Rock doesn’t always offer much in the way of surprise. Everywhere, it seems, are singers stating the obvious with great certainty and stridency. Then there’s Momusthe nom de guerre of Nick Curriewho prefers to think of himself as a “gentle deviant” or, according to the title of a 1988 record, a “tender pervert.”
Momus’ playful, provocative songs push the limits of pop subversion as no one has done since Currie’s hero, Serge Gainsbourg. They’re witty, intelligent, and, yes, they make deviancy deliciously danceable. Over 12 albums, Momus has written the complete history of sexual jealousy to the tune of bubbly, futuristic pop-electronica, his songs sometimes styled as waltzes, gospel numbers, or even commercial jingles. While he has remained a fringe figure, adored mostly by import-bin crows, his cult has grown as steadily as Scientology, with three recent Momus documentaries, and artists like Magnetic Fields, Belle and Sebastian, Pet Shop Boys, Pulp, and White Town pledging their allegiance.
As befits someone who takes his stage name from the Greek god of ridicule, who was banished from Mount Olympus for skewering the other gods, no taboo, perverted practice, or secret jealous longing seems off-limits for Momus’ gleefully twisted, elegant songs. Though he slays more sacred cows than Marilyn Manson, Momus subverts with a sophisticated wit. Even sinister songs about cybersex and infanticide seem destined for the genteel parlors of high culture; they’re at once outlandish, outrageous, and outstandingly well rhymed. Imagine Lewis Carroll and Oscar Wilde fronting a dandy cabaret act.
“Go to culture’s crisis areas, choose topics which set off alarm signals,” Currie counsels in How to Write a Momus Song, a pamphlet that accompanies press copies of Ping Pong, his first album of new material to be released in America. “Find something that interests you because you don’t know what you think about it. A little grain of sand that itches and irritates your inner oyster. Maybe it’s homosexuality. Or necrophilia. Or child abuse. Or money or death.”
Prior to starting his first U.S. tour, which brings him to the Black Cat this Saturdaya rare opportunity not to be missedMomus further explained his manifesto in a Soho cafe. With his turtleneck, thick black glasses, and thinning light brown hair delicately dangling over his forehead, Currie looks more like a European graduate student than a first-class deviant. Whereas Gainsbourg oozed decadence, the rail-thin Currie is unfailingly polite, soft-spoken, and articulate.
It’s hard to believe he’s the same person who on Ping Pong jealously advocates assassinating tyrannical infants (“I am toilet-trained and elegant, an effervescent wit/But the girls prefer the company of a balding little pisser…/They could have kissed me; they chose to kiss/A stupid, stinky, little pool of piss”), blames his own polymorphous perversity on the split personality of his “pervert doppelgänger,” explains his preference for wants over needs (“If you need me to need you to fuck/That fucks everything up/La-la-la”), and tells the psycho-
sexual story of Freudian “Professor Shaftenberg,” who is “sponsored by Lufthansa/To screw the pants off Japanese girls.” And that’s before Momus lays out the platform of his Orgasm Party, explains the disappointment of cybersex and his love of Tamagotchis, and quotes Theodore Adorno in a celebration of extraterrestrial Jews.
In a way, he’s not the same person. Though Currie once fantasized a list of crimes committed by Momus, he likes to consider Momus an elaborate alter ego, a narrator who allows Currie to explore wild ideas through art while remaining his polite, intellectual self outside his songs.
“My protection is the so-called ‘avatar mask,’ which I’m donning for each song, taking on different personalities,” he says. “I think if I was suddenly getting very personal and saying, ‘This is about me,’ that I did x-y-z, that would scare me.
“The Momus doll is like an insurance policy I underwrite all my songs with, which may still have a personal element about them,” he says. “If you ask me to put my finger on where that doll is, I don’t know. I’m a sin magnetin the traditional Christian conception of Christ. Although I’m not comparing myself to him, he’s the innocent guy who gets killed for other people’s guilt. I feel that quite strongly. These are other people’s crimes, but they’re sticking to me.”
Why the taboo fetish? “It’s a way of avoiding boredom, I guess,” he cracks. “Ninety percent of pop music is incredibly dull.” And there’s no subject he’d be afraid to tackle to liven up that other 10 percent.
“Nothing should be off-limits from the laboratory for social experimentation,” Currie says. “It’s precisely the taboo things you have to go to. I don’t really see much point in writing a song that doesn’t go to a taboo. We need the mainstream people to tell us about mainstream ideasI will always love you, that kind of thing. We also need the R&D department of pop music, which is where I see my work being. I don’t think anyone can be damaged by a pop song.”
Well, I point out, maybe by “I Will Always Love You.”
Currie chuckles his agreement. “Right. My opinion is, normality does more harm than anything else,” he says. “People keep focusing on the weird, way-out-in-left-field, libertarian ideas as damaging. But normalityjust the fact that everybody gets in their car and drives to work at the same timethese are the really damaging ideas.”
For Momus, as for Marcel Duchamp, art must hold the promise of meaning but also some delay, some difficulty. (“Like a good computer game,” Currie quips.) So in songs like “His Majesty the Baby” and “My Kindly Friend the Censor,” Momus relishes introducing a little attraction with the repulsion, seducingyet disgustingwith the outrageous freedom of suggesting that babies should be killed. Still, there’s that element of truth, of resentment.
“It scares me when people think they always have to have the correct emotional reaction to things and know what they feel. Contradictory emotions are much more true to life,” Currie notes. “The male jealousy is very important in that song. I’ve always been very interested in female complicity in some of the worst traits of male character. It’s not just that we men have to work on our own bad habits. Women also have to stop encouraging us. The mother-son relationship is where it all startsthe male baby is full of really bad, messy behavior and gets away with it all.”
Even a Momus song about sexual desire flips the usual expectations. Perhaps a nifty inversion of Elvis Presley’s “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You,” the Ping Pong love song Currie has penned to his wife is called “I Want You, But I Don’t Need You.” It’s a horrible thing to say, he admits. But what the song really does is turn a relationship’s usual economy of need on its head, with Momus’ usual dazzling display of wit and wordplay.
For Currie, not needing someonebut wanting her neverthelessis the highest compliment possible. That took a little explaining to his Bangladeshi bride. (The fascinating story of their marriage can be found on Momus’ web sitewww.demon.co.uk/momus. His wife’s parents had previously committed her to an arranged marriage, and they burned her passport and placed her under house arrest rather than let her leave with Currie. Human-rights groups helped get her out of Bangladesh, while Currie sold the story to Scottish tabloids to buy their Paris home.)
“I come from a really privileged background, where we’re always making luxurious choices, reading consumer magazines, thinking about our taste. We don’t really think about our needsthat was all resolved hundreds of years ago in our culture,” he says. “My wife is from Bangladesh, where they’re struggling to feed themselves, get water out of their house. Their way of thinking is totally different. It’s all about need.”
In Japan, Currie’s a minor sensation. He has written many Top 5 hits for Japanese pop star Kahimi Karie, many of which he sang himself on last year’s oddities collection 20 Vodka Jellies. Writing for Karie, he says, is the ultimate mask, and his favorite piece of role-playingas a beautiful Japanese pop star.
Still, he says he neither wants nor needs fame, merely the opportunity to travel and tour.
“I’m 37 years old, and I’m used to being a weird, marginal cult figure,” he says. “I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a provocateur and popular. Serge Gainsbourg did it, but Gainsbourg provoked the French in ways they liked to be provoked. He very cleverly understood what French people are all about and embodied all the values. He knew how to turn them on, how to make them very angry or very excited. Take Serge Gainsbourg into an Anglo-Saxon culture, and it’s a very different thing. A song about not having sex with your daughterpeople couldn’t imagine that. You’d have to imagine a Tony Bennett song about that. There’s no way.”CP
Momus plays the Black Cat Saturday, Feb. 7, with Magnetic Fields and Aden.