Making Oskar

Part 1: Tati and me

I'm making an album called 'Oskar Tennis Champion'. So, because making albums is the most important and most intense thing I do, I wanted to make a diary of the process. The record of the record, if you like.

I remember David Bowie in a 70s radio interview saying that what he spent most time on, making an album, was 'thinking about the colour, shape, size and texture of the thing'. Going into the studio and adding a backbeat was almost an afterthought. 'I can knock out an album in two weeks, mixed and everything,' he boasted. ('Measure twice, cut once', as the old Jewish tailors used to say.)

So here's part one of my record of my record, and it's about colour, shape, size and texture. It's how you draw up a blueprint for a thing which, later, will rise out of nothingness, judder, shudder, and stand there like a golem on its own two feet.

When it does, I'll be friendly. 'Hello, Oskar! Chuss!' I'll say, 'Welcome to the world! Here are you baby photos. Here, even, are your conception photos! And here, filed neatly in the glove compartment, are your production notes.'

Check back to this notebook every week or so if you find it interesting. Just like the album itself, it will be agglomerating, accreting, accumulating, and accelerating, with new stuff glomming onto it weekly. I've given myself until the end of November to finish the record. It should see the light of day in March 2003.

Scribblings, cribs

I'm what they call in France a chansonnier a texte. In other words, the spine or core of a Momus record is not, say, the need for me to tootle on a sax or make a video which shows my boobs to best advantage, but to deliver words, stories, concepts, ideas, themes, flavours. (Sorry, Kylie, you can sell, but I can write. One of us has the booby prize.)

Some themes are just flavours, but some can be put into words and scribbled into notebooks. So I begin with the reams of notes I've accumulated in the grey and red Clairefontaine notebooks I carry everywhere with me.

In black and blue scrawl legible only to me are titles I've cribbed from other people's works, plot summaries of plays by symbolists, jottings of pregnant and mysterious phrases I've found on my travels, unintentional found poems (for instance, I got very excited recently by the world suggested by Sigmar Polke's painting titles. I could make a whole album just about the pictures those make in my head).

Then there's the theoretical underpinning supplied by the investigations made in essays on this website. The Electroacoustics Of Humanism is still a key text for the work I'm doing now. My Muse Has The Right To Children, on the other hand, looks from a distance like showing off. That particular visit from the muse didn't lead anywhere very interesting. I made a couple of songs in the 'Spooky Kabuki' style, but they were just Momus-by-numbers, with a few bongs and crashes from Cantonese opera mixed in for novelty. So I abandoned them.

Fuzzy status

But 'The Electroacoustics of Humanism' thing still has legs, because it's all about making work that has the qualities of both folk (strong narrative lines, populism, the universal themes) and the avant garde (formalism, futurism, the sheer excitement of the new, the untried, the experimental... plus, I guess, a certain delicious otaku snobbist element; the opposite of folk's populism). Is it possible to balance a strong story on the back of a piece of glitchy found sound or a perverted short wave national anthem or some bastardised fragment of Schubert fed through a blender? I think it is, although obviously you'd get more kudos in formalist circles (amongst the Max/MSP laptop set, for example) if you ditched the words. People are pretty purist about these things. If you're in the tradition of Pierre Schaeffer, you leave out the stories. If you're in the tradition of Georges Brassens, you leave out the knob twiddling and snub the cable-spilling tabletop mixer.

Of course, a way to have your cake and eat it is at hand. It's called satire. Satire allows you to put incongruous stuff together and still make it work, because it allows you the distance of irony. In satire, the status of each object is fuzzy. It's unclear whether you're putting something in your song -- a national anthem, a criminal confession -- to salvage or to savage it. You may approve, you may disapprove. Nobody really knows. You probably have mixed feelings. The fuzzy status of cultural objects in satire forces people to suspend their usual category-mindedness and just enjoy the incongruity and strangeness and bastardisation for its own sake, without reflex judgements. (I may be talking about a particular kind of satire here, the kind I favour: satire delivered by an unreliable narrator.) It's a bit like walking around in a big, pluralistic modern city.

On the brink of the pure play of form

Actually, what it's a bit like is Jacques Tati, and my discovery (at Kim's Video, Avenue A, New York, early in 2002) of DVDs of 'Mon Oncle' and Playtime really boosted my conviction that this mix of vaudeville and concrete was the way to go. The album is called 'Oskar Tennis Champion' in homage to Tati. It's a title from an early short he never finished.

Tati was a populist. I first saw films like 'Trafic' with my grandparents in the early 70s in regular Edinburgh cinemas. They were the only French films on general release in Britain at the time. They didn't feel like foreign films because there was no dialogue, no subtitles. There were just these visual gags, rooted in Tati's past in pro rugby, pantomime and burlesque, sight gags pointed up with the most amazing, exaggerated and eloquent sound design. So although it was cartoony and populist, there was also stuff going on in the films that you could consider formalist fine art. The sound could have come from the electroacoustics of Schaeffer and Henry, the gesture could have been developed in the physical theatre of Le Coq. There was obviously a visual intelligence at work that went far, far beyond the cartoon level. Imagine Mr Bean shot by Peter Greenaway.

Or imagine Buster Keaton surviving the arrival of the talkies only to switch his interest to Kafkaesque satires on non-existent Modernist utopias. It would be facile to say that Tati was on the side of 'la douce France' against the visions of the Bauhaus and Le Corbusier. But why then does he make Modernism look so appealing? You could almost say that Modernism finds its truest expression in 'Playtime'. As so often happens, it's satire which most permanently commemorates the things it's supposedly undermining.

Tati claimed his aim was never to criticize the modern city. I think he wanted to do the thing I'm also trying to do, which is to take 'story' right to the very brink of its dissolution in the 'pure play of form'. This is something an artist, a storyteller, might want to do later in his career, when simply telling stories is not enough. It's a kind of brinksmanship. How close to the collapse of story (and the collapse of the kind of attention audiences give stories) can I get? And of course, after 'Playtime' it was pretty much all over for Tati. He'd been fingered as an artist rather than an entertainer. His brinksmanship put him over the edge. He lost his mass audience.

So, like Tati, I'm using satire not in the conservative and rather cut-and-dried way of simply making fun of modern attitudes, but instead to suspend the normal values of my song-objects, give them 'fuzzy status', so that they can co-exist in unusual ways. Only in this way can I break a song through to freshness.


I don't know if Tati was lefthanded. It wouldn't surprise me. I'm finding that a lot of the creative minds I'm intrigued by are 'lefthanded minds'. You could see 'Oskar Tennis Champion' as my simulation of a lefthanded mindset. I'm righthanded, although I've always used my left foot to kick a football, and when I was younger I used to write with both my left and right hands (the lettering on 'The Poison Boyfriend' sleeve is my lefthanded handwriting, as it happens). Lefthandedness implies dominance by the right side of the brain. Since I'm now blind in my right eye, which used to be my dominant eye, you could say that my vision of the world is becoming more and more right brain, which is to say 'lefthanded'. It recently struck me that many of the artists I'm fascinated by are lefthanded:

Ivor Cutler. Marshall McLuhan. Lewis Carroll. Toog. David Bowie. Paul Klee. MC Escher. Leonardo da Vinci. Picasso. (And, adds John Fashion Flesh of the Super Madrigal Brothers, John Fashion Flesh of the Super Madrigal Brothers.)

In German you call someone 'linkisch' ('leftish') if they"re weird, strange, antisocial or mean.

Which brings us to the question of Otherness. I was having a discussion about this with my brother, who's just finished a book called 'Difference'. 'Otherness,' he told me, 'is a bit of a bore'. He wouldn't really expand on that, beyond saying that in his area of literary studies the word 'Otherness' has been commandeered by post-colonialists who use it for political capital. I tried to steer the conversation in the direction of lefthandedness as a form of 'otherness', but my brother wasn't having it and proposed we go and play tennis instead.

So we did.

A record that wants to be German

Once I was accused in the NME of writing songs that 'want to be French'. Apparently this was really a bad thing for a British person to do. But it's pretty deeply ingrained in 'the Momus exception'. Once I bought a copy of a record by The Staples Singers (I guess I wanted to be black at the time) called 'Be What You Are'. I was rather irritated by the title and after a while took a pen and scribbled it out, replacing it with 'Become What You Are Not Yet'.

After a long period of wanting to be Japanese, my music seems to have realigned itself finally with France; my two favourite groups of the moment, Scratch Pet Land and DAT Politics, are francophone. But I'd say the dominant cultural influence on me for the last two or three years has been German. I sang on a Kreidler album, I was blown away by the raw choreography of Sasha Waltz at the Schaubuhne, and I still plan to live in the near future in Berlin. So it shouldn't really come as a surprise that, from the spelling of Oskar with a K right down to myriad tiny detail references and allusions, this new album wants to be German. And simulating Germanness is as liberating and refreshing for my writing as simulating lefthandedness. It takes me straight to the gates of dream, and into otherness.

Next time we speak I'll focus in on more detail. In the meantime, here are some descriptions of the finished tracks these Tokyo sessions have yielded since the beginning of September (and no, there aren't any mp3 files hidden anywhere on the web, so don't even think about Googling!):

Electrosexual Sewing Machine
The title comes from a surrealist painting by Oscar (ha! another one!) Dominguez. The arrangement drew some inspiration from Ryuichi Sakamoto's 1980 song 'Thatness and Thereness'. The lyrics are mostly drawn from early Modernist and Futurist slogans, and the chorus recaps the plot of a play called Les Aveugles by symbolist dramatist Maurice Maeterlinck. John Talaga (aka Sir John Fashion Flesh of the Super Madrigal Brothers) has made a remix. He'll be remixing, demixing and generally fucking with a lot of the tracks on this album as the work goes along.

Scottish Lips
Ha! This also began life as the title of an artwork, this time a sculpture by Dadaist Jean Arp. One of the things which makes a phrase like this jump off the page and into my notebook is the fact that I don't quite know what it's about. Its polysemous mystery appeals to my irrational side, but it also sets my rational side whirring with speculations and explanations, no matter how ludicrous. In the case of this song, the narrator tells his lover brutally not to love him for his Scottish lips but for 'stuff a bit more important than this'. It's about the tragedy of sex, really, and how it makes us love each other for silly reasons ('at least a G cup' is Russ Meyer's only requirement).

Beowulf (I Am Deformed)
I have no idea where this one came from. I read Beowulf at university. I think the word looks good on the page, and I'm rather drawn to the, er, otherness of Nordic epic. But in my version the hero sent to slay Grendell the monster is deformed, a monster himself. It's not surprising, really; you don't tangle on a regular basis with the earth's most vile and vicious bullies without sustaining some damage. The trouble is, our deformed hero can't get people to take him seriously. They're too busy laughing at his 'helplessly flailing mutant apalling prosthetic thalydomide limb' to realise that he's Denmark's only hope. Actually, this song probably relates to my experience this summer of returning to my home town only to have eggs thrown at me for looking 'different'.

Multiplying Love
This is a very short song, the first in a series of what I'm calling 'opuscules', little song-thoughts, about 60 seconds each, which will punctuate the album. It's a simple observation about love, somewhat in the manner of the shorter harpsichord songs on The Little Red Songbook.

This one could almost have been on Folktronic. But it's also influenced by a more recent enthusiasm, the soundtrack of the cult horror film 'The Wicker Man'. I seem to be singing this song, in which a demented islander mad to fecundate some local wench tries the silly argument 'if you should deny to let me inside it would be infanticide', in the douce, camp and evil tones of Lindsay Kemp in the role of the sly, sinister McGregor, the island publican. The music is a mad jig fed through extreme filters.

Palm Deathtop
The death of my close friend Rika Hirata this summer was a major event in my life. It was the first time I'd lost anyone in my immediate circle, apart from grandparents. It seems inevitable that it will impact on this album. 'Palm Deathtop' is not about Rika specifically, but about the reaction of my friend Jorge Colombo, who told me sadly that he'd lost so many friends that he had a special database on his Palm Pilot to remind him who was alive and who was dead. (He said he'd heard Brian Eno did the same thing.) The song constructs a narrator somewhat like Jorge, who begins to imagine the list of his dead friends as a more vibrant and vital 'party' than the list of his living ones.

Oskar Tennis Champion
It was the title of the album before it was a song. It's the purest collision of variety and musique concrete. It tells a fairly simple tale, straight from Tati, about 'my uncle Oskar', whose plans to build his own little part of the Radiant City are thwarted when he walks into a rake, gets covered in molasses, and runs into other slapstick stock situations. The music is mostly whirring and clunking noises I borrowed (with permission) from a CD of the sounds of Tokyo light industry made by artist Momoyo Toremitsu. The song feels like a Dadaist cabaret cover of a flapper number about a slapstick silent.

My Sperm Is Not Your Enemy
Joe Orton once said (finishing Kenneth Halliwell's sentence) that writing is ten percent inspiration and ninety percent... masturbation. In a slack moment during the recording I found myself looking (God knows how, it must have been an accident) at examples of the sticky variety of Japanese porn called bukkake. I imagined the girl-victim finding a way out of her ordeal by considering herself a 'controller of sperm', and therefore someone with more power than emperors and kings. It's another opuscule. Imagine this one sung amongst potted plants by a piano-propping tenor in the stout and serious manner of that master of art salon leider, Franz Schubert. Add electronics, indecency and honesty to taste.

Note: not all these songs will appear on the finished album. Song concepts and lyrics copyright Momus / Sony Music, 2002.

Read part 2 of the album diary, In the Soviet Union.

Part 3 is called The Reproducer.

Part 4 is about The One That Got Away.

Thoughts Index