Momus talks to Shumon Basar

Text by Shumon Basar

Photography by Self-portrait by Nick Currie

Momus is one of the greatest lyricists in the English language. From the early '80s onwards, he has crafted some of the most delicately seditious pop records ever, including Tender Pervert and The Poison Boyfriend. Uncharacteristically literate, and aggressively fey at a time when British music journalism would only appreciate snivelling, snot and trouser stains, Momus left London for a world tour that is still ongoing. His polymorphic anti-career has seen him master arts criticism, literature and "unreliable tour guiding" at major museums. A perennial nomad, Currie is now based in Osaka. He explains to Tank's editor-at-large Shumon Basar how his new album, Bibliotek, is haunted by the necromancy of "pastoral horror" and his dread of the countryside.

SHUMON BASAR You've lived in a number of major metropolitan cities over the past three decades for long stretches each time. How premeditated was this?
MOMUS It wasn't premeditated, but it wasn't haphazard either. A city, at a particular moment in history, has a kind of gravity force, some apparent affinity that first draws you into its orbit then flings you - like the Voyager spacecraft - off on some new trajectory. London drew me from Scotland because independent record labels were there, and were doing quirky and exciting things at the time. But when the labels went mainstream, all that was left in London was Thatcherite values, football and money. So I headed off to Paris thinking I'd find art and sex there. I found expat Japanese people and fashion and snobbism. Then the internet got hot, and all eyes were on America. So I went to live in New York. But New York got fascist and paranoid in the wake of 9/11, so I headed off to Tokyo. Tokyo was mostly about high-level shopping experiences, so I went to Berlin. And Berlin was great, an experimental city that cost practically nothing to live in. But I found I was basically trying to create a synthetic Japan around me, and that was a lot easier and cheaper to do in Japan itself. So I settled in Osaka, which is a sort of Berlin in Japan. In theory, anyway. Let's see.

SB What role did the countryside play in your childhood?
M Really no role at all. My dad is a keen fisherman, so he tried to get me to come out in rowing boats with him. I just shivered and moaned and got bored, so he stopped trying.

SB Do you think, unconsciously, that all the things that influenced you early on endorsed urban environments as ideals for living?
M It's just self-evident to me that cities are more interesting. All those beautiful girls flitting around in cities, all those chances to meet likeminded people! Making money, making art, making love! Ambition, success! Buildings, buildings, bigger buildings! Tiny little filthy alleys that stink of piss! Cities are obviously glorious. They're humanity's ant heaps.

SB From the beginning, your music was explicitly informed by anti-Anglophile literature. In retrospect, were they all also urban voices?
M I remember reading the description of London in Bataille's Blue of Noon: "Dirty dragged herself over to the window. Beneath her she saw the Thames and, in the background, some of the most hideous buildings in London, now magnified in the darkness. She quickly vomited in the open air. In her relief she called for me, and, as I held her forehead I stared at that foul sewer of a landscape: the river and the warehouses. In the vicinity of the hotel the lights of luxury apartments loomed insolently." That vision has the same dark glamour, for me, as Bowie's song "Future Legend", which describes "Hunger City", a post-apocalyptic bombsite populated by gangs and prostitutes. Urban dystopia can seem so close to urban utopia. There's always something glittering in the murk and mire.

SB Tokyo perfected its "cityness" so much it feels like a natural ecosystem. What attitude did you perceive the Japanese had to the outdoors, given that their indoors are often so intricately orchestrated?
M In Japanese cities there's a really nice blur between indoors and outdoors. The transition is flimsy, for a start: you barely use locks. You drift to the local convenience store in pyjamas and slippers, as if it was your fridge. You bathe in a sento, make love in a love hotel. A sense of safety and mutual trust makes all this possible, as well as a mild climate. Off the main roads, there's something villagey about little roads that follow old river routes, punctuated by shrines and temples where festivals might be going on. The "countryside" in Japan starts suddenly, on the mountainsides, and it's thickly wooded, almost jungle-like. You get eaten alive by insects if you venture in.

SB Your new album, Bibliotek, has a "pastoral horror" theme to it. Where did "pastoral horror" come from, and what characterises its sound?
M The most immediate source is British horror films from the early '70s, like The Wicker Man (1973) and Blood on Satan's Claw (1971). Some idyllic rural place turns out to be a setting for strange rituals, blood sacrifice, hauntings. Of course the bucolic literary sources could go back to Horace, or Milton, or Blake and Samuel Palmer. But that edge of horror in the rural grotesque - you could argue it's a direct result of our modern neglect of the countryside, which renders it spooky - is best summed up in films and their soundtracks. I'd also include Teshigahara's Woman in the Dunes (1964) with its amazing soundtrack by Toru Takemitsu. So Bibliotek samples The Wicker Man, samples Woman in the Dunes, and samples Blood on Satan's Claw. The sound is of flutes, of course, because that's the shepherd's instrument, but flutes that wander and become deranged and atonal. Or children's recorder ensembles. Or strings that slide like shifting sand, and brass that booms mournfully and menacingly.

SB Is the natural habitat for the album a large field or haunted forest? Does it matter where we listen to things anymore?
M The appropriate psychogeography is easily conjured by a YouTube video that purloins material from "the haunted archive". Archival representations of countryside - complete with media blemishes, scratches and blurs, digitisation flaws, decay artefacts - are much more evocative than real countryside. There's a haunted forest of the mind, and it's really the haunted archive itself, disguised as a forest. It might contain childhood memories of The Singing, Ringing Tree, with a frightening man in a bear outfit darting about on the rocks. Or television versions of Alan Garner's Elidor, or The Wind in the Willows, with its Wild Wood.

SB There's a dishonourable tradition of musicians converting country mansions into indulgent recording studios. What's that all about, and would you like one yourself?
M Oh, I'd be absolutely the last person to do that. You know, I recorded my first album with my band, The Happy Family, at Castlesound Studios. All the Postcard Records groups had recorded there, when Castlesound was literally in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle, and they all got this ringing, tense, Velvet Underground-ish sound: all amphetamines and Kafkaesque back alleys. But by the time I booked it, Castlesound had moved out into the East Lothian countryside, to an old schoolhouse. And that urban energy dissipated. We got a flaccid, insipid sound, and bookended our album with birdsong.

SB What do you think the future of the countryside will look and feel like?
M Well, in the last decade the majority of the world's human population has become, for the first time in history, urban-dwelling. So the countryside will start to get that neglected, haunted feeling. It'll be mechanised, dotted by sinister high-security compounds of indeterminate purpose. If you wander off the transportation corridors you'll be stopped and asked for your genetic identity codes. Why did you leave the city? What's your business here?

SB Have you ever felt horror - good or bad - while being confronted with the outdoors?
M Horror and beauty are very closely connected. So, yes, when I'm visiting my dad in the country, and night falls, and I look up at the sky - almost by chance, I get this jolt of horror when I see the stars so grotesquely bright, hanging up there like an obscene chandelier, reminding me of infinity and death. And I really miss the good old human light pollution that blocks them out.

Bibliotek by Momus, is out in June from American Patchwork/ Darla.

  • Momus Talks to Shumon Basar