Robyn Hitchcock: "I don’t think I’ve written many songs about lightbulb heads or insects or frogs in 25 years"

The great Robyn Hitchcock talks Dylan, Roxy Music, music industry evil and his arty path from the Soft Boys to now

Published September 5, 2014 11:00PM (EDT)

Robyn Hitchcock     (Alicia J Rose)
Robyn Hitchcock (Alicia J Rose)

Robyn Hitchcock has been one of rock’s great eccentrics for almost four decades now, since his days with the noisy and graceful Soft Boys. At the end of August, he dropped something characteristically odd: A kind of platypus of a record – half covers, half originals.

“The Man Upstairs” was recorded in a  stripped-down acoustic style, and produced by folk-rock legend Joe Boyd (best known for his work with Nick Drake, Fairport Convention, and R.E.M.’s “Fables of the Reconstruction.”) Acoustic Guitar says of the record, “Rarely have songs recorded this simply sounded so lush.”

The album, which opens with a cover of the Psychedelic Furs’ “The Ghost in You,” is both modest and one of the year’s best so far. (The others are by Roxy Music, Grant-Lee Phillips, the Doors and I Was a King.)

We spoke to Hitchcock on a very bad connection from the Isle of Wight.

The music business has changed a lot since you started recording in the 70s and ‘80s. I don’t have to tell you that. There’s great music being made today, just as there was then, but record sales are a lot lower, streaming and 99 cent songs are the model, and musicians are generally touring a lot more to make up the difference. How has it changed for you and the musicians you know? Is this a good time to be a musician compared to your early days?

You’ve really described it. Unfortunately, the pie hasn’t gotten any bigger but there’s more people after a slice. They’ve still got the old guys like McCartney and the Rolling Stones and Dylan and the Beach Boys going out on tour and taking money, but you’ve also got groups that just started up. There are still people coming in, there are still people pouring into the room even though the room is full.

It’s like the stateroom scene at “A Night at the Opera” by the Marx Brothers. More and more waiters coming and going. “Who ordered the eggs?”, you know? So it’s definitely harder in that respect. You’re certainly not going to be nourished by a record company while you develop your career or keep to being a niche artist because you’re cool.

Having said that, Yep Roc is very nice to me. They keep me going in lots of ways, but you can’t rely financially on a record company like you used to. But I will say I’m very pleased LPs are back. And vinyl. So the renaissance of vinyl has been worth hanging in the game for. And maybe it’s good that it’s getting more competitive. Maybe you just have to work harder and not just put out LPs of your latest “Gosh I’ve written 12 songs, I’ll make an album!”

I mean, people have released far too many records. I’ve done it myself. Neil Young’s done it. Even Bob Dylan’s done it. In a way it’s a bit like it was before album culture. In those days, you had to have a single in order to sell LPs. Then we had the 40 glorious years of album culture. Given the platform of the compact disc, people started putting 75 minutes on. Who’s got time to listen to 75 minutes of recorded music? I’ve kept this one down to 38, which I think is the optimal length — 19 minutes a side. I think what happening is just another evolutionary step.

The business became unsupportable. Record companies got greedy and the artists became self-indulgent. Now we just gotta try a bit harder and think twice or any number of times about what we put out. I think competition is generally quite good for art. It might be good for commerce but I’m not a capitalist. But the negative side of it is that the big [record] companies now only want to support a safe bet. That means at the very top everything is bland. What the big money is spent on is bland and unchallenging. That’s the destructive side of it. At the indie level, the level that I work at, yeah it’s tougher I suppose. But somehow we’ll keep going.

“The Man Upstairs” has an unusual structure – it’s not really a covers record, but you have five covers. And then five originals.

OK, that was Joe Boyd’s idea. Joe the producer. He said “Why don’t you make a record. Why don’t we make a record like Judy Collins did in the mid-1960s.” I don’t know why he suggested Judy Collins. I don’t know if he worked with her. He was working for the label that she was on — Elektra. So I thought, OK, let’s try that. I brought various songs of mine in and of other people’s. There were other songs, a song that was sung by Townes Van Zandt.

What song was that?

It’s called "Tower Song." You know that? So there’s a couple of versions of that. Quite a good demo, actually, which I might put out sometime. There’s a Bob Dylan song called "Born in Time" which didn’t quite make it. There are a few songs of mine which were quite good but just didn’t fit. So we just kept what we thought was the absolute best. Stuff that worked together, even. Perhaps that’s a better way of putting it. I don’t know if they're the best performance, but they’re the ones that work as a whole.

Let’s talk about your taste in songs, then. Your style as a songwriter and singer is very distinctive. What makes a song right for you to cover, besides just liking the song?

One of the things is that there’s emotion. There’s an emotional spectrum that different songwriters have. And I can express certain things probably well and other things I don’t think I can express well but I can sing them. So I love the feeling of “The Crystal Ship” or the feeling of “The Ghost in You” or the feeling of Grant Lee’s song — all of the five covers on the record. I love the feeling in each of them but… they’re not feelings I can exactly get in my own songs, know what I mean?

It allows you to do something you couldn’t otherwise do. You can go somewhere you might not have gone.

Yeah. Some of them are songs that influenced me. Like “The Crystal Ship.” I heard that before I ever wrote a song. Lots of songs can turn you on. Bryan Ferry has been a big influence on me over the years. So I kind of — I pick the songs that I like the mood of them. Some of them I’ve sung for years. I’ve been singing in “The Ghost in You” since 1988 — it was a B-side for a 12-inch when I was on A&M. It was a minor radio hit in Annapolis, Maryland.

That’s my hometown!

What do you know. Funny. Then Joe and I picked [my songs that matched the tone of] those covers. So it’s an attempt to create an overall mood using half original material and half others’ material, which I’ve never done before. But I really enjoyed it. It gives me the chance to be a performer and a singer rather than just a songwriter. If I have any style, and I’m not sure that I do have a style, you can tell what it is from the way I sing other people’s songs. In some ways what this record is, it develops the Robyn Hitchcock sound rather than just a complete set of Robyn Hitchcock songs.

There are fewer songs on this record about insects and frogs and men with lightbulbs for heads than we’re used to getting from you.

I don’t think I’ve written many songs about lightbulb heads or insects or frogs in 25 years. You know, first impressions always stick. I arrived with the Soft Boys and we were a kind of angst-y, psychedelic band. We obviously loved “Revolver” and I think some of the stuff we did with the Soft Boys was brilliant — as good as anything I’ll ever do. And then I did my solo stuff in the ’80s with a bit more self-indulgence in some ways. A bit more of an adult child. Sticking my thumb in the pie of life and sort of pulling it out and going “ooh what’s that? What’s this grossed-out item I’ve picked up here?” Like some kid being told about sex and going "Eww."

And I think that was my reaction to being alive, in a way, the shock of existence, but they were sort of like adult nursery rhymes, those songs. "The Man with the Lightbulb Head," "Globe of Frogs," "The Insect Mother," again, I think they were great pieces and I’m glad I wrote them because nobody else did. In those days, I was still trying to carry on where Syd Barrett left off and I was in that field and to some extent I still am, you know.

I think since then if you listen to my records for the last 20 years they’re largely romantic. Ever since probably “Queen Elvis” and “Eye” in my college-radio days. And I’m basically a romantic songwriter. I suppose the same way the Beatles or Bob Dylan were. Dylan’s kind of intense imagination wrote very very visual songs. I see a lot of pictures and I see a lot of landscape when I listen to Bob Dylan’s songs. And I draw and paint and my dad was a painter for a while but I’d like to think my stuff is visual too. But I don’t know whether this record is particularly a visual one or whether it’s just more refining the kind of autumnal mood.

The mood of the record is important. You and Joe Boyd go back a number of years. What made him seem like the right guy to produce this record? And what kind of sound were you two going for?

Yeah, then I thought — my manager said “Why don’t you do another one? You’re obviously writing songs. Bang another one out quickly.” And I must’ve been talking to Joe and he said “Well yeah, I’m free in October,” or something. But Joe and I also had had this talk about mixing it up. He said “I don’t want to do another collection of singer-songwriter songs.” He did R.E.M. and 10,000 Maniacs in the 1980s and in his mind, he’s not part of rock music anymore. He sees himself as a connoisseur of what’s called “World Music.” You know, music from Somalia and Turkey and Uruguay is kind of like the Incredible String Band records we listened to 50 years ago. Do you know the String Band stuff?

Yeah, sure. You’re a real advocate of theirs, and Joe too. I think he produced at least one of their records.

Joe did. They used to play loads of instruments they’d just pick up in foreign countries and from antique shops and just have a go on them. And there was one song we recorded that really did sound like an Incredible String Band song, which we left off in the end. Maybe that was a mistake. So yeah, I think it was… I was just ready to make a record the way Joe wanted to do it and he was free. So, in a way, this project has been building up for a long time. We could’ve done it any time in the last 20 years and we finally did it while we’re both alive, which is great.

He wanted to use [engineer] Jerry Boys, who recorded the Buena Vista Social Club. Jerry really did an exquisite job on recording this, so it’s Jerry’s sound more than Joe’s or mine, really, but we were very happy with it. So what you had was a very simple recording process but it sounds surprisingly rich. Most tracks are just guitar and cello and maybe an overdubbed cello and a harmony but no double tracking, and I play a little bit of electric guitar, and maybe a bit of piano. It’s very simple but it sounds quite rich because of the way Jerry recorded it.

It’s got a very intimate sound, and as you said, autumnal as well.

Intimate music. All the records I really love are not big, widescreen, pompous epics. I like it where it sounds like somebody is sitting next to you and whispering into your ear. I mean even — that was one of the reasons to do songs by the Furs and Roxy Music because when those songs were originally recorded, they did have quite a big sound. Some of that sort of powder and pomp and sort of digital gloss that got on everything in the 1980s — the audio hairspray kind of theme. A very artificial sound. Which coated brilliant songs. So my role there was to take the songs out of their coating, to sort of crack off the lacquer on the outside and say “Hey look! Look what’s underneath all this! It’s a really great song. You can do it in guitar and cello!” So I think, if nothing else, I proved that point. I got a very nice email from Richard Butler. He liked my version of "The Ghost in You." I was very excited. I haven’t heard from Bryan Ferry yet but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time.

Grant-Lee Philips is such a brilliant songwriter and performer too; he’s a natural for this project, I think.

Oh, Grant’s great. The thing is that actually Grant’s version of “Don’t Look Down” is very bare. I haven’t changed that one enormously. I harmonized it myself; that’s the only one I do that on. That hasn’t been transformed that much. And the [Norwegian indie band] I Was a King song [“Ferries”], the woman who wrote the words is actually singing harmony on that and playing the guitar. We did that live together. They’ve written some brilliant songs, I Was a King. I hope they’re going to play more in the United States.

Yeah. Let’s talk about the least intimate music in history for a minute: punk rock. When the Soft Boys started recording, it was a few years after punk, I think. And I do hear some of Television’s “Marquee Moon” and some punk energy in those records. But your main inspirations have been folk rock, psychedelia, maybe the gentler side of the Velvet Underground. I wonder if to you, back in the 70s, punk felt like it wasn’t a step forward, that it wasn’t a step in the right direction.

It was a step but it wasn’t the one I was hoping that people were going to take. The step I was hoping they were going to take was much later when Oasis happened. Somewhere between R.E.M. and the Replacements and Oasis was kind of — that was the sort of music I was hoping we were going to able to hear in the late 1970s. But there was this Stalinist, Maoist feeling where certain things were verboten; you couldn’t have harmonies, you couldn’t have guitar solos. All that stuff was Rockist, it was passé, and these were things that we'd lovingly learned. We weren’t about to give them up. A lot of people of that generation just managed to kind of slip into the new wave door more than [the Soft Boys] did; we were just a bit too defiantly psychedelic for whatever reason. XTC, Andy Partridge, was into the same stuff, like the Beatles, but they somehow managed to get into the punk door — or Elvis Costello. These were all what I call the first generation of Beatle children who were born about ’53-’54, that age group. Elvis and XTC -- somehow the new wave police let them through at the border but they stopped us.

If you listen to an Elvis Costello song or a XTC song, you know, you can see the Beatle chords and the Beatle harmonies ringing through it.

Oh yeah.

So I think basically The Soft Boys were trying to produce Beatles music and our problem was we did it soon after the Beatles themselves. Everybody else kind of waited for 10-15 years before they got out their mop-tops. When Liam Gallagher was singing “I Am the Walrus” with an orchestra, then it was OK. The Soft Boys were just like one of those insects that hatches out too early in the year and is killed off by the frost — a flower that blooms to soon. History has been very kind to the Soft Boys. I think “Underwater Moonlight” is going to last. And the other stuff is interesting kind of “art rock.”

You were famous for a while for your between-song rambles, these sort of surreal but oddly logical narratives or free-association between your songs. Where did that tradition start? Were you basing that on another musician or writer?

I don’t know how my mind works. I just say what comes to me, really. The stimulation of being in front of the room makes me think faster. My mind actually works quicker if I have a bunch of people that I have to entertain in some way, so I talk sometimes quite breathlessly. I don’t know. Things just occur to me very quickly and then disappear. I get these sort of landscapes that appear in my mind and they change. Things flicker across them and disappear and come shrieking out of the head and vanish. It’s kind of… everything is accelerated and even now that I’m older, it seems to be an accelerated process. It might just be adrenaline. But my father was a very imaginative man. He painted and drew and he also wrote some books and plays. So I guess I inherited a lot of the way he thinks.

Is your songwriting process anything like that?

You probably know more about that than me. The songs… I think that all creativity comes from the same part of the personality or the brain, whatever. I think it’s the same part that dreams; it dreams, it writes stories, it tells poems, it draws cartoons, sings songs. That’s why so many artists and musicians, if you can do one you can do the others, even if maybe not so well. Whereas not all artists are footballers or medics or whatever.

So I think it’s just the way the mind goes and I was kind of raised — my father didn’t play music but he did everything else. But I was probably into music so as not to compete with him. I grew up and my sisters grew up in this household where… he just stayed home in the studio all day. So we had this mind there that was just hatching things out the whole time. My youngest sister, she writes children’s books, and my middle sister is a three-dimensional artist. In my case, songs to me just kind of appear.

Searching for words is like being somebody who is on wolf-watch; you see a photo and there's two wolves standing by a guy with binoculars. They kind of sneak up on you. They’re like cats. Songs have a mind of their own, I think, like all great creations.

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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