SPARE A THOUGHT for Robyn Hitchcock, he of acid birds and glass hotels and uncorrected personality traits and arresting polka-dot shirts. Hitchcock emerged from post-punk’s heady cauldron with his first band, the Soft Boys, and attained a modest level of American fame with the magical-realist tintinnabulations of the Egyptians, but for the past two decades or so he’s been recording and performing primarily as a solo artist. His last album — the well-received The Man Upstairs, produced and arranged by the legendary folk producer Joe Boyd — came out in 2014, and the always peripatetic musician, now 62, spent much of the past year drawing zigzagged lines across the atlas on tour with his partner, singer-songwriter and erstwhile Australian radio presenter Emma Swift.
Now back in their adopted home of Nashville, Tennessee, and speaking to me on a spotty phone connection, Hitchcock is gracious, loquacious, and warm. Still, he definitely sounds ready for a break from what he calls “the realities of reality” before he and Swift depart for the South African safari they’ve been booked to play in February. These realities are the crux of our interview, reflecting on how a career artist such as Hitchcock, who in the past was privy to the making of the major-label sausage, has had to adapt to a different garde manger to survive in a hostile new world.
JODY BETH LAFOSSE: Tell me about the 2015 you just had. You’ve been performing a lot, and you always have. Was life on the road particularly good to you this past year, or different?
ROBYN HITCHCOCK: Well, we were very much in transit, so we were really living on the road for about six months, and now we’ve come to rest in Nashville. The sun is going to set quite soon, and there’ll probably be another frost. The trees, of course, are in bud already. But the frosts have only just begun — that’s the way the climate is these days.
So gosh, where was I? I was playing in the States; and then Australia; and then the States; and then Italy, Germany, Spain; and then it was Britain; and then it was Canada; then it was a mixture of Canada and the States; and then it was Britain again. And I spent New Year’s Eve in Toronto. You make things into a pattern; there’s nothing strategic about this. You simply find where your bookings are and you try and make a narrative out of it. You try to make an itinerary. You try and make it make sense in some way.
But actually, all musicians are doing is commuting to work. [laughs] Very long-distance, and more or less permanently. I enjoy playing live, so I don’t mind it too much, but that’s the way it is. When I was based in Europe, I was coming over here five times a year, but I note that since I moved here, I’ve been back in England almost incessantly.
It doesn’t make a lot of difference. In the end, you’re the property of the airports. And if you play your air miles right, you can travel in reasonable comfort. It’s not really good for the environment, and it’s not that great for your skin or your lungs. But it’s a living, and I’m very lucky to have it. I’m 62, self-employed, doing what I love best. It’s something that very few people have. [laughs] So I have to bear that in mind when I feel like kvetching about spending all of my life on planes.
How involved are you with the less glamorous nuts-and-bolts stuff of putting a tour together?
I’ve got a US agent, I have a British agent, and I have a German agent. I have an Italian agent and a Spanish agent, and I have somebody who helps me in Norway, and I’ve got a contact in Japan, and I’ve got a couple of contacts in Australia. And there’s a man down in Uruguay [laughs] who does that for me down there, in Uruguay and Argentina. But they all speak directly to me. I have a manager who deals with the recording side, with the record company. But I book all the live shows myself. I deal directly with the agents.
Going back 30 or 40 years, the whole hierarchy in music was that you had to get a manager, and an agent, and a record company, and you’d get a publishing deal, and maybe you’d hire a publicist. And the record company would have an in-house art department, in-house publicity, all that. But people like me never quite fitted into that. In the early years I was on independent labels, and really self-managed most of the time. I got onto major labels in the late eighties and then through the nineties, and then I was back onto independent again. Most of my career has been away from major labels. What’s happened in the last 15 years, it seems to me, is that it’s just back to a series of cottage industries.
I want to talk about you as a singer of other people’s songs. You did “Visions of Johanna” at the 50th anniversary of Bob Dylan’s electric Newport appearance.
Oh, I did, yes!
How important to you is being an interpreter of this material, and what do you bring to it that’s unique to you?
What I bring to it that is unique to me is me. If you want to define me, perhaps you can define me more by how I cover somebody else’s song than by how I do one of my own, because the difference between Bob Dylan doing “Visions of Johanna” and me doing it is me. Although having said that, I probably do it far more faithfully than Dylan does. That’s probably a bad example.
A lot of the people whose songs I play, like Nick Drake or Syd Barrett or Jim Morrison or Arthur Lee, they’re all gone. Half the Beatles are gone. Dylan’s still there. Ray Davies is there. But generally, in terms of being an interpreter, that’s only something I’ve thought about recently. I never thought of myself as much of a singer. I became a singer because I wanted to write songs and perform them, but I never thought of myself as having any gifts as a singer, other than having the ability to stand up and perform. But those people are gone now; you’re not going to hear them stand up and do those songs, so I might as well do ’em, and if people enjoy it then it’s working.
Other people’s songs reach emotional areas that your own songs don’t, you know? One’s own songs tend to cover a certain part of the emotional spectrum, and actually if you want to feel a certain way you’re often better off singing a Bryan Ferry song or a Lou Reed song, because each of those people has a flavor. And I’m sure I’ve got my own flavor; I wouldn’t know what it is, because I don’t have the perspective. Just as a grapefruit doesn’t know what it looks like, but all the other fruits in the store know what the grapefruit looks like. “I’m as big as the grapefruit; yeah!” “He’s yellow. Round. Wow!” “Oh, I thought he was an orange.” “No, clean your glasses, banana. That’s a grapefruit.” “Whoa.” I’m just one of those un-self-knowing fruits, really.
What’s the difference to you between covering these artists and dealing with them more abstractly through your own songs — for example, writing “The Wreck of the Arthur Lee“ [from Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians’ 1993 album Respect] and covering a song by Lee’s band Love?
“The Wreck of the Arthur Lee” is only tangentially connected to Arthur Lee. He wasn’t very happy about it, but he was nice enough to me when I met him. I sometimes refer to other musicians in songs, but they just become part of your cranial mythology, things you grow up with — and one by one, they wink out and then glow in the firmament. You hope if you’re very lucky you’ll be one of them, or be a minor figure in the firmament. “Oh, there’s old Hitchcock glowing up there over Alpha Centauri, under the Great Bear.” “No, isn’t it Julian Cope?” “Oh, you can’t see. Clean your glasses, banana.” So I don’t know. It’s nice if anything you do is remembered, if people have positive memories of it.
Has the current craze for pop culture nostalgia had any impact on what you do or how you think about what you do? Are you finding that you get called upon to be a “nostalgia” guy more than you used to?
As they say, “Nostalgia’s not what it used to be.” Pop culture is now about the same age as I am. I was born in 1953, and rock ’n’ roll seems to have bubbled into being around the same time. Not many people around now actually remember when it started.
People measure their lives out in fashion and in pop culture. They have since World War II, since there’s been no enormous eruption to shatter everything. And everything has been recorded and then re-recorded or adapted to be on a new format, so sound recordings would go from being on a 33 1/3 LP to being on a cassette to being on a CD that came from the quarter-inch tape. But it keeps getting upgraded; you can listen to it on LP again now. It’s just that there’s now so much of it — people’s lives are measured out in, “Oh yeah, do you remember the Specials?” “Oh, right.” “Cyndi Lauper.” “Oh, I lost my virginity to ‘Time After Time’.” I mean, I didn’t personally, but you know, somebody probably did. Or “I had the best hangover of my life after going to see Blur.” You see people feeling about the Stone Roses the same way that I felt about the Jefferson Airplane, and you see those people also getting older. I look around at the punks now, who are a few years younger than me, and they’re all coming up 60. There was a time when punks made me feel old, because I was such a determined Class of ’67 guy and I couldn’t really embrace ’77 fully.
It’s the currency. My parents’ generation had the war, my generation just had drugs, the next generation had irony, and the ones after that have got climate change. [laughs]
I’m not called on to be anything, particularly, in this environment. We’ve all got our period that we get excited about. Mine’s probably from ’64 to ’70. Music you hear as a teenager, or when you’re a young person, just stays with you much more intensely than what you hear afterwards. You’re a much more impressionable organism, and if you want to feel young again you put on a record that you first heard when you were 13. If I want to rush upstairs without running out of breath I’ll listen to Revolver. It’s just how it is.
Is everything swirling around the bowl before it actually disappears? What’s interesting is that there’s been very little change in fashion in the last 20 years. I saw a movie set in 1995 and I didn’t realize it was set in 1995 until I saw people smoking indoors. The things that have changed the most now are people’s cell phones and their laptops. After the eighties, and the big hair and the shoulder pads, fashion seems to have settled down into an all-purpose zone. If you want to be a hipster, you can have a checked shirt and jeans, and you can have a beard or not have a beard, or you can have a leather jacket. There are maybe more beards around than there were 10 years ago, but the result is to make a lot of people look like it’s 1974.
I wonder whether life has accelerated so much between 1950 and 2000 that what we’ve seen this century is people simply trying to catch up. All this music was churned out, all these clothes came out, all these movies came out. If you’re coming up now as a 15-year-old, there’s so much to draw on, assuming you’re even interested in music or movies and don’t just want to play online games. It’s different. There aren’t the generation gaps there used to be. There aren’t the fault lines that say, “You don’t belong here.”
In terms of things not being as cataclysmic as they were in the past, not many of those cataclysms come along in history, and sometimes people expect them to be there, not realizing that’s the aberration rather than the rule. If things have seemed the same since the nineties, maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be.
You’re right. I’m sure we probably couldn’t take that kind of upheaval every 10 years. And things are changing; it’s just not as drastic. There was some kind of acceleration that led up to 1966, ’67. Somewhere between ’65 and ’68 a kind of modern life began, in so many different ways. That was my adolescence. I remember the world suddenly going into color in 1965. Kennedy died in black and white, and the Beatles arrived in black and white. But the Monterey Pop Festival and the Golden Gate Park Human Be-In, all those happened in color.
Creative people who are in the public eye — and not just musicians — are now more likely to be diversifying their self-expression into other media, where their verbal skill and sense of humor can shine through and maybe attract a new audience if they want one. Dozens of musicians are writing memoirs now, and John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats wrote the novel Wolf in White Van. Do you see the barriers between the different types of artistic expression breaking down, or are the barriers still there but you have to cross them all to remain vital?
I don’t think you have to cross them all to remain vital. You just have to do what you’re best at. I did try writing a bit in the nineties. I thought, “I’m good with words, I like writing things down” — I thought I could write a novel, and I couldn’t. I mean, it wasn’t any good. [laughs] I tried writing a children’s book, and that wasn’t any good either. People kept encouraging me: “You should be doing this.” But I realized that I really like writing songs and playing the guitar more than anything else. Left to my own devices, I will always pick up the guitar rather than try and write.
I’ve tried writing bits of memoirs, and again, I found that I was writing my own life like a journalist. [laughs] It was like an article in the NME or Uncut. A lot of people who’ve been around a long time, there is an audience for their memoirs. Elvis Costello’s put out a memoir recently. Julian Cope’s written some great stuff. Julian probably enjoys writing more than music; I don’t know if he does that many gigs these days. I prefer to play. I do paint and draw a bit, and I would like — if I have time — to do more paintings. I’ve got a few on my website.
You seem to enjoy being a presence on Twitter.
I like that; I have fun. And where I used to [laughs] read books and whatever else I used to do, I now tweet. I certainly read less. I remember seeing about 10 years ago that someone said, “Email is eating into quality television time,” and I thought that was the most hilarious thing. It’s like saying, “Heroin addiction really messes with your alcoholism.”
Twitter, Instagram, Facebook: all these things are a sort of burden, but they also give you a chance to publicize yourself without hiring a publicist. You’ve got to be able to expect people to know your boundaries, and trust them to behave with you. But it depends how far you go and what sort of person you are.
What opportunities do you have as a musician now that you didn’t 30 years ago, or 40 years ago? What opportunities were there through the more traditional record-industry model before that aren’t now?
What you don’t have is the opportunity to sell records on the same scheme. If you want to sell records, you have to be your own record shop, basically. There’s the resurgent vinyl shops, but on the whole if you want to sell records, you need to go and sell them yourself — or be around while they’re being sold — at the end of the show. And I can’t say I like that much, but the younger people do accept it.
The difference, to me, from 30 years ago is that I’ve been around another 30 years. So possibly more people know who I am, or they’ve known about me for longer. My core audience, I suppose, is still pretty good. There’s been more time for the word to spread. And I was never particularly well-known, so it’s not like I reek of one era. I was a college radio star in the late eighties, but that didn’t translate into a Top 20 scenario. [laughs] I’m more like a folk singer, really.
I don’t know how much longer I have to keep going before I retire. If I stop touring, I don’t know how much money I’ll have coming in. It’s like a shark; you have to keep swimming. [laughs] Fortunately, I do like playing, and I quite like traveling, so I’m all right for a little bit, touch wood. We’ll see.
Tell me about the musical South African safari you’re about to embark on.
It’s organized by an Australian man named Matt [Collins, of Tourica Tours]. Something like 10 people have paid quite a lot of money each to go and look at zebras and giraffes and lions and antelopes and gazelles and whatever else is around in the daytime, and in the evening they have Emma Swift and me singing to them. [laughs] It’s going to be an interesting time.
For it to appeal, you have to like two things: you have to want to go out and experience South African wildlife, and you also want to listen to Robyn Hitchcock and Emma Swift. So it’s interesting to see how many people fit into both those categories. I can imagine people wanting to do one or the other. It’s an odd mixture, really.
[The safari organizer] normally does golf, but he did a friend of ours named Mick Thomas last year and apparently it worked well, so we’ll see. They pay us to do it, and they take us out there, and they take us around. It’s such an unlikely thing. I wouldn’t normally go on a South African safari — it’s not something I would think of doing. When I’m not traveling, I like to stay at home — if I’ve got a home — and go to the coffee shop, and feed the cat, and worry about doing my accounts, and all that other human stuff. Wish us luck.
If we’d done it even 10 years ago, there would have been less evidence of it. Now, whatever we do, it will all be on Instagram and Facebook and YouTube. I’ll try to get them to put the cameras down while we’re eating, but it’s a safari holiday so they’re going to want to film everything. It’s not like 20 years ago, when they’d have to send everything off to the developer’s before they got it back. It’ll all be posted so the folks back home in Detroit and Eugene, Oregon, and Houston, Texas, and wherever else — I don’t know where they’re from, but they must be from somewhere — everyone will see exactly what’s going on.
Are you comfortable with that?
There’s nothing I can do about it, really. It just means I have to make sure I look nice, and stand up straight. If I fall out of a tree, everyone’s going to see it. I’m hoping I won’t be put in a tree. God forbid, if we’re eaten by jackals, everyone will see our wretched femurs. [laughs] “By god, I think it’s your shinbone.” “No, it’s hers.”
It’s terrifying, frankly. But it’s something to do, and if I’m going to do it at all, now is probably a good time, before everything starts shutting down and I can’t do stuff anymore. [laughs]
I wish you and your respective femurs the best of luck.