An Interview with Robyn Hitchcock
“The meaning of the universe is an apple,” Robyn Hitchcock profoundly pronounces. “Of course,” he adds, “that’s only this universe.” This tidbit of gonzo philosophy is typical of the spur-of-the-moment witticism that informs Hitchcock’s music as well as his conversation. As a performer, he’s as much a wandering bard as a rock star, a musician who cites novelist William S. Burroughs among his primary influences. Hitchcock’s first band, the Soft Boys, never fully fell into step with the ’70s punk era in which it was born, but the band’s distinctive sound heavily influenced such ’80s postpunk notables as the Replacements and R.E.M. Decades on, Robyn’s eccentric lyrics and minstrel style still seem like Bob Dylan by way of Doctor Who.
With his tales of hovering glass cathedrals, Neanderthal ghosts, and attacking marshmallows, the spoken-word introductions that Hitchcock inserts before his songs are often as entertaining as the songs themselves. The stories he concocts aren’t really designed to make sense—“that’s not what the song’s about, but that’s the thing to visualize while listening to it” he once remarked—but are generated as a sort of lo-fi visual aid to the music. It’s this glimpse into the fascinating psyche from which the stories arise that is part of the appeal of Robyn’s self-styled “retro-delic” performances.
His latest album, 2004’s Spooked, (on which he is joined by folk musicians Gillian Welch and David Rawlings), finds him advocating tree living—“I’ll bring you fat juicy worms / I’ll bring you millipedes”—and crooning love songs to a television—“My kid will look like you I swear.” At turns both poignant and hysterical, it’s quintessential Hitchcock, the latest offering in a long career of one of Britain’s most engaging musicians. I phoned Robyn one evening in his flat in London, to learn what currently turns on the man with the lightbulb head.
I. “I HAVE QUITE A POWERFUL LIBIDO, AN APPETITE. I’M QUITE A LIVELY ANIMAL.”
THE BELIEVER: Why are you spooked?
ROBYN HITCHCOCK: Why am I spooked? Well, I don’t know. I’ve been spooked pretty much my entire existence. Apparently my father had nightmares before I was born, when I was small. I mean, I don’t think it’s just ’cause I was on the way, although I’m sure that helped unsettle his psyche still further. He did a lot of very vivid paintings when I was small. I think there were just bad dreams in the house. He’d been hit in World War II, his knee was smashed, so he had a straight leg and he couldn’t bend it, so I think the world of bad dreams got up and running really fairly fast as far as Robyn Hitchcock was concerned. I mean, everybody lives in the same nightmare, they just react to it at different times. The news is always bad. You have to live with that. It was the same in Plato’s day. What you’re looking at is the human being, which is essentially an experiment that failed. It’s an evolutionary leap that’s probably not going to work, and unfortunately it knows it’s not going to work. That’s part of the appeal of Frankenstein’s monster. You know, the look in the monster’s eyes—it knows it’s this hideous deformed creature that’s going to throw little girls in the river, but it would like to be something better. And that’s pretty much us.
BLVR: So we don’t have a way forward from here? You think we need to back up to some earlier state before we can move ahead again?
RH: In an evolutionary way? I don’t think there’s anywhere back you can go. I mean one of the problems is that, for instance, the current American administration hasn’t really accepted the consequences of the Industrial Revolution. I know I sound like a pedantic academic, but I’m trying to compress things here. The administration hasn’t acknowledged that we can’t just go around chucking our garbage out of the window and shitting in any corner of the field we like, or that this land is choked and what we do has environmental consequences. To put it in very crude terms, I think the worst people always reach the top in groups of humans. The kind of primitive killers. Unfortunately, they have to be smart. And they’re the ones that call the shots. An organism like that is irretrievably bound to fuck up, which it does over and over and over again. The history of human art and the history of human pain is really about this. People coming up with aphorisms like “the lesson of history is that nobody learns the lesson of history.”
BLVR: Are you an optimist or a pessimist? You’re surprisingly upbeat about death and decay.
RH: I think, intellectually, I’m a pessimist. I can’t see a way out. I can’t see good coming of anything. But I think that in terms of my energy, my chi, the life force that’s in me, if you like, I have a lot of life. I’m full of pep. I love making music. I enjoy all the things that I do. I love food and sex and films and complaining and getting on and off aircraft. I have quite a powerful libido, an appetite. I’m quite a lively animal. I mean, I don’t get into fights, or at least I try not to. Years ago I wrote a song called “My Mind Wants to Die but My Body Wants to Live” and that was the only lyric in it. And really, that pretty much sums me up. So as a thinking person I’m completely in despair, but as a kind of creature I’m quite happy.
BLVR: There’s a certain maturity to your more recent work, which achieves a real poignancy without sacrificing the surrealism or the humor. Case in point is “Television,” a love song to the titular appliance that makes you laugh one minute and breaks your heart the next.
RH: I always liked sad songs. Before I even picked up a guitar, I liked sad songs. I couldn’t really write them to begin with. I think my early songs were like cartoons, really. They were sort of rapid-breeder worlds. I have a rapid-breeder head, and I’m hoping it’s slowing down, it’s cooling down as I get older.
II. “OFTEN PEOPLE ONLY MEET YOU ONCE, SO YOU HAVE TO WATCH OUT. IF SOMEBODY MEETS YOU AND YOU’RE IN A BAD MOOD, THEY’LL GO AROUND SAYING, ‘YEAH, I MET ROBYN HITCHCOCK. HE’S A REAL ASSHOLE.’”
BLVR: You have an amazing ability to blend humor and pathos. That’s very difficult to do. Americans seem to have a very hard time being funny and sad in the same breath.
RH:I don’t know, Bob Dylan did it, and Dylan was what lit my flame. You know, you don’t light a flame, but that’s what sort of kindled it in me, listening to Dylan when I was thirteen, fourteen. He could be sad and funny at the same time. It’s something I’ve always aimed at, and maybe I’m getting closer to it. My favorite, my guiding light as a song, was “Visions of Johanna.” Do you know that one?
BLVR: That’s my favorite Dylan song.
RH: Oh, well, there we are. That’s been my guiding light in terms of a song that’s kind of tragic and absurd at the same time. So I suppose that maybe it’s beginning to work. That’s great. I’m glad I’m developing. I hope so. I’m never really sure.
BLVR: As influential as Bob Dylan has been on your career, does he know you’re out there as one of the waves churned up in his wake? Have you met him?
RH: No, I wouldn’t want to meet Dylan. Not that he needs to prove himself, but I think he plays with people when he meets them. Maybe just because everybody is so awestruck and creepy around him that he can’t resist playing with them in some way or other. I get the impression that he doesn’t give people verbal pummelings anymore, but he just kind of makes them look or feel stupid. I think I feel stupid enough; I don’t need to meet Dylan. Good luck to him. I wouldn’t want to meet him. For all I know, he wouldn’t want to meet me either. I’ve listened to his stuff, and I think that’s enough, really. Artists tend to present you with the best side of themselves, and you think,“Wow, there must be more to this! I want to meet the goose that lays the golden eggs! I want to meet the Wizard of Oz! I want to meet the tree that produces this fruit!” But actually the fruit’s what it’s about. I think I’d rather listen to people’s records than actually meet them. I think the best way to meet people is to work with them, and then you get to know them gradually. But I’m not sure I’d even want to work with Dylan, actually. He seems to have a lot of fun messing around with his musicians. I don’t know; it’s all reputation. When people are very well known there’s so much hearsay about them. And often people only meet you once, so you have to watch out. If somebody meets you and you’re in a bad mood, they’ll go around saying, “Yeah, I met Robyn Hitchcock. He’s a real asshole.” It’s difficult. And when people kind of want something out of you the whole time, or treat you in a strange way that they wouldn’t if you were of no apparent consequence, I don’t know what you do.
III. “I REALIZED THE GAP BETWEEN ME AND THE AUDIENCE HAD NARROWED, BECAUSE MY AUDIENCE IS PRETTY MUCH A HUNDRED PERCENT DEMOCRAT.”
BLVR: You’re rarely overtly political in your songs— I think I can count the times on the fingers of one hand (“The President,” “Do Policemen Sing?,” “Dancing on God’s Thumb”). And now we’ve got “W Sucks.” Is it a case of desperate times, desperate measures?
RH: You’ve heard that? It hasn’t been released.
BLVR: In preparation for this interview, I dug through a few archived radio interviews.
RH: Well, “W Sucks” was just a little ditty that made itself up. I was going to use it as a public service thing before the last election, but then I chickened out. I thought it might affect my chances of getting a visa again, so I didn’t have it emailed to all the college stations as I probably should have done. Some guy from the Onion offered to send it round. There was a time when it didn’t really matter. You know, who needs to get their politics from a rock musician, for god’s sake? But I think now it’s really… I could say everyone’s got to stand up and say something, but of course then the wrong people could stand up and say something.
BLVR: Well, they did and they said it louder and they won.
RH: [Laughs] They did. I can’t really think of a way of saying it without putting it in a cliché, but I suppose, if nothing else, it’s a matter of people becoming beacons for each other, and when you do get desperate times, you want to know that there are like-minded people out there. It’s not like you’re going to convert anybody by singing “W Sucks,” or even by listing up the fact that this administration is ecologically, economically, spiritually, and environmentally bent on committing suicide and taking everybody with them. It’s more just actually finding like-minded people to huddle around. I was on tour when the last election happened, and after November 3, I was in Minneapolis and Bush had got back in again. It was like a wake. Everybody at the gig needed cheering up, including me. And I said,“OK, I’ll do a free gig tomorrow.” I had a night off, and I found some place to play and just drank wine and sang requests. And the rest of that tour, I realized the gap between me and the audience had narrowed, because my audience is pretty much 100 percent Democrat. (Although I said that and some guy emailed in and said, “I’m a Libertarian, I’ll have you know.”) Somebody said to me a couple of years ago, “Stupid people don’t like your music, Robyn.” And I guess my audience is, on the whole, fairly smart or mentally alive. You know, if you have a sense of humor or a sense of irony or a sense of compassion or an imagination, you cannot vote for Bush unless you are some kind of bizarre, right-wing intellectual fink who lives in upstate New York, but even then I can’t see it happening. So, you know, I act as a kind of filter. I mean, people who gravitate to me just chemically could not vote for Bush. It’s just not possible. So it puts us all in a little huddle. And it’s not even preaching to the converted, really. It’s just saying, “Great, I see you feel the same. Here we are. We’re not entirely surrounded by the undead.”
IV. “SO, IF YOU LIKE, EVERYTHING IS OF EQUAL IMPORTANCE, AND CHARACTERS THAT OFFICIALLY EXIST, LIKE CONDOLEEZZA RICE, WILL COEXIST WITH PEOPLE WHO MAY NOT EXIST, LIKE THE DEVIL.”
BLVR: I was at a show back in 1992, where you played at the Park West with the Egyptians. You started off by telling a story about how the Devil had popped round the Roosevelt Hotel in L.A. to collect on a soul he was owed and inadvertently become stuck in a minibar. In frustration, he ends up leaving behind a “green globule of pure evil.” Four years later at the Alligator Lounge in Santa Monica, you referenced the story without explaining it, just dropping it matter-of-factly when talking about the Roosevelt that one could find “pure evil” in a minibar. Now, unless someone else in the audience had been at the previous show, I’m the only one who had a chance of understanding that offhand reference. Which didn’t seem to matter to you. It’s like, in Robyn Hitchcock’s world, the Devil sometimes appears in your minibar and leaves you pure evil, and that’s just rote, that’s just a given, and this song is reminding you of it, but it’s not necessarily important for us to know it. And I thought, “the story is real for him, you can get pure evil in a minibar, and he’s just dropping a reference to something he takes for granted as having happened.” Like someone else might remark about a particular city’s ambience or a good place to eat.
RH: That’s interesting. It must have occurred to me. I didn’t even know I’d said it twice. I know that things like minibars do cross my horizon.
BLVR: I got the sense, maybe, that there were stories that informed the songs, and maybe more than one song was scooped out of the same story, but that we didn’t necessarily need to know the story to get the point of the song.
RH: No, no, you don’t really. I mean, they can work backwards. I’m actually constructing a story potentially for children using ten of my old songs and linking them together with a narrative. People have been threatening me for years and saying,“Why don’t you write a book of children’s stories. Your stuff would be great for kids.” Which slightly misses the point, ’cause I write for adults as children,which is perhaps why I have a limited market. But I put things visually—to get back to cartoons—in a way that perhaps a child might put them. So, if you like, everything is of equal importance, and characters that officially exist, like Condoleezza Rice, will coexist with people who may not exist,like the Devil. Although if you believe in Condoleezza, chances are you believe in the Devil. So perhaps I’m not that far from the mainstream. But yeah, I have stories going on all the time. I think everybody does.And when you fall asleep they manifest themselves. Do you ever get that when you’re starting to fall asleep? You find a sort of story occurring to you or you start seeing things—a waitress’s elbow, or somebody saying “We can’t have the pizza, Frank.”And it’s nothing to do with the life that you’re just falling asleep from. It’s just a sort of endless parallel soap opera or science-fiction thing or cartoon, and it’s just going through your head the whole time. I just think that’s there, and for some people it just bleeds through into their consciousness quicker than others. And I guess with me it must bleed through a lot.
BLVR: You mention science fiction. I’ve always been curious about “September Cones” (off You & Oblivion) “The phone box glows / Beside the sea.” Is that a Doctor Who reference?
RH: [Laughs] Ah, good, it’s not actually Doctor Who. You know the old English phone boxes? Not the police ones.
BLVR:The red ones.
RH:The red ones, yeah. I think I did a painting of one, actually. One of those old-style phone boxes, and I just pictured it on my favorite beach, and then I wrote a song about it. I think I did a painting, but I then destroyed it. It’s interesting how the Doctor’s sort of gone down-market. But they’ve still got that police box. It’s quite funny. When that was designed forty years ago, they were quite common. Now there’s one outside Earls Court Station in London. I don’t think there’re any other police boxes left in Britain, and most people only know of that police box because it’s the TARDIS, so what was originally supposed to be something to make it blend in now makes it a uniquely freaky artifact. But I’m really pleased to see it. And before I wanted to be a cult figure, I wanted to be Doctor Who. I wanted to time-travel.
BLVR: But there is an awareness of the future and technology in a lot of the spoken introductions you give before your live performances. Which always struck me as interesting in light of how organic your music feels.
RH:Well, I wanted to be a scientist. I felt like that was where things were going to go, if they were going to go anywhere. But I guess that I needed a certain amount of mathematics to do that. When I came to have science classes at school, it was all very math-oriented and I wasn’t. I sheared off into the arts, and then I kind of adopted Bob Dylan as my wicked uncle, and the rest is history. So I went on the arts rail, but I would have wanted to go into science.That’s where the potential seemed to be, and I’m fascinated by what we will turn into. I mean, I’m not optimistic about the next few hundred years, but I’d be very interested to see what has happened when all the mud of the immediate future has settled. It’s a bit like 2001. I mean, basically what you’ve got is apes with power drills. We’re still thinking like savages, but we’re savages with technology, and we’re not mature enough as a species to deal with the consequences of what we’ve discovered. If we’ve got things like nuclear technology and laser beams and the internal combustion engine, we need to be a damned sight more mature in order to use them, and the problem is, we’re not. We’ve just got ahead of ourselves, and that’s what sparked this particular crisis.
Until the Industrial Revolution, we could do all kinds of things, but we couldn’t really do that much damage. Now we can.Which brings us back to where we came in. That sort of fascinates me, as it probably does you.
BLVR: What are your views on God? Your work suggests a spiritual but not religious mind-set.
RH: Yeah, I think you’re right again. I think that it’s possible that the earth is a form of intelligence,and you look at, well, people’s intestines, or people’s brains, or the inside of a tulip…. I think that the way animals are put together, it’s almost impossible to believe that happened by itself.Evolution,to me,is perhaps even more evidence of the divine than people saying,“Oh, no, it was all done by an old man in a top hat who came out of a lake and said,‘Let there be light.’” What’s more extraordinary— the creation myth or the possibility of everything exploding out of nothing? They’re both impossible thoughts.Was there darkness on the face of the waters or was there a cosmic prolapse whereby suddenly there was nothing and then there was something? They’re both impossible. One’s in the Bible and one’s in the science books, but they’re both unthinkable, and just because you believe in evolution or you believe in the cosmic prolapse doesn’t mean that it isn’t in some way divine.
BLVR: Technology affords people with new metaphors, and the internet shows to me how there could be a vast interactive system without there being a person at the top of it. You can put into it what you want to put into it. You can take from it what you want to take from it. But the internet is not aware of you; it’s not staring down your back if you take an extra cookie at lunch.
RH: The internet might be a form of global intelligence, but I’m not sure it’s making us any more empathic.
BLVR: I just meant that as an analogy of the way a spiritual system could function without a guy at the top.
RH: Well, I suspect that there is a moral law. I think that there’s a kind of moral physics, like if you behave in a selfish or destructive way you’ll cause pain, and this will, in the end, come back on you, but not until it’s done a lot of damage to other people, who’ll then probably go around creating pain for other people as yet unborn. You set up cycles of pain and cycles of healing, I suppose. Although “healing” just makes you think of some sort of expensive hotel in Chicago where you’re paying $35 for ten minutes to have your arm feel better or something.