The Rumpus Interview with Momus

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Since the early 1980’s, the 51 year old Scottish musician/writer/provocateur Nicholas Currie, better known as Momus, has been releasing music (his latest album, Hypnoprism, was his 18th) to varying levels of critical and commercial success. Since the 1990’s, he has been blogging in various forms, most notably on his old LiveJournal called Click Opera, which Warren Ellis called “probably the best-written blog on the Anglophone web” and of which novelist Dennis Cooper said, “It doesn’t get any better than Click Opera.”

His influence throughout the internet is undeniable. In 1991, he famously created the line, “In the future everyone will be famous for fifteen people” as well as influential concepts like the “anxious interval” and “cute formalism.” Momus has also blogged for places like The New York Times and Wired.

He is currently living in Osaka, Japan and is set to go on tour in Europe starting February 2012.

This interviewer’s favorite blog entries written by Momus, which she believes would serve as an interesting glimpse into Momus’s thought include:

Momus’s entries on Tavi, Tao Lin, Fumiko Imano, “Raunch Feminism”, “Growing old in, and with, Japan”, Orientalism, Kate Moss in blackface, and (of one among many) on design.

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The Rumpus: Some of your fellow fans I have talked to have said that you are guided mostly by your aesthetic sense. Do you agree? I remember that we once talked briefly about the dangers of being led by your aesthetic sense. What do you feel about that? I feel like you aesthetically/emotionally/intuitively respond well to something and then build up a rationalization around it. I think this makes for some very interesting and innovative thoughts/ideas, but this also seems to offend and repulse a lot of people (e.g. your defense of being primarily attracted to Japanese women.) What are your thoughts on all of this?  Do you feel like it’s the duty of an artist to be a provocateur?

Hypnoprism cover

Momus: Yes, I’m an aesthete. I respond first to things on that level, a “blink” level of reflexive attraction or repulsion. Actually, I think my life is structured around the ramifications of orgasm, the sublimated bubblings and percolations of orgasm through cultural areas. And yes, it’s probably all too obvious to people that my philosophy, such as it is, got tacked on to “things that make me come” — either literally or figuratively — as an afterthought, a post-rationalisation that I nevertheless insist on in a slightly guilty way (while pretending to be bold and unapologetic). That’s probably rather infuriating. I’m very strongly marked by a post-protestant north European mindset — one you might find stupidly expressed in the British tabloids, or intelligently in Kierkegaard’s Either / Or — which is structured tensely and productively around the dialectic between prurience and prudishness, the aesthetic and the ethical, amorality and guilt, Saturday night and Sunday morning, sensation and will, penis and brain.

I think people would be entitled to get annoyed by “he only likes that because it makes him come” if I held some kind of authoritative position, wielded power, claimed objectivity, and so on. In fact I do as much as I can to make that impossible, using (maybe over-using) the “unreliable narrator” device, posing whenever possible as a dissolute and untrustworthy character, dressing weirdly, contradicting myself, working in art. I think that in art my most horrible vices can be virtues.

Rumpus: Your Wikipedia page says that you are “obsessed with identity.” Even though I’ve been following your work for a long time, I’ve never understood exactly what that phrase is getting at. What are your thoughts on “identity”?

Momus: I had nothing to do with the writing of that page, and I have no idea who did. So I don’t quite know what they meant. I’m actually very bored with Identity Politics, which seems to have undermined and displaced the politics of collectivity and the politics of class, particularly in American and British universities, during the neo-liberal period. What I do in my work is play games with identity, perhaps in order to prove that it’s fluid and fake and doesn’t really matter very much. I privilege pre-cut, shallow identities over faceted, nuanced, psychological identities. Masks over faces. For instance, in my Book of Jokes the characters are The Molester and The Murderer, and a father and a son. You don’t really need to know more about them than those roles. Yes, role is a much better word. Roles and masks. “Momus is obsessed with roles and masks”. The thing is, whoever wrote the Wikipedia entry was probably an American, and Americans — mired in individualism — prefer to think in terms of identity than in terms of roles and masks. An American would never have called a novel “Confessions of a Mask”.

Rumpus: There seems to be a lot of “faux-nostalgia” among very young people for the 1990’s (an admiration for a decade they didn’t experience/weren’t really aware of.) In the 90’s you seemed to be living a very exciting life in the art worlds of Tokyo and New York City. What can you tell us about the 90’s, good and bad, that you think people would find interesting?

Momus: I was asked recently to write a piece about Tokyo pop in the 90s and turned it down rather rudely saying I was totally bored by the subject. Perhaps it’s still — for me — in the shadow of what I’ve called “the anxious interval”. I haven’t yet had my impulse to revive it. It may come. For me, right now, the 90s represent what Alan Greenspan called “irrational exuberance”. A bubble feeling. Because money was around, I got drawn into making commercial music. I had hits, and lived, surrounded by gadgets and designer trinkets and girls, in a penthouse pad in London. Some of my website writing from that era really disgusts me now. It’s like “dahlings, I went to a super art party, Tracey Emin was there, it was so glamourous”. Actually, I get the same disgust now when I read Andy Warhol’s diaries (or, rather, listen to Bob Colacello’s autobiography on Ubu.com). What an idiot Andy Warhol was in the 1970s! Just completely superficial and supine before money. I know that money and success could easily have made me idiotic. I don’t like that person. In the 90s I almost became him. I believed in America, I liked the fact that there was this asshole president making lots of money and getting lots of blowjobs, just like I was. I believed in digital culture. I believed in glossy product design, high-concept London restaurants. I liked the West.

Now, in contrast, I think the internet is boring and reductive, I’m quite anti-Western, I live in a slummy part of an Asian city, I’m into the positive side of poverty, I think the best design is amateur and shabby, I like the idea of ignoring commercial culture and abstaining completely from high status purchases, I’m into the valuable estrangements of austere highbrow art. I can barely stand pop music any more. All I listen to for pleasure is ancient Japanese folk music, on crackly vinyl. Then again, when you make pop a guilty pleasure you make it strong. Pop will rush back periodically. Many happy returns of the repressed.

Rumpus: You mentioned in a comment on Marxy’s blog about how despite Japan being a collectivist society, it’s producing a wide array of innovative fashion styles, unlike in the individualist West, where according to you, everyone mostly tries to look the same. It was an interesting comment to me because in individualistic cultures we tend to have an idea of collectivist cultures as being very stifling, creatively speaking. What do you see as being the benefits of collectivist societies with regards to art, and creativity, generally?

Momus: All societies are collectivist, it’s just that some pretend not to be. So in the West we get tied in knots trying to explain why rebels and hipsters all rebel or stay hip in such narrow, glib and repetitive ways. And occasionally we wonder whether there really is a place outside society, or whether that “maverick” space is actually also in society, and just has a different name. The question of originality matters to me, but I’m also a relativist. What looks like originality at one level can look like conformity at another. Japan is very group-oriented, very conformist, very collectivist, almost like a communist or fascist society in some ways. At the same time, it’s a very eccentric country, and very ambitious, organised and productive. People who dismiss Japan are foolish. There was just a very good article in the New York Times by Eamonn Fingleton — the inspiration for a character called Declan Singleton in my Book of Japans — about how Japanoclasts are misguided. Other countries should be so lucky as to have Japan’s “problems”.

Basically, what I learned from Japan is that creativity isn’t solely the domain of individual artists or inventors. Groups can be creative too. It took me a while to realise this, but when I did it made me happy, because it resolved an apparent conflict between two of the things I hold most dear: collectivism and creativity. I think you can say that Japan is capable of producing both the cliches of the manga industry and the originality of someone like Yuichi Yokoyama, whose quirky abstract mangas depend for their impact on twisting the conventions of mainstream manga. It’s not like Yokoyama defies manga, or appears courtesy of divine lightning.

Rumpus: In the past you have talked a lot about “post-men” and “post-feminism.” What are your current thoughts on these concepts? I imagine you are very aware of the “herbivore men” trend in Japan. What are your thoughts on this? Could you give a general account of how you feel about Japan and the differences between how the West views gender and feminism? In the past you’ve talked admiringly of what you’ve referred casually to “femininity-ism” which seems to me to be similar to “lipstick/stiletto feminism.” Can you go into your thoughts on this?

Momus: I was very marked in the 1980s by feminism. A lot of my 80s work was gender-utopian, in the sense that I would happily — I should add “guiltily” — have seen men relinquish power and let some kind of matriarchy replace them. My way of hastening this was to reveal the innermost workings of the male mind, and show it in the worst possible light. Don’t trust men! Don’t trust me, I’m one! It was a deconstructive project. As a club to beat people with, Marx seemed shrunken and soft in the 1980s, but Freud was still a knobbly cudgel. So I flailed away, to rather little effect.

In Japan, because people don’t believe in things “outside of society”, gender roles haven’t been deconstructed. No Japanese woman I’ve talked to has ever wanted to be associated with feminism. Here, you embrace the mask of gender and relish it. Women want men to be men, not surrogate women, and vice versa. The “herbivore men” thing, like the “hikikomori” thing, has been overblown. It’s a marginal phenomenon, and really just confirms the norm that in Japan most men, and most male role models, continue to be very masculine. My Japanese girlfriend often says to me “You’re too passive!” She definitely wants me to be more macho and rewards me when I am. So I’m now inclined to think 1980s gender role deconstruction was a waste of time. I’ve resigned myself to my essential maleness, and I get on well with women who’ve come to terms with the specific power they have as women. Is that “lipstick feminism”? I actually prefer women without lipstick. I’m also with Ariel Levy in the rejection of so-called Raunch Feminism — empowering pole-dancing and so on. I prefer maypole-dancing.

One thing I find interesting about you, Marie, is your honesty about your responses to pornography, about how PC porn is completely unexciting. And I think in retrospect my 1980s strategy “to show men behaving badly as a way to undermine male power” is just another piece of post-rationalisation on my part. I just wanted to show men behaving badly, period. Because it was sexy.

Rumpus: What artists are you most excited about, currently, that you wish more people were aware of? You’ve said before that most of your favorite artists are women. Who is your favorite female artist, and why do you like her so much? What is your advice to young female artists (funny, sincere, or whatever)?

Momus: I think my friend Misaki Kawai might be the female artist I’m most impressed by at the moment. There’s something very primal and childish about her, yet strong-willed and elegant. She travels constantly, in places like India and Nepal and China. She dresses very well. She has a restless, humourous energy. Her boyfriend Justin Waldron is like her enabler and manager, organising and structuring things so that her impulsive and intuitive energy doesn’t have to be chanelled, diluted or disturbed. I really admire people who can preserve the spontaneity, charm and confidence of a 5 year-old, and Misaki seems to have managed that. I also really admire people who remind me of the spirit of the 1960s — the hippy trail, experimentation, colour — and Misaki has something of that about her too. She’s a free spirit, a force of nature.

Rumpus: You’re about to turn 52. What are your thoughts on aging? Some of the things you’ve written have suggested an acceptance of aging, but you are also famous for respecting and admiring youth. Do you worry about losing relevancy? Where do you see yourself in 10 years? Finally, to quote a Tweet, “what is with [“Gen Y”] and Momus?” Are you proud of proving a set of cultural references, inspiration etc to so many young artists (most famously Vampire Weekend and Ariel Pink)?

Momus: There’s good and bad in ageing. My brain used to be full of secondhand experiences, and my model of reality was unreliable because I wasn’t quite sure who to trust. Now it’s full of my own experiences, gathered all over the world, and I trust it more. I can just sit still and think of the people I’ve known, the places I’ve been, the experiences I’ve had, and it’s brilliant entertainment. And while it’s horrible to age and weaken and lose your hair or feel your sexual appeal waning, I wasn’t particularly attractive when I was young, so in some ways I think I’ve improved with age. Also, I think artists who are avant, underground, spiky and ugly aren’t seen to age in quite the way cute mainstream artists do. Yes, it matters to me that there are younger people who understand and appreciate what I do. Ariel Pink recently suggested we collaborate, which meant a lot to me, even if we never actually follow through on it. It really matters to me that people tweet that they’re listening to my records or reading my books, or that I said something that interested them. I want to matter, and keep mattering, and keep being an important part of the lives of strangers, although I know better than ever now that I can reach only a few illuminated, broadminded, perverse and adventurous souls. I have no idea where or who I’ll be in ten years, but I hope — I know — I’ll still be producing things. One thing I never seem to do is dry up.


Marie Calloway is a 21 year old writer and college student studying Sociology and Women's Studies. Her work has been published on Thought Catalog and Muumuu House. She blogs at basquecuisine.tumblr.com More from this author →