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Robyn Hitchcock

A Career in Song

Jun 23, 2009 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

In his more than 30 years of writing and recording—with The Soft Boys, The Egyptians, solo, and now The Venus 3—Robyn Hitchcock has firmly established himself within the pantheon of great English songwriters, dating back to the eccentric master himself, Syd Barrett. Hitchcock’s latest album, Goodnight Oslo, is his second with his Venus 3 band of Peter Buck (R.E.M.) on guitar, Scott McCaughey (Minus 5, Young Fresh Fellows) on bass, and Bill Rieflin (Ministry) on drums, and the album clearly demonstrates the rapport the musicians have established since 2006’s Olé Tarantula. Hitchcock and his band have recently finished a US tour with The Decemberists, whose Colin Meloy contributes some backing vocals on Goodnight Oslo, and their summer schedule includes a few English festivals, including Glastonbury, followed by Austin City Limits in the fall. Hitchcock checks in with Under the Radar to discuss his career, his new album, and what’s next.

How do you see the progression, musical or otherwise, from Ole! Tarantula to Goodnight Oslo, the first two albums with this current lineup of players? You have known and worked with Peter, Scott, and Bill in different capacities and forms for several years now, but has there still been a certain growth process with all of you as a unit?

Robyn Hitchcock: Peter, Scott, and Bill play together in REM and sometimes the Minus 5, so they are getting ever more attuned to each other. Goodnight Oslo and Olé Tarantula aside, we could feel on this recent tour how well we play together. It’s another great quartet in the tradition of The Monkees and CSN&Y with three Americans and one Englishman.

You have said that the album’s title refers to nights you spent in Oslo with Morris Windsor and other friends back in 1982, and you’ve talked about the album’s concept being centered on this idea of moving on from things and the idea of leaving the age of combustion. How are these two things—the title’s reference and the themes of the album—connected?

You have to say goodbye to people and habits and whole sections of your life, and that’s painful because you are tearing the emotional ivy out of your own wall—you are losing a part of yourself. Separation, and the final separation of death are so awful because you are connected to something that is no longer there—like holding a telephone receiver with a dead man on the line. But whatever happened to us in Oslo cannot be reversed, only forgotten, as we ourselves dissolve. That’s the feeling of it.

There is a YouTube video posted on the Yep Roc website where you discuss people’s perception of you as masking yourself through your words and your “perceived eccentricities.” You say that seeing your face doesn’t really tell someone more about you than your words do. However, I watched the documentary that came out a couple years back (Robyn Hitchcock: Sex, Food, Death ... and Insects) and was struck by a certain sadness and perhaps even loneliness in the portrayal of you in that film. First of all, do you feel that is a fair assessment? And second: Is there something that you saw in that film that struck you as being complementary to what you put out there yourself in your writing, in terms of describing you as a person?

Personally my life has never been better, and seldom busier. The part of me that writes songs is often the sad and lonely part (as it is with most artists, probably), and maybe that is the part that John Edginton was keen to show in the film. It’s difficult to talk effectively about writing songs, in any direct way. The more tangential I appear to be, the closer I get to the truth… John also filmed me performing I Often Dream of Trains at Symphony Space in New York last November, with Terry Edwards and Tim Keegan. This is premiering on Sundance on June 5th. Perhaps that gives a more 360° picture.

Are you bothered by the perception that many have of you as whimsical or eccentric? I wonder whether you feel that people too often characterize you by certain pieces of your writing that might not be most representative of your whole body of work, for instance, people who might know you best from something like “Uncorrected Personality Traits.” Do you feel that you are misunderstood?

Humor is a defense mechanism and it’s possible that it’s too effective sometimes. It’s also the dateline that you cross into from feeling the darkest emotions. Do I balance humor and darkness? Generally, yes. I would rather be seen as eccentric than pious, humorless, or earnest. In the end, it depends how much time the listener has to invest in listening to me…. My material is quite subtle, you can’t stampede the nutrients out of it. So not everyone bothers with it.

The funny stuff catches the mind quicker, if that’s all you have time for.

Does calling something “eccentric” define it any better? An eccentric horse or an eccentric omelet, for example—is it helpful to describe them that way? Similarly, an eccentric songwriter….

I spoke with Storm Thorgerson, the cover artist for Pink Floyd and others, and his take on his own artistic progression was that one cannot truly judge his newer work against his older work, because there is no “progression” as some might assume. Being an artist with quite a history yourself, do you agree with this statement, as it relates to music, lyrics, or both?

There’s a development, I would think, although what applies to him may not apply to me. But what you create at 30 isn’t necessarily better than what you create at 60, I agree in that way. Maturity brings different flavors, and probably doesn’t taste as strong, unless you are a cheese.

I love the story of how you met Bill Rieflin through your daughter when she took you to Lollapalooza to see Ministry in 1992. Are you frequently turned on to music by your children?

Sometimes. Kids and parents go for different sounds, in my experience. Music is very important to them, I’m happy to say. Sometimes you look for another brand than the one your parents used.

Tell me a bit about the recent tour where you performed I Often Dream of Trains in its entirety. What was the value for you in revisiting that album as a whole piece of work?

We played the same show 10 nights running, which tightened us up musically and made us confident in our playing. I’ve never done that before. The songs are time capsules prepared for me in the past for me to inhabit in the future, like a bird building a nest for its old age. It was fun performing a record live that I had written with no thought of doing any of it on stage.

Can you tell me where things stand with the writing you have been doing with Andy Partridge? I spoke with him several years ago and he mentioned he was writing off and on with you.

There’s a lot started and nothing finished off. It’s easier for us both to start than to finish—maybe we need a producer. I’m away a great deal, which doesn’t help with continuity. What there is sounds very promising. I hope we can force ourselves to complete it.

I recently watched Rachel Getting Married, and while I never connected you with the film until I saw and heard you there, I loved the cameo. It was a quite a complex emotional story. I wondered what you thought of the film, whether you were pleased with the way it turned out?

Jonathan Demme has been filming documentaries for a while, and he shot this almost as a documentary of a family wedding. It’s quite uncomfortable—Anne Hathaway’s character is hard to watch to begin with, but you feel for her as the movie unfolds. It’s odd seeing myself in there, but it adds to the reality of the film. I was very proud to be involved.

What is next for Robyn Hitchcock? Do you have more plans for writing, with Venus 5 or any other musicians, after the tour?

Everything, all the time!

Thank you for your time, Robyn.

Thank you for your space, Frank.


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July 18th 2009

I read it and I want to weep with joy and admiration :-)