Robyn Hitchcock turned 60 this month, but age is nothing but a number to the prolific singer and longtime fixture of the indie rock scene. The British singer and guitarist started his career in the 1970s as the frontman of proto-punk group The Soft Boys and continued through a solo career that has produced hundreds of songs and collaborations with R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, and Gillian Welch. He’s even appeared in a few films: Jonathan Demme showcased the singer in Storefront Hitchcock and gave him a cameo as a Russian operative in the 2004 verison of The Manchurian Candidate.
His 19th album Love From London comes out today — and its ten tracks indicate Hitchcock has no plans to slow down. Still there are his trademark songs, fabricated with abstract imagery all set to a jaunty beat — or as Hitchcock calls them, “paintings you can listen to.” As he prepares to go on tour with the Venus Three (featuring Buck, Young Fresh Fellows’ frontman Scott McCaughey, Bill Rieflin of Ministry and REM), Hitchcock sat down to chat about his storied career, his new album, and which of his songs he never ever wants to hear again.
You’re turning 60 in March and you’ve been making music for at least 35 of those years. What are some of the biggest changes you have seen over the years?
Christ, has it been that long? Well, the technology has changed and since it’s a technology-based business it has changed to the point. But I think the biggest change to music is that it matters much less than it once did. I don’t think rock matters to 10-year olds the way it used to. Music will always matter to people. There will always be music as long as there are people, but there won’t always be a music business. We just happen to be here when money and technology and the social revolution arrive at the same time. So really, rock music and the momentum of the ’60s, the wave was carried out and dissipated. I think it matters so much less. The last music chain has just gone out of business in the UK — HMV. There is vinyl and people who run our little label YepRoc have done very well by staying small. They’ve been able to stay afloat and haven’t had to merge or go under by being too big or too small, and everyone’s excited that there’s more vinyl, but that means pressing up 2,000 instead of 1,000. The reality is that it’s all gone or it’s all going. It mattered to your dad’s generation and my generation and to you …I guess, but I’m not sure it will matter to your kids. I’m not sure it will matter to them. Then again, they can get music for nothing. You don’t even have to go to a shop, just press a button.
Do you miss record shops?
Johnny Marr is a very passionate advocate of music shops and is always on about ‘we need fewer bloody coffeeshops!’ And ‘how do you pick up music if you don’t have a shop?’ He remembers going to the shop as a kid. Peter Buck is the same. He put out an album and said, ‘I don’t want to release it generally, I want people to have to find it!’ He’s had his career, he’s made his money, he knows that he can do what he wants now, but there’s still that sort of terrific nostalgia for “Oh, we had to find it!” Like when I was a kid, the new Captain Beefheart album would come out in America before it came out in the UK.
The badge of hip for me was to spend 6 pounds, which is the equivalent of $50, and send away to a music shop for Trout Mask Replica with the U.S. cover. It was actually unlistenable. It was such a difficult record, but I spent so much money on it that I just kept playing it over and over again until my ears adjusted. Now you would just Google “rare Beefheart bootlegs” and listen. So that’s what I think the biggest difference is between now and then – just how much less music matters as a product and a culture. But I think music still matters and it always will. But I’ve had a great time. I had no idea at age 20 that I would manage to spend a lifetime in music and that I would be sitting in an office in New York talking about it. It’s been great for Johnny and Peter and all those guys and fortunately they’ve done extremely well financially. There are worse things to do with our lives, but we would be fools to think that it would be the same now.
You celebrated your birthday with a retrospective show at the Village Underground in London where you played songs from each of your albums. Did that process of choosing songs for the show make you a little nostalgic?
No, and oddly enough I’m quite a nostalgic person, but I’m not that nostalgic about my own stuff. The thing is that the older something is, the more it resonates. So if I go back to something from the Soft Boys days, I’ve known that song for over half my life. I can’t remember a time before I wrote it. And anyone who has followed my story will also know it. ‘Oh he’s going to play ‘Kingdom of Love’” that makes me feel whatever – like I’m 30 again. The newer material, well, obviously it doesn’t have the emotional depth. This show was my attempt to time-lapse the Robyn Hitchcock songwriting career into two-and-a-bit hours. I’m only doing that once. Then I’m playing over here with the Venus Three. Those shows are always good. It’s all the “mature indie rock” you can eat!
You’ve written and recorded over 500 songs, are there any that you are absolutely sick of and never want to play again?
The ones I’m best known for. I would love to never play “Balloon Man” or “My Wife And My Dead Wife” again. Oh and “I Want to Destroy You.” I never liked that one. And “I Often Dream of Trains.” Sometimes we do that album as a show and I think it works really well as a piece, because when I wrote it I wasn’t doing any gigs, so I got a real kick out of the fact that we filled Symphony Space doing this record that I had done with no vision of playing live. If I had proper hits then I would really be tethered to them. Like REM always has to play “Losing My Religion” or “Man on the Moon,” and if they didn’t include them in a set list at a festival, it wouldn’t go over very well.
“Balloon Man” was probably your biggest radio hit, right?
Yes, but it wasn’t really a hit. I wrote it for this group, The Bangles.
Wait, you wrote “Balloon Man” for The Bangles? And they didn’t want to play it?
I don’t know why. I used to vaguely know a couple of them and I told them I wrote a song for them. They told me to send it to their management and I did, but I don’t even know if they got it. There was no email back then so it was much harder to check up. But A & M heard it and they put it out and got a hit. I would still be really happy to never hear it again. But these are small complaints. I’m really happy with the way things have gone. I still get to do what I want. I know great people to play with.
Which songs do you think are underappreciated?
The stuff like “Chinese Bones” or “Autumn Is Your Last Chance” or “No, I Don’t Remember Guildford” or “I Feel Beautiful.” In fact, all the songs that my wife likes, the sort of romantic ones. I don’t feel those are as well known as they could be. You sort of get known for you attitude and because I’m known as a “world-view” guy. You go into Mondo Hitchcock, which is sort of halfway between surreal and intellectual and vivid, not dull. But I don’t think the romantic side of my songwriting has necessarily got as far as it could.
Those are some of my favorite songs.
Maybe it’s the songs that girls like and boys gravitate more towards the little boy things like “Man With A Lightbulb Head” or “I Want To Destroy You” the more rocker or goofier end – the songs where I unfortunately sound closest to Syd Barrett, who I absolutely love and was a huge influence. But I always think of those as little boy songs. I suppose my inner Bryan Ferry – which is the taste that I share with my daughter – I don’t think people have picked up on that as much. I can’t complain about the way my career has gone. I’m not someone who is necessarily built for having a high profile or becoming a product. To do that you have to detach from yourself and get used to having that stuff spraying in your face all the time. I’m not prepared to give up my anonymity. You can’t forget who you are. People will always remind you of who you are. It’s good not to think about it too much. You don’t want to have to be defined. This is completely deviating from your question. I would like to be known, perhaps retrospectively, as the guy who wrote “Chinese Bones” or “Autumn is Your Last Chance” or “Sometimes a Blonde.” I don’t think they’re soppy. I think I get enough of my world view in there, but they’re just more tender.
You’ve described your songs as “paintings you can listen to.” Your “paintings” vary from completely surreal, in songs like “Balloon Man,” to the sort of heartbreakingly poignant, if still somewhat surreal, is that something that comes naturally to you?
It’s what I’m inclined to. It comes naturally to me. The people I’ve been inspired by like Bob Dylan and Captain Beefheart to name but two were inclined that way too. But I also like surrealist painting. And people like DiChirico who weren’t necessarily surrealists. I never really liked Dali, but Max Ernst, Magritte, Man Ray. But also writers like JG Ballard and HG Wells. People who may have been categorized as science fiction but were more people who made their own worlds. And my dad, Raymond, who was a fountain of ideas. His mind was in constant eruption. He painted and wrote. One of the first things I remember was Raymond coming back from his office and painting. I’ve got two on my wall now. He wasn’t technically a surrealist but he definitely mixed things up.
What we call surrealism now is simply kind of a 20th-century definition of the dream state that the mind goes into. As a species we’ve been having surreal dreams since …well this is somewhat of a generalization but I assume that I’m right, unless there’s something in the water. Dreams were always the place where unlikely things merged, you know, we would be having this conversation in the gondola of a blimp above the Empire State Building and the Empire State Building would be up to its neck in water and there would be giant birds with tiny portholes and you would see [his publicist] Ken Weinstein waving in the window, “Time’s up!” I was trained to do that by my dad. My sisters and I were trained to be artists. I don’t know how to fix a faucet or change a wheel on a car. I’m pitifully equipped to deal with reality in a lot of ways and that can be dangerous.
If you have unrealistic visions you can be unhappy. Life isn’t bad if you don’t have unrealistic expectations. You can be happy if you learn to enjoy the simple things like falafel or the way Ken’s hair falls over his face or the fact that you know there’s a restroom when you need one. And that there are people that you get along well with. Or that we haven’t been demolished yet. Life is incredibly rich. That you don’t want to kill all your family. These are all pluses. You just put them together and process them and that’s how I process them. If that’s surrealism, so be it. But, really, inside, I’m crooning romantically.
Robyn Hitchcock’s new album, “Love From London” is in stores today. Watch “Be Still” now: