Life is Short but Art is Long

An interview with the musician, artist and author Momus.

Darran Anderson

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Darran Anderson: A lot of your work has involved putting disparate elements together, Weill-esque cabaret and synths for example, and often involves putting quite soulful music through apparently soulless technology. It’s varied greatly of course but you can hear the results in Stop This!Ping Pong, the ‘analog baroque’ of The Little Red Schoolbook, the hybrids of Folktronic and the YouTube aspects to Hypnoprism and your albums since. Is modern technology a means to an end or do you find there is some kind of soul (or ghosts) in the machine?

Momus: What you're describing is a kind of category confusion which I like to operate at all levels. It's not just about sampling widely or colliding textures or putting pictures of Max Frisch over a song about a girl called Bambi. It's more an overarching strategy I've called "genre-splicing" or "ostranenie" or "disorienteering" in the past. It's Brechtian alienation: I love stereotypes, and I think they're important ways to sum up cultural ideas, but they have a tendency to solidify and stolidify. So I need to break them up, smash their conservative power, and re-splice them. Old materials handled disrespectfully can generate fresh emotions or insights. Two genres smashed together in a sort of musical Large Hadron Collider can make a new third genre. I'm quite good at pastiche, but there's little point in making a slick pastiche of something. That just points back to the original thing, and makes the pastiche a footnote. Originality is about breaking through to something never quite heard before. That's why, when you hear something truly original, you often feel a bit unsettled or confused or even sick, or you think there's a technical error somewhere. Original work isn't just something that fits your tastes, but changes them.

DA: Your latest album Bambi makes me imagine twirling a radio dial through lo-fidelity broadcasts from another world, despite it being very much our own, with Beethoven, Molly Drake, dystopias, evangelism and a suitably-deranged Klaus Kinski making fleeting appearances. Was it a significant departure from your previous albums, in terms of how it was constructed, and if so how and why?

Momus: It was pretty different. I didn't use MIDI or click tracks, I didn't use reverb. I didn't use other people's styles or software templates or grids. I did something I'd been planning to do ever since 2010, when I left Berlin and, about to put my tapes into storage, digitised a lot of old cassettes I'd made in the late 1970s in Edinburgh when I was a teenager listening to Eno and New Wave. I realised that I'd actually invented a highly original style which I lost later by fitting my songs into band or studio or software formats. That teenage style was based on a series of responses to strictly limited resources, and on the errors I made when I tried to copy my musical heroes. I had a broken guitar and a broken piano. I had a couple of cassette recorders I could bounce between. I had another cassette player which I could use as a distortion amp. I had a condenser mic. For percussion, I had some pencils and an Anglepoise lamp whose springs did double duty as cymbals and coil reverb. I developed totally eccentric ways to mic and play the guitar, damping the strings with Kleenex and ramming the mic under them like a bridge. This produced a series of unique kalimba-like sounds, or sliding drones, or dry bass chugs. The guitar became a completely new instrument. That was complemented by the sounds of the piano prepared in the Cagean manner. In 2010 I realised that I'd spent thirty years pastiching other people's styles, but that I'd always been trying to get back to that style I'd invented at the age of 17. It's possibly the only style that's truly mine. Bambi is the first album in this style, but I really want to keep using it.

DA: I was listening to your song ‘My Pervert Doppelganger’ recently and as it played I noticed a strange unnerving sound, which I later established had been my own laughter, the laughter of the damned. Have you any idea why we find humour in terrible things?

Momus: "You have to laugh or else you cry"! Maybe laughter is just a kind of spasmodic, dried-up crying.

DA: Your music, as well as your site, has the feel of a treasure trove, unearthing forgotten historical characters and blurring the line between fact and fiction. If you were to hastily assemble a Wunderkammer, consisting of several figures or objects that are intriguing and generally overlooked, what or who would they be?

Momus: Well, I find that both easy and difficult to answer. My work is all about "the stock exchange of values", but the values are changing all the time (as a stock exchange does, of course). And what you're asking me is a bit like asking a trader to reveal what he's about to buy and sell on the market. I've spent the morning writing two chapters for my forthcoming UnAmerica book, for example, and there are cultural figures discussed there which, if I were to talk about them now, would put the hot information out there and make it feel cold and old when the book comes out. Talking now about certain figures would make them old hat by May. It's even more difficult now because information has different rates of decay depending on what media you're using. On the internet things stay hot for a very, very short time now. A hashtag on Twitter trends for a day if it's lucky. And then you've got the problem of different media having different gestation periods. A record takes a couple of months to put together and maybe a couple more to release. In internet terms, that feels like years. I release songs to YouTube immediately, and they're hot for a few days and then go cold (solid repeat views, perhaps, but very few new comments after the first volley), and then six months later they have almost a second life as a record. With a book it's more secretive and old-fashioned; I don't post anything publicly in advance. I might have one reader I'm sharing the text with as it's written, usually a trusted friend.

I've always resisted Top 10 lists and things. But I could say — just to avoid completely dodging your question — that I've been quite interested this year in neglected British writers of the 1940s, like Jocelyn Brooke and Patrick Hamilton and Denton Welch. I'm also interested in potters like Bernard Leach and Lucie Rie. Molly Drake's songs really impressed me. And speaking of things that are mysteriously overlooked, I can't believe how little attention people pay to the view from aeroplanes! Even at its most abstract, or when it's dark, or only clouds are visible, I find that view quite extraordinary. I also find the shabbiest and apparently blandest Japanese suburbs, seen from a bicycle, endlessly interesting.

DA: You written previously of your discography as a “series of invisible collaborations [...] between me and ghosts. The ghosts of Brel, Brecht, Bowie, whoever. I was always channelling ectoplasm, mingling their spirits with mine.” Do you still do this and if so with whose ghost? Is there a danger in meddling in such dark arts?

Momus: Oh yes, I still do it! I think Eno and Cage are the clearest ghosts on the Bambi album. Perhaps also David Sylvian and Tom Waits. Also Sonny Boy Williamson, Sleepy John Estes, and Kai Althoff, whose music under the name Fanal I find utterly brilliant (check out Brett Millspaw's videos on YouTube). I think there isn't really any danger in channelling people as long as you do it badly and fail. You end up sounding like no-one but yourself.

DA: A revelation, among many, in your music is the fact that love can be an atrocious, debilitating thing and life is, if not a tragedy then, a tragicomic farce. Is pessimism or melancholy just the flipside of Romanticism? Can it be liberating?

Momus: I think that comes back to my "stock exchange of values" thing. Because mainstream singers are always vaunting love as a great fulfilment, it falls to marginal songwriters like me to point out that it ain't necessarily so. We mop up after the exaggerated romanticism of the mainstream. But actually low expectations are the perfect preface to happiness, so I do think the disillusioned and disillusioning are performing a valuable service. I think people are oppressed by the sense that everyone else is succeeding in life, and a song which points out that that's just a façade is a very valuable thing.

DA: You’ve lived in many cities and have spoken of ‘elective affinities’ and how certain (unfinished) cities can encourage a person to be who they can be. How has place influenced your work? Does the ambience of a city seep into your songs, even if you don’t want it to?

Momus: Very much so. I'm a sponge. Berlin brought a confident avant gardism to my work, London brought curtain-twitching perviness and money-grasping commercialism, Osaka brings a certain (inevitable in Japan) alienation and (perhaps consequently) freedom, Paris weirdly made me more American and New York more British, Tokyo made me more Scottish! So you can never quite predict what a city's going to bring out, but it has a huge effect. And it's juxtaposed with other big influences: the age, and your own age. So you'd have to say: "It's London in the late 1990s, and Momus is in his 30s, and there's Japanese pop and loungecore going on." Or: "It's Edinburgh in the 1970s, and Momus is in his teens, and New Wave is happening." It's like those books where you make a funny costume by flipping cards for the legs, trunk and head.

DA: There’s an implication in your work that to conform is to stagnate, that strict reverence for the past is stultifying and normality is a form of tyranny. You seem to keep moving, finding new spaces, thriving on flux. There’s almost the sense of permanent revolution (shades of ‘I was a Maoist Intellectual’ perhaps). It also recalls the phrase “You cannot step twice into the same stream” by Heraclitus, who was reputedly the Thunderclown of your album of the same name. Is this sense of perpetually moving on something you force yourself to do or is it more instinctive? How do you feel at the prospect of repeating yourself? 

There are a lot of things in so-called normality that are either boring or toxic and a lot of things in so-called perversity and deviance that are thrilling and bracing and worthwhile. You don't need Nietzsche or Crowley to point that out. As for constantly moving on, it's just this crab-step of boredom and excitement. It's boring to repeat things, and it's exciting to do something new. You have to assume that the audience also gets bored, but if it doesn't then you listen to your own instincts rather than the audience's. I know I have conservative listeners (mostly ex-listeners by now!) who would like me to keep remaking The Poison Boyfriend forever, but I absolutely couldn't live by their lights. I make the music I urgently need to hear, and I have to say that Bambi is a record I absolutely love to listen to. I feel like I've made something as compelling as the ethnographic field recordings I used to find in the Anthropology section of the Aberdeen University library. With this record I somehow became completely handmade and authentic, the primitive artist and the UNESCO field-recordist!

DA: We’ve spoken before about the master Serge Gainsbourg. He used to say that you should write heartbroken songs when you’re in love and love songs when you’re heartbroken. There’s a wishful element to that, like trying to create a self-fulfilling prophecy or warding away the evil eye. Have you ever found any of your songs to have strange resonances or unintended significances looking back?

Momus: The most obvious things are stuff like singing "Will you be there when I've only got one eye?" back when I had two! And actually the person that was addressed to isn't still there, in that sense, though we are still friends, so the answer is "No!" But that song [Enlightenment] always suggested — with its accumulations of increasingly-unreasonable requests of the loved-one — that a snapping point was inevitable. The answer will eventually have to come: "Fuck off, no, why should I still love you when you're a cabbage? You know I've always hated cabbage!"

DA: Listening to ‘Lucky like St Sebastian’, there’s overt references to Dante and St Paul in the lyrics and more covert references to e.e. cummings and Charles Baudelaire sneaked in there (almost as map co-ordinates to seek out). Is music a Trojan Horse for you?

Momus: I think I knew it was taboo in Britain — certainly in England, and certainly in pop music — to be "pseudo-intellectual" and I put in all those names for that reason, to be stubbornly rebellious. But also because it was my culture, I was from a very literary family and I'd studied literature. To this day I'm amazed by how people prefer triviality to more interesting perspectives, just like they prefer to watch some godawful American movie than to look out of the plane window at Mongolia. One thing you can say about e.e.cummings or Dante is that the view is a hell of a lot better than anything you'll see on TV (unless it's Peter Greenaway's A TV Dante). But of course it might be hard work, or uncomfortable, or lonely.

DA: You’ve said previously of your working methods, “I got around my kneejerk work habits [...] by basically doing a mumbled sort of automatic writing, reciting surreal mantras and half-heard Japanese, recycling folk tales by Trad. & Anon.” There’s echoes of Surrealist games of chance there or Eno’s Oblique Strategies but in a broader sense, given your eclecticism, is Momus a continuing attempt to get away from being Momus?

Momus: I think the knack is both to be and not be Momus at the same time. To keep some work habits and aesthetic preferences, but kick others out. Probably like anyone else, I have a complicated mixture of self-love and self-loathing. That comes through. Houdini never quite gets out of the ropes of socialisation, of habit, of convention, but it can be fun to watch him wriggle and try.

DA: ‘Dancing about architecture’ if often used as a dismissal of music journalism despite overlooking that such an activity sounds quite fun. How do you find the transition from music to literature or visual art? Is there any transition involved or is there more continuity than would initially seem?

Momus: I find writing books less viscerally compelling than writing songs. It doesn't have quite the same physical thrill for me. You have to understand that I write and record a song (and these days make a video for it too) in an almost trance-like state of utter and complete attention, iron will, and incredible mental focus. I queue up things I plan to do, and do them one by one. And in ten hours or so (ten hours in which I might not eat, or move, or be aware of the light fading) the thing gets done, and gets published, and at the end I experience such a high, such mental and physical exhilaration, it's really quite extraordinary. I also have a weird sense of being outside time when I'm making a song, and yet utterly tender towards everybody and everything, quite lonely and remote and yet also empathetic. I feel as if I'm doing what I was born to do, and speaking to ages yet unborn! Writing books, it's more just a question of settling down every day to write something that amuses me. Later I might feel a vague pride in the book, or amusement when I reread bits of it. But it isn't so completely compelling. I can't really get too cerebral: I love that music has stuff in it — noises and sound colour that you push around like paint — rather than just words and concepts. I really like the primitive and chaotic side of myself, messy with sex and guilt and desire and fear, and I find that music connects more directly to that trembling homunculus than anything else.

DA: You undertook a degree of patronage with your Momus In Samoa (an exploration of Robert Louis Stevenson's life in the South Pacific) and Stars Forever works. Did those feel different from your other projects and did you feel like Caravaggio for example (minus the tennis-murder)?

Momus: Yes and no. I guess in one sense I became more like a graphic designer, putting myself up for commissions from a client. A job of work, a brief. On the other hand, when you have a patron you expect them to want you to be an artist and make your own decisions. So there wasn't huge pressure to do anything against the grain. The only times I've really felt dirty and used is making music for film soundtracks. I can only take so much of "Go away and do it again how the client wants!" before I just say "Fuck off!" and quit. Because money really isn't all that important.

DA: A recurring theme in your work has been the artist as a kind of helpful vandal, defiling sacred cows, turning myths inside out and yet stirring up new life in them in the process. Is the urge to destroy a creative passion? Is there a latent Futurist or Oedipus within you or do you have a more considered view of what came before?

Momus: I'm quite an aggressive person, actually, despite the apparent gentleness of my singing voice. I can judge people and their work pretty harshly. But at the same time I can see the appeal even of things I hate. So I often attack the things I love, or love the things I attack. And I think I realised pretty quickly that satire was a form of love, or a form of undue attention to the things satirised. My first records contained a lot of satire on things like conservatism and the suburbs. Satire is a proposal to enter into a symbiotic relationship with something. It's like when someone at school picks on you, and you find out it's because of some imbalance or lack in themselves. When I was making Circus Maximus I had to deal with conservatism and the suburbs because I'd just moved to Streatham. It was my way to acclimatise to England and the English without necessarily approving. Later that became less important. I destroy by silence, mostly. By passing over some topics in silence. 

DA: You’ve touched on the afterlife a number of times in your songs from God as a tender pervert and the angels voyeurs to a spurned lover “waltzing with the corpses” in an Al Bowlly-soundtracked hell.  If you could design a heaven and hell, what would they contain?

Momus: I wrote something in my notebook recently: "Of one thing you can be sure: everything living forever is sooner or later screaming forever."

DA: You’ve said that you mistrust words yet your work is partially built from them. What are your favourite words and why?

Momus: I adore technical language or work-specific lexical sets. For instance, in the novel I'm writing now every chapter begins with a month from the Attic calendar and some really technical botanical descriptions. It makes the texture very crunchy and satisfying! There are chapters which use the technical lingo of retail salesmanship, then chapters that befuddle the reader with the technical language of nautical sailsmanship. I'd like to approach an almost-Shakespearean richness of language, and technical terms that go over the head of the general reader are a way to do that. You don't have to know what it all means — in fact, it's better just to enjoy the words as word objects. "Razzee all drabblers on the quarterdeck!"

DA: You’re presently working on a novel entitled UnAmerica [published May 13th by Penny-Ante Editions]? Can you reveal any details about it?

Momus: It's based on the Wonder Voyage of the Irish saint Brendan, but it happens in reverse. UnAmerica is the name of a boat. God is a character. That's all I'm going to say right now!

DA: It’s been said that your album The Ultraconformist “was in fact recorded on wax cylinders at the Vorticist nightclub Cave Of The Golden Calf, Heddon Street, on or about December 1910.” Alongside the parallel worlds of The Book of Scotlands and The Book of Japans and the hauntology of your recent Hearspool radio series, it seems the past, and the present if we’re adventurous, is partially a fiction of our making. Would that be a fair assessment and is life, and the past, less boring than they would have us believe?

Momus: It's some people's job to make things right, others are tasked with making things interesting. I'm amongst the others, though I have a lot of admiration for people who make things right (I don't want to fly in an "interesting" plane!). So a lot of what I do is just listening to my boredom about something, and spicing things up until the boredom goes away. For instance, writing a book is very boring unless you say something outrageous or patently untrue, and then it starts getting interesting. Then you build up a lot of realistic details to justify the outrageous statement, and before you know it you've got something that encapsulates a whole way of thinking and actually (despite its silly premise) says something quite important about a subject. But your way into all this was the childish urge to say something violent and rebellious, to stave off boredom and shock yourself out of apathy.

As for the past, I think it's uncanny because we recognise everything in it, but it's all slightly wrong, or in a different place, or pronounced oddly, and those differences make us self-conscious about our own time, and the arbitrariness of convention. That's incredibly liberating: things don't have to be the way they are.

[Images courtesy of Hiroshi Nakamura]