Pants on fire: eleven crises witnessed by Momus

27 March 2012 | Interviews
Originally published in CACTUS

“Every lie creates a parallel world. The world in which it is true”.

So begins the The Book of Scotlands: a novel of speculative vignettes, each chapter introducing a different version of Scotland. Among their number is the Scotland in which money is abolished, the Scotland in which ten or more children per family is compulsory, and the Scotland in which a giant goose roosts upon the country before eventually flying away, leaving a sense of loss in its wake. Some of these worlds are satires of our own, while others are whimsical and Rabelaisian flights of fancy. We are left to imagine the crises faced by these worlds when branching off from our own so spectacularly.

The writer of The Book of Scotlands is Nick Currie, better known as Momus: a monocular Scottish pop musician, performance artist, kulturkritik, futurist, and author. He has lived in Montreal, New York City, Berlin, Paris, Toyko and has recently made Osaka his home.

Momus is nothing if not prolific. To know his work is to know him. At the time of writing, he has twenty-two studio albums to his name, has written three well-received novels and published hundreds of insightful essays both in the mainstream media and on his blog. In addition to news and retrospectives on Momus’ career, the blog (Click Opera, 2004-2010) explored such subjects as our slow and steady adoption of alternative energy resources, the differences between an American- and an Asian-dominated world, and whether his pet rabbit’s personality remained intact after his unavoidable spaying.

A tag cloud for Momus would look something like this: identity, authority, perversion, time travel, fetishism, philosophy, Japan, internationalism, Berlin, Bowie, the avant-garde. He is known for his unorthodox fashion sense: baggy pants, aprons, a wig, Cold War-era eyeglasses and—most immediately striking—a patch over his right eye. His most-frequently cited remark perverts Warhol and anticipates the mass adoption of web-based social media: “in the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen people”.

Momus has been, if not a pioneer, then certainly an early-adopter and hearty embracer of social media and information technology in general. He produced a wave of synth-folk music in the 90s and his live music performances aren’t so much concerts as multimedia events. Online, Momus is seldom dumbstruck: even after the conclusion of Click Opera, he has maintained a regularly-updated Tumblr blog, packed with his own digital photographs and streaming video clips; and his Facebook and Twitter feeds are forever ablaze with ideas. He is certainly a futurist and, through his books, has become a cartographer of parallel universes. He has also unleashed a new performance creation upon the world in the form of the Unreliable Tour Guide. In this guise, Momus drags tourists and art lovers around museums and galleries, telling them satires, half-truths and lies about the venue and exhibits. Above all, Momus considers himself a storytelling enterprise and is a devil for asking ‘what if?’

I chatted with Momus (by high-tech and transpacific means, naturally) and asked him about eleven different flavours of crisis.

Mid-Life Crisis: How are you liking your sixth decade on the Earth? Have you endured/enjoyed a mid-life crisis? If so, how have you used it?

Martin Amis said that after 50 there’s a “thickening out” of life: “There is now an enormous and unsuspected presence within your being”. He didn’t say what that presence is, but I guess he meant death. That’s definitely coming through as a presence in my new songs, but death has always been a presence in my songs. My midlife crises (I’ve had a few) tend to come in the form of affairs with women much younger than me. They generally turn out badly, but the resulting songs are good. That’s the thing about being a songwriter: even when you lose, you win.

Identity Crisis. Did Momus come fully-formed into the world or did you develop your artist identity gradually? What moment do you consider to be Momus’ birthday?

Momus was born in 1985. I needed an identity to use on Mike Alway’s newly-formed él Records. Momus did already have a ready-formed identity, in the sense that he was a minor Greek god of cynicism and mockery who was kicked off Mount Olympus. I’ve kept fairly faithful to the obscurity, astringency and outsiderdom of the original Momus, I think.

Existential Crisis. You have lived in different cities in different countries. Do you change personally with your surroundings or do they help to confirm your identity?

Taking on a new city is like taking on a new romantic partner: you’re attracted because of affinities, but there’s definitely going to be some negotiation and some alteration if you want to get on. It’s a nice feeling to know that you’re going to be changed in ways that you trust, ways that are limited and pre-approved. But you never quite know what the result will be. Who knew that moving to Paris would get me obsessed with America, and with computers? Or that my New York idyll would be cut short by a Saudi Arabian called Osama? Here in Osaka I’m surprised to find myself haunting the slums and dressing like the dossers there. I suppose what these things tell you is that place is only one factor: time is pretty important too, in the form of your own age and in the form of history.

Fashion Crisis: When will people stop wearing jeans? What are you wearing in the alternative reality where aprons and baggy hose are in vogue?

Jeans are clothes that make sense in the context of American 20th century dominance. If the 21st century becomes predominantly Asian, as seems likely, that signifier will get fuzzy. American hard power will linger on a few decades as American soft power (nostalgia, cultural influence) but fizzle by mid-century, I think. So I’d be looking to see different trousers taking over by about 2050. I’ll be 90. As for your parallel universe question, in that parallel universe I’m wearing an apron with a trompe l’oeil pair of jeans printed on it.

Artistic Crisis. What do you feel most contributed to your transition from pop music to literature?

Well, I haven’t transitioned. I’m still making music — I’m making a new album right now — but I now publish books as well. I use the Momus name for both my books and my records because I see it all as part of the same storytelling enterprise. I was always a “singing author” (literal translation of the Italian term cantautore, songwriter).

Energy Crisis. Are you optimistic about our gradual move towards sustainable energy resources? Moreover, do you think the west will ever embrace kuruma banare and, like Japan, become a post-car society?

It’s all there in the word “sustainable”. This is not really a matter of choice. The only variable is whether we embrace sustainable energy through wise foresight or after a series of crises. Right now, here in Japan, we’re in the middle of exactly such a crisis, with Fukushima. Let’s see how it turns out. As for cars, my feeling is that cars will turn into train carriages. Computers are doing more and more in cars; eventually they’ll take over all the driving functions. Increasing car numbers will lead to congestion, but computer control will allow cars to travel bumper-to-bumper, even at high speed. Eventually the cars will link up, and sliding doors and corridors will be installed. This will allow services (snacks, meals, drinks, batteries, massage) to enter cars, which are currently woefully bereft of them. The trainization of cars will come more quickly in societies (like Japan) where citizens trust each other.

Industrial Crisis. What are the current challenges facing the worlds of pop music and print?

I’m totally bored by the technicalities of this question — how copyrights and payments are administered in a rapidly-changing world, blah blah blah. What interests me is the kind of music and writing people make even if they aren’t going to be paid a dime for it. Especially in the incredible world where these people have a device which gives them instant worldwide publication, which is our world right now. Of course, it may be that the answer is that a de-professionalized media is one that produces mostly inconsequential work. In which case we’re back to square one: how to keep professionals in the picture by making sure they get paid. I actually think Apple is quite clever, and that the Apple Store is a good model if we want to keep copyright alive. But I also rather like the cowboy world of Piratebay. I’m happy for both those things to exist.

Global Financial Crisis. As a sort of futurist and a cartographer of alternative worlds, do you think we will come out of this recession differently to how we went into it?

I think way too much is made of really tiny incremental changes. Is there growth in the growth, is there shrinkage in the growth? Who cares. What matters more is stuff like Gini — the rate of overall equality in a society. A lot more attention should be paid to distribution of existing wealth, rather than percentile changes in growth rates. Overall, I think the scenario for nations like the US, UK, Germany and Japan is what I’ve called “aftergold”: how to control shrinkage — and expectations — in such a way that happiness and fulfillment take over from growth and wealth as the dominant values. At a certain basic income level (about $20,000) our basic material needs are taken care of. Income increases beyond that don’t really increase happiness significantly. It’s up to us to decide what’s important to us, and find the optimal point between work and fulfillment. This requires quite a bit of self-knowledge and self-control, though.

Crisis in Japan. Japan sometimes seems defined by terrible events: the bombs, the earthquakes and the 1995 gas attacks. You may even refer to this in your upcoming book, The Book of Japans. What do you anticipate will be the lasting effect of recent events (the natural disasters but also the way they have been dealt with by the authorities) upon the Japanese popular consciousness?

Japan has been having earthquakes and tsunamis for thousands of years: this stuff is already built into the cultural DNA. It’s led to a certain detachment from material things; nobody has a venerable old family house here, they rebuild totally every twenty or thirty years. It’s led to the outlandish scenarios in manga and monster movies. It dovetails with the detachment built into Buddhism. The Japanese are incredibly stoical. I was amazed by videos of the March quake, how calm the Japanese were as it happened, just holding onto valuables and waiting for the shaking to stop. It was the foreigners who fled: they call them “flyjin” — the gaijin who flew.

Crisis in objectivity. What is a crisis for the unreliable tour guide?

Well, being an unreliable tour guide has made me very aware of the power of spin. Even the word “crisis” is spin. I could give you a tour of a crisis and show how it was a totally benign natural evolution, planned for in every detail.

What crises would you most like to see in the world? What needs shaking up?

We need to move from American modes to Asian modes, and from capitalist modes to communist modes. And we need to stop using fossil fuels, and fighting wars because of them.