It’s hard to believe that Robyn Hitchcock has been making music for nearly 40 years. Beginning his musical career as a folkie busking around Cambridge, Hitchcock ended the ’70s playing dynamically savage pop as leader of The Soft Boys. During the next decade, through solo releases or with his side group, The Egyptians, Hitchcock steadily climbed the ranks to become the closest thing alternative music had to a Bob Dylan. The ’90s and 2000s saw him continue to release quirky and eccentric pop songs but also revisit his folk roots, working with such artists as Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, and The Venus 3.
Now, having just turned 60, Hitchcock has released his latest effort, Love from London, a beautiful collection of songs that blends his wit, slightly askew view, and offbeat sense of humor with delicate strings, balanced harmonies, and solid arrangements. Consequence of Sound caught up with the troubadour to wish him a happy birthday and talk about the new record, his attachment to Norway, and how rock and roll is an old man’s game now.
In a press release, you describe Love from London as celebrating “life in a culture imperiled by economic and environmental collapse”…
Considering that many of your songs can be rather universal in their context, how informed is this album by events currently happening in the world?
It’s not that informed. In fact, the events bleed through because, obviously, I try and disregard everything that’s happening around me. We all contain filters to block out reality, but some people can sleep with the news in their earphones. Some people like to have a 24-hour news drip. I prefer to keep everything at arm’s length. Nonetheless, certain things bleed through, even on my channel. But the emphasis is on the celebration rather than the collapse. So, we’re still boogying at the edge of the pier.
This album does have its uptempo moments, some rocking moments. The opening track can fool you.
Yeah, yeah. Well, the opening track is quite slow isn’t it?
Yes. “Harry’s Song”.
“Harry’s Song”. Yeah, well, it’s not meant to be a morose record by any means. No.
Did you have the songs already composed prior, or did the band contribute to the songwriting?
No, they’re my songs. But they were, obviously, arranged as they went on. And I worked with Paul Nobel, who plays bass and programmed all the drums and everything, so he definitely helped with the arrangements.
Aside from Shadow Cat, your most recent albums have featured pretty heavy players, such as The Venus 3, Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, Johnny Marr, and John Paul Jones. I am unfamiliar with the artists you have on Love from London. What can you tell me about your band on this album?
Yeah. Well, this band…First of all, it’s not really a band. [It's just] Paul and me in his room. And the room is not big. It’s just a sort of small London bedroom with the curtains drawn. And there’s only room for one other guest at a time. So, sometimes Jenny [Adejayan] would come in and play cello, or Lucy [Parnell] and Jen [Macro] came in and did some vocals. Anne Lise [FrÃ¸kedal] sent her voice in from Oslo. And I wasn’t there when Lizzie recorded, Lizzie Anstey. But I guess she went up there as well. Paul and Jenny are in my British…I play with them regularly.
I don’t have a full-time band anywhere. There are various players I’m lucky enough to get hold of. The Venus 3, being Bill [Rieflin], Scott [McCaughey], and Peter [Buck], are also all in Scott’s band The Minus 5, and they’re all in Peter’s band now as well. So, they tend to act as a six-legged being in that way.
The British…I’ve worked with Paul for over 10 years, and I met Jenny a while ago. She’s been on most things I’ve done in the last five years in Britain. So, Paul and Jenny are two of my sort of British regulars. Lucy Parnell and Jen Macro, I used to hang out with Lucy’s dad when I was a raver in the early ’70s. I met her through Graham Coxon, actually. They have a group called Something Beginning With L, and they’re on Graham’s last couple of records. They play guitar and bass with Graham, as well as doing vocals. With me they tend to just do vocals. They work very well as an ensemble. They don’t just go for the third and the fifth. They make these vocal islands that sort of drift over the music. There’s a lovely melody line that Jen sings in “Harry’s Song”. In fact, there’s also some high, wandering notes that Lucy does, and they’re in, to good effect, quite a few other songs.
Anne Lise FrÃ¸kedal is in a band in Norway called I Was a King, whose record You Love It Here I co-produced with Norman Blake from Teenage Fanclub back in April in Norway. I’ve done a Norwegian tour, and I worked with her and Frode StrÃ¸mstad, who writes the tunes. Anne Lise writes the words. So, I’ve done some work and toured with them in Norway as well. And she very kindly mailed her voice in from Oslo. So, it’s a collection of people, and actually, on this record, all the side-men are women.
What is the connection with Norway? You released an album only in Norway [TromsÃ¸, Kaptein, 2011], you have a Venus 3 album with Oslo in the title [Goodnight, Oslo, 2009], and now you have Norwegian performers. Is there some kind of connection with you and the country?
I guess there must be, yeah. I go there a lot. We used to have Norwegian girls looking after us when I was kind of a pre-teen, so it’s possible there’s a connection from that. I didn’t go there until 1982, and then I didn’t really go there very much again for a long time, and then it just kicked in, really.
Is there anything about Norway’s musical past that you’ve mined?
No, not anything musical. Have you been there?
No. I’ve never been lucky enough to go to Europe. I’ve been to Asia, but not Europe.
If you go to one place, I would go to Norway. It’s expensive, but the landscape is really magic. There’s also not many people there, so there’s a delicious kind of decompression you get in Norway. A soulful absence of crush. Especially when you get out to the fjordal landscape, and practically the whole landscape is fjordal, just weaving in and out. You get these great, bleak cliffs at the top, with frozen waterfalls, and a thousand feet below you’ve got this lush, almost tropical vegetation down at the water level. So many different kinds of green…lichen and mushrooms, fur and fern growing there. It’s almost erotic. And with these ferries plowing back and forth and selling you expensive coffee and prawns…It’s magic really. I like the Norwegians that I know. I can’t say I know Norway and Sweden so well to tell them apart. Scandinavia seems like a very humane place. I do recommend it, but don’t, whatever you do, go to 16 countries in 17 days or anything like that.
You said, “Rock and Roll is an old man’s game now…” What did you mean by that?
[Laughs.] You have to ask? Well, look at the top grossers. Look at the most respected people up there. I mean, there’s young boy bands and stuff like that, but the Stones are there, McCartney’s there, Dylan’s there, the old Zeppelins are there. Let alone Aerosmith and everybody. The surviving members of The Who are there. Mostly they’re all out on tour. Brian Wilson and Mike Love are off on the same bus. They’re all out there, Elton John, Rod Stewart, even David Bowie’s come back. Pretty much everybody who isn’t actually dead or insane is back out there, and they’re all a dozen years older than me, so… You know, when I started [laughs], it would have seemed obscene to have a 60-year-old playing rock music, but if they’re all doing it, I guess I could pick up the Telecaster occasionally.
Well, speaking of 60-year-olds, you are celebrating your 60th birthday this year, so happy birthday.
Thank you, very much.
You are planning a retrospective show where you’ll be playing songs from each of your albums. Is that over your entire career or just the solo material?
Oh, yeah, yeah. I’ll go back to the first Soft Boy session and wind up with Love from London. I’m not going to be able to play stuff from the compilations, or from the live albums, and all the records that kind of came out by mail-order only, but I will endeavor to play…It’s going to be like 12 songs per set and then probably a three-song encore will just do it.
Is that going to be just a one-time show?
Yeah. I’m not going to do that again. It’s going to be done in London with my British chums, but I’m hoping to get some old Soft Boys and other people in there. It’ll be a bit of work, but it’ll be really interesting to see what it’s like. I’m not quite sure which direction we’re going to go in, whether we’re going to accelerate forwards or backwards. The audience would probably prefer it backwards. Obviously, at this stage, you have more behind you than in front, more carriages behind than up ahead, but it’s good to be able to still physically play all that stuff.
Do you find that sometimes that can be a burden? People expecting the old stuff and not being so willing to embrace the new.
Well, I understand it. I mean, I think it’s bound to happen with time. Paul McCartney is immensely popular, but he plays almost nothing after 1975. He’s been writing songs ever since then [laughs], but he knows that’s what people want to hear. Or The Rolling Stones. With Dylan it’s a bit different because he’ll play his old songs, but he’ll kind of mutilate them out of shape. It’s only the stuff he’s done in the last 10 years, which hasn’t sunk into the compost yet. Me, I do my old songs respectfully. I’m glad they’ve lasted. I think an artist will always prefer to concentrate on what they’ve just done, but the show is not just for the artist’s benefit. I think people love your new material more if you don’t load too much of it onto them, so I will endeavor to only play a couple of songs from the new record when I go out. And inevitably, as time goes by, there’s less and less room for everything. Fortunately, I’ve never been burdened with a hit record. I don’t have to play anything.
Well, I guess that all depends on how you define “hit,” right?
Well, I’ve never sold anything. I’ve had a few radio hits. There’s songs I’m known for. I don’t particularly like the songs I’m known for. The songs I like of mine are probably the more romantic songs.
It’s been written that you are perhaps the closest thing alternative rock has to a Bob Dylan. I know Dylan has been a huge inspiration on you, but aside from the covers album you did [Robyn Sings, 2002], what led to you deciding to re-create his 1966 Albert Hall performance?
It just seemed like a good idea. I noticed people…There were tribute bands. I remember seeing the Bootleg Beatles right after John Lennon was shot. I think they were the first tribute band going for the rock era. But it seemed to me if you have tribute bands, why not have tribute shows? That show is such a piece. In a way, it’s no different than the Australian Doors doing Dark Side of the Moon. I’ve always loved it, so we did that. I’ve done a few other records, like Piper at the Gates of Dawn, Abbey Road, and Bowie’s Hunky Dory. We’ve done them for charity in a pub in Clerkenwell in the middle of London. They’re fun to do, but you wouldn’t want to get tethered to any of them. It’s really like re-enacting a favorite record from your record collection. “Ooh, look, we can play this all the way through, isn’t that fun?” And people pay to come and see it. Apart from that Dylan one, they’ve all been for charity.
I’ve only had the opportunity to see you once, and that was in 1991 at the HFStival near Washington, D.C. Nobody knew you were on the bill. You were the super secret guest performer.
Oh, I think I just did “So You Think You’re in Love”, didn’t I? It was in a field.
Yeah, Perspex Island, and it was at Lake Fairfax in a field.
I had a girlfriend who lived up there. She was from that area. We were there at that time, and I used to go to WHFS a lot.
Speaking of older albums, last week, when I found out I was talking with you, I happened upon a record in the stacks that you produced along with Morris Windsor [ex-Soft Boy], John Hegley and the Popticians’ I Saw My Dinner on TV. Do you remember that album?
Oh, John, yes. It’s a 12”, isn’t it?
Yeah, a three-song 12” EP.
Yeah, that was on my label, Glass Fish [laughs]. I did the cover. Oh, god. Well, “Granddad’s Glasses” is brilliant on that. “I Saw My Dinner on TV” wasn’t bad. We edited it down from a longer piece. He still does “Amoeba” and “Granddad’s Glasses” sometimes.
He’s still playing live today?
Oh yeah, John plays live. I did a show with him in an English seaside town in May as part of a festival of time. He’s lovely, John. I’m a huge fan of his. He’s never really done anything over [in the US]. His act is very British. He’s like a principal at a young children’s school, a grade school principal. He’s got that sort of persona, and his act revolves around glasses, and dogs, and small children, but all this philosophy comes out of it. He’s just a brilliant man. The kind of dialogue that’s going on inside John’s head is just reproduced onstage. He’s a very smart, sensitive man. He can sort of assess things extremely quickly. It’s almost as if he needs a filter to keep everything else at bay. Well, we all do, but John needs a special filter. Comedy is generally a reaction to finding life difficult or impossible, and I think life is not an easy place for John. But anyway, I’m really glad we did that. Have you heard it?
Oh, yeah. I played it last week.
Oh, great. “Granddad’s Glasses” is a really great British ballad in the vein of something by The Kinks or Suede.
Suede actually has a new album coming out, too.
Well, there you are. More old men to put on the pile.
Speaking of older men, Jonathan Demme is a friend of yours. All of your acting stints seem to have been his projects. Is that out of your friendship with him, or are you genuinely interested in acting?
Oh, no. This is just through Jonathan. I’ve actually only done one thing where I was acting. He filmed me in concert some years ago in New York in a shop window on 14th Street [Storefront Hitchcock]. That’s me just playing in a window. I was in the Manchurian Candidate. They wanted some British villains, so I was the secondary British villain. And I was in Rachel Getting Married just basically playing the guitar and singing. He had real musicians playing in real time at the wedding, but the cakes were actually artificial. There was no booze in any of the alcohol bottles. We were partying away, but we weren’t drunk.
I have one last question for you. You have a collection of songs called While Thatcher Mauled Britain. So, I take it from that title you’re not on the Tory Christmas Card List?
[Laughs.] I’m afraid not, no. I’m a lefty. [Laughs.]