Southernmost The many situations of Nick Currie
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Living In The Moment At 58 years of age, pop culture intellect Nick Currie is yet to reach the zenith of his career. In anticipation, he tours Southeast Asia for the first time and finds himself in a state of enchantment. browser caught up with the artist commonly known as Momus, at his lowest-ever latitudinal being.
enjoy something, the less likely I am to monetise it.
Well, I couldn’t make a living just off journalism, but I follow the Bible’s precept to think not on the morrow, God will provide. I actually don’t plan my life financially at all. What I do is, and I find that it works out fine, there’s almost a divine providence, like, whenever I need money, somebody will come along, pop up in my email saying, “Hey, here’s 800 Euros to do something or here’s 1,200 Euros to do something”… I just had an article like that when they asked me to increase the fee during the course of the commission, from 800 to 1,200 Euros.
I don’t feel I have to make horrible compromises and take on horrible jobs. There have been certain moments in my life when I had to do translation work or various writing jobs which were just a real pain in the ass. The worst was doing a consumer guide for the bbc magazine Olive to Berlin. Having to write about restaurants which they didn’t have the expenses to let me actually go to, so I just had to copy from other people and rewrite it. That was really awful and to a really tight deadline. I hate that kind of work.
I can make it a little bit here, a little bit there, so if you call it all writing, it includes music and video and all the rest of it. The thing that I’m putting most energy and love into at the moment are my videos but I don’t monetise them. That’s quite typical of me; the more I
But the kind of work I do now is mostly writing long essays for art magazines about things that genuinely interest me, or reviews of art shows which I really want to see anyway, so I’ve managed to make it so that it’s all really pleasant; writing that would be an extension of my natural blogging.
How well do you live off your journalism as a form of sustenance?
You started out as a musician. How did you transition into a writer? Well, I didn’t really start out as a musician. I was always a writer first, and music was a way to get a book deal before I could actually get a real book deal ‘cos it was easier in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, to have an indie label deal. As a musician, my songs were very wordy. Concept albums and things like that. If you read my diaries from when I’m 19, I want to be a writer. I’m not even thinking about being a musician. I’m a singing author in the sense of the Italian word cantautore.
What were the notable disappointments in your career? I think I failed to impress certain gatekeepers who I thought I would impress. Notably Paul Morley, the journalist for the nme, who was very influential in the early ‘80s. John Peel, who was the gatekeeper for independent music pretty much through my entire career until 2004 when he died. Bless him, he educated me in music and he was a great person if you wanted to learn about popular music. But for some reason, he never gave me a session. Other crappy little bands got 20 sessions with him, I got no sessions at all. He obviously didn’t like me. Sessions, as in? Radio sessions was when the bbc would open their studios to bands to do three tracks for the John Peel Show, so each night he would have at least one session, possibly two sessions from bands. That was the way to reach listeners, and to
get an audience, and I never did. So I had to eventually make commercial mainstream pop records for daytime radio i.e. get playlisted, which means only really big pop acts could generally get playlisted for daytime radio, but I managed with The Hairstyle of the Devil. Not that it sold enormously… well it sold quite well. But I had to really work my way up by my own resources ‘cos none of the people… none of the shortcuts were open to me, for whatever reason. I think people were put off for class reasons ‘cos I was too articulate, too bourgeoise; they thought of me as a spoiled graduate type of artist who shouldn’t really be in pop music. I don’t know. But it worked out fine, I’m quite happy with the status I achieved. That I appeal to intelligent people and not to stupid people. I don’t have to deal with any stupid fans. There aren’t any. What are your weapons of choice when you want to create something? My weapons of choice? Gosh, I don’t even think of it in military terms like that, but if want to create something, generally I will reach for digital tools, just like anybody else does. Right now it’s YouTube, iMovie. I make my YouTube videos on iMovie, but that’s more of a journalistic product. I guess GarageBand. I just use the free software that comes with an Apple. I’ve always been a bit of a cheapskate. I like using the simplest tools and trying to make them intuitive by using them over a period of time so the choices you make become automatic. I don’t want
“I don’t have to deal with any stupid fans. There aren’t any.”
“If you want to make art, just start.” to sit there with a manual reading page 347 about how to do this particular filter or whatever. I just want something to be almost as automatic as playing an instrument that you know quite well, like a guitar. Software should be like a musical instrument i.e. you should be able to get to the point where you don’t think about your movements, you just produce the music. So I’ve often used children’s sequencers like ez vision in the early days on the Mac. That had a really simple interface with a bouncing ball. You can write music without knowing how to write music. I don’t know the traditional way
of writing music with dots on a stave. But I do master simple sequencers on a regular basis. The trouble is that software keeps changing and they keep putting the menus differently and that’s really annoying. We all have to deal with that problem these days. When you’re creating, it’s particularly frustrating, like going from one version of iMovie to the next. Huge differences between the two iterations of iMovie. I’m still using the iMovie from five years ago and I dread the moment when they stop supporting it and you have to update ‘cos the operating system won’t even recognise it anymore.
How long have you been having your MacBook Air? Well I’ve gone through like three MacBook Airs or four. But my first Mac, I bought in 1993 and that was a PowerBook Duo Dock 230, which was incredibly advanced ‘cos it was a laptop and a desktop, and had a colour screen. For 1993, that was space age technology. You actually pushed the laptop in and there was a little docking mechanism; it went *zhuuuggg*. It was very expensive, it was like £3,000. How did you afford that?
It’s a really joyful, pleasant process. Making all those tiny decisions that lead to a finished product. Finishing the audio part of it and then starting on the video part of it immediately. No break; maybe a cup of tea or something in between, but I tend to work very compulsively, and I think people should only do work that they really need to do compulsively. That’s almost like a sexual obsession.
What is the ideal setting to produce good work?
I don’t really understand people who say, a. “I don’t know how to start. I keep getting scared of the idea of starting work, or I don’t have time, or I’m too tired” or whatever, and b. “When I do start, I never finish”. I can’t understand people who start work and don’t finish it, ‘cos I can never stop.
Well I would say a kind of amateurism is important. I don’t think professional contexts are good for me, personally anyway. I think you need to do something because you really want to do it. Do it compulsively. Also, I tell people, don’t ponder too much about your work before starting it. Just start. If you want to make art, just start. That’s one of my mottos.
It’s almost addictive. I can’t stop making those little decisions, ‘cos the rest of life is kind of boring. You’re just watching TV, you’re eating or whatever. I mean, the really interesting part of life, apart from sex, obviously, is when you’re involved in that minute process of utter concentration and you get lost in making something.
I was rich in the ‘90s with publishing deals. I had a lot of publishing money. Publishers take a gamble on you and they say, “OK, we think you might make some hit songs in five years’ time” or whatever, so they sign you up for five years and each year your advance gets more and more and if you aren’t making money for them, they will drop you at any point. But I was making increasingly more money because I was writing for the Japanese market in the ‘90s. So by ‘93, I had fat publishing cheques.
It’s in one of my songs as well. A song called Bullshit, where I make statements and then contradict them. Honestly, just start and then as soon as you’re working on something, you’re getting your hands dirty with it and you’re learning how to work better on it. Personally I have to finish a song, for instance, or an article in the same sitting as starting it. So I start and then I work in a really focused and concentrated and quite ecstatic way.
“It’s fine to be introverted.”
God, so many. I mean, basically everyone you encounter influences you. I’ve been very influenced by, for instance, the Humanist psychology movement from the ‘50s and ‘60s, which ended up in creativity research. And there was a certain idea of ‘creativity’ when I was a teenager, which I really bought into; the idea that it’s fine to be introverted. There are some psychological papers (by Donald MacKinnon) about creative architects that really influenced me. Creative architects were quite arrogant. They had an ‘internal locus of evaluation’ — that was the phrase used. In other words, they didn’t care what other people think i.e. I make what matters, what I think is good. I don’t care what the client thinks is good, or what the public thinks is good. My set of values.
The most creative architects had a very different personality profile from the less creative architects. They clustered a bunch of architecture students together with world-famous architects and they did personality profiles on them. It was really interesting that these highly creative, successful architects were more introverted. They had this kind of ‘I don’t care what you think’ attitude. They were desurgent. In other words, emotionally quite restrained and quiet. But also more psychopathic… or a bit crazy... yeah, they were psychopaths but they controlled it better than others. They didn’t have big crises in their lives. They controlled everything quite well. Things like that gave me confidence to think, well, the type of person I am, it’s OK to be that kind of person. I think it’s tough being a creative person... At university, I was surrounded by engineering students who weren’t highly creative; they weren’t arty types.
What are the people or movements that have influenced the way you think?
So being a fan of David Bowie was also a huge influence on me because David Bowie seemed to personify a modern multimedia creator. He was a writer, but a writer in the electronic media and using capitalism and commercial creativity, and using it to create something quite magical. A bit like a cross between the Hollywood film stars of the 1940s and the German Expressionists of the early 20th century. The fact that you could do that, bring avant-garde influences into the commercial mainstream, that was really exciting.
‘Cos it seemed even then that the literary culture that I’ve been brought up to celebrate was somewhat doomed. My parents were literary people. We had a lot of books in the house. That seemed a moribund culture, seemed like it was already on the way out. People weren’t reading that kind of literature. Certainly not in Britain… there’s actually quite a negative feeling towards that in Britain. But there were lots of people really into rock music, and that was a new way of writing. Electronic kind of writing. And also what you can do with persona. Constantly transforming your persona and writing using the tool of persona. You don’t have to sing about your real life. You could invent characters like Ziggy Stardust or The Thin White Duke or whatever. So as Momus, I really followed that lead. But then now, the rock music culture itself is moribund, geriatric and dying. And I think the new rock stars are like vloggers on YouTube.
“I do buy, to a certain extent, into the idea th Did David Bowie influenced you on how to be a man? I think so. I think he showed that you can be manly without being stupidly macho. You can dress like a woman, you can wear nail varnish and makeup and whatever you like. Manliness can still exist within that. There are good things about manliness. I do buy, to a certain extent, into the idea that masculinity is toxic. But there’s also some pretty great things about masculinity and it’s about a certain kind of self-confidence or having fire power but holding it back, you know? And not hurting people although you could. All those sorts of things which are quite contradictory virtues that you can encode… even in just the way you walk or the way you hold your
I don’t use my body that much, but I do dance around and perform more than most rock musicians do, I think. More than most ‘indie’ singers do, for sure. And I try to keep slim and healthy, even in my advanced age. What are other people’s misconceptions about you? That I am all the characters that I’ve sung about, and I’ve done all the things that I’ve sung about. I’ve sung about a lot of criminal sexual situations. So maybe people think I’m a sex criminal or some kind of troll-like provocateur. Or they think I’m very pretentious and up myself. Or they think I’m immoral. The devil incarnate.
body. Bowie trained as a dancer with Lindsay Kemp. I think it’s great that he was very embodied. He wasn’t just writing texts or something mental. There was a mental component, intellectual component that he was adapting George Orwell’s 1984 for instance, or working on stage music or whatever. Also he was a presenter like a music hall star who used his body. Even like Buster Keaton whom he admired greatly. The idea of being physical… not a dancer but doing physical stunts, for instance. That’s really important. I’ve always admired people who use their bodies and I go often to contemporary dances and things like that. Those people have a real glamour to me. I’m not really particularly fit, or
I don’t know what they think but I think there’s been a certain suspicion of me, or there’s sort of class misconceptions which actually are not that inaccurate, which is that I come from a very privileged social background. I mean it’s not particularly privileged. But I did go to a private school. And I travelled a lot when I was a kid, and I continued to travel. Somebody said on Facebook yesterday, “Oh, I like to watch your travel videos because I have no money and I’m scared of flying”. This was a guy in Britain. And I said, “Well, I’m also scared of flying and I have no money either”. In fact, I’m on this particular tour because I’m trying to save money. I’ve come to cheap places to make my money go further. So I think it’s just… people are a bit timid, including me, I’m also timid. It’s taken me until late into middle-age to come to Southeast Asia.
hat masculinity is toxic.”
What are the things you want to see fixed in this world, according to your selfish desires? I think the things you want to see fixed in the world can’t really be selfish. If everybody thought like me, the world will be a very different place. But it would also be boring for me, if everyone was like me. The world would be much more liberal that it is. Much more libertarian and egalitarian. I’d be content just to ban cars instantly. I would ban all engines. The world would just be this medieval place, probably wherever there’s a monk poet. Wandering, nomadic monk poet figure. Nobody would kill any animals. It would be like the Heian period of Japanese history where everyone dressed in amazing robes and had sex, but wrote poetry to each other and stuff. Courtly culture. Describe your ideal home. This is problematical for me because I like looking at architect-designed
Japanese houses so I could say one of those, but I know that I’m very perverse and as soon as I build one for myself, if I had the money, I would be frustrated ‘cos inside the house, you can’t see the house. What you see is the boring house across the road. The boring house sees your interesting house. And also, I would just be sitting with a laptop, looking at myself. So I think software is my ideal home. Perhaps that’s the answer. Describe your ideal lover. I’ve been dreaming recently, and I seem to have a fairly settled type. It’s a Japanese woman who has been an art student. She’s quite small and slight. Maybe a little bit boyish. Describe your ideal way to die. Plane crash. It’s pretty quick. And it’s quite exciting. You see the sea coming up at you very fast.
“I’d be content just to ban cars instantly.”
How different were you as a 30-year-old? Different from now? Not very different. Maybe a bit more ambitious. Although even at 30 I was already coming out of my ambition and realising my internal locus of evaluation was more important than getting lots of money for stupid records that I hated. I think when I was 28–29, that was the peak of my ambition in terms of being commercial. Then I realised that being commercial was essentially playing into the hands of idiots. So from then on I really pleased myself with my records.
Tell me more about your philosophy of staying ignorant. Glamour is very important for me. The thing about glamour is that it requires a certain distance or a certain ignorance. Nobody can really be glamorous if you live with them. For instance, if you’re married to them. “No man is a hero to his wife and his servants”, I think is the original quote. Because they see you every day when you’re farting and you’re shuffling around in your slippers and stuff. So I think I like to feel a sense of glamour about people. I like unrequited love, for instance. If I’m in love with someone who doesn’t love me back, they seem really powerful and glamorous at that point. It can even be an ex of mine I might be still in love with. They seem glamorous because they rejected me. So it’s also that Woody Allen thing — or was it Groucho Marx? — of not wanting to be a member of the club that will have me as a member. It’s a certain masochistic mindset as well.
To remain ignorant is to allow other parts of your brain to take over from the analytical part of your brain, because knowledge is just analysis. If I bracket that, maybe sensuality or a kind of weird dream-like impression can take its place. So with Japan, the very first impressions you get with Japan is when you’re jet-lagged, and you’re totally not understanding how anything works and nobody can speak your language. I really like those first impressions, ‘cos it seemed like another planet you’ve arrived on. OK, so I could turn Tokyo into London. What good would that do, you know? I left London in order to leave London. I don’t want to turn places into domestic, comprehensible, banal places. One does understand better inevitably the longer one stays in a place, but there are ways to stave off that, to make that process slower. Let’s call that disenchantment. Make the disenchantment slower. What do you need more and less of in your life? I think my life is pretty good right now. I would need less of death. Less of sickness and death, assuming that’s waiting for me. More of the same, really. ‘Cos I’ve had a pretty amazing life. I’ve had lots of lovers and lots of adventures in interesting places and lots of artistic successes. What was the lowest point of your life? I think being about 21–22 and not really being sure where I was going. Feeling very shy and nervous and neurotic all the time. And being in love with
someone who didn’t love me back. Which I said was the great thing to do, but maybe not when everything else is going wrong in your life.
fascinating. There may be a little bit of a schadenfreude because I know I am avoiding all that. It sounds really awful to be a depressive type.
Have you ever been depressed?
But a schizoid type is a whole different mechanism for dealing with things and it’s basically splitting yourself, so that’s one reason people like Bowie, who is a classic schizoid, split himself and became these characters he created, and then thought he was them for awhile and then discarded them like a lizard skin.
I don’t think, technically, I am a depressive personality type. I think I’m more of a schizoid personality type. So my response to problems is to detach myself. I don’t really get intensely sad or I don’t get a sense of my own worthlessness or whatever depressive types talk about. I often read their accounts of depression with great interest ‘cos I think it’s
That’s more like a schizoid defense mechanism; if you’re in trouble, just become a new person. Give yourself a new name.
“My response to problems is to detach myself.”
Now, on to lighter, more superficial things. What is favourite food, drink, and snack? Food, I would say chickpeas. I really like chickpeas with pretty much anything. Potatoes, especially. Drink, I like white beer, ice café latte... And snacks… I’m generally quite down on snacks. Occasionally I buy crisps but I think they’re very bad for you so maybe once a month I’ll buy a bag of crisps. I like little marshmallows but again, they are too sweet. I don’t like sweet and salty things. Don’t really like snacks very much. Do you have a favourite building or place? It’s probably always changing. I like the next place I just discovered. In Vientiane, it might have been down on the river in the sand dunes. I don’t know. I wouldn’t like to go back for years and years to the same place, though. That would depress me. I like it to be always a new favourite place.
Your favourite reading material? I’ve got one with me actually. (Nick takes out a French paperback) I love collecting old French paperbacks from the post-war period. Michel Leiris’s Nuits Sans Nuit Et Quelques Jours Sans Jour. This nrf Gallimard is one of my fetish imprints as well. I love the look of these books, especially when they’ve been library books and they have lots of extra stickers and little markings on them. It was actually thrown out by the French Institute in Yangon, and then given to a bookshop which I bought it from. I put a little extra tape on it. I like it when they have lots of bits of tape and damage and patina, you know? So this Leiris book, he was actually sort of a Surrealist Marxist anthropologist who wrote fake books about Africa. He really went to Africa but he kind of wrote poetic accounts which were almost dream-like. And this is literally an account of his dreams. When you can get one of these paperbacks for less than the price of a cup of coffee; just amazing. I can’t resist collecting them. What is your favourite scent? Pine needles and paint. I like paint studio smell. I would like to be a painter and have a studio. What are your impressions of Malaysia? I think I had a picture of a jungle… mountainous jungle country. I didn’t really have any impression of Kuala Lumpur, except for the Petronas Twin Towers.
Above A second-hand French paperback Right backlunda usb-powered led lamp from ikea
Nickâ€™s travel essentials
Post-arrival, I thought it was a bit like Seoul. I was disappointed how the cars were dominant here as well. It was monstrous example of a modern city compared to where just I arrived from Yangon, which is a medieval city. Colonial atmosphere but also very joyful. People are just walking around and really look happy and dress in bright colours. But it’s totally non-modern.
So here I just thought, OK, back to modernity. At first, that was a very negative impression but then, I realised what I like about modernity, which is really good coffee shops and hipster hangouts and good architecture and stuff like that. But I think there’s way too much junk space, as Rem Koolhaas puts it. Too many malls and private security guards. Do you ever get homesick? No. I don’t miss Scotland, honestly. Edinburgh seems like it’s going to be there. It doesn’t change very much. They protect all the buildings. It’s basically a 19th century city. My family members are dying one by one. Who knows. I don’t think I’ll ever want to live in Britain again. Britain’s a really fucked up country because of Brexit, especially. Brexit is just the latest example of the inherent conservatism of the English, which is what screws up Britain for me, personally. I think maybe if Scotland became independent, I might think about going back, but that’s the only circumstance that would draw me back.
As you travel, you eat loads of different food. How do you get your body accustomed to the new tastes and sensations? Food these days is pretty global, pretty cosmopolitan. It’s very rare that you actually eat new food. Even when you come to a country like Malaysia. I’ve probably been eating Malaysian food for quite a while without knowing it, or thinking it was Thai food. There’s obviously a relationship between all the Southeast Asian cuisines. So what your body needs to get used to though, is different qualities of water and air. Those are the really crucial things, and I think as we go further into this century, those are going to be really key political issues. Access to fresh water and clean air. So my crusade against cars is very much to do with the pollution that they create. I literally was getting sick with the water in Vietnam and in Myanmar ‘cos I had never really been to countries where the water was that toxic and unclean. So even after you boil it, it can make you sick. Took me a couple of weeks to stop having diarrhoea in Yangon. That concludes our interview. Thanks for participating. Concludes with diarrhoea! How charming.
This interview was conducted at PJ Trade Centre, Malaysia. Watch Nick Currie’s music videos and lectures at youtube.com/momasu
“I don’t think I’ll ever want to live in Britain again.”
Every lie creates a parallel world. The world in which it is true.
Southernmost a browser special issue
April 2018 Writer, photographer, art director Liyana Liyana.Aina@gmail.com instagram.com/pfrsch #MOMUSxPFRSCH Special thanks to Jun Kit.
A special issue by Browser magazine. 20 pages on Nick Currie a.k.a. Momus, writer and musician from Scotland. Produced entirely in Malaysia.
Published on Apr 15, 2018
A special issue by Browser magazine. 20 pages on Nick Currie a.k.a. Momus, writer and musician from Scotland. Produced entirely in Malaysia.