Robyn Hitchcock :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

“My life is too long and fractured now for me to attempt a memoir,” Robyn Hitchcock recently wrote. “My songs are my true autobiography—it’s all in there, if you know where to look.”

If that’s the case, the latest chapter in Hitchcock’s story is the brand-new SHUFFLEMANIA!, the songwriter’s first full-length LP since 2017. Released on his own Tiny Ghost Records label, it’s a star-studded affair, with guest appearances from Emma Swift, Kimberley Rew, Johnny Marr, Brendan Benson, Pat Sansone, Eric Slick, Sean Ono Lennon, Morris Windsor and more, all adding their skills to a very strong collection of new Hitchcock tunes. He’s 45 years removed from his first offerings as a Soft Boy, but Robyn remains an unusually perceptive writer, bringing a skewed-but-still-resonant perspective to everything he does. He’s one of the best we’ve got, and the new album sees him in fine form. 

To get the scoop on SHUFFLEMANIA!, Aquarium Drunkard connected with Hitchcock via Zoom in London, right around the time that Queen Elizabeth II shuffled off her mortal coil … | t wilcox

Aquarium Drunkard: You’re in England right now?

Robyn Hitchcock: Physically, yes. 

AD: It’s a strange time to be in England, I assume. Or is it always strange?

Robyn Hitchcock: Every moment is charged with its own peculiarities. You mean because the Queen has died? 

AD: Yeah—you’ve got a few songs about the Queen.  

Robyn Hitchcock: She crops up. I suppose the main thing about the Queen dying is that she’s always been there with, I don’t know, Paul McCartney and Cliff Richard and people who’ve just always been there. You can’t imagine them going. But I mean, her mother made it to 100. Those Royals all lasted an unnaturally long time. So, when they do go, it’s an axe blow to the roots of the tree. It’s like, “Oh my God! Oh, the fabric of the forest is collapsing! The old Queen is gone.” So, whatever you think of the monarchy, or you thought of the queen, or think of the world, it really kind of marks the time. Whatever the end of any era means, that’s what it means. 

AD: On your Patreon today, you were talking about how your life is too long and fractured now to attempt a memoir, and that your songs are your true autobiography. “It’s all in there if you know where to look.” 

Robyn Hitchcock: I have been alive a long time. I think Bob Dylan said he’d outlived himself, and I’ve definitely outlived myself. I don’t know, Bob Dylan’s probably outlived me. I realize now that there are so many chunks of life that I can still access in my memory and that there are probably so many more songs than there are chunks of life. Most of those chunks of life are a response to, or an echo, of what I was feeling at the time I wrote them, and they’re the closest thing I have to bottled moments. The whole thing basically is about trying to salvage fragments of your existence to pass on to others. Sort of curating your life and going, “Okay, well here’s the little bits that I’ve gathered together, now you guys deal with it.” 

Of course, most people aren’t gonna have room or interest or time to deal with any of it. I’ve been lucky in that at least three or four hundred of my songs have actually been released and are now out there for those who want to collect them. I’m lucky enough to have been able to salvage all these moments and put them out there. I always liken them to fireflies in a jar. Particular songs like “Glass Hotel” — I always feel that that kind of bottles how I felt at the time. I don’t know if I feel quite the same way when I sing it now, but I feel like I’ve salvaged that piece of time. Like I’ve redeemed it. It isn’t just going into the dumpster of history to be recycled, it’s going on. It might last another 25 years after I do. Who knows? That’s one of the things about recording songs and then also singing them over and over again. 

AD: It seems like kind of a unique relationship to have with your past. Going on stage in 2022 and playing a song that you wrote in 1982, is that a healthy thing to do? To connect with yourself in the past in that way?

Robyn Hitchcock: Strangely, a lot of songs that I still sing from years ago were wiser than I was. They know more than I did. So, if I sing “Only the Stones Remain” or something, I’ve lived another 42 years. All my experience has proved that it was right. All my songs were on the money in that way. A lot of them resonate more because they remind me of the intervening 42 years between writing it and singing it today, so actually I’m salvaging great chunks of my existence from multiple purposes. 

I’ve always been very preoccupied with time and mortality, and the fact that our existence is finite. The sentence of death has been passed on all of us, but we don’t know when it’ll be carried out. Each year you live through the day on which you’re gonna die, but you don’t know it. And that’s one of the great, merciful oblivions of existence. 

AD: That seems like it ties in with the new record’s “Feathery Serpent God” — tell me about how that song came about. 

Robyn Hitchcock: I went to Tulum in Mexico, Christmas 2019 with Emma and some friends. It’s a very pleasant seaside resort in Mexico. Just the kind of place that is great to be at Christmas if you’re from the northern hemisphere. In Tulum, or to one side of Tulum, there is a prehistoric fortification: a palace that was built specifically for Kukulkan, AKA Quetzalcoatl. The buildings were still in quite good shape. The doors were all quite small. Everybody must have been 5 foot tall. Very petite. I’m sure lots of horrific things were done in Kukulkan’s name. And lots of horrific things were done in Queen Elizabeth’s name too. But [Kukulkan] seemed, above all, to be a kind of a powerful symbol of regeneration. 

I had been plodding along. I hadn’t really finished any songs for a long time. I’d been working on a collection of piano songs, which I’m actually still working on. And then about three weeks later, I was in a hotel in Florida, and suddenly, boom. I was just sitting there and suddenly I had written down all these lyrics. I picked up the guitar. I sang “The Feathery Serpent God” into a tape machine that I had. Suddenly, I was at the stage of just adjusting the lyrics to work, to sing them. Songs very seldom come out completely formed. But if you’re lucky, you get the basic thing and then you just have to substitute one word for another because it seems better or makes more sense.

But there it was. It just came out perfectly formed like a fossil from a cracked rock, or a little dragon from an egg. Then I got more of them. They started kind of appearing on planes and quiet moments or unquiet moments. And so, by the time we were locked down a couple of months later, I’d already kind of reactivated, right? And I just wrote the rest of the songs in Nashville. The whole album was written in 2020. 

In some way, Kukulkan or Quetzalcoatl affected my unconscious. It sounds pretentious and insane to say that my muse was rekindled by a Mexican God, but it certainly feels like that’s what happened. And I’m still writing. I’ve been on a jag for the last two and a half years. I’ve really got masses. It’s like getting a massage or going to a chiropractor. Some kink in your back is rectified, and the flow comes.

AD: Have you had times in your career where you were suffering from writer’s block? Where you’re like, “Can I do this anymore?” 

Robyn Hitchcock: I like to be writing songs all the time, so I’ll fill up a notebook, but [sometimes] there’s nothing in it that’s any good. Friends who are songwriters say, “Oh, I’ve written some songs, but they’re not real songs,” and I kind of understand what they mean there. You could write a counterfeit song, but it doesn’t really have any spine. There’s nothing about it that makes you want to sing it again. Once you’re accomplished enough as a songwriter, it’s very easy to write a fake song. Sometimes that’s a good exercise, and I’ve found myself doing that occasionally. 

AD: Do you write while you’re touring?

Robyn Hitchcock: I do, but I think I was touring so much that I was a bit too fragmented to finish anything. I write a journal on the road. My time isn’t devoid of creativity, [and] I certainly started writing this record while I was still on the road. I was two or three songs in before we all kind of fell out of the air and were on the ground because of the pandemic. Of course, that also gave me the time to record it because I was at home, and I couldn’t go anywhere. 

Emma was almost finished with her record Blonde on the Tracks. And she had gotten sidetracked, didn’t know whether she wanted to do it anymore. Then suddenly, we were at home, and so she decided straight away to start streaming — “Live From Sweet Home Quarantine” which then became “Live From Tubby’s House.” We still do that whenever we can, we try to do four a month. And then she decided to finish Blonde on the Tracks. 

AD: Well, Dylan gave her one more song, right?

Robyn Hitchcock: Yeah, “I Contain Multitudes.” Within about a day of hearing it, she decided she wanted to do it, and I learned the chords. We had a little Zoom machine that I hadn’t figured out how to overdub on it, so we couldn’t drop in. We did like 27 takes of that; 19 takes of “Simple Twist of Fate,” but we got them and then they went off to [Wilco multi-instrumentalist] Pat Sansone to get overdubbed. Because that worked and then because her record did well — she was selling shed loads of it — she said, “Well, why don’t you do one if you’re writing songs again?” And I thought, “Oh, alright.” 

I learned how to operate the machine, and I was also painting a lot. Because I was painting, I had something else to focus on. As I have lots of other things to do, I always feel a bit guilty sneaking off and writing a song… “I hope nobody’s looking. I hope nobody’s working.” It’s very still, very much a guilty pleasure. There’s always something else I should be doing rather than write new songs. I think when I find myself in a hotel room or something then I really get the luxury of that. I wake up in the hotel room, and I don’t have to play till the evening. I’ve got all day. 

AD: So, tell me a bit about the overall concept for the album, starting off with “The Shuffle, Man.” Who is the Shuffle Man? What does he want? Is he the Feathery Serpent God? 

Robyn Hitchcock: Yes, I think he probably is like the Feathery Serpent God. I think they’re all characters that are kind of coming to the surface. They’re all motivating forces, if you like. The Shuffle Man is what I describe as the imp of change. I pictured the Shuffle Man as being quite thin with a top hat, maybe a tailcoat, and kind of long, rubbery feet — almost a cartoon character. He’s shuffling the cards and then throwing the cards up in the air and where they come down is the pattern that you have to make sense of. The Shuffle Man feeds you random information, and out of that random information you have to create a pattern, which is something humans are very good at doing. 

It’s the beautification of chaos. It’s looking at the clouds; or looking at the intestines of an animal; or the tea leaves; or the way the cards fall; or the dice roll, and going “Yeah, this is what’s happening.” Of course, you could say that that’s what an algorithm is, but I think an algorithm is probably more sinister because it’s something we’ve constructed that’s now out of our control. Like economics, it’s something we’ve set in motion. Like “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” you know. In Fantasia, with Mickey Mouse? 

AD: Yeah, where the brooms come to life. 

Robyn Hitchcock: Yeah. And you know, that’s what’s happened to us to some extent. The brooms have come to life, and we don’t know how to tame them.

AD: Yeah, the shuffle is actually a good description of my life — everybody’s life, I guess. You can go from looking at your phone and seeing someone on vacation to seeing the most horrific thing you could possibly imagine. Everything comes at you, this chaos. Maybe we’ll adjust to it, but it feels like people are losing their minds over it.  

Robyn Hitchcock: Life contains a lot of bizarre edits, and it’s moving too fast for a lot of people, especially for people on what is seen as the “right wing” of things. People in the cities are often about 100 years ahead of people in the countryside. It’s a massive generalization, but since the Industrial Revolution or whatever, things have accelerated. 

A lot of people feel like they can’t carry on like that, and there would be some kind of breakdown. There’s nothing to indicate that that is not the case. I don’t think there’s anything to be optimistic about. All my life, we’ve been on the verge of some catastrophe. The first thing I remember politically is the Cuban Missile Crisis. We’re still here, but it doesn’t mean we always will be. Whatever happens, I won’t be here. Who knows? We may all outlive the apocalypse, but you’ve got to anticipate your own exit. 

But you know, the Shuffle Man doesn’t really care. The Shuffle Man is very empty. The Shuffle Man is a gleeful element. The Shuffle Man doesn’t contain regret or reflection. The Shuffle Man is almost like Aries, the first planet of the astrological cycle. It’s just: shuffle round and go. The Shuffle Man launches the record.

AD: Accepting that is the necessary thing, right? Chaos is going to come at you and you’re going to have to accept the chaos. 

Robyn Hitchcock: I think so. But I write the song before I know what it’s about. I didn’t start thinking “Well, I’ve got to write a song about how it would be a good idea to accept chaos. Or to exploit chaos. Or to surf chaos.” 

AD: I think there’s a Dylan quote: “I accept chaos, I’m not sure whether it accepts me.” 

Robyn Hitchcock: I don’t know if that’s me, or yet again Dylan got there first. 

AD: The album was recorded remotely, sending files back and forth. Is that fairly new for you? You’re usually in a studio with musicians, right?

Robyn Hitchcock: Yes, I am. It was all done from home, apart from both going into Abbey Road very briefly, and even then, there weren’t any other musicians there. We did vocals, and we did one track — “Socrates in Thin Air.” I’d already recorded it at home in Nashville, but it was a bit boring. So, we did a snappier version. Eric Slick from Dr. Dog played the drums, Kimberly Rew from the Soft Boys played the guitar, and then it went to Charlie Francis in Cardiff, who overdubbed a bass and a keyboard and mixed it. And Emma sang a vocal harmony. 

AD: That’s impressive. For a lot of these songs, you could have fooled me into thinking it was people in a room together. 

Robyn Hitchcock: Yes, there’s absolutely no band involved. I suppose the closest to a band is probably Brendan Benson, who played everything on “The Shuffle Man.” So, he must have played drums to my track and then added bass, electric guitars, and multiple voices. He did the same on “The Sir Tommy Shovell.” It’s a one-man band. 

AD: And you’ve got a bona fide Lennon family member on the record. Did you know Sean Lennon previously? 

Robyn Hitchcock: Yeah, I met Sean once or twice. I went to see him with The Claypool Lennon Delirium in New York. They started with “Astronomy Domine” and finished with “Tomorrow Never Knows,” so I knew we would relate. We went back to Sean’s place and had a jam in his attic. He’s got some gear up there. He was playing the drums, and I thought he was really good. He’s got a glint in his eye, and he’s very empathic. I’ve seen him playing with his mother, and it takes a lot to be on stage with someone in your family. Funny watching the pair of them rolling their eyes about each other and things. He’s on “One Day” —he played some drums, bass, then a lot of effects, and the vocoder. 

AD: I love that song. In the press release it was described as “optimistic.” And I thought, “Is it really optimistic?”

Robyn Hitchcock: No, but I like the way that Michael Krugman, who wrote the bio described it as optimistic. I thought, “Well, if you think it is, I wouldn’t change it.” I wouldn’t say it was optimistic at all, but it’s very clearly that thing of describing a utopia. You have to accept that it’s a utopia, and it may well never happen. The difference in “Blowing in the Wind” is the optimistic end of it in a way. 

What a sad song. I think there’s an understanding that these things may never come to pass. “Blowing in the Wind” — it’s pretty clear that there’s no chance of human nature ever changing as we know it. Dylan’s life has sort of this creative arc. It’s almost like “Blowing in the Wind” set out the template Dylan was gonna walk through or run through or scream through or whatever.

AD: There’s not going to be an answer at the end of this.

Robyn Hitchcock: No. 

AD: You’ve also got both Kimberly and Morris Windsor on the record as well, too — the Soft Boys crew. Does Morris win the award for being on the most of your records? 

Robyn Hitchcock: We go back to 1976, so, my God, it’s 45 years. He’s gonna come and play with me in Reading in a couple of nights time, which is nice.

AD: Do you guys need to rehearse before you do something like that?

Robyn Hitchcock: We should [laughs]! One of the problems is that we often don’t. I made us have a run through the other night, just in the dressing room. I’m glad we did because Morris and I can sound great. But just because we did something every night 30 years ago, doesn’t mean we can just pick it up effortlessly now. 

On the other hand, Kim always wants to know what we’re going to play, and then he practices it. So, when Kim shows up, he’s note perfect. It’s much more punchy with Kim. Morris, it can be a bit watery, a bit cloudy. We do need to go through stuff, but we played the other night in Bristol and that was really nice. 

AD: I feel like a lot of interviews I read with you are focused on lyrics, but I’ve always loved your guitar playing. It’s just such a distinctive sound. The Byrds are always mentioned, but were there other formative guitar influences back when you were younger? 

Robyn Hitchcock: I got my first guitar when I was 13. My parents very wisely gave me a sort of cheapo acoustic guitar that I then kind of took with me everywhere and, you know, slept with and all. It was just there everywhere. I probably even had it in the shower. Actually, showers haven’t been invented back then, but I just went everywhere with it, and I played along to the records before I could tune it. 

Bert Jansch was a big influence early on. Those first recordings, which are so exciting, are just on two-track Revox with no effects. By the time I saw him live later on, he had some horrible sort of plug-in device. The guitar didn’t sound as good. Robin Williamson from The Incredible String Band, too. I loved his guitar playing. Dylan, of course, in every field; he was the mover. 

AD: Were you a Martin Carthy guy? 

Robyn Hitchcock: Yes! Martin Carthy. I got into Martin more in the ‘70s, and he is a big influence. When I stand there and play acoustic, I sometimes lurch like Martin Carthy. There’s a kind of stomping thing I can do; I’ve got a lot of Carthy-isms. A wee bit of Richard Thompson. I just liked the feeling, the sound.

And Donovan was in lots of ways a Dylan knock-off, but he got me into Bert Jansch. He covered a couple of Jansch songs. It was all that mystical folky thing … Roy Harper, although Roy Harper was a meaner and more kind of aggressive. They all were a part of that stoner-folky ethos, and I loved it. I really immersed myself in that. 

Then when I sort of started getting hold of electric guitars more in the 1970s, it would be Roger McGuinn and Syd Barrett, who, like Dylan, kind of influenced me in every way. John and George and The Beatles, when they started getting Byrds-y and that whole jangle era. Beefheart’s guys. Beefheart’s guitarists were sort of bullied into playing that way by Beef, who wasn’t a guitarist, so they didn’t play licks. Barry Melton from Country Joe and the Fish, I loved him. I didn’t generally go for a technician, so I wasn’t so crazy about Eric Clapton or Frank Zappa. I loved early Hendrix, though. And Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison. Again, neither was actually a virtuoso. I liked dual guitar things where neither one technically dominated.

AD: Yeah, it’s that weave.

Robyn Hitchcock: Yeah, that weave. Even The Byrds, they had two 12-strings, and McGuinn was the lead, but it got an overall sound. It’s what I wanted to do with the Soft Boys, to have left and right speakers doing interesting parallel things, but not the same. No one dominating. I still like that if I’m working with another electric guitarist, where you could listen to the two channels separately and put them together. 

AD: Moving on from guitar, you mentioned that you’re making a piano-based record, too? 

Robyn Hitchcock: I’ve got a nice piano in Nashville, so I’m about five songs into the collection. I’ve played one of them live a few times but not enough to justify recording. Once we were locked down, I couldn’t really play the piano much because it would just have gone all through the house, the sound. They would’ve driven Emma insane if I was writing on the piano. But it’s still there. There’s like four or five songs that are congealing nicely. Maybe I’ll make an acoustic record sometime with piano songs and some other acoustic songs. I’ve got a lot of material. 

AD: You’ve been playing solo mostly since COVID. Would you like to get back with a band at some point? 

Robyn Hitchcock: I couldn’t afford a full-time band and wouldn’t really want one. So, it’s a matter of sourcing local talent. In Spain, I have a whole group who are all primed to back me up at Spanish gigs and festivals. I’ve got my Australian friends, and I’ve got my Norwegian chums, and I’ve got various people [in England]. I’ve got a few people who might help me out in the States in March, but I won’t say anything definite about that till I know that we can make it work. With COVID, it’s much more perilous. Suddenly, you see Aimee Mann has called off a tour or something … 

AD: And you’re stuck in Montana for weeks.

Robyn Hitchcock: That’s the other advantage of being solo. It’s just me or Emma and myself. But it’s nice to change it up when you can. 

AD: Well, I don’t think I’ve ever come away disappointed from any of your shows. Whatever the configuration, it’s always been great. I’m glad that you’re back on the road. 

Robyn Hitchcock: As back as I can be. Who knows what’s gonna happen next? The pandemic only increases the uncertainty, and it’s not even officially over. It’s just no longer headline news. Did you get COVID? 

AD: Somehow, not yet. But it does feel like it’s inevitable. 

Robyn Hitchcock: Do you have kids? 

AD: Yeah, a 13-year-old.

Robyn Hitchcock: How are they holding up? 

AD: Pretty good. We were looking at a picture of her from right when it started. She had just turned 10 maybe, and the difference of her from then to now is huge. I just look at it, and I think this is her life now. But she doesn’t seem traumatized by it. She thinks this is how things are.

Robyn Hitchcock: But that’s the thing. Younger people — children — are adaptable. And then, later, they might be shocked and mortified by the way life isn’t what it was when they were getting to know it. But you have to accept that if you’re going to accept anything. 

AD: The shuffle, right? 

Robyn: That’s all the shuffle. 

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