Since 1986, Nick Currie has been creating idiosyncratic, avant-garde music, literature and art under the name Momus, after the Greek god of mockery. From his early collaborations with the members of post-punk band Josef K, and debut solo album Circus Maximus, a bedsit reimagining of the Bible, through experiments in ‘analogue baroque’ and ‘folktronica’, to his current furtive, crepuscular incarnation, his work was been characterised by restless invention, laced with satire, philosophy and smut. His latest work, Scobberlotchers, recorded in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote, blends scabrous political commentary with references to Pessoa, Empedokles, Ezra Pound and David Bowie.
In 1999, Momus was sued by Wendy Carlos, composer of the Clockwork Orange soundtrack. To cover his legal fees, he offered fans the opportunity to commission a song about themselves, which would be released on the album Stars Forever. As part of the process, the fans were asked to answer a series of questions, designed to identify the aspects of their personality which gave them a positive image, or ‘subcultural capital’. As Vanity Fair uses the Proust Questionnaire, we have decided to appropriate Momus’s subcultural personality test, and Momus has kindly agreed to be our test subject.
Have you rebelled against someone else’s dreary expectations of your life, and become something more unexpected?
It was a running joke at my school in Edinburgh that the careers master had everyone down for Chartered Accountancy at Bradford. When I won an essay prize I told the rector I was going to be a journalist, which to some extent turned out to be true: I was already editing the school arts magazine at that point, and throughout my life I’d write articles about music, travel, food and technology to eke out my music income. In fact, even my songs are a sort of declamatory journalism: the latest LP is a polemical response to Brexit and Trump. I don’t think “unexpected” is the right word to use for my novels either: I come from a fairly solid bourgeois literary family. Of the five of us, my sister is the only one not to have published a book. She’s the rebel!
What in your life can you point to and say, like Frankie, ‘I Did It My Way’?
It’s interesting, looking back at these questions I wrote in 1999, how individualistic they are, in a shallow American way. That “I did it my way” idea gets a bit more complex when you think of things like Brian Eno’s idea of “scenius” — the genius of scenes, the importance of context. I’m reading Ted Morgan’s biography of William Burroughs just now, and even such a stubborn and individual talent needed a group (the Beats) to help him into print, and to work collectively to make a new literary style acceptable to readers. Nobody exists in a vacuum. I come out of a particular scene (the indie labels of the late 1970s) and share its values to some extent, though I’ve taken so many twists and turns that I think my music probably sounds fairly unique now: who else is making Brechtian shamisen ballads about the Etruscans?
What creative achievements are you most proud of?
Ah, now you’re talking! I’m proud of my books and my records. My favourite of my own records tends always to be the last one, so at the moment I would say Scobberlotchers. For the books, I think perhaps the first one, The Book of Jokes, is best. Certainly funniest. But there’s a special place in my heart for The Book of Scotlands too. To a lesser extent, I’m proud of my photography and the way I dress. I put a lot of effort — in both cases — into the way I look.
If there was one event in your life which really shaped you, made you the person you are today, what would it be?
I’ve never done therapy or analysis, but I think if I took a “talking cure” the most formative event would probably emerge as my stint at boarding school between the ages of nine and thirteen. It was a tough experience for me emotionally: I hated being in a chilly, disciplinarian Scottish private school rather than with my family in Athens (where my father was working for the British Council). But boarding school taught me two things: first, that I could escape even the most miserable outward circumstances by retreating into books and music (it was at boarding school that I discovered David Bowie, for instance). And second, that the mainstream of society was based on toxic norms — bullying, boredom, limited horizons, wrong assumptions — that it would make no sense for me to kowtow to in later life. I think I held people and their values — especially British people and their values — at a safe distance forever afterwards, and decided to live by my own efforts and forge my own values.
If you had to make a rap song boasting about your irresistible charm and sexiness, how would you describe yourself?
I’d probably say I was born to be adored by women, and add a sly ironic smile.
Have you ever made material sacrifices because of your integrity?
It’s a way of life! I don’t own a house, a car, or in fact anything other than a few laptops, some books and some records. I’m a “post-materialist”. I pour any income I get into travel, and experiences. Owning things just makes me anxious. I don’t know if this is “integrity”; more likely it’s just an ascetic streak in me. Pungent experiences seem much more valuable than worldly goods. And what does owning really mean? Why own a painting when you can look at it on Google Images? Why build a house (and I do have an occasional dream of building an architect-designed house in Japan) when you’d just sit in it staring at Google Streetview? And why work to make money when you could be doing something important and significant of your own devising, like writing a book nobody will read?
Describe a public personality who exemplifies everything you’d like to be yourself, then another public personality who incarnates everything you’d least like to be.
My hero was — and still is — David Bowie. The Bowie of the 1970s. But it’s also lots of writers — Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Witold Gombrowicz, Julio Cortázar, William Burroughs… And that’s just this week! I think the people who incarnate who I’d least like to be are strutting idiot populist politicians like Nigel Farage, or populist journalists like Jeremy Clarkson.
If you were an Egyptian pharaoh and had to be buried with a few key objects to take to the next world, what would they be?
My books and my records. The ones I wrote and recorded. Some archaeologist could dig them up, reinvent record players, decode the language…
Do you have a favourite joke, quotation or proverb?
I like the line that recurs throughout my Book of Jokes: “This is the pig I’ve been fucking.” It keeps changing its meaning in different contexts. It’s indecent, and iridescent.
What’s your favourite portrait (it can be a song, a painting, a film, anything)?
The portrait of Dorian Gray! Come on, who wouldn’t want a portrait like that in the attic? Stay young and pure forever, let the painting wrinkle and bloat!