It's a cold October day in 1990. I've just returned from a local record shop with a couple of singles. The first is 'So Hard' by the Pet Shop Boys, the other is a 12" single that I'd found in a bargain bin by an artist that I had only vaguely heard of. It is 'Hairstyle of the Devil' by Momus.
As I play the PSB record, my girlfriend looks at my purchases. She picks up the other record before realising what it is. Disgusted, she replaces it by the record player and makes her measured remark:
"I really hate Momus"
'Hate' is a very strong word, she knows that, she knows that it should be used judiciously and not applied to mere musicians and songwriters, but for Momus she is willing to make an exception.
I can't see what the problem is. Both singles are delerious synthpop tunes, delivered by clearly educated talking/singing narrators, both reporting on the part of a relationship where trust is evaporating. How appropriate.
Over the years I will come up against the same reaction to Momus that my girlfriend expressed, I will also witness the extreme opposite. We all know that great art has the ability to polarize opinions, so here is another example: intelligent, provocative, shocking and frequently hilarious. This is Momus.
A few weeks ago I wrote piece for Outsideleft about Momus. It got such a high response that we decided to get in touch with him, ask him a bunch of questions and find out more about the person behind this extraordinary body of work. Unfortunately we didn't have to go to Japan to find him, but here are our essential questions and Momus' generous answers:
Outsideleft: Many of your songs are about characters that aren't yourself but 'Eurotrash' is apparently autobiographical. Is it easier or harder to write about yourself? And was the process cathartic?
Momus: The method is caricature, really: you isolate something in yourself, heighten it, tweak the colour, throw it into contrast with something else, make it rhyme and scan, give it vehemence or restraint, vehemence here, restraint there, verse, chorus, bridge, turn a poignant little moral, maybe betray yourself by giving too much away, maybe send yourself up by providing some distance and nemesis at the end, maybe transcend and cure yourself, maybe laugh at a younger version. Eurotrash looks back at my life in New York 15 years ago. I got a rush of emotion remembering my friend Rika Hirata, who died shortly after 9/11. I suppose America currently is dead to me. Twenty years ago it was my main focus I was going there at least once a year to tour. I find it now totally dystopian, though I'd probably enjoy a trip to New York. I suppose the longer I stay away the more poignant the nostalgia will feel when I finally get back.
Outsideleft: 2009 is an amusing take on someone who won't give up on someone after a relationship has ended. Is it based on reality? Are you at liberty to say who it is about?
Momus: I think it's a projection of the worst fears of people who are in the process of splitting up. The woman hopes the man will accept it and not become a stalker. The man doesn't want to be that guy. It could be the other way around, too: it could be the woman doing the stalking. There's no particular situation in real life it's based on, it's more of a composite of fears that occur to you when you're closing a relationship down. Will I still be in the loop? Will I still be curious about this person's life, even if we don't stay friends? And if so, will I use the internet to find out what's going on, and how much of that will I be able to do without starting to feel uncomfortable about my own behaviour? How come the virtue of being interested in her life is now supposed to be a vice, just because we split up?
In the original song there were a lot more verses mentioning Instagram and so on, but I cut them out, because somehow they felt bathetic. There was also a moment at which the ex was going to become a murderer, but I thought that was too extreme. It's more powerful if it's just a fairly normal situation, one we all recognise. It's more powerful that the ex is just claiming to be doing fine while flashing eyes like a wounded doe than if he's brandishing a knife. The ambivalence is underlined by the musics vagueness about whether the chords are minor or major (you'll often find the vocal line sliding into minor over a major chord).
Outsideleft: You've had a very productive career since those days on Creation records. Do you look back on that period with fondness? Is there anything that you would have done differently?
Momus: The Creation years are my foundation, so of course I have fondness for them. Particularly the Tender Pervert LP, which I think is me really finding my voice, with the help of Brecht and Mishima. I regret some things for instance, Tender Pervert was originally going to be called The Homosexual. Alan McGee thought it would be less licensable to majors in countries like Canada with that title, so I compromised. Then Nick Cave released Tender Prey, so they sounded a bit too similar. Minor stuff like that. Don't Stop the Night was going to be called The Negro, which I might have regretted later!
Outsideleft: Scobberlotchers (2016), described as your post-Brexit album, is an angry collection. Were you surprised about how the result of the referendum affected you and came out in your writing?
Momus: Brexit is the most gigantic fuck-up in British politics in my lifetime. I still don't think it will ever happen, in which case it will just have been the most dreadful and deleterious waste of time and attention. I see Brexit as an attack on pretty much everything I hold dear. Its the stupidest and most nasty people getting the upper hand. As a result it can't possibly lead anywhere good. I wasn't surprised to be furious I quite expected British people to do the wrong thing, because one hardly ever hears anything positive about Europe in Britain. It came hard on the heels of another disappointment, Scotland's failure to secure independence. People sometimes ask me "Why do you want Scotland to go it alone and not Britain?" But to me thats not the point at all. What I want in each case is for the more leftish position to win. An independent Scotland would be to the left of the Westminster government on just about everything. And the EU is to the left of Westminster. Also I believe an independent Scotland would re-join Europe if England left it.
Outsideleft: You're an acclaimed writer. Your most recent novel UnAmerica was very well received. Are you planning any further writing?
Momus: Thank you for saying that, but I don't feel like an acclaimed writer. I've had some good reviews, but I feel like my books have had the same very limited and muted impact as my records, or my art performances, for that matter. I will write more books, I'm sure. But everything I do is destined to be a storm in a particular tea-cup, a marginal 10% of highly educated liberal and cosmopolitan people, arty types. I dont complain about this in fact, it would be a real crisis for me to have to go mainstream. Theres no way I'm ever doing a Lets Dance. All I can hope is that mony a mickle maks a muckle: that somehow constituencies of art students, perverts, inverts, cosmopolitans, sybarites, misfits, expats, europhiles might all join up to become a bigger audience. Possibly after I'm dead.
Outsideleft: I really like your David Bowie covers (Turpsycore, 2015 and subsequent releases), how do you approach such a weighty body of work?
Momus: There's a guy called David Brighton who does the hits and the costumes, and I suppose I was aiming to be the absolute antithesis of him, no matter how well he goes down at office parties. I wanted to do the demos, the experimental shit, the stuff that meant most to me: the songs with crooked teeth. It was educational for me to try covering, say, Sweet Thing without a drummer or an electric guitar. Like climbing Mount Everest in flip-flops, I remember saying at the time. Of course I never got far beyond base camp.
Outsideleft: You are very prolific, you make an album a year. How long does it take to put an album together. What can we expect from Momus in 2018?
Momus: It takes a couple of months for me to make an album and associated scratch videos. I have no idea what 2018 will bring; there are some big changes afoot, so well have to see what kind of effect those have. I have the impression of being stateless, jumping from one tumbling domino to the next. I'm a precarian, and generally I thrive in a crisis. But you do need some calm and some stability to make art. So lets see!
The Momus Website
Jason Lewis is a Birmingham based music, movie and arts obsessive. Jason's encyclopedic knowledge of 80s/90s Arts films is a debt to his embedded status in the Triangle Arts Centre trenches back then.
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