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MOMUS, 2001
The hardest thing about interviewing Momus is deciding which of the man's several hundred areas of interest to zero in on. Even if you're not prepared for a chat on, say, Electronics in the 18th Century, or Krafft-Ebing, Superstar, or Osaka's Cutely Stateless Hippy Look (to name three of his more recent essays), there are still so many others to consider. He's rarely stumped for a compelling thought.

Then again, you could talk about his music, more than a dozen albums of the slyest, most acutely intelligent songs of the last twenty years. Momus' stock in trade — an eccentric pop classicism framing lyrics that never pull punches on their very taboo subjects — exists pretty much in a league unto itself.

Last year he quit London for New York and began writing and recording Folktronic, an album of impressively artificial folk music, to be released this month. Folktronic juxtaposes American trad culture — banjo picking, quilt stitchery — with the crass precision of digitalia. The results are both startling and funny as hell. Imagine synthetic bluegrass ditties about HTML coders, hand-held technology, and such down-home icons as Alfred Kinsey, Francois Villon, and Cynthia Plastercaster.

As a sister project, Momus recently created the country of Folktronia at LFL Gallery in Chelsea. Five days a week you could find him there, perched on a bale of hay, surrounded by teepees and an amazing wall-sized digital animation of fir trees and mountains. Under the guise of colonial anthropologist, he collected and recorded the "authentic" cultural memes of anyone who wandered through. It was ridiculous and terribly cogent — like all things Momus.

STEVE: You've been living in Folktronia for a while now. Do you ever miss New York?
MOMUS: [laughs] I miss doing what I want to all day. And I miss puttering around in my log cabin on Orchard Street. Actually, this is the closest I've ever had to a day job. It's quite strange, recording people singing karaoke, and improvising video stories about an imaginary country where electronics and folk culture meet.
STEVE: I really like the "Chinese Whispers" part of the show, where you listen to a new Momus song and then have to sing it from memory onto tape.
MOMUS: I've just edited all the recordings together, and it sounds extremely weird. It's a field recording of urban primitives. You've got one track of this shy girl saying, "I can't do this, I just can't do this," mixed in with a total exhibitionist who starts singing in this gorgeous honey-like voice, somewhere between Tom Waits and an Elizabethan eunuch.
STEVE: And the Flash animation videos you commissioned from Mumbleboy and John Howell were pretty startling, too. It's pretty exciting, what's being done with Flash right now.
MOMUS: I just read an article that made the very interesting point that the guitar is an historical equivalent to today's open-source software. Anybody can tinker with it, and if they make some innovation — by making mistakes, or having bad fingerings, or putting the strings on back to front — then that feeds into the general culture of what a guitar sounds like. I don't know how many interesting things are being done with the guitar right now, but there are certain times when a new medium, like Flash, comes along and the same thing happens.
STEVE: It has such limited resolution, which becomes part of its power.
MOMUS: It's exciting to rush lemming-like to whatever new medium is around. I started recording with the cassette recorder when it was a new thing. At the age of nine I wanted one more than anything in the world — I even wrote a story about how I would be able to control time with a tape recorder. Even now I get into this weird state when I'm recording. I feel like a tailor running a sewing machine up and down a sleeve of time, altering it to my own design. That's what music is for me, a way of fucking with time.
STEVE: What do you listen to here at home, during the day?
MOMUS: As a music consumer, I don't like to be challenged too much. [laughs] Today I was listening to Patterns of Plants by Mamoru Fujieda. It's nice because it goes on for 50 or 60 minutes and it's all on one level. There are no words at all, just this plinky, atonal guitar and koto. Or I'll put on Brian Eno's ambient records that just sort of color a room.
STEVE: No words? I guess I'm wondering what kinds of things inspire your lyrics.
MOMUS: Well, I always seem to be influenced by the people I live next door to. In London I was in Chelsea for five years, directly below an elderly gay man, and I could hear everything, even when he had someone over. When I was writing "The Homosexual," I was almost singing it to him. In Edinburgh, where I first started making music, I was living in a tiny mezzanine apartment with a couple of old ladies downstairs who were psychoanalysts. They were classic Freudians of a bygone era, and I begged them to let me do psychoanalysis with them. But they said, "No, no, you've obviously read a lot of books, and it's only an interest," and they refused. [laughs]
STEVE: Therapy and psychoanalysis are words that spring up when people talk about Momus songs. I know that in the '80s you attended David Badcock's lectures at the London School of Economics, and you actually adapted some of his ideas about psychoanalyzing culture.
MOMUS: Well, there's this idea in psychoanalysis, where you can take a "deviant" and put him on the couch and make him capable of work and love. Badcock believed you could do that with an entire culture, hence something like the Vietnam War is shown as an act of pathology. Also, when I was 20, I learned as much as I could about Max Weber. He wrote a book called The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, looking at the connections between, say, double-column accounting and Protestant religion. There was a lot of Puritanism in my family, so these things were a way to escape to a better life — a bohemian life, full of sex and pleasure rather than duty and bean-counting.
STEVE: You seem to really enjoy living in America. Isn't our pathology almost off the chart, though?
MOMUS: But it's so pluralistic here. That's a real counterbalance to creating any danger. In Europe we still have these monolithic populations with small fringes of immigrants at the edge. People still have an ingrained national mind-set. Here the national mind-set is totally synthetic, and everybody knows it. The American Dream is a thing you plug into when you get here, a common property for all of humanity.
STEVE: So, does the "fake folk" idea of your new songs relate to this?
MOMUS: I think fakeness is a democratic value. If you can only be a real folk musician if you have certificates to prove you're poor, or badly educated, or mentally retarded, or slim, fat, or blind, that's an inverted snobbery. Whereas fakeness is a core American value. Here you can be a Jewish folk singer, or a Ukrainian Baptist from Alabama, or any combination of identities — which makes them essentially plastic. A lot of Europeans are terrified of that. I think it's great.
STEVE: I've noticed that you bristle at any attempt to label your records "rock."
MOMUS: Because I think that denotes a belief in a rebel music that allows us all to escape from our inhibitions — or something.
STEVE: You mean, rock as liberation?
MOMUS: Yeah. I like Takashi Murakami's term "super-flat." It's the refusal of all transcendental idealogies. And rock has always been a transcendental idealogy because it's all about intensity — the intensity of the guitar solo or saying that you really mean it, man. I'm all about not meaning it, and being quite happy with flatness and inhibition … maybe investigating all of those things from within, but not trying to escape them.
STEVE: You've brought up Murakami, so let's talk about Japan for a bit. You were a cult figure there in the '80s.
MOMUS: I was kind of late to it, actually. All the él Records artists had been there in '87 — just when I'd defected to Creation Records. That was my big missing-out. But when I visited for the first time in '92, the interest was still there. It was a good time, with shibuya-kei beginning to take off, mainly because of Cornelius. He was very influential, somewhat like the Beastie Boys here — a curator of sensibilities.
STEVE: You must have felt an affinity with shibuya-kei, it was such a highly aesthetisized pop movement.
MOMUS: I just thought, here's a home. Here's a bunch of people who think the same way I do. Why? I've still never quite answered the question. I don't know what it is. The Japanese are very aesthetically attuned; they're interested in design, and they think that commercial art can have a sublime quality. And I've always thought that and acted accordingly. Commercial art, pop music, graphics, even advertising changed my life, so I took all this creativity that in another age would have gone into writing serious novels or something, and put it into this popular art form. And the Japanese seem to do the same.
STEVE: Are you popular there now?
MOMUS: I was only ever popular during the shibuya-kei years. I'm such a fierce critic that it alienates a huge number of potential consumers. I've been on the radio, stuff's been played, so I know I've had the chance to get into people's minds, and they've said no. Even the reviews have said Momus is a bit scary. But with shibuya-kei, I was just celebrating mainstream Japanese values like cuteness and their flitting from style to style. Those things were very exciting to me.
STEVE: Whereas if you had been Japanese yourself?
MOMUS: I'd be rebelling against them!
STEVE: Your work with Kahimi Karie sold many, many records in Japan.
MOMUS: Kahimi is a case of a Japanese dissident who lives in Paris and never wants to live in Japan again. She's on the first plane out, and I'm on the first plane in, and we meet halfway. I'm celebrating Japanese culture when I write songs like "Cat from the Future" for her. But Kahimi thinks she's buying into some sort of European values, British pop values, by working with me. Export culture tends to be, in the minds of foreigners, the epitome of the culture it's describing, but usually it's the opposite. [laughs]
STEVE: Japanese pop is making slow inroads here nowadays, but most people still don't know what it is. Are you a fan?
MOMUS: I watch Hey! Hey! Hey! , a program on cable here coming out of Japan, and 90 percent of it is just boy or girl groups. There's this shrinking of the mainstream music industry down to the hormonal. But there's always an array of minority acts. In Japan the minority acts that are interesting are still various spin-offs from the Boredoms and the other usual suspects. Cornelius is making a new album. Konishi had a very nice number-one hit this year with a children's song about mayonnaise, which is great for him because Pizzicato 5 never really sold that much.
STEVE: It must have felt strange to actually have a gallery show.
MOMUS: I felt like a fraud. (laughs) But I got the illusion of being a visual artist. And I'm of the generation of pop musicians who long to be artists, just as the artists of the same generation long to be rock stars. People like Martin Creed, Georgina Starr, and Damien Hirst all have bands as side projects.
STEVE: I read your piece on Matthew Collings, so I know you're not too invested in the YBAs.
MOMUS: They're just too slick. It seems like people want to turn away from that now. Weirdly enough they trust a total pervert like Henry Darger instead. But people always respect the power of private fetish.
STEVE: Some would call Damien Hirst the same thing, with money added.
MOMUS: But in Britain he's just thought of as a restauranteur, an all-purpose celebrity. They don't think of him as an artist. He's not going to be referenced by the current generation of art students as a role model. They know what the Damien Hirst route is … you get ten years of a lot of money and fame, and then you just become a laughing stock.
STEVE: I was tooling around your vast website the other day, and found this paean to Howard Devoto, the Manchester iconoclast of the '70s. I loved him too, but what was your reason?
MOMUS: Punk was exciting — the energy, the anger, the hatred, the visciousness, the bile, the spleen! But it wasn't smart enough, and it wasn't going anywhere politically. The "no-future" philosophy actually, if anything, ushered in the conservatives.
STEVE: Like Nixon in '68.
MOMUS: Yeah. But Howard Devoto was so articulate and different. He came up with brilliant lyrics. They were informed by a sensitive way of thinking about the world, and by an anxiety and doubt about things, which I thought was valuable. I was just amazed that he didn't sell more records. He gave up so quickly.
STEVE: His band, Magazine, didn't put out a bad record for their first three years. I interviewed him on their first U.S. tour, and he was frightening-looking, like a staring skull. Shallow as it sounds, I've always thought that had something to do with their lack of success! [laughs]
MOMUS: I've always thought he was very attractive. And he's intensely vulnerable. You feel like you're hurting him just by saying anything at all. That's kind of charming, but I do feel he's unduly pessimistic. His spiritual heir would be Thom Yorke of Radiohead, but what annoys me about Radiohead is that you get all of the alienation without any of the ambivalence, or that gleeful celebration of stupid things like boredom that you get with Devoto.
STEVE: Those Magazine compilations still sell decently. I wonder why he hasn't put anything out in years?
MOMUS: Devoto has very much the mind-set of a '70s recording artist, where you have to be on a major label, you have to make big-budget videos, you have to have advertising. He certainly would never get into home recording. He's a bit like Morrissey in the sense that he needs collaborators.
STEVE: Pretty much the opposite of your philosophy.
MOMUS: I guess I have a bunker mentality. I try to do everything. Thanks to computers, in the last ten years, I've been able to. I know that I can and always will make records. I'm going to learn the skills of engineering or making videos, or whatever it takes, to keep doing it. But Devoto gave up rather than do that. I really do blame the public. They're given these great things all the time, and they just stay away in droves.
STEVE: Have you ever thought about a career as a prose writer?
MOMUS: You know, I've got a weird aversion to it. I've always felt I should be a writer, and everyone's told me that, but I'm terrified. I guess my literary formation was the literature of exhaustion. [laughs] At the end of the '70s, contemporary fiction was a declining form. There was all this post-structuralist stuff about how you couldn't really say anything anyway. Well, it all turned around in the '80s. Suddenly writing became interesting and energetic again, but by that time I'd already made my choice.
STEVE: I would imagine the glamour factor carried some weight.
MOMUS: Yes, you could be a big star and make a lot of money in pop music — at least I thought so at the time. I kept thinking, what's easier to get — a writing contract or a recording contract?
STEVE: But I've been visiting your website regularly for a couple of years, mostly for your essays. I'd say you've sort of backed into the room as a writer.
MOMUS: Okay, I've got an eighteenth-century man of letters in me who pops out occasionally. I've always loved writers like Addison and Swift, crabby and embittered, sitting there on Grub Street with their squibs. Alexander Pope is a huge hero.
STEVE: They're all in print. Why not you?
MOMUS: But on the Web you can publish free, in full color, at whatever length you want. How could any book compete with that? Also, there'd be copyright issues with all the images I use. It's just impossible, but it is leading to lectures. I've been asked to go to Oberlin College to do five days of teaching, and I'm going to Finland next week to do some lectures. I'm going to screen Orson Welles­ F for Fake. You could never project a movie in a book.
STEVE: You're from an academic background?
MOMUS: Yeah, my brother's a lecturer in deconstructionist literary criticism, and my father's a linguist. We're all kind of preoccupied by the word, but I felt it was too easy. I wanted to expand into more textured areas like music. I feel like I should be this very serious person, but there's always a sense of fun coming out, like when I do those stupid dances on stage or whatever.
STEVE: So are you a real pop artist or a fake pop artist?
MOMUS: Somewhere there's a history of pop on my website. It's really just a history of people making outrageously inauthentic combinations of things. I'm a pop artist in that sense, someone who plays with the gimmicky, with novelty and the throwaway, and puts things together in new ways. I'm a pop artist in that I make plastic.