Blending classic English sensibilities with darkly clever psychedelic pop, Robyn Hitchcock constructs a musical universe all his own. With a career spanning nearly four decades, the frontman of Cambridge’s neo-psych post punk group the Soft Boys first made waves with the much-admired 1980 release Underwater Moonlight before the band split later that year. Not to abandon making fine-crafted pop thick with wise whimsicality Robyn has steadied a prolific career, making a decade’s worth of music with the Egyptians (including 1985’s Fegmania!) and more recently with members of R.E.M., Young Fresh Fellows and Ministry as the Venus 3. In March the singer, songwriter, painter and even sometime-Hollywood actor celebrates the release of a new solo album, Love From London (Yep Roc Records), and his 60th birthday. He sips a cup of tea and chats by telephone from his hotel room in New York. This interview by Linda A. Rapka.
Robyn Hitchcock: Sorry if you can hear that noise. That’s me making a cup of tea. You can tell how English I am.
You describe your new album, Love From London, as one that ‘celebrates life in a culture imperiled by economic and environmental collapse.’ That sounds contradictorily optimistic.
I do my best to block out the news. I don’t have CNN on all the time or spend all day listening to NPR or Radio 4. I don’t follow Twitter. I recoil in horror at most that goes on at real life. I try to keep my head buried in the late ‘60s. The emphasis on my record is on celebration. Little bits of information—snippets from the outside world—bleed through occasionally in what I’m singing, but I’m not here to give you the bad news. I just wanna boogie.
On the last song of your new album you sing, ‘Take me, take me, I’m ready for the end of time.’ What makes you ready?
Time itself. The thing is that, as you’ve noticed, I refer to things imminently collapsing. The whole of my life things have been on the edge of collapsing. One of my first memories is the Bay of Pigs in 1962, squeezing through a kink in the fence trying to get into a playground and thinking, ‘Wow, are they going to send bombs over here?’ I was 10 and hadn’t learned much about nuclear bombs but I clearly remember thinking, ‘Wow, is this it?’ This was 50 years ago and now we’ve gone through that, the second Cold War, Reagan, then Reagan getting mellow with Gorbachev… 30 years ago it seemed like it could go off again. Then we had a false dawn with the collapse of the Berlin Wall where they thought capitalism won, but ha ha! Oh no… We’ve seen in the last five years what market forces have done. With the best intentions. But we’ve seen what industrial technology has done to the environment. People didn’t know until just recently that cigarettes are bad. The world has to literally give up smoking. It has to give up all those things that make it smoke. Unfortunately most of what we rely on is incredibly toxic. We don’t shit in the streets anymore, but that’s pretty much what we’re doing with machines.
It’s gone from human shit to machine shit.
Exactly. Waste from cars, planes… With a bit of luck the planet will recover after a few thousand years. Humans are very tenacious at regenerating, but by all accounts we’re in for a bumpy century. But to get back to your question, I’m ready for the end of time because I’m alive. We are finite creatures. We have a tendency to believe without us, the world will end. There’s always been a Doomsday and Judgment Day and apocalypses lying around. We have a desire to take it all with us. But I’m OK with it because time is going to end for me. World time is not going to last for me for another decade.
Surely you’ve got more than 10 years left!
It might be less, or more. I might make it to 82. I’ve got less ahead of me than I’ve got behind. I’m unlikely to be looking back on this in 50 years time! I remember being in New York 20 years ago with great ease. It’s great to have lasted this long. It’s lovely that people are still interested and still like what I do. I don’t feel I’m in the shadow of my former self. People still like to follow the story, and I’m very happy they’re listening to the new record—I’ve been doing interviews all day. I’m not sitting here wishing I was 32 again, making music I was making when I was 32. I’ve already made that, I’ve already done it. Without being self-aggrandizing, there’s no need to repeat yourself. There are certain standards it’s good to maintain, but once you’ve made something there’s little point in doing it again. Bob Dylan is a good example of living by this. And when he does perform old songs, he mangles them so badly he makes sure you won’t recognize it. It’s like they have ‘deleted’ stamps on them already.
You’re a good example of it too. Not only with music, but with your life. You’ve had some stints acting in Hollywood films—Jonathan Demme’s The Manchurian Candidate and Rachel Getting Married, Sean Nelson’s Treatment.
There’s only one I’m really acting in, The Manchurian Candidate. Jonathan also filmed me in concert on 14th Street in 1996 outside a storefront. I just did it, it was Jonathan’s idea. I’m not really into that world. But if he asked me to do something else, I probably would.
You also write, paint and draw.
Well, I paint and draw. I’m quite good at drawing. My paintings are a bit erratic. On my website you can see some of my works.
What compels you to create in all media as opposed to just concentrating on music?
Well they are all very closely linked, I think. If you can do music, chances are you draw or paint. Writing’s harder for me. I write poems, but stories are harder. If I had to do something else other than music, I’d try to sell pictures.
Is there ever a time you are not busy doing something?
I like to keep busy. Most of life is actually spent doing emails. Life is what happens in between emails really, and I suppose going to the bathroom. You try to squeeze things in. I’m sure you can relate. That goes for all of us. You have these blips where you go off and do something if you’re lucky. Even Brian Eno who’s well respected and can do everything, he’s met Pavarotti and everything, even Brian probably spends most of his life doing emails. We’re all in the same situation.
I was going to ask about your website downloads. For the past few years you’ve offered ‘phantom 45s,’ digital songs fans can download for free. Is this out of an acceptance at how new media is reshaping the rules of how artists get their music to the public, or is it an if-you-can’t-beat-’em-join-’em type thing?
The recording industry and the music business itself are all a creation of technology. It’s not like God gave Adam the vinyl LP, and Adam wandered though the Garden of Eden until the digital serpent came up. It’s always moved. This is the current situation: you don’t have to pay for music if you don’t want to. This is my version of doing it. I’m not sure which way it’s going to go. Love From London is coming out as a good old-fashioned LP and compact disc. Soon we’ll be pressing up a vinyl double-45 of all the phantom 45s for Record Collector Day in April. We’re only making 500, so it has collectors item stamped all over it—probably literally.
The vinyl fetish lives.
I picture a world where there is vinyl and digital only. The CD was the beginning of the death of rock music because an LP commanded a certain amount of respect. You don’t stick them in a blank sleeve or push them through letterboxes. You couldn’t give them the way in the same profusion as people do CDs. When you’ve made an LP, there’s something about looking at the artwork and getting a test pressing. You don’t get test pressings of CDs. At least they’re not in those horrible little jewel boxes now. Baby packs look like mini records. People started putting too much music on CDs. The record companies told us they cost more to make, but they actually cost less. Compact discs were the height of the Roman Empire for record companies. At that point the public began to lose a bit of interest. You could just give it away. And this was before the Internet. Records now were 70+ minutes long, where they used to be 40. I don’t feel any affection or loyalty to the compact disc and wouldn’t be sorry if they left. Maybe it’s because I’m old.
But you embrace digital new media.
I just did the phantom 45s because it seemed like things might be going that way. I can’t say we’ve sold a lot. I can’t even say if people download them much. Young groovers today are starting buying LPs again for some reason. Maybe because of an affinity for what used to be, a nostalgic type of thing.
Nostalgia is rampant. They sell old-fashioned telephone handles you can plug into your smartphone.
Yeah, right! I bought an old telephone handle like that for my nephew. The problem with modern stuff—apart from the fact it’s modern and as one gets older all modern stuff is wrong anyway; if it walked up and kissed you on the lips and put you in a coma it’d still be wrong because it’s modern—the problem is the tendency now for things to have the same shape. They’re all flat, oblong things. It’s the iPhone, really. But even before the iPhone, cameras and Walkmans and phones were beginning to look similar. But you still need the traditional looking icons to tell them apart. They’re images of what they used to be, little mini graphics on things that denote ‘telephone’ or ‘car.’
Pretty soon kids won’t know what these things actually were. Like, ‘Why does this misshapen abstract glyph mean phone?’
Not unless their parents can afford to send them to school. They’re not going to find their own way around because it’s all about apps. They’ll discover their parents are actually apps—they’ll think that’s where we come from. It will become just like Robo Cop 2. We could all be just brains absorbed into machines.
What are you reading right now?
Dark Places by Gillian Flynn. She’s a Chicago-based author who wrote Sharp Objects. She’s a film reviewer for Entertainment Weekly or something. It’s really very grim, quite bleak. Kind of like set in a rural U.S. scenario. It’s not a metropolitan adventure. What are you reading right now?
I’m reading a few books. A friend has forced me to start the first Harry Potter. I’m also reading a book of Lars von Trier interviews, and am finishing another by Kurt Vonnegut, Galápagos, told from the perspective of a 1-million-year old spirit chronicling the demise of humankind as we know it.
I read half of one of the Harry Potters. It just wasn’t funny to me. I don’t like reading books where’s there’s no humor. Love Vonnegut. He was a man with a view that was dimmer than mine. He had even fewer illusions about what people are. He enjoyed the human tendency to speed things up. The Lars sounds interesting, I’d like to read that.
Tell me about your 2008 Cape Farewell expedition to Greenland to raise awareness about global warming.
Cape Farewell takes artists and scientists generally to the Arctic and other areas where the environment is in danger. In the Arctic you could see huge chunks of ice breaking off from the glaciers—deep, luminescent, blue chunks of ice bobbing in the green sea under the lowering purple sky. It was a beautiful sight. But then you realize it’s because the glacial coating that is over so much of the north area is breaking off. This is resulting in rising water levels and an increase in air temperature, which in turn causes more ice to break off.
It’s incredible that even today there are naysayers who say it’s not happening, with proof literally visible to the naked eye.
Every time you are I get into a car or get on a plane, or even turn on the electricity, we’re contributing. We’re locked in a system where almost everything we do is destructive in what we’re trying to achieve. There are people flying around the world telling people not to fly. We went on an expedition using fuel to get there, adding to the pollutants in order to see the damage pollution is causing.
Global warming seems to be a personal issue for you.
I’m afraid it’s there whether it’s my take or not. The climate is changing in ways which are very unpredictable, because it keeps affecting itself. It’s too simple to say it just keeps getting warmer. This is resulting in freezing weather in Britain. Low-lying areas will eventually flood, like London. Very great cities evolved as ports and will increasingly flood. The storms on the east coast of the States are now an accepted reality. Obama was actually allowed to mention climate change! He couldn’t his first term. One positive effect of Superstorm Sandy was that when he mentioned it, people couldn’t go, ‘You’re a liar! Bullshit! This isn’t happening.’ It is happening. In my own experience I’ve noticed the rain now falls differently than when I was growing up. We’ll get a month’s rainfall in an hour, in these tropical bursts. Luckily it hasn’t happened to us in London yet, but it’s only a matter of time. Likewise with the state the Western economy has gotten into. Whether this is the death of modern capitalism, it’s hard to say. It doesn’t seem to be any more enduring than communism was. It too has its own shortcomings in the way it functions. Is the environment going to go before the economy does? One can wonder.
You’re hitting a landmark birthday this March, when you turn 60.
Yeah, I’m getting to be an old man now. People don’t take old people very seriously. I’ve got another few years while I’m still taken somewhat seriously before I become a brittle old twit with wispy hair.
To celebrate you’re performing a big retrospective show. Will you also tour, or is this a one-off?
It’s a one-time gig at Village Underground. Tell everyone to come fly over to London.
And contribute to global warming?
Exactly! No I guess that won’t do, will it? Tell them if they’re in Europe to get a train, and I’ll lead them off the train and give ‘em a cup a cup of tea.
Some crisps, maybe?
Yes. And crumpets with marmite. Then we can proceed by bicycle to the show. It’s on Feb. 28. I’ll be doing one song off of every LP I’ve put out. That will keep us going for two and a half hours I’m afraid. It will be a chance to fast forward and do what somebody called a ‘time lapse concert.’ You’ll see my music going from age 20-whatever-I-was to 60.
How has your creative process changed now from when you were in your twenties?
It hasn’t changed at all. I just know more about how to put songs together, or how to entice songs into being.
How to lure the muse…
Exactly. How to do that, and the technical side of what you do with the muse after you’ve lured it to you … how you encourage it to come to fruition. How you feed it, water it, discipline it, house it, nurture it into a full-grown life where it can walk away with your brand on it—customized by you, into your own offspring in a way. The actual impulses, though, I don’t know that now just as much as I didn’t know it then.