"More Thoughtful, Less Brutal" // The 405 meets Robyn Hitchcock
Robyn Hitchcock has been entertaining and delighting a ever-growing audience since he first emerged with the Cambridge based band the Soft Boys in 1976. Their unusual post-punk mix of psychedelia and folk meant that their influence far outstripped their sales figures. The Soft Boys were short lived but Robyn gained further acclaim with a string of albums in the 1980s as Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians, and since then he has amassed a huge body of work through his solo albums, as the leader of the Venus 3 a band which includes Peter Buck from REM and ex-Ministry drummer Bill Rieflin - and through various collaborations with luminaries as Gillian Welch, Nick Lowe and Grant Lee Philips.
Understandably there is a lot to ask Mr Hitchcock, and I'm limited by conducting the interview via email, but I want to be as in depth as possible, so I start at the beginning of his musical career. In Cambridge in 1976, the Soft Boys were born around the same time as punk rock, although they came from a background that was much more in tune with folk-rock and psychedelia. The band met at the Portland Arms in the city, where Robyn was playing every weekend at the folk club. Their connection with the pub was so strong that by 1978 they had even recorded the Live at the Portland Arms album, which became a limited release and now changes hands for silly money. So is Robyn aware of the changes in the city's music scene and the fact that the Portland is now the premier place to see up and coming bands...
"No, really? It would be strange if it was still like it was in 1976, draped in cobwebs, with Nick Barraclough (the future Radio 2 presenter) clutching a candelabra, trying to coax a bat out of the rafters....I hope they've soundproofed it (the Portland) now."
Yes, they have! The Soft Boys were relatively short lived, calling it a day in 1981, whilst Robyn went on to record his solo debut Black Snake Diamond Role. He eventually formed a new band the Egyptians in 1985, comprising of Andy Metcalfe and Morris Windsor from the Soft Boys. I asked him if he thought that the Soft Boys might have had a longer run originally if they had more success and recognition? Would this also be true for Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians?
"Who knows? The Soft Boys and the Egyptians were from the Cambridge pool. The Soft Boys changed quite radically during our 4-year existence; we celebrated the last incarnation ten years ago with some tours, a re-release of Underwater Moonlight (via Matador records) and a new record Nextdoorland. The Egyptians had a steadier run of it and were done when they were done."
Although the Soft Boys had little commercial success, their influence spread quickly and spawned a lot of bands who had obviously studied their blueprint. I always thought early REM owed a debt to them in particular, as well as other contemporaries like the dBs, the Dream Syndicate and so on. I was curious what Robyn thought when he first heard these bands.
"REM was a tad oblique and took me a while to tune into, but I was there by the Document album in 1987. The dB's became friends before we'd even heard them!"
It seems to me that whilst Robyn Hitchcock's music has been highly regarded in America since the mid 80s, his particularly English blend of songwriting had been overlooked at home. Now with the likes of the Sex Food Death... and Insects documentary– which showed Robyn rehearsing with the likes of John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin, Nick Lowe and Gillian Welch - getting an airing on BBC4, it feels that the UK has finally caught up with his reputation. Has it?
"I'd have to ask it, I don't know. I've always been more concerned with sending things off than with where they land."
So how did he feel when he realised early on that there was a fanbase in America and comparatively little interest at home?
"It felt like it was time to go to America. These days I feel more at home here in Europe, but I have some rock-ass listeners in the USA (and Canada)!"
I think it's fair to say that Robyn has worked with an impressive list of collaborators throughout his career. He is vague and modest about how these collaborations come about..."Well, if they're older than you, you tend to find them; and the younger ones find you." he says.
As well as his 35 years spent making music Robyn has also been involved with the film industry, most notably through his work with Jonathan Demme, an American director perhaps best known for the Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia and Talking Heads in concert movie Stop Making Sense. In 1998 Demme quite literally put Hitchcock in a shop window and filmed him playing his songs and performing monologues to passers-by, the result was Storefront Hitchcock and another boost to Robyn's standing in the USA. This working relationship continued and Robyn has even done some acting, most notably in Demme's remake of the Manchurian Candidate in which you played double agent Laurent Tokar. I wonder if this is an area he would like to work in some more?
"Well we've been filming a few London events recently, just to document them until digital formats become obsolete. As for acting, If Jonathan Demme wants me in a film, I'm there!"
Focusing back on Hitchcock's prolific musical life, it seems obvious that this is a period of his career where he is able to collaborate with various musicians, rather than have a fixed bunch of players to work with. His plans are fluid and not subject to any great promotional strategy, he gives me an outline of the next months in his life.
"I'm planning more shows with the Venus 3 - Scott McCaughey, Peter Buck and Bill Rieflin are planning to play in Tel Aviv in March, and Spain in July but before that in January I'll be back with them at Peter's festival in Todos Santos, Mexico. We'll be playing two sets a night from the 11th to the 14th inclusive, commencing at 8pm. In February I'll be launching the Floating Palace: this one includes Martin Carthy, KT Tunstall, Eliza Carthy and Howe Gelb, all playing music they don't usually play with people they don't usually play with, in the UK starting February 5th in Glasgow. Then in April I'll be working with Frøde Stromstad and Anne Lise Frøkedal on the next I Was A King record, in Norway."
Also in 2012 Robyn will be performing his 1985 solo album I Often Dream of Trains at Jeff Mangum's ATP, was he aware of Jeff's work before this request?
"Yes, I've got the Neutral Milk Hotel record – it's a lovely piece. It was nice of Jeff Mangum to ask us, and the TRAINS record is the one that most lends itself to being a show, it is very much a solo album, recorded on 4 track over a few days." Revisiting older albums is something that Robyn is not opposed to, as he adds “I've also performed EYE and UNDERWATER MOONLIGHT this year. There'll be masses of talent at ATP, I'm looking forward to it."
Following on from that, are there any newer bands that Robyn rates at the moment?
"Bands throng like tadpoles, it's hard to keep track of them. I haven't really listened to the Pixies yet, or Blur. The Savage Nomads, who record in Alaska Studios, sound pretty good. Local Natives I like, MGMT started brilliantly...The Living Animals..."
Acknowledging his influences has always been a factor in his work, earlier in 2011 he hosted a Captain Beefheart tribute evening and has very recently accompanied legendary producer Joe Boyd by performing music featured in Boyd's excellent White Bicycles book. As well as all this he has been known to regular cover people like Bob Dylan, Bryan Ferry, Syd Barrett. I wonder why are these people important to Robyn, and who else would he consider as important to his work?
He explains "These people have all written terrific songs, which are a joy to perform. Every writer draws on different colours in the emotional spectrum, and I love playing songs that express feelings that mine don't, necessarily. Arthur Lee, Lou Reed, Jim Morrison, The Incredible String Band, and more than anybody, The Beatles all appear in my repertoire from time to time."
A final question to dwell on. How does he think his music has changed over the years?
"It's slowed down, it's more thoughtful, less brutal, probably less vivid and... it's going silver, like I am. Hope my leaves don't fall off yet."
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Just before Christmas we caught up with Eric D. Johnson (aka Fruit Bats) in cold, concrete London - which is a stark contrast to the sort of music he makes. We got the chance to talk to him about the origin of the band, old pop music, Echolocation, concept album, road life, sappy songwriting, hobos, the west coast, scoring soundtracks and Hawaiian music. That was done in the warmth of a venue. We then dragged him outside to perform 'You're Too Weird'. [read more]