An interview with eccentric cult singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock
Robyn Hitchcock is one of the finest examples of a thriving cult singer-songwriter and artist. When it comes to writing songs about insects, and other nightmarish subject matter, Hitchcock is the best there is.
Curated by the renowned eccentric himself, The Floating Palace Tour featuring KT Tunstall, Eliza & Martin Carthy, Krystle Warren and Howe Gelb kicks off 5th February at Glasgow’s ABC1.
We talk about the upcoming tour, spontaneous prawn throwing and whether 2012 is the year when time will begin to run backwards.
Did you always want to have a musical career?
Yes ,there was never really anything else I wanted to do. It’s always been my passion. I was one of those kids who grew up in the 60’s, so I was the little seed that was fertilised by Bob Dylan and the Beatles.
So you couldn’t imagine yourself doing anything else?
No which is a negative and a positive. Wanting to be a musician tended to be a male pursuit back then. But it was one of those dreams like how young boys are meant to want to be super heroes, which obviously is less likely to happen – you’re presented with surreal objectives and wonder why you grow up to be terminally disappointed. But one of my great goals was to make a persona of myself as someone with a guitar.
You come from a creative family, your father an author and your brother an artist. Do you have any creative gifts other than music?
Yes, I paint, draw and write short stories. Although I tend to use all those things as accessories to records. If you look at my record covers they’re largely pictures of my paintings, and if you look on my website you’ll see my paintings. I drew a lot whilst listening to music when between the ages of 13 and 18. I just sat there hunched over the record player with a biro and a sketchbook just drawing. So I could draw long before I could play music.
You’ve formed two bands, The Soft Boys in ’76 and Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians in ’84. Are you still in touch with any of them and is there any chance of further reunions?
As for reunions it’s unlikely, as everybody travels through and outwards tend to get further apart. Sometimes inertia will cause to fall back together again, or if 2012 is really the year when time begins to run backwards then inevitably we will have reunions! However, if we just carry on getting older, blinder and fatter which tends to be the way things go, it’s unlikely. I hope we go to each others funerals and that sort of thing but I don’t see us actually working together again. I’m in touch with some of them, and I think that some of them are in touch with some of the others.
Among the early influences for your music were John Lennon, Bob Dylan and Syd Barrett. What was it about their music that appealed to you?
Well like all the people you are influenced by you identify with them in a way. They’re a way of pulling you forward. They’re sort of like you, but on a pedestal you can’t quite get to. So you sort of project onto them, and then years later you find you sort of come out in their moulds or you’re a hybrid of them. Just like you’re a hybrid of your parents. I mean there were countless kids who were influenced by Dylan and the Beatles and Dylan and the Beatles influenced each other. Syd Barrett the man who started Pink Floyd was influenced by both but he was also an original. I think he was up there with Dylan and The Beatles but he flowered very early very fast and it faded away very quickly. He produced all these beautiful songs in his early twenties and then he had a breakdown and then that was it. It was all over. He wasn’t even Syd for the last 35 years of his life. He reverted to being roger. So Dylan’s still around and some of The Beatles are. They had great songs, I was lucky enough to grow up in that time. My teenage years were peppered with these brilliant records cascading into my hands for a mere 32 and sixpence a go.
Which of the albums you’ve made is your personal favourite and why?
My personal favourite of the collection of songs I’ve made is a record called ‘Eye’ which came out in 1990 which is just me on my own. I seem to play more songs off that live than I do off any of my other records. Having said that I sung in a weird voice because I had the headphones on or something and sometimes my pronunciation was a bit weird. I think I was listening to the echo so I’m sort of singing in a strange voice. The songs are great otherwise; ‘Spooked’ from 2004 was good because I did it with Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings so it’s like one of their records with me as their lead vocalist. That’s not a bad one, but you can find it all on Spotify anyway.
You’re obviously a seasoned musician; do you still feel the same buzz when performing to a live audience?
Yes, yes I do. I think I enjoy it more, because I’m better at it. I’m better at playing the guitar; I have improved a little bit in 45 years. I’ve got a bit more used to dealing with an audience, and a bit more used to dealing with my own reaction to playing live. I probably used to get overwhelmed by it like a kid on Christmas morning and then I’d sort of look forward to it too much, then be disappointed by the reality. I really love playing and I suppose playing in front of an audience is an exaggerated version of that.
Are there any memorable moments from past live performances?
The funny thing is I can never remember performances, or remember what it feels like until I’m back on stage. It’s almost as if the whole thing has happened under an anaesthetic. I remember great gigs and dismal gigs and there tends to be fewer dismal gigs now but can’t really rule it out. The trick is to try not to get yourself into a mood if you think things are going wrong. You have to kind of restart everything, don’t get deeper into it and make a negative groove . I remember there was one show I did where I was playing a song called “Where Are The Prawns”. This was in the mid 80’s and I had a chequered suit on playing a place called The Marquee in London. Suddenly this bag of frozen prawns burst against my chest- like the Alien coming out of John Hurt. I was really shocked but we kept playing. About 10 years later some guy came up to me in Madrid and said “Oh, it was me who chucked those prawns!” He seemed to be very happy about it,and it didn’t seem to have been done maliciously but it was a tremendous shock. Another time a fan turned up at a gig in Chicago and gave us a live lobster in a bucket. I think we gave it away to someone else, I didn’t really feel like cooking and eating it.
Let’s talk about The Floating Palace: I will be there on February 8. Why you decide to put together the show?
I realised that musicians really like playing music with each other and kind of getting to know each other through sitting in through each others’ songs. This only tends to happen in recording studios or backstage. It doesn’t tend to happen on stage much, so I just thought lets get a bunch of people together and basically introduce them to each other and see what happens.
How did you choose the artists?
I was pretty much just friends with them. Let’s just say they’re all colleagues. Frolleagues if you like.
Is there anything you would like to say to the readers of The Upcoming?
Thank you for reading this article so far, have a peaceful night and please come and see the shows. That’s a pithy message…