The Purple Bottle

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Robyn In The Times!

Here's a good little piece from The Times of all places!
Politicians should take note: it’s difficult to conduct a hard-hitting interview with a man who has a kitten on his head. There might be rock history to contemplate and lyrical imagery to discuss, but the distracting fact remains that the singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock has Molecule, his kitten of ten days, prowling over his shoulders. “Nicely! Not the jugular!” chides Hitchcock, sitting at his kitchen table in the West London cottage where he lives with the claw-happy Molecule and his artist wife Michele.
There is tea, cake and a domestic calm enchantingly at odds with the traditional rock’n’roll set-up. It’s fitting: after all, Hitchcock himself has spent the past 30 years enchantingly at odds with that world.
“I would define myself,” says Robyn Hitchcock, “by saying I’m Robyn Hitchcock. I know it sounds arrogant, but it’s the easiest way.” As the frontman of Cambridge’s brilliantly awkward Soft Boys, he unleashed a stream of psychedelic consciousness into a punk-rock world; as a solo artist fascinated by love, death and all the hatching creatures of the planet, he was the toast of America’s Eighties college rock underground; and in recent years, he has worked with alt-country heroine Gillian Welch and, on the tremendous Ole! Tarantula (2006), his backing band the Venus Three, consisting of REM’s Peter Buck, Scott McCaughey and Bill Rieflin.
REM aren’t the only American band to acknowledge his influence: Flaming Lips and Yo La Tengo are fans while the Decemberists’ frontman Colin Meloy recently admitted he was “still pretty much obsessed” with the singer.
“Mostly my stuff doesn’t fit into any particular place in the chronology of rock music,” the rangily charismatic Hitchcock says. “It couldn’t have happened before 1967 but I’m happy to say it could have happened any time after. It means I’ve probably never seemed particularly relevant – but it also means I don’t really go away.”
He’s currently not going away by releasing Luminous Groove on Yep Roc Records, a box set of his work with the Egyptians, his Eighties band. It includes the beguiling Fegmania! from 1985, Element of Light the following year and the commanding live album Gotta Let This Hen Out! Given Hitchcock’s assertion that he writes songs as a way of “bottling time”, posterity is important. “They’re not bringing back the miners’ strike or the birth of my daughter – they’re actually more just how I felt. That’s what makes them important to me and why I dream of them being found under a pyramid one day. The drive behind every artist is to pass the message in the bottle to the next generation. These dead hands are thrusting these scrolls at you – ‘It’s my life! Take it!’ – because our culture is what lives. We’re going to peg out somewhere between 70 and 110 even with all the yoghurt in the world. But our books and songs and pictures, what we’ve distilled, can carry on – and who knows what will be there to receive them?”
Hitchcock himself willingly received the musical transmissions that electrified his youth. Given a guitar by his parents at the age of 14 – just in time for the far-out musical reinventions of 1967 – the Dylan-obsessed teenager “felt like an outsider. By the time I was 19 or 20 I had managed to alienate myself from enough people – including myself – to feel it was Robyn Hitchcock against the universe. And I had to look around for other people who were talented but marooned, who communicated best through music. I think that fitted all the other guys in the Soft Boys.”
The band was too tightly wound to join the fashionable calls for anarchy in the UK. Their single I Wanna be an Anglepoise Lamp spoke of an alienation, a discomfort in your skin so profound, it wasn’t enough to change gender, or even species – you had to transform into an inanimate object. They split up in 1980 shortly after releasing their defining album, Underwater Moonlight.
“We had the bad luck in the Soft Boys to appear at a time when people weren’t ready to take their nutrients from the great Sixties music,” Hitchcock explains. “There’d been the funky denim wilderness of the Seventies and then the furious attempt of punk to sever itself from all of that. It was very Maoist. We didn’t fit into that because we came from stuff that is now in every rock critic’s top five albums – Pet Sounds, Revolver, Highway 61.”
Hitchcock took these classic rock icons and bent them through his own mental prism.
Insects and molluscs, eating and being eaten, slow decay, the sheer messy physicality of being human: his lexicon lends itself to looping flights of fancy as well as the skull-faced truths lurking behind life. Hence his reputation as an eccentric. “I’m probably relatively everyday compared with what I sound like,” he says. “The songs and stuff, it’s the essence of me. It’s not me pretending to be someone or wishing I was anything.”
When it comes to the absurdities of the human condition there are few better chroniclers. “How strange it is that you’re actually here in this particular moment and what a rare and beautiful thing that can be for all the terror of existence. It’s still an extraordinary thing that you are there and everything is obeying the laws of gravity and the walls are keeping the house up, the electricity is flooding through into the lights and a lot of things are working. Although,” he pauses, “obviously the grail is always doom and entropy is waving through the window.”
He might never have become an insider, but he is at the centre of his own inimitable universe. “I suppose now you just think about the similarities between people rather than the differences,” he says. “I know I’m a very different creature from Wayne Rooney but we breathe the same air and we use the same drains. Our DNA is almost interchangeable and if someone digs us up in 2,000 years they might easily think we were related: ‘Well, Rooney’s albums took a strange turn round about now.’ ” As he understands all too well, stranger things have happened.


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