FUNNYMAN? Serious Artist? Ironic? Fey? Wry? Ask the average punter “Who is Robyn Hitchcock?” and you’ll get a variety of replies, from “neo-psychedelic warbler” and “proto-punker”, to “jangle pop folk-rocker” and even the dreaded “alternative singer/songwriter.”
Ask Robyn Hitchcock “Who do people think Robyn Hitchcock is?” and you get a more elusive response. “Well, I think it depends on how hard they look. People love labels, they need seven-second sound bites. People who look me up in the Encyclopedia of Rock probably go ‘Oh yeah, he’s eccentric’ and then go look up the next one under ‘H’, which is probably Hole, and go ‘Well, he didn’t used to be married to Courtney Love!’ … In the end all you really want is for people to listen to your work.”
Recently Matador Records released an expanded version of Underwater Moonlight, the classic 1980 album by Hitchcock’s band The Soft Boys, and an Underwater Moonlight-era Soft Boys hit the road in support of the album’s 21st anniversary. I found enough loose change behind the cushion to call to London and find out…. Just who the hell is Robyn Hitchcock, anyway?
Q: Your image, and your lyrics, seem at times to be a bit… ambiguous. Is this calculated on your part, or a natural extension of your personality?
RH: I suppose, to me, things are ambiguous. I mean, it doesn’t seem like a good thing that George W. Bush has become president. But, on the other hand, it may be that if he screws-up enough – without screwing-up terminally – it may enable a strong liberal, or centrist, challenger to come from the Democrats who will firmly see the Republicans off for another couple of terms. You never know what is an advantage and what isn’t. How do you know when you’ve succeeded or failed? You could be lying there in an open grave with a tomato in your mouth, but this actually might be a moment of supreme triumph. So what’s the ending? What’s good? I don’t know. I’m somebody who has really had to kind of feed on uncertainty, I suppose.
In 1967, the “big breakthrough”: you learn to tune your guitar.
Yeah. I did tune my guitar! I don’t think I was creating anything (musically) yet, I was just learning to play along with chords in a song book.
In 1972 you form an art school band called The Beatles. It only lasts a few months. Was Yoko’s undue influence behind the band’s break-up?
(laughs) No. Well the band had many different names, the Beatles was one of its names. The Beatles weren’t very fashionable at that stage.
Besides, they weren’t using the name anyway…
No, they weren’t using it. It was free. They just came around to my house and dropped it off one day. Ringo came around in a van with the name in a box and said “Here, you can have it!”
I detect other influences in your music beyond the obvious; a certain humor. Python, Bonzos, Beefheart…
Oh yeah. Well, Beefheart’s always made more sense to Europeans than Americans. But I think, on the whole, comedy and music don’t mix. I don’t really know why. People seem to like their rock heroes to be divine beings who suffer on their behalf. You can be a bit ironic later on, after you’re well established, like Bono, but I’ve never been able to take myself that seriously. Neither could the others in the Soft Boys. We were all middle-class British types. Obviously very Python, really. But for some reason it’s never really translated into music. You get people like George Harrison who are huge Python fans, but their music isn’t funny at all. Humor is basically when you cross the dateline from the unbearable into the absurd.
Speaking of The Soft Boys… a conscious allusion to Burroughs?
What, The Soft Machine and The Wild Boys? It’s thinking along those lines, yeah. I imagined “the Soft Boys” as a kind of… they ran things. They would be people who had no apparent spine. Almost colorless. They would slide along corridors, and you wouldn’t be able to see them half the time, yet they’d be making all the big decisions. Like slightly, kind-of, erotic civil servants. It was a Burroughsesque fantasy, I suppose, but the concept was mine.
You have more “fishy” references in your songs than most songwriters.
More than most. But, I like to sing about things I like the look of. The articulated crustacean fascinates me: crabs, lobsters, prawns… And the sleek, kind-of erotic/disgusting factor of salmon and trout gliding penetratevly… I think ichthyophallic is the term…
Are you in love with the sound of words?
Oh yeah. Definitely. I have to like what the word represents and the sound of the word itself. It’s amazing how accurate words are. Something like “Nazi” just sounds like “nasty.” There’s no way “Nazi” is going to mean any good to anybody. (adopting cheery voice) “Hello, I’m from the Nazi Party! Peace and love. Share and share alike…”
Words are like colors to you.
Yeah. It’s just thinking visually.
Speaking of, in addition to your music, you’re also a painter and a cartoonist. Any plans to do a comic?
I’m a huge fan of comics, DC Comics especially, and I have done some drawings, got part of the way into a comic book, but music is a full-time job. I’d love to do a cartoon but at this rate it won’t be for another 50 years!
Whatever happened to the book of short stories you were going to write?
They’ve metamorphosed into this one long story which I’m still working on, and hope to get to the agent in New York soon.
Finally, I understand you’ve seen two dead chickens in your life.
Yes. Well, I strangled on in 1974, and I think I saw a dead one in 1956. The second one was my own fault, and the first one was, I’d only just gotten used to seeing live chickens, I was probably just a couple of cereal packets in height, and this sort of little stabbing jabbing chicken came along and pecked at my foot or something and a few days later I saw it lying there dead.
What impact did this have on you and your music?
I’m sure that it had such a profound effect that I couldn’t even tell you what it was!
(c) 2010 Jim Yoakum
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