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Influenced by punk rock and Pink Floyd, English songwriter and guitarist Robyn Hitchcock has carved out an enviable career as a cult artist, from The Soft Boys in the late 1970s through last year's Olé! Tarantula, recorded with R.E.M.'s Peter Buck and Young Fresh Fellows' Scott McCaughey. Hitchcock's recent work still ranks among the best of his career, but this year, he's also playing archivist with I Wanna Go Backwards, a new box set covering three of his critically best-regarded solo albums—Black Snake Diamond Role, I Often Dream Of Trains, and Eye—plus a two-disc rarities compilation, While Thatcher Mauled Britain. Another set covering his albums with backing band The Egyptians is slated for 2008, as well as another new album with most of the Tarantula crew. Hitchcock recently talked with The A.V. Club about the death of the album, new and old songs, "quirkiness," and why Seattle is Hitchcock's favorite U.S. city.
Robyn Hitchcock: Have you heard [the songs on the box set] yet?
The A.V. Club: Digital streaming of the albums, yes, but not the rarities discs.
RH: There's so much of everything, really. But that's what it is, it's an archive. It's one of those things—when you're a kid, you don't burrow out of your hole and get your little fingers on a box set and gleefully drop the needle on Disc 1 and sit there rapt until the end, 16 sides later. So I don't know whether anyone will listen to this all the way through. I certainly haven't. I suppose it's just there in storage.
AVC: At an in-store performance you played in Minneapolis in 2004, you introduced several of the songs by saying, "Here's another one that's out of print." It must be a pretty good feeling to have the albums coming out again.
RH: That's a good point. I suppose that's the last time this is going to happen, because next time, it won't be a physical matter. When these deals expire in seven years' time or something, there won't be, as far as we know, compact discs and things coming out. So no one's going to come up to me in 10 years' time and say, "how about putting out Element of Light with some bonus tracks." It's probably there on the 'net anyway, if you want to burn it.
AVC: Do you think that the idea of the album is dying, that maybe in 10 or 15 years, we won't even talk about an artist's output in terms of a discrete collection of 10 or so songs?
RH: Well, it only appeared to begin with because science and technology gave us the long-player. Somebody said in about 1946, "Oh, look, we don't just have to have these two-sided Bakelite discs. We can have one symphony on two sides, or 10 jazz cuts, or 10 blues tunes." And so the LP was there. The single was a thing that drew people to buying the LP; the LP was a store of tunes. In the world that made money, I guess the LPs were sold on the basis of singles, but what really mattered were the singles, because the best tracks were always singles. That's how it was when I was first listening to records, 40 years ago. And then the psychedelic revolution happened, and people started making music that was seen as a whole LP's worth. It was no good just getting one song.
The Beatles very deliberately made no bands [between songs] on Sgt. Pepper. If you looked closely, you could just about see where one song began and the other ended, but the idea was, it was a piece. You weren't going to buy a single—you weren't supposed to buy a single, you were meant to buy the LP. Coupled with that was also the change between listening to stuff on squeaky little transistors and nice treble-y hi-fi sets, and actually listening to things on stately, sculptural Bang & Olufsen twin speakers, or a big soothing headpiece clamped over your ears while you smoked a doobie and listened to the music pinging back and forth, left and right. It all became much bigger. At that point, the LP really was fully inhabited. The idea was that if you picked up a pen and a guitar and a piece of paper, you weren't writing a song, you were writing an album. I remember going around to my cousin's place and saying, "Bet you £2 I can't write an album in a week." To write an album, that's what I thought you did. I was 17 in 1970, so that's where people like me came in. You didn't write songs, you made albums.
Then with the CD, that changed. It suddenly wasn't two 20-minute sides that made up an album. The album became scarily infinite. It could actually go on for about 75 minutes, which got way too long. And now, as you say, even that confine is starting to disappear. You can have an infinite amount of music, and you don't even have to pay for it, really. So in a way, you might just as well have one single. You're almost back to 1965 again. So it probably will be sooner than five to 10 years. Already, the album is no longer a relevant unit.
I suppose what they'll do, you'll maybe pay 35 cents a song, import as many as you want or pay nothing. The other side of it is, it depends on what exactly is going to fund songwriters and musicians in the coming years. Will they attach some kind of levy to the Internet or to computers so that you have to pay a sort of tithe, like you pay ASCAP and BMI in the States, or PRS here [in Britain], where a little bit is taken off to go to the songwriter? Or will they just have a kind of TV license, like they have here? You know, they'll just say, "It's going to cost you $2 a month to have iTunes," regardless of what you listen to, just so that everybody gets a certain amount of money? And this would be instead of actually paying for records. Either way, it points to the dissolution of the record.
AVC: When you were putting together the B-sides compilation for the boxed set, you must have gone through a lot of material that you hadn't listened to in a long time. Did anything jump out as being better or different than you remembered?
RH: They've been subtly mutated. What I actually hadn't listened to in a long time was the albums themselves, like Black Snake Diamond Role and I Often Dream Of Trains. The rarities and outtakes on While Thatcher Mauled Britain, because they never came out at the time, I heard them subsequently in various forms while I wondered what to do with them. Some of them have come out on previous compilations, but in different configurations. So I just noticed the different sounds. I Often Dream Of Trains sounded quite fast and quite harsh, whereas I'd always thought it was a fairly dreamy, chimerical sort of record.
AVC: Don't most people think of Trains as dreamy and chimerical?
RH: That's the received wisdom about that record. Maybe I've just read the reviews, so I thought of that as my dreamy and chimerical album, but I always think of [Trains] as a product of, let's say, detachment—even more detached than I usually am. Almost hermetically sealed, in fact, at that point. But actually, it sounds like some young nasal guy who's quite angry and quite fast. It sounds like, not exactly a punk record, but sort of a punk-folk record or something. But I guess that just shows how much I've got older and slowed down. Eye sounds good, that was better than I remembered it. I always liked Black Snake Diamond Role—I just have fond memories of making it.
AVC: If someone were to run across your collected works in a vault 2,000 years from now, what do you think they'd think of it?
RH: That depends on what they were used to hearing. If this was the sole representative of late-20th-century rock music, then it would be quite a good ambassador, because I was so saturated in the greats, Bob Dylan and The Beatles particularly. You can see my career, if you like, as kind of a postscript to them: sweeping up after the big guys. In terms of the emotion in it, it rather depends on whether they'll need that emotion. People in the future look back on primitive machinery or technology or painting, and in some ways, it always seems amazingly intricate and finely wrought. People from the past always seem to have much more time to create beautiful, intricate, delicate things that often reach the future in a kind of curled-up, capsized state. Old crumbling scrolls and moldering books and beautiful paintings with bits flaking off them, or old glassware, or intricately threaded beads. Maybe my stuff will just seem like that. They'll think, "God, why did that guy spend so long doing all those things? Didn't he have a machine that could just make it go whoosh, like that?" I'd be happy if it seemed like that.
AVC: A lot of your music strikes a balance between light-hearted whimsy and darker, angry undercurrents. How consciously do you think about that as you're writing a song?
RH: I don't think about it while I'm doing it—I'm more aware of it afterward. You go over the dateline of rage and despair into humor. If you want to see it as a kind of spectrum, you might go from anxiety to fear to rage to humor to regret to acceptance and then possibly even to some kind of happiness, and then 'round again. I'm good at maybe one or two of those particular hues on the spectrum. People often complain that I was covering up my emotions by making a joke of things, but humor is also what makes stuff bearable, and I think one of the things I hated about early-'70s singer-songwriters was how humorless they were. It was my kind of punk [attitude], you know, "Jesus, I hate this self-pitying shit." I really didn't like that kind of mellow from-the-canyon self-involved crap.
Obviously, I grew up to be just as self-involved as the rest of them, but I felt that a joke would at least justify that. Just because there are jokes in my stuff doesn't mean that I don't fundamentally take it seriously. But feelings travel, thank God. You don't stay in one mood forever, and you find yourself drifting across those datelines. I think some of the really great songs have many moods overlaid on them. I don't know how much I've achieved that, but I always think back to things like "Visions Of Johanna" by Minnesota's own Bob Dylan, and how it's a sort of fundamental sadness with a lot of humor applied as a glaze over that, and then over that, there's a lot of anger and questions being asked: "What do you mean? What's all that for? You've got a lot of nerve"—that usual Dylan stuff. The whole thing comes out as a kind of meditation, as a sort of acceptance. Those are my favorite songs, where different emotions are layered on top of each other. I suppose the trick is to get the feelings to flow correctly from each other when you make a record or write a song. But Jesus, if I thought about that, I'd never write anything!
AVC: Even the songs that people point to as your "quirkiest" or most eccentric—like "Uncorrected Personality Traits" or "Do Policemen Sing?"—they aren't just novelty songs. There's another level going on, either satirically or psychologically.
RH: Well, it's easiest to deal with that stuff as a kind of music-hall song to make those points. If you clear your throat and say, "Ladies and gentlemen, I am now about to make a serious point," everyone can bow their heads and start burrowing their fingers in their ears and looking for earwax or texting each other or looking pious. "Here he comes—here's a serious point. Boy!"
AVC: Does it bother you when people pigeonhole you as "that quirky English guy"?
RH: I think if I never heard the word "quirky" again, I would be almost as happy as if I never heard the word "Rumsfeld" again. In the end, those definitions are lazy. What do they mean by "quirky"? It's like saying Michael Jackson's "eccentric." Well, explain yourself. I am also apparently "eccentric." Does this mean Michael Jackson and I are bedfellows, as it were? I know people don't have time, but I could do with another definition. I think what they mean is that for me, an idea can come from anywhere, and often, ideas come from unlikely places. They come from under the table or behind the sofa or the back of a cupboard or something—they're not the first places everybody looks. I don't know, I suppose you could call that "quirky," but I wish you wouldn't.
AVC: Your songs often also have a political edge, which you draw attention to with the title While Thatcher Mauled Britain.
RH: Well, I don't know how you put that sort of thing into a song. Politically, I'm very much of the left. I just instinctively feel that I'm a left-winger, rather than a right-winger. I don't advocate Stalinist monolithic state structures any more than I advocate capitalistic monoliths, you know. Unfortunately, human society tends to the monolithic, whether you go to the left or right—you know, everybody in leathers, or everybody holding Chairman Mao's book, and if everybody goes to one end of the pitch, I always go to the other, as I've said before. That was what was so good about Dylan—he didn't say, "I'm a left-winger, I'm a liberal, these are liberal songs I want to put to you." Nor does Billy Bragg, really, but it's no good just going in and saying, "I hate Rumsfeld," or "George W. Bush is even worse than George H.W. Bush." Well, fine, that's great, but we don't need to pay 99 cents to hear that. You'll agree with that if you agree with that. People can wave your songs like flags—"Yeah, these are left-wing songs!"—or march into battle with them for right-wing songs.
I really don't know how you do it. I wish that I was able to write so-called "political" songs. Every so often, I'll slip a little something in, but I don't think there's very much of it on this set from the '80s. Like I said, the miners' strike was going on and all that stuff, and I was busy voting Labour and all the rest of it. My friends and I were all resolutely of the left. We supported Michael Foot and Arthur Scargill and the Miners' Union and Ken Livingstone, and loathed what Margaret Thatcher did, and were upset by nearly everything Reagan did. And needless to say, Bush and Blair have come and made those people seem like the Lovin' Spoonful. But I don't think I've managed to make that appear in songs. I guess my songs aren't really about that kind of thing.
AVC: Seeing the movie 49 Up recently made me wonder what you were like when you were 7, and if you think the person you are now was visible in that child.
RH: I can't remember what I was like when I was 7. I had big brown eyes and I looked kind of scared. I guess I was losing some teeth and growing new ones. I wonder if it was the year before Sputnik? I was just getting involved in dinosaurs, probably drawing aircraft and dinosaurs. There wasn't really much music around. There was a tiny bit on the radio, and my father had a few folk songs, and Bill Haley and things. I just had a lot of bad dreams. I hated songs that say "may all your dreams come true," because I thought, no, no—they were all just nightmares. Maybe I got my dad's nightmares from the war, I don't know. So, you know, I was just another innocent with his first set of teeth falling out.
AVC: You grew up in a creative household, with your father being a painter and a novelist, but you learned how to play the guitar on your own.
RH: I probably instinctively went into music so as not to compete with my dad, and the one field he didn't go into was music. He didn't play an instrument, [though] he liked a good tune. He liked folk music and army marches and that kind of easier end of things, like The Beatles. Stuff like rock music was too much for him, 'cause rock music was, after all, for our generation, not his. But he had a Joan Baez album, Clancy Brothers, The Weavers—they were good socialists. So I think I probably instinctively went into music so as not to compete with my dad. And also, I just was drawn toward music, and by 1969-70, there was nothing else I wanted to do. I had these albums, a lot of which were made by people who were described as cult figures, so I thought, "Well, I guess I want to be a cult figure, and make albums," which, as you can see, I did. I just didn't look at the small print. I didn't realize that The Beatles make 4,000 times more money than Captain Beefheart did. I just thought, "Wow!" You know, "They're albums!" But you don't need to know everything in advance, or you'd never do it.
AVC: What do you think is the secret of having a career as long and steady as yours?
RH: You've got to want to do it, basically. It's got to be ingrained in you at a pretty deep level. I don't know that Neil Young would say that—he'd say his own version of it. I could say something flip like, "Well, I can't think of anything else to do." Or "I'd never want to get a proper job," or those sorts of things. Which I suppose are all true, but I think I just so ingrained it in myself by the time I was 20, 21, that I just don't want to do anything else. Sometimes I don't write songs, but there's so much paperwork that needs doing, I don't have to worry about that. There's always songs lying around, so I will have to deal with the dissolution of the album like everybody else will—and you know, the sad truth is that we don't need any more records. The old guys haven't gone away, and the new ones keep entering the room every day. It's like the stateroom scene in Night At The Opera: "Okay! Who ordered the double album?" I don't know what we're going to do, but it's too late for me.
AVC: You're still a Londoner, but Seattle has become kind of an American home base for you. Both Olé! Tarantula and your upcoming new disc were recorded there, and you even mentioned the city in a few recent songs.
RH: It's the diamond of the Northwest. It's between Portland and Vancouver, it's the edge of the States, so it has that steady Canadian air coming down, a bit of the gentleness and sanity that comes down from Canada, but it's still got the chutzpah that big American cities have. Maybe the colors are a bit brighter in the States, but it's also a harsher place than Canada, which is a more humane society. I think you get the best of both in Seattle. And when the rest of the country is sweltering away and you can fry an egg on the pavement, Seattle is nice and cool and damp, like Britain. And it faces west, it's full of Scandinavians, it's not unlike being on the Norwegian coast, in fact. And you've got all the music! Until very recently, you had Scott McCaughey up there, but he's just down the road in Portland. Peter Buck's up there now, Chris Ballew, Sean Nelson, Young Fresh Fellows, and that's not even to touch on what used to be the grunge scene. If there was one place I had to be based, in terms of making music, it would be there. You'd never be short of good people to play with.
AVC: A lot of the guys that you mentioned are, of course, on Olé! Tarantula.
RH: Yes. [Laughs.] Yeah, they're my floating outfit. Well, they know each other. Peter [Buck] and Scott [McCaughey] are The Venus 3 [Hitchcock's Olé! Tarantula band]. They're also The Minus 5, when they've got [John] Ramberg in there, and then take away Ramberg and me and add [Michael] Stipe and [Mike] Mills, and you've got R.E.M. It's the ultimate multi-headed organism. I just like the attitude of people up there as well. As you go up the West Coast, you can feel the layers of tension evaporating. California's very tense, especially L.A.; things have kind of lacquered, you know. You get up to San Francisco, and you can breathe a bit easier, but then you get up the coast to Portland, and things feel wide open; there's been some kind of artificial coloring taken out. Or some stimulant's been taken out of the coffee. You get to Seattle, and everything's bright and focused, and you get up to Canada, and it's almost like there's too little pressure. It's like there isn't any kind of atmospheric pressure to keep you on Earth. You can sort of drift away. But I think Seattle's just really good at balance.
AVC: There's a documentary on the recording of the next Venus 3 record called Sex, Food, Death & Insects.
RH: It's on the Sundance Channel; that's not in the theatres. I hope they'll show it again. It's by John Edginton, who I met because he did the Syd Barrett documentary [The Pink Floyd And Syd Barrett Story], and he interviewed me for that, my being an enormous Barrett freak. It just has us making a record in the house, in the living room, for a week. Chris Ballew [of Presidents Of The United States of America] came over, Peter and Scott were actually living here, and then other people drift in, like Morris Windsor, and Nick Lowe, and my niece, Ruby, and John Paul Jones, and you just see them joining in on things, and then there's a live show. Basically, you see the songs being kind of worked up. You see me playing them to John in the garden, and then you see them being worked up with the band, and then you see us playing them on the road. In between, there are just little, you know, snippets. Gillian [Welch] and Dave [Rawlings, who played on Hitchcock's 2004 disc Spooked] are in there as well. So, it's good, it shows the pool of people I work with. Or play with, rather. Which I like.
And it probably emphasizes what I do rather than what I don't. You just see me as a songwriter and a musician—I'm happy for my thoughts and philosophies to get out in the world, but you basically see me and everybody getting on with it as musicians, it's not to do with the cult of personality, or, you know, the eccentricity, all the rest of that stuff. It's not pious or anything like that, there's some fun moments in it, but it basically shows me as, I think, a reasonably good songwriter, with a load of great musicians, and that's really nice, to see the caliber of people that I seem to be able to attract. [Laughs.] I'm very pleased with that.
AVC: You're making this new record with pretty much the same group that you made Olé! Tarantula with. Will it sound similar to Olé! Tarantula?
RH: No, it's got a different sound so far. It's more acoustic-driven. Olé! Tarantula was the classics—two electric guitars, bass, drums, and harmonies. It was like an update of The Soft Boys' Underwater Moonlight. And it's even got Morris and Kim [Rew] on it. This one sounds probably more, like Tom Petty or The [Traveling] Wilburys or Jeff Lynne, something where there's an awful lot of acoustic rhythm guitars, and then some electric stuff pinging away on top. But I'm not sure—see, we haven't put all the voices on it yet. I mean, who knows? I've got to stick it all together. There's about 20 songs lying around, so according to which ones we select, the mood of the record could really vary drastically.
AVC: It seems like you've always alternated between electric and acoustic records.
RH: They're the two ends of the windscreen wiper. Extreme left, extreme right, really. Arguably, every record is a reaction to the previous one, and with a sort of pendulum theory, you would only ever be making one of two records. You make a quiet record, and then as a reaction to that, you make a louder record. I can make records with just me and the acoustic [guitar]—then I can make a record with me and a bunch of electric guitars and a lot of vocals, and that's about it, really. I just go back and forth along that trail.
AVC: You're still playing with a couple of the guys from The Soft Boys—is there a chance that you might do another reunion record with them?
RH: No. Not as The Soft Boys, definitely. I think if The Soft Boys were to be inducted into the Hall Of Fame, or if we all made it to 70, or something like that, there would be an argument for doing another Soft Boys event. Just to commemorate and celebrate the individuals involved. But I wouldn't do any more on a commercial or career basis. I enjoyed doing that recording, Nextdoorland, but I think I've been Robyn Hitchcock for so long that I really wasn't happy being a Soft Boy again. I didn't really want to be a Soft Boy at 30, let alone 50. I was just used to being a solo act. It wasn't like I was in competition, with giant egos or anything like that. If anything, the reverse, really, but I find it easier to present Robyn Hitchcock than I do to present The Soft Boys. Kim and Morris come and play when we do those charity gigs in the pub in London, and at parties and things. It's essentially on an informal basis now.
AVC: Besides music, you work in other forms of art: You paint and write, and you tell stories between songs in concert. Does that let you explore different things creatively than you can with songwriting alone?
RH: They're probably all related. I think they just take different forms, but I do like drawing. I can paint, up to a point. My dad was a really great cartoonist, and he did some good paintings. I feel rather the same way. I'm good at line-drawing, and some of my color stuff is okay. So I just do it for record covers, really. But you know, when I first started listening to music intently as a teenager, I was always sitting there with a biro or a pencil, drawing. That's how I absorbed it all. Telling stories live is just one of those things—you have an audience, and you think, "Well, I better say something." So the outcome's the word. But they're disposable; they're not designed to be heard again. They're just something to say to the audience, really.
AVC: The concert stories always have a very impromptu feel. Do you make them up off the cuff onstage?
RH: Mostly, yes. Sometimes I'll have a theme that I've had before, but if you try and give yourself something to remember, that takes all the fun out of it, you know? I've got to work my way toward the punchline. I could never be a professional comedian, 'cause you have to keep telling the same jokes. For me, they're like word solos. Like Ken Nordine had that record, Word Jazz. Just as with a guitar, you can improvise a guitar solo, and they'd probably be similar each time, but they won't be exactly the same. With the word, it's probably a bit freer than that. I probably repeat myself more musically than I do verbally.
AVC: The new version of I Often Dream Of Trains contains an extract from a novel in progress you were writing then. Any plans to continue it?
RH: No, I think it's something that I'm just going to use broken-down sections of, actually. I don't really have the gift of the sustained narrative that you need to write a book. I've tried a couple of times, and it just doesn't work. But I get some good passages, so what I'm going to do is just take sections out of them. I'll use one for Trains, and I'll put one more on the [upcoming Egyptians-era box set]. I've had a couple [short stories] published. There's some kinds of fruit that are really tasty when they're small, but when they get too big they get watery, and they aren't nice any more. And I think my writing skills are like that. I think I can do really well for what used to be the back of an LP, but stretch it out over too many pages, and it just doesn't work.
AVC: Besides the new Venus 3 record, what else are you working on right now?
RH: I'm glad you asked me that. In January, there is a record coming out called Shadow Cat, which is unreleased recordings from the '90s. But that's only coming out in Britain to start with, on a label called Sartorial, which is run by a friend of mine called Terry Edwards. And then, sometime in the spring, the Egyptians-era stuff is coming out, which we've just started work on. That will have Element Of Light, Fegmania!, and Gotta Let This Hen Out! and a bunch of related stuff, and then I'm hoping that the Soft Boys material will come out next autumn on Matador Records, and by then, the new one with The Venus 3 will have come out as well. So most of my time is really spent mostly dealing with old stuff at the moment.