and amazing stage sets and scenery in your head. It is different every time you listen to it because it mixes with the scenery that you are looking at whether through a window or when you are walking around with a Walkmen. It's a very personal and intimate artform that speaks directly into your ears. You have to complete the picture. It's unfinished in that sense. It doesn't bombard you with images like film does. Music says here are some suggestions, fill in the rest on the dotted line. Fill it in with your own dreams, aspirations and fantasies.


-- Alexander Laurence



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