Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Robyn Hitchcock

The lanky figure of Robyn Hitchcock appears across a busy Charing Cross Road. He's taking a break from rehearsals with the recently reformed Soft Boys for a rendezvous with the magazine that's always loved him, for what promises to be another classic interview. With his long black coat, flowing scarf and sweep of silver hair, I am stuck by the thought that with his vaguely eccentric manner and razor sharp mind, in a more real, more joyful world, Robyn would have become the definitive Doctor Who.
Timelord or not he's ready to travel back twenty years with us to the time he and the other Soft Boys last shared a stage together. Then down through the years to the present reincarnation of that much cherished band, stopping off at Los Angeles' pop epicentre Café Largo along the way. Robyn is down to earth, witty and a proper human being before he is anything else, and the next couple of hours hunched over a microphone in a buzzy little cafe drinking tea and chinwagging with him promises to be jolly spiffing. So climb aboard the police box and tell me, "Enough with the Doctor Who references already."

Have you listened to Underwater Moonlight recently?
I've always listened to it at least once a year. I actually tried playing along with it the other day and it seemed like someone had varisped it somewhere; I couldn't get a guitar in tune with it I always liked the album and I suddenly realised it was out of print there weren't any left, they had all gone. Of all the Soft Boys stuff it was the one that merited re-releasing and coincidentally I've never strayed that far from the matrix of the Soft Boys. Morris Windsor was with me in the Egyptians between'84 and93 and he always comes and plays when we have a party. So whether I'm working with Morris, professionally or not, he's often around. Kimberley Rew and I, we've started doing more and more together, it's like little iron filings gradually creeping up on us. He'd come along if I was playing in Cambridge, playing on the encores. Then he started coming down to London if I was playing there and then he started coming to the parties. I don't remember a policy as such; I just started inviting him along to recording sessions. Then he and I and Tim Keegan's band, The Departure Lounge, did a tour of the States in'99, Tim's band backing me up with Kimberley on guitar. So there I was in a rock band with Kim again. In fact the only element that was missing was Matthew Seligman. He'd had enough of the business, of being a session musician, in the late eighties and he had decided to become a barrister, which he still is.

Though he had been involved in that Soft Boys reunion tour of' 94
That was a bit odd. It was sort of done at gunpoint, a strange amalgam, we had two bass players, which meant neither Andy or Matthew could improvise, they had to play the whole show note for note. So you got double-tracked bass, but probably a bit stiff. We didn't have Kimberley, he couldn't do the tour for some reason I never quite fathomed, so we brought Sean Lyons in, who's the same height as Kimberley. We figured most people who had seen the Soft Boys would have been dead by then so they wouldn't know. That was all right, it was sort of a Soft Boys that never was. That was the last time Matthew had been out playing; he went back to chambers and barristerhood. But this time what we wanted to do was specifically celebrate the twenty-first anniversary of Underwater Moonlight coming out. This was the real thing, which bound this venture together. It was "twenty years ago today" and now the records back so let's put the Moonlight quartet together, who haven't played for twenty years, and actually see what it's like if we carry on where we left off.

When it first came out you all knew that you had come up with a great album, but then due to lack of interest at the time it just fell away from you and you drifted apart. So is there a feeling of, we lost it that time?
And this time I will not miss!
Sort of like finding an old girl friend that you didn't quite make it with at the time but you always thought you could have. The one that got away.
Oh, well maybe, except that the chances are there's a good reason why you didn't quite connect with the old girlfriend. Bands that split up, they get back together again and then they break up in the same sequence. The first guy to leave the first time around is the first guy to leave the second time. In order for things to work out better than they did last time, there has to have been some kind of change, either inside the group or to the musical climate. In a way Underwater Moonlight was quite a success, it's just that it had a very delayed reaction. Time has been very kind to the Soft Boys; we've become this sort of cool little cult band which has flourished in its absence. Whatever you think of Kimberley's or my records, you could always imagine that put together The Soft Boys would be much better. Now we're actually there so we can't capitalise on the legend anymore. We're going to have to actually deliver the goods.
To answer your initial question, it seemed to fall away at the time, but looking back over the last twenty years, in a bizarre way it has been quite successful and it has justified us getting back together again and, if anything, has given us something to live up to. We don't look as gorgeous as we did back then but to our credit none of us was vain, I look at the photos now and thank, God I would have had those lads modelling. We could have beaten Spandau Ballet at their- own game with a bit of eyeliner But we weren't about image; we were totally about music. The fact that we were these lovely young dark haired animals and now we're a bunch of slightly portly middle aged men can't be helped. We still sound good; in fact we're probably better. On the tour we are going to play nearly all the album, the original record was ten songs but on the new version it is now nineteen. I reckon we'll play a lot of it, but it's not a Soft Boys retrospective, it's specifically an Undenvoter Moonlight celebration. We were playing through Old Pervert the other day a song none of us have played for twenty years. Nobody could quite remember where the beat came in. Kimberley used to sound like he was trying to slice off the top of someone's head with a meat cleaver and now the tone of his guitar has mellowed, so he was playing it beautifully but it didn't seem half as aggressive as it used to be. We all sort of shuffled in, I couldn't remember what my guitar lick was but I knew what key it was in. Then I started singing, couldn't hit most of the notes, so I decided to sing it in a sort of Johnny Cash way. We were getting going and I thought; well this is Old Pervert, we're almost there. We've cleared away the thicket, found our way through the woods hacked down the brambles and we're making our way to the old cottage where the pervert dwells and here we are.

We're back in the same rehearsal studios. They had put these mirrors up on the walls, I guess for if people want to strike poises. We always face the drums so we don't have to look at them but I looked round and there was a grey haired me with these three other middle aged guys. It was like we'd been put to sleep by this enchantress in 1980 and suddenly come to twenty years later, playing the same set. Oh my god what happened to us! I realise what happened but it was like this extraordinary instant railway through twenty years of life. I watched my relationships falling and disintegrating, children growing up, career expanding and contracting. God 1980, Lennon's been shot, oh dear here comes Spandau Ballet, whoops here's the big drum sound, oh yippee Reagan's out but Bush is still in, oh God here comes Clinton and now I'm in a size 35 trousers, what do you know? Bang, here we are, that's 20 years!

So are you just going to play live or are there going to be new recordings?
We recorded a Paul McCartney song for a breast cancer charity record of his songs. We're doing a song called Let Me Roll It off Band On The Run, which is done as a Plastic Ono Band pastiche, but I resisted the temptation to put a lot of slap echo on the vocals and things. It sounds surprisingly Soft Boys in as much as it's got a lot of the key elements. Matthew is doing something rather unlikely on the bass, very nifty drums from Morris, and Kim and I saturating with guitars as heavily as we can. Its sort of like Folk Metal I suppose- now there's a nice genre that should be dead and buried! So we've been in the studio with that it sounds good, so it's always possible that we will do something. It's just a matter of making sure there's good songs. I always make the best album that I can, but for a Soft Boys album it's got to be even better I would be nervous about getting out stuff that wasn't too good.

I don't think your talent has diminished at all, the latest stuff is as good as anything. I don't feel there's any ambulance chasing involved as yet.
I hope not. Maybe I've got my oxygen cylinder
Your song The Wreck Of The Arthur Lee, isn't that about ambulance chasing to a certain extent? Clinging onto something that's twenty years gone
From Arthur's perspective, it's more just a sense of damage, if you like. You've certainly done some damage to yourself. But I guess I'd been damaging myself a fair amount as well. I was just feeling particularly ruined one morning and woke up and wrote that song. There was nothing in the house to eat except some sugar and I had a hangover. It was five o'clock on this mid-summer morning and I'd got jet lag and came down stairs, blinked at this revolting sunlight, picked up this guitar and started singing The Wreck Of The Arthur Lee. It wasn't really pointed at Arthur Lee, saying this guy's a wreck.

I always thought it was about the people that cling to someone whose last bit of genius was thirty years past in the vain hope that they might once again capture it. The idea that if Syd Barrett did a new album that it would be in some way good, when the overwhelming fact is that it won't be.
Oh I see what you mean. Barrett has, intentionally or not, pulled a masterstroke in not recording anything since 1970. Another interesting thing is why all those people ran out of steam at almost exactly the same time. Some of them did it very dramatically, like Barrett. Some of them, like Donovan or Ray Davies, just suddenly didn't write very good songs anymore. Look at the Beatles. Was it because they weren't looking over each other's shoulders anymore, so the quality declined? It's almost as if something was taken out of the air Brian Wilson, Bob Dylan, all of them, by sixty-nine, seventy they were on their last gasp. So it's not just people like Arthur Lee and Barrett, who had that problem, it's just that they are particularly legendary for how they done themselves in, in one way or another. Although Arthur Lee is still able to turn up and do a good performance; apparently he was in good voice the last time he was out singing. So you can't be sure, but it seems like the whole lot went really. All I learnt from that is; don't do too much acid, so I didn't take too much acid!

Is it fair to say that, without being at all retro, that the Sixties informed your music more than any other era?
All that stuff went into my DNA it just happened quite naturally, I didn't know anything else. You grew up and Ticket to Ride happened to be on the radio or Like A Rolling Stone. You hit puberty and Are You Experienced, Forever Changes and Blonde on Blonde came out By the time I got to seventeen it had all run out of steam a bit. But I think that's why I was so unimpressed with the Seventies. Everybody else said, well you've got to move on, and they were listening to Bob Marley, David Bowie and Little Feat. Steely Dan I never liked, too airtight. There was no point, past Bond On The Run, buying a new McCartney album. There was not much left of Arthur Lee. Barrett had shut up shop. Apart from those two Virgin albums, Beefheart was actually one of the last to go. I remember seeing him in 1980, it wasn't quite what it had been on the Clear Spot tour, that was the best show I ever saw, but Beefheart made an honourable retreat. He was like the last legion to pull out before the hordes came. Maybe, because of having all that stuff in the Sixties going right into me, I never recovered, I'm just constantly recreating the same kind of music. Every so often I'llmake a track and think oh blimey, that sounds like something from 1973 or that sounds a bit Eighties. I'll listen to my old records back and realise, this must have been made in '84 because the engineer had chorused the guitars and there's a big snare sound, but these were things I didn't even think about at the time. The musical compost that the plant that is me grows out of is just completely informed by the years'66 and '67. But everybody knows that already! Some Sixties stuff has lasted better than others, I don't think Country Joe and the Fish or the Incredible String Band have lasted. I like listening to them more for nostalgia and a feeling it invokes. Where as Forever Changes is still great, so are the early Doors and The Beatles. Highway 61 is still as powerful as it ever was. Fairport Convention were surprisingly un-self-indulgent for the time. They sort of based themselves on Jefferson Airplane or something but they still kept it down to concise songs, it didn't become "Headrock"
So you weren't interested in the progressive scene in the seventies then?
Well it wasn't really progressive anyway. After a while they found ways of making music people could buy trousers to and in that respect it was no different to Bananarama or the Pet Shop Boys, you're making music that sounds nice. One of the problems with prog is it tends to become very obedient. Maybe everybody realised that rock music wasn't going to actually change the world, it was just going to be a soundtrack to it. .The stakes got higher and higher in terms of money but they maybe got a bit lower in terms of what people were trying to achieve.

Let's talk about your involvement with the Cafe Largo scene (The legendary Los Angeles music venue). Jon Brion, Grant Lee Phillips, Michael Penn and Aimee Mann are all regulars there and in this magazine, and it was an agreeable surprise when you got caught up in it all.

Grant initially introduced Cafe Largo to me when Mark Flanigan was setting it up. He's an Irish guy from Belfast but he got a psychology degree in Dublin and he's been over in LA for some years. He's running this place in West Hollywood; it's a small, low ceilinged place with a stage in one comer. It's quite dark and they serve food there. You can't smoke cigarettes, but you can't smoke cigarettes anywhere in Southern California. Grant said, "We're going down to this place my friend Flanigan has just opened." In fact I didn't end up going with him that night and it was about a year later that somebody else took me down there. I was a guest on Jon Brion's Friday night show and I think we sang through something like I'll Keep It With Mine- some old rare Dylan track. Then we did Heliotrope, off the record I had out at the time and it was like we were obviously reading from the same hymnbook. Over the next couple of years I just found myself playing there more and more often, sometimes announced, sometimes not Flanigan would just come up and stuff an unspecified amount of money in your hand at the end of the night People seem to know that it's going on whether it's advertised or not. It's the only place in the world I know where musicians actually do get up and play with each other. Mid-level musicians like Grant Lee Phillips, Jon Brion and E from the Eels and Elliott Smith pops up. Rickie Lee Jones is
down there a lot
Michael Penn and Aimee Mann go, although Aimee doesn't play with anyone else much, whereas Grant and Jon are very comfortable with playing with others. Neil Finn was in town the other night and we went to see him and I remember a great Largo night with Neil on drums, Grant on bass, Jon on other guitar and me on guitar and you wouldn't get that at the 12 Bar- isn't anything like it in London or New York and I'd say it's really Flanigan's engineering that's done it. He's very aware of who's around and who's in town, he seems to know where you're going or what you're doing just before you do which is the essential quality for a good ringmaster.

He's got a big white dog called Shamus that sits in the dressing room getting bigger and bigger. I don't know what it is he just seems to know what everybody is up to on a certain frequency and bang there you are. For instance in 1999 1 seemed to find myself in LA. a hell of a lot and I played Largo far more than I played in London. I played in London twice and I played Largo five or six gigs, I was always turning up on Grant's show and on Jon's show. Last year I put in a few appearances but I haven't been to LA. for a little while, though I will be going next month. Suffice to say, I think it's brilliant.
So you enjoy that scene?
It's quite grown up, the truth is that most of the practitioners are heading for forty or in my case they're well on the other side of it I got Lou Barlow along there and I think he then played there once or twice and I guess he's a slightly different generation, he's thirty five now, so it's a slightly different frequency. Actually he's the same age as Grant, but Grant's a real traditionalist He's very steeped in Beatles and Dylan, like I am. Largo makes LA bearable really, suddenly it's got something worth going there for. Flanigan also runs a great after-show facility. Comedians, that's the other thing. I don't know if you're aware of her but Jon Brion's girlfriend Mary Lynn Rajskap is a comedy actress. She's in the Larry Sanders' Show and she had a small part in the Man in the Moon film. Well she shows up there as does this guy Paul F.Tompkins and they have a comedy night every Monday but they're not adverse to just having a comedy act opening for a musician on other nights. Paul F. has opened up for me and again this is the beauty of Flanigan, he's not frightened of mixing the two. That's a real anathema over here, the British music establishment has always liked its music and humour separated. They don't like it if they think they re taking the piss, which they thought that we were. Grant and I have this concept, Jon Brion to a degree as well, though Jon's songs are much more complex, there's that feeling, if you're an entertainer, you should be able to make people laugh or make people cry. The way that Crosby and Sinatra and those people did. They'd do comedy. They'd do an action movie. They could do stand up and then sing a ballad, they were entertainers and it was cheesy stuff and they didn't write themselves and they were swept away by Dylan and all that. Elvis was more Old School; other people wrote his stuff and even Elvis would do his weepy ballads and then he'd do some
funny stuff. But after A Hard Day's Night it was all over because most people became 'Artists' and 'Messiahs'. The artist-messiah was certainly not an entertainer, he was a serious beast and you tracked him down in a cafe and he told you the meaning of life. Then he went off and died and whatever he sang became something noble and things like that. He didn't get on stage and tell jokes!

Anyway Grant and I, having been around a number of rocks, a number of times, we're both quite good at just entertaining upwards anddownwards. So we've done a couple of little tours in the States as a duo. There's some good stuff on tapes. Grant's very funny, like Peter Sellers he can make his face completely blank and then all sorts of ludicrous expressions will go across it. I don't think Grant Lee Buffalo really hints at what Grant's potential is. There's a film of it been done, just shot on three video cameras in Seattle by this film maker Kris Kristinson and that's going to come out via my website. We're hoping someone somewhere will give us a television show so we can carry on being metropolitan entertainers.

So what was it like being produced by Jon Brion?
Live Jon knows what you're going to play before you play it; he's so fast like that. He's the only person I've ever played with where there's been no point shouting out the chords. I said something like, "B 4," and he just said, "I know!" That's why he doesn't want to hear the song in the studio before you record it. He's a fantastic producer, there's none of this. "I'd like to spend sometime with the songs Robyn." In fact he really likes it if he hasn't got a clue what you're going to do, he may even select a random instrument beforehand, to play along with you.

So what's happening next with your internet label Editions Pafl? I'd like to see a CD version of the Moss Elixir vinyl-only release since the pressing on that is a bit on the frying tonight side.
Oh really? That's a shame, I didn't realise. Actually, well I might do that because I do have a master DAT of it The next thing we're doing is the release of the re­creation of the Dylan Albert Hall concert. There was a bootleg of it and then Warners did a promo of it. The mixing board was too unbalanced to use so we've had to use an audience tape so there's a bit of chat here and there. We're adding some extra Dylan songs from various live desk tapes.

The last time I interviewed you, around the time of Moss Elixir, I came away with the
impression that you were ready to give up music full time to concentrate on your painting and writing. Yet the last few years you've been at your most prolific.

Really? Well I do get in that mood from time to time. I suppose I do tend to get menopausal towards the end of the decade, but if I was making Moss Elixir, I'd have been around 41 and it was quite an upbeat period. But maybe I was. Ah, okay, I'll tell you, just to give you a thought, a kind of overview on that; I'm never really sure where the next song's coming from. I always feel like it could just go off, there could be a point where suddenly I go to the cupboard and there aren't any songs left. It's not like there's an infinite supply. Like the Chinese say you're born with an finite number of orgasms, but they don't say how many that is. Its maybe far more than we need or it maybe you're going to find yourself thirty orgasms short at the end of your life- but what do you mean? It's still working. I guess I'm cagey about the future, I never know if there's another record on it's way. Time has shown I have produced an enormous amount of work but I always worry, either I could run out of songs or worse that the quality could nosedive and I could just not realise it Why should I, at forty seven, carry on writing half way decent songs and if they go off what am I going to do? I've been working on this novel on and off for the last six years but I've got a bit stuck. It is all there, I'm just having trouble revising it. I do paint and draw, I've got lots of drawings, and sooner or later I will do something with them. So that's just in case, or I'll get too old to travel around to do gigs and I'm going to be doing that. I have to force myself to go upstairs and paint. I have to go and shut myself up in an attic without access to a guitar to write the novel, because if I'm anywhere near a musical instrument then I'll end up strumming it. There's no substitute for playing live music. It absolutely gets to a part of the soul or body that nothing else does.

And with that vibrant affirmation hanging in the air we'll draw a close to proceedings.
to read my previous interview with Robyn go here:

No comments: