by Alexander Laurence
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.
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
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
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
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,
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
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
-- Alexander Laurence