photo by Michéle Noach
When Robyn Hitchcock
takes the stage for a two-night stand in Cat’s Cradle’s Back Room on Feb. 4
, he's almost certain to highlight songs from the soon-to-be-released Love From London
. But nothing is set in stone for a man who has a catalog of more than 500 songs. From the skewed art-pop of his first band, The Soft Boys
(named for a pair of William Burroughs titles) through his years as an ’80s college-radio cult hero to his current status as, er, elder statesman, this prolific Cambridge, England-born singer-songwriter has sustained a career rooted firmly and unabashedly in the ’60s.
Indeed, the psychedelia of The Byrds and early Pink Floyd continues to course through Hitchcock’s consciousness, but in recent years he’s toned down the bright neon hues and lysergic Edward Lear-isms in favor of a more earthbound campfire beauty. Still, Hitchcock has never seemed tethered to the earthly plane the way most of us are, so it wasn’t a complete surprise to find that he was "not connected to a landline," as his publicist put it, when we had to reach him via email last week.
INDY: I was hoping to speak with you directly, since I’ve been a committed fan since I first stumbled around the East Village listening to
I Often Dream of Trains on my yellow Sports Walkman, but I’ll be happy to receive your words/thoughts in any form.
: I too have fond memories of your yellow Walkman. Have you tried YouPast, where you can scan your history at a few glances, or GoogleTime, where you scroll through the whole thing?
Some themes of your latest album,
Love From London, have to do with England’s current troubles. But you aren’t what one would call a topical songwriter. Do you think this shift in your songwriting perspective (away from the more surrealistic flavors of your early works) evolved naturally, perhaps as a function of maturity? Or is the world just such a mess that you can’t ignore it any longer? Or were you addressing these themes in your earlier work, only in more oblique fashion?
They're troubles of the world, really, aren’t they? England has her problems, but they're not very different from those of her neighbors, or of her distant relatives, like New Zealand. Did you know that we’re an Australian colony? Likewise, the problems that bedevil you—and your joys—are probably not that different from mine. Perhaps when I was younger I felt further away from everybody, and so my songs were more exotic, more remote. Songs are about feeling; it’s just best if you can avoid garlanding your feelings with clichés. All your questions are good answers here.
John Lennon was very critical of his work, especially early songs. Do you have any records/songs/periods that you feel different about at this point?
Hmmm. John Lennon seemed to fluctuate, perhaps according to how Yoko viewed his old stuff. It’s hard not to see yourself through the lens of your partner. Some of my adult nursery rhymes from before 1989 sound to me now like the work of a bright autistic lad (Syd Barrett?), and to them I relate less. They’re well enough constructed, though; might sound better now sung by a dame. I wonder if Neko Case would consider singing “The Man with the Lightbulb Head?” I did write a song for her colleague Kelly Hogan, “I Like to Keep Myself in Pain.” Hogan sings from the depths, but she’s clear, not murky.
Would you license “The President” to a political candidate?
Hmmm: What politician would want that as a theme tune? It was a good song though—another one I’d like to hear somebody else sing. Justin Bieber, maybe?
You founded The Soft Boys in 1976 and have seen the music biz landscape change so profoundly. Do you miss the old model at all?
I do miss the days when you could buy and sell records in a record store. Ironically, now that CDs and Best Buy and the Virgin chain have all blown over, the original template seems to have survived: small independent shops that sell mostly vinyl. But is that enough to sustain an industry?
Maybe the words “music” and “biz” never belonged that close together. Record companies were essentially banks—they loaned you money to further your career, and they pressed and attempted to market your records. The Soft Boys, and later the solo me, were largely unmarketable by conventional means. The music biz loved you as long as you were making it some money. We never really made any money for anybody. Despite this, I did manage to have reasonable working relations with two major labels—A&M and Warner Bros.—in the later part of the 20th century, thanks in particular to my dear friend, [Warner Bros. publicist] Rick Gershon. Change is sad; no change is stagnation.
The word “eccentric” often comes up when people try to encapsulate your musical approach. Are you tired of that descriptor? Do you think it misses the point?
The word eccentric was used to describe Michael Jackson, and is often coupled with the word “millionaire.” I am neither. But what I do is not easily described, musically. Should you try to say what I am or what I am not? On my calling card, it says “the last egg to hatch out from the 1960s.”
The image of me as eccentric maybe comes from the fact that my thoughts are free-range, and I share them with anybody who cares to listen. I don’t have a filter that rejects certain ideas or images from a song because they might be too hard to follow. The truer you can be to yourself, the deeper the chord you will strike with others—assuming they speak your language. My melodies, on the other hand, are quite traditional and hopefully pleasing. I’m a spicy meal on plain rice.
In the past decade, you’ve collaborated with lots of different players. The new record features a new lineup. Does playing with new people all the time free you from the pitfalls of having a steady band? Are there indeed pitfalls to having a steady band?
Musical promiscuity is the safest kind. A steady band needs steady money and a force field beyond which you cannot penetrate. My cast of players spins slowly, gains a few, sheds a few, and rotates slowly through the known universe. Jenny Adejayan has played cello on the last few records, and is prominent on the upcoming LP, as is Anne Lise Frøkedal on harmonies and guitar. I’d like to play with Kim [Rew] and Morris [Windsor] from The Soft Boys again while we’re all still here. They played at my 60th event in London.
What’s your feeling about Auto-Tune?
Similar to my feelings about GPS: If we don’t have to sing in tune, and we don’t have to read maps, what exactly do we have to do? That said, Auto-Tune will save the recording of my 60th bash.
Do you think you’ve written your last song about insects?
Ask me when I am no more.