Momus by Ross Simonini

Myths in the educational ghetto.


Photo by Christian Werner.

In the 1980s, Nick Currie took the pseudonym Momus, after the Greek god of satire, writing, criticism, and—maybe, indirectly—of postmodernism. He has since recorded over twenty-five albums of avant-pop, blogged compulsively, performed stories in museums, contributed journalism to Wired, and published four novels, all under this moniker and almost always with an attitude in keeping with his namesake. The most recent of his books, UnAmerica (Penny-Ante Editions, 2014) is something like an adaptation of a little-known Christian myth as applied to an alternate history of America. It’s an erudite narrative that gives us a glimpse of Currie’s wealth of idiosyncratic knowledge and his healthy appetite for scathing, provocative humor. It is as apt an introduction to his vast body of work as anything. After reading the book and listening to his album Ocky Milk (American Patchwork/Analog Baroque, 2006) about a dozen times, Currie and I spoke about daily life and myth.

Ross Simonini In your performances and blogging, you are vehement about doing work daily. Why is an everyday practice so important to you?

Momus The big picture is that things like habit and normality have always been important to me, even in a negative way. If Samuel Beckett is right that “habit is a great deadener,” it might be important to get away from it. The same with normality. But I don’t think you can just walk away from those things; they’re inside your biological rhythms and your acculturation. What you can do is make small hacks or alterations in your own habits, and your own normality, for the duration of a particular project: an album, a blog, a series of performances, a column, a novel. Like games, those things are allowed to have their own rules, which allow you to restructure yourself slightly. To the extent that they differ from mainstream habits and norms, those rules give your project a distinct flavor, and the flavor will be interesting. Paradoxically, we need rules to set us free, and new habits to break us out of old habits, and new norms to stand in for the old ones. It’s like what they say about drug addicts: all they can do is switch their poison!

RS What happens if you miss a day?

M Well, there is a Scheherazade element to it. She was the narrator of the One Thousand and One Nights, brought in to divert a Bluebeard-like king—he was ordering virgins, spending the night with them, then having their heads chopped off. She managed to survive one thousand nights by telling gripping tales with cliffhanger endings. What would have happened if Scheherazade missed a day? She would have lost her head. She wouldn’t have charmed and married the king and lived happily ever after. In real life, it’s generally fine if you miss a day—if I’m recording, I need to give my ears a break from time to time. But there’s always the danger that you’ll lose the rhythm and the feel of the project if you make the break too long.

RS I’ve heard you mention Scheherazade before, and your books often draw upon a mythical sense of place, rather than a naturalistic one. Do you find that much of your intentions are supported by myth?

M I’m very attracted to myths (the Greek myths, for instance), to stereotypes (the character sketches of Theophrastus, for instance, or national stereotypes), to typologies (the medieval “humors,” or Sheldon’s twentieth-century attempt to link body type to character). What these things have in common is that they’re quite arbitrary structurations of human experience—a scaffolding that you can put around something to see how it looks. How would the Greek gods see this traffic accident? And how would Sheldon? Theophrastus? You can build and dismantle these structures easily; they’re like temporary exhibitions rather than buildings. What I’m reacting against is a certain Anglo-American emphasis on empiricism, the supposed facts, which for me are also splinted by structurations only invisible because they’re unexamined. Nobody thinks they have an accent, do they?

RS Do you view your life through the lens of myth?

M I’m not mythical for myself, I’m prosaic. Drink tea, take bath, reply to Ross’s questions, head to biennial, write three newsletters, eat lunch, head home, pack for train trip to Berlin tomorrow. I do like, though, that I can recapture the feeling of any given year in my life by revisiting the thing I made that year. In the bath this morning I was listening on Spotify to my album Ocky Milk, which is from 2006. I hadn’t heard the record for a long time, and it really brought home the taste and feel of my particular 2006. The places I was in, the people who mattered to me, my idea of what avant-garde pop music should be doing. Even the state of web translation is audible in that record, because a lot of the lyrics use Alta Vista translation from Japanese, which in 2006 was a strange kind of garbled poetry. A record filters, selects, and heightens aspects of life to make a really pungent encapsulation, just like a myth does. It selects what’s important from an ocean of meaningless facts. Machines can collect facts, but only a human can make a myth.

RS What do you mean by “what avant-garde pop music should be doing”?

M I’m sick of the stultification of popular music, the fact that a lot of stuff recorded today sounds like the medium hasn’t progressed or changed at all in thirty years. The recording may be crisper, but the grammar and syntax of sound haven’t changed: a cymbal crash still functions as an exclamation mark, and so on. It’s like making feeble vernacular architecture in the style of a previous age rather than forging a new building idiom. Pop music needs its Bauhauses, its Second Schools of Vienna. It needs people to tinker and tamper with the grammar. One tiny example: I listened yesterday to a Matmos track called “ESP,” an eight-minute epic that has isolated drum beats, gruff metal-style vocals, but also weird poppy hoe-down sections. And that track was very clearly doing what avant-garde pop needs to do, which is to surprise and to challenge. Disrupted or changing musical grammar can be a lot of fun to listen to. It’s nice not to know what’s coming next! That said, when I hear music in public places I’m usually seething about how awful and unadventurous it is. I just feel like so many artists and so much of the public is shirking its duty to be modern. I guess I’m modernist in that sense: it is a duty to “make it new.”

RS What myths do you find yourself rereading? Have you found that certain myths are ones that seem particularly applicable to your life?

M The Picture of Dorian Gray is something I’ve come back to. I first read that when I was twelve and came back to it recently, and of course it’s all the more resonant when you start getting wrinkles! Also Jeckyll/Hyde. Pygmalion. Narcissus. Oh, speaking of Pygmalion, isn’t this incredible: I made a song called “Pygmalism for Kahimi Karie,” really about our relationship. I was her songwriter in the ’90s; she connected me with an audience I couldn’t otherwise reach. But the song is violent and vengeful: it sees her rising up against me, “Professor Pyg,” vowing to kill me and break free, which, in fact, she did—the break free part, anyway—shortly after we recorded it. But there was an afterlife of sorts: the Pyg character from the song inflamed the imagination of Grant Morrison, who wrote the last Batman movie. So Professor Pyg—my rewrite of Henry Higgins from My Fair Lady and Shaw’s Pygmalion, crossed with Tyrell from Bladerunner—is now a character in the Hollywood version of Batman. I became a link in this chain of myth that goes all the way from ancient Greece to the modern West.

RS Do you write fiction every day?

M Absolutely not! I’ve also never written fiction without a specific commission and the knowledge that a book is going to come out, for sure. Preferably also an advance! I had such a grim idea of literature when I was a literature student. Writers were working in a field that was hopeless, for many reasons. Modernism was mining the theme of the absurdity and exhaustion of literature. Writers were depressives who often committed suicide. They labored for years on manuscripts that never got published. If they were in Britain, they were snubbed by a public that preferred light detective fiction, shopping-and-fucking airport novels, TV tie-ins, and books about class, cooking, and gardening. There was no point whatsoever in trying to be a serious writer! So I put it off until, much later, someone commissioned me. Even now, I write only if I know I’m not wasting my time. I’m all too aware of Dostoyevsky’s “intelligent man whose sole vocation is babble, that is to say the intentional pouring of water through a sieve.”

RS What is a “serious writer”?

M Well, I used that in the context of me at twenty, and that earnest person would say that a serious writer is someone like Kafka, who says in his diary that writing is “a form of prayer” or “a summoning of ghosts” or “the reward for serving the devil.” The earnest twenty-year-old me would also tell you that a serious writer is published by Calder & Boyars or Les Editions de Minuit, and is interviewed by the Paris Review, and wins the Nobel Prize. The serious writer might, like Pavese or Dazai, commit suicide—or she might, like Jelinek or Sarraute, stick around to relay fragments of absurdity in an angry or bemused way. He might be a homosexual criminal who writes about his crimes, like Genet. What he won’t be is a genre writer, trying to market his work and compromising with editors and agents, or writing with one eye on selling the film rights. Basically I still believe all this stuff. I never quite bought the postmodernist idea that high and low culture collapsed into each other in 1986.

RS When writing, making music, or performing in galleries, do you consider your audience differently?

M Switching medium doesn’t really involve switching audiences for me. Whatever medium I’m using, the audience is going to be educated, adventurous, small. That’s because I’ve been shunted into the cultural corner marked “exemplary creative.” Once I might have been trying for the mainstream, at least in music. But the days of being played on the radio are long gone. Anything I do now has to be a demonstration of creative freedom, and be banished as a result to a kind of enriching, encouraging, educational ghetto. I don’t mean the work has to be, in itself, bland or harmless: it can be obscene, it can excoriate idiocy, it can scream for revolution. But because it’s in this ghetto that appeals to a tiny minority of grad students and gallery-goers and adventurous musical connoisseurs, it’s not going to make much of a difference to the world. It’s harmless in effect, if not intention. What that ghetto does, in fact, is legitimate the existing order by showing that things like variety and freedom of expression exist, and that even esoteric and experimental products can be marketed. You know, the feeling you get when you walk into Rough Trade, in Williamsburg: Wow, such sophistication! O brave new world, that has this in it! You would get the same feeling if you walked through the Swedish sculpture biennial where I’m doing “performative publishing” right now in a “False Kiosk.” The Swedish government is paying generously to display this “exemplary creativity,” to make Sweden look cosmopolitan, adventurous, and liberal. By and large, I’m happy to go along with this. Our agendas all mesh: the system gets to look good, the audience gets food for thought, I get to play in public.

RS What do you think can be accomplished with such a small, specialized audience?

M I do find this question of “success” and “failure” very interesting. When you’re young, you have unrealistic expectations: every song or story is going to whoosh you to worldwide celebrity. Later you realize that failure is the default position for cultural productions, but that it’s not disastrous; unless you’re making films or something equally expensive, you can keep producing. So you add to your body of work, saying, Look, world, you may not have a need for this now, but later you might, so I’m making sure it’s here for you for when you change your mind. It’s a truism, but success and failure are relative. As a sort of “failed rock star,” for instance, I can compare myself to my teenage idol, David Bowie, and say, Well, I’ve had most of the good stuff he had—self-expression, sex, travel, praise in the press, loving letters, a sense of fulfillment—just at a much lower level. And, actually, I don’t like myself much when I’m over-valued; I get vain and brittle and nasty, narcissistic, and insecure.

One interesting thing about the digitization of culture is that we can now see very clearly just how much interest a particular item, like a song on YouTube, gets accessed. And I’m amazed to see that the less popular songs by people I consider massively successful sometimes get fewer YouTube views than my most popular songs. The great redwoods of culture are surprisingly fallible—and fellable—and sometimes it’s fine to be a hardy little shrub. Michael Jackson was addicted to painkillers, Bowie sang unflatteringly about fame—why not believe that it isn’t that great? And ask how much fame a culture producer needs. The answer, I think, is: enough to continue. It’s like those studies of happiness that show that people are optimally happy with about twenty thousand dollars a year, and beyond that happiness doesn’t really increase much. You just have to know how much is enough.

For more on Momus’s UnAmerica, visit Penny-Ante Editions.

Ross Simonini is a writer, artist, and musician living in New York. He is an editor at The Believer and a member of the band NewVillager. A show of his “Anxiety Napkins” and “Itinerant Canvases” is currently up at Blackston gallery.

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