Bucketfull Of Brains
1991 (Issue 42)
A Day In The Life Of Robyn Hitchcock
by Pat Grandjean
Robyn Hitchcock is fond of saying that he's a misfit -- that, had circumstances been different, he wouldn't have cultivated the life of a Rock 'n' Roll singer, but would have fallen into the far more genteel and orderly existence of, say, on Oxford professor. It's his freaky streak that's earned him the greatest amount of attention from Alternative music fans. They just love Uncle Bob's lyrics about fish, dead wives, insect mothers, and men with lightbulb heads.
Some critics have already expressed disappointment that Perspex Island, Hitchcock's latest album with The Egyptians (drummer Morris Windsor, keyboardist/bassits Andy Metcalfe and perennial featured guest Peter Buck) is relatively free of these characteristic quirks. They don't seem to care that it rocks harder ("Oceanside") and swings with greater ease ("Vegetation And Dimes", "Ride") than previous Egyptians efforts. Or that Hitchcock never seems to lose his knack for knocking out attractive and memorable-yet-offbeat melodies ("So You Think You're In Love", "Earthly Paradise") like there's nothing to it -- and writing love songs that are thorny, not sappy.
Speaking of love, Perspex Island finds Hitchcock in a more relaxed frame of mind about it than his two previous, emotionally disturbed, albums; Eye and Queen Elvis. But that doesn't mean his feelings are any less complicated. Rather, Perspex Island's love songs are cocky ("Ultra Unbelievable Love"), wistful ("She Doesn't Exist"), vulnerable ("If You Go Away"), and hopeful ("Birds In Perspex"); all at once.
We chatted twice last spring, once in the New York offices of A&M Records and once over the phone. This interview represents a not entirely seamless effort to merge both conversations -- the first of which took place before I'd heard any of the album. At the time, Robyn was looking forward to performing live with The Egyptians again -- they were planning to tour. (Hitchcock took a live sabbatical from the band in 1990 with a round of 65 solo-acoustic dates). Incidentally, if you meet him, he will remind you a little bit of a college professor -- he's low-key, thoughtful, voluble and self-critical, with a somewhat bookish air about him. But he's funnier and more imaginative than the guy who taught me Economics 101.
What does the title Perspex Island signify?
Perspex is like plexiglass. It's stuff that you can see through, and they sometimes make paperweights that they put some small dead animal in -- like a seahorse or something. In this case, I was just thinking of a couple of small birds -- maybe like miniature hummingbirds or canaries (or something) -- entombed in this Perspex, and invoking them to break out. It's almost as if a sea monster was encased in a glassy: it's very unlikely they would ever get out, but you kind of hope they do in some way. It's basically bringing the dead back to life.
Perspex Island itself is like a, sort of, portable Avalon. It's a, sort of, mobile heaven. It's love, if you like. Perspex Island may or may not have the birds in it. But in the song, it's my girl, y'know? My girl, and also my goal. Or what you're heading towards. It's this, sort of, mobile island that flies hither and thither, and that you see over the rooftops sometimes -- heading west. And it glows from within at twilight.
There are a number of love songs on this album. I haven't often thought of your songs as love songs....
Well, I've always written love songs. I mean, I've written a lot of songs about so-called "love" -- but generally from a quite distorted angle. Everybody writes love songs. Lionel Richie and Donovan and people who are dead and people who are unborn. There are people who I think simply like my songs because the topics are different from Michael Jackson (or somebody). So I've been made into a, kind of, Alternative champion. And it's nice to have a niche and everything. But I've also written quite straight love songs going back for years. If you listen to I Often Dream Of Trains or Groovy Decoy or Black Snake Diamond Role -- almost anything since The Soft Boys. The songs by The Soft Boys were all, kind of, hate songs rather than love songs. But pretty soon after that, I started writing stuff -- some of which was quite tender. But I always, kind of, interspersed it with stuff about insects and vegetation and corpses. So people picked up on that because it was more colorful, it was more grotesque. On this record, I deliberately kept out anything that was grotesque, because it's like hearing a joke over and over.
"So You Think You're In Love" is an interesting love song -- it seems quite tentative.
Not really. It's only there because of the title -- it's not actually a warning. It's just saying that you want to be sure about it. It's really talking to somebody who is tentative -- but at the end of the song, it goes, "So you think you're in love -- yeah". You come to a positive conclusion, but you're worried about it. You don't know what everyone else is gonna say. And basically, what you're frightened of is love -- my great theory is that's what frightens people most.
Why do you suppose that is?
I don't know, but look what happened to Jesus. I think people are frightened for a whole variety of different reasons. There are people who are frightened of commitment. In that song, that's really talking about love between one person and another -- not general cosmic, vibe-encrusted love. You can see lots of reasons for people to be frightened of each other. It just depends on how somebody acts. Love could easily be bad news.
There's nothing particularly that I could say was bad -- you know, "Dr. Hitchcock proves that love can be fatal." I know that there are things that frighten me, and I suspect that I'm not alone in that. But again, I'm generalizing from myself. All this stuff is about me. I'm not writing hypothetical characters. And I'm not even interested in subdividing myself into appearing to be hypothetical characters.
Well, that is something that's always been noted about you: that you write about a lot of different characters. These songs seem to be free of that element.
I don't know whether I even ever did -- they were simply characters that were extensions of myself. (Or some of them were.) You have to be able to think yourself into any character. A good novelist has to be able to understand the characters that she or he creates. Therefore, they have to have some degree of sympathy with them -- at least to understand their motives -- or they can't be genuinely alive. I mean, Lou Reed always had a variety of characters. And he'd always issue disclaimers and say, "Look, these people aren't all me. I couldn't possibly have done all this." But I suspect they wouldn't have seemed so realistic if he hadn't put himself inside their shoes. I don't put myself inside anybody's shoes very much.
Listening to "Oceanside", I flashed back to something that's often been mentioned about your voice: that it's a bit like John Lennon's.
Yeah, possibly. I don't know if that's a particularly John Lennon-y song. There are times when I can feel it settling on me like a pair of John Lennon glasses. And I can either exaggerate it, or fight against it. Or I can try and find my own way of doing something rather than settling for a Lennonism. Which I've done in the past a few times: there's a song called "Executioner" on Eye which is quite Lennon-y. But it seemed appropriate to leave it that way rather than change it. "Somewhere Apart" is very like that song called "Remember" on the Plastic Ono Band record. We then put delay on it, so we made it sound even more like John Lennon. But actually, if you listen to the lyrics, it's really nothing like the other song. But that was an example of deliberately making it into a tribute, if you like.
On "Oceanside", our producer, Paul Fox, wanted to get, kind of, a Revolver feel into it, I think. I think what it is is that, kind of, droning-old-Indian sound over a wall of Metal guitar effects like "Rain" and "Tomorrow Never Knows". That era. That's probably what it's invoking. (But it's not as exciting as those songs.)
What was the instigation for that song?
I was just sitting 'round the table, like I usually do. I just walk into the house, sit down, pick up the guitar, and write the song. It's got a really good sound, this particular room. It has a really good echo in it. I can stand there and play an acoustic, and it has a really full reverberation. And to something like that -- which just revolves around that drone, that one chord -- it was quite easy to set it up.
Actually, I thought it was going to sound more like U2, but it doesn't. But it's meant to have that, sort of, "big open spaces" feel. I just imagined it would sound like that. I wasn't trying to sound like that. I just thought, "What drones on in one chord for a long time, and sounds big and open-air? It must be U2." It's like, when someone says, "What goes through the sky at ten miles an hour and looks overweight and blots out the sun? It's The Goodyear Blimp." Or, "It's Orson Welles."
"Child Of The Universe" is a pretty trippy song.
Well, that's just maybe having the horns and Andy's guitar on it, and being called "Child Of The Universe". That's about our roadie, actually -- Howie. Or, at least in concept it's about him (or how I like to think of him). If anyone's a child of the universe, it's Howie. Howie likes traveling around, and he's quite organized underneath it all. But Howie was definitely a hippie.
Were you ever a hippie (or did you ever consider yourself one)?
Yeah, I did. Except I didn't have the ideals. Howie was the only one with the ideals. Andy and Morris are far too urbane and realistic to embrace anything like that -- they just had long hair and took the drugs anyway. But they didn't believe any of that stuff. I was more like Howie. A friend of mine described me during that era as being a cross between George Harrison and Hitler. I liked the nihilistic element of the hippie movement -- the thought that the silent majority was all "un-turned-on", and would never understand us. And that everything was fundamentally useless, man. I didn't have the brotherly love bit very much.
To live in that era, you had to simultaneously maintain a childlike innocence about things; and a, sort of, stoned, nihilistic, uncaring aura -- like crossing The Velvet Underground with The Incredible String Band. Both of them had their attractions. The String Band seems now like part of that era, whereas The Velvet Underground seem like messengers from the future. But actually, it all came up at the same time. And I think there was a lot of hopelessness to the hippie stuff -- the "cosmic joke", and all the rest of it. Any culture which is based around sitting around taking drugs I would say was pretty close to being nihilistic. Especially ones as confusing and vapid as marijuana and LSD. You might think you're having positive thoughts, but you're just imagining them, really. You're sitting there with your eyes closed thinking, "Yeah, I love everybody." But when somebody actually walks in the room, it's a bit of a drag to have to talk to them and think about them.
You have your vision, but you can't make other people see it that way. Everybody else doesn't suddenly turn multicolored if you drop acid. (Although that's probably good, because if you got drunk everybody would probably be out of focus. We'd all get blurry.) It would be quite interesting if we could impose our subjective reality on the community for a day. You could have "Pat Grandjean Bifocal Day", when everybody would see things like you do.
But the hippie thing was too primitive -- a lot of people haven't recovered from that era because the crack in the sky was there, and what everybody saw could never be repeated. To go back to an ordinary Leave It To Beaver kind of world after that... I mean, everything was dull. It was just, sort of, Dick Van Dyke. It didn't matter any more. Reality could never be enough if you'd actually been exposed to the depths of that particular dream. And although in fact it showed a lot of people ways to improve thier lives -- in the ecology movement, and yoga, and tai chi, and acupuncture, and whole foods (and everything like that) -- those are still, kind of, humble ways of scrubbing through the dirt on all fours to achieve what was seen in a flash (and thought would be held in a flash). And that's why all the people from that era -- including me -- sound a bit like they were hit in the head with a baseball bat somewhere along the line.
Is there anything in particular that working with Paul Fox brought to the record?
We had a producer that was also doubling as an audience and a father. You always want your father to notice you when you're small -- and he did. He wasn't a saint or anything, but he was very reassuring. Normally, we have to be our own audience -- the last four records we produced ourselves. So there was someone to impress: "Did you like that, Paul?" (and all the rest of it). It just makes an awful lot of difference when someone comes over the intercom and says, "That was great."
The whole record was recorded at a higher energy level than usual. We were frightened this record would come out sounding very, kind of, lacquered and L.A.-Rock-'n'-Roll-radio stuff. But actually I think it sounds surprisingly natural. Paul didn't alter things. He'd just get a good performance out of us, and we'd, kind of, think about everything we did to some degree. Interestingly, on the new record at least half of the lead vocals are actually cut live with the band. I got to do instant performances. We may have messed around with it afterwards to repair the bass and equalize the drums (the bass was repaired quite a lot). But all the drum tracks -- and at least half the vocals and guitar -- are just live.
I think this was an immeasurable improvement on older records, where it's always just sounded like a bunch of people laying down a blueprint that could have been architects (or medical students, or something). It was pretty constipated in a way, as all records are. You know, we're pretty wooden, stiff, people. We're not funk-ass dudes, or anything. But live, we are a good Rock band. And it was all disappearing somewhere when we got in the studio. So by getting it to sound good in the cans, and by encouraging us, by chopping different takes up and making them run together, and also by using a click track (which we hadn't used before) Paul got some excitement into the backing tracks. And also, I think he probably stopped us overdubbing more than we needed. Or, if we did overdub, he got us to put it in the right place. I think Queen Elvis sounds a bit dense: it's like the overdubs really don't leave much room for each other.
I know you've said in the past that you'd like to hear Frank Sinatra do one of your songs. Or Tony Bennett. Is there a song on Perspex Island that would be good for one of them to do?
For an old crooner? No, I don't think so -- but that was partly why I wanted them to do it. I don't know who would sound good doing these songs. Probably nobody. I should think it would be interesting to hear Frank Sinatra singing "Brids In Perspex". I can imagine Bryan Ferry singing "Birds In Perspex". I don't even know who the great singers are, really.
It would be interesting to hear a woman singer do it. Say, Barbra Streisand....
Barbra Streisand or Nina Simone. Or Alison Moyet. I sometimes think it might be nice if all of my songs were sung by the Indigo Girls -- just all done in harmony. Sung by a couple of women who probably started out in college together -- they sound like they've been playing together for ages. Songs that were written by one man being sung by two women. I think that would be really interesting.
Well, now that the tribute album has become such an art form in itself, perhaps the opportunity will arise....
Only if I try and finance my own tribute album, and start putting up posters on campuses saying, "Female College Buddies! Why not record one of my songs? Here's $50 towards the session, and a set of strings." That would be pretty cheap. But it would be quite funny. I'd love to hear two girls singing "I'm the man with the lightbulb head" in harmony. I could imagine Elvis Costello singing "My Wife And My Dead Wife". I could imainge The Byrds (or someone) singing "Airscape". I wrote a song called "On The Arms Of Love" which I sang at Mountain Stage. I could've imagined Roger McGuinn singing that. I'd like to hear Paul Simon singing "I Often Dream Of Trains" (or maybe Stevie Nicks).
Before getting the tracks from Perspex Island I listened to Queen Elvis and Eye back-to-back, and it was interesting to note the differences between those two albums. Queen Elvis does have this very rich production and dense sound to it, while of course Eye is very spare. It's interesting to listen to one in light of the other, because they create very different impressions. As with other acoustic albums I've heard, Eye gets its power from your voice. Your voice carries the songs (as opposed to the arrangements carrying the songs).
Right. Well, it should do. You can go back to The Supremes. What people were listening to was Diana Ross. Or, Clarence "Frogman" Henry. Or Dion. the voice is out there as much as anything. The difference between those two records was that on Queen Elvis, the voice was overdubbed. With Eye I played the guitar and sang at the same time. So you got a more complete performance on Eye. The songs were really written at the same time as each other -- it was all written at once. Also, Eye was done immediately after Queen Elvis. We were still mixing Queen Elvis and doing the final overdubs when I started Eye in San Francisco.
One record always tends to be a reaction against the previous one. Queen Elvis was done by committee -- by Andy, Morris, and I. So, on Eye I didn't want to have to please anyone else but myself. The downside of that is that you have to make the decisions by yourself as well (which is much harder). The new album has been very much more of a team effort -- but deliberately so. If it's going to be a team effort, make it a complete team effort. If I want to do something by myself, I will. And I can. It's nice to be able to do both. The only thing is that on the new album, the vocals are much more in tune than they were on either Eye or Queen Elvis. Some of the singing on Eye is just -- pitching-wise -- not too good because I'd get a take, and if it seemed all right I'd leave it.
So you feel you made more compromises with Queen Elvis?
Yeah, because it was produced. I mean, it wasn't produced by a producer. But the more people you have to please, the more compromises you make (and the more technically perfect a record is). It was all right. It was fine. But it just wasn't as instant. And I wanted to get something instant, which Eye was. I just decided to book some studio time in San Francisco and see what happened. I was able to pay for it myself -- and not have a record company doing things. I wanted to get songs down as they were written. Some of those songs I'd never even sung through before: I literally had the piece of paper up, and I was just trying to figure out how they'd go. So they were very much not just first takes, but first compositions. You get more personality in a record like that, obviously.
But it depends what you're listening for. A lot of commercial Rock music has a fairly abstract function. It's there to do things to. To talk over if you're having a party, to drive (maybe even to work out) to. Or to have on in a restaurant. Or by clothes to. It's basically soundtrack stuff. So it can't stick out too much. It can't have too much personality, or everyone is going to stop and listen to it. Even R.E.M. -- people talk over R.E.M. now. That's popularity. It's also a kind of insult. So you make records like Eye for people either to ignore or listen to. You don't want to have that on as background music if you're talking: you don't need to hear me droning away slightly off-key. And there's no rhythm to it. So they have different functions.
Eye reminded me somewhat of I Often Dream Of Trains, even though it was a more percussive record.
Trains was recorded more cheaply, but Trains was more carefully worked out: I had a variety of parts which I played. Whereas Eye is more like just taking Andy and Morris out, but not trying to replace them. I didn't try to replace Andy and Morris with my own arrangements -- I just didn't want any arrangements at all. The point was to strip it right down. The good side of it was a lot of the songs were strong enough not to have arrangements or overdubs, whereas five or ten years ago they had to have all those extra voices (or something).
Trains is a much more elaborate piece of work than Eye, and will probably be more fondly remembered by the Alternative crowd. But then, that's partly because it came first. When Trains came out, no one knew if I really existed or not. People thought I might be just some sort of disembodied intelligence in a jar full of fluid (or something) -- like one of those brain-transplant movies. I was generally perceived as somebody who may not exist -- people thought I was Syd Barrett (or something). Since that time, I've definitely fallen to Earth. I'm seen as this, sort of, regular, on the Alternative circuit -- the Lou Reed of the postmodern age. My career is established; going up, down, and sideways (or whatever it does). I'm just another lizard on the racetrack. People, sort of, associate that record with their youth (and whatever mystique I might have had then).
Trains is a much cleverer record than Eye. Eye isn't a very clever record -- but it perhaps in places is more emotional. It's a bit more confrontational. Trains dealt with things I'd been thinking about for ten or twelve years. I was in a complete bubble when I wrote that. It could have been some, sort of, grasshopper, or dead fungus, writing that stuff. There was no motion -- it was very still. And I felt totally detached from the world when I did it. I really felt that there was me, and the rest of the world was a billion miles away. It's good to listen to, probably, when you're in that state. Eye, although it's, sort of, isolated in a way, is a much more damaged record. There was a lot more conflict at the time that record was made. The new record is that third part of that trilogy -- it's a lot more peaceful. Things appear to have been resolved. It's not an angry record at all.
Is it more hopeful?
Well, I think it is, yeah. I don't think it's as sick as a lot of them. It's a record that accepts its own humanity. (That sounds rather pretentious.) Just about everything had fallen out of the sky that was going to. I was left likely to be hit by any of the masonry that I'd blown up. I think some of it's still embedded in my skull -- but I get around.
"Linctus House" is a really sad song. I keep coming back to that line about not "believing that everything comes to nothing". That does seem like the hardest thing to accept.
Well, you can accept it before you start. In which case, why bother? Or it's like Zen (or the British sporting ethic): "Try as hard as you can, and don't worry if you fail." I could never understand that as a kid. Why make an effort if you're going to lose? So I only tried if I knew I could win. So I grew up very unbalanced. I could do some things well, and others not at all. Unfortunately, you need to be balanced or you're not going to be happy. You're not going to understand life. I think I was quoting -- whatever the dialogue in there is -- just quoting what a person had said. I don't even think it was a philosophical thought I'd had. I just thought, "Okay, you said that, and it actually has come to nothing. Do you realize that? 'cause I'm suffering, and I hope you are, baby."
I remember once you said that you'd never written a cynical song. And yet, on Queen Elvis, I do think of "Freeze" as a cynical song.
I think it's angry. It's not really cynical because if it was really cynical, it wouldn't care. I was cynical before I had anything to be cynical about. I grew up the same as you. After Hiroshima. After the Holocaust. There was a lot to be cynical about. We were the first generation that ever grew up with the capacity to destroy ourselves. The generation that when armageddon was finally in sight, no one believed in god. The generation that needs religion more desperately than anyone else, and has got no ground for it. It's pretty easy to be cynical. You think the world is a bad place, so you decide you're going to be badder than the world. Hence the appeal of The Velvet Underground. People like Lou Reed were the ultimate, "I'll get myself before you get me," attitude. It's like killing yourself to avoid getting hungry. I always had an element of that in what I did. Plus, a lot of cynicism is justified. We need to be able to be, because there's so much garbage around.
But I always believe what people say. I always believe what I read. And I instinctively believe what I hear. I can never believe people are lying.
How do you approach writing a song? Do you sit down and try to set a goal for yourself the way a novelist might?
No. I never think about that at all. I can't write stories because I can't write plots, because I can't devise character. A good novelist finds a situation, finds characters. But these things occur to me very fast, and then vanish. I create and destroy small worlds with intense speed. That's my gift. I'm not Graham Greene. Nor do I have that, sort of, crystalline insight into the human condition. Songs suit my purposes 'cause they're three or four minutes. The ideas come and they go. So you use the medium that your brain is suited to. I just sit there with a guitar, and once I'm conditioned, the stuff just comes out.
Is there a way that you condition yourself?
No. But I get very out-of-practice. Sometimes I don't write anything for six months. The act of living takes place instead. I must have written 30 songs for this LP, and only eleven of them are going on. There are some good songs there that just never took place. When you're out of condition, it's really difficult. Then you have to write someting which isn't very good. But it's no good getting mad at yourself and saying, "This isn't up there with my best stuff." You just have to carry on. And it's like any muscle: it's a brain muscle. Once it's going, this stuff starts whizzing out. Then you get on a roll, and you can go to four in the morning. You may not finish them, but you'll have a tune for one. Then you've got to wander around cafes and airports and trains (and all the rest of it) -- any place of inert beauty.
I don't think you can plan where you're going to do it. It's the privilege of the song to choose you, not the other way around. In some way, our souls choose our parents, perhaps. They choose their own time, that's for sure. They don't say, "I'm going to turn up between nine to five on a Monday to Friday." A song can turn up any time it wants to.
When you perform a song you've written five or ten years ago, does it ever seem alien to you? Like, "I can't key into whatever it was I was experiencing when I created this"?
No. I can remember exactly what I was feeling when I created it. But some of them seem a bit childish. Sometimes they're a bit hard to climb into -- like a suit of clothes where you have to find out how you put your hands through the sleeves and tie up the straps. It's almost like getting into a straitjacket, or something -- it makes sense after a while. I could sing an Everly Brothers song, or a Bryan Ferry song. There's all sorts of songs I sing to myself that I don't sing in public. And then I'll find one of my songs, and I'll think, "Jesus, did i write this?" 'cause it's hard to locate the emotion in the song.
My stuff is a lot more convoluted than many people's, because I've always been a student of the reverse: everything is the opposite of itself. Whatever you want, you don't want. Whatever you get, you don't get. Whatever you think, you don't think. You are your shadow. I can't really describe it -- except in terms of being perverse. I'm good at making something out of nothing, and nothing out of something. But there are emotions in it all the same. So I have to, kind of, find what emotions I had. Songs like "Airscape" -- and a lot of the stuff off of Element Of Light -- and "Glass" off Fegmania!, a few of the songs off Trains I think are really good, and I'm sorry more people haven't heard them. I hope eventually they become known over the next 300 or 400 years and find their place in Earth culture.
Some of the stuff just strikes me as what critics say about me -- kind of self-conscious smoke. I don't like it -- it's, sort of, surrogate Psychedelia. There's a lot of that on Globe Of Frogs. It doesn't move me at all. It was basically, kind of, "Rent-a-Hitchcock" -- kind of, going through our paces to show the public what we could do. And to prove that we could be on a major label and not change. So really, you just got the same stuff served up in slightly different combinations. "Balloon Man" was a good radio song, so the record did well. But it wasn't even representative of what was on the record. "A Globe Of Frogs" itself I thought was a great song -- that's a good Rock song because it's not designed as a Rock song. Leading a Rock band through all that torturous stuff is really good fun.
So in a way, I suppose some of the songs do become alien. Some of them I'd be quite happy to not sing again. A few of them, I think, have surprising insight. In other words, there's two completely opposite answers to your question: One is yes, I think they're childish; two, no, I'm surprised that they seem to have an insight into the future that I didn't think I had at that stage. But the scary thing is sometimes I just think they're messages from my unconscious to me about what's going to happen in the future. And that actually they're telling me what's going to happen -- like dreams. I think it's the same part of the brain that dreams as writes songs. To me, they fulfill the same function -- if you don't dream, you go crazy. If I didn't write songs, I'd go nuts.