Thought For The Day
Thought For The Day
Tape Recorder Man
If you want the Folktronic album to be as startling as a six-legged steer when it comes out in January 2001, don't read this. One woman's meat is another's poison, and one man's taster is another's spoiler.
But if the idea of a sneak look at the Momus album currently in production, my long-heralded foray into plastic folk, appeals, read on. Writing about music may be like dancing about architecture, but Momus songs always have funny stories attached. And anyway, Sasha Waltz can dance me a hay bale house any time she likes.
As of today, Tuesday September 6th, I've got fifteen finished songs in the Folktronic folder. My deadline is early November, but since I'll be spending most of October in an art gallery doing Folktronia, a visual art sister piece to the record, I need to finish the recording within the next three weeks. At my current rate of production, that might mean another ten songs from which to pick and choose. Ain't no dust on me, pardner.
We Never Close
There is one way Folktronia, the art show, might affect Folktronic, the pop record. One of the things I want to do during the show is try and recreate the oral tradition right there in the gallery.
All the stories and songs which have come down to us from pre-copyright ages with the composer listed only as 'Trad' or 'Anon' have been through a similar series of changes. Just like the fiddle players of the Appalachian mountains, bards and storytellers knew these stories as a series of riffs and licks they'd learned from older tellers. They had no choice but to add to and personalise them, because there was no authorised, finished, canonical version. Only when music and literature became written forms did the idea emerge that art should be made by a creative professional, a maestro whose defining gesture in the public imagination was the decisiveness with which he'd finish a work, forbidding all additions and amendments, closing and copyrighting it with his signature.
Work in the oral tradition is never finished, and there's something exciting and creative about that. It's the same excitement you get half way through making an album; every day, every hour spent working is alive with the possibility of a change, a new direction, a sudden discovery. You get addicted to that feeling, and you start holding off closure. But there are ways of keeping the work alive, even when it's finished.
What I plan to do in Folktronia is play people little bits of the Folktronic songs in the gallery and, a few minutes later, give them the chance to sing a phrase or two onto my hard disk recorder. I want them to embellish, to mis-remember, to make mistakes, to edit, to improve on the song they heard. The next visitor will then hear, not my originals, but these altered, fatigued, crackelured new readings. This process will go through whole generations in the month I'll spend in the gallery. Some of the results will feature as secret tracks at the end of 'Folktronic'. It'll be like a more anonymous version of the Karaoke Parody Competition we featured on 'Little Red Songbook' and 'Stars Forever'. The results, I hope, will be surprising and funny. They'll also give me something to talk about in the lecture I'm scheduled to deliver in Helsinki in November about links between the folk oral tradition and open source programming.
If you're anywhere near New York City between mid-October and mid-November, do come up to Chelsea and help with this experiment. I'll be in the LFL Gallery, 531 West 26th Street between 12 noon and 5pm every day from Tuesday to Saturday between October 14th and November 11th.
It's funny, on Stars Forever I was offering people the chance to be famous. Now I'm offering them the chance to be anonymous! Well, let me tell you, not only is it much more within my power to offer anonymity, but, let's face it, fame is old hat. Becoming anonymous, merging into the new folk tradition, that's the new thing, the hot thing. It's the 21st century thing, and this is your big chance to be anonymous in style on the next Momus album.
Which brings us to the Folktronic spoiler. If you're squeamish, shut your eyes now!
Appalachia: This one you know. At least you do if you've checked out Jack Howell's Flash animation for it. It was the first track I made for the album. I had the sound really loud in my headphones, and I fed the Korg through ring modulation to make it totally primitive and brutal. When I soundchecked this at Tonic last month, No New York noise-meister Arto Lindsay shouted from the bar 'It sounds distorted, Momus!' (I think he was joking.) When I'd finished recording this track I leapt around my room with excitement. I thought it had some of the idiotic energy of The Beatles' 'Twist And Shout'. I'm really proud of the baroque interludes, which are obviously a parody of Bach. The lyrics are pretty stupid, but they establish the setting -- an Appalachia as imaginary as Brecht's city of Mahagonny -- and introduce the thematic clash between folk imagery and electronics. 'Appalachia' kicks off the Folktronic album in pretty much the same way the little Pingu song about 'futuristic vaudevillians' kicked off 'Ping Pong'.
Smooth Folk Singer: I think the moment I first discovered the intoxicating power of pop music was when I was nine. I had a little record player and I used to play a record called 'Mony Mony'. I can't even remember who it was by, but it went 'Feel (mony mony) / So (mony mony) / Good (mony mony) / Yeah!' I ran in circles feeling... so good! Somehow this song, a call and response number, makes me feel the same way. It's a silly thing about a folk singer whose mother on her deathbed tells him 'Take care folk singer, take care, child / The way you folk gonna drive the women wild'. Maybe I had in mind that line from 'Billy Jean', 'Mama always told me be careful what you do...' It seemed so narcissistic, even for pretty Michael Jackson to sing. (Oh, and there's also that Jackson song 'Smooth Criminal', I just remembered.) What makes it ludicrous in my song is that folk music is not normally calculated to 'drive the world wild'. This song sets up a game with the words 'folk' and 'fuck' which will be important throughout the album. There's a fragmentary last verse ('I'm a solid sender, my heart is full / Of political agendas and primitive cool') before the song overloads in fuzz and screeches to a halt in the middle of a brain-dead Stylophone solo. One of my favourites, even if it's not going to win an Ivor Novello songwriting award any time soon.
Mountain Music: I sampled two different 'Country and Western' arrangement patterns programmed into two of my Japanese synths, changed the sounds to make them more robotic and toylike, and made a song which tries to imagine the commercial country music of 2049. The lyric was inspired by Johnny Cash, who said of Beck 'He's got that mountain music in him'. Well, yes and no. Beck has country music on one hard disk, tropicalia on another, hip hop on a third. But, as the song points out, even country 'never was so simple, it never was so pure'.
Simple Men: To a hectic fiddle jig (sampled, as a matter of fact, from a field recording of New Mexico Indians who seem to have learned it from Scots-Irish) this song traces the contours of our longing for the 'simple life' of 'noble savages'. In this case they're Appalachian cabin men. In verse one it sounds idyllic, in verse two chaotic, in verse three hellish. Mountain air and birdsong have given way to a scenario of high infant mortality, rabies, wife-beating ('it serves them right, it's in Deuteronomy') and clitorectomy. Which, as far as I know, was not practised by the Celtic Calvinist settlers of Appalachia, but you get the point. The shadow of Adorno hovers over the conclusion: 'Funny how the symbols of our humanity / Turn out to be the images of brutality'.
Finnegan The Folk Hero: No folk album would be complete without a ballad detailing the legendary derring-do of a folk hero, the working man's friend who somehow cocks a snook at the bosses who grind us down. Except in my song things are updated. Finnegan isn't a highwayman or a cardsharp but a coding whizz, a folk hero 'of HTML' who withers away because 'the master' doesn't pay him enough. On moonlit nights his ghost comes back to fuck with the Java on the boss's website, or so they say. It's got a thumping tune, this one, with a long instrumental coda in which my little Jen synth trills the melody like a penny whistle.
Protestant Art: This sounds like one of Charles Ives' skewed hymns. It's about shakers, quakers and fundamentalists for whom God, not satisfied with being The Creator, also dabbles in art criticism. The verses name-check art world transgressors like Karen Finley, Chris Offilli and Ron Athey, but the choruses are a roistering, rousing call to arms: 'The puritans are marching bravely on / Keeping America strong / Smiting sodomites with a mighty rod / Bringing protestant art direct from God'. Hallelujah!
U.S. Knitting: If you're making synthetic Americana, there always has to be a song set in a small town, where a store keeper called Abe goes down on one knee and proposes to a pale seamstress called Mary-Beth who's pretty but, folks say, 'peculiar in the mind'. Folks are right (they 'most always are), because Mary-Beth accepts Abe's offer on one condition -- a very strange one. The song becomes a dreamlike scenario straight out of a visionary millenarian sampler you might find in some Folk Art Museum for the mentally ill.
Robocowboys: Johnny Cash invented the 'man in black', an existentialist cowboy. But in a Garth Brooks world that pose has become so formulaic that even a robot could do it. And, here, that's exactly what happens. To a sort of Gary Numan backing, there's an enumeration of how yesterday's outsider has become a crowd of highly marketable insiders: 'Fire regulations have disallowed / Another lonely cowboy from joining the lonely crowd'. At the end it's Zeno's paradox at the OK Corrall: 'I came to a bend in the road and I saw / Two cowboys in black guarding two doors / 'One leads to heaven, the other to hell', they cried / 'And one of us only tells truths / The other one always lies' / I shot them both to hell, and when the cowboys died / I opened them and found cables / Snaking round inside'.
Little Apples: This is a bit like a Glen Campbell song, one of those easy listening country ballads about memory and 'the little apples of your mind'. The melody is lush, melancholy and, it has to be said, naggingly familiar. This is as close as Nashville gets to Charles Aznavour. The lyric, though, is futuristic and utopian. It's like you get to Tennesee only to find it's all been re-designed by Buckminster Fuller. 'Lying in the nude with my Apple G4 cube I am rendering a porcupine in Bryce', sings the wanderer narrator, for all the world as if it were 'Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head'. This country boy is pretty digital. He gets his news through Ananova, and has a map of the human genotype. But he's lost the map of West Virginia. In the end he's a bit melancholy. He's forgotten where he belongs and must now wander forever inside a country music song. And a pretty strange one at that, decorated with the synthetic clarion flourishes of baroque 80s synthpop.
Going For A Walk With A Line: It's my Paul Klee song. Mountain music takes a sudden detour through the Alps. In the tradition of 'Trans Siberian Express' and '2pm', this is one of my 'mumbling raps', my mind-boggling spirit tours through soul worlds, strewn (in the style of Auden's poem 'The Fall Of Rome') with random glimpses of cultural ephemera. It's all about atmosphere and language. Most of the lyrics come from notes I scribbled at the Paul Klee exhibition I saw this August in Edinburgh. It's also a tribute to my favourite piece of radio ever, a BBC Radio 3 programme made by art critic and poet Edward Lucie-Smith in the late 70s about Klee, with music by Malcolm Clarke of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. That programme changed my life. It was one of the things that made it inevitable that I would become an artist of some sort. It showed me that worlds, journeys, microcosms could be made out of words and stereo sound. That without visuals you could have vision.
Tape Recorder Man: 'Come all you rounders if you want to hear the tale of a tape recorder man'. That man is a figure based on legendary folk collector Alan Lomax. The story goes that at the Newport Folk Festival one year in the late 60s he and Dylan's manager Albert Grossman came to blows. Lomax had been introducing the bands on stage and had made disparaging remarks about the younger, more electric acts. 'The old folks don't need gimmicks to make their music new / But here's a bunch of college kids who apparently do,' Lomax says before introducing a band who, in my telling of the tale anyway, 'sounded like The Pogues, singing like the Bee Gees, dancing like freaks, playing modular Moogs'. I make the fight a bit more sensational, too: now it's the Dylan figure who fights Lomax. In the melee Lomax's ethnological tape recorder falls to the floor and a field recording of folk music scrubs weirdly across the heads. It's one of those eureka moments which will change the course of music forever. Dylan goes off and invents 'folk musique concrete'. The rest is history... in a parallel world, anyway.
Folk Me Amadeus: This is a song about the fascinating spiritual nihilism invoked by novelty gimmick hits like 'Rock Me Amadeus' and 'Cotton Eye Joe'. We invest so much in art, we mix it up with our spiritual cravings and even our desires for immortality. But what if Celtic runes were just as cynically put together, just as idiotic and vacuous, as trashy pop hits by Falco and Rednex? What if, by the same token, novelty pop were actually in some way wise, profound and eternal (the conclusion reached by Sartre at the end of 'Nausea')? 'Cotton Eye Joe may just be joke folk techno / But tonight it had me crying / So folk me, Amadeus, one more time' sings the grief-striken narrator before launching into a falsetto chorus: 'Tragedy, Celtic tragedy / I lost myself in London, Paris, San Fransisco / So folk me Amadeus / To Celtic tradgedy disco'. It's like the Village People on druid glue.
The Penis Song: There's Pierre Perret, whose 1975 hit 'Le Zizi' inspired me to go off and make my own assault on the subject. There's Monty Python, who did a Noel Coward thing in 'The Meaning Of Life', just before the Mr Creosote scene, about how terribly nice it is to have a penis. And there's apparently another Penis Song from 80s Saturday Night Live which goes: 'Penis penis penis penis penis penis song / Penis penis penis penis penis all night long'. Well, all I can say is, mine's a bit more sophisticated than that. And a bit longer.
Handheld: This song is very short and, if I say so myself, very wonderful. I'd wanted to make a love song playing on the double meaning of 'handheld': a portable electronic device that may allow us to keep in touch with distant loved ones via the internet, and the act of holding hands. ('Being handheld' sounds more like a state than an act. A solid state...) I worked at some slushy songs involving horrible puns about laptops and desktops, then abandoned them and made a very baroque thing, inspired by Holger Hiller's wonderful 1982 readings of Paul Hindemith, in which a human tells his handheld that it's his favourite device, and the handheld replies that the human is his. It took a whole day for me to get the computer to sing its one verse cameo, but it's worth the work. For me it's a song that marks the moment when we pass the baton to artificial life forms of our own making, and salute them as our equals. And where there's equality, there can be love.
Heliogabalus: After Steve Lafreniere advertised me, for my DJ spot at Passerby, as 'the Heliogabalus of Orchard Street' I researched the life of the extravagant teenage Roman emperor on the internet and found a very interesting book about him, large chunks of which are online, written in 1910 by an author who, though seeming to condemn the debauched emperor in accordance with the prim morality of the Edwardian era, clearly felt strong sympathy with the bisexual beauty. His text is a prurient apologia, and I give my song -- ostensibly a series of tableaux on a quilt depicting accidental deaths falsely blamed on the sybaritic emperor -- the same hilarious revisionist tone. The music sort of contradicts the air-brushed, rehabilitating lyrics, because it sounds like a scary horror film. Classic Momus.
There you have it, ladies and gentlemen, the first fifteen tracks finished and in the can, songs which have taken their protein pills, put their helmets on, and are ready to be launched on the 2001 oddity known as 'Folktronic'. As for what the next three weeks will bring, who can say? Perhaps I'll fill out the rest of the album with the Kahimi Karie prog-folk songs (although I'm thinking of holding those back for a future album of interpretations of my 90s songs for women, Momus As A Girl). But I'll probably spin out my personal oral tradition a little longer, hold off closure, and keep writing songs with improbable themes. Let's see, what titles have I got here in my notes?
Mahagonny Dot Com
Hillbilly Data Disaster of 2015
Temporary Taj Mahal
Jean Michel Jarre In Hicksville
Pacman's Adventures in Ceefax and Minitel
I think there are a few more yarns in there to spin...