The Mind of Robyn Hitchcock

by Andy Carvin

THIS IS THE STORY of Moose Mark and the Prince of Cones. Moose Mark lived in the middle of a giant circle that was all ringed with magnolias. These creamy flowers winked from the shiny screen of dark leaves, watching over Moose Mark. He wore cycling shorts and antlers that jutted out from his forehead. He'd usually go to bed before nightfall and then get up again when it was totally dark and go jogging around the cathedral with a lantern hanging from each of his antlers. . . .

THIS IS ALSO THE STORY of Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians. Robyn doesn't have antlers (though he wish he did) and does not live in a giant circle of magnolias (though he does like to go jogging, sans lanterns). Upon the first cursory glance, Robyn Hitchcock appears quite normal: short, but lean build, ever so dark hair and eyebrows and a poker face that could only be hiding a seering, scathing wit. The Egyptians, one tall and blond, the other short and dark, look like guys from down the street -- living in the mysterious old house that not even the local kids would venture near.

Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians -- average men who get paid to play unaverage music. Unaverage, in the sense that they are quite serious about writing songs about fish, frogs, scrambled eggs and Dead men named Bruce.

He is the Monty Python, the Syd Barrett, the Douglas Adams of alternative pop. Having spent the last fifteen years cranking out eighteen albums and numerous college radio hits, Robyn Hitchcock has developed into a bit of an institution. His popularity is born from his incessant quirkiness. He writes in a world that many of us wish we could live in -- escapist, poignant, funny. From the morbidity of "My Wife and My Dead Wife" to the silliness of "The Yip Song," Robyn Hitchcock makes no bones about being a little off-center. His music is by no means unique, though: a bit of Beatles, a bit of Byrds, a bit of ketchup. A perfect blend for imaginative woolgathering.

Success, to Hitchcock, is secondary as long as the music stays authentic. He's had a long time to practice, too. In the late '70s, he fronted the Soft Boys, well-read long hairs playing melodies in the British land of punk. After several low key, yet highly praised albums, the Soft Boys faded away, so Hitchcock began the Egyptians. Joined by formed Soft Boy drummer Morris Windsor and bassist Andy Metcalfe, Hitchcock developed his success slowly. By the mid '80s, the Egyptians left their native England for America, where the unusual melodies of bands such as XTC were gaining strength. After the moderate success of albums such as Globe of Frogs and a solo work, Eye, Hitchcock broke through with Perspex Island. Its playful demeanor and catchiness attracted thousands of new fans, while making some Hitchcockian diehards skeptical that the Egyptians might be selling out.

His latest release, Respect, continues his earlier trends of twisted exploration, though many of the tracks have been tempered by the death of his father, author Raymond Hitchcock. The first single, "Driving Aloud (Radio Storm)" has become quite the radio storm in it own right. Can Robyn Hitchcock finally break through to the top without compromising his songwriting? Aparently so.

Robyn Hitchcock spoke with art+performance's Andy Carvin at the beginning of the Egyptians' tour in 1993. Never the type to dwell on standard journalist questions, Hitchcock comments on everything from death to fairy tales.

a+p: The first thing I noticed while listening to Respect was a lack of animal references. Should I assume a small asteroid hit planet Hitchcock and wiped out all signs of life?

RH: Hmm, I don't know. I suppose they went on sort of a mental migration. They're in someone else's head, now; not mine. That was the first thing you noticed about the album?

a+p: Yeah. Go figure.

RH: Hmm. Right.

a+p: You're probably sick of this question all ready, but it seems every journalist in America has been fascinated by your recording of Respect in your home on the Isle of Wight. Why did you skip the standard studio route this time around?

RH: I've never really cared much for going in and recording in the studio, so it seemed like the easiest solution was to have the studio come to record with us. We had rehearsed quite a bit at my house in the summer and were really comfortable with it, so we found a way to set up a mobile recording studio out by the house. It's a rather big house, so we had everyone stay over -- Morris, Andy, their wives, family, friends, assorted travelers -- so I thought it was all quite good.

Most of it was actually recorded in the living room, where we'd pulled up all the carpets, polished the old floors, with all the furniture temporarily dwelling in the garage. The vocals were done in the kitchen, where the acoustics are quite nice. It worked well, with the kettle and everything as a distraction, but we often had to unplug the fridge because it was making a bit of a racket. So, we'd eat our meals over at the pub and use the kitchen for breakfast.

The album is Respect to my father and John Lennon, because they're both dead men with glasses. And great influences, of course.

a+p: Has your father's death last year changed your outlook on life?

RH: His death hasn't affected my music per se, though I've noticed he doesn't ring me up anymore. But I suppose that's obvious, because he's dead. He wasn't exactly an active part of my life -- it's not like we were into male bonding or fishing or the like. But we were quite fond of each other in our own unique, but remote way.

a+p: Would you say that you miss him a lot?

RH: It's not so much that I miss getting in touch with him; I just keep wondering what happened to his consciousness, what happened to his mind. One minute, it's there, and the other minute, it's not. The body is still right there, so to speak, but all the perceptions, imaginations and emotions are off somewhere else. There was quite a bit in his head and it seems odd for it not being together anymore. My father had a very distinct way of seeing things. He had a restless imagination that always seemed to be scheming plots and new ideas. Obviously, my sisters and I inherited much of it from him, but those are just our personal perceptions, and the actual source of these perceptions is, well, I can only imagine where it is now.

a+p: Your music over the years has always contained numerous death references. Do you think you might have a mild obsession with death?

RH: You can't get away from the dead. I suppose I often dwell on death, especially my own death, because it's the last thing we're ever going to do. Whatever else there is to do, you better do it first -- you could go to Kathmandu, you could have a sex change or two, you could spend your precious time ballooning -- but whatever happens, you're gonna die. Death is something we all have in common, even though people often prefer to think that one can separate oneself from others, like "Oh, these aren't our kind of people," but wherever you hide, death has got to find you. There's sort of a democracy in death. Rich corpse, poor corpse, black corpse, white corpse. We all get our final mandatory chance to vote.

a+p: You always sing about other dead people, but never your own. How do you want to die?

RH: I want to die as painlessly as possible. To die in pain and humiliation is absolutely wretched. Dying is a final chance to be profound and have it count. Where's the point in dying in too much pain to have that chance?

a+p: Inside the cover of Respect is a wonderful short story, "Moose Mark and the Prince of Cones." You also included a story on the back of Globe of Frogs. Ever thought of sitting down and writing a good book?

RH: I've written quite a few short stories, like that one inside the new album. I don't know if I'd ever want to publish them all in a book, though maybe a reading over a musical score could be nice. I love writing, though I can't concentrate long enough to write anything of epic proportions.

a+p: Your father was a writer, wasn't he?

RH: Yes, among many other remarkable talents.

a+p: Did his talents rub off on anyone else in the family?

RH: Lal, my younger sister -- as opposed to my youngest; that would be Fleur -- is quite an artist. She builds totem poles. Really great ones, too. She's made a few chairs that instead of having a leather or wood seat, they have grass. But the woman who was exhibiting the pieces thought the grass was too long, so she trimmed them to her liking. From my sister's point of view, it's not unlike tweaking the eyelashes of her Mona Lisa. Then again, maybe that might be sort of an extreme parallel.

a+p: Well, I kinda liked it.

RH: Hmm. She also makes these wonderful lampshade, with heads that are enormous flowers of wires and papier mache. Now she's making a railway station of my family waving goodbye to my father on his death train.

My youngest sister, Fleur, writes books. So I supposed my father's creativity ran rampant through the family.

a+p: You must have had a rather strange childhood surrounded by people dripping with inspiration.

RH: We weren't that strange of a family. We went to the bathroom, wore shoes and the like. Lal and I were encouraged to do our things, while my youngest sister wrote novels, something which we could never do. We were a very unathletic family. Our idea of afternoon sport was to stand around and throw balls over our shoulders.

We were a very unphysical family -- I think I gave my youngest sister her first hug when she was 28. I supposed we preferred existing from the neck upwards, disembodied yapping heads saturated with intense thought.

a+p: You've developed a large following here in America, yet your popularity at home is limited. I once saw you open for Billy Bragg in Edinburgh and it seemed only five or six people even had a clue as to who you were.

RH: I supposed our American popularity, or more accurately, our lack of British popularity, goes all the way back to 1978. Captain Sensible said it best, that we were doing the right thing at the absolute worst time. While the rest of England shaved their heads and pummeled out punk progressions, we were playing long guitar solos and harmonizing under our very long hair. We didn't appeal to the British press, and it killed us, leaving us with only spats of vague trendiness.

We were very much rescued by the States around '85. By that point, I had stopped recording music altogether when I noticed that our records were selling as exports in America. You couldn't find one of our albums in England, yet some current unbeknownst to us carried them across the waters to America, where they began seeding themselves in various and sundry record stores.

What the hell were you doing in Edinburgh?

a+p: Studying.

RH: Studying what?

a+p: Sociology and communication technology.

RH: You had to go all the way over to Scotland to do that?

a+p: No, but I thought it would be nice to get out of the country for a bit.

RH: It's nice to get out of the country and going to another one. It's certainly better than leaving the country and getting killed, I suppose.

a+p: Now wait a second. I could either continue with this death motif, or you could continue interviewing me.

RH: Ah, well, never mind. Where were we?

a+p: Nowhere, really. Let's talk about some of the new songs. The last track, "Wafflehead," is odd, even for you, with its primitive beat and oversexed, American-accented rantings.

RH: "Wafflehead" is an overly physical Barry White love poem for my girlfriend. I think I wrote it in LA by a pool -- ever the rock star. I made a demo of it with me singing it, with overdubs of me grunting and such. Then, Andy and Morris heard me, so Morris started mooing like a cow while Andy poured a jug of water in stereo between two separate speakers. I finally added the bass drum, which is actually me singing straight through, so by the time you get to the end, the gulps of air every eight beats become quite conspicuous.

a+p: In " The Wreck of the Arthur Lee," you sing the verse, "I believe in love." A little bird told me that you weren't waxing to amore, but to the band, Love.

RH: I'd been listening to a lot of Love records on the West Coast, and they gave me the urge to write a over-complicated song, with twisting chords and abundant changes. I probably did it because my songs have progressively gotten simpler over the years -- streamlined, if you will.

a+p: Is that a sign of getting older, or more mature?

RH: It's not like I want to get totally slack, like Bryan Ferry. Burning out is avoidable, as long as you recognize it early. Musicians see their songwriting as climbing an intolerable mountain, but when you sit back and think about it, it's really just a good sized hill.

a+p: What do you think of today's music scene?

RH: The music scene isn't that bad; I love to listen to the Belly album while I paint. Grant Lee Buffalo does a lot for me.

a+p: We're sponsoring a show of theirs this week.

RH: You're having them? Well, give them my love. I'd like to have them do some shows with us some time, but unfortunately, it wouldn't have worked out for this current tour.

a+p: Did ever get into the grunge scene at all?

RH: Grunge, I suppose, is the result of the great musical tree reseeding itself. It's got the noise of '77 and the hair of '72, and the leaves have inbred and drifted to Seattle. It makes me want to cut off all my hair and strum my acoustic for the rest of my life.

Like any other musical phenomena, the originators of the sound had the talent and the power, but unfortunately, because of the music business' herd mentality and marketing style, new bands get vacuumed into the wave, like it or not. The wave then crashes into a clichˇ, and then even the quality bands playing the same sort of music get overlooked, while the headhunters look for a new trend.

a+p: And how do you fit into the grand scheme of '90s music?

RH: My stature in the '90s music scene? I feel like a gargantuan dwarf in the midst of microscopic giants. Or would that be the other way around?

a+p: I think you had it right the first time.

RH: Probably.

a+p: Do you like being popular?

RH: On the whole, I like attention. If no one's interviewing me and I don't get to meet and greet anybody, I begin to shrivel up and lose my identity. I miss it when no one's coming up to me and defining me. I guess my need for attention is somewhere between a sugar rush and a bottomless pit -- it's great for a while, but you don't want to lose it. It doesn't get you anywhere in the long run but it's certainly better than working at a bank or a bath house or as an Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonator.

I enjoy doing interviews, but when they're conducted by someone who's done a lot of interviews, they begin to forget who you are as an individual and become entwined amidst the quoteables. I also get blurred by hearing the same question over and over again.

a+p: Sort of like when I asked, "So, Robyn, what was it like recording at home. . ."

RH: Well, you've gotten better since then.

a+p: You recently moved to Washington, D.C.

RH: Right. Last October.

a+p: What do you think of your new neighbor, Bill Clinton? RH: I prefer Clinton to our old neighbor, George Bush. At least we're lucky to have a Democrat in the White House, if only in name. At least it's not Britain, where we seemed doomed to have these conservatives dominating the government. We probably just need a good uprising or something.

a+p: What's your take on the recent David Koresh fiasco?

RH: Quite simple. It only takes a small amount of people to get a movement going, and they can inflict a lot of harm, or good, in some cases. Hitler surrounded himself with a bunch of emotional cripples and got away with it. If you show people that you possess something they need, you can exploit them limitlessly.

a+p: Do you have any favorite fairy tales? RH: is this a followup to the David Koresh question?

a+p: No.

RH: It's a shame there aren't any gay fairy tales. It would be nice to see the girl kiss the frog, it turns into a princess, and they live happily forever after. There's got to be innumerable lessons from that one.

a+p: Could make a wonderful song.

RH: Who knows.

a+p: I'll be waiting for it.

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