A conversation with Robyn Hitchcock can at times feel a lot his lyrics; just when things seem grounded, the skies open up and we’re off in the clouds for a whimsical journey. A very affable fellow, there’s great humor spiced through his words, often moving quickly between the visceral and surreal. Following a conversation this past month in San Francisco, we caught up with Hitchcock to chat about his career, living in Nashville, and his excellent new self-titled album.
Aquarium Drunkard: At the show last month you mentioned how happy you are with the new record. What aspects pleased you with this one?
Robyn Hitchcock: Just everything worked at once. It was just a series of really good coincidences. I got a very good crop of songs. Brendan Benson, we’d been talking for a year or two about doing something. It turned out something meant producing a record.
AD: What all did he bring to the table as far as his production?
Robyn Hitchcock: He brought a few things. He brought, or helped bring, some of the musicians that I recorded with. The bass is Jon Estes and the drummer Jon Radford. And his studio. It was quite a collaborative venture. He’d look at the songs and make suggestions, sometimes for the structure. He’d suggest chord changes which I then wouldn’t use…you know, he’s another musician and songwriter. He’s my partner so he kind of stood up to me. Especially as you get older you can kind of call all the shots, and if you do that you never really surprise yourself. But I wasn’t passive either, I wasn’t the passenger. It wasn’t like ‘okay Brendan, bend me and shape me any way you want’. It was much more. Me and the guys would sort of work out moving parts, and the structure. The structures are pretty much mine, but a lot of the sort of mechanics of it were worked out. In regards to bass and drums, it was all looked at. It wasn’t like, ‘okay Robyn’s got the chords, we’ll just back along.’ Which is how it sometimes goes, because I like getting new musicians when they’re fresh and haven’t too much time to live with the song. But these people lived with the songs almost instantly. They’re really kind of tuned up. The record sounds like we’ve been playing together for years, but actually a lot of the players had only just heard the songs that evening.
I think there’s no filler on this record. And that’s another thing — as you get older you write songs that are quite good, but not necessarily brilliant. Everything evens out, you produce work of a certain quality. But that doesn’t make it exciting, it just makes it well made. Listening to well crafted music is fine, but there’s 5,000 well crafted albums sitting on shelves in limbo waiting to earn their sad old authors not very much. Records that have been reviewed with words like “craftsman like” and “diligent” and “conscientious”. It doesn’t actually move anybody much, it’s just like, ‘Oh this is well done.’ So, I don’t know, I’ve sort of done a lot of pretty good songs. But pretty good songs are not the same as great ones. And the great song might also be terrible in a way, but they’re in your head.
AD: Do you find that you draw from new or different influences that help your stay writing stay relevant?
Robyn Hitchcock: I wish I did. I’m still really influenced by the people I listened to as a teenager in the 1960s. Post 1970, who did I listen to. Bowie, Bryan Ferry, Morrissey. You know, the Great British Narcissists. Which I am a minor member of that club. But that’s what we do, I think. And I think my songs and my persona are sort of familiarly driven, you have to sort of buy into my shtick. I’m not just a craftsman, like you would get the latest slice of Morrissey, or you would get the latest slice of Bryan Ferry. They’re very different, but the attitude sort of comes off in many ways really. It came off Bowie, and probably the same applies to me. I don’t know whether I listen to a lot now. There’s people I listen to that I like, Jason Isbell and sort of old characters, well they’re not old, people like Neko Case. They’re like colleagues really. Neko Case, or Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings. They’re friends, colleagues, that I enjoy listen to.
AD: And who you’ve also worked with on several occasions. How about living in Nashville? Has that influenced your writing at all?
Robyn Hitchcock: Not my writing, no. The twangy song on the record, “I Pray When I’m Drunk” – I actually wrote that in Norway. I’ve done faux country stuff, “Sleeping Knights of Jesus” on I Often Dream of Trains. I wrote a country song back in 1976 called “I Like Country Music Best Of All” which would have probably been a hit if I’d kept it. Take it to hitsville, you know.
AD: Any chance of recording that one?
Robyn Hitchcock: There’s probably a cassette somewhere. I know that the twangies in Cambridge, in England used to like that one. I used to sing it at this club that was very bluegrass driven. The thing about Nashville is it’s more social. Like, I’m sitting in a cafe here with my partner Emma and then another Australian colleague of hers just appeared in the corner. There’s only about eight of us here. I go to the coffee shop that Gillian Welch took me twelve years ago, and she still goes in there sometimes. There’s a lot of musicians around. The only country-ish thing I used was the pedal steel on my record for a couple of songs just to give the record some concept. Either way, this is coming from Nashville, Tennessee. I wouldn’t do like Bob Dylan or Elvis Costello and do a totally twangy record. I’m too old, really. But the pedal steels grow on trees here, so I’m guessing there might be some on my next record. A little bit of electric sitar and pedal steel, it’s not too hard to do.
AD: Yeah, “1970 in Aspic” almost sounds like a tribute to the 1970 output of The Grateful Dead. It has that Working Man’s Dead / American Beauty kind of vibe to it with your twist.
Robyn Hitchcock: I never thought of that, but you’re right. Maybe that’s what it was all about.
AD: It sounds like the environment, just with being around songwriters and musicians in itself can be an influence and can get the creative juices flowing.
Robyn Hitchcock: Probably. I’m quite insular in that way, and a lot of people I know co-write. They come to Nashville to be put in a hutch with other writers and see what comes out. Nick Lowe has just been over here doing that, and that girl Ruby Boots has a massive number of co-writers. I don’t know if they’re any better than the one she writes on her own. Some people are natural collaborators. I don’t take as much advantage of it as I could because I don’t feel like my songwriting meshes with other people’s that much.
AD: It seems like your strengths are in working with other musicians as opposed to different songwriters as your own songwriting is so unique. But, you’ve worked with so many other great musicians…
Robyn Hitchcock: I think I’ve rather got my own language as a songwriter. But I couldn’t tell you what it is. When you try mix it with other people’s it starts to massively not gel. Although I can put music to other people’s words and I can put words to other people’s music. That’s not a problem. I’d be very happy if people gave me more of that, but I mean people think of me as a words guy I suppose. But actually to me, melodies are more important these days. I’ve got a few melodies floating around with no lyrics in fact.
AD: I’ve always felt that you were underrated as a guitarist – both acoustic and electric, because you’re so expressive with what your guitar playing adds to the songs. It’s the kind of thing that other songwriters I think tend to appreciate, that you play so well for your songs, the melodic element that brings to it. Another thing I noticed with the new record, and I’m wondering if Brendan Benson’s influence was apparent with this, is the guitar sounds are a bit heavier than you’ve used in the past. Was that his influence?
Robyn Hitchcock: Yes, I’m sure. He has an arsenal of amps and guitars, and he’d say, ‘What you need for this one is…’ So there’s one song I think they played with, what’s the guitar that Jimmy Page played, a Les Paul?
There’s one song where I’m playing, I think “Mad Shelley’s Letterbox”, I’m playing a (Gibson) Les Paul. I’m totally not (a Gibson player), I’m a Fender guy. Yeah, I don’t know. He’s got like three Telecasters. I don’t think I played any of my own instruments are on the record at all. The only thing I did do, I asked Brendan to make sure I played all the leads.
So I didn’t cop out. Annie McCue plays a lot of patterns, but I don’t think she plays much lead. That’s all me, the solo things, like the stuff on “Virginia Woolf” and “Time Coast”. There’s some stuff which is great, Annie and me, I’m on the left hand speaker and she’s on the right hand one.
AD: Okay, good to know.
He was very good at that. A lot of people have said actually how much they like the guitar sound. He really took trouble over that – probably the best electric guitar sound I’ve had since maybe Pat Collier during the Soft Boys. I’m very lucky, I think having Brendan and the songs, and the musicians. And also probably leaving Britain and finally coming to rest in Nashville after being all over the place for 18 months or so. God, I left London in 2013, and then I was kind of lurching between Australia and the United States, and touring Europe. I think the songs were all written when I wasn’t really living anywhere. They were all written off the British mainland. Some in Nashville, some in Sydney, at least one in Norway. It’s a very ex-patriot record.
Robyn Hitchcock: Ira Kaplan played Black Snake Diamond Rî¶le and he gave it the write up in New York Rocker way back in 1982. He had already got Yo La Tengo going. Ira and Georgia both actually saw the Soft Boys on their first New York in 1980, before they even knew each other. They were at the same show. Ira was part of that cognoscenti, people like Peter Holsapple who wrote us up. About a year after he wrote this article, saying ‘Hey the Soft Boys, Robyn Hitchcock are worth listening to.’ I had no Internet, so it took me a year for this press packet to reach me, and then I met Ira. He was the sound man at Maxwells in Hoboken in the late 80s. So I knew he was a fan of Black Snake Diamond Rî¶le, and I just thought — this is my 21st album or something like that — that it’d be really nice to celebrate by playing my very first record. Which was probably the one I was the most excited about because it was the first time I’d ever done it. There was an LP with Robert Hitchcock on it, I wore a hat and a cloak and a pear. Back in 1981, Prince Charles was marrying Diana or whatever was happening. The first British riots, it was all going to hell in the 1980s.
AD: And there you are releasing a song called “Acid Bird” which is an absolute classic.
Robyn Hitchcock: I had, as usual, absolutely nothing to do with what was going on at the time. Some people like me for it and some people rubbish me. I go, ‘I think these songs are pretty good.’ I’ve made records with weaker songs. It’s not as strong as Underwater Moonlight, but that was an exceptionally good collection of songs. But it’s pretty good and it’s got a lot of character. If I may review my own work. And Yo La Tengo, we’re doing it in New York and the show sold out instantly, so we’re doing it in Los Angeles and we’ll see what happens. The first half of the show is the record in the correct running order, and the second half is them curating a selection of obscure songs of mine and us playing them.
AD: One thing I’ve always enjoyed about your shows, and I’ve seen you at least 20 times over the years — the shows are so entertaining that they keep coming back. I know people that have seen you over 100 times.
Robyn Hitchcock: Makes me sound like the Grateful Dead.
AD: Well, there is a bit of an element in that with what you’re doing. It seems like you encourage people to request songs, for one thing. People feel they’re a part of the show. You’re usually very accommodating with that. Are there any songs from your past that people request often that you just would like to lay to rest and never play again?
Robyn Hitchcock: Yes, probably some of the best known ones and a few that I just I can’t really connect with anymore. There’s a few songs that just sound a bit silly to me. I think my kind of wide eyed adult little boy stuff. I mean, I’m sure largely from having absorbed incredibly powerful doses of Syd Barrett at point blank rage may have skewed it a bit. I think what I absorbed from Syd Barrett has been really vital in helping me become whatever I am. Even if all I am is an amalgam of influences, at least they’re influences that are mine. But I think there’s a few of those manic bits I’m not so keen on. I’m always happy to not play “Balloon Man” or not play “My Wife and My Dead Wife”, or not play – well I don’t usually play “I Want To Destroy You” anyways. But I mean that’s just sort of stuff that I’m well known for, my best known compositions. I’m always happy to not play them.
AD: One pattern I’ve definitely noticed over the years is that a lot of I Often Dream of Trains get played often. Would you say that’s one as a whole that has held up well for you over the years?
Robyn Hitchcock: I did play the album, we actually went on tour. I had Terry Edwards and Tim Keegan and we had a keyboard and an electric guitar and a couple of acoustics. Terry had sopranino sax, so we kind of facsimiled the record which I thought was quite fun.
AD: Yeah, that’s great.
Robyn Hitchcock: I’m not sure the songs on it are that great, but again it just has a lot of character. Especially over here, people just think it’s so British. Eating stale cheese and tomato sandwiches on a wet Sunday afternoon at a railway station. I know in a way how important that is, even if it just seems like nothing. It’s the importance of nothing, the poignancy of zilch, the heartbeat of zero, the apotheosis of nonentity. It’s like Britain Indians, it’s Sunday, everything’s shut. Or it’s closing early, or it’s open and they’ve run out of what you want. Sorry love, we’re closed. Sorry, the chips and tomatos are – I can give you spam if you want. It makes me think of Monty Python as well, and I know that I’m people who like meat and to like pythons because I do. But it’s my heritage, it’s where I came from, even though I live in Nashville. In a way I’m too British to live in Britain. I’m a little raincloud, I’m just a damp piece of my dismalia. And Britain is dismalia, and it’s kind of too much for me really. I like being surrounded by American optimism, even if it’s brittle it can be erotic. People are lonely inside, instead of feeling sorry.
AD: It’s tough to be optimistic in America in this point in time with our political regime.
Robyn Hitchcock: Well, whatever it was. The environment is disintegrating and we’re going to be replaced by artificial intelligence. It’s tough to be optimistic anywhere. Britain has a similar plight in the form of Theresa May and the conservatives, but what’s great is seeing the opposition, and how Labour actually might get in. How a socialist agenda might be elected because people are so fucking sick of what happens with 35 years of Thatcherism and Reaganism and Blairism. Oh you’ve got to appease the market, and oh well Socialism doesn’t work, and oh the Iron Curtain came down. What does it lead to? Donald Trump, who in a way is this nightmarish extension of the American Dream. Which is all you have to do is have as much as money as you possibly can and the world is yours. People are looking at that and thinking, ‘Fuck no I don’t want that.’ Even the Pope doesn’t want it. It’s making us realize that Socialism actually wasn’t such a bad idea. But it also makes self-involved hippies like me suddenly get terribly radical in our sixties. I mean, yes I read everything and I follow Billy Bragg and I retweet him. Well, I’ve always admired Bill. But, god no. Here we are. I just mean personalities and characters. Americans have a feeling that it might not be done, you might be able to do it. In Britain it’s, ‘it’s not gonna happen mate, you’re wasting your time.’
Robyn Hitchcock: I feel very put in my place when I’m in Britain. Like, ‘Oh yeah, we know about you, alright.’ Over here, I feel like yeah, okay that’s great! Maybe I can do it, maybe people want to come the shows, maybe I can make a record. words / d see
Related / Recommended: Acid Bird :: A Robyn Hitchcock Companion — The First 20 Years