Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Masked Man

By Douglas Wolk

MARCH 2, 1998:  The singer and songwriter Momus thrives on masks, not the least of which is "Momus" itself. His passport identifies him as Nick Currie, a 37-year-old Scotsman now living in East London, but he's made a dozen or so albums under his nom de guerre. "I've got quite a clearly defined idea in my head of what the brand image of Momus is. Momus is a storyteller and a satirist, and a provocateur, and a bit of a tease, and sexually unpredictable, and rather rapacious in his imagination. All those things."

That's only the bottom-most mask. His lyrics stack on more identities; in his songs he's been a time traveler, a samurai, a child molester. The new Ping Pong (Le Grand Magistery), which he describes as "a return to core Momus values," invokes virtual-reality "avatar masks" in its introduction. Elsewhere, Momus becomes a "Tamagotchi Press Officer" ("The Tamagotchi will speak to no one today . . . "), "Professor Shaftenberg" ("sponsored by Lufthansa to screw the pants off Japanese girls"), and his own "pervert Doppelgänger."

He's been known to lend out some of his identities too: he's written songs for a handful of pop singers in Japan, notably the Poison Girlfriend and Kahimi Karie. "Good Morning World," originally a jingle he wrote for a cosmetics commercial, became a huge Japanese hit when Karie released it as a single. And Manfred Mann, of all people, recently covered his song "A Complete History of Sexual Jealousy, Parts 17-24."

Call him the ideal postmodernist, a one-man information explosion. A conversation with Momus, or a song by him, seems to touch on all of culture at once. In the course of a few minutes, he mentions Jack Smith, Howard Devoto, Keith Haring, John Kricfalusi, Wong Kar-Wei, Georgina Starr, Nicholson Baker, and his desire to rewrite songs for Celine Dion. ("If I could just change five words in every song that she sings from here on out, that would really make me happy. Like, I could change the word 'love' to 'stamp collecting.' It would be immeasurably more interesting.") The music behind him works the same way, lifting patterns and textures from all over pop's past and present and recombining them with bone-dry wit, putting Jacques Brel-ish wordplay to Pet Shop Boys-like synths and Sugarhill Gang bass lines.

Momus calls himself a "tremendously gadget-conscious person," and he's a little frustrated that America's analog mobile network makes it impossible for him to update his lavish Web site (www.demon.co.uk/momus) via his Nokia pocket phone's personal-internet software while in a moving vehicle. He's also ahead of the curve in what he listens to: Ping Pong must be the first album to mention drum 'n' bass cult hero Squarepusher in its lyrics, and he's very enthusiastic about Cornelius, whose first non-Japanese album won't be out for months.

All this modernity and postmodernity and self-masking does have a down side, though Momus spins it to his advantage: "My weakness is that I'm not able to tap into normal emotions. I'm not really interested in those. Those are for breeders. I mean, I am a breeder, personally, myself, but I'm interested in the reproduction and deformation of social value, rather than biological reproduction, which is what most love songs are ultimately about."

At the moment, he's doing an extensive American tour, sharing the stage with his keyboardist/DAT operator, Gilles, who opens the show with a short French-language set of his own. Momus, though, can't help being the focus of attention. Dressed in hideous '70s outfits and even more hideous Mr.-Magoo-by-way-of-Serge-Gainsbourg glasses ("People laugh at me a lot on the street, wearing these, but that's good -- I like to bring cheer into people's lives"), he crouches on a stool or wanders into the audience, dangling gangly limbs everywhere, taking requests for songs so crammed full of words it's a marvel they fit in his head.

Of course, for someone who says he treats his life as a "fact-gathering mission" for material to turn into songs, a tour is never just a tour, and a jaunt through America is full of opportunities for mask making. "I want to rake through the second-hand stores of Chicago and Boston, and I want to see if Mike Davis was right about Los Angeles in his book City of Quartz, which says that it's a kind of nightmare 21st-century Blade Runner city, and I want to see if it's true that San Francisco is a European town or thinks it's a European town, and see what the phrase 'the Pacific Rim' actually means, just doing all those things. And I'm going to be in Nashville at some point, so I'm probably going to be witheringly scornful of that conservative, reactionary country-and-western tradition. Maybe I'll be converted by it all and go home and write a country album."

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