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- Katie Aselton on going from mumblecore to thriller—and directing her own nude scenes
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- Sarah Polley on laying her family history bare in the new documentary Stories We Tell
Describing Momus, a.k.a. Nick Currie, presents a slew of difficulties, as his style shifts dramatically from album to album, and even from song to song. For example, 1998's The Little Red Songbook is a record in the style of what Momus calls "Analog Baroque," a '90s take on 18th-century styles by way of '60s electronica, or something to that effect. Its song titles alone ("Lucretia Borgia," "The New Decameron," "Tragedy And Farce") signify a composer more concerned with wit than passion, and Momus' music and lyrics bear out that suggestion. A consummate ironist even on his pre-baroque-minded albums, Currie by way of Momus is akin to Alexander Pope reincarnated as a pop star. One song from Songbook, however, caused some legal problems, a situation that directly inspired Momus' current album, Stars Forever. Tapping into the traditions of patronage, occasional verse, and subscription, Momus offered the public, via the Internet, the chance to purchase 30 song portraits at the rate of $1,000 apiece, thus allowing him to pay off legal fees and create the material needed for his next album. A remarkably diverse, unrelentingly clever collection of songs immortalizing everyone from pop-artist Jeff Koons to the 3D Corporation to a 3-year-old named Noah Brill, Stars Forever compiles the results of that experiment. As anyone who's ever visited Momus' essay-rich web site (www.demon.co.uk/momus) knows, he has a lot of thoughts on many subjects, many of which he shared in an recent interview with The Onion.
The Onion: Did you ever get an assignment for one of these new songs and think, "There is no way I can turn this person into a song"? You know, where there's simply not enough there?
Momus: My only problem was in running into another shy Japanese girl. You know, I'd already written two or three shy-Japanese-girl songs, and it was like, "What am I going to do with this one?" Because they were quite formulaic, and they all said the same thing. I don't think anybody ever, you know, grossed me out or embarrassed me, or whatever.
O: Did you let the content of the person's life determine the style of the song, or did you have a particular style of song you wanted to use and put the person's life into that?
M: It was pretty intuitive, but sometimes there were suggestions, like the Steven Zeeland song, for instance. He's a gay writer who writes about sailors, and so it seemed obvious to make a sea shanty. But other times, it's just fairly arbitrary. The Stephanie Pappas song, for instance, talks about an unreliable guru, an uncharismatic guru, but it's got a sort of disco backing. I mean, some were just kind of whatever. I did want to put as much variety, musically, in there as possible, while still pursuing the stylistic direction I'd struck with the last album, which I call "Analog Baroque." That sort of came to its fruition with "Jeffrey Koons," which was very elaborate, had a lot of different sections, and was played on the harpsichord. But then I began to get more interested in folk music and stuff like that, and applying synthesizers to folk music. "Minty Fresh," for instance, I'm quite happy with, or even something like "Brent Busboom," which has a lot of weird medieval folk elements.
O: Of all the albums of yours that I've heard, and a lot of them aren't in print here, it seems like this has the greatest variety of musical styles on it.
M: Yeah, I think that because it's so long, I really had to do that. In fact, the percussion and the basic sounds are pretty similar throughout the album; it's just the styles, the references, that are different.
O: What about "Maf"? What took you to make that particular person a killer?
M: Um, because he suggested it to me. We exchanged quite a few e-mails about how we should present the song. He was really involved. You know, he's obviously a creative guy, and he wanted to become this larger-than-life character. I think he's a bit of a Morrissey fan, so... Morrissey has always struck me as being a bit of a latter-day vaudeville star, so I kind of allowed him to live out his Morrissey fantasies. He almost becomes Morrissey in this song. There's a line about how I'd hoped to kill Morrissey but Maf was my second choice. I just made it so very vaudeville.
O: Is Morrissey someone you admire?
M: He is, yeah. I think I admire his interviews more than his music, because he's very witty and funny. He's got a very dry and bitter humor, which I find hilarious. I think it's terrible that he doesn't get interviewed as much as he used to.
O: It's always struck me that there are two sorts of Morrissey fans: those who are in on the joke and those who aren't.
M: Well, I don't see how you couldn't think that he was funny. I mean, yes, I guess a lot of people must still believe to this day that he was celibate, which was one of his funniest jokes, this thing of being so wildly sexual and claiming that you're not interested in sex.
O: Is there anything on this album that you're particularly fond of?
M: Um, I think my favorites are probably "Jeffrey Koons" and "Minty Fresh." "Mika Akutsu," I like a lot. "Tinnitus."
O: I like the "Stefano Zarelli" song a lot.
M: Yes, I liked that a lot when I wrote it. I mean, I keep changing, which is nice. They're all kind of like children to me.
O: So, how much did you consult with your subjects? How much input did they have into it?
M: Well, they couldn't dictate the musical style or anything, and they didn't try to. What they did was just try to give as interesting a picture of who they were as possible, and then it was pretty much up to me to go off and do something with that.
O: Were you trying to keep it as much like the patronage system as you could, or was it more like where you had to bring your own...
M: Well, patronage, strictly speaking historically, is much more about an artist being without means and living in the court of a very rich and powerful person. Obviously, it wasn't quite that, but it was more like a kind of thing where you go to your hairdresser and say, "I kind of want it this way," and you talk a bit about your life while they're cutting your hair. It's kind of like that. I was being a creative professional—somebody trusts me with their money to do something creative with it—and they pretty much leave it up to the professional.
O: What took you in the direction of the Baroque to begin with?
M: After making a lot of very emotional music in the mid-'90s and then discovering Beck, you know, trying to be kind of postmodern and very eclectic, I wanted to revive wit. I think I wanted to go back to kind of satirical influences, people like Tom Lehrer or Jake Zachary, who's only known in Britain, really. Just the idea of wit, and the 18th-century London scene seems to epitomize wit, you know, with coffeehouses where people would sit around in powdered wigs and talk about the political scene. Satire was very strong then, and I just thought, "Well, let's use the music of the period, let's use harpsichords, let's not try and make it horribly pseudo-classical or too authentic, and let's do sort of what the pioneers of the Moog experimentation of the '60s did with baroque music and render a gimmicky and innocent version of that. Because inauthenticity is more interesting to me than authenticity. It then becomes a weird, Japanese time-traveling take on 18th-century London.
O: You use a lot of electronic equipment in your music. Do you draw any parallels between the sort of rage for order and logic that was present in the 18th century and the ability to achieve that through electronic music?
M: Yes, although what's interesting is something I'm not very good at talking about. What's interesting about that period of synthesizers [the '60s] is just how uncontrollable they are and how illogical they seem to be when we try to use them. I mean, you can't memorize the sounds; you just have to fiddle with knobs until you get a nice sound, and then you might never find it again. They're very temperamental and intuitive. There's no programming like there is with modern synthesizers; you basically just use your ears and they're very hands-on. So, it's the paradox that I guess the 18th century knew as well, because the 18th century was very... Although there was a lot of talk of logic, it was a very chaotic time full of licentiousness and, you know... emotion, really. So it's that collision, that contradiction, that really appeals to me.
O: In your personal taste, do you react badly to any sort of Romanticism in music, or have you sort of entrenched yourself in an opposing position to achieve an end, to make a point?
M: It's mostly... Yeah, it's sort of a polemical stance, but it does irritate me when people are whining in a kind of Romantic way about the music industry, when the music industry is the agent of their aspirations to themselves and their desires. You know, the Kurt Cobain scenario. I mean, I loved Nirvana at the time, but in retrospect it looks like the last stand of Romanticism, and I kind of hope it is. Because I'm kind of bored with that. I mean, everybody goes through a period in their teens where you're into Romantic art and rebellion and feeling you're above and beyond capitalism and stuff, but in the end, it's much more creative to actually get your hands dirty and say, "Listen, I am in the world; I need to work creatively within capitalism and not consider that it makes me dirty."
O: Do you ever get uncomfortable with irony?
M: Um, no, actually. I have a lot of respect for people owning up to being ironic. I mean, I had a conversation with Beck a couple of years ago about whether he was ironic, and he seemed very, very wary of admitting that his work is ironic. And to me, it's blazingly obvious—he's very ironic—but if you say that, people start saying that your work is not real, or it's too clever, or it doesn't have the emotional quality of some sincere artist's work. And I don't think that's true. I think irony is simply the oxygen of our contemporary culture, because we all feel dispossessed, we all feel rootless, and we all feel part of the global, kind of weird electronic biosphere, and irony is the most natural response to that.
O: What do you think would change that? Would it be just a huge shift in the way we live our lives?
M: Actually, the only thing that could change that would be some kind of Islamic fundamentalism taking over the world, which doesn't seem that likely.
O: Getting back to Beck for a minute, you listen to something like Mutations, and it's very warm album. Do you still see the irony there? Would it come from his trying on so many different styles?
M: It's just a little bit closer to the Oasis brand of postmodern irony, because it's pastiching in a slightly more respectful and less eclectic way than, say, Odelay. You know, it could be almost a '60s album when you listen to it. It doesn't have the hip-hop and electronic elements.
O: You've said the age of credible mainstream art is dead. What comes after that?
M: Well, my famous quotation is perverting Andy Warhol's saying about, "In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes." I say it's 15 people, that everyone's famous for 15 people. I really look forward to an age in which we upload as much, culturally speaking, as we download. Everybody is creative. It's like on that Talking Heads song "Found A Job" about how everybody becomes their own TV station and has so much fun doing that that they don't watch television anymore. I think economically it's becoming much more possible, because digital technology is cheap to use, and you can disseminate your creative products around the whole world for no money on the Internet, and, you know, that allows everybody to become an artist. Whether they actually will is another question.
O: But it sort of becomes a situation where it's impossible to sort through everything when everyone is doing it. It gets harder and harder to find the good stuff. I think a lot of people, in the end, will just give up.
M: Well, this is why I think that all intermediary... Part of this process is this horrible word "disintermediation," which means the removal of the middle man. Record companies and record stores should be worried right now about whether they have a role in the future. But one of the types who shouldn't be worried is journalists, because I think they're middle men who are going to be more and more important, the ones who are going to have to sift through and point where to go on the Internet and what to listen to and what's good and what's not. That's still very important.
O: But the present state of rock journalism, and I implicate myself in this, is that we're still pretty much concerned with what you can go down to the local record store and buy. Right now, it may be in a transitional phase, where you're sorting through the countless independent labels.
M: Yeah, I think it's a problem, this thing about the disappearance of the common culture. If you don't know who you're writing your reviews for, and you don't know what they're listening to on their own, you know, you lose that kind of critical, centralized position, that authority that critics like Greil Marcus had in the past, where everybody knew what you were talking about and had to form an opinion about the things you were talking about. Now, I think, instead of certain artists being very central and seminal, being the reference point that everyone's talking about—you know, like The Sex Pistols or Elvis Presley—you're going to have sensibilities, which will be much more important. And then you'll just have a list of artists at the end of your article saying, "Well, if you like this sensibility, you'll like these 10 artists, because they're all..." Like, for instance, my particular thing now is whether any artists in the past played folk music on early synthesizers, so I use the Internet to find an answer to that question, and then I can go off and search for the weird records that people recommend as a result, or try to find music that's based on early computer games, that kind of thing.
O: Would you say your next album will be more folk-influenced?
M: Um, probably, although right now I'm writing some songs for Kahimi Karie's next album, which will come out in May 2000, and I'm using a progressive-rock style—or my idea of what progressive rock was, because I have no idea. I never listened to that music in the '70s. I just got some Yes records today, which I haven't played yet, so I have no idea what they're going to sound like. You know, Rick Wakeman, Yes, and more obscure progressive bands like Gentle Giant and Griffin are what I'm listening to right now, so it might be horrible, twiddly prog-rock in the future, or it might be some combination of prog and folk or medieval music.
O: Getting back briefly to what we were talking about, are there any music publications that you find useful?
M: Yeah, I devour just about everything. I bought Spin today to see what their 90 records of the '90s were and, I mean, I'm just fascinated by what anybody has to say.
O: What did you think of that list?
M: Well, I was disappointed none of my records were in there, obviously, but... I just read it in the store, and I haven't really read it yet properly. I don't know. I think those lists are interesting to read, but I think they sum up the orthodoxy. They sum up the orthodoxy and then that immediately becomes dead and stale and becomes a museum, and people go off and build a new tradition. There was an interesting article recently in The New York Times about somebody saying pop culture has shifted so that the important forebears of today's artists are people like Captain Beefheart and Bob Dylan rather than The Beatles and the Stones. The left field is becoming much more and more important. The present is always rewriting the past from its own perspective; in 20 or 30 years' time, we'll have a totally different pantheon.
O: I don't know how old the practice of decade-ending charts is, but I'd like to see a list from the end of the '60s of what the most important albums of the '60s were. I'm sure it would be different from what you'd expect.
M: Oh, yeah, I'm sure it would. I mean, I think we've gotten increasingly kind of pompous in the '90s—the '80s and '90s—as rock music became established and you had these people being inducted in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame and all that sort of corporate rubbish. You know, we get more obsessed with building a canon of rock. And I think in the '60s, they weren't thinking that way.
O: Have you ever been to the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame?
M: No. Why, have you?
O: Yeah, it's sort of strange, because it's this completely sterile environment. The first thing you see when you walk in is an opportunity to buy the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame Mastercard. There's stuff that, in another context, I'd be excited to see, but... They have a Woody Guthrie guitar and things like that, but there's something about the context of the place that makes it so sterile and unexciting.
M: Well, I did recently go to the British equivalent—the National Center For Pop Music in Sheffield, which is this very futuristic building—but inside it was like some sort of wax museum. It did make me feel that pop music was dead, which it patently isn't, but, you know, these museums do give you that feeling.
O: Is mainstream pop music even worth talking about anymore?
M: Um, I still like people like Janet Jackson or even The Spice Girls, whatever.
O: But it's more the margins that appeal to you, I'm guessing.
M: Well, everything. I really don't care where things come from, as long as they're doing something that surprises me.
O: There are a couple of links to Tron web sites on your site. Why is that?
M: Just because, like a lot of other people, I've been into the symbolism of Space Invaders and, you know, the bleepy little electronic sounds. I guess it's partly my Japanese fetish, you know? In Japan, you're just surrounded the whole time by these little game noises and pachinko-parlor noises. There's an electronic background noise.
O: How did you become a star in Japan?
M: Well, I'm not really a star. I mean, I'm more of a star there than in Britain.
O: I don't think we really have a sense of what fame in Japan is, because it seems like everyone is more famous in Japan than wherever their country of origin is.
M: Well, Japan seems not to have a very centralized music media. And because it's the world's second-largest record market, there are a lot of people who can go off and become fans of a particular artist. They don't care if that artist is in fashion or out of fashion, because the record stores there are so fantastic, you can buy records by people who are critically dead in their own homelands, like Brigitte Fontaine, who's not known at all—and wasn't, at least in the '80s, known in France—but in Japan there was really a cult following for her. Also, they like eccentrics, and they like original people and people who are kind of artists to the tips of their fingers. They've got this respect for that which, maybe in Britain or wherever, people don't.
O: Did you seek out Japan, or did Japan seek you out?
M: I'd always been obsessed with Japan, but I didn't really expect to be appreciated there. But I think I owe my status in Japan, really, to one man, Keigo Oyamada of Cornelius. He championed the work of me and several other artists from the L label—people like Louis Philippe—in Japan in the early '90s. And that's sort of turned into, with Japanese artists using that style that we sort of invented in London in the '80s, what's now described as Shibuya-kei. Which is kind of over now in Japan, but for a good six years, it was the trendiest music scene in Japan. It means Shibuya style, and Shibuya is a district in west Tokyo, which is the trendy kind of youth district.
O: What it is about Japan that appeals to you?
M: Well, it's the same paradox you hear in my Analog Baroque style, the idea of futurism combined with a sort of medievalism, because when you walk around in Japan, one minute you're in a really ancient temple and the next you're in this incredibly futuristic store or restaurant or something, and it's... Somehow, there's no contradiction in Japan. The future and the past meet up, you know?
O: There's less anxiety than in the West with that?
M: Yes, or perhaps you just notice it more because they're so foreign in Japan, so they both seem weird, whereas we... I don't know, they're somehow more integrated in the West. Yeah, I don't know. There are so many different levels, and I just feel that people have elective affinities with cultures that they weren't necessary born into, and mine seems to be with Japan for many, many reasons.
O: Do you see your work as an essayist as sort of a second career, or is it just supplemental to your music career?
M: Well, I've always had a lot to say about the way I make music, and I think that if I were just an essayist, I would feel a little bit limited. But I've always admired artists who seem to be not just engineers, technicians, and songwriters, but also philosophers. They seem to have a unique perspective on life, like Brian Eno, The KLF, or Kraftwerk. They always seem to have some philosophy which is of a piece with their music—you know, a way they think about the world. Those thoughts and those unique perspectives turn into a unique sound.
O: You play a lot of characters in your songs. I hear it a lot more on this album, for obvious reasons, but also on albums in the past. Where do you see your antecedents? Vaudeville? What else?
M: There's just so much, really. The sort of satirical tradition of people like Tom Lehrer. The rock opera Hair was an influence. French Chanson, which has always got good lyrics and intends to tell a story, or folk-music ballads. Often I have to have a strong narrative line.
O: Do you see the Romantic influence in pop music as something that sort of made that unusual? I think with most people, when they hear a singer singing, the immediate reaction is that they're expressing something that he or she, the singer, feels. Which is a very Romantic notion.
M: I think very mainstream pop music has always been a celebration of the heterosexual contract and the timeless language of love, all that stuff. And then there's the other tradition, which is that a song tells a story. If you take that route, you almost inevitably end up in comedy, vaudeville, theater. I was always... I guess my main influence has always been David Bowie, strangely enough. He's been very good at telling stories, but he's also, with his appropriation of the Brion Gysin and William Burroughs cut-up technique, been guilty of launching a respectability for the kind of surreal, atmospheric, rather meaningless rock lyrics that you get a lot of the time now in modern rock. You know, that Romantic modern rock where it brings a kind of intellectual respectability to waffling in nonsense.
O: In terms of his persona, you'd have to be pretty gullible to believe that the rapidity with which he changed characters in the '70s somehow represented changes he was going through in his authentic self, if you're comfortable with that term.
M: Yeah, I think he was the Cindy Sherman of rock, and that was very liberating.
O: Who do you see as your peers working today? Who do you see as kindred spirits?
M: To some extent Beck. Um, I don't know. Hit me with some names.
O: The person I immediately thought of was Neil Hannon [of The Divine Comedy], in terms of doing some of the same things.
M: Well, at some points I've thought that, and when he made his first album, I wrote to him. We met up and talked about things, but I think that the essential difference is that The Divine Comedy has no critical element. He's very positive; he celebrates a lot of the things Momus has always attacked. Momus has always been basically angry but disguising, or attacking his own anger. You know, there's a line in one of my songs, "I'm wrong, the world is right." I've never been entirely happy with being wrong, and the world being right. I mean, I have a different perspective. I think Neil Hannon and I—he's a Celt like me; he's an Irishman and I'm a Scot—have this relationship with England which is the dominant part of the British Isle. His relationship with England is that he celebrates Merchant-Ivory, basically. You know, people in straw boaters punting on a river in Oxford. Which is the touristy... I know a New York painter who paints the British Royal Family, and to her it's a charming, beautiful, elegant, refined, distant thing. But to somebody who lives in Britain, the Royal Family represents the obstacle to true democracy, so I've always had this rather angry, ambivalent feeling about the things that Neil Hannon, for instance, celebrates.
O: How political would you characterize yourself?
M: Well, it's political in the broadest sense, but I'm very aware of the psychology of fascism, for instance. I'm very sensitive to even small tendencies people have toward conservatism and fascism, and I've always tried to fight against those.