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Mon, Nov. 16th, 2009 12:00 pm
My noughties 2: The Heliogabalus of Orchard Street

To get totally into the themes on my 2000-recorded, 2001-released Folktronic album I should really be an urban ethnomusicologist with a robot assistant like the one you hear in my hour-long audio documentary Fakeways: Manhattan Folk, made just before the album and still the best piece of scene-setting for it. This Alan Lomax figure would probably have to start with the basic facts: Folktronic is an album made by a 40 year-old Scottish musician who moved to New York in March 2000. He records the album at 38 Orchard Street, at the Chinatown end of the Lower East Side. He's been in New York just a couple of months when he starts, but already he's absorbing a lot of the local zeitgeist, and particularly the idea that America is a nation with plastic roots where you can be whatever you want to be -- as long as it isn't authentic. He lives with his Japanese girlfriend.



Books and people influence this record. The people are new New York friends like Steve Lafreniere, a journalist who interviews me for Index magazine, the singer Stephin Merritt, or the multimedia designer (and friend of Fischerspooner) John-Robert Howell. As for the books, just as the prog-medieval direction of the Kahimi record I'd made in 1999 (most of which is glommed onto the end of Folktronic) was influenced by Paul Stump's book The Music's All That Matters, the "Fake Americana" material that comprises two thirds of Folktronic is influenced by Nicholas Dawidoff's book In the Country of Country: A Journey to the Roots of American Music. But a much more important source is a copy of German sexologist Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis I buy at the New Museum bookshop.



In a website thought published in April 2000 I have "a great idea": "Why not make an album of folk songs about sexual fetishes, set to synthesisers? Folk songs are usually about mining disasters or clipper mutinies, but why shouldn't they be about archaic hysterical sex fetishes too? The songs should have a childish gaiety, be light and celebratory... They would play with the associations of the words Folk, Fake and Fuck. The Folk (ballads, reels, laments, shanties, forebitters) would be Fake Folk, of course, played on early monophonic synthesisers. But the Fuck would also be Fake Fuck, because that's what fetish is. It's an evasion of the 'real thing', which is fucking. It's a fake fuck... A world in which the authentic was not prioritised over the fake, and 'healthy' fucking had no precedence over fetish, would be a rather splendid one, it seems to me."



And so I set to home-recording, alone in my tiny apartment, and often naked. In proposing inauthenticity as America's authenticity, I was making Manhattan -- a city of Jews, gays, Chinese and the art world -- the centre of all authentic inauthenticity, and in proposing deviance as the most universal sexuality I was merging Alan Lomax with Alfred Kinsey. Steve Lafreniere -- who heard most of these songs before anyone else did, and was in a sense their ideal listener -- started referring to me as "the Heliogabalus of Orchard Street". Other people influenced the album: Gavin Brown, whose art gallery in the Meatpacking District featured Jeremy Deller-like garage sales and a great scenester bar called Passerby. Spencer Sweeney's distortion-noise band Actress, which I heard at Passerby, blasting over the speakers. A conceptual folk band called Centuries, who came in from Statten Island to play weird gigs in tribute to Bruce Haack and Klaus Nomi. The records of Raymond Scott, which I'd buy from Other Music or Kim's. The bizarre school operas of Ford Wright. The scene around Fischerspooner, Bobby Conn, Ukrainian and Polish folk rituals in the East Village and Williamsburg. Thrift stores and painted Easter eggs.





Appalachia: I'd call this Cornelius-influenced "ring modulation baroque". I remember playing it live for the first time at Tonic, and Arto Lindsay shouting at the soundcheck "Momus, it's distorted!" Which is funny if you know Arto's noise history. This was supposed to sound like Actress, but didn't.

Smooth Folk Singer: The brutally simple sampling style here (I think it's a Leadbelly groove) owes something to Dymaxion, who'd recently worked with Takako Minekawa. There's a 90s-style campy irony here which grates a bit now, lots of Stylophone, and you can hear New York City police sirens in the background. It's Adorno meeting Stephin Merritt, with a backbeat. I recall thinking this record was going to be hugely popular in America, as big a seller as 69 Love Songs. It wasn't.

Mountain Music: The American Indian museum at Battery Park was a big influence; I bought some CDs of ethnic fiddle music which get used a lot, meshed with the Country Music patterns on my Technics KN600. Inspired by the same museum, Shizu started making beadwork samplers with "digital" pine trees on them (shapes that translated easily to Jack Howell's Flash programming when Folktonic became Folktronia, an exhibition at Zach Feuer's gallery in Chelsea). A bit later, concept-country band Big and Rich would mine the same seams. I recall Rednex being important too. Trashy country-inflected chart pop, Beck, Bruce Haack...



Simple Men: John Cage percussion accompanies a ditty which sites in Appalachia Adorno's ideas about our projection of "soul" onto the poor. The history of the recording of folk music in America is the history of Jews descending from the cities to pass amongst -- or pass for -- yokels (hello Robert Zimmerman!). It's a bit like Thomas Jerome Newton's limo sweeping by astonished hillbillies in The Man Who Fell to Earth. Two incredibly incompatible cultures (opposite Gini-spectrum ends) gawping at each other.

Finnegan the Folk Hero: But if you allow that fakeness, you allow folk to update itself. Why shouldn't folk be as relevant to the 2000 NASDAQ crash as the 1929 stock market crash and the depression which followed it? Are only red states allowed to folk? What about blue ones? And what about web designers down on their luck, are they to go unsung?

Protestant Art: I pit the sensibility described in Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism ("Keep your receipts!") against the excesses of the New York art world. This was a time of NEA scandals; people didn't want their hard-earned tax dollars spent on Piss Christs and scato-AIDS performances. It's Charles Ives, Grandma Moses and the Nazis versus Ron Athey, Karen Finlay and Chris Ofili! Which side are you on?

US Knitting: And what if your sense of American folk comes via American TV? From Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons? As I speculate in the Fakeways documentary, "For a generation whose knowledge of the world comes through media, there's no gap between media pastiche and sincere self-expression, whatever that is." Why shouldn't you learn American Gothic values from TV, or some other artform? Thornton Wilder's Stage Manager in Our Town, doesn't he owe something to Brecht? And this song, is it pastiching Dylan's John Wesley Harding album, or David Ackles' American Gothic? Can we feel, here, the results of several coast-to-coast Momus tours, and the rush of American rural landscapes against a car windscreen?



Jarre in Hicksville: Here we reach a more poignant Outsider Pop, Avant Pop, or Unpop. I'm sampling Patterns of Plants by Mamoru Fujieda, so things take a more introverted, Japanese turn. The theme is how electronics destroy indigenous culture of small towns: "They've built themselves a synthesiser, smashed their old guitars". This is pomo meta -- music about music, song about songs. It's a bit clever-clever, a bit touching too. The Harry Partch feel is nice.

Taperecorder Man: Recounts Dylan's electric "betrayal" of his folk roots at the Newport Folk Festival, but makes it a backstage battle between Alan Lomax and Dylan, resulting in the apocryphal moment when "folk musique concrete" is invented. Here the theme and the sound meld quite well; it really is the blues reworked by Raymond Scott, with Alan Lomax samples thrown in and lots of fake crackle.

Little Apples: I play on the emotions in a certain kind of cerebral country song -- Country Roads, Virginia on my Mind -- stretching wordy, alienated verses into weirdly irregular shapes. There are millennial tech references (Bryce, the Apple G4 Cube) and samples from Alberto Camerini, an obscure Italian synth pierrot. Sci-fi banjos, geodesic domes, and a sort of appealing melancholia missing earlier on the record.



Robocowboys: Gary Numan in a spaghetti western! Cowboys singing along to Texas Instruments! The lonely crowd! The paradox of an individualism where "everybody does it like no-else can" and "alienation's a kind of belonging". Should've been a single!

Psychopathia Sexualis: The most obviously Krafft-Ebing inspired song on the album. High IQ academics study bestial Anytown USA residents. A German sexual analysis of America, a scientific take on irrational sexuality and religion: "Evening Reverend, how's your sister, your lovely sister your wife?" A typical American town... with transparent walls.

Folk Me Amadeus: Here the album's main theme ends; this really sums it all up. Amidst Falco references and the riff from Europe's The Final Countdown, I update the tale of 1960s folk rock: "My children were fair and wore stars in their hair, now they're bald, watch TV and buy New Age CDs". But -- and it's a sort of redemption -- "the lack of deeper meaning's getting deeper all the time". Cotton-Eye Joe by Rednex actually has me crying by the end of the song, garlanded by the poignant bleeps of Palm Pilots.



Handheld: And speaking of Palm Pilots, here's a love song to one of the critters. There's an influence from Japanese concepto-pop here; Cornelius and Delaware. And of course from Holger Hiller's Moog reading of Hindemith's Wir Bauen Ein Stadt. The folk theme has ended; we're back to baroque. The robot voice is done well -- if only the whole album had been sung like this! I'm not too happy with the sound of my voice elsewhere.

The Penis Song: The theme has now gone; we pull out all the stops -- and all the dick jokes. This is basically Robb Wilton or Georges Brassens-style bawdy variety, designed to be a live favourite. Monty Python looms large, and maybe a certain kind of campy Williamsburg cabaret.



Heliogabalus: A return to classic Momus and classical themes. I'd been watching I Claudius on DVD. And there's an echo of Oscar Wilde in the line about "the mantle of the evil always claimed by joyless vultures to explain the strange allure of other cultures". You can hear that I was mostly hanging out with gay people in New York.

Going for a Walk with a Line: From here on the album is in medieval-prog mode (although this number is more of a rap), so it's a reversion to my 1999 style. That fact makes it feel like the record is moving backwards in time, not forwards; like it's the end of a 90s logic, not the beginning of a noughties logic. Here we have the Dufay Collective influence, Paul Klee, Germanic spirituality, lots of BBC Radiophonic Workshop references. I like the introversion, the dreamy imagination. Seeing the Prinzhorn Collection of art by the mentally ill at the Drawing Centre influenced this. The Nazis' Entartete Kunst show made no distinction between Klee and the lunatic asylum. Something of the atmosphere in this track also informs the German radiophonic piece about me, 700 Minuten Beim Flaneur. So I guess this actually does point forward to my "German period".

The Lady of Shallott: This is a demo of the Kahimi Karie track from 1999, with inserts of the studio recording. It's musically more interesting than most of Folktronic, deeper somehow. Kate Bush, Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody...

Mistaken Memories of Medieval Manhattan: Manhattan imagined from London via Eno's late 1970s stay here. Splicing between demos and originals, I'm still learning editing, as you can hear. These songs rarely got mentioned by reviewers, but they're by far the best on the record, though outside the concept. There's more than mere jokiness. Mentions NY Chinatown before I lived there! The snows of Villon are falling on Manhattan as rain.

Pygmalism: This -- in some ways my masterpiece -- melds Kubrick's 2001, Bladerunner and Pymalion. It's typically "overdetermined" -- there's really way more going on than anyone has a right to expect from pop music. The perfect end to an imperfect record.

Previous: Introduction
Next: Oskar Tennis Champion



Folktronic is available on CD from this page and in the US via iTunes. John-Robert Howell's Flash console featuring some of the tracks is online here.

44CommentReply


(Anonymous)
Mon, Nov. 16th, 2009 11:32 am (UTC)

"These songs rarely got mentioned by reviewers, but they're by far the best on the record, though outside the concept. There's more than mere jokiness."


"This -- in some ways my masterpiece"

in some ways so true. this was the first momus record where the intellectualism put me off. (except the kk songs + going for a walk with a line)

was henry darger an influence too on these songs?


ReplyThread
imomus
imomus
imomus
Mon, Nov. 16th, 2009 11:41 am (UTC)

Yes, Henry Darger definitely influenced this! I'd seen his work at a folk museum in Atlanta during the Amerikong Tour in February 1998. By 2000, you could see his stuff at PS1 and the NY Folk Art Museum too. Shizu adores Henry Darger, so we went to see everything of his we could. The polymorphous perversity plus the folksiness of Darger matches Folktronic perfectly.


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Nov. 16th, 2009 11:33 am (UTC)

Did no one review this record or something? Don't you ever shut up about your own work, don't you ever just throw it out there and see what people make of it? For me, you somehow spoil your own work by your volubility, your desperation to tell everyone where it comes from and what it all means; you strip it of its oddness and mystery by neatly placing it all in a theoretical narrative. Now you've told me all about it, I don't have much desire to hear it. In fact, since reading your blog, I've become steadily more interested in your ideas about the world, and steadily less interested in your art.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Mon, Nov. 16th, 2009 11:45 am (UTC)

I've become steadily more interested in your ideas about the world, and steadily less interested in your art.

Fair enough, guv! But if that's the case, you're not really being logical telling me to shut up about my life and my work. The ideas don't really materialize without the life and the work.


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Nov. 16th, 2009 12:00 pm (UTC)

One of your most interesting and original records, nothing sounded like that before 2001; I remember the first time I heard Little Apples and I suddenly knew you were the real thing.

Unfortunately I feel as though you lose yourself with "...Oskar" and the subsequent records after this - Folktronica feels like it should've ended here and it in a bunch of ways it definitely did with the books/blog and all.

Think you can be this sonically original and striking again in 2011? No sarcasm there.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Mon, Nov. 16th, 2009 12:13 pm (UTC)

I don't actually enjoy Folktronic as much as, say, Joemus, in listening terms. I think the ideas around it are interesting, if a little bit of their time and place (which is fine, it was an exciting time and place). I think the 2011 record, if there is one, will be a collaboration with Hypo. I'll probably love it, but nobody will buy it or review it.

You may be overestimating Folktronic because of the place it has in a nostalgic moment in your own lifestory (and I welcome personal accounts of how these records fitted the lives of their listeners) just as I'm underestimating it because there's an "awkward interval" between 2000 and 2009. The memes, like the spectacle frames, look a little naff.

But I agree that Little Apples has... something.


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Nov. 16th, 2009 12:46 pm (UTC)

There is a huge amount of interesting and challenging things going on in Folktronica, both musically and lyrically, so I guess that’s why it didn’t sell so well, yet in the longer term ( and I still listen) makes it pleasurably fascinating – strangely enough your explication doesn’t, for me, detract from that. Keep up the generous self analysis

Rainmer


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Nov. 16th, 2009 02:47 pm (UTC)

"Momus is an offbeat one-man-band fronted by Nick Currie"

Can one-man-bands be fronted?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Mon, Nov. 16th, 2009 03:06 pm (UTC)

Are you calling us schizophrenic?


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Nov. 16th, 2009 02:50 pm (UTC)

Great album. It's interesting that it started with overtly s*xual intent (maybe everything good does, and we only pretend that the seed was an 'idea' in hindsight.)


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Mon, Nov. 16th, 2009 03:08 pm (UTC)

Your asterisk reminds me that the US iTunes store lists a track called "The P***s Song" as Folktronic's most popular download.


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cheapsurrealist
cheapsurrealist
Dave Nold
Mon, Nov. 16th, 2009 03:23 pm (UTC)

Glad to see this is still online:
http://www.artandleisure.com/art/momus/flash/folktronic/folktronic.html

It makes me happy.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Mon, Nov. 16th, 2009 03:29 pm (UTC)

Oh wow, haven't seen that in ages! Good find!


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silenceinspades
silenceinspades
silence in spades
Mon, Nov. 16th, 2009 04:53 pm (UTC)

I've got some nostalgic attachment to this album because I was living in New York at the time and it is a pretty good encapsulation of what was going on (at least in the music scene). It's weird to hear that it was unpopular because everyone I know had a copy of it, and in some cases this is probably the only Momus album they own.
I should probably mention I have nostalgic attachments to OCKY MILK too, but that's because I was living on the internet when that album came out.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Mon, Nov. 16th, 2009 04:58 pm (UTC)

Actually I have very little idea of sales figures. Maybe it did sell well, who knows?

Ha, living on the internet! I know how that feels!


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Nov. 16th, 2009 08:51 pm (UTC)

A problematic album, but outstanding in places.

The expectations of '69 Love Songs'-type success is telling; whilst that album takes a theme and plays with it, 'Folktronic' seems too anarchic, too carefree to stay within even an unconventional structure and unity- the quality that, arguably, makes Merritt's album so great.

I guess is why I think 'Pygmalism' was such a defining moment for me, when I first heard this record- arriving, as it does, just when the album seems about to crack under the restless desire to break its self-imposed limits. It's a dazzling song.

If the album didn't meander, if it didn't lose its focus, the ending wouldn't be quite so hard-hitting. But such structural playfulness is hardly a characteristic of your average pop record- I can't really blame the public too much!

- Mike


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Nov. 16th, 2009 09:52 pm (UTC)

This is a great record - I don't know why you sound a little dismissive of it. I feel your recent albums don't quite overflow with ideas in the same way, now you have this blog. It's an album where you really experiment. So what was the nude recording all about - that really is a revealing fact- was it the humidity?

If anything, the nonsense aspect explored in Going For A Walk With A Line, is pretty much your current focus. Pygmalism is the highlight for me. I listen to the noughties albums a lot more than the previous two decades - probably because of the experimentation.

Fascinating post - always good to hear what inspired your work.

Richard


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Mon, Nov. 16th, 2009 10:23 pm (UTC)

So what was the nude recording all about?

We Scots aren't really prepared for the heat of an Appalachian a New York summer!


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count_vronsky
count_vronsky
Mon, Nov. 16th, 2009 11:06 pm (UTC)
I will not let thee go unless thou bless me

You know how the army's psy-ops unit sometimes uses music as a torture device? I remember reading somewhere that that version of cotton eyed joe was the number one most effective song. After hearing it 100 times at high volume people would just go insane, begging for their life.







Edited at 2009-11-16 11:12 pm (UTC)


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count_vronsky
count_vronsky
Tue, Nov. 17th, 2009 12:59 am (UTC)
Re: I will not let thee go unless thou bless me

little apples has a bit of a Gentle on my Mind feel to it :) (mixed with '80s training montages and arcade sounds)

Edited at 2009-11-17 01:01 am (UTC)


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bennycornelius
bennycornelius
Mon, Nov. 16th, 2009 11:30 pm (UTC)

If it hadn't been for Brian Eno,
I'd have been married along time ago.
Where did you come from?
Where did you go?
Where did you come from Brian Eno...?


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skazat
skazat
Alex à Paris
Tue, Nov. 17th, 2009 02:00 am (UTC)

I was pleasantly surprised that Rednex's rendition of, "Cotton Eyed Joe" still gets regular play at discotheques in the Loire Valley.

I was also pleasantly drunk, which would explain what I was doing, at a discotheque, in the Loire Valley.


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skazat
skazat
Alex à Paris
Tue, Nov. 17th, 2009 02:14 am (UTC)

I should add that when that single came out, I couldn't have been more confused at what was happening - it's funny only NOW understanding the complete manufacturing of the group. I think I was honestly under the impression that some fine midwest people were putting dance beats to old songs. Oh those pre-wikipedia days. MTV was getting weird then and my interests were fed by MTV still.

This type of appropriation is interesting and prevelent - and is all around me: I walk out my door in the 4th andr. and the first vendor sells, "American" hot dogs - I... don't quite know what exactly it is, he's selling (or why these fine parisian people, with educated tasted find these things tempting), after crossing the street after the fake american fake 50's diner, I can go to Omberkampf to a fake, "American" dive bar, right after the fake, fake milk bar (Le Orange Mecanique!). I'll go back to the States and wonder about all those strange French restaurants that seemed so authentic, before.

It makes me think: what do I know about anything, except some façade? How do you get into the core of something, without being it?


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microworlds
microworlds
Sparkachu Maelworth
Tue, Nov. 17th, 2009 04:36 am (UTC)

PYGMALISM IS STILL MY FAVORITE EVEN THOUGH A COMPLETE HISTORY OF SEXUAL JEALOUSY PARTS 17-24 IS MY MOST PLAYED SONG


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projectmustache
projectmustache
projectmustache
Wed, Nov. 18th, 2009 06:17 am (UTC)

This is my favorite record of yours...Perfect in concept and execution. I also think this [along with Stars Forever] is your best SOUNDING record. Not sure why you're so down on the sonics...And thanks again for providing this commentary.


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