Yeah Yeah Yeah
Interview with Robyn Hitchcock

by Greg Dwinnell

Yeah Yeah Yeah: Where are you residing now?
Robyn Hitchcock: I live in London now for about six years.
Y3: The reason I ask is because I know you were living in the U.S. for a period.
RH: I was living in Washington, DC for about eight months.
Y3: Didn’t take to it?
RH: I was there to be with someone specifically, not because I wanted to hang out in the nation’s capitol.
Y3: So I was a huge Soft Boys fan.
RH: Yeah, they were good.
Y3: Yeah , they were amazing. The Soft Boys were like the quintessential ’70s band: the perfect bridge between like Dylan and the Beatles and what was going on in the industry at the time, with the Pistols and the Damned…
RH: Good. I’m glad you liked them.
Y3: So with the new record you’re working again with Kimberley [Rew, former Soft Boy). “Nasa Clapping” could easily be mistaken for a lost soft boys track.
RH: Well yeah, I was hoping that we’d have some of that same sound. I wanted to get Kimberley in and have that thing of left and right guitars competing a bit. There are a lot of guest guitarists on the record. I’m usually in the middle, though sometimes I’m on the other side of the other person on the end of it. But probably it wasn’t a similar sound cause in those days there were different amps. I think Kimberley didn’t even use an amp this time and he still managed to be louder than me. But actually the first guitar break in ‘Nasa’ is me even though it sounds like Kimberley.
Y3: So where has Kimberley been all these years?
RH: Well he’s been in Cambridge doing odd things with Katrina and the Waves, but I think that’s pretty much worn off now. They’ve split into two factions which are both claiming to be called Katrina and the Waves. One of them is Katrina without the Waves and one of them is the Waves without Katrina, so there are some legal problems. They had their final supernova a couple of years ago; they actually won the Eurovision song contest with one of Kim’s songs. And I don’t know, I seem to run in to him more lately. He lives quite simply.
Y3: So there was no ‘falling out’ between the Soft Boys?
RH: No no no, none of us were ever confrontational enough to actually fall out with any of the others. We were all far too uptight. Kim’s quite a shy person and he expresses himself most through his guitar, though I did think the Soft Boys did get into a bit of a guitar battle. And he needed an outlet for his songs and the Soft Boys were my vehicle for songs. I don’t think it would have worked with us alternating songs. we might well have had a hit [laughs], but that wasn’t really the point of the game. And our approach as songwriters then was really different although we’re musically quite compatible. So he needed to go off and have his own thing. Ya know the Waves were really going before the soft boys and we actually pinched Kimberley from the waves around ‘77. if you go back not quite 25 years, and I know we’d all love to, the Waves were the best band in Cambridge. They had the best equipment and they had Kimberley, and Alex Cooper, who’s still there today. and they had a bass player who did all the singing and Kimberley wrote all their songs. The Soft Boys kind of became popular but we weren’t nearly as good or proficient as they, we were far more chaotic. but we sort of eclipsed them during 1977, in this small pop world way. Microfiche. And their singer got some sort of glandular fever and they sort of died out, so we pinched Kimberley, which annoyed Alex to no end. But then at the end of the Soft Boys , Kim got back with Alex in a band that would become Katrina and the Waves. Alex was a much more straight ahead drummer than Morris Windsor was. In lots of ways Kimberley’s playing is better suited to Alex. Alex’s playing is more square. Morris is more sort of ornate if you like. So anyway we never really fell out’, we never communicated a great deal anyway. None of us did. It wasn’t really a social thing. but whenever I’m in Cambridge I seem to run into him and get him on stage, and Kimberley has come down to London a few times. Got him up for a few encores. I’d love to bring him over here but I don! ’t know.
Y3: When you set out to make Jewels For Sophia, did you intend to involve Kimberley and/or any of the other players? I know in your bio you state that you ‘haven’t made a record in this manner since Black Snake Diamond Role.’
RH: Yes it was a plan not specifically to involve anybody but the plan was to form a series of bands in different places just for the purposes of the recording. Really it was the Young Fresh Fellows in Seattle, plus Peter Buck and Tim Keegan. And it was Kimberley and the rhythm section of the High Llamas in London. And there was a bunch of stuff done in L.A. with Jon Brion. And Grant Lee was involved. And Ethan (Johns) and Tim. You know that whole Largo [the L.A. club] set-up. Although I was introduced to Jon with the idea of doing some recordings, I then got to like him and became part of the Largo set.
Y3: You have indeed…
RH: Which I love! You know it’s only 6000 miles from home, but to me it’s the local club that you can drop in and play.
Y3: So how many more visits do you think you have before you finish “Chimes of Freedom?”
RH: Well I’m there on Thursday so that’s another verse. How many verses does it have? Another four at least but there’s bound to be some repeats because I haven’t been making notes.
Y3: Have you been taping all those shows? It would be great to piece it all together.
RH: The great thing is we tape them but we always lose the tapes. [Laughs] Rick [Gershon, Warner Bros promo man] tapes them but I think there was one he couldn’t get to. I imagine we could put together a good album from Largo. I should make more of an effort. There’s so much good stuff that’s gone you know. But I think that’s the beauty of it, the fact that you’re doing it, you’re not trying to do it for eternity you’re doing it for the moment, and people just have to remember it. They can’t always go back and access it. Certainly I can’t.
Y3: How did you find Largo?
RH: You mean how did I discover it? Geoffrey Wiess, my A&R man at Warners, said “Why don’t you meet this guy Jon Brion, I think you’d like him?” And I knew about Largo anyway from Grant Lee and his wife Denise, whom I know, or I’m getting to know and love more and more. So I go in and see this Jon play some lovely stuff at the piano and we sang through “I’ll Keep It With Mine,” you know, the Dylan song?
Y3: Sure, Nico, Judy Collins, the song Dylan “never recorded”…
RH: Right, and he could play it exactly the same. So I think I sang it, and then he says, “I know, ‘Heliotrope,’” and I thought, well that’s nice, that’s quite a new song. Mostly people come up to me and proudly announce that ‘they were in a band that played “Queen Of Eyes” or something . Not many people have had time or decency to pick up on what I’ve done recently, so I thought that was nice. Jon is fast, you know how fast he is. Is he playing a show this week?
Y3: Yeah this Friday he’s got the eels on the bill.
RH: We did that TV show with them [the lost VH1 pilot of “The Jon Brion Show”].
Y3: How did you enjoy that taping?
RH: I had a good time , but I know Jon felt really kinda drained afterwards. Cause you know he had to do something like 8 hours…
Y3: I know it was draining on the audience, or at least those of us that stayed from beginning to end.
RH: Oh I could see by the end when we were doing the improvised bits that everybody was glazed over. I enjoyed I because I just did things in little bursts and sort of got gradually drunker. And Grant had fun I think. I’ve actually seen a bit of it. A bit of a rough cut of it. It could be good but I’ve got a horrible feeling they’re going to try and trim it down to a half an hour, which will mean three minutes of music with the commercials. utter useless crap. But maybe, just maybe they’ll pick up an option of doing a series and that would be so good. But the real thing as Jon says is to’ capture the improvising.’ It might be easier if they just shot it at Largo on little handycams, whatever they are, rather than having lights and camera and crew, though I don’t know if you are allowed to do it that simply…
Y3: I think the problem was that the audience and performers never felt like they were at Largo. Somebody should have revved us up a bit more… It has been an extreme treat for us to have you as a Largo regular.
RH: It’s a great spot. I was just telling Lou Barlow he should go down there.
Y3: How has the tour with Sebadoh and Flaming Lips going for you?
RH: It’s been good really to get to know the musicians, that’s what I like. Expands the phone book. I actually now do a couple of songs with Sebadoh at the end of my set. And I’ve enjoyed meeting the Lips. Stephen [Coyle] used to do some stuff with Sonic Boom and Sonic Boom used to do some stuff with me in my set. And EQ is interesting. It’s all interesting. Logisticially it’s a drag because you’re all going around in a big circus and I’d much prefer to be a lone operator. I’m going to do my own tour in November.
Y3: Solo tour?
RH: I’m gonna try and bring out some musicians, but there are logistics and…what I can afford. Those tours with the Egyptians, we never really made any money, by the time you pay for your roadie and your bus. I do sorta like to bring something back from tour. I don’t just regard them as some sort of promotional exercise. I am very proud of this record and I have to do everything I can to let people know its there.
Y3: Jewels is one of your finest works, and I think you’ve made a number of strong records in the 90’s, but there seems to be no allusion that you’ll ever approach the mainstream…
RH: Oh I’m never anywhere near the mainstream. It’s like an optical illusion if people think I’m mainstream. I think it stems from the fact that my music is more conventional than the lyrics, it’s probably at odds with the lyrics. If I produced music that was more like Captain Beefheart or a modern experimental atonal dissonant freaky whatever, people would probably find it easier to except. It’s like pop songs with the wrong words. In a way neither camp is really satisfied, unless you’re really tuned into it, in which case there is no substitute. But that means that the sort of pop world was kind of scared off by my words and I think the sort of hip, noisy indie people were scared off by my melodies. Ha Ha, so there you are.
Y3: So cult figure suits you fine?
RH: I remember doing an interview with the NME with the lovely Ian Pennman back in 1978 and he asked me what I wanted and I said ‘I wanted to be a cult figure on the obscure cult fringe,’ I think I said, and he quoted me on that and he said he didn’t believe me, he thought I wanted to be a true star. I don’t think I knew exactly what was involved, but also things have changed a bit over the last 10 years. In terms like the industry was prepared to have people like Roy Harper or Kevin Ayers, Syd Barrett or The Incredible String Band—all the people I liked. Even people like Martin Cathey would be on major labels. I suppose now it’s gone back in a way almost to what it was like 40 years ago. All they’re interested in is hit singles. I grew up in a time when there was the ethos that you had album acts and they did albums, and that’s obviously being eroded. I’m still on Warners but I don’t know if I’ll be on Warners for my next record.
Y3: So how has the association been with WB? How do they treat a Robyn Hitchcock record, do they ask you for singles?
RH: No they don’t do any of that. I actually, artistically, had a really good time, compared to what happened at A&M where I very discreetly got railroaded into making more and more produced records. Warners have let me do what I want but they haven’t really done much to promote them either. You know, I guess it just looks good, but I don’t know where it looks good for their accountants. So we’ll see. It’s certainly been fun working with Rick Gershon. He’s my anchor there. It’s all changing in the next few years again anyway.
Y3: And it will all change back again.
RH: I don’t think it will change back into vinyl. I don’t think it will change back into large companies being interested into promoting niche artists.
Y3: But with the advent of the internet and the proliferation of indie labels there seem to be more grass roots type music avenues than ever.
RH: Oh yeah. I mean probably when the time comes that I want to release another record it might just be that it all just goes straight down the internet anyway. Maybe it would only be available on either vinyl or something where you turn on the tap and it just comes out.
Y3: You’ve got a really imaginative web site ( Are you a big fan of the internet? Do you have a computer?
RH: No not at all. That was done for me by David Greenberger of Duplex Planet. As my girlfriend Michelle says about the internet ‘it supplies information but it doesn’t supply knowledge.’ You can find all sorts of stuff but are you really any wiser at the end of it all? You can get Chinese Beet root eels or you can find out how many takes of “ Jolly Hangmen” Fairport recorded before they shelved it, but it’s just information gabbling at you. But what I do foresee is that the unit that once was vinyl and is now disc will be shrinking down…
Y3: To a credit card.
RH: Yeah. That is gonna go, but what you’ll do is your account will be debited by PhonyWeaGram or whatever and let’s say you want to hear ‘Walk Awhile’ by Fairport Convention; you’ll either pay 20 cents for a rental or a dollar for a life time supply of this thing, and you will then get it through any crack in your wall or through your car speakers or it will come out of your shirt. The line between record company and radio will just completely vanish. You’ll be able to access anything you want anytime and you won’t physically have to have the thing. If you want to look at the record cover you can get the computer to show it to you. And if you want it you can print it out on whatever you want. I would think actual records as such, will become redundant in 10, 20 years. Everybody says no, no they always want to buy a piece of the artist. My daughter says ‘No they want it, it’s like holy relics’. It’s like getting the shoulder blade of St. John. They used to do that in Medieval times, go around selling things that claim to be a relic of the shroud or one of the bandages that Christ had been wrapped in.
Y3: Or Hitler’s pencil box.
RH: Yeah Hitler’s Pencil box. Or John Coltrane’s pencil sharpener.
Y3: Or The Elephant Man.
RH: Yeah except he is the Elephant Man. But we are our own holy relics. I personally would be happy never to acquire a record again. If some one says you should listen to Massive Attack, I’ll go sure and dial up Massive Attack. So when I do get computer stuff, which will probably be next year, I would plan as if to make stuff that could be pulled out of a tap. I assemble a clutch of songs and work on how to do that, and it seems that most of my audience would want to buy that. You know this project, the album you see which is called Jewels For Sophia and then there’s the album you don’t see which is coming out in November but only through the Museum of me or through live gigs.
Y3: The label’s ok with this?
RH: Yes, Warners is letting me do that myself. You know it would be just as easy for me to line up the 24 songs and say ‘Ok, here you are, give me 35 cents per song, have as many as you want, my favorites are this.’ People are always hollering for the outtakes, they seem to want them more than the actual records. So maybe if we no longer make a distinction between the two, if you just say Robyn Hitchcock’s laid a bunch of eggs and here they are.
Y3: Does the companion record have a title yet?
RH: No, not yet. I know generally what the record is going to be composed of. When I get back to London I’ll figure it all out. I know I better get a move on.
Y3: I asked Rick about a couple of new songs I had heard you perform—“Don’t Talk To Me About Gene Hackman” and “Last Night I Saw Nick Drake” and he told me they’d probably never be released…
RH: “I Saw Nick Drake”? Yes, well that’s on the outtakes record. And you know now that “Gene Hackman” is hidden there at the end of Jewels, and you know Rick actually recorded that with his little DAT machine right there from his table at Largo.
Y3: Well yes I know. I believe I told you this before but there is a whistle at the end of the song…
RH: Oh yes and that’s you.
Y3: That’s me!
RH: Well there you are then, captured for posterity. Don’t expect a royalty check anytime soon though.

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