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Music Interview

As Far as I Can Tell

Talking with Robyn Hitchcock

By

Robyn Hitchcock
Robyn Hitchcock
courtesy of the artist
I was so dang happy about the results of this year’s Best of Burque Music Readers poll, so in tune with many of the results—and by the way, please do attend our BoB Music Showcase happening this Saturday night, March 30 in downtown Burque—that I thought I’d dispense with the annual editor’s ramble and instead offer a heartfelt piece of rock journalism about one of my favorite musicians, Robyn Hitchcock.

This charming surrealist rocker and harbinger of universal doom happens to be giving a solo acoustic recital—he’ll play the piano too, if there’s one in the house, he told me to say—on Sunday night, March 31 at SITE Santa Fe (1606 Paseo de Peralta) at 7:30pm.

And as happens in an increasingly surrealistic world, last week I went from thinking about interviewing Mr. Hitchcock to sitting down to listen and converse with a man who has deeply—perhaps even subconsciously—affected popular music with his musical depictions of an amazing world not unlike our own.

I felt like that sort of engagement beat the heck outta telling you which bands I like. For me, it might as well be all Hitchcock, all of the time; it was great to chat with someone who is just as discursive as me. Follow on and you may concur that this is one of the best interviews evah.

The Shape of Psych

After a dutiful amount of research, I’ve determined that psychedelic music originated in at least two separate geographical locations on Earth in the last part of the 20th century in the late 1960s. The brightly colored, surf-damaged stuff came right out of California, to be sure, soaked in sunshine and sounding like an acid trip felt.

“I also remember that there were very few cellphones but lots of ashtrays.”

The British side of that flat world is different. It’s rainy a lot of the time so instead of exploring the world around them, auteurs of this range of genre looked to deep interiors for meaning. Although such island-dwelling magicians sometimes drew whimsy from their bags it’s of a wholly different order than the folky ramblings of their American cousins—arch to the point of acuteness—pointing to the mystery of the darkness all around. There’s also the matter of sex and death, mixed together melodiously, lyrically by practitioners of this arcane art.

Of course one could argue that both of these paths through the rocanrol jungle were made possible and are still—to this day, amigos—under the aegis of that man in the snake suit, Nobel Prize Laureate Bob Dylan.

Hitchcock by Hitchcock

Long story short (well, sort of) I rang up Robyn last Friday. We met amongst the wires and satellite transmissions floating around and through the Earth, to talk about music and art and so much more.

[sounds of fingers walking, of numbers dialing, of the phone buzzing]

Robyn Hitchcock: Hello, is this Rudy?

Weekly Alibi: Hello! It is Rudy. How are you?

I’m fine, thanks. How are you doing?

I’m doing pretty good. Excited to talk to you, if you have a few minutes.

Yes, I’m just putting myself, umm, in a position of strength [indistinct shuffling and mumbling] Oops, boy, oh boy. Wow, I almost fell over. There’s a difference between actually falling over and nearly falling over.

There is a very small difference there, I’m told.

Especially if you almost fell through a window, which I could have done. That’s okay, it’s always second by second. Where are you?

I’m sitting in my office in Albuquerque. Where are you?

I’m sitting outside a coffee shop in east Nashville, Tennessee.

Are you living in Nashville, now?

Yes, I’m based in Nashville, have been for a few years.

What’s that like?

It’s great, I mean it’s a musician’s roost. We take off and land from here. I enjoy that. I’ve never lived in a city that identifies as a music city before.

What sort of work are you doing now? Are you taking in the Southern air and visiting all the graveyards out there?

[Robyn laughs] No. I haven’t been to a single graveyard here. I spend most of my time at the airport. Occasionally, I have a week or so at home. I’m having an interval now between Sydney, Australia and Salt Lake City. I made an album here, and I just made a single which was recorded here by a choice group of my East Nashville music friends. It’s only available through my website. It’s a 45, on vinyl. You can pick that up now, but I think we’re going to have to do another pressing. This one’s sold rather a lot. It’s very artisanal. It’s like homemade cockles or something.

How does that relate to your work overall? Are you still working on the same themes and ideas that permeate your work?

Oh ... What my ideas are? They are what my ideas always were. It’s all about where I live, how I see things in visual terms. They are like pictures to listen to, that’s the best way to describe my work. Or rather, they are sounds that you can see. I think of my work as visual, really.

There’s a term for that.

Yeah, synesthesia.

So is this the work of someone who experiences synesthesia or are you more generally a surrealist?

Well, people consider me a surrealist. People think I’m funny or I’m morbid. I guess that’s just the way life is. People are all mirrors in a way; they’re all reflecting each other the whole time. And then that’s often why things get so ugly. I’m simply giving back to the world what the world gives to me, like any child.

You’ve been making making music for about 40 years ...

And how! I’ve probably been making music for 45 years now. I started recording my first demos in 1974. The first album came out in 1977, so yeah I’ve been out there, playing the guitar.

I know you did a lot of work with The Soft Boys, a seminal neo-psych band, but things took quite a turn though when you went solo. What stands out to you in that formative part of your career?

The 1980s really stand out. What stands out is the weird haircuts we all had to have back then. And trousers that were kind of baggy at the top and tight around the ankles. In the ’80s people had baggy trousers and hair, you know, that was short where it used to be long and long where it used to be short. You always seem to squander your youth on weird hairstyles. That’s what I remember really.

[Weekly Alibi laughs]

I also remember that there were very few cellphones but lots of ashtrays.

That’s an apt metaphor for something. Now I can’t seem to find an ashtray anywhere. And smoking has become a poisonous sin.

Well, I mean it is, to be fair. Now, tobacco and marijuana have more or less changed places.

Cigarettes are a demon and everyone wants to get high.

Right, and I’m not sure how wise that is. Tobacco is bad but marijuana, it can be a form of insanity.

There was a recent article in a British medical journal that reckoned chronic marijuana use can lead to psychosis. Any thoughts on that?

Yes, totally. It totally causes psychosis. I know people that hung themselves because they smoked too much weed. Things have swung form pot being totally demonized to it being over-welcome. It’s so much stronger than when I was a kid.

There is no comparison between what was available to me as an adolescent and what’s around now.

No, although medicinal marijuana, CBD oil is very good for me. The situation is very complex. There are as many strains of marijuana now as there are types of liquor. You can also be allergic to marijuana, just as some are allergic to alcohol. I’ve met people who can’t deal with either, really. There are allergies everywhere. [Laughs]. Luckily I don’t know anything about them.

Do you feel like that sort of thing has influenced your work? Or are you someone who has stayed away from psychotropic substances during their career?

I’ve been very, very wary of psychotropic substances. But you know my heroes took them all for me. So people like Captain Beefheart and John Lennon, Syd Barrett and then Jimi Hendrix—all those people took psychcotropic drugs, so I was probably influenced by those drugs through them, than by the drugs directly, through myself. Because I see what that did to them, I’ve been very cautious.

You do tend to wear you influences in plain sight.

Yeah. Yeah, I’m in love with them. I mean, I don’t know how much I am now, but certainly was when I was younger. You know, all those people painted as well. I mean, I paint and draw, but music is my mode of expression. I’m like a visual artist that you listen to.

Is your work as a visual artist becoming more important as we speak, as we age?

I’m not that good. I’m a much better song writer. But I enjoy painting, probably because it’s not what I do professionally. I mean I’m pretty good at what I do; I’m getting better at playing the piano. I hope they have a piano at the venue in Santa Fe. By the way, I hear it’s changed venue. It was going to be at one place, now it’s going to be somewhere else. The gig, I’m doing, you know.

Now it’s at SITE Santa Fe. I recall the piano playing on your album I Often Dream of Trains. Is that you hitting the keys?

Yeah, I did and I think I will play some of those songs live.

Well, that’s super-decent playing on those tracks. Lots of counterpoint, not at all easy to play. There’s some emotional tonalism in your playing too...

Oh. [pause] You’re too kind.

Well while we were talking, I heard a train whistle in the background and thought of the album. There’s a lot of railroad imagery in you work. Discuss.

[Robyn Laughs] I like trains. We call them streetcars and trolleys. In Britain they call them trams. The two places I’ve lived in the United States—I used to live in Georgetown in DC years ago and of course now I live here in Nashville—both places have abandoned tram rails, trolley tracks in the road. They seem to be following me around. The ones here are actually coming up through the road. This rail system was abandoned in 1941 in Nashville, but the rails are still there, and they are coming up through the pavement.

Besides trains following you around ...

It’s the rails. The rails are following me around ...

Sorry. What else is interesting or exciting to you here in the middle of the 21st century? What are you listening to?

Oh wow! I like the new Sharon Van Etten records. That sounds really good. Then you know, the old favorites like Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. Anything else is bollocks. Then there’s [Roy] Godfrey Phillips. And a Norwegian band called I Was A King, who are produced by Norman Blake from Teenage Fanclub.

You two did a single together a couple of years ago, right?

Yeah, Norman and I produced a record in 2016 with Emma Swift with two A sides, “Love Is a Drag” and “Life Is Change.” It’s a limited edition. If you like music like that, it’s a combination of the best.

There’s a certain beauty to what you do; it’s very unflinching. You talk about subjects that others reduce to sentimental anecdotes. It can be intense and unnerving.

I guess you have to be in the mood for it. I don’t know. It’s simply how I react to things. People have very different impressions of me. It’s like you have to be a certain blood group to be into me.

And the music of today, are you into that?

In some ways, pop music is really different [than other genres]. Pop music is there to make young people feel young and make old people feel old. What’s on the pop charts now is as different from when I was young as, say, Glenn Miller is from Jimi Hendrix. Some of the commercial music, pop music, R&B, is manufactured. It’s put together in a way that I don’t understand at all. But there’s no reason I should. I’m 66. I was listening to The Beatles when I was 14. I wouldn’t have expected my grandparents to understand what The Beatles were doing. Rock and roll now is for old folks. It’s by old folks. A lot of them are 10 years older than me. Look at McCartney and The Rolling Stones. They keep going. I’m a rock and roll musician in as much as I’m old. But I mostly play acoustic guitar these days. I got very quiet. The show in Santa Fe is going to be all acoustic. Nobody danced to my effing music when I had a band.

That’s odd. My wife dances to that last song on Globe of Frogs, “Flesh Number One (Beatle Dennis),” all the time.

Does she? How sweet!

So I guess it does require a certain aesthetic to get you.

Some people like it.

Why should people listen to your work?

I don’t think people should listen to me. They can listen if they want. I’d be the last person to say they should listen to Robyn Hitchcock. There’re millions of people to listen to. I’m just one of many alternative paths. My aesthetic is old-fashioned. I’m based on what I heard 50 years ago. And I’m still making that style of music. If you like The White Album, if you dig Dylan’s basement tapes, you might like what I do. It’s that style of music. I think that whatever the Beatles and Dylan were doing to approach music, that has always been my aesthetic. That applies to everything from The Soft Boys in 1979 right up until now, my most recent single. I think I’m pretty consistent in that way.

If someone came here from the future ...

Oh yeah!

And they asked you what Robyn Hitchcock was, what would you tell them?

Robyn Hitchcock is a kind of code for an individual who listened to pop music when it turned into rock music, between 1965 and 1969, and made a distillate of all of that. Robyn Hitchcock is essentially somebody else’s record collection.

Robyn Hitchcock and The Egyptians: “Flesh Number One (Beatle Dennis)”

AMP Concerts presents Robyn Hitchcock
Sunday, March 31 • SITE Santa Fe • 1606 Paseo de Peralta
7:30pm • $37 in advance, $43 day of show • All-ages

 
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