The Rock & Roll Globe (of Frogs) catches up with the veteran singer/songwriter
With all the whimsical shock of a train at your window, the inimitable Robyn Hitchcock – flanked by his partner, singer/songwriter Emma Swift – suddenly materializes on a square of video beside mine, wearing one of those enviable, vividly colored button-downs he often sports.
“I still don’t know how to operate Zoom,” he confesses. “[Emma’s] more 21st century than I am. Not that 21st century, but more than I am. You couldn’t really be less tech-savvy than me.”
This is on brand for an artist as doggedly out of time as Hitchcock. He began his career weirding up the post-punk scene as the frontman of the long-lost, well-loved Soft Boys, who spent five years slashing their own twisted cocktail of shimmering late-‘60s pop noises. Through the subsequent four decades of pop development, the man who invented himself out of the discarded parts of long-gone British folk-rock and/or psychedelic bands has been a fixture as cheerily persistent as a glass eye in a fishbowl no one’s bothered to take out; the fish, after all, are fine.
Though his melodies have only gotten richer, and the vague shades of personal content more heartfelt, Hitchcock’s game hasn’t changed since the Soft Boys’ breakthrough Underwater Moonlight and his underrated solo debut Black Snake Diamond Role. His music, whether loud or quiet (it’s only ever one or the other, he insists), is the ever-inviting sound of someone who got their first guitar at 14 in 1967; whose love of that era, and commitment to evoking it, have only intensified. His lyrics, often elaborated on album packages by surrealistic art or commentary, are peerless, marked by irregular methods and brimming with irregular tastes. Their elusive worldview is as British as Hitchcock’s accent. He’s a Syd Barrett who never needed lysergic acid to see visions, or a Mike Heron born with the nagging compulsion to rhyme “nurse” and “hearse.”
VIDEO: Robyn Hitchcock: Sex, Death, Food… and Insects film clip
Pointing out an ‘Elephant Super Car Wash’ in the 2006 documentary Robyn Hitchcock: Sex, Death, Food… and Insects, Hitchcock identifies “the elephant that doesn’t rotate… and then, right by it, the elephant that does rotate.” Indeed, two pink pachyderm-shaped signs, only one functional, prove this is no mere hallucination. But Hitchcock finds an echo of the peculiar reputation he’s cultivated in the image.
“People think I make stuff like that up,” he explains from a blood-hued scarf, a swoop of silver hair obscuring his right eye. “But more often than not I’m just transplanting it from one area and moving it into another. Is a horse weird? A horse is weird if it’s in an airplane. Especially if it’s in business class. [It’s] not weird in a field. An onion makes perfect sense surrounded by other onions and shallots and stuff. But it looks more out of place if you find it working for the ministry of defense.”
Hitchcock jokes that he has too many albums, and that’s discounting a generous bounty of demo/rarities releases, the kind of ever-expanding catalogue you’re amazed its auteur can keep track of. Yet the five-year silence between 2017’s terrific Robyn Hitchcock and the similarly invigorated Shufflemania! is the widest gap in his discography. In press surrounding the new album, he attributes his reawakening to a 2019 vacation in Tulum, Mexico: some potent energy he’d felt among the ruins had compelled him to write a lilting ode to “The Feathery Serpent God”. Songs began to pour out again.
But Hitchcock does have too many albums – at least, too many to recall that this wasn’t his first dance with a Mesoamerican deity. I reminded him of this connection at the start of our interview.
Twenty years before [that Tulum visit], in 1999, you opened the record called Jewels for Sophia with a song called “Mexican God”.
I’d completely forgotten about the first one! They were both involuntary. I went to Tulum and we went to the palace of Kukulkan – AKA Quetzalcoatl. The feathery serpent god’s been around a long time – it’s like the trilobite. It’s not always in the forefronts of people’s consciousness, but it comes back. And it seemed to be a kind of energizer for me, in that I suddenly started writing whole songs and finishing them. Something’s always oozing out of me somewhere. I leak creativity. It’s the way I exhale; I can’t function without producing something. But nothing I had produced had been particularly coherent. And then it all got a lot snappier. I didn’t make any sacrifices to Kukulkan… that I knew of.
The years before, leading up to the self-titled record, had been very prolific – you’d put out a new album nearly every two years. What do you think accounted for the slowdown before this one?
I was traveling around a lot, prior to lockdown. I was on tour. The older I grow, the faster I seem to get. Life speeds up as you get older because each year is a smaller proportional part of life. But I was just hurtling around the globe. So it might have been hard for me to concentrate on anything. I’d also felt a bit dwarfed by the political situation. Generally my songs are not commentaries on the outside world. I’ll write a whole song about Seattle, or cheese, but most of them go on inside an internal landscape, where I process what’s been happening to me over my life as it elongates. So what I normally do did begin to seem rather insignificant in light of what was happening in the world politically.
What I also thought was that the self-titled album was a really good way of kind of [saying], “That might be it.” Because at this stage, every record you put out is potentially your last. I thought, if I don’t get around to making another one, that’s Robyn Hitchcock – I’ll call it Robyn Hitchcock – which I think is a really good bookend. If you take Underwater Moonlight at one end, and that’s at the other, you can see the styles aren’t that different. I wasn’t planning a follow-up.
Those of us who evolved in the milk and honey years of the recording business reared ourselves to produce records. All my friends, particularly in Nashville, just churn out record after record. Same with Paul McCartney. It’s not bad, it’s just not “Eleanor Rigby” or “Band on the Run.” They’re really nice, they just don’t matter for whatever reason. I think I’m very aware of that. Nick Lowe [is] an old friend of mine – I see myself as his psychedelic little brother, we’ve both got the same hair and glasses. He thinks very hard about songs before recording. He puts out a certain number of records, but he’s aware of just churning out too much. So I really didn’t think there was a need for another record.
You’ve often described yourself as a compulsive songwriter, as someone who “leaks creativity” – it’s interesting that it doesn’t always translate to putting those things out on a record.
Way back in the 20th century, in the days of niche artists with major label deals like Randy Newman or Warren Zevon or John Cale or Richard Thompson, or me or Nick – you could chug away respectably at a major label, and go and do your little gigs across the universe, and there would be a market for it. The machinery was set up. Mind you, there weren’t that many 60- and 70-year-old rock musicians around. Back then, the oldest rockers were probably 50. So as the slightly older ones don’t go away, and the new ones keep pouring in, I just think that you release records increasingly at your own peril.
But Emma set Tiny Ghost up – she put out a record which did really well. So she suggested that I make another record. And we were at home, and everybody else was at home. So I could send various people off my basic song by e-mail, and they could put drums or anything underneath it.
Your albums are often sonically distinct. I wonder how you conceive the particular sound of a record before recording. Do you have specific things in mind, or is it contingent on the musicians?
It’s contingent on the musicians. The only thing is, if I’m going to make an acoustic record with no drums, then I’m expecting it to come out an acoustic record with no drums. I do make quiet records every so often, and they usually have their own atmosphere. I space them at wide enough intervals that I think each one of them is a bit of an event. But the run of the mill me is just sort of, two guitars bass and drums, variations thereof. Since the Soft Boys, really.
I’m curious about how you went about selecting the participants on this record. Was it just sort of spontaneous, or based on availability, or did certain songs call certain people to mind?
Well, I wrote “The Inner Life of Scorpio”, and I sent it to Johnny Marr because he is a Scorpio. He very quickly sent back a load of overdubs. So he got in there quickly. I had a line open to Brendan Benson – he was only three miles away, just up the road. We were neighbors. Pat Sansone was just up the road as well; he did a lot of the initial overdubs, playing bass and keys on quite a lot of things.
And I had a jam with Sean Lennon once in the middle of the night. He was playing drums, and I really liked what he was doing… he had a sort of empathic glint in his eye. So I sent him “One Day (It’s Being Scheduled)”, and he sent all sorts of overdubs back. And then we removed the track that he played to, so he was the thing that was holding it together. We didn’t use any click tracks, and my timing is erratic. I have arrhythmia; I’m not something you’d normally base a track around.
So much of your career seems to be a testament to the friends you make as a working musician, the people you find to bring into the mix and bounce off of.
Well yes – I guess the longer you last, the more people you know. Though you can also shed people – you can find people you don’t want to work with again, or you can fall out with people, or they can fall out with you. My address book isn’t the same as it was twenty years ago.
But it’s a good one – Nick Lowe, Peter Buck, Scott McCaughey, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Andy Partridge, Johnny Marr…
They’ve also been around a long time. Their address books have probably gotten larger, too. [But] they’re different sorts of people. Peter Buck… Johnny Marr is in lots of ways his British equivalent. They’re guitarists who came to prominence with vocalists who didn’t play. That ‘80s indie version of Mick and Keith. So as soon as The Smiths were over, Johnny was out playing with people. He likes to rove around. And Peter, though he’s shyer as a person, played with us, and The Replacements.
They’re used to working in a supportive or collaborative capacity, both of them.
I think that’s it. I think I attract different side-people. Andy Partridge is [one of the only ones] who’s another songwriter. Hopefully if we’re both still around next year, we’ll resume, and carry on doing some more stuff in his shed in Swindon. When we get going, we work very fast. He’s the only person I can write songs with. They’re kind of cerebral songs, they’re not all that full of emotion.
I’m curious as to what the division of labor is like in that arrangement.
It’s line by line. And I find that we can only do it because we’re not gonna go out on tour. We’re not going to have an alpha dog competition. We’ve got different territories – Andy never tours; I live by it. He also, in his day, had hits. He was on Top of the Pops. I was never in that league. I was a small, British indie guy. XTC reached far more people than the Soft Boys ever did. But now in our 50s and 60s, and heading over the waterfall of 70, all that rather evens out. It doesn’t matter so much.
Right. You’ve both become sort of institutions in a way. The audience has grown, the cult is devoted.
We’re all historic figures. I mean, it’s not like I’m working with Harry Styles. The people you’ve mentioned are basically in museums, though they’re extremely active. We all work, but we’re all in the history books, even the Soft Boys. You’ll find Soft Boys badges in exhibitions of punk.
VIDEO: The Soft Boys “I Wanna Destroy You”
Have you felt much of a sense of evolution, over the course of your career?
I think what people like about me is that I’m fairly consistent. I don’t really add new sounds to the mix. It’s not that I don’t mean to, I just don’t. I basically like a certain flavor of music, most of which came out between 1965 and 1970. Not exclusively – I liked David Bowie and Roxy Music. [But] what really got to me in terms of sound was sort of between Bert Jansch and the Incredible String Band. The British stoner folkies. And Bob Dylan, the tree from which all branches extend. And then the Beatles and the Byrds, all that clanging electric sound. I came out of that crucible as a 14-year-old kid.
I might’ve made more of a name for myself if I’d walked away from it. If I’d said, “well, I sound too much like Syd Barrett. Double-tracking is too much [like] John Lennon,” or whatever. The thing is, that’s the sound I like! I want to sound like Syd Barrett fronting the Beatles. I would file my records and the Soft Boys’ records in the part of the record shop that goes ‘clangy 1960s psychedelia’. If people are still listening to this stuff in a hundred years’ time – which they will be unless the whole thing goes down, which it may very likely do. The test will be, once the protagonists can no longer play. Once Robert Plant has hung up his last mic and Paul McCartney’s finally shuffled away.
It’s terrifying to think how close that time is, because those people have lasted so long. And because they’ve lasted, we who come after them feel we can last too. Maybe it would make sense for me to say “Robyn, you’re 70 – it’s time you stopped playing this stuff in these little clubs”. But nobody stops you [laughs]. And so rock ‘n’ roll is an old person’s game, as I’ve said many times – old man’s game, mostly. Old dames… it’s harder for women with time. That said, Patti Smith – if Led Zeppelin reformed now without Plant, they should tap Patti Smith. She’s in great voice. She’s just amazing.
That’s too brilliant. You ought to fax that idea to John Paul Jones.
[Laughs] I’ll fax Jimmy Page, yes.
Your voice really hasn’t changed at all over the years.
My voice, weirdly, hasn’t aged, and I’m very lucky. It’s not like I lead a particularly pure existence. I can’t hit the same shrieky notes I could when I was 25, but mostly I can sing songs in the same key.
You were talking earlier about the political climate having oppressed your muse. But your songs don’t always abjure politics. There are undertones of that stuff as early as “Why Do Policemen Sing?” on Black Snake Diamond Role, and “Queen Elvis” functions as a kind of queer anthem. And there are moments of engagement with the political on Shufflemania, like the “I will not be drinking in The Racist Loser” bit on “Sir Tommy Shovell”, or on “One Day (It’s Being Scheduled).”
On the whole, my songs look inwards rather than outwards. I’m basically an introvert, but I’m an all-singing, all-dancing, finger-snapping introvert. Because you can’t really avoid everything. I try to! But you can’t. Also, everything I do to some extent is a collage – it’s a series of thoughts and images which are glued, stapled, welded, or perhaps thrown together. So there’s gonna be observations like, “God, isn’t the president an asshole?” Or, “anybody could do a better job than the people who are leading us now!” Or, “for god’s sake, guns are a health hazard as much as cigarettes are!” All these just really obvious thoughts that will somehow pop up in a song, or in a bit of stage speech.
VIDEO: Robyn Hitchcock “The Shuffle Man”
What have you been most looking forward to about touring again?
Oh, I’m looking forward to getting out with Kelley Stoltz and a few other friends and playing some rock shows down the West Coast. In New York we’re playing with a band, and then I’m doing two or three gigs with Kelley in the middle, just him and me. I’m going to be getting around a lot in the States. Mostly solo, but I’ve got enough of a network of people now that I can say, “oh, this looks like a big enough gig – let’s see if we can unleash a band for it.”
I think I’m actually at the top of my game live. I’m playing better than ever. My audience-craft is better than ever. Although, if people talk when I’m playing a quiet show, that’s not a good idea. I’m afraid I can’t keep my temper, especially if they don’t understand why they shouldn’t talk. If they’re all talking, that’s fine. But if there’s, say, a couple sitting there chatting, when everyone else is listening like it’s a classical concert, that blows my mind [laughs]. I don’t react well, and some people don’t like it when I do that, and I really don’t like having to be an angry cop.
Certainly. You’ve earned a little respect.
I don’t necessarily believe in respect, and I don’t necessarily think I deserve anything, but if you fuck it up for me, you fuck it up for everybody. Would you talk to the pilot of a plane when he was trying to bring it in? Would you talk to a surgeon while they were trying to do a liver transplant? This stuff requires focus. But otherwise, I’m really happy to see people. I’m still amazed that I can walk out into the street, go into the shops, go to the pub, get on planes. I’m really pleased.
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