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Soft Boys - Interview Part 1

  by Anthony Strutt

published: 22 / 3 / 2002

Soft Boys - Interview Part 1


The Soft Boys 'Underwater Moonlight' is one of the acknowledged psychedelic masterpieces of the 70's. In the first of a two part interview, frontman Robyn Hitchcock talks about the group's one year reformation to celebrate the album's 21st birthday

The Soft Boys, after Pink Floyd, are perhaps the most influential band to have ever emerged out of Cambridge music scene. The band, which was fronted by Robyn Hitchcock, emerged in the late 70's punk era, but was influenced by the previous generation. Hitchcock broke up the Soft Boys in early 1981, and since then, both with his group the Egyptians and also a solo artist, has gone on to make another nearly twenty albums. The definitive line-up of the Soft Boys, which as well as Hitchcock on vocals and guitar, also features Kimberley Rew on guitar and harmonica, Matthew Seligman on bass and Morris Windsor aka Otis Fagg on drums, however, reformed for one year only last year to celebrate the 21st birthday of their classic masterpiece 'Underwater Moonlight'. I caught up with Robyn recently for one of the nicest Sunday afternoon interviews I have ever had, and spoke to him about his long career. In the first part of a two part interview, I began by asking him about the Soft Boys reformation. Robyn had a lot to say, so I will get straight on with it AS : 'Underwater Moonlight' is 21 years old. Was that your first album with the Soft Boys, and is it the album you’re most proud of? RH : It wasn’t the first album. The first one was 'Can of Bees', and there was in fact another one as well before that which we recorded for the Radar label but aborted. The first good one though was 'Underwater Moonlight'. It’s one of the albums I’m most proud of. It’s certainly the best Soft Boys album. I have made albums since then that I like as much probably. I think 'I Often Dream of Trains' and 'Fegmania', both of which I recorded in the mid-80s, were good albums. I like a record called 'Eye' that I did in 1990 as well. It had too many songs, but it had some good ones on it. 'Underwater Moonlight', however, is definitely up there. It’s like saying though: is it better to be 20 or 40? Neither is, it’s just different. Life isn’t a means to an end, it’s just a series of moments that you make the best of. 'Moonlight' was the work of four young guys in their mid/late twenties and I thought it was pretty good really. I'm definitely pleased with it, and I’m glad it has survived. AS : What bands were you in before the Soft Boys? RH : What shall we call them? There was The New Stooglie Brothers, which would have been the first one featuring Rick Stooglie, who is now sadly deceased. Then there was the Beatles, which was the codename for this band that I had in art school. We played down the road in Kennington, at the City and Guilds Art School. That was my first public performance. We ended up playing three times there actually. As I was a student there, they let me bring my band. On the first date, one of my art teachers got into a fight and knocked the Christmas tree over. At the second one, the PA broke down after two songs. I was bitterly disappointed because I was having a great time. I remember I looked forward to those gigs for months; it was as special and rare as having sex in those days! "My God, I might have sex tonight! Oh my God, I’m going to have a gig in six weeks’ time!" I have been playing gigs for centuries now and nothing has equalled the nervous thrill that went into playing those early gigs in Kennington. Then we had Robyn Hitchcock’s Worst Fears, up in Cambridge, which was one of my flatmates and my girlfriend of the time, and that turned into Maureen and the Meatpackers. I moved on to Dennis and the Experts, which very briefly was Morris Windsor, Matthew Seligman, and this guy called Rob Lamb [brother of DJ/Oval Records and label owner Charlie Gillett-Ed]. Matthew left and was replaced by Andy Metcalfe, Rob Lamb left and was replaced by Wayne Lowe and then we became the Soft Boys. That was the first point that I connected with people who were really good musicians. Up until that point when we became the Soft Boys, I was in bands with my friends and housemates as you do, and while I really wanted to become a musician, they were just along for a laugh. These people could play better than me. They were able to play the chords in the right way, but it was like a body without a head and I was the head. It took a while for it all to get going. I started writing songs in 1970 but they were crap until that point in which we became the Soft Boys in 1977. AS : Did the band’s name mean anything? RH : Oh yes.I had written this song called 'Give It to the Soft Boys'. I pictured the Soft Boys a bit like civil servants. They were powerful, but you wouldn't see them. They were invisible, but they had a huge influence. Funnily enough, that's kind of what happened My vision of them was that they had been filleted, they had no bones so they could slide under doors and then come back up, like in the Terminator movies, so they could get anywhere, through a keyhole or under a door. They would be bloodless, like they had been drained like Halal, but they would be alive . They didn't have bones and they also had a tremendous sexual appetite in some ghastly way that was left to the imagination. I thought this is too good so I had I had to write about in a song and came up with 'Give it To the Soft Boys'. We were also in one sense all very soft. We were middle class, mother’s boys, wouldn’t hurt a fly, couldn’t confront anyone never mind each other, very nice people who avoided eye contact and really liked Monty Python and kind of laughing at things quietly in silent laughter. Anyway, there it was in a way. We did become invisible, but an influential force after our demise. AS :Did you feel cheated at the time because the Echo and the Bunnymen and the Teardrop Explodes were exploring the same sort of territory and they took off? RH : Yeah, I did. I felt quite sour about it all which never helps because no one loves you when you’re sour and angry! I remember there was a bill at the Electric Ballroom in London with the Psychedleic Furs, and the Bunnymen, the Teardrop Explodes and Wah, and I thought "Fuck it ! No one asked us." They were a bit younger and in some ways they were more sort of post-punk that us. They were people who had been through punk and had decided to get onto a bit of a psychedelic trip where we were pre-punk and we didn’t really adopt psychedelia. It was already there in our system. They discovered psychedelia and decided to wave it as a flag whereas we didn’t wave it as a flag. It was what we were anyway. A lot of them were from Liverpool, so they were probably a lot more outside-world friendly; Cambridge is rather sheltered. AS :How did the reunion happpen? Did you decide that 'Underwater Moonlight' was 21 years old and to do something about it ? RH : Yeah, pretty much so ! Kim and I had been doing some stuff together. He has an album out called ‘Tunnel into Summer’ and I’m on three tracks of that and he was on my last album, so we got used to playing together again. The album was out of print at the time, so I looked for a label and got in touch with Morris and Matthew. Matthew had been a barrister for about a year, and Morris has been playing with a group called the Gliders which is in the same territory as Gomez, and bluesy R 'n' B, American music played by Brits but very listenable. What we represent isn’t around much. It’s a really good psychedelic dance band but not in the Primal Scream sense; it’s sort of psychedelic pub rock, which could but a put down but that’s what it is. AS : The re-release of 'Underwater Moonlight' features all sorts of extra tracks. Can you see the other albums by the Soft Boys being re-released with all sorts of similar unreleased demos and rehearsals ? RH : There aren't similar quality rehearsal tapes for the other albums. With the exception of the rehearsal tapes for 'Underwater Moonlight', the rehearsal tapes are not very good quality. Kimberley did something special with that one. He put three vocal mics in one channel and he put the band's ambient sound which just happened to be really good, in the other channel, so we had a good crude stereo vocal. 'The Cans of Bees' rehearsals were on my beatbox and are unfortunately unreleasable. I really think that the only other Soft Boys rehearsal worth releasing is our very first session. It was done very quickly, and six tracks of it have already appeared on a compilation 'The Soft Boys '76-'81'. AS : Is the artwork the same? Didn't your Mum make the models for that ? RH : No, it was my sister and, yeah, it is the same characters. Sadly, we had to burn them because they had become flea or rat-infested or something. They were up in the attic for years. For the time being we will leave Robyn Hitchcock there. In the second part we shall carry on and talk about Robyn's solo career, his work as an artist, his relationship with R.E.M. and his forthcoming book.

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Soft Boys - Interview Part 1

Soft Boys - Interview Part 1

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Interview Part 2 (2002)
Soft Boys - Interview Part 2
In the second part of our two part Soft Boys interview, Anthony Strutt talks to frontman Robyn Hitchcock about his 20 year solo career, working with both the Damned's Captain Sensible and REM's Peter Buck, and further about the group's recent reformation

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London Electric Ballroom
Soft Boys - London Electric Ballroom
It's been twenty one years since the Soft Boys last played here opening for the Psychedelic Furs and tonight sees the twenty first anniversary of 'Underwater Moonlight'. Much of the audience in the Electric Ballroom tonight have been in love with the b

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Nextdoorland (2002)
Fantastic new album from the recently reformed the Soft Boys, which follows on naturally from their classic 'Underwater Moonlight' album of 22 years years ago

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