The Scotsman
January 1999
Transcript of an Interview by Neil Cooper

First of all, tell me about the new album, 'The Little Red Songbook'

The Little Red Songbook started as a bunch of vague hunches and interests I had at the beginning of 1998.

I was thinking about whether it's possible to be a bohemian in the age of computers. I went back and listened to the rock opera Hair a lot. I also started thinking about the Y2K problem. I was planning a cheeky 'sex vaudeville' record comprising 60 one-minute songs, called Please Enjoy Casio Sex Pop.

Then I got fascinated by the late 60s vogue for Moog synthesiser reworkings of Bach and Vivaldi. I started watching a lot of Kubrick movies: A Clockwork Orange and 2001. Putting all that together, I drew up a scenario which I titled Freakscene Versus The Mainframe. I imagined a bunch of hairy hippy terrorists, intent on saving the world from Y2K, attacking the HAL 9000 computer in 2001 while it sang a slowed-down version of tunes from The Notebook Of Anna Magdalena Bach.

Then I imagined the alternative: a world in which Y2K causes a disaster as serious as the plague Boccacio describes in The Decameron. What kind of thing would people want to tell stories about in the empty wilderness following the collapse of the Information Age? Why, sex of course.

Somehow, all that turned into The Little Red Songbook.

A lot of the album seems very cynical about the 80s. How was it for you?

Ghastly. I felt politically powerless, an outsider condemned to the margins where I was allowed to practise an ambivalent sort of satire, a weird amalgam of disgust and fascination. My parodies got closer and closer to the target of my satire (musically Stock, Aitken and Waterman, lyrically Tory sleaze) until they were virtually indistinguishable from it, and my records broke through to Radio 1 daytime airplay.

The public weren't fooled, though. They realised I was a disillusioned intellectual provocateur, and stayed away in droves. The 90s have been a hell of a lot better.

Where did the idea of analog baroque come from? Isn't there a danger of this merging of classical and pop forms of ending up like Rick Wakeman?

It's exactly that danger that excites me. I think the idea of recontextualising the Baroque came first from a documentary I saw about the artist Jeff Koons. He used neo-baroque kitsch as a stick to beat tasteful modernists and minimalists with. His importance as a postmodernist lies exactly in the risks he takes in bringing us dangerously close to kitsch. The thing about kitsch is that we secretly enjoy it while condemning its bad taste. I felt that electronic music had got too much like a Habitat catalogue - smooth, arty, tasteful - and could benefit from a trip to the junk store.

I run the same risk, reviving people like Perrey and Kingsley and Klaus Nomi, that Air do when they dig up old Serge Gainsbourg and Jean Michel Jarre, or Beck and Cornelius do with their risky recontextualisations. We're all playing the same game.

On 'Miss X, An Ex-Lover', you talk about 'working on getting famous'. Any bitterness that you're not up there with the likes of Neil Hannon, Neil Tennent and Jarvis Cocker, who would seem to have stolen your elegance, charm and foul-mouthed thunder?

They haven't stolen them; elegance and charm, like bus passes, are strictly non-transferrable. Jarvis and the two Neils are, like me, proud standard-bearers for the other great British tradition, the flipside of Lad Culture, Gazza, Irvine Welsh and Oasis: the dandy tradition of Bonnie Prince Charlie, Beau Brummell, Alexander Pope, Oscar Wilde, Quentin Crisp and David Bowie. I don't need sixteen million pounds from EMI to stake my place in that lineage.

How do you view 'The Little Red Songbook' against your previous work?

It's a return to 'core Momus values' after several albums in which I explored concepts like 'being in love' and 'being married'. Now I'm back to 'being the rude yet truthful MF who says things other people don't dare'. And loving it.

How did you first get involved in music? And how important was the Josef K connection?

I took a couple of years out of my degree at Aberdeen University to form a band with ex-members of Edinburgh's legendary Postcard Records group Josef K. I was just a shy fan boy who suddenly got to sing with my favourite band. I can't tell you how thrilling that was.

Tell me about The Happy Family?

We made high concept socialist rock operas at a time when you were supposed to be making foppish New Romantic electro or gloomy Goth twaddle. The group fell apart after one album, The Man On Your Street, which resembled the kind of acid flashback Mark E. Smith might've had if he'd been raised on Gramsci and Adorno instead of the Beats.

When did all that start mutating into the Momus persona?

I took the name Momus from one of Aesop's fables in 1985.

You seemed quite outwith the 80s Creation canon. How did you come to be signed by them?

Alan McGee wanted to make Creation resemble David Geffen's Elektra label at the time. He wanted sterling songwriters, and he saw me as a sort of Nick Drake for Face readers. After I made The Poison Boyfriend, I think he really wanted me to commit suicide so that the analogy would be complete. Unfortunately, instead of dying, I became the first of a new breed of postmodern pop artists, conceptualists and bricoleurs. Creation didn't get it, and probably still don't, even in the age of Beck and Cornelius.

Way, way back on 'Don't Stop The Night' you attracted a bit of flak for some of the subject matter of the songs (one about a music teacher abusing a little girl, and another about a guy at a party going home with the only girl he didn't fancy there, only to fall for her when she's covered in blood after a car crash), accusing you of depravity. I think you said something then about how short story writers never had to accept such negative feedback. Could you say something about this, and is this how you still see yourself?

As a disciple of Georges Bataille, I was and am into the idea that art should go precisely to those squirmy, difficult areas, should be transgressive. As Eno once put it, it's one of the few areas where you can play with danger safely, 'crash the plane and walk away'.

You're very much into Cornelius and all things Japanese. It seems to happen to a lot of Scottish pop types (Bis, Whiteout, all the Japanese indie kids who make pilgrimages to the 13th Note). How did the connection come about for you, and what appeals?

Actually, Cornelius himself paved the way for my current success in Japan, where I sell hundreds of thousands of records sung by his ex-girlfriend, Kahimi Karie. Keigo Oyamada championed my work there from the late 80s on, playing my records and those of all the other el Records artists on his radio and TV shows.

But my admiration for him isn't just gratitude. He's just ceaselessly inventive, the perfect antidote to all those millenial jeremiahs who say that everything in pop has been done and we're condemned to relive its glory days in ever-decreasing circles. Bullshit! How about a CD of remixes of other artists using the samples from just one of your own songs (Cornelius's new album), or two mini-singles (slightly different mixes of the same song) you're instructed to play in two separate CD systems at the same time (Cornelius's last single). Or even an album of song portraits commissioned by 'patrons' for a thousand dollars each (my next album, Stars Forever)? There are a thousand and one ideas people haven't tried yet.

How are the results of the karaoke competition going?

I've only had one so far, a Japanese girl who sang Harry K-Tel word for word in the sweetest little innocent voice. It broke my heart. She had understood the word 'karaoke' but not the word 'parody'.

Ever tried karaoke yourself? What was it like?

Once, at the Japan exhibition at the V&A. To perform well (ie make people laugh), the important thing is to get as much as you can wrong.

Actually, some of the songs I wrote for Kahimi Karie are on karaoke machines in Japan. Kahimi said she sang one and the machine gave her three out of ten.

Where are you living now?

London, near the meat market at Smithfield.

Tell me about your work as Fantastic Everlasting Gobstopper and Milky on the 'Songs For Marshmallow Lovers' album.

Fantastical Everlasting Gobstopper was a Kahimi Karie song sung by the twelve year old niece of the sound engineer. Milky is my wife Shazna. We're separated now, she lives in Paris, but we'll probably be making an album together this year.

What's been happening to you on a personal level then? Can you talk about the business with you, your wife and the Daily Record front cover? Given your subject matter, did the tabloids seem like a logical place to be?

Most of my life is pretty sensational, if the truth be told.

I tend to do things the difficult way. Most people would give up when their girlfriend is imprisoned in Bangladesh until she picks a husband. I battled to get her back, and married her in Glasgow. Someone at the registry office must've tipped off the Record, and they flew out to Paris in hot pursuit. It was all too romantic to last, and after two and a half years we agreed, in the friendliest way in the world, to separate. We still write tons of E mail to each other every day, though.

I also hear you had an accident with your eye. Could you talk about that?

I woke up one day with a red eye, and it turned out that my disposable contact lenses had got infected with amoebas. It got worse and worse and now the eye is blind. It's something they don't mention on the Acuvue box, even in the small type. I'd advise people to be very, very careful.

You seem very keen on E-Mail and the Net. Considering your pre- occupations with matters sexual it seems a rather cold way to communicate. So what's the appeal?

It's like what Eno said about art: the net too is a place where you can be dangerously safe, crash the plane and walk away. You can rehearse a relationship in cyber-simulation before trying it out in real life. The internet is not only the world's biggest singles club, it's also a place where an artist can invent new ways to relate to his audience... like my Stars Forever project, which is doing for Patronage what Little Red Songbook did for the Baroque.

It's also at odds with the move into the more primitive technology you're using now. What's the connection with Add N To X?

I worked with them on a Kahimi Karie song, 'The Symphonies Of Beethoven', a tribute to Kubrick's 'Clockwork Orange'. Arty, sci-fi and slightly camp Moog purists, Add N To (X) understand perfectly what my academic brother Mark would call 'accelerated recontextualisation'.

You imply you want the songs on 'The Little Red Songbook' to be viewed as epigrams, a la Oscar Wilde or Rabelais. How would you feel if people just thought you were some uppity smartarse?

Fine, they wouldn't be wrong. I sometimes wear a sign saying 'Kick me, I'm clever'.

Be honest now. How much of the content of your songs are autobiographical, and how much exagerated versions of yourself?

Since I morphed into Momus, my life has become 100% fictional. So it's all true.

What's the future for Momus then? More sex, drugs and rock n roll? Or just infamy and fortune?

After conquering Japan, I seem to be getting more and more famous in America, where they seem to see me as Quentin Crisp's one-eyed nephew. So I guess I'm poised to become 'one of Britain's great stately homos'. Or, in my case, 'great stately heteros'.

Doesn't quite have the same ring, does it?