An EXCLUSIVE interview
By Stephen SPAZ Schnee
The streets of Rock ‘n’ Roll are littered with long-serving singer/songwriters and musicians who have never quite achieved the commercial success that they are so deserving of. Thankfully, many of them have at least garnered plenty of critical accolades and have managed to build a sizeable cult audience who support them through thick and thin. If you talk to most music journalists and critics over the age of 30, their lists of favorite cult artists will vary but one name is most certainly going to pop up more often than not – Robyn Hitchcock. Robyn first came to the attention of music fans and critics when The Soft Boys released their debut album in 1979. Since that band’s break up a few short years later, Robyn has forged a solo career that has seen him straddle the line between eccentric Folk troubadour and Alternative Rock forefather. Compared to everyone from Syd Barrett to Bob Dylan to Andy Partridge (XTC), Robyn has remained remarkably consistent throughout his career, picking up some very famous fans and friends along the way. His collaborators include REM’s Peter Buck, Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones, Gillian Welch, Nick Lowe, Jon Brion, Grant-Lee Phillips and many others. Lauded director Jonathan Demme even filmed a documentary on Robyn entitled Storefront Hitchcock. While he hasn’t graced the Billboard Top Ten, his albums have been extremely influential and are nothing less than inspiring. Even the occasional outtakes collections he releases are worthy of your hard earned cash.
With the release of The Man Upstairs, Robyn switches gears and offers up a predominantly acoustic album that features a handful of new originals, some surprising cover versions (The Psychedelic Furs’ “The Ghost In You,” The Doors’ “The Crystal Ship” and Roxy Music’s “To Turn You On” to name a few) and covers of tracks by some of his friends. The album’s beauty lies in Robyn’s ability to cut to the heart of the songs without a tendency to over-produce or over-emote. If you’ve followed Robyn’s career over the years, you’ll already know that it was time for another acoustic album since he normally switches back and forth from release to release. This time, he brought in friend Joe Boyd (Nick Drake/Fairport Convention/REM) to produce the album and Boyd’s warm production enhances the sparse arrangements of the songs. The originals blend together well with the covers, allowing the album to live and breathe from first note to last. The music contained on The Man Upstairs is both delicate and bold, emotional yet detached. If you’ve never experienced Robyn Hitchcock’s music before, this is the perfect place to start. After spinning the album, you’ll want to rush out and collect everything with his name on it!
Stephen SPAZ Schnee was able to track Robyn down at a hotel in Seattle and discuss The Man Upstairs and so much more…
ROBYN HITCHCOCK: Well, people have been very positive. It’s great actually. Unusually, the record was made like a year ago. It was finished by the middle of October and it was mastered in November/December, and the artworks been done. Normally it’s always a rush, but it seemed like the best thing was to release it in August. So, for once I haven’t been behind on it. So, it’s a bit more relaxed this time in terms of the birthing. Normally these things all happen with terrible haste, you know? In this instance it’s rather like someone deciding to have a baby and knowing what it’s going to be called before it’s been conceived.
SPAZ: If the album was finished last year, are you already mentally on to the next project?
ROBYN: Oh totally. I mean, I was playing the guitar when you rang. I have a notebook full of songs that I’m working on at the moment. But, yes. So you know there’s a big focus on making the record, coming up to recording it and all of that, and then once it’s done and it’s sequenced and it’s mastered, I tend not to listen to it, especially because with each passing record there are more records, you know? I mean, when I made one album, I would listen to it once a week or something like that. Now, there’s records of mine I haven’t listened to for decades. Just because there’s so many of them.
SPAZ: Why did you choose Joe Boyd for this project? You have worked with him before, right?
ROBYN: I listened to the records that he produced when I was a teenager. You know, that stuff went straight into my DNA. I was 13 when I heard The Incredible String Band and the first Pink Floyd single, which he produced and then Fairport (Convention) - I was about 15, 16. I didn’t get into Nick Drake until later, but I totally knew who the hell Joe Boyd was. I wanted to get Joe Boyd to produce The Soft Boys in 1977, but we didn’t know how to get a hold of him. People were harder to find in those days. Then I met him in the mid-‘80s because REM was recording in London where Joe is based so I went to visit. Peter Buck invited me along to one of their sessions, and I met Joe. Joe stalked through the kitchen at midnight while Peter and I were drinking horrible lager and playing the guitar. I asked Joe Boyd something about The Incredible String Band, and you know, he was really happy to talk about it. He loved talking about what he’s done in his past and his world and all the rest of it.
SPAZ: Joe Boyd worked on some of truly great albums from that period.
ROBYN: He was there at a very key point in the evolution of music and in terms of Folk music. Joe is essentially or was essentially a purist. He liked Folk and he liked Blues. He wasn’t really a Pop guy, but he was there at a point when Folk, to put it simply enough, went into the main bloodstream of music via the popularity of Bob Dylan and suddenly you’ve got Peter, Paul, & Mary, and Donovan, and The Byrds, and Sonny and Cher, and all these people sort of producing a sound. Dylan was the spider at the center of the web and they were all a part of its ripples. Then it sort of echoed with British people. There was the British Folk Revival and Davy Graham and all sorts of people, and Incredible String Band. So he was involved in all of that. It got to me as a teenager, so I met him 20 years later with REM and then we started eventually doing a live thing - he reads from his book and I play some of the songs that he mentions. He’ll do a chapter on Nick Drake, and I’ll play a Nick Drake song. Then he’ll do something about Bob Dylan going electric and I’ll play a Dylan song, that kind of thing.
There’s a lot of history, so this is just one very long breathless sentence answering your question about how I came to work with him. So, we had talked. We muttered about production and producing a record of mine over the years, but I know he was happy to do it. He just said he didn’t want to do a complete selection of original songs. He said it rather disdainfully and said no offense, but I’m not interested in producing singer/songwriters anymore. He said you can make an album like Judy Collins did in 1960s - you know originals and a few covers. I said, “Oh, you mean like Introducing Robyn Hitchcock? So I thought, that’s a great idea, let’s do an Introducing Robyn Hitchcock album. A few of my favorite songs, a few of mine, and a few songs by friends of mine that you might not know so well. And bingo. That’s how we got the material.
SPAZ: Is there a commonality between these songs that you chose?
ROBYN: Well, I hope so in mood. I mean, I hope that the songs that are by me and the songs that are not by me blend together so the needle doesn’t kind of lurch out of the groove when it moves from one to the other. My hope, and Joe’s, is that it just works as one thing, as an integrated piece and that mood would be reasonably autumnal and somber. You know, it was recorded in the second week of October. I like those kinds of records. I think most music I like is autumnal and somber in some ways. To be made by young people feeling kind of somber in an adolescent way or older people feeling somber in a menopausal way or very old people feeling somber in the next stop – the grave, really. We all know the night’s gonna fall. We’re creatures of nightfall. We’re prepared for death by nightly sleep, and then it’s just part of our rhythm. Also by the seasons. At least if we’re in a place with temperate climate and where leaves fall from the trees. I think that time of the year, from the harvest then into the early autumn, in the Northern Hemisphere, the August, September, October is just - that’s the time of year to be still. The music I like best always seems to echo that. I’m not a midsummer evening guy and I’m not a first day of spring bloke, and I’m definitely not a sort of frozen midwinter character. It’s yet another Robyn Hitchcock autumn record, but it’s the latest version.
SPAZ: I guess it’s not an irony then that my favorite time of year is also that whole autumn thing and also I love Robyn Hitchcock.
ROBYN: Well, thank you. Well, you know – it’s the romantic time, isn’t it really? The light is at its best. It’s not too harsh and it’s not too weak.
SPAZ: Exactly. Especially in - well, maybe not in the last couple autumns, but it’s usually that time where you can stand in the sun and still feel a chill.
ROBYN: Oh yeah, but you can also still feel a little warmth, as well. So, yeah, that was probably the brief, you know. It was Joe’s idea to do it that way, and it meant also that I then didn’t have to come up with – well, I had plenty of songs lying about, but I could be a bit more selective about which songs we kept. I chose the songs, both mine and other people’s, but he definitely had his input into which he thinks worked and which didn’t, you know? So what we recorded are things that Joe and I are both happy with.
SPAZ: When you step into the studio, do you already know if it is going to be an electric record or an acoustic record…. Or does it just happen?
ROBYN: Well, no. This was going to be on the acoustic side. I mean, I knew there was going to be no bass or drums on it. There was actually an amp and a bit of electric guitar recorded on an amp. Another factor in it was Joe brought Jerry Boys with him and Jerry is a very respected engineer. He actually started out - think he worked on some Beatles sessions, but he engineered Steeleye Span and he engineered the Albion Band who Joe worked with a bit in the ‘70s, and he did this kind of Folk Rock-y people of the ‘80s that Joe did – 10,000 Maniacs and Billy Bragg and REM, and he also did Buena Vista Social Club, which is his biggest commercial landmark. So, Jerry just recorded it beautifully. There was something like - he put five mics on my acoustic guitar, very different parts of the room. There are very few overdubs on the record. So, the answer is yes, I knew it was going to be an acoustic one. The one before, it sounds like a full band, but it was actually all recorded in Paul Noble’s bedroom using drum samples. The one before that was recorded with a band live. I wasn’t playing any electric guitar on it so I could hear myself sing. Yes, I think I decide or I decide with the producer what the sound is going to be beforehand. You know, I’ve got a pretty limited power. I mean, probably most people do. There’s just the things we do instinctively, you know, as recording artists. So I veer between empty records and full records. So, my last three records - I did a fairly empty one, a very full sounding one, and then another even more empty one, you know? And I can’t remember what I did before that. That was with the Venus 3, I think. So this is on the empty side, so I would assume that my next one would be a full one, but I don’t know. I have no idea yet.
SPAZ: Well, you’re working on it…
ROBYN: I might go for an even emptier one. I might try and follow the line rather than just lurching back like windscreen wipers to the other side.
SPAZ: On “The Ghost in You” – you stripped away everything and you really managed to get to the heart of that song. Same thing with “To Turn You On.” I would never have imagined it acoustically, but when you do it, it makes total sense. Were there songs that you tried to pare down that didn’t make the record or just didn’t sound right to you?
ROBYN: No, I’ve always liked those songs, and I have sung “The Ghost in You” for quite a while, and I’ve sung other Roxy songs, acoustically, so I know it can be done. The originals, “The Ghost in You” and “To Turn You On” were both real state of the art for the early digital ‘80s lush productions, but they both caught my ear because they’re essentially really good. They’re great tunes and they’ve got that sense of yearning in both of them and loss. Terrific sense of yearning and loss, which is there in the best Folk music. You know, you could get lost in the labyrinth of the definition of Folk and in the end decide that there was no such thing. But you know, anything you can pick up and sing with an acoustic guitar, at least by kind of 1960 standards, is a Folk song. It doesn’t have to be traditional. You know, you could sing an Oasis song with an acoustic guitar or whatever the more recent stuff is. “Chances Are” was made up on an acoustic guitar. So, yeah, do you see what I mean?
SPAZ: “San Francisco Patrol” – in my opinion, is one of the most beautiful things you’ve ever done. What inspired that track?
ROBYN: It’s really simply San Francisco. You know, there’s an overlay. There’s a movie - Magnum Force – have you ever seen that?
SPAZ: Yeah, it’s the second Dirty Harry movie.
ROBYN: Yeah, well, I’ve written a suite of eight songs based on Magnum Force that can be sung at various points. I’ve only done it once, but you rent the cinema and stand in front of the screen. You stop it at certain points, I walk up to the screen and I sing it and then you can see Clint’s freeze frame over me. I sit down again and the movie rolls on. But, the eight songs aren’t really about the movie. They’re about me, but they are triggered by the movie so you’ve got a parallel story. I’ve spent a lot of time in San Francisco. I have history going back there to the late ‘80s and so I just kept seeing that film by accident and it suddenly slipped over from being something I didn’t care about at all to something that became a minor obsession. I started watching it in German and memorizing lines from it. So, I was back in San Francisco - each time I go back there I remember the things that I did before and that I’ve seen that movie a lot so I impose… I see it through a filter of both my own experiences and the synthetic experiences of Dirty Harry and his friends. You know, that artificial history didn’t really happen. My life happened, but that other thing was a movie. But, after a while, can you tell the difference? So, I’m kind of just looking through these lenses of romance and the song just pops out really. I think I saw someone in a red dress and I thought, oh, I can’t take my eyes off of you, and there it was. It worked well. It was very well recorded. It almost sounds a bit like something from Van Morrison’s record Veeden Fleece?
SPAZ: Well, what about “Recalling the Truth?” That was another great track that I was just blown away by. Where did that come from?
ROBYN: Well, I think I started writing that in San Francisco too. I wrote that last summer so that’s one of the more recent ones. Well, it’s just how I felt really. So, I put it down as simply as I could and I definitely worked on it in San Francisco, but I think most of it was written in London. I think it actually began in San Francisco.
SPAZ: Is your songwriting influenced by your surroundings? Do you think that your songs would be completely different if you had moved to LA?
ROBYN: Oh God, yes. LA is so toxic, but in a rather inspiring way. A particular kind of flower grows out of your grave in LA. It produces a kind of malevolent lilac bloom. LA has a special ability, which is to make the sunlight look artificial and when the sun shines in LA, it just doesn’t seem real. But, no, I’ve written quite a few LA songs and they tend to have a sort of terrible tension in them. Come to think of it, “Comme Toujours,” I think I wrote the lyrics to “Comme Toujours” in San Francisco, but a long time ago, and then I found them in a notebook and I wrote the music and finished the words off, but its genesis was in San Francisco. But, I didn’t really answer your question. I think emotions gestate in you and you may be somewhere else completely when they actually come out, when they burst out of you or seep out of you or flow out of you with the guitar. So, I might be in Australia, but actually I’m finally processing something that happened in London. I might be in San Francisco. I’ve certainly summoned up San Francisco while I’ve been on the island of Hawaii, you know, so sometimes the place you’re in affects you immediately, to answer your question. Sometimes it takes a while for you to process it. You know, like mineral water - using the finest alpine mineral water being distilled from mountain rainfall over 20 years or something. You don’t know how long these things are going to take to come through. I think, at heart, you have feelings when you’re born or feelings that your parents had even. You might just inherit feelings and you’re waiting for something to come along and trigger them. You have a muse. You have a person or a city, but actually what that city does is it triggers something that’s been lying around in you forever waiting to come out. I think San Francisco is one of my triggers. So what happened, I don’t know - it might be something that happened in New York, but actually it gets triggered by San Francisco and then it’s written in another country altogether.
SPAZ: Did you have a lot of stuff that you recorded for this album that maybe we’ll hear somewhere down the line or were these tracks the only ones you tackled for this record?
ROBYN: Oh no, there’s a couple of more originals and there’s a few more covers, and there’s also many songs that were written that weren’t recorded and may crop up another time, you know? I leave a trail of notebooks. I burned a whole bunch of them a while ago and then somebody else destroyed a bunch of them, but actually, that’s probably quite a good thing (chuckles). It was sort of purgative. I think it’s a bit like pruning a tree. I think the new growth was better than the old growth.
SPAZ: What’s next for Robyn Hitchcock?
ROBYN: I’m in Toronto in September and nationally, Americana Association. That’s my ‘here I am folks’ rather than South By Southwest, which is what I did for the last one. This is a bit more rootsy, you know? Then I’m playing gigs all around my world from here to eternity, but I have got a new collection of songs. I mean, I’m collecting them. I’m not finished. There’s lots of stuff. So I would imagine that I will have another. In my mind I have two or three separate projects. I think the main thing now is to make each record separate from the last so it’s not just one long salami that people are taking slices off of. So, I’m thinking of how I can package my upcoming recordings in ways that will work for people to listen to, you know? Each record in a way is a mood. Inevitably, I’m a reflective guy and I’m now a reflective guy who has been around for quite a long time so I’m likely to come up with a kickass record and you know, people my age – if they try and kickass, they’re liable to just get a hernia. You know, without sort of rushing to embrace senility, I’m not gonna come up with anything like The Soft Boys now or even the Venus 3 records. They’re probably all gonna be a bit more reflective. But, I’m good at it. I’ve been an old man for years.
SPAZ: What have you been listening to on your CD player or watching on your DVD player? What interests you?
ROBYN: Well, I haven’t listened to anything on a CD player, and I don’t have a DVD player, but I do have vinyl now so I’ve been listening to Jason Isbell. Have you heard that? He was in Drive-By Truckers - that’s a really good one. Cass McCombs. I’ve been listening to an Australian singer called Melody Pool, who I think is really good and another one called Jen Cloher. You know, I’ve finally, after years, discovered On The Beach by Neil Young. I was never really a big Neil Young guy. When I’m back home I play that twice a day.
(Robyn walks over to the window)
ROBYN: God, there’s all these sea birds outside. The Beatles stayed in this hotel once. The Beatles – I picture them sitting at the window… Now, these birds are all clustered around! Someone must’ve thrown something out of one of the other bedrooms and now they’re expecting more. They’re waiting for Ringo to come back!
Thanks to Robyn Hitchcock