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Sunday, Feb. 19, 2006
An innocent abroad brings his twisted genius to Japan
By MARTIN WEBB
I first heard about Momus, the alter-ego of the Scottish musical maverick Nick Currie, in 2002, when a writer friend directed me to an article that Currie had written on the coolness of Tokyo's up-and-coming Nakameguro district.
Posted on an obscure Web site, Currie's pronouncement that "Nakame," as it is affectionately known, was the louche locale for a coterie of ambitious young artists only fueled my fascination for the trendy tract in which I set up home later that year.
These days, Momus resides in Berlin -- which has long been billed by "those who know" as the coolest city in the world.
Growing up, though, Momus spent time in Athens and Montreal before being sent to boarding school in Scotland, where he purportedly witnessed in all-boy dormitory orgies. But he's not gay, although he has a fascination for notoriously queer French writers Georges Bataille and Andre Gide -- as well as with Martial, a Roman poet who wrote countless odes to his slave boys.
His preoccupation with sexual "deviancy" and perversity led him to crooner Georges Brassens, he who is famed in some tiny quarters for a song that describes a judge being anally raped by a gorilla.
Rare amoebic infection
Currie, an English literature graduate, wears a patch over his right eye that he lost to a rare amoebic infection years back. What with that, and his gangly frame, wonky teeth and scraggly beard, he hardly conforms to any ideal of masculine attractiveness. But Momus is a cult superstar. He's arguably the most intellectual man in pop; he's a columnist for hip online technology magazine Wired News; an incredibly well traveled, dangerously overeducated and impossibly romantic nutter.
And Momus is a prolific seducer of women -- with a penchant for the exotic. He hit the headlines in his native Scotland in 1994 when he married a 17-year-old Bangladeshi girl and eloped to Paris in order to escape her vengeful family. Not to be discriminatory, he has professed a fondness for petite Japanese girls, too.
I interviewed Momus last month at Office, a bar-cafe in Tokyo's posh Aoyama district. We began by talking about his blog (online journal), "Click Opera," of which I am a devoted reader.
"I never know what I'm going to write about until the day I write it," he says. "Oh, but I do know what I'm going to write about tomorrow. It's going to be a simple one, just about how much I love Tokyo."
Momus, who takes his name from the Greek god of ridicule, is deadly serious when it comes to his affection for Japan. "Tokyo is 200 times better than the next-best city, which is New York," he declares in typically provocative fashion. "People here seem ethically better, more collectivist, more beautiful, less selfish than people elsewhere."
The self-proclaimed "Tender Pervert" first came to Japan on a solo tour in 1992, and achieved star status by penning a string of top-five Japanese chart hits in the mid-90s for Paris-based Shibuya-kei songstress Kahimi Karie, with whom he appeared on TV Asahi's "Music Station" in 1998.
"I've always been a Japan person, for as far back as I can remember," says Momus. "My childhood memories include holidaying with a Japanese monk on a Scottish island, and writing my very first song, titled 'I Can See Japan.'
"I've always felt I'm more attuned to Japanese values than British ones," he continues. And I've become a sort of ambassador for those values, or my interpretation of them."
Currie's reading of Japanese virtues, on his blog, in Wired News and dozens of other magazines, is resolutely positive.
"It's really not my way to whine," he says. "I stress the interesting 10 percent and ignore the boring 90 percent."
He justifies this rose-tinted view of Japan with a quote from Shakespeare. "I tend to agree with Hamlet," he says. "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."
The most remarkable, and for this writer at least, the most attractive thing about Momus is that he is a resolutely, courageously non-commercial artist. With a breathy, half-spoken delivery a la Serge Gainsbourg to a backdrop of chintzy electro-pop, Momus incants lyrics that feature characters as perversely diverse as a Vietnamese chiropodist and a pet monkey that masturbates its owner, while favorite themes include unrequited love, infidelity, alienation, human trafficking and the decadence of the teenage Roman Emperor Heliogabalus.
"Being a musician is like being a jobless, homeless bum half the time, and a god the rest," writes Currie on his Web site.
Although he has built a loyal constituency through his music, Momus is currently broadening his repertoire. He will spend March to May this year in New York City doing a daily performance as a deliberately unreliable tour guide at the Whitney Art Biennial. He is also currently negotiating a deal with a French publisher for a book about the fictional lives of musicians, which he describes as somewhere between Calvino's "Invisible Cities" and Vasari's "Lives of the Artists."
Up there in the Aoyama cafe, surrounded by artist collaborators and high-powered fellow bloggers, this softly spoken, twisted genius seems in his element -- and I am concerned that I might be upsetting the group harmony that so endears him to Japan. It's tempting to get to know Currie a little more, but I decide not to run the risk of sullying my burnished image of the cerebral Scot.
Having concluded so, I slink out back home to Nakame.