We Asked Momus and Joe Howe to Dissect Their Indecipherable Record, 'Sunbutler'
From Scotland and Japan, the two producers go head to head on their collaborative 2012 LP.
Image by Mehmet Ulusahin.
At some point, in the last few decades, Nick Currie became someone else. The Paisley, Scotland, born singer, songwriter, archivist, provocateur and cultural commentator, took on a new guise. He became Momus. Named after the Greek god of mockery, Momus became the poster boy of a particularly knowing, particularly literary kind of post-punk-post-pop that was as indebted to the Roland Barthes as much as it was Jaques Brel. On albums like Tender Pervert and Hippopotamomus he crafted bedsit symphonies for voarcious consumer's of culture. Momus, having spent time in Berlin, Paris, and New York, now resides in Osaka, Japan, where he seems to spend his blissful days recording new music, scouring shops and markets for clothes and books, and detailing his various artistic endeavours on his oft-updated website.
Joe Howe, another Scot, is a composer, producer, playwright, performer, video director, and all sorts of other things that put us to shame. There can't be many other people working in electronic music today who can boast a performance on Overdrive Infinity and an MDes in Sound for the Moving Image from Glasgow School of Art. He says he liked, "Writing music, Touring, Working to a brief, Collaborations, Radio Drama, Vegan Food, Reading, Nice jumpers, Synthesizers," and dislikes, "Miniature crockery, Puppets." Which seems fair enough to us.
The pair have made two records together. 2008's JoeMus, a squidgy, lo-fi, synthpop gem, and 2012's Sunbutler. The latter, released on Currie's own American Patchwork imprint) was a beguiling, strange, slightly-off, slightly-sour album, that rested somewhere between the curdled synthetics of Yellow Magic Orchestra, the perfect pop of Scritti Politti's Cupid & Psyche 85, and the heavenly squelch of all your favourite boogie records. It's arch and alien, and undeniably intriguing. Every few months we find ourselves dusting it off and wondering exactly how it came to be. Given that Howe's just popped up on the latest instalment of the wonderful French label's Sound Pellegrino's SND.PE compilations and Momus will be appearing at London's Cafe Oto in March, we thought we'd get the pair of them to ask each other a few questions, to see if we could gain a better understanding of an album that's puzzled us for all these years. We set a few stipulations: the first question had to be related to the album, the second had to concern Japanese culture in a broader context, and the third had to consider the last piece of art—be it a film, a play, a novel, a sculpture, a website etc—that made them want to renounce everything creative they'd ever done and start again. Here's what we found out.
Momus: Imagine I'm a synth nerd: I want to know about the synths you used on the Sunbutler record, and the restrictions you placed on yourself, and whether they took you in any unexpected directions?
Joe Howe: I like the framing of this one. Picturing you as a journalist at the NAMM 2016 trade fair who makes Youtube product demonstrations for a living. Anyway, no new synths are going to be sold to your subscribers as a result of this interview, I'm afraid.
The record was made entirely using the Yamaha DX7 synthesizer, which is the same age as me! I restricted myself to using only five tracks of DX7 per song and mostly, the recordings are mostly played by hand with only a couple of effects added later in the mix.
I found that this stricture really made me concentrate on the 'usefulness' of each sound, whether it had an interesting tonal quality or texture (glassy, metallic, semi-organic etc.), or even a particular function in the track (rhythmic propulsion, stupid/funny noises etc.).
Imagine you live in Japan and I live in Glasgow. Do we make the same record? (Actually, it's weird: you're sitting in Scotland making quite Japanesey sounds on Sunbutler, and I'm sitting in Osaka singing in a Scottish accent about Warrender Baths, Warriston Crematorium and Gleneagles!)
Yeah I guess there's something in the melodies or structures that has echoes Japanese synth-pop, and the DX7 is from Japan too. We should probably make a companion record of rigorous Pibroch chanter parts (synthesized, naturally) with impressionistic Japanese poetry over the top. Though, to be honest, it's probably best that we spared the public this version of Sunbutler.
My reaction to amazing art is to pastiche the thing, or transpose it into another medium. But there are some things that impress me that I can't copy or steal, due to lack of ability. Drawing and painting is one — for instance, the painting on the cover of Sunbutler, which I know is by a friend of yours. Can you talk about that painting?
The painting is called is an untitled piece by Benjamin Rawson, I find his work really fascinating. He did a show at Glasgow's Good Press gallery which was very popular and we got to talking about some sort of collaboration. I think something about the very regimented 'order' represented in the painting, coupled with the arbitrary, psychedelic assortment of objects displayed really appeals to my sensibilities—organised, yet puzzling!
Joe Howe: I know it goes against the conventional narrative of making art but I feel like Sunbutler was one of the 'easiest' records I've worked on, perhaps due to the systems/structures in place (and that the fact that I knew that you had to finish the thing!) Do you feel like it's important to struggle to create?
Momus: Not at all, in fact I usually find quite the opposite: if something is a struggle you should abandon it and start something else. When it works, it works fast: there's a clear overall shape to the project, you get a feel from a musical texture, or a title might suggest the whole thing, acorn-like. Then it's just a question of taking a series of procedural steps, fairly intuitively, to realise the finished product. I concentrate on one thing, and have the next task cueing up while I'm doing it. It might be "needs shaker from 2.33", then while you're doing shaker you start thinking "kalimba on chorus". Then you know it's finished when there are no more tasks cued up, and it sounds good. Of course, then you might do some editing and change it quite radically again. In my case I'm always keen to move on to the video, which often changes the context of the song completely.
As a follow on to your question, as a Scot who lives in 'far flung' Osaka, do you think that a distance (geographical/emotional) is necessary in making work? This is with particular reference to the difference between the 19/20 year old Nick that appears in your recently dug-out diaries and the Nick of 2016. Maybe you could answer as both?
Hmm, there are quite a few dimensions to this question. In the 80s I was a bit scared to leave London because the UK music press and music industry was in London, and that was the context I was working in. But I remember wanting to move to Berlin, and asking Alan McGee about it, and him saying "Go for it!" And then I moved to Paris, and New York, and Berlin, and finally Osaka, and each place definitely brings its own local influences. In Berlin, for example, you inevitably go a bit more experimental. In Japan I find I'm both picking up local influences (mostly the folk music of the summer festivals, but also indie electronica by local artists like Ytamo and Oorutaichi) but also reconnecting with a highly filtered version of my Scottish self, and the things that I would have been into at 20 (a lot of German stuff). This all relates to how ambitious and conformist you are, too: people in their 20s tend to be super-ambitious, and they don't realise how conformist that makes them, and how narrow their criteria of "success" have become. I think you need to strike out and live somewhere cheaper and quieter and find what's important to you. "Leave the capitol, exit this Roman shell..."
One of the last pieces of art that gave me that big turnaround feeling was seeing Bob Fosse's All That Jazz in a big group of friends. The final scenes (spoilers) where the protagonist is sort of scoring and dramatising his own death really moved and surprised me. I've always been 'scared' of musicals and had the realisation that this might be something to do the huge 'contrived' outpouring of emotion they both show on stage and elicit from the audience. Anyway, I'm facing up to my fears of musicals and re-evaluating them as an artform. Do you think you'd ever write a musical?
It's funny that you mention Bob Fosse, because of course he stars in one of the Sunbutler "scratch videos"—as The Snake in a scene from The Little Prince. The way I've recontextualised it, he's dancing around the desert telling a child he'll "never be your funky paedophile." And the irony is that he dances totally like Michael Jackson (because of course Jackson took a lot of moves from Fosse). Before making that video, I would have told you that I hated Fosse, and hated his influence on pop choreography. But now, like you, I've sort of recalibrated. I still prefer more left-field choreographers like Boris Charmatz, but I admire anyone who makes their own language of movement, the same way I admire certain people (I'm thinking of Henrik Vibskov) who make a personal language with garments. My idea of pop music is that it's a place where all these different things can come together: costume, movement, sound, words, cinematography, ritual, a whole collage of different things that can just make you dizzy with pleasure. It doesn't have to be "a musical", but it's a lot more than merely musical.
You can buy the Sunbutler record here.