Interview with Robyn Hitchcock

So, finally, here is the transcript of the interview I conducted with Robyn Hitchcock on October, 8 1996 at the Knust in Hamburg.

A few words ahead: the interview was conducted by three people, namely me, my friend Elena from Münster, and a girl called Frauke from Hamburg. Elena and Frauke both have alternative radio shows, whereas I just tagged along as a fan. In most cases I won't mark who of the interviewers said what, but instead I'm only going to separate between Robyn (R) and us (U).

U: Just to break the ice, what we're most curious about is a rumor we heard that Jonathan Demme is going to do a movie with you, about you?

R: Yeah, well, what it is it's me in concert in New York. Hopefully some time this autumn. And he'll film me playing, we're playing a show, really, on my own but also with a violin player, Deni, who plays on my new album. And Morris Windsor who used to be in the Soft Boys and the Egyptians, doing a bit of backing vocals, but very simple. He saw me doing a gig in New York quite near where he lives last year and so we sort of got in touch. I think he'd been following me for awhile, I think he's been monitoring me. Anyway, he's got the time, we found the distributors, so it will come out, hopefully as an art house movie, and we'll be selling it as a video, get it on telly and stuff. It'll be a live album Warner Bros. will release, at least in the States, maybe they'll put it out here as well.

U: Do you already know where it will happen, what club in New York?

R: It's gonna happen at a location that they haven't disclosed yet. It's not gonna be in a club, it's gonna be in a shop, a storefront.

U: So not at Maxwell's.

R: No, not at Maxwell's. Have you been to Maxwell's?

U: Yeah. (two of us)

R: Geez! It's a quite a good club. I mean, the first time I played there was 1980. I think most of the other people who played there in 1980 are now famous or dead, or have become lawyers. I'm one of the few people who still actually play Maxwell's, from that year.

U: And Jonathan Demme has done a video there before.

R: Did the Feelies. Yeah, well this is not, it's gonna be a whole show. So, I'm looking forward to it. Cause he likes live performance, you know, he doesn't like lip-syncing and all that sort of stuff. He likes to actually get the performer doing it. I don't like rock videos per se, but I really approve of the way he works. I think it's great, so I'm sure if anybody can make it look good, Jonathan will. So, hopefully that'll be quite soon.

U: So it's supposed to be only one show and that's it, not taking cuts from several shows?

R: Well, yeah, we'll do two shows or maybe even three, but we'll make it look like one. You won't see the join. They'll pan over someone in the audience and they'll pan back, and you won't know 'cause I'll be wearing the same shirt. I'm having some extra identical shirts made.

U (attempting to joke): That's what you tell us!

R (did he get it?): Well, that's what I tell you, (pause) because someone told me to do that, you know. I'll also have to play the same songs for each set, which is a drag. I might throw a few songs in for the last set.

U: So why did it take so long for the new album to come out?

R: Well, I had to write the songs. And then I had to throw away the songs I wasn't going to use. And that takes time. You know, songs aren't like fast food, you can't just sort of... Okay, here come twelve good songs, you know, I mean it takes awhile. I wanted to have so many strong materials. And we had to do the back catalog thing, and that took awhile. A lot of old material came out on Rhino in America. I had to bake the tapes in some cases, you have to put the tapes in an oven, because they... all that stuff flakes off, yeah, like liquorice, which is...all this black grunge is on it. And we had to find the tapes, find the tape machines that would work, today, because the old tape machines don't do the work so well. They don't make them anymore, you know. Some other things I recorded, like the first solo album, they just don't have those machines — quarter-inch four-tracks, hard to find.
So that took awhile, and then recording this lot, and then I had to get a deal for it as well. So, I started recording it quite a long time ago, in 94, it's only three years I think, since "Respect".

U: Your view of the songs seems to change over time, because at one point the new album was supposed to be called "Surfer Ghost", and then apparently you changed your mind and it didn't even end up on the album!

R: That's what I mean, you need to throw the songs out.

U: Yeah, but now you seem to play it more — I heard, on the Internet...

R: Play it more?

U: Yeah, recently at shows, you've been playing it?

R: Oh! I played it *once*.

U: OK. So much for that rumor...

R: News travels a bit too fast. Yes, I played it once. I sang it with Morris Windsor in London, but it wasn't very good. So I'm taking it off again. I mean I was going to do it for the Demme film, but I think I'll...
There's a recording of it lying around somewhere, which will probably come out one day, but it didn't fit with the album. There's all sorts of things. "Wide Open Star" didn't make it onto the album...

U: Yeah, but that's on "Mossy Liquor" at least.

R: ...I don't know what else, "Statue With A Walkman", that's gonna be on the live one, "Each Of Her Silver Wands" is gonna be on the live one. At least I think it is, yeah. See, when you got the first six songs you write, you think "Well, I've got six songs, so that's the start", so you tell everybody they're gonna be on the album. You know, well, if anyone asks, you know, when you don't tell the milkman or the postman. Wouldn't tell your mother, you know. But if anyone's interested, you're quite likely to tell them. Then you got twelve songs, so you maybe think "I got an album's worth", then you got 18, so you can throw six away, by the end you've got 30 and you throw away 18 of them. Or you should do. I think throwing songs away is a very important part of songwriting.

U: Yeah, but sometimes songs turn up afterwards. Because I think "Alright, Yeah" was written during "Perspex Island" and at that time you thought the song was weak...

R: You're right. Do you know where I wrote it?

U: No, I don't.

R: Okay, I started it in Washington and then I finished it in the Isle of Wight. (Editor's Note: do you really say in and not on??) Well, I didn't think it was very good. I didn't think it ever really worked with the Egyptians. It wasn't a good Egyptians song. But then I thought it might sound better with Tim's band...

U: ...with Homer...

R: ...but Tim, who's been working with... oh, you know about Homer. Er hat drei Jungen, Männer, englische und sie heißen Homer. (Robyn's trying to speak German now) Und sie spielen Pop-Rock.

U: How did you come to work with him?

R: Oh, he's a friend, it's just... You should never do business with your friends, but... actually I met him, oddly enough, I met him through the R.E.M. connection, believe it or not. I was staying with Jefferson [Holt], who used to manage R.E.M., and Jefferson's old girlfriend Jennifer was going out with Tim. She's Tim's manager now, Jennifer Blay[?], she lives in Britain. And as I met Tim in Athens, New Year's Day 1993, and then we... but he does most things, he does a lot of stuff, he writes songs, looks after our cat when we're away. So Tim's band, Homer, is playing "Alright, Yeah" on the record, which is very, you know, pop rock.

U: But still, it's the song that sounds the most like the Egyptians.

R: Well, I think it's like the Egyptians in... It's a bit more straightforward than the Egyptians could ever really be. The Egyptians were very good, very artistic players. But they didn't really like playing straightforward rock music, they... I mean when I say "they" I mean Morris... Morris was never really a rock drummer, he was a sort of jazz decorational art drummer, and Andy was quite an aggressive bass player, but he was still... his playing was full of loops and runs and things, and, you know, straightahead playing... I think it was too straightahead for the Egyptians, that song. I mean it's not sound like "So You Think You're In Love" or something, but even that wasn't a good Egyptians song, that could've been played by a lot of session men.

U: Do you really think so??

R: Yeah, Paul Fox, the producer, wanted to do that one. And I think Andy thought it was too much of pastiche, and I think he was right, actually. So, you know, Homer's a good beat group, and now I just did a tour in Britain, of just playing around little clubs with Homer opening up and then they backing me, you know, they backing me for some songs. Doing old songs like "The Cars She Used To Drive", things I hadn't played for years, "Acid Bird", "Queen Of Eyes".

U: So you're living in Britain now?

R: Well, I did live in Washington for eight months. Washington made me appreciate London for the first time in my life, I'd never liked London. But after Washington, DC London just seems like paradise. I was in Germany in August. I was in Hamburg and Cologne.

U: What did you do there?

R: I talked to people.

U: How did this tour come about?

R: That's easy, because I went to Cologne and Hamburg. My manager, Peter, over there, suggested to Warner Bros. that I did a few gigs, so I'm doing a few gigs (laughs).

U: So this is *the* tour of Germany?

R: No, this is a little one, to sort of... I don't know, I have no idea what it is. It's three appearances, then maybe I'll do some more next year. The problem with working in Europe, it tends to be, with me, that it's never consistent, it hasn't been in the past. I mean I play in Germany every five years and then forget about it, and it forgets about me...

U: ...and even that seems to be half-hearted only!

R: No, I don't think we played half-heartedly, maybe they weren't promoted properly, you know. So I'm reaching out with a big effort to get to play. I mean some places like Spain, you always get sent to Spain, but I love the food and the buildings. Unfortunately there aren't so many buildings left in Germany now. But Spain and Italy particularly have got a lot of nice buildings.
I like words, so I like working in Europe because of the different languages. I can say "bat" in five languages.

U: Did you do the translation of "Alright, Yeah" to Swedish yourself?

R: No, Tim did that. I don't know much Swedish, I don't know any Swedish. I know little bits of German and French and Italian and Spanish, so that's fun (fine?). I can ask where the bat is in five languages. [he demonstrates it, but we have to correct his German, especially the gender of "Fledermaus" - it's feminine...]

U: How did you get to know Calvin Johnson?

R: Calvin Johnson? You are collectors, aren't you? Calvin I met through my friend Liz in San Francisco who used to run a record shop. I said "Can you think of anyone I could do a 7"-single with, quickly?", cause I hadn't had any records out, I just wanted to put out a record fast, on vinyl, I hadn't had any vinyl for ages. And then she said "Try Calvin at K", so I rang him up and we went up to Olympia and I did three songs in a day. One and a half songs upstairs and then they started making supper, so we moved down to the basement and finished it. So, three songs in a day, which is how I like to work, on eight-track. I'm supposed to be making a mono record with him some time, Warner Bros. is allowing me to continue to do stuff with him, so I'm gonna put out a mono vinyl record, possibly a tribute to Jimi Hendrix.

U: Do you sell the 7" tonight?

R: I don't sell anything tonight, actually, but you can get it from K, you know, whatever those collector's channels are, that's what you have to go through.

U: For our radio show we'd like to play "The Devil's Radio" and "The Speed Of Things"...

R: Oh, really? "Speed Of Things"! (surprised)

U: Maybe you can tell me how you came up with those songs?

R: "Speed Of Things" is based on some old folk songs. I can't remember what they are. It's sort of a synthesis of a couple of old folk melodies, I think. I wrote it on a piece of paper, by a café outdoors on a sunny afternoon in April, just after the Conservatives had got in yet again. And I had a hangover, I had a sort of panic attack, you know, like when you've had too much to drink and you're tired, so I was feeling very jittery. My father had just died, I think, so I was very aware of the speed of things. "The Devil's Radio", I started that on a train, I wrote one version and threw away, and then I must've made up the other one. It's about what it says it's about, really. But I'm glad you like them. I think my favorite's "De Chirico Street", actually.
U: I think my favorite is "Heliotrope".

R: That's the best tune. "De Chirico Street" is an interesting piece of music, it's got my friend Otis "Horns" Fletcher playing saxophone. He also comes to supper with Tim, I mean, yeah, I was at school with him. He's my oldest friend.

U: I thought you were fed up with saxophones after "Groovy Decay".

R: I was. But Fletcher isn't an ordinary saxophone player. I don't like the way saxophones are used conventionally, and I've never got into jazz. But also Ntshuks Bonga, he plays on "Devil's Radio", he's a very unhinged sax player. He doesn't play..., I suppose you can say he's a jazzer, you know.
(Tim is playing guitar in the background and has just played the intro of R.E.M.'s "Radio Song", so Robyn is doing a Stipey imitation singing "The world is collapsing around my ears")
Emm, yeah, so I think, you know, sax players who don't play the sax in an ordinary way, I mean Fletcher never practices, he refuses to practice at any point, unless I'm gonna do a gig and I ask him to come and play on a couple of tracks. But he's so ingenious, he writes out these unbearably close harmonies, you know, we had six tracks left on the tape, so he filled up those six tracks. He could've filled more if we had it. Well, I'm not going to use him on the live album, but I'm gonna use him on the next record, just to keep him playing.

U: He doesn't do anything else?

R: No, no, he makes things, he sort of cuts..., you know, he measures pieces of string and writes up notes about wine and comes round with rare cheeses. He's... Fletcher. Fletcher functions in his own way. He wrote a piece of music called "The Luminous Sofa", and he did an arrangement of one of my songs called "Egyptian Cream" for avantgarde saxophones. I don't think I have a tape of it anymore, but it was incredible. That's the most interesting cover version I've ever heard of my stuff. So, yeah, you should start a James Fletcher Appreciation Society in Dortmund, I should send you a photograph of him, actually. He photocopied himself once. It was pretty scary, he put his face..., he ran it over the machine, so it looked like those ??? people, people they dig up that have been dead for 2000 years and their skin goes silvery and slack. So Fletcher, yeah, he's good.

U: Was music always your way of expressing yourself? Because I read your story, the "Moss Elixir" story, and I really liked it, so I thought maybe writing is another way of expressing yourself without connecting it with music.

R: No, when I started, I mean, I forced myself to become a musician, I didn't have instinctive musical talent. But I always used to write and draw. Now I don't draw much, but I paint. I think I'm not very good at painting, but I really enjoy it. So I'm hoping to get a book of short stories out, next year, someone's actually offering me a publishing deal, incredibly. So when I'm finished with the Jonathan Demme thing, I'm gonna finish some short stories and there will be, however long it takes me, it might take two years, but there will be a book some time. And I'm planning to have my paintings made into a shirt. Multiple images on them. Rather than exhibiting them, you'll be able to buy them as shirts. That's the plan, anyway.

U: I really liked your "Eye" cover artwork. You don't like that?

R: It's alright.

U: I think it's a perfect album. We really like to listen to your new album in a row, all the twelve songs. Do you have any favorite albums where you like the whole thing, cover artwork and all the songs without an exception...

R: ...I think "Fegmania" is pretty good.

U: From other bands.

R: From other people, oh. Well, I don't know, I always thought "Highway 61" was good. "Avalon" by Roxy Music, I don't know, packaging, I mean packaging got more exciting, at one point the artwork got more exciting than the music. Generally, if I like an album, the artwork's good. I like most of the tracks on the first Belly album. Actually the artwork's OK, it's a very 4AD sort of stuff, very solarized. I don't know, really. (looking at the Knust's show listing for the next month or so) Wow, ex-Fischer-Z! Robyn Hitchcock. Oh, Bob Neuwirth. Victoria Williams! Barbara Manning. Wow, I met her. She's living in San Francisco.

U: Do you like her music?

R: I did, I haven't listened to it lately, but I used to quite like it. I had a girlfriend who had a Barbara Manning record. An album called "Scissors" or a song called "Scissors". Are you coming to her show?

U: Well, I'm from Cologne, so I probably won't. But I saw her, like, a month ago in New York.

R: Where was she playing in New York?

U: At the Knitting Factory.

R: Oh, yeah. Is she on a big label now, or something? She seems to be getting about a bit more than she used to.

U: It's not a big label, but it's got a good distribution in Germany through Rough Trade.

R: I should get a label like that! Someone told me in Frankfurt there was one copy of my album and somebody bought it and it wasn't him and then they hadn't restocked it. I don't think Warners is exactly leaping over the fence here. Or whatever it is that record companies are supposed to be. Actually Warners is coming in about half an hour.

U: Last time you played Germany about five years ago, when you talked to the audience you used almost only German. So you didn't talk a lot, which is quite different from your other shows. Do you think people here wouldn't understand if you talked English?

R: I think maybe I just wanted to practice my German. And you don't know who's gonna speak English, do you? So, here I am doing two radio interviews in English, and you'll have to translate them, you know. I usually try and talk the language that I'm in, you know. A little bit. And it's always funny hearing a foreigner messing up your language. We've recorded a version of "Alright, Yeah" in German, which Warner said wasn't either good enough or bad enough to put out. So if you bully them, maybe they'll send you a tape. Actually it's quite fun. Tim translated that for me as well.

U: Is he a student of languages? How many languages does he speak?

R: Well, he did German and Swedish at university.

U: Swedish is pretty unusual to study. Maybe he had a girlfriend.

R: I don't know why he picked Swedish, actually. I can't remember. You'll have to ask him. No, I don't think he had a girlfriend. (calling over to Tim) Tim, why did you learn Swedish? You didn't have a Swedish girlfriend?

Tim: Oh, I couldn't think of anything better to study. No, I never had a Swedish girlfriend.

R: No, me neither. OK, that's it, no Swedish girlfriends for Tim.

U: One more question that someone else sent me. I'm not sure how serious it is: he asks what it is you have against German tablewine. You are forever complaining about it.

R: I'm not very keen on German wine, actually, especially the cheap ones. I hate to say this about your country, but there seems to be a sweetness to the grape in this area that doesn't appeal to me as a wine drinker and I drink a lot of wine. Fletcher came round one night with an expensive German wine and he said "Try this", but I still wasn't so keen. No, I used to do it..., in Wafflehead I used to do that. I think the saddest thing is the people in Britain who drink Liebfrauenmilch, it's like right from the bottom of the German wine league anyway. Don't broadcast this, is this in Liebfrauenmilch country? I don't want hundreds of bottles dumped on the front of the stage next time I'll play.

U: Nobody drinks this over here, so...

R: I haven't seen any, actually. I just drink Australian stuff, actually. A lot of Australian Chardonnay. It's cheap and it, you know, messes your head the right way.

U: It's cheap?

R: Quite cheap, at Jacob's Creek about five..., that's 10 or 12 Deutschmarks a bottle. In England we always pay in Deutschmarks, you know.

(Stuff about Frauke's infection in the middle ear deleted, even though the discussion of how you can possibly pass one is pretty funny)

R: You two will be at the show? Have I met you two before? (to Elena and me)

U: You've seen me at several shows before. Actually you've seen me the first time eight years ago in Brighton, UK at the Zap Club. You were playing with Morris and Chris Cox. Was that a one off show or were you doing a tour with them?

R: We did a few tours, yeah. Maybe it wasn't a one-off.

U: And then maybe seven years ago at Tramps in New York. So I've traveled all around the world to see you.

R: Tramps. Was that solo?

U: Yeah.

R: Oh that was quite good, actually.

U: And then when you played Germany last time I was at the shows at Cologne and Frankfurt. I didn't dare talk to you, so...

R: Wow. Quite rightly, really, oh, that's good. Ok, are you an Internet guy?

U: Yeah. Of course I'm on the mailing list...

R: Really? (doesn't sound too excited about that)

U: This talk with Warner later on, is this regarding the deal...

R: Well, it's not a business thing. They're just gonna come up and say how much they love me, and I'm gonna tell them how much I love them and then, you know, they'll go away and go "Who was that we were talking to", you know. I would seriously like to develop a relationship with a record company somewhere in Europe. Warners Germany being the first people to kind of actually... they did fly me in last month just to do commercials. So maybe they're gonna do something. That would be great, you know, I'd love to come back every year. Improve my German.

U: It would probably take more of an effort at least by the promotional guys just to...

R: I think they probably worked, I mean, I noticed that people like Grant Lee Buffalo sort of keep coming back and one of them said last night well, they had 50 the first time and 50 the second time and now they got a hundred, you know. If they can fly all the way over from California, it wouldn't be that hard for me to get here from Britain. But you know my stuff is word-based, so I may have limited appeal...

U: I'm not sure that's a problem, because I don't think it has the lyrical value only.

R: Well, there are the tunes, I wouldn't bother with tunes if I didn't think they were good. But I'm always seen as the lyrics... word-based... people talk about my lyrics before they talk about my tunes. I mean my words are pretty much too difficult for the English, let alone anyone else. I should probably have my words translated so the English can understand them. I'm gonna stop talking now, I have to get on with something or other.

Transcribed by Sebastian Hagedorn.
Last revision on August 25, 2008.