Interview Part 2
published: 10 /
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
PB : When did you first start playing solo shows ?
RH : I played my first solo gig at the Venue in Victoria. We brought the dummies which appeared on the cover of 'Underwater Moonlight' on stage with us, so they made it to one live appearance.
PB : As well as your solo career, you've also got your band the Egyptians. You've been friends with R.E.M. for many a year, and Peter Buck is an honourable Egyptian. How did that come about ?
RH : Peter and I have been friends for years. We have even played a gig together in my local pub in Clerkenwell, which I go into every now and then. The official line is that we met at the North London Cats Protection league trying to protect cats, or looking for cats to protect and he came along and played on some demos of mine. He was there for 20 minutes and he came up with 2 really good guitar lines, and then I took him to the tube, but our paths kept crossing. The truth of it is that we kept running across R.E.M.and he liked our stuff anyway. He had been a fan. He started playing with us whenever he could. He has played on tours and had played on 3 Egyptians albums.
PB : You also played together as Nigel and the Crosses for one night only, didn't you ?
RH : No, there were 2. We did one in Chicago, and the other one was at the London Borderline.
PB : You have also written stuff with Captain Sensible as well ?
RH : Well, that was some time ago. The Captain had his A&M deal, and was very excited.
PB : Was that after his 'Happy Talk' period ?
RH : No, that was in 1981, which was the year of 'Happy Talk'. He was planning on making a solo album, and then he met this guy who got him a whacking big deal with A&M and then 'Happy Talk' went to No. 1. He couldn't believe it. In one way, it sort of him did him in a bit. He got a bit over exposed. At the beginning of the year, he was just this guy in the Damned, who was going to make this solo album, and by July he was at No. 1 and everyone wanted a piece of him, but he was a good bloke. Anyway, he had a lot of backing tracks and he just gave me some cassettes and then I went away and wrote some words to the B sides of some of his singles. I think they were ones which flopped. I did all the lyrics.
The best one was called 'Croydon'. It appeared on his first album. I wrote the story of his life in 3 verses, and then either he or I put this music over it, which sounded like a bit like 'A Whiter Shade of Pale', so the Captain had this dreamy song with the words 'Croydon' over it. That was my favourite, but it was great because I wasn't doing much at the time and it helped on the money side between the Softy Boys and really getting going again in '84/'85.
PB : Do you miss the early punk days and the spirit that it infused in the youth ?
RH : I liked it. This brings me back to Captain Sensible a bit actually. Sensible said that when punk started as far as he was concerned, and he was one of the prime movers, you could do anything, you could be who you wanted, you could invent yourself cheaply as a character, like he did, but within 6 months, it became all safety pins and ripped jeans. It became a uniform. Ten years before that everyone wore great coats and flared trousers.
I don't miss the uniform of it, but I miss the early kind of spirit, the spirit that the records were made in. You didn't have to be that slick, although very quickly you became so because the big companies came in. The problem was Malcolm McLaren's principle, which was to sign to a major label and then to rip them off. Everyone did that, but the major always ripped you off in one way or the other. You couldn't beat the system, so they all went in and within a few years they were all making very slick albums. The original 7" Do It Yourself ethos disappeared.
The other thing was that it was kind of rough and aggressive. It wasn't much playing fun to people who were going to throw things at you. 3 years before then they would have been sitting cross legged, going like "Wow, Man". Now they were standing up and spitting. I wasn't really comfortable with that. The Soft Boys and I were too wimpy to deal with flying objects. It wasn't the most relaxing environment to play in. If people liked you, they spat at you. If they didn't spit at you, so what were you going to do ? I was happy to fast forward to the 80's as far as audiences were concerned.
The approach of those early records was great. There was a feeling of excitement and the machinery hadn't...
PB : Really kicked in...
RH : Kicked in and it did. It would be hard to get something like that again. But then great moments only occur once. You can't go to the Great Moments shop and say "I want another one of those again, please". It just doesn't happen.
PB : You were on the comedian Jerry Sadowitz's show, and did a sketch on that ? Would you like to get more involved in comedy ?
RH : I was on his show. Yeah !Funnily enough over here my peers are comedians, where as in the States, they are musicians. I really don'tknow any British musicians. I haven't even seen the captain for years. I think I was on Rich Hall's comedy store a few years ago. I like that side of things, but...
PB : Because no one else has mixed comkedy into music. Everyone has fone more serious now. I mean it was always serious, but it's more serious now.
RH : I think since the 60's, when the rock star became Messiah, it has unfortunately gone that way. It was all very much "We are not amused". The Rock Messiah, even if was an anti Messiah or something like that, it was still meant to be the voice of God.
Prior to that people like Sinatra and Crosby were entertainers. They might have been very cheesy, but they could do both comedy ans also straight acting. They could do a ballad that would bring tears to your eyes, or they could make you laugh. The early Beatles were like that on 'A Hard Day's Night'. Lennon was hilarious. They all were, then they all started taking themselves far too seriously. Even Dylan was very funny to start off with, but something, maybe it was the drugs, made it very self important.
The Soft Boys generally didn't do that. We couldn't take ourselves seriously and I think that people in the press though we were taking the piss over here, because we would do like the @Barber Shop Quartet' and then do a heavy metal number. Why not ? We just wanted a bit of variety. I like doing comedy, but I'm also a serious musician. if people can get that concept, which is very hard in Britain, it was like "Is he a joke or what ? What is this bloke ?" It's like if Shakespeare did comedy. He always made sure that there were funny bits in the middle and I guess it's the same for me.
PB : You also made a concert film 'Storefront Hitchcock' with the director Jonathan Demme.
RH : Yeah ?
PB : Did you enjoy making it ?
RH : I had never done anything like that before, and suddenly I had to do 2 shows a day for 2 days. They were 2 hour shows, and I had to repeat the set list exactly because they had to cut between one cut to another. It was hard work. I don't look very happy in the film. I only smile once, but I think the music performances are great and beautifully filmed in as much as a film of me is going to be. Just how much do you want to see of yourself in great close up for an hour and a half ?
Jonathan Demme was great to work with, and his crew and his team and his producer were all lovely people, but I wish in some ways that we had done it now, so I had just got the chance to know him a bit better. As it was, I met him and he said "Do you want to make a film ?" and very quickly we started filming it.
PB : You have also been writing a book ?
RH : Yes, I have written it. I have just got to revise it. I have an agent in new York. I just manage myself. I spend most of my time doing adminstration on the phone or playing guitar. I'm going to have to shut myself off away in a hotel without a phone for 2 weeks to finish it. I'm quite close. I'm really worried in case I don't make it, as I don't want my publisher to publish it as it is
One more revision and it would be great. It's really hard work. I get worried sometimes that I'm not going to be able to write good songs because no one does after a certain age. I'm amazed that I'm still writing stuff in my forties. Most people run out of steam in their twenties, so I'm thinking "This could stop. This might not work." I have to find another way of earning a living, but writing a book is murder, writing a book is like snap. It's easy writing a song, so at least this book has made me appreciate being a songwriter.
PB : Could you ever see yourself doing a new Soft Boys album ?
RH : Yeah, I think so. We have recorded a Paul McCartney song for a Paul McCartney tribute for cancer relief for Linda. It's a song called 'Let Me Roll With It' which was on @Band on the Run', which is a Lennon take off. We recorded that and it sound really good. That worked well, and, if the material was good, there could be another Soft Boys record.
PB : Will you be the main writer or will you co write it ?
RH : No, it will still be me. With all due respect, I don't really want to do other people's songs, and that's why it works. Kim Rew and I arrange it all together, but I can't really see myself singing someone else's words. Id someone had a better chord sequence or something, then that could appear as a co write. I don't think I need other people's ideas for songs, but at the same time it would have to be good material. It would be terrible for a new Soft Boys to come out with second rate songs. I have to be extra careful as the supplier. If I was confident that I had good songs, then we could make a new album.
PB : What do you listen to or do to relax yourself ?
RH : To relax myself, I go to the gym. I don't listen to much music. I listen to it when I'm washing up or cooking. I like the Stephen Malkus record. Matador gave me a copy. I sort of missed Pavement, but stuff like 'Modest Mouse'is alright.
PB : Steve Wynn does a lot of these bootleg compilations. Would you do anything like that ?
RH : Well, there is so much of my stuff around anyway. A lot if it is on the internet. Quite often I get given bootleg CDs of my own shows, so I think sometime in the next year, so I think that some time in the next year, I might try to put out a retrospective of the last thirty years, but I'm not quite sure.
PB : Thanks for your time.
RH : Cheers !