The Evil Genius Lays Out HiS Master Plan
An interview by Nate Rushent
Nick Currie, aka Momus, is at home in so many sorts of creative ventures, it seems almost trite to tag him as a musician. As much of a songwriter as he is performer, he is a Renaissance-style seeker of patrons, a novelist, a courter of controversy, and an iconoclast. At times, he has been a critical darling and at other times, utterly reviled, lambasted by the small-minded as too clever for his own good. What could be more appropriate for someone whose sobriquet stems from the name of an Ancient Greek trickster god? While the scornful trickle of critical opinion makes its dillydallying trail, Nick Currie moves forward unperturbed, like a river rushing through its own eccentric course. The artist is still as provocative as he was in 1985, when he released his debut album, the irreverent Circus Maximus, an unveiling of the Bible's saucier side.
In an interview I conducted with the man himself, he gave me a glimpse into his creative process, told me of his upcoming album, Hypnoprism, and the relationship between his work in music and fiction. Oh, and, uh, he also showed me how YouTube evokes the early Beatles. Still thinking about that one.
Q: You're a celebrated novelist as well as a musician, songwriter, journalist and blogger. In recent interviews, you've said you're no longer part of the music business. What's your current opinion about the world of music and your relationship to it? Is working in an "arts-context" still more attractive to you at this point? Which of the many hats that you wear feels like the best fit these days?
Momus: I have to correct you slightly -- I'm no longer blogging, but I am recording music very intensely just now, preparing my 2010 album, which I've decided will be called Hypnoprism.
For a long time I felt that pop music was finished. For me, anyway. I preferred the sound of conversation, the rain, a washing machine. But suddenly, a month ago, my appetite for pop music returned. I made a huge long interview with Holger Hiller about one song he made in 1985, "Oben Im Eck". Perhaps that reminded me just how weird and arty pop can be.
But when I started to record my Hypnoprism album, it came out a lot more pop than that. I found myself making a series of pastiches of great moments from pop music history, as if to talk myself into the idea that pop is the greatest, most exhilarating medium of all.
Since most of my inspiration -- and even the sound itself -- was coming from YouTube, I decided to make a scratch video for each song, almost as an extension of the writing and recording process itself. These weren't just songs, they were "videosongs". Rather than waiting for the record release before publishing these videos, I'm putting them straight up online. They start as YouTube, and they end as YouTube. The CD is just a hard copy.
In fact, I think YouTube must be the "hypnoprism" of the album's title: a mesmeric kaleidoscope where (almost) all the world's music, from Webern and Varese to some guy in Seattle warming up a tenor sax, or Africans in Paris dancing to their cellphones -- is stocked.
A trip through YouTube videopop is like a subconscious word association game, motivated by your personal desires, appetites, memories. Styles and eras get mixed, and the idea of authenticity all but disappears. So that's how my album is looking just now: plastic, visual, motivated by appetite and by the memory of appetites past. The desire for desire, duplicates of duplicates, and -- above all -- the need to make something new and current out of the trash of the past, with all its pathos, absurdity, and grit.
Is YouTube the "world of music"? It's not the music business -- in fact it may well be destroying that. But it is the sharp end of the user's desire for, and love of, pop music, and for that I cherish it. Because, like everybody else, I have an unconscious structured by pop songs. YouTube just allows me to do what my head is already doing anyway: cue up the song that expresses exactly how I'm feeling.
Q: Does your newest "videosongs" project on YouTube reflect a commitment to the displacement of the "hard copy" paradigm in music and media? Will the Hypnoprism long-player meant to be appreciated as one element of a larger multi-media endeavor among others, or is it a primary object?
Momus: I think the album has become to music what the fake shutter sound is to digital photography: something more metaphorical than necessary, a sort of conceptual throwback, a wink. In a way, there doesn't ever have to be a physical Hypnoprism album. After all, conceptually the whole project starts and ends with YouTube, the "hypnoprism" itself. But there are certain formal qualities an album has that I want to retain: the idea of imposing a bigger thematic boundary on a group of songs, the history of "albums" by artists in the 20th century, the way one song relates to another and flows from one mood to another over 50 minutes. It's a journey, a guided tour through a sentimental landscape. I like that. It's also a way to get paid! So there will be a physical Hypnoprism album, on CD and perhaps on vinyl too, and yes, it'll be "hard copy." But mostly it will be a kind of belated "proof" that this stream of YouTube videos -- this playlist -- was really, after all, an album. Just like in the good old days of The Beatles! It'll even end with one of those corny pastiche vaudeville numbers Beatles albums sometimes tacked on in the final minutes!
Q: So, the "album" can find renewal and continue to be a meaningful concept in the digital download/YouTube era. I'd like to know how you see the relation (if any) between your work and approach as an author and a musician/songwriter/media artist, because I see links between your approaches in those different avenues of expression. Do you find that your more recent turn to novel-writing was a natural outcome of your musical career?
Momus: I kept the name Momus for my book-writing because yes, I do think of it all as the same sensibility carried through different media. I think the word "writer" is key. It's there in "songwriter", and it's certainly there in what I do in the art world too, where I tend to be "writing" stories in real time, like an oral storyteller. My writing has always involved unreliable narration, multiple perspectives, personae and provocation. It's something you could find in Pirandello, or as far back as Lucian. It tends towards comedy, to guignol, to the tall tale or obvious lie or fantastic adventure. It recounts even tragic events with a comic detachment and a sense of self-irony. It delights in the ludicrous and the ludic. It might end up as me in an art performance stalking a Japanese woman and reassuring her by telling her that great heroes like Sherlock Holmes were also stalkers, or me singing a song like "Evil Genius" (from my forthcoming album Hypnoprism) in which I invite the listener to meet my wife, Evil Alice. This writing style is super-referential, it borrows and samples and steals, it retells things and changes them, so whether it's in music or art or books, it's very much in the Anon / Trad mold, where property is no longer defensible and everything becomes a great flow of story. That's the way I feel comfortable writing, because culture is just one huge flow.
And I've never been happy with limits -- the idea, for instance, that art can't refer to pop, and pop can't refer to books. They all cross over with each other, they can all express the same ideas. At any given point one form might be ahead of the other, or a new form -- like interactive computer games -- might arrive to challenge the old ones. But in the end I think they're all just media in which you play out the ideas which fascinate you, and try to make them equally compelling for other people.
I think what might change from year to year and from project to project is the extent to which you play to the inherent strengths of a medium or try to infuse the medium with new life by trying to teach it tricks you learned in other media. The "inherent strengths" thing risks becoming conservative or formalistic (imagine pop records that sound like The Beatles, or experimental records that don't refer to anything outside themselves), the "stretching the medium" thing can be a bit like asking a donkey to be a dog.
So really you just have to strike a balance; never fall in love with the medium so much that you can't smash it down and rebuild it anew, but never disrespect its big, obvious power either. I find that flitting between a book and an album of songs makes me more sensitive to the different power each of those formats has. Actually, making this new album in the middle of writing a book about Japan reminds me of when I was a student, listening to the John Peel show when I should have been writing an essay on Goethe or something. Pop music felt particularly powerful when it was a right-brain escape from left-brain over-analysis. THAT was what it was good at, that was what it was for.
Momus as novelist
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