I CAN SEE JAPAN by Francesco Tenaglia

The Scottish, musician/performance artist/novelist Nicholas Currie aka Momus is primarily known for his disorienting blend of pop music, which is reminiscent of the French chanson, early 80s synth-pop, British neo-folk, musique concrete, and 8-bit videogames. One of the first music artists to embrace the capabilities of the internet, he maintained the now defunct, but still fully browsable blog Click Opera, dismantling the mystique of the presence of the pop musician as a scarce resource cultivated via press releases, official interviews and so forth.
He has shared mp3s of alternative or half-baked versions of his music with his fan-base and his latest work, Hypnoprism, has been conceived to be released as a YouTube playlist a “hard copy”, and a classic CD. Even if he has been a pioneer of technology-aided directness and global reach, the tone of his records has always been informed by the places in which he actually lived and in 20 years he has relocated several times: London, Paris, New York, Berlin and, a couple of months ago, Osaka. Momus has been a long term Japanophile (the “Little Red Songbook” album from 1998 contains a recording of a prepubescent Currie singing “I can see Japan”, a song he wrote when he was seven).

Francesco Tenaglia: What are your first impressions about Japan, the local music scene and is there a specific sound-world in Osaka that interests you?:

Momus: Japan is the world turned upside down for me: I have to relearn all the most basic things. Shoes belong to rooms, not people. To shit I have to squat over a hole. To bathe I lower myself into a box-shaped hole and look up at “Mount Fuji” (actually an image on the tiles). Rather than grumble about people, I must be nice and smile and bow to them. I can leave my door unlocked and wear my pajamas to the local shop. There is an underground music scene here in Osaka that inspires me. I’ve seen Oorutaichi live twice since arriving, for instance. He makes deranged pop music that sounds like a cassette you might buy on the street in Jakarta, Java. I haven’t seen Doddodo yet, but I like her primal rap music very much too. And I’ve been to the house of Yoshimi of Boredoms / OOIOO, up on Mount Ikoma. She is like the Mother Goddess of the whole alternative scene here. The ambient sounds of the town are: police sirens on the elevated freeway, the cheerful or melancholy wails of street vendors, the sounds of homeless old men in Airin playing guitars by the side of the road, children’s voices and the chimes of electronic clocks in the nearby primary school, the strident patriotic sounds of a political demonstration as it passes under my window, the sound of heavy rain dripping into my extractor fan.

FT: If I remember correctly you don’t know the language yet. It’s interesting because a defining part of your work as a songwriter (even if less so from the 00s on), as a performance artist and, obviously, as a fiction writer has been story-telling. How is it to be surrounded by stories you can’t necessarily grasp?

Momus: Actually, it’s very much a continuation of what I’ve been doing as The Unreliable Tour Guide, or in my books and songs. The Unreliable Tour Guide disregards the “real” meaning of the art in the museums he guides people around (if such a thing were even knowable in the first place) and concentrates on making up outrageous stories and unlikely explanations to project onto them. This is funny in the same way that misheard lyrics are funny (and often more meaningful to us than the “correct” versions), and it’s sincere and modest in that it never claims to be authoritative or informed. Following Roland Barthes in Empire of Signs, I make this kind of projection in Japan all the time. My stance is that I cannot know what things mean to Japanese people: for that I would have to have been born and raised here. So I must concentrate on what things mean to me. And often they mean things like “confusion” or “alienation” or “puzzlement” or “fascination”. Since these responses happen in an environment of relative safety, Japan has the quality, for me, of an art exhibition. My bewilderment turns not into panic but into a sense of refreshment and casual, constant wonder.

FT: I am looking forward to seeing what such deliberate misunderstandings engender. However, preceding this upcoming production, I recently learned that the Paris-based label Tona Serenad is releasing a new 7″ EP. Before concluding, could you tell us a bit about its genesis?

Momus: The Thunderclown is a 4-song EP that came about when I met John Henriksson of Tona Serenad in Paris. Originally I’d been put in touch with him by Anne Laplantine, who told me he might be interested in releasing a vinyl version of the Hypnoprism album. Instead, he proposed a collaboration. John is a collector of vinyl 7-inch singles. He samples and loops parts of old records, making incredibly atmospheric backing tracks. It’s these that I’ve been using to write new songs around, and the results are rather magical. John particularly likes a track called The Charm Song from my Hypnoprism album, because I made that song in the same spirit he works in: it’s constructed from the instrumental break in a 1930s Mantovani number. I like to mix those warm old orchestral sounds with modern synths and a sensibility which couldn’t quite have existed when those records were made, or would never have had that sort of backing.

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