Robyn Hitchcock got his start as the leader of The Soft Boys, a not-quite-punk band whose influence stretched across the Atlantic, ultimately affecting The Replacements and R.E.M. After three albums, including the classic Underwater Moonlight (1980), the band split, opening the door for a career that would include extraordinary solo works like I Often Dream Of Trains (1984) and Eye (1990) and some fine work with his band The Egyptians, both of which mixed guitar-driven pop music with wonderfully ponderous lyrics. Hitchcock received a great deal of college and alternative radio play, including the semi-hits "Balloon Man" and "So You Think You're In Love" from albums like Element Of Light (1986), Globe Of Frogs (1988), and Perspex Island (1991). Perspex lost its number-one spot on the college charts to Nirvana's Nevermind, an album that closed the book on '80s alternative rock and unwittingly paved the way for the commercial-alternative morass of today. After 1993's commercially unsuccessful Respect, Hitchcock resurfaced in 1996—solo this time, although he's still friendly with and fond of his former bandmates—with the excellent Moss Elixir, an album he followed with the forthcoming Storefront Hitchcock, a concert film directed by Jonathan Demme, of Silence Of The Lambs, Something Wild, and, significantly, the Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense. Even without the movie, Storefront Hitchcock's soundtrack sheds significant light on the singer's appeal, capturing some of the disarming absurdist monologues that make his concerts so memorable. The new year should see the release of a new studio album, Jewels For Sophia, and a novel tentatively titled The Ballad Of Jacob Lurch. Hitchcock recently spoke to The Onion about his film, his lengthy career, and the historical significance of the year 1974.
The Onion: How's London this time of year?
Robyn Hitchcock: Well, now that summer's over, it's started to get warm. But it was kind of wet and sort of damp and cruel for most of the summer. I think we're out of reach of any chance of real heat waves or warmth or anything. It's decided to warm up, so there are going to be lots of mosquitoes and people catching flu, things hatching out. It's tropical bug weather as only the British can experience it.
O: I want to talk to you about your new movie, which I haven't seen. [The movie premieres in New York on Nov. 18. —ed.] So you'll have to tell me about it.
RH: You've heard the soundtrack?
O: Yes. Is it exactly like the movie?
RH: The movie's a bit longer and it has some songs that are not on the CD and vice versa. There are any number of configurations. The LP has one collection, the CD has another, and the movie yet another. And some songs are on all of them. So there's a lot of it.
O: How did you hook up with Jonathan Demme?
RH: He appeared through the floor really. I was in a dressing room just out of town, out of New York one dark night in April 1995. He and his wife came up through a trap door into the dressing room. We chatted, as people do when they don't really know each other. It wasn't immediately apparent what he wanted to do, but I think he'd enjoyed seeing me. I was on my own, but I had Deni Bonet playing violin on a few of songs. So it was like a sort of one-and-a-half-person show. I think he liked the kind of movable element of it, as if we were Rumanian people who'd come and play at your table or something. There was that element that we might suddenly be playing at a wedding or, you know. I think he thought that would work visually, 'cause it wasn't a rock group. It's just me standing out and doing what I do, you know? Playing guitar and doing a certain amount of chat.
O: You can't very well turn down a chance to work with someone who's already made one of the best concert films ever.
RH: Exactly. That would have been churlish. And I like a lot of his other stuff, as well. Married To The Mob is one of my favorite films of all time. I like the others, Philadelphia and stuff. Beloved sounds like it's good. So, that was Jonathan, and it was just a matter of trying to sort the finance out, which was eventually forthcoming from Orion, who then unfortunately were swallowed by MGM. And when MGM kind of unzipped their stomachs to see what they'd swallowed, they pulled out Orion, and they cut open Orion's stomach. And inside Orion's stomach was wriggling Storefront Hitchcock, a little kind of minuscule million-dollar project that MGM wasn't particularly interested in. Which is why you're not seeing it, because it's only being shown in New York.
O: That's really a shame.
RH: Well, it is, although I am discovering how hard it is for independent films to get distribution in the States. Clinica Estetico is one of the few organizations that seem to be able to place just about every movie they make. That's Jonathan Demme's company. It means "beauty parlor" in Portuguese. The Clinica does pretty well, but it's hard. It's actually showing at the Film Forum largely because Peter Saraf, the producer of the movie, sort of hooked up with the woman who runs it. I think they will eventually get it to other places.
O: It's sort of a weird situation in America now when it comes to independent movies. Because the boom earlier in the decade means there are more of them, but the ones that get released tend to be of a narrow type. Ten years ago, something like Storefront Hitchcock… Well, Home Of The Brave, Laurie Anderson's movie, got national distribution at the time. It probably wouldn't now, which is too bad, because people would wander in and be entertained, I think.
RH: Yes, they would. Most independent films have got something else going for them apart from the rather predictable rhythms of the blockbusters. I was at a film festival in the Hamptons last week, and I went into a movie with a Swedish guy who directs films and also programs the Göteborg Film Festival. And he just sort of sniffed and said, "There are too many people in this screening. This movie is going to be bad." And, of course, he didn't like it afterwards. Without wanting to be willfully obscure, the chances are that almost any independent film is going to be more nutritionally satisfying than any sort of blockbuster, because the blockbusters all… There's a kind of acupressure that they apply to all the predictable points. They pull all the obvious emotional levers and triggers to try and elicit the usual responses. And the independent films have to find some other way of absorbing you that isn't just special effects and babes and male babes, you know? But, too bad. That's the situation. It's getting worse, and that's bad.
O: One of the things that really impressed me about the soundtrack is that it really captured the actual concert experience with your story intros and everything.
RH: Well, if you see the movie, that's even more so. Because certainly, if there's a decent crowd in the cinema, they respond to it as if they're actually at the gig. Because Jonathan doesn't show you any of the audience in the movie: You hear people laughing and clapping. And I've seen people actually sort of clap along at the end of songs or laugh with the movie audience. He's just made it extend. It's also great because it will remain relatively young and healthy while I become old and decrepit or suddenly dead, or whatever it is. I guess I was 43 when it was made. Was I 44? I dunno. It was a while back, anyway, just sort of on the cusp of middle age. It's got me while I'm still in relatively good shape.
O: It must be pleasing to have a document of something people consider an integral part of your overall appeal, which is seeing you in concert.
RH: Yeah, it's terrific. It's a document rather than a documentary. I couldn't really want a more flattering testimonial, or whatever. It's a record of the whole thing. It was beautifully recorded and filmed. If you see it, you'll recognize it.
O: When did you first start doing story intros? Was it with The Soft Boys?
RH: Oh, no, it's before The Soft Boys. I used to go to the folk clubs, and I was basically a standup comedian doing cover versions. My own material was too unformed in those days. So I used to do covers, or I'd do covers with silly words, which I think is one of the most despicable things, but it's one of the easiest ways to get a laugh. And I'd stand there with a beard doing a Lou Reed song, and then turning into a sort of cookery recipe or something like that. I wanted to be a proper rock musician, but I really didn't have much going for me at that point. In the folk clubs in Britain, there's a tradition of people talking a lot, and some of these people then go on. There, guitar becomes vestigial and drops off. It becomes like the appendix; it's no longer actually functional. Someone sort of says, "Hey, Jasper, what are you doing with that guitar? You don't need it any more." There are three or four sort of raconteur comedians in Britain who started out as folk singers. But I wanted to get out of the folk ghetto, because it really is just that. You have lifelong respect, but you can barely make a living doing folk clubs. I wanted to play rock music, so I eventually found The Soft Boys, and then it all got much more professional.
O: And louder.
RH: And louder. But if I was in the right mood, I would do introductions in The Soft Boys days and in The Egyptians' time. And when I got back to working on my own again, I kind of reverted to folk type. This time, I had the songs, which I didn't have 25 years ago. I've got a strong enough catalog of songs that I can entertain people for an hour. So I think I also feel less uptight about whether I'm funny or not. I don't feel like I'm having to rely on comedy, or like my material isn't strong enough.
O: Well, part of what I've always liked about it is that it's not straight comedy. There's more to it.
RH: It's not straight comedy, and that's a good point because, actually, as a comedian, I wouldn't be that funny. I'm quite funny as a rock musician. The greats, Lennon and Dylan, were hysterical, and they could have been… They did their own version of stand-up. I don't know what Elvis was like, or Jim Morrison. Johnny Rotten is pretty funny. Most of the great pioneers had a sense of humor. It's in that tradition.
O: How much of it is improvised?
RH: It's all improvised.
O: It certainly sounds improvised.
RH: Certainly everything on that record [Storefront Hitchcock] is. I've got a few stock stories that I can tell that I've made up over the years, but I don't really like doing that. I was encouraged to do that by a guy who was managing me for a while, but he's managing me no longer. I think that if you've got something prepared, it's actually more nerve-wracking, because you have to remember it and tell it right. If you're improvising, the timing and everything comes naturally. There's no question of, "Am I doing this the right way?" Because you've never done it before. It's like guitar solos, which I'm also pleased that the movie documents quite well. There's a lot of guitar on that record and film. That should be improvised. They should never be the same twice.
O: Tell me about the song "1974." You seem to be suggesting that that year was a turning point in history and equating it with our own.
RH: Well, what that song is about really is reclaiming dead time. Most of your life isn't spent actually locked in mortal combat with space beings or having multiple orgasms or drowning in a swimming pool. It's spent screwing up little balls of paper and throwing them into the wastepaper basket and just missing, or wondering whether you bought any milk. You're in a shop and you wonder whether you need to buy any more milk, or if there's some in the fridge back home. This is if you live in the West and you live the kind of middle-class existence that I've always lived that isn't hand-to-mouth. You can survive. A lot of time is really pretty dull, or it seems that way to me. I always thought 1974… Although I personally had a very dramatic 1974, I had a very strong sense of inertia. The '60s had run out of steam, and the '80s hadn't counter-attacked yet. So I just wanted to mention all this stuff which happened that didn't even matter, really. Some of it is more dramatic than others, but really it was, like I said, funky denim wonderland. Everybody was smoking weed, but it didn't make any difference any more. Nobody pretended that drugs were a sacrament, or for enlightenment; they were just another alternative to booze, you know? People had long hair, but so what? The Vietnam War was drawing to a close. Nixon was kicked out, which was very dramatic, but… I think I was trying to celebrate the kind of nothingness of the year and say that, nonetheless, it was a year in my life, and in lots of other people's lives. And this is what your life is made of. It's made of, like I said, molecules of time you thought you'd shed forever. Because your life isn't a dress rehearsal. This is it. And what have you done with it when it's gone? Can you even remember it? Does it matter? So I just wanted to kind of touch base with a piece of the past.
O: Will that be on the album that comes out next year?
RH: Uh, no. I'm hoping that the album next year should all be new songs. There might be a rock version of it on the vinyl. Because the vinyl always has different stuff on it. So maybe.
O: I like that you're doing the extra vinyl stuff for every CD you put out. What made you do that?
RH: Well, I think the people I work with at Warners are sort of terminal record collectors, and they kind of encouraged me to put out something different.
O: I can't really think of a time when your music was fitting in with what was going around at the time.
RH: Sometimes it's more connected. The mid-'80s was quite a good period for that. I mean, we were sort of part of the whole R.E.M., Replacements, and 10,000 Maniacs era, and those were people who'd listened to my stuff and The Soft Boys' stuff. Our peers were people we'd influenced a little bit. It was coming after all this very synthetic stuff of the early '80s, which is now being revived. Whereas we certainly didn't fit in with the Nirvana lot, which was much more The Sex Pistols meets Led Zeppelin. It signaled a sort of revival of the '70s, which was a time I'd never really, you know… You can see how I felt about it in the song. I come and go out of phase with things.
O: Does that bother you?
RH: No, not really. I think it would if it got to a phase where I couldn't make a living. If I didn't sell any records, or nobody came to my gigs, then it would bother me a lot. But I have to… I'm 45, so I have to think about where I position myself. There will soon be rock musicians in their 70s. But certainly they're not rock musicians who are being sold to teenagers. So I have to figure out how I present myself, and how I seem to be, and the Storefront record pretty neatly encapsulates what I do now. Which is different from when I was an alternative character in college radio in the '80s, and different again from when I was a black-clad nihilist death-rocker in The Soft Boys. They're all kind of different incarnations. I can probably carry on like this until I drop dead, especially if I'm not part of a band. We're not all there on stage making each other look older.
O: You can just travel around with a guitar.
RH: Yeah, that's what I am now.
O: I never really heard an account of what happened with The Egyptians.
RH: Just sort of fatigue, really. As I've said before, I think that after the age of 40, you just don't want to go around manacled to a bunch of guys. It was a very cozy musical unit. In some ways it was very good; the empathy you developed having played with each other for 10 or 15 years was definitely there. But I think it had become very tired, and I think the others would probably agree. As the prime mover, I guess I detached myself first. I think it was just there, and no one really knew why. It was just there because it had always been there, and I realized it didn't have to always be there. I could go off… I'd worked on my own more and more since about '87. I started touring in the States by myself. In 1990, I did a 65-date tour on my own, with just my girlfriend and an acoustic guitar. It's not just the band, but the whole thing of the roads and this sort of clump of men stuck on a bus with a bunch of testosterone. After a while, you just don't need it. You need it when you're young and in a pack, and you all want to go out and get laid and everything, and that's fine. But I don't think you need to have that later on.
O: I met you briefly after a concert in '93, and you looked a little tired from touring.
RH: Well, yeah. I'm still touring. What was I then… I was just 40. I had had quite a tiring period. There was a lot of stuff. I'd done a lot of touring, a lot of work with The Egyptians. My father had died, and I moved to America, then it didn't work out and I moved back. And The Egyptians stopped. I was definitely coming to the end of something in the early '90s. There had been a lot of turmoil. I had about five years of personal turmoil, and things have been, touch wood, pretty good for the last five years.
O: How was the experience of living in America?
RH: Well, it wasn't that great, but I was living in D.C., which isn't the best possible place. There are a lot of cities in the States I'd rather live in than places in Britain. I'd rather live in New Orleans than Middlesbrough. The States is kind of based on erasing its own history. Britain is to blame for that, but because American society started with the slaughter of the Native Americans, there's a kind of curse on America that it has to keep reinventing itself and destroying what it's created. So all this fantastic artwork and architecture—Americana, Hollywood, old neon signs, diners, grills, bars, rock 'n' roll, Cadillacs, Chevrolets, all the things that have become clichés but are beautiful pieces of design—have all been kind of removed and replaced by strip malls and new houses and different cars and utter sterility. America has this problem that it wants to erase its own past. Otherwise, it's a great place.
O: When I was in Ireland, it kind of chilled me that there were parts of Cork that could be suburban America. I was afraid it was spreading.
RH: It is. And not only that, but things like L.A. are spreading. L.A. is really, although it's in the States, its own little country, state, world, universe, whatever. In fact, calling it "little" is a misnomer. It's virtual. And I think L.A. will start feeding itself in Bangkok and Oslo and Cape Town, and all sorts of places. It's happening here, all the strip malls and things. But that's human beings. They just try different things, and there's not much we can do about it.
O: Now that you're working by yourself, do you find you write more direct lyrics?
RH: No, the lyrics were never anything to do with the other musicians. Why, do my lyrics seem any more direct?
O: No, but I think they have the illusion of being more direct because they are sort of stripped down when you have a folk setting. But when you listen to them, they're just as oblique as ever.
RH: I think they're just what's right to sing, really. I can't be more specific. It limits the song too much. Sometimes I write very specific songs. "1974" is very specific. "The Yip Song" is really very specific. "I Something You" is pretty specific. Maybe the images aren't always, but what I'm writing about is pretty specific. Most of those songs have a definite topic. It's just that, when I was with the band, and with The Soft Boys, we all tend to be very elaborate. My lyrics are very dense, and I think we used to match dense words with dense music. And now I try to keep the music simple so the words can breathe. I try to make things slightly unfinished, so the listeners can finish it off in their heads rather than it being put into them with a sort of Steely Dan-esque slice of perfection.