Momus in The Beat magazine
I SUPPOSE WHAT I'm really trying to do is make music that people can shut their eyes to. It's not really Red Wedge is it?
Indeed not, but this is no dreary sloganeer hell bent on SHOUTING VERY LOUD to make 'the kids' understand. It is Nicholas Currie, just turned 26 and, under the name of Momus, making quietly irresistable records.
His first EP, The Beast With 3 Backs, disappears into the record collection as a new LP, Circus Maximus, replaces it on the turntable. It's full of songs about St. Sebastian and John The Baptist, Lucretia and even Billy Cotton. In a Soho café over breakfast, the obvious questions seems to be why?
"I'm surprised more people haven't written songs about The Bible. The Old Testament has such a great atmosphere. It's very evocative but also practical, very good to use as a kind of detached, objective reference point."
So it's a religious LP?
"No, more like laughing into the void, the only thing you can do when you realise there's no God. However, the paraphernalia of Christianity is something I find very appealing."
The biography that accompanies the record tells of Nicholas' greatgrandparents who left the Church Of Scotland because there were publicans in the pews and joined the Plymouth Brethren, a puritanical sect of extreme Protestants. Young Nicholas was warned of the dangers of demon drink, but his forbidden pleasures came elsewhere.
"We lived in this really bourgeois area of Edinburgh and there were these great gardens behind the houses. The caretaker's children were rough and rebellious, and they smoked. We were told never to talk to them and so ever since I've been fascinated by tough, delinquent people. I suppose it's because I'm the total opposite."
Raised in Montreal and Athens, he was sent to boarding school in Edinburgh ("my exile from Eden"). Whilst there only three records, all by David Bowie, kept him from total despair.
'The Man Who Sold The World', 'Hunky Dory' and 'Space Oddity'. I loved the way that those LPs could put gentle ballads next to incredibly loud and sinsiter outbursts. It's that kind of feel I've aimed at in what I do."
Nicholas' first attempt came in cult Edinburgh group The Happy Family and more recently when he went solo and took on the title Momus, a name adopted from an exiled God Of LaughterAnd Mockery.
"I think, in many ways, I have to feel an exile, an outsider to be able to write properly. I'm living in Chelsea now and somehow it feels too much the centre of everything. It's making my writing clog up so perhaps I need to go back to Streatham Hill. It's very easy to feel an alien there! Actually, my ideal society would be something like a cross between Iran and Soho. That tension and puritanical religious fanaticism mixed with a world of prostitutes and advertising executives. At the moment England is disgracefully passionless."
The 'Momus Sound' wriggles away from description at every turn. One moment it's a darker Prefab Sprout, the next it's a savage growl. A forthcoming EP of "schizoid songs" looks set to quite rightfully confuse things further. So where can it all end up?
"I've always liked inventing new worlds. I think I'd like to see things get more extreme."
Momus in Jamming
Pop music? The ''young happy sounds' of Madonna, Wham! and Duran? According to Nicholas Currie, a quiet young Scotsman who records under the name Momus, that's just for people to dance and meet to. He sounds disapproving. So what's Momus for? ''Perhaps,' he smiles wryly ''after they've danced and met, and the inevitable break up has happened, they might find some consolation in Momus - to laugh at their own unhapppiness, find it touching and ridiculous at the same time.'
That's what the first Momus 12", ''The Beast With 3 Backs', is about - ''exposing the paranoia and uncertainty that surround affairs of the heart. ''To me sensuality is about small details rather than about ''The Look Of Love' or whatever,' explains Nick. Small details and, he admits, mostly unhappy ones - the other faces lovers caressing beneath the sheets see, when they shut their eyes, the constant fear of the man who dreams of his wife being defiled (and, worst of all, satisfied) by the Marlboro smoking adulterer. 'Rejoicing on its own is so sterile, it doesn't ring true. I think life does have shadows.'
These tumbling acoustic fables (as influences he admits Jacques Brel, Lou Reed's 'The Bed', Joni Mitchell 'of all people' and early David Bowie) are his first work since masterminding The Happy Family's obscure but perversely brilliant 'The Man On Your Street' 4AD LP three years ago and are to be followed sharply by an LP, 'Circus Maximus'. In that, Momus apparently intends to 'sing the Old Testament to the new Instruments' - in other words half the songs actually are Old Testament stories ('No, I'm not religious') set to music. The other half tackle such obvious topics as the Rape of Lucretia and the life story of Bill
Cotton, controller of the BBC. For what reason? 'I'm always trying,' he explains cryptically, 'to get to tho edge of the unspeakable and the horrible, to civilise it... like reclaiming land in Holland, I suppose. I want to make sense of extremity.'
In his songs, little flashes of swelling everyday torments - he does this brilliantly. But he's less sure about interviews (this is his first) - 'the language one explains things in is disgusting,' he spits. 'It's self-indulgence.'
Chris Heath, Jamming Magazine, November 1985
NME Thrills Section
28th September 1985
Momus in Love
'Momus: one who carps at everything. Momus was the god of Ridicule, son of Nox (night) who was driven out of heaven for his criticisms of the gods.'
Brewers' Dictionary of Phrase and Fable
"There is something missionary about it. Pop's the most conservative artform, it's outlived its own inherent interest and excitement. I want to introduce things into pop, like The Bible and Dante and so on, things people consider to be conservative and show they're more radical, more challenging and disturbing than pop could ever be.'
The thin, freckled face of the modern-day Momus - a 25 year old, straw-haired, well-spoken Scot by the name of Nick Currie - ponders the chances of his present mission and concludes, with nervous, earnest enthusiasm and, for a god of cynicism, a distressing degree of optimism: "I actually have great faith that things which are heartfelt, which have imagination and create atmospheres in people's heads, REAL WRITING, can become popular, can find an audience. Perhaps I'm not living in the real world, the 80s world. Perhaps I'll be a disillusioned man at 30."
Perhaps... but sitting in his cramped but comfortable Sloane Square bedsit with its packed Picador bookstand, red guitar, the benign Kafka postcard over the tiny, square bed, I wouldn't bet on it. The former Happy Family wordsmith's mix of tentaive fervency amd eloquent ability is an impressive one. He treats his self-assumed role as cultural missionary just playfully enough to be perfectly serious.
The first Momus missive is with us. An unusual, unsettling affair, 'The Beast With 3 Backs', released by the crafty, caring El enterprise, is the first episode in a series of immoral tales, imaginary lives and imperfect noises, the next of which will be an LP, 'Circus Maximus', due later this year. In each of the three songs the theme is sexual outsiderness, infidelity and insecurity, with special reference to the cruelty and complexity of threesomes. Currie plays the wistful, watchful presence in each story, hanging over the lovers' crimes and passions like some delicate, anxious spectre.
'The Ballad of the Barrel Organist' considers the voyeurish ghosts that dwell over any sexual encounter, taking the 'There was an old lady who swallowed a fly' chant and twisting it into an intimate, intricate Freudian nightmare. 'Third Party. Fire and Theft' explores a suburban insurance man's suspicious imaginings as 'The Marlboro Man' slips into his Habitat house to seduce his 'Laura Ashley wife'. 'Next thing you know he'll be sweeping the ash from the sack / Next thing you know he'll be giving her a piece of his mind on her back' runs the rhyme.
Finally, Hotel Marquis de Sade, distracted and disturbed, wonders at the sordid combinations of three students, two boys and a girl, on a Mediterranean holiday with, again, Currie's elaborate way with words and engaging, disjointed atmospheres at the fore.
"With this single I just want to say 'I'm here and I'm doing something playful and disturbing, eccentric and interesting'. There's a huge vacant space for something like this. I've moved into it, I can either be ignored or noticed for it. I'm interested to see which will happen."
The old criticisms of his style as fey, amnnered and verbose are still being levelled, though.
"Well, Peter Porter defined poetry as 'essential gawdiness' and I'm definately of that school where you throw things on rather than strip them away. Underneath Porter's archness and facetiousness there's a terrible vulnerability, an obsession with death, and a lot of the Momus songs share that aspect."
Surprisingly, he finds the all-too-specious, tedious talnets of the writers he's generally categorised with (the 'craftsmen') "cold, self-conscious and lacking in sensuality", preferring Mitchell and Waits and "people who write as though their lives depend on it. Costello and McAloon have intelligenc ebut that's useless on its own, there's got to be feeling. To me, a song's only worth keeping if it's dangerously close to an emotional wound. When I heard 'Swoon' it made a great deal of sense... or rather it made no sense but that was interesting because most things make sense too soon. But their insistence on getting the maximum amount of wordplay from one lyric, writing songs as exercises, that's quite disgusting."
Talking with the slightly gauche, self-mocking air of the academic, quoting proudly, fidgeting constantly, Currie goes on to refer to the likes of Keats, Auden, Hamsun, 'Transformer', Woolf, Green, Brecht, George Michael, Max Weber, Nick Drake's 'Pink Moon', Grimm, Dory Previn, 'Electric Warrior', Nabokov... somewhere inside all these copious clues lies, hides Momus. He returns to current hero, Peter Porter:
"You know I went to a reading of his the other day. One of the five supposedly great living 'English' poets and there was a handful of people there. Terrible, terrible..."
He shakes his head, but Momus, his alert eagerness and clenched confidence somehow intact, is still smiling, albeit shyly.
So much for the God of cynicism.
Momus in Time
IN A Mediterranean hotel the beast with three backs - two boys and a girl- slither beneath the sheets of a single bed. One of the humps in this troilistic encounter is called Nick Currie, a failed Scottish pop star, a masochist at heart, or maybe a sadist.
A sort of sick-looking long lost cousin of Haircut One Heyward, today the singer sits in front of me in the refectory of the Great Russell Street YWCA. Momus is his chosen name.
Why has this venue been chosen for an interview, I wonder?
"Because of the words Young Women's Christian Association. Young
women and Christians are the main themes of the upcoming Momus album which I'm about to start work on," explains the one-man-band with relish and a sweaty upper lip.
"The album is going to be called 'Circus Maximus'. I wouldn't say it was a concept record, but it does have distinct themes in the same way that my current 12-inch single, 'The Beast With 3 Backs', has. In the album's case the theme is one of martyrdom."
Do you feel like a martyr?
"No, I just find martyrdom very funny and it seems a very typical situation. The Circus Maximus, or The Colisseum, where the Christians were thrown to the lions, is like the crucible of this syndrome. "
A common link between the trio of songs on 'The Beast With 3 Backs' appears to be sexual angst. Is that right?
"Well, the three songs are about threesomes, triangle relationships, which I'd describe as comic sexual angst. The timeless theme of novels has been the triangle relationship. And in my own experience wherever there's a couple involved there's always a third party somewhere, whether it's a ghost - a spectre of your own insecurity-or whether it's a real competitor."
What do you find fascinating about the topic of sexual triangles?
"Sex is the most important topic in the world. Defensiveness - you really understand a character by understanding how they perceive and block threats, and everyone's Achilles heel is their sexuality."
Do you think a man should wear Durex or a woman should provide her own protection?
"Um," the young man flushes, "personally I hate to, though this is not entirely relevant. . . People like Nick Drake, Duncan Browne- whoever he is- and Peter Blegvad have been cited in terms of my
. work. . ." (Is this evasion?)
"But I think the latter can be really pretentious with literary stuff far removed from what I'm doing. "
You don't think there's anything pretentious about Momus?
"No, I hate this tag of intellectual and purple prose. My songs are actually much less abstract than most songs. Most songs about love and sex are really vague - they would say atmospheric-but I want my songs to observe the classic unities of time, place and action. I like specific details. . .
"Going back to what I was saying about martyrdom, sadism and masochism, they're all quite attractive. You can either be a Marxist or a Freudian, and I'm probably more of a Freudian. I like to think of everything springing from use of sex or a redirection of sexual energy. For me that's an enchanted way of looking at the world.
"Things that are designed to be unpleasant or unsensual are for me a sort of sadism. Certainly there's no disputing the fact that the present Conservative Government is basically sadistic and out of touch with its potential sexual warmth. And a lot of people are quite happy to respond by being masochigtic."
Does the parallel happen in your personal life? Are you a sadist, or a masochist, or a sadomasochist?
"You can choose which you want to be. It's always more saint-like to be a masochist because in a way you get the moral leverage and victory... I guess when I was younger I used to be a masochist in the sense of enjoying unrequited love affairs."
So you used to sit in your bedroom and weep over girls you could never have?
"Sure I did, and the most important thing was precisely the fact that I couldn't get involved with them. It was that aspect that I enjoyed- most, amplifying emotional suffering. I think most people go through that stage when they are growing up."
Do you see yourself as an exhibitionist or a voyeur?
"Well, I'm very much both, I think. . ."
There speaks a certain honesty. Momus, by the way, was the god of ridicule who was driven out of heaven for his criticism of others such as Venus.
The problem with Venus, apparently, was that despite her perfect body her feet were noisy when she walked. Nick Currie, a failed Scottish pop star with The Happy Family, no longer plods, but finds enjoyment in others' disgust. The peeping Tom winks and checks into the Hotel Marquis De Sade. The beauty in the beast slithers.
Jack Barron, Sounds, November 1985
Momus in Love
By Don Watson
Nick Currie, Scottish wordsmith once smitten by Josef K, founder of The Happy Family, is born again as Momus and is love-bitten by bittersweet Belgian songwriter Jacques Brel. Don Watson talks to Momus, without mentioning the time they called him Nicky
"Then the front door opened and Momus appeared between two attendants cartying lamps" (from The Castle by Franz Kafka)
MOMUS, THE eternal miserable from Kafka's homesick novel, is alive, as well as can be expected, and living in a small room off Sloane Square with scarcely room to swing an attendant.
"It makes you quite immune to beauty, he observes, " when every time you go out for a pint of milk, you see all these people who spend fortunes on their own appearance."
The unfortunate Momus, not being beautiful, has recently taken to singing songs about the time they called him Nicky, in fact one particular song, an adaptation of Jacques Brel's delirious ode to fame and fortune, 'Jacky'.
Momus is not the first to sing the praises of the strange Belgique. In the '60s, Scott Walker covered Brel's 'Amsterdam', a sexually doomed scenario of sailors in port that anticipated the corrupt eroticism of Fassbinder's Querelle, the fatalistic 'My Death', the Vietnam brothel song 'Next' and the achingly sentimental 'If You Go Away' - dead sailors, dead songwriters, dead soldiers and dead love.
Since then a Brel song has brought a smear of European decadence to many a rock repertoire (as frequently as Brecht's 'Alabama Song'), but most have concentrated on the songs already covered byWalker. (Bowie doing 'My Death' and 'Amsterdam' and Alex Harvey adopting 'Next' as title song of his second LP). Marc Almond is a notable exception, weaving the satirical 'The Bulls' into his red and black tapestry in 'Torment And Toreros' .
With 'Nicky', Momus not only interprets but reinterprets Brel. Where Brel sang of the ludicrous nature of his own stardom in 'Jaqui', and the constant pressure to capitulate to the banality of cabaret, Momus turns'Nicky' into sarcastic homage to David Bowie, a satirical comment on the image factory of plastic pop and a tongue to stick in the sucked-in cheekof his own aspirations to stardom.
"Suppose someday in Bromley, Kent /I live my nightmare and I'm sent/To sing for blonde suburban women /Before the wives of double glazers / I'd be Julio Iglesias doing the greats in Argentinian / Suppose they Barry Manilow me/Saying show me you're a man / With legs as mottled as salami / I'd say 'Ladies I'm doing the best I can '. "
"I WOULD never have approached Brel if I couldn't have retranslated the songs," says the myopic Momus. "People always sing the versions by Rod McKuen, which are highly sentimentalised, or the versions by Mort Shuman which are better but still really Americanised. To me the strength of Brel is that he doesn't come from the American tradition of songwriting, it's a strongly European thing.
"The song 'Jaqui' was a throwaway music hall tune in the first place, so it had to be done with that sense of comedy, and for the satire to work it had to be about the sort of people who are occupying that role of middle of the road megastardom now. Then of course Brel was singing about himself, so I had to adapt it to be about me."
The EP also features a re-reading of 'If You Go Away' (more accurately titled 'Don't Go Away' after the original 'Ne Me Quitte Pas') which ends altogether more darkly than previous English versions. A desperate plea from a deserted lover, it closes: "I'll crawl under the bed /And I'll watch you from there /And I'll listen to hear when you talk, when you laugh, it's enough / Being the shadow of your shadow/The shadowof your hand / The shadow of your other man / Don't go away / Don't leave. "
Even these shadows seem bright in comparison with the last song on the EP, 'See A Friend In Tears', a previously untranslated number that still has me choking every time I hear it. If a greater song has ever been written, I've never heard it. Here is all European disillusion in a few verses,writen by a cancer-ridden Brel, to whom death, his favourite subject, was an imminent reality. 'Thebodywilts before the mind does, " he sings. ~Surprised to see how soon it falls. "
Far from self-pitying, Brel sees his own decay as a metaphor for a decaying Europe, giving way to the power of the dollar-"It's true our
cities are exhausted/Made by and for the middle-aged/Our
weakness gave them more than force did. The end of every verse is capped by the image of hopelessness, "But see a friend in tears " .
MOMUS IS modest when I tell him his reading of the song is remarkable. "I don't see how I could really have got close to the emotion that's in the song, because I don't have the disease that Brel had when he wrote it. I tried to incorporate that in the sound, the electronics in the background are supposed to sound like cancer cells dividing.
"It's funny, one of the reviews said they thought the song fitted in with my world-weary view of life but to me it's anything but world weary. The thing about Brel was his depiction of the momentary joys in the middle of all this gloom. Even in 'See A Friend In Tears', although everything is lost, he still cares. Being world weary is just not carying about anything."
Clearly Momus regards Brel with more than passing fascination.
"I first discovered him when I was living in Canada for a while as a child, and my mother took me to see the film 'Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris'. She hated it and we had to leave before the end but there was something about the songs that just stayed with me. I was 14, which is the age that you're just beginning to think seriously about things, and to hear all these songs about death was really disturbing."
His own work attempts to revive Brel's craft of the song-writer. Most successful so far has been the El EP 'Beast With Three Backs', three songs of sin and satire. The recent LP 'Circus Maximus', religious fanaticism revisited with a sense of verbal slapstick, was a great idea, but the sound was disappointingly soft .
"I think that was doing the record with another musician, who played all the instruments. He is actually a much better player than me, but the session lost some of the tension that comes from there just being yourself and the engineer in the studio.
"The Brel EP is still too soft for me. I'm doing another LP soon, called 'The Poison Boyfriend' and I'm going to try and get a much harder sound. I have this image of barrel organs.
"When Brecht was very young he used to go and see Frank Wedekind (the German playwright) singing songs that he wrote himself and it was a huge influence on Brecht. There's no record of those songs or what they sounded like, but if you imagine it, and try and reconstruct the whole feeling and spirit of that time, that's what I want this new record to sound like.
"It's the sound of hurdy gurdys, that's what I want. In Edinburgh there used to be this old woman who wandered around with a hurdy gurdy on her back, playing for money, and the sound was sort of hard, glittering, ramshackle music. "
• El Records are to release a compilation of Jacques Brel, called 'L'Age Idiot', featuring the original version of 'See A Friend In Tears'. 'The Beast With Three Backs' by Momus, the LP 'Circus Maximus' and the EP of Brel songs 'Nicky' are all on El Records.
Interview with Smash Hits, 1986
By Vici Macdonald
On the left we have two not v. attractive paintings of gentlemen with arrows sticking out of them. The one above is Christian martyr St Sebastian (who was shot with arrows by the Romans) as painled by famous Renaissance artist Boticelli in 1474. The one below however is Scottish "pop" artiste Momus (real name: Nicholas Currie) merely masquerading as the unfortunate saint in order to decorate the cover of his recently released - and rather good-first LP ''Circus Maximus".
"Saint Sebastian was someone who went out in a glamourously masochistic way," explains Nick, somewhat obscurely, of his "pose".
"He didn't really come into his own until many of the - mainly
gay - Renaissance painters wanted an excuse to paint an unclothed beautiful-looking man with all these arrows sticking in him. It was a very erotic subject for them. . ."
Hmmm. And why on closer inspection do so many of the apparently charming acoustic songs on the album turn out to be somewhat twisted versions of the more. . . erm. . . "steamy" parts of the Bible?
"Well people who haven't read the Bible don't know what they're missing. It's really, really sexy. Most people think of Christians as loonies crazed by their attempts to stop themselves having sex before marriage but the Christians I'm singing abous weren't like that. The Romans threw them to the lions but the martyrs got the last laugh. They were masochists - they got their pleasure from self-sacrifice and their power from guilt. . ."
So Nick are you religious?