Robyn Hitchcock: Peeling Away The Layers

From his first strangely-placed notes with seminal British rockers the Soft Boys, his later forays into MTV-land with Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians, and now as a solo artist, Robyn Hitchcock has been busy carving out for himself a niche within a niche within yet another niche in the music world with his trippy guitar work, ethereal, British-as-hell vocal stylings, and songs that manage to be biting, humorous, gentle and incredibly witty all within a neat three minutes of easily digestible guitar pop. His newest album, the incredible Spooked on YepRoc records is the latest (and arguably greatest) in an impressive body of work.

PlaybackSTL caught up with Robyn as he nursed both a nasty cold and a hot cup of tea.

You’ve caught me bundled up in a hundred layers, wiling a way a perfectly dreary English afternoon. How’s St. Louis? Is the Arch still there?  

Yep, still there. Firstly, I just wanted to tell you I loved your turn as a proper British villain in the recent remake of The Manchurian Candidate.

Oh, you saw that? I thought hardly anyone did from what I’d heard.

Any plans to do more acting in mainstream media?

Well, someone lately called me for an Australian movie that wanted a British bad guy. I go on a case-by-case basis in choosing that sort of stuff.  No one from Hollywood’s called lately, though; it’s a bit of a shame.

The world’s missing out! How is the album doing?

Oh, about as well as could be expected, I guess. It came out in October. No one really knows what to expect with my releases, they have the potential to sell quite well or just sit there. I did have quite a good time recording it, though; Gillian and Dave (Indie-country giants Gillian Welch and David Rawlings), and I had met a few months back and I decided to call them about recording together. It just sort of fell together, one of those cosmic things that needed to happen. We ended up recording a lot more than the album itself, which may or may not be released sometime, a lot of Dylan’s “Basement Tapes” material and so on.

So the world can look forward to a Hitchcock cover of “The Mighty Quinn”?

[Laughs] Oh, yes, you can never quite guess what’s to happen.

You’ve been cited numerous times as being a huge influence on REM, and other bands that have since rose to fame and then sort of receded. How do you feel about being an institution?

Well, I’m glad I’m alive! I didn’t know it would happen while I was still alive; there are two labels applied to me with some regularity, that is “eccentric” and “influential”. I don’t know that I’m either, really.

You’re performing again at this year’s South by Southwest Festival. Are you performing with Gillian and David?

Oh no, they’re busy right now. I’m going solo again.

You’ve been a SXSW fixture since 1993. Aside from the new album and material, is the festival different this year for you?

Well, it’s a chance to catch up in 7 days with old friends and make new ones. Hopefully this won’t be the year I fall down dead. I’m looking forward to seeing our friend Ian again who helped with the album cover art. This year, if you get a bag, it was designed by me, so that’s my claim to fame!

You’ve said before that you were the first alternative artist, but then you’ve also been quoted as saying there is no such thing as alternative. What are you, then?

Ah, caught! Well, there’s no such thing as alternative as in you’ll never hear someone say “Grandpa, can you play me an alternative song?” What, you didn’t like the first one? But as such, my band the Soft Boys probably were the first alternative artists as we were consciously trying to veer away from what was on the radio at the time. We became what was then called “college radio.” Now? I’m just a folk singer!

The opener on Spooked, “Television” doubles as keen social commentary on the TV generation. Have you ever thought of going purely in that direction, pursuing social commentary and criticism?   

It becomes didactic. You’re preaching, you’re an artist, you stand a chance of losing your function as an artist when you go in that direction. I mean certainly…whatever the metabolic conscience, if you have the chance to say something, you might say it, but I don’t intend to go in that direction.

The closer, “Welcome To This World” is delivered as a welcome greeting for extraterrestrials. Do you believe in aliens?

Well, I modeled it after the old public address systems, that stilted language, high speech moving…it has authority. People are less respectful of the upper classes now, those days are gone. I like to think, we can’t be the only ones here. It’s really a matter of faith, there are Jesus freaks, alien freaks…it would be nice, though.

Because of your frequent nods to psychedelia coupled with your sometimes almost stream-of-consciousness styled lyrics, you’re often compared to Syd Barrett (legendary first guitarist of Pink Floyd who later became an acid casualty). Are you tired of hearing his name by this point?   

Ah, Syd. My thought on Syd is that most of us, in producing an album, are about twelve percent talent. We tend to dilute our talent as we produce. Syd I think was just raw talent; he couldn’t hold back and just gave of himself until there was nothing left. I think at this point any comparisons between myself and Syd would no longer apply, as the stuff I’m doing now really has very little relation to what he did. Last I’d heard, he was living in a cottage behind his sister’s house and really doing nothing. It’s quite sad.

Thank you for your time, Mr. Hitchcock, it’s been an honor!

Saint Louis…wait, is Beatle Bob from there? Although I haven’t played in Saint Louis for about twelve years…wait, did I do the Flaming Lips tour? I think I might have…I would love to play Saint Louis again. So I thank you, and leave you with Beatle Bob and Saint Louis!

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