Though not widely known in the pop world, Momus is one of underground music's most controversial and influential provocateurs. From his early days with the Happy Family in the 1980s through his digital troubadour incarnations of the 2000s, Nicholas Currie has lent his style to Pulp, Beck, the Divine Comedy, and others while remaining fiercely political and uncompromising in his artistic vision.
Currie was born on February 11, 1960, in Paisley, Scotland, one of three children born to scholarly parents. His father was an academic that constantly moved the family around the world and by the time Nicholas was 13, he had already lived in Scotland, Greece, and Canada. From a young age, Currie was exposed to music, often in an experimental capacity. For his father's doctoral studies on how children acquire language, the young Nicholas was recorded improvising songs, stories, and other bits of linguistic performance. Though he probably thought little of it at the time, Currie later considered these his first recordings and included fragments of them on in his contentious 1998 LP Little Red Songbook.
His intentional (and official) first recordings came during his college years, with the Edinburgh post-punk outfit the Happy Family. Currie temporarily dropped his studies at the University of Aberdeen to form the band with former members of Josef K. Together they recorded the Puritans EP and 1982's Man on Your Street for London's then-fledgling 4AD label. When the Happy Family parted company later that year, Currie returned to the university to complete his masters degree in English literature—an indication of the direction his music would take.
The Birth of Momus
After graduating, Currie moved to London and reinvented himself as Momus, taking his moniker from the Greek god of blame, ridicule, and criticism. He expanded the political edge he'd honed with the Happy Family and began to delve into more controversial subjects. Despite the praise it earned, his first solo release for él Records, 1986's Circus Maximus, wasn't a financial success. It did, however, give Currie a sense of direction, and his critics a taste of the often misogynistic and sexually perverse subject matter he'd tackle in years to come.
In 1987 Momus switched labels, signing with Alan McGee's budding Creation Records—later to be the label of choice for British pop—and released Poison Boyfriend. The record dealt with themes that would recur in Momus' works: teen angst, bemusement, and sexual transgression. Currie got his first taste of the rock 'n' roll lifestyle when he toured the album through Germany with Primal Scream, but after encountering typical on-the-road hijinks he realized that he wasn't much of a party animal. The following year he went on the road with Felt and McGee's band, Biff Band Pow, through other parts of Europe.
Upon his return he recorded the Serge Gainsbourg and Jacques Brel–influenced Tender Pervert, an homage to sexual perversity intended to defend the rights of the oft-maligned gay community and to destigmatize people afflicted by AIDS. Tender Pervert was, according to an audio interview with Currie, "My statement, my ultimate album in the sense of laying out the Momus master plan." Reviewing the album in the New Musical Express (NME ), Len Brown called Momus "[o]ne of the most provocative, intelligent songwriters around; someone who'll tackle sexuality, (im)morality, and the sins of the world with almost embarrassing sincerity."
A voracious consumer of music and art, Currie was interested in all sorts of electronic sounds, specifically acid house and Detroit techno. These were quite evident on his next record, 1989's Don't Stop the Night, a biting critique of the upper classes' penchant for power abuse, as well as other topics that most pop artists wouldn't touch, let alone frame in synthy dance music. On this album Momus really began to have fun criticizing popular music, even while wholly embracing it. His ironic "Hairstyle of the Devil" ended up in the numbertwo spot of the indie charts.
Momus released his first compilation, Monsters of Love: Singles 1985–90, a compilation of his early EP songs and a few tracks from Poison Boyfriend in 1990. The following year he produced Hippopotamomus —the first of his major controversies. On the album, which was an homage to the notorious French singercomposer Serge Gainsbourg, Momus stretched the envelope even further, as All Music Guide noted, billing it as "a record about sex for children." The album tracks reflect Momus' usual scathing wit: "Michelin Man," for example, made a loose comparison between Michelin Tires' mascot and a blow-up doll, which provoked a lawsuit from the company. Settling out of court, Momus was forced to destroy all unsold copies of the album. Later releases appeared with an altered cover graphic and had the offending track deleted. Others found Hippopotamomus hard to swallow as well. "Momus is a bit like a mussel: it tastes good when swallowed whole, but examine it too closely and it looks as disgusting as a shriveled, unidentifiable piece of sexual organ. Spit it out immediately," commented Betty Page in New Musical Express, assigning the record a zero-out-of-ten review.
Currie followed Hippopotamomus with a tour of Japan, where he had a growing fan base, and a pair of albums. To satisfy contractual obligations with Creation, he released Voyager, an acid house–inflected clubby affair. To Richmond Records, though, he gave some less dance-oriented cabaret songs, masked as unreleased tracks from a live session recorded in 1910. Those songs culminated in Ultraconformist: Live Whilst out of Fashion, a spellbinding, Kurt Weill–inspired portrait of London's seedy underbelly.
In 1993 Currie returned to Japan for a concert series and to produce an album for the artist nOrikO, who had adopted her stage name the Poison Girlfriend as a tribute to Momus. His shows, promoted with the help of Keigo Oyamada (a.k.a. Cornelius), were sell-out successes. Back in London, though, Currie had begun a relationship with 16-year-old Shazna Nessa, the daughter of a Bangladesh-born businessman. When her father found out about them he sent Nessa off to Bangladesh for an arranged marriage. After much heartache and the Timelord record—a message to Nessa like David Bowie's The Man Who Fell to Earth —Currie helped her escape back to Britain. There he and Nessa were married, but they soon moved to Paris to keep out of the public eye. As usual, the British press had a fun time with Currie, though this time it had little to do with his music.
Currie's three-year stay in Paris yielded a few hits with Japanese singer Kahimi Karie, and three new albums—I Am a Kitten: Kahimi Karie Sings Momus in Paris, Philosophy of Momus, and Slender Sherbet. These brought Currie to the attention of Matthew Jacobson, an American who brought Currie overseas to play the United States for the first time to a sold-out crowd in New York City.
Momus signed with Jacobson's young Le Grand Magistery label and released the 20 Vodka Jellies collection as a primer for potential American fans. Ian Fortman, reviewing the record in the New Musical Express, said, "Homoeroticism, inflatable dolls, strychnine and unrequited love are all dealt with, in supremely literate style, so slip into your silk smoking jacket and enter the magnificent Momus mindscape of highballs, harems, and hookahs."
By 1997 Currie had moved back to London to begin working on new projects, among them cowriting and producing records for Jacques and Laila France. He had broken up with Nessa, but the two remained close friends. That same year he released Ping Pong, a return to form for the shape-shifting and persona-jumping artist. Peter Robinson of Time Out commented, "[H]e writes a scorching tune ... Momus himself may never achieve the success of his impersonators. How depressing."
For the Record . . .
Born Nicholas John Currie on February 11, 1960, in Paisley, Scotland; son of a professor; moved around the world according to his father's employment demands; settled in London, 1985; married Shazna Nessa, 1994 (divorced). Education: Attended University of Aberdeen, Scotland, 1978–84; master of arts degree (with honors) in English literature.
Started the Happy Family in Edinburgh, Scotland, 1981; released Man on Your Street, 1982; moved to London and reinvented himself as Momus, 1985; released Circus Maximus, 1986; forced to stop the release of his album Hippopotamomus by Michelin, 1991; sued by Wendy Carlos for her portrayal on his album Little Red Songbook, 1998; released Summerisle, 2004.
Addresses: Record company— American Patchwork c/o Darla Records, 2420 Gum Tree Ln., Fallbrook, CA 92028, phone: (760) 723-9255, fax: (760) 723-9506. Website— Momus Official Website: http://www.imomus.com.
The following year, Momus toured the States twice with Kahimi Karie. During this time an eye infection caused by a dirty contact lens led to blindness in one eye. (A corneal transplant a year later restored some sight.) The cover of his 1998 album Little Red Songbook, and others that followed, showed Momus wearing an eye patch. Recorded in his "analog baroque" style on his new sublabel of the same name, Little Red Songbook was a brilliant reinterpretation of classical songwriting twisted through a retro-futuristic lens. Mixing harpsichords, analog synthesizers, and a fondness for powdered wigs, the album became Currie's most controversial record to date.
This time the tempest centered around the track "Walter Carlos," an homage to the pioneering electronic composer who had a sex change operation after the releasing his monumental Switched-on Bach album. While Currie intended the song to be a humorous look at what might have happened had Carlos met himself as a woman in a time-travel experiment, Carlos didn't find it amusing. The now-female Wendy Carlos met Momus at one of his New York shows and presented him with a 50-page court document outlining the details of her $22 million defamation suit against him and Le Grand Magistery.
With legal fees mounting, Currie and Jacobson put their heads together and came up with Stars Forever, an album for which Momus created song portraits for 30 patrons willing to donate $1,000 to help the label's cause. Because of its strange genesis and its lyrical brilliance, Stars Forever drew plenty of attention in the press and (after an out-of-court settlement with Carlos), saved the label from bankruptcy. Wendy Mitchell of Salon wrote: "Lesser artists might have taken a more literal approach to portraiture, spewing facts in rhyming couplets. But Momus' subversive streak creates songs that people would never have written about themselves.... The fans didn't get exact representations of themselves. They got something better—a chance to become part of Momus' twisted world."
With the lawsuit behind him, Currie moved to New York's grass roots arts and indie music scene. There he recorded Folktronic, another electronic collage of Appalachian folk music and Macintosh-inspired digitalia. He extended the record into a month-long residency at Chelsea's LFL Gallery—a one-man performance/installation called "Folktronia."
After touring stints with Stereo Total and Kreidler and the odd academic speaking engagement, Currie started a new label, American Patchwork, through the Darla distribution company. He also recorded Travels with a Donkey with his ex-wife Nessa. He spent the following year in Tokyo indulging his interests in kabuki and other Japanese art forms. After touring the United States with American Patchwork artists Phiiliip, Rroland, the Gongs, and Super Madrigal Brothers, Currie returned to Japan and recorded 2003's Oskar Tennis Champion, his answer to microsonic glitchy techno, typically delivered via laptop computers.
Currie then moved to Berlin to begin working on his next collaboration with electronic musician Anne Laplantine. Eschewing irony and critical wit, Summerisle, released on American Patchwork in 2004, was a sincere examination of Japanese and Scottish folk music, filtered through Currie's voice and Laplantine's computer.
With the Happy Family
Man on Your Street, 4AD, 1982.
Puritans, 4AD, 1982.
Circus Maximus, Acme/él Records, 1986.
Poison Boyfriend, Creation, 1987.
Tender Pervert, Creation, 1988.
Don't Stop the Night, Creation, 1989.
Monsters of Love, Singles 1985–90, Creation, 1990.
Hippopotamomus, Creation, 1991.
Ultraconformist, Richmond, 1992.
Voyager, Creation, 1992.
Timelord, Creation, 1993.
Philosophy of Momus, Cherry Red, 1995.
Slender Sherbet, Cherry Red, 1995.
20 Vodka Jellies, Cherry Red/Le Grand Magistery, 1996.
Ping Pong, Cherry Red/Le Grand Magistery, 1997.
Little Red Songbook (original version), Le Grand Magistery, 1998.
Little Red Songbook (post-lawsuit version), Le Grand Magistery, 1999.
Stars Forever, Le Grand Magistery, 1999.
Folktronic, Analog Baroque, 2001.
Forbidden Software Timemachine: Best of the Creation Years,1987–1993, American Patchwork, 2003.
Oskar Tennis Champion, American Patchwork, 2003.
Summerisle, American Patchwork, 2004.
New Musical Express, July 16, 1988; July 6, 1991; October 12, 1996.
"Momus," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (February 2, 2004).
Momus Official Website, http://www.imomus.com (February 2, 2004).
"Momus: Stars Forever, " Salon, http://www.salon.com (February 4, 2004).
Additional information was obtained from an interview conducted with the artist on January 20, 2004.