Gay Times, November 1990
An Internal Exile
Kris Kirk meets cult singer/songwriter Momus
"I MYSELF am heterosexual, but I have a fascination with the homosexual view of the world, the deep-seated bitterness against the predominant culture. I've always been stigmatised as a homosexual, and if that happens to you, you do tend to hold up the stigmata."
There is the pop mainstream. And then there are those on the outskirts of the industry who may be offering something a little bit more challenging, a little bit more difficult. Often their voices are hardly more than a murmur behind the babble, challenging the banality or the misconceptions. Perhaps occasionally making you think.
Thirty-year old Scot Nick Currie is Momus - named after the Greek God of satire, chucked off Mount Olympus for being too cheeky and bold - and over the last decade Momus has released a handful of albums with titles like The TenderPervert, The Poison Boyfriend and Circus Maximus whose extraordinary content and quality make me think him the most interesting singer/songwriter/lyricist in Britain today. Currie has always been personally fascinated by sex, and the pain and pleasure of the erotic urge pervade his material; nothing is taboo, from necrophilia ('The Cabriolet') to paedophilia ('The Guitar Lesson') when it comes to his special brand of voyeurism. Needless to say, homosex features very strongly in his work. For Currie is that fascinating thing, a Straight Queen.
"I've always been fascinated by the homosexual view of the world" says Currie, a beautiful, languid beanpole of a boy with a blond cow-lick and a big mouth full of teeth like Jacques Brel, one of his many heroes. "I suppose my attraction to that outsiderdom has a pretty banal explanation. I went to boarding-school and we were all into Glamrock and at twelve everybody at school was in bed with somebody else in the dorm: it was that big latency period. We were all listening to David Bowie and Lou Reed and Marc Bolan, and convinced we were gay ourselves and that that was a good thing to be."
But there's an intellectual fascination with homosexuality too, as in the duplicity of the homosexual in his song of the same name. 'The Homosexual' isn't gay, though everyone presumes he is, and he continually takes advantage of the fact by screwing other people's wives. "People always assume I'm gay, and I'll always remember my first girlfriend turning round to me and saying 'I feel so privileged you chose me to go straight with." ' But there's far more to it than just the personal angle. . .
"It's like with Jewish people, who've also always been persecuted. There must be a bitterness about being persecuted, but at the same time there's a refusal to be alienated, so an internal exile must come as a result of that. You can't really generalise, but I'm fascinated by how people come in and infiltrate when they know privately that they're not like other people, and rise to the top. Jewish people have done that with Hollywood, publishing, the art world - they're all pretty well Jewish-run. And it's similar with gays, especially in entertainment and pop. The best pop musicians have always been gay: they turn their stigma into kudos somehow by this magical alchemical process. So what people in the street and in normal life normally look at askance or persecute, when it's up on stage they enjoy it and celebrate it and applaud it. And that fascinates me."
BORN in Paisley in 1960 into an academic family (his brother is a deconstructionist critic/lecturer), Currie went to Aberdeen University where - ever the gauche and shy outsider at parties - he gained a First in English. A serious minded intellectual saved by a dry, ironic sense of humour and sense of fun, he is by nature an iconoclast, a kicker against the norms. "I feel that in public life, gays who 'come out' and constitute themselves as a public body defined by sexuality make the most interesting public form of debate. There are few things that move or touch me, but I'm always moved by watching public issues about gay life. Like a recent documentary on gay clergy really touched me, and I don't know why that is. I always think 'This is something I'm part of, though I'm not sexually part of it'. I'm like a fellow-traveller. I relate to the stereotypes. Not the macho clone stereotype, but all that refined, delicate, aesthetic 1890s Alfred Douglas side of things."
But those were secretive days; are gay men the inner rebels they were? Aren't they mostly trying to legitimise themselves nowadays, saying 'We're just the same as everybody else'? "Gay people won't ever feel themselves sufficiently legitimised not to be in some way bitter. The transparency of normality disappears when you haven't internalised the values of the dominant culture. That's when things get interesting, when you realise everything is arbitrary and to do with power structures. Like the concept of the family, which most people think is natural and God-given, but gay people know in their bones it's a totally arbitrary politically-motivated structure. With a different pair of eyes you automatically see all the hypocrisy of that stuff, that none of it is 'natural'."
Gay themes have continually been grist to Momus' artistic mill, from his first solo album Circus Maximus (set in Ancient Rome and about "characters in the Bible or from Ancient Rome whose high intentions were undermined by their sexuality. My theme has always been seduction" ) via Tender Pervert ("I wanted to call the album 'The Homosexual', but my record company dissuaded me in the end") to his more recent material about pantomime hairdressers and sapphic masturbators. "Gay themes are like the world turned upside down. Like the ice-skaters who are meant to be the perfect couple and yet they're gay, they're not attracted to each other at all. I love looking at that gap between appearance and reality. And the gay thing really annoys people. I love to tease with gay themes, because the whole subject of homosexuality still really sorts out the sheep from the goats. You can meet somebody who seems like a really liberal, open-minded guy and you say 'gay' and instantly the gates of prejudice are slammed down. I'm always drawn to taboos. I've always felt that writing is just verbal waffle unless you stand on people's corns."
It's like I'm talking to somebody who's more gay than I am. "People have always assumed I'm gay. Or maybe I'm paranoid and just assuming they were assuming and projecting my own gay element onto them. But at school they always called me poof, and I always gravitated to gay people, especially if they were literary because they often had the best libraries! I'd hear people assuming that I was gay and my attitude always was 'I don't mind your saying that - what's the big deal about it?' Women especially always assumed I was gay, until I started making moves on them. Funnily enough, I've often thought I'd probably have much better relationships if I were gay. But it so happens that what I'm sexually turned on by is women. Preferably small women with black hair. Preferably Japanese. And - I don't know what this says about me - preferably unable to speak the language!"
WITH Momus the lyrics take care of themselves. But then there is the music. Currie - like some of his critics - tends to put the music down. Of course he's not completely original - Momus admits "Everything I write is parody or pastiche. I don't have a musical style which is me expressing myself. There again, you can make a case for all pop music being self-aware parody. The Rolling Stones have to be very aware that what they're doing is a complete parody of black music and rock & roll."
Pastiche perhaps, but there's something more to Momus' music than that. Not just the insidious melodies he keeps finding which put him up there with the Pet Shop Boys in the cheap, evocative, moving pop bubblegum stakes. (It's no surprise when Currie mentions "You know Neil Tennant and I run a mutual appreciation society?" ). There's something about the way he fuses all sorts of influences - Brel with Weill, Kafka with Mishima, Bowie and Gainsbourg and chanson and Europop - with his own tongue-in-cheek immense seriousness that sets him apart as a completely original talent on today's constipated pop scene. "They say East Coast Scots look to Europe and West Coast Scots look to the U.S., and it's true of me. I look to Europe and even further East, and I always have. I have real problems with U.S. culture - all that wearing baseball caps and putting their boots on the table. This awful, compulsively conformist, macho, laid-back kind of attitude."
Far more to his taste are those Europeans who fit yet don't fit into Twentieth Century pop culture, like Jacques Brel. Because of his extraordinary 1986 translation/complete re-work of Brel's 'Jackie' which he renamed 'Nicky', Momus has been linked too closely perhaps with the Belgian chansonnier. ("Because I got lots of press on that record I somehow became the archivist for Jacques Brel's reputation for a couple of years, doing radio interviews on him and stuff. But I got really sick of that academic thing."). Nevertheless, Brel's sheer dynamism and emotionalism still have their infuence on Momus. "As an artist. part of me still loves the pure dynamics and tension and stress which force Brel into that level of intensity where he climbs through notes and through keys and gets up there and shouts at the end of each song, so it's like watching a circus act. But recently I've been much more influenced by Serge Gainsbourg, who in French culture represents the other end of things. His music is static, it murmurs. Sex is almost like a physical expression of formalism and in that way it's very Japanese. Gainsbourg deals with sexual taboo by dry dissection - it's almost like scientific exploration. He's analytical and rational rather than passionate, and I guess that's the other side of me.'
Trouble is, you may find Momus' recordings a bit diffcult to come by soon. For Currie - whose record sales have increased with each release, but who admits that his 'constituency' numbers 15,000 "and that's a generous estimate" has just walked out of his contract with Creation Records. "In one sense I suppose it is crazy, because I was doing well financially and Creation were beginning to give me decent amounts of money for my recordings, and sending me out touring. But I suppose I'm even more of a megalomaniac than somebody like Morrissey, and to me the last album showed signs of my beginning to get desperate. Because my single 'Hairstyle of the Devil' got a lot of airplay, especially from Steve Wright, there was pressure to go for 'the big hit single' on the last album: there was too much of the disco work-out. It was like being taken to the top of the mountain by Satan, and being offered the 'One day this could all be yours' line. And I did try. But I know anyway that doing crass Stock, Aitken, Waterman stuff in a pastichey way isn't going to get me anywhere, because it's with the stuff that has more integrity than I was demonstrating at that period that I've had my most commercial success.
Though he should be up there with Mornssey & Co, perhaps it's the lack of attention which keeps him working. "I think that's true. I've always had this thing about unrequited love, about being fascinated by someone who thinks I'm a little shit. At the moment the great music audience out there thinks I'm a little shit, so I love them. The moment they start coming to my gigs, I just think 'What creeps'. Maybe I like to keep knocking and be turned away from the gates!"
Sadly for Momus, he is presently being pursued by one of Britain's best-respected and largest indie labels, with whom he will probably sign. Fame beckons, and he will not be able to avoid it for much longer. And after that? "Well yes, I'd love to be on EMI - amongst that great pantheon of gay writers and artists. Ha! !"
The King Of Pimlico
"I have this urge to be the king of Pimlico, to have Momus's own little kingdom where no-one else should tell me what to do. I'm willing to accept a certain degree of commercial unsuccess for total control over that rather than opt for enormous wealth and riches but sacrificing all control."
The voice belongs to Momus, aka Nick Currie, one man band and Creation recording artist. He's been peddling his peculiar brew of social observation and self analysis since 1981, initially with ex-members of Josef K in The Happy Family, but more recently on his own. His last single 'Hairstyle Of The Devil' dented the national charts and raised his public profile considerably, although fame has never been top of his list of priorities.
"I think you can rush into the spotlight too soon" , he starts. "I've been crawling towards the spotlight for five years. I think it's quite a nice curve to only emerge from the shadows very slightly, inch by inch, fingernail by fingernail.
"Obviously I toyed with the idea when I was being played everyday for four weeks on the Steve Wright show on Radio 1. People have now heard the name Momus and they can choose whether to ignore me or embrace me. I produced a lot of horrible crappy pop songs as a response to that. But I think it's a very foolish kind of greed.
"I've since reacted against that by writing a very strong, disturbing and unpalatable follow-up album. My policy is to be commercial on the singles and to push the albums into territories that nobody else has ever gone into. Nobody has been as explicit as I'm going to be on the next album. It only interests me to do something which nobody has done before."
Anyone who's familiar with past Momus recordings will know this is no idle boast. His albums have been increasingly disturbing and diverse. A central feature has always been the lyrics, something he takes a great deal of time and care over, discarding any that don't come up to scratch. At present he is without peers, intent on stretching the confines of the song.
"I like sentences," he explains. "A lot of lyrics are almost like scatterings of words and they don't hang together syntactically. I like sense because you get at the irrational by means of being scrupulously rational and by means of using language very carefully. It's a very delicate instrument for probing into the way people think and what they don't even know they think. A story can be a real weapon. If I can start off as if I'm telling a story and then make an unorthodox moral at the end, then I can have a certain narrative power.
"Most songwriters try to use the big words. They hue them out of the dictionary with a great big pick axe. I think those words have turned to sand long ago, actually. They've been overused and corroded by too many people's tears."
At present Momus is holed up in a recording studio in Chelsea for seven weeks, recording his new LP. He's finally found what he calls a 'sloppy' engineer who isn't averse to his ideas or arrangements, which he likes to keep as spontaneous as possible.
"I often do a first demo which is pure disco tack, with lots of syndrums and things" , he begins. "I've always been attracted to that but in the past I've never had the budgets to do it properly. I'm very lax at making arrangements and I just use what's in the studio. On Circus Maximus (his first LP) we used an Emulator II which was relatively new then. It was just the fun of having an orchestra at your fingertips which you could stick on top of a very cheap acoustic guitar. The bizzareness of having the London Symphony Orchestra playing along in the background appealed."
The new LP is going to be different again, building on the lyrical intensity of 87's The Poison Boyfriend and instrumentally a step further from last year's stunning Tender Pervert collection. "It's going to be entirely electronic with lots of sampling and things" , he says. "But that doesn't mean anything, it might sound like a cabaret band in Berlin in the 20's or something. One tentative title for the album is 'Sexual Crimes Of The Upper Classes' because they all seem to be songs about people in positions of responsibility who abuse that responsibility. There's a tenderness built in too but it's very delicately poised between tenderness and the criminal."
'Hairstyle Of The Devil' drew comparisons with the Pet Shop Boys, something Nick claims wasn't deliberate. "I took this house track and stuck it wholesale under this rather slow, melancholy French song," he counters "The effect was like The Pet Shop Boys but that's purely because that's the way they operate as well. It's the same logic but
wasn't an imitation. The Pet Shop Boys take very continental, European Michel Legrand type chord changes and stick
Chicago or Detroit house backing to them, and that's just the way I happened to work out the arrangement of it. They heard it and liked it. Apparently Neil Tennant cites me as an influence. I don't know if that's a joke on his part reversing the obvious influence."
Another thing he shares with PSB is a reluctance to play live, although he did try to get on the bill to support them at Wembley. "It's never really worked to my satisfaction live. I'm a delicate organism and I just don't like places where people are drinking and
smoking. I have an exhibitionist streak but it's more suited to being channelled into the performance you make in a studio."
Although he's just made his first video, videos themselves are given short shrift. "I'm a purist and you can so easily make a bad song impressive with good video. I'd rather it was meant for the ears only. Songs are so economical. To me, writing songs is a very cheap way of transmitting information and getting inside someone else's imagination. I think the sense of hearing is the most seductive sense. In a way you can crawl right into someone's head through the ears."
The new Momus LP should be in the shops in October and there may or may not be another single first. In the meantime I suggest you hawk it down to your local record emporium and invest your moolah on his back catalogue. I guarantee you won't be disappointed. Nick leaves with two words of advice for pretenders to his crown.
And who can argue with that?
Sounds, May 13th 1989
THE MASTER BAITER
MOMUS have finally made it to the nation's favourite radio show . . . are our pop kids being corrupted? Ron Rom discovers the obsessions of the man behind the sound, Nick Currie
WHAT'S THE world coming to when Steve Wright, an irritating Radio 1 DJ, plays a record by an artist like Momus three times in one week?
Are Momus (aka Nick Currie) and Wright conspiring to corrode the moral fibre of the nation with love songs that swivel on scurrilous tales of deceit, while Butlins disco music bleeps and spurts like Saturday Night Fever had never been filmed?
The record we are talking about is 'The Hairstyle Of The Devil', Momus' first release since his debut album on Creation, last year.
Like all other Momus records, the single is intensely personal and, at times, its blatant honesty makes it harrowing. But Currie splashes his tragedies with comic relief and music that borders on tackiness.
I ask Nick if he is a cynic, as his strained humour always cuts through the seedy romanticism of his thoughfful ballads. He whispers tentatively back into the microphone.
"Actually, here's an interesting fact. The word cynic actually means masturbation. The very first cynic movement tried to prove that they were self-sufficient and Diogenes once demonstrated this by masturbating in public, in a market place, in Ancient Greece. Some people might say that my records are public masturbation."
CURRIE IS serious. He doesn't constantly namedrop rock legends as big influences, preferring to take his inspiration from sources further afield, like Japanese Samurai stories.
Some might describe him as being a bit 'arty', as he dissects all his lyrics and engineers his records in a way that guarantees that every element is comprehensively covered.
Nothing is left to chance and when you question him on certain recurring Momus topics, such as sexuality, broken hearts, faded dreams, stained bedsheets and women, you sense that he is bursting to give you a thorough explanation of every point that he raises.
For instance, I ask him why schmaltzy disco pop music undermines the serious nature of 'The Hairstyle Of The Devil'.
"Well, what interested me with disco relationships is the way that they are quite superficial and physical, and that's really what the song is describing as well. So I thought it was quite appropriate.
"It's kind of complicated by the fact that the narrator in the real life situation is based on a person who runs a successful dance record label."
Are you an observer, or are you directly involved in the song?
"It's far too easy for me to be a playwright with words. I feel a duty to live the songs, and there's something satisfying about that.
"'The Hairstyle Of The Devil' is about a relationship that I had with my record plugger, because I move in small, incestuous music biz circles, and she was seeing a guy at the same time as me who ran a prominent Acid House label.
"Everywhere I went at the time, Acid House would be coming out of the speakers and I thought this guy was The Devil, because the principles of competition and rivalry had overtaken me and were being projected onto this guy, even though I had never met him.
"I felt disgusted by the feelings that I had for this sexual rival. He had developed into an amazing fantasy figure, who had become
ten feet tall and was wonderful and everything that I wasn't.
"I eventually found my revenge by taking on his character in 'The Hairstyle Of The Devil', and so all my failures immediately turned into successes."
IT REMAINS to be seen if 'The Hairstyle Of The Devil' will be a commercial success, even with the help of Steve Wright.
But with Currie publicly broadcasting his complicated lovelife to the rest of the world, it can only be a matter of time before his idiosyncratic songwriting qualities are rewarded with something more substantial than music press accolades. Until then, keep your ears on Radio One.
And if you own an Acid House record label and you've noticed that your girlfriend has been a little offish recently, I hope you sleep well tonight-because the devil in Currie may just be at the end of
your bed, laughing!