Robyn Hitchcock arrives November 3rd to Madison’s High Noon Saloon, playing solo but carrying overstuffed bags of interesting history. From his post-punk Soft Boys beginnings to a three decade career mixing solo stretches with bands, films, published poems and painting, Robyn is a post-modern Renaissance Man who’s songs and speech dabble in riddles, scribbles, neurosis and culture. The newly minted five CD set, I WANNA GO BACKWARDS bonuses up three of his older solo albums and includes an incredibly strong double CD of rare works. We emailed Robyn to ask about his past and present state of affairs.
MAX INK: As part of the reissue campaign your solo work comes out then a set with your work with the Egyptians. What to you distinguishes your solo work from the group efforts?
ROBYN HITCHCOCK: The solo recordings tend to sound more relaxed. RH & The Egyptians were a great live band, the tight arrangements gave us force; the records always sounded more like blueprints to my ear. A lot of intensity went into those blueprints tho'. But am I hearing the music, or just my memories of playing it?
MI: It dawned on me this weekend that, “Hey Bulldog,” was my favorite Beatles song. I hadn’t played it in ages but it was a very real memory until I played it and, while I still think it’s great, the mix was completely different than my memory. What general impression were you left with when you re-examined your early solo work and were there any surprises?
RH: It's faster than I remember. If I play those old songs live, now - "I Often Dream Of Trains," for instance, or, "Autumn Is Your Last Chance" - it's funny how slow they are compared to the original recordings. It's possible you heard a re-mix of 'Hey Bulldog'. With my material, nothing has been re-mixed per se, simply sharpened like a pencil. 'Trains' sounds quite crude, almost punky now. 'Black Snake Diamond Role' and 'Eye' sound like my versions of Britpop albums.
MI: Perhaps due to my intense preparation for this interview I heard you everywhere. From the new Six Organs of Admittance to vintage Incredible String Band, from Seattle’s Green Pajamas to Australia’s Paul Kelly. What is your opinion about the people you’ve been compared to?
RH: The people who influenced me were themselves sponges to the music around them. They influenced each other: Dylan and the Beatles cross-pollinated, begat the Byrds and many others, from Richard Thompson to Noel Gallagher. No surprise then that I sound like a lot of other people. I'm happy and proud to be a mosaic in the Great Wall Of Rock. I'm not familiar yet with the Green Pajamas (Peter & Scott will know them), but I've been listening to John Lennon for 45 years so it's hardly surprising if I sing like him sometimes.
MI: Who do you think you sound like?
RH: My own voice sounds to me like a West Country railway station announcer - nasal upper-mid insect tones bleeding insistently thru a small PA.
MI: The music business’s fascination with fad is quite cyclical. Some of today’s music seems a throwback to the music popular when you first started out with The Soft Boys.
RH: The dominant sound in the new music that I hear is the 1970's. Somewhere between Sandy Denny and Talking Heads, there it is. But there are little tics and rivets in the music that could not come from that far back, if you listen closely. Joe Boyd feels that 'rock' music has nothing new to offer, and he could be right - it may have nothing to offer him, who was there when it was evolving so fast. 'Liege & Lief' and 'The Band' are so set into history that they haven't dated at all. Well recorded, too. You're right about fad - fashion is a dictator but it's got lovely nails, darling. However, rock is now history driven, which it wasn't when Joe and I were younger.
MI: Of the bands that came up at the same time as you, who did you think would take off but didn’t or the reverse – surprised they made an impact?
RH: When The Soft Boys were playing The Hope & Anchor for £1 in early 1978, The Police were playing the same venue for 60 pence. Who knew? Everybody, by the end of the year.
There was a lot of Beatle music around, in New Wave drag - Costello, Squeeze, XTC and our tiny selves. I'm in touch with some of those chaps now which I wasn't then. In Britain, Paul Weller is the winner - no surprise to a million Jam fans!
MI: Prolific and inventive with a career of several decades – it’s hard to imagine you’ve had many creative blocks. How do you find inspiration? Does having different outlets such as painting and poetry help the process?
RH: It's more a question of creative habits: if the tap's been turned off for 3 months, it takes another 3 months to turn it back on. My knowledge of fitness and athletics is nil, but it seems to be a matter of being in training. So, write 5 mediocre songs, and you'll be rewarded with a good one. Write 5 good ones and you'll get a great one. 5 great ones later, maybe a masterpiece if you're still alive. You don't have to finish them all.
MI: How do you see your evolution as an artist - Crooked but progressive, returning to the same themes or whatever struck your fancy?
RH: I move in a spiral. It's a circular motion, through the moods and attitudes - humour, rage, regret, despair, silliness, and a philosophical acceptance, occasionally - that is tempered as I get older, so I'm not exactly repeating myself. More kind of sweeping around like a ray. My younger songs were more vivid, my older ones have more depth, but they still spiral and circle past all those different emotions. I'd like to think I was better at writing sad songs now, as those are what I've always loved.
MI: What do you value in a friendship and prize in a musician?
RH: Not the same things. Many musicians communicate through playing only, and don't really do empathy, conversation, and the rest of it. A friend will talk and listen, and you reciprocate. The only common thread is humour - it's hard to be a friend, lover, or musical colleague of anybody who doesn't laugh at the same things as you.
MI: Lewis Carroll, Monty Python, John Lennon - What is it about Britain that produces such a ripe sardonic wit?
RH: We use question marks. It's a deep lack of faith in humanity, without resorting to God. Sarcasm and imagination. Our ruling class goes back 950 years, barring the odd blip, so perhaps we're more fatalistic.
MI: What’s the last great book you read?
RH: "Never Let Me Go" by Kazuo Ishiguro is a gently devastating book - his strongest yet. Michel Faber is a very vivid writer: if my songs were stories, I'd hope they'd be like his. Kate Atkinson's 'It's Not The End Of The World' is definitely a dark laugh.
MI: Last great film?
RH: I finally saw 'Seventh Seal' after Ingmar Bergman died this summer. Death is the great promoter, as Bergman would probably agree, given that Death is the star of that movie. It has this bleak reputation, but is effectively a comedy, and the source of much in Python, Woody Allen, and Bill & Ted.