Interview: Robyn Hitchcock
When it comes to writing upbeat pop songs about insects, deceased spouses, and other suitable-for-nightmares subject matter, former Soft Boy Robyn Hitchcock is the best there is. And his singular point of view has developed no small number of friends, fans and followers: he's recorded with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings (Spooked), been filmed by Jonathan Demme (Storefront Hitchcock),and both recorded and toured with R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck and longtime R.E.M. sidemen Scott McCaughey and Bill Rieflin (Robyn Hitchcock & the Venus 3's Olé! Tarantula).
Just after noon on July 11th, with Hitchcock traveling across the Long Island Sound on his way to another solo acoustic tour stop, he offered his views on the Arctic Circle, his vast songwriting catalog and the potential lifespan of vinyl, while brushing aside the opportunity to pimp out his latest box set, Luminous Groove, released this past Tuesday.
I'm going to throw a couple of short answer questions at you before we get started with the more serious stuff.
Tell me something that you've never ever done before in your life.
I've never been to the Arctic Circle, but I am going in September.
Well then, that answer would be a lie in October, but we can take it now.
Yeah, late September, early October.
Why are you going to the Arctic Circle?
I'm going with a collection of musicians and filmmakers and artists and writers with an organization called Cape Farewell who take artists and scientists--artists in the broad sense of the word--to just to witness the polar regions. To see the disintegrating and terrifying, you know, majestic, but imperiled landscape. I haven't been up there, but my wife has been before which is why I'm going. And this one has a lot of musicians on it.
Obviously your wife had a positive experience or you wouldn't be duplicating the trip.
You're dead right, although the one she was on was a much smaller ship. It was a 1910 Seamaster schooner and they're putting the musicians on a Russian minesweeper. They think we need more space.
Well, since you've never done this before, it's literally a once in a lifetime experience. Is this something you're excited about?
Yeah, yeah. I mean, you know, I very seldom go anywhere I haven't been before. In fact, this ferry is another example of somewhere I haven't been before. By this stage my trails are well-worn and my grooves run pretty deep, so this is a deviation.
I know that you're going to learn about the environment but is there any specific work involved or will you be able to just kind of soak in the experience?
I think the work is soaking it in. I mean, the idea is that we're not doing anything apart from witnessing what we're seeing. So we're getting away from all our regular activities and pursuits. You know, I dare say people are going to be frantically journaling and everything, but there isn't any mission other than to see what we see because very few people see it and it won't be there much longer. Whether we can do anything about it is another question, but we're lucky enough to see it and I suppose that's the idea. That's what Cape Farewell is doing is showing people what it is. And because I've never been there I can't pre-react but I know it's completely changed my wife's existence and altered her compass completely. It's changed the medium she works in and all kinds of stuff, so I'm interested to see what it does to me.
It sounds like a wonderful opportunity.
Tell me something that you've done once and one time only.
Well, that's mentionable. What have I done once and once only? I don't know. I've made mistakes more than once, that's for sure. I've seen the Queen three times. I've never met Morrissey so I suppose I could say I've never met Morrissey once, but in some sense I've never met him many times. I don't know. I'm a very habitual creature so I think I tend to do things multiply or not at all.
You mentioned your wife. Is this your first marriage?
Michele is my wife. And we are married, yeah.
But have you been married more than once?
I don't think so, no.
I wasn't trying to pry as much as I was attempting to hint or maybe steer.
Oh, you're right!I've only been married once. Yes, that's true. Yeah. Thank you. No, no. That's true. I'm very old-fashioned in that way.
Tell me the name of a book you've read at least twice.
I've read The Gormenghast Trilogy. Have you read those? Mervyn Peake's The Gormenghast Trilogy. I recommend that to anyone who likes my stuff.
Tell me the name of a movie you've seen at least three times.
Well, I've seen Magnum Force with Clint Eastwood and Hal Holbrook. I've seen that more times than probably anybody except the director of the movie, I should think. I've seen that a lot.
If I had 100 guesses I wouldn't have come up with Magnum Force for the movie you've seen at least three times.
No, no. I've seen that just because I don't watch TV much, but somehow whenever I turn the TV on Magnum Force would be on so it kind of forced its way into my life.
That almost seems fated. Has that ever come up in a song?
Yeah, if you listen to the last album we did, Robyn Hitchcock & the Venus 3, Olé! Tarantula, there's a track called "(A Man's Gotta Know His Limitations) Briggs," which is probably at the end of Side One in the old language. And that's based on Magnum Force, yeah.
The last of the short answer questions, who's your favorite Beatle?
Oh, Christ. Probably John Lennon, although I don't suppose he was the nicest guy to meet. But he was the most vital Beatle, the most intense. The thing about the Beatles is they were a team, so once you break it down into individuals, none of the individuals could compete with what they were as a team, and that's what was tragic about them.
The sum is greater than its parts.
Well, it certainly was in regards to the Beatles. John was a great part, but he wasn't the whole thing. None of them were.
Well, while we're on that phrase and since the upcoming box set covers the Egyptians years, is Robyn Hitchcock & the Egyptians a band for which the sum is greater than its parts?
I think it probably had its moments, yeah. Probably live. I always thought we were a bit too uptight in the studio, but I thought that live that translated to a very tight show. You know, if you're in a group there are nights when you walk offstage and you think, 'Yeah, we're the best band in the world.'And I'm sure most bands that have stuck with it for any length of time, you know, enjoyed what they do and put their heart and soul into it. And I think on those moments we certainly were better than the sum of our parts, yeah.
So is Fegmania (I mean Gotta Let This Hen Out!) a good representation of the band's live capabilities?
Well, I think it's the first thing we recorded with that line-up. It's good. I think all those records were blueprints, you know. Listening to them now, they all sound just slightly fast and they all sort of suffer from '80s dust sprinkled over them. The drums and the guitars and all that, you know. Nearly everything recorded in the mid-'80s has shoulder pads. You had to be very nimble to avoid it. There's a sort of gloss, you know. It wasn't intentional, but it just sort of went down with the recording. So listening to that stuff now, it had got a bit of a whiff of the '80s and I didn't have the time or the money to remix it.
Does that mean that you won't be revisiting the box set in live settings as kind of a promotional effort?I mean, the record's going to come out and you're going to kind of let it come out and then head to the Arctic Circle and leave it alone?
Oh yeah, I'm not promoting it. But having said that, I still play a lot of those songs. I am going to be performing the album I Often Dream of Trains, in fact, in New York, on November 22 at Symphony Space which is being filmed by John Edginton for the Sundance Channel, since you asked. We have been doing I Often Dream of Trains as a show, me and Terry Edwards and Tim Keegan. And that album was, obviously, part of the first Yep Roc box set. And of all the records I've made that's probably the one that works best as a concept piece, if you like. I don't really know why.
But the other songs, you know, whether I'm playing with a band or acoustic, I still play a lot of songs off Fegmania! and Elements and so, in a sense, that material has been promoted.
I just realized that I said Fegmania! before when I was trying to ask about Gotta Let This Hen Out! since obviously I was asking about the live performance.
Oh, yeah!Gotta Let This Hen Out!The good thing about was, I suppose, it was less filtered less through the studio. Nonetheless, I managed to play the whole gig with my guitar through a chorus pedal, thus giving it automatically a kind of, you know, nailing it to the mid-'80s for all eternity (laughs). And that was nobody's fault but mine. I mean, I'm sure that the reverb on the drums and that keyboard sound, you know, that X7 that Roger had, that's all very mid-'80s. But I think the feel of the music is good and nothing to do with any time at all, really.
Let me go back since I bungled the hell out of that earlier question. I hope you'll forgive me, but back in the day I think I literally walked out of the record store with Fegmania! and Hen Out! in the same bag, and so in a sense they're almost one album, for me, if that makes any sense at all.
Yeah, totally. They came out within six months of each other, and I think two or three of the songs on Fegmania! are on Hen Out! so essentially Fegmania! is a live version of what was happening with Hen Out!I'm sorry. That's the wrong way around. Hen Out! is a live version of Fegmania!, as I recall it.
Good. I'm glad that you made a similar mistake, because when I was asking, 'Is Fegmania! a good representation of the Egyptians' capability live?,' what I meant was, 'Is Hen Out! a good representation?'
Yeah, I understand. It's easy to do.
But we've still got the same answer? '80s gloss, etc?
Yeah, I think so. I mean, you know, one was done in the studio so it was sort of added to it, and the other one happened live very fast, though it was mixed in the studio. I always say Fegmania! probably has slightly more of an '80s patina to it that Gotta Let This Hen Out!
But you had mentioned that the Egyptians were always a little tight in the studio so I think the insinuation was that the band's best moments might be live. Is Hen Out! a good example of the Egyptians' capabilities?
Yeah!I'm really glad we had the machines there. It was a good night and I think it's a particularly good live rock album. I'm very proud of it.
You mentioned revisiting some of that material continually, whether you're playing with a band or acoustically. And you've written, as you don't need me to tell you, quite a few songs.
Yeah, I have.
Which means you have a large repertoire to pull from. When you play a show, whether it's acoustic or with a band, are there songs that your audience has to hear that night or they're going to go away disappointed?
Thankfully no. I think that's one of the great things about never having had a real hit record, you know. I had a few radio hits, but it depends on the mood that the set creates as to how it goes down and what the audience is like and what mood I'm in and what the sound is like.I'm not chained to any particular song.
Do you still work in a Dylan cover every once in a while?
Sometimes. You know, again, it depends on what mood I'm in. I mean, some nights I feel like playing a lot of covers and the first songs I learned to play were Bob Dylan songs, so let's say he's a close relative. But this tour I'm not doing covers. I'm actually making a point of playing my own songs, because I think, in some ways, it's a little bit self-indulgent playing covers. I did a lot of it in the '90s when I was sort of drifting a bit. As you say, I've got an awful lot of songs so really I think my purpose now is to make the most of those songs and present them to people, even if everyone has heard them before, you know. Sort of, 'Okay, I'm Robyn Hitchcock and this is what Robyn Hitchcock did.' You know, like a little living box set sampler.
Do you have any idea how many songs you've written?
Somebody told me ten years ago that I had recorded 283 or something so I've probably recorded about 400, maybe 450, so I must have written as much again, but they ended up being discarded. And then sometimes I'll find old demos and finish them off, like I do for those box sets. So I must be in the thousand area, I suppose, but I do think that it's quality, not quantity, that counts and, you know, I've written a thousand songs, but have I ever written a really great song? I don't know.
That's all very nice and humble, but surely there's at least two or three songs in your catalog that when you think of them give you either an external grin or a rapid heartbeat, like, 'Yeah, I did pretty good there.'
Well, I think a lot of them are pretty good. I don't know if I've ever done anything that like absolutely, you know, knocks the vase off the mantelpiece. You know, I've done songs that people pick up on for whatever reason, like "Uncorrected Personality Traits" and "My Wife & Dead Wife," or songs that were on the radio like "Madonna of the Wasps" or "Balloon Man," and I've written a lot of songs before and since. I don't think I've got a favorite. I sort of . . . I guess I'm doing all right. I mean, I'm quite pleased with the last couple of records I've made. You know, it's one of those things. Getting older you can repeat yourself a lot. You just run out of tricks really. So I think I'm doing okay, but I don't think it's for me to say, really.
You've got to have a balance. It's no good thinking that, you know, it's a pile of shit, you never got anywhere, you didn't do anything really, and it's no good thinking you are the egg on the mountaintop, you know. The truth is just somewhere in between, I guess.
You've had a long career, and especially with the recent box sets it's take an entire bookshelf just to hold every Robyn Hitchcock CD that's been released. But I keep hearing that nobody is making any money at all on record sales.
You know, I've never sold very many records. Generally speaking, if you don't spend too much money making the record you will get a little bit of profit at the end. The records that I've spent the least money on are the ones that have sold the most. And the ones that are most popular. So I always try and keep it down.
Yeah, records are not particularly profitable now, but maybe half of that is reaping 50 years of album culture, you know. Or 45 years of album culture. It is more like that, isn't it?Actually it's 40. Album culture started in sort of '67 with Sgt. Pepper's and, you know, it's been the ambition of every red-blooded boy and quite a few well-corpuscled girls to go out there and make albums. I know that's what I wanted to do as a young man. You know, I didn't want to be a bus conductor or a soldier or a poet or a painter. I wanted to make albums. And, by God, I have made albums. Have I made money? I've made enough money to live on.
And if you're making enough money to live doing exactly what you've always wanted to do, then life's got to be pretty damn good.
It is good. I mean, that's the thing. You know, I'm incredibly lucky to be able to do this. I'm not in the world of tour buses and flight cases anymore, but I sort of came out of the folk clubs and I suppose, in a way, that's how I sustain myself. You know, I'm lucky enough to know a lot of good musicians so I can borrow people and we can do a little rock tour here and there. You just have to adapt, really, and as you say it's just a great thing to be your own boss. At least you can't be made redundant. You can just go out of fashion.
They didn't have box sets back at the onset of album culture. That's a relatively new invention. But it's a pretty big deal. And now Yep Roc's issuing your second in the last couple of years and a third one's coming. Does that do anything for your ego?Does it make you feel like you've accomplished something?
No, not really. I don't mean to be blasé about it. I think it's great that those things are still available. I mean, I'm already looking to the point in the business when there won't be physical product anymore, and if you'd grown up as we have going from vinyl to cassette to CD to downloads, you're still emotionally attached. You know, your anchor is down there on the vinyl seabed, if you like, you know, going round with the grooves. So to that end I've made sure that these box sets--and Yep Roc have been really good about this--they're putting them all out on vinyl, simply because I have a feeling that vinyl will be playable long after CDs won't and after the Internet or whatever has metamorphosed into whatever. I think that some archaeologist or space being in 500 or 5000 years' time, you know, or sea lions in the sea, all they've got to do is stick a vinyl record on their pinky with one hand and then put a needle on the other and drop it in the grooves and they could get a little tiny screeching noise like in that movie The Fly. You know, 'Help me (in "tiny screeching" voice).'This tiny little voice. But then they might play the record the wrong way around. Of course, they might not have my record. They might have a Daryl Hall and John Oates record. But I just think that, like I said, an LP is a record, you know, and my beginning is my end. I'm just pleased that I've got all this stuff out. You know, every artist wants to shake hands with the future. It's not just a question of the old ego in the present. It's a desperate attempt by your ego to feel that it will escape time.
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