“Where’s Mister Bad News? I’ve got some cake!” screams the cartoon character in the lyric book that came with the Robyn Hitchcock press kit. Fittingly, the entire feel of the new Hitchcock album, Jewels For Sophia , is somehow encapsulated in that phrase — bitingly sarcastic, endearingly innocent, Hitchcock manages to present both sides of the picture in his music: the songs that sound the most playful are about death, while the saddest songs are about being in love. After nearly 25 years of performing — “more than half my life” — Robyn Hitchcock still manages to catch his listeners by surprise.
Along with his new album, Hitchcock has also completed a novel, as yet untitled. “My father wrote novels, and while he was alive, I never tried to be a writer, just because I didn’t want to compete with him,” confesses Hitchcock. “Now that he’s been dead a few years…I don’t know if I just feel like it’s safe to do it, or whether it’s perhaps more commemorating him, or replicating him in some way. Often, when you lose someone, you start taking on some of their characteristics to remind you of them. I’ve known other people who have done that. I mean, I’ve noticed myself — whenever I’m not working on music, both at home or on tour, or even if we go off on holiday, I’ve always got my book with me there to work on in the mornings, just as my father used to when the family was on holiday. You can find me outside every morning with my spectacles on, reading my notes, just as he always did.
“I think this new album is the most exuberant, the most confident-sounding album I’ve done in years,” he says. “Certainly since the Soft Boys, and maybe even since some of the early Egyptians. I’m probably just as cynical as always, but not quite as dark. I think that’s because of lots of things, probably. I don’t think the world’s gotten any better, but I think I’ve been trying to celebrate what I can celebrate. None of the evil’s gone away. When you’re young and beautiful and you’ve got all the time in the world before you, you just want to die, and as you get older and you’ve got less and less time to live, you kind of want to make the most of it. Even in rock music, you can’t sit there smoking a cigarette and wearing a pair of sunglasses and a mean expression on your face much past forty — after forty, it just doesn’t look that cool. The alternative is to become all sort of cuddly and mellow, which is just as horrible.”
Do you have a philosophy or message behind the body of your work?
Yeah! I mean, I think I’m a philosopher, of sorts. I’m definitely trying to make sense of things through my songs. For one thing, I think artists are the dreaming half of society — if we don’t dream, we go insane. It’s not enough to just lie flat on your back for eight hours with your eyes shut. You have to get to that state where your brain’s telling you little stories that apparently have no connection with the life you’ve just fallen asleep from. We need to be in touch with whatever it is our subconscious is telling us in order to have good mental health. It’s like, you can tell the difference between someone who’s alive and someone who’s dead, just because there’s no life in a dead person, which means that life itself must exist as a force. It’s the same for inspiration. I think I have that function as an artist: a conduit for inspiration. And then there’s the other side, where I’m really just trying to work out how things are, why they are, and where they’re going to.
Do you consider yourself a pessimist or an optimist?
I’m an extreme pessimist. I’ve always been a total pessimist and an extreme cynic, even before I had any cause to be. And I think that kind of stuff is a bit self-perpetuating. My girlfriend is an extreme optimist. We constantly differ about whether the glass is half-full or half-empty. To me, the glass is actually almost completely empty, and to her it’s virtually full. I think she over-compensates for my pessimism, sometimes — I always focus on the bleak things and make them seem bleaker, but that’s just the way I am. I find things in the outside world to justify my own internal pessimism, and she finds just as much from the same world to justify her optimism. But we actually think it works out, that we’re almost symbiotic — I don’t know, maybe some of her optimism has rubbed off on me, and that’s why this album sounds that way.
How do you think the fact that everybody can record and release their own CDs from their living room has affected the music climate?
Well, it just means that you’ve got this interesting split between — the major labels now are only really interested in people who are going to sell billions of records in the shortest possible time, and are not really interested in an artist’s career development anymore. They just put the records out, and if your record sells a lot of copies, they’ll put out another one, but they don’t really care about continuity, the artist’s progress as a musician. So you’ve got all that one the one side, the big lumbering corporate dinosaur releasing albums geared solely to make money, and then on the other side, you’ve got some individual with a couple of thousand dollars worth of machinery making their own records and selling them from their homes. I don’t know how much that all’s affected the music industry as a business, but I imagine that all the traditional bits of the music “scene” — the roadies and recording studios and record companies and pressing plants, etc. — I don’t know how much of that’s going to be there in the future. We may eventually reach some situation where people just go around singing to themselves and not listen to “musicians” at all. You know, I like to go outside and sing. I like to go into stores and restaurants singing — I don’t like to sing through a microphone. The problem is, though, you don’t make any money doing that. If you want to do this for a living, you have to make some money out of touring and some money out of recording, and none of it is going to come from singing in the grocery store.
But maybe music was healthier, 200 or 100 years ago, before Tin Pan Alley started, when there were no professional song writers. People actually wrote songs about what was happening to them. They probably all had banker and soldier jobs, or whatever people did then as careers, like cowboys, and they wrote songs about events that happened in their lives, whereas for the past century we’ve had professionals writing our songs for us. You can tell the difference, like in the songs from the American Civil War, or the First World War, the soldiers made up their own songs about death and life and the Front, but by World War II and Vietnam, all the music was being brought in from outside–World War II had “We’ll Meet Again” and “The White Cliffs of Dover,” and in Vietnam, they had Jimi Hendrix and Country Joe and the Fish and the Doors, whatever, but it was music that was coming from the people and the lives they were leading, and this music that these people were buying was being created by other people. All I’m saying is that maybe the music industry is something that will have to pass completely, maybe there’s just far too many professional musicians around. The old ones won’t go away, and the new ones keep pouring in, and now we’ve got this Black Hole of Calcutta situation. Generally, only the really wealthy ones can even afford to get their nose to the window, so to say.
Do you have any political aspirations?
You mean, am I going to run for Prime Minister? No, I’m just going to sit here, pontificating about the world and wait for somebody else to do something about what’s wrong with it. I’ll never be in the situation, because to achieve power, you have to make deals with so many people, and your ideals are always compromised. You might go in with ideas, but by the time you realize how things really work, you realize that any ideal can be manipulated in order to achieve your goal, and so your ideology actually becomes secondary to your ability to achieve a goal. In other words, you start thinking the end justifies the means, but it doesn’t necessarily. But you would have to buy into that philosophy if you were a politician. Or, you go into it with no ideology at all, you’re just cynical, and you just want power, and will do anything to achieve that power.
Has Gene Hackman heard the song you wrote about him yet?
I don’t know. He’s in Baltimore. I thought someone was going to give him a copy. Somebody last night showed me a photograph of himself with Gene, and wanted to know if he could be photographed with me and therefore, he and Gene and I could be wedded in some form, he could be a medium between me and Gene, but I declined. Not because of Gene — I just don’t like being photographed. But if Gene came up to me, and wanted to take a photograph, that’d be different.
In a towel?
(laughs) So long as he’s in the towel. If Gene came up to me and said, “Hey, buddy, you and me. Let’s go to the sauna,” I don’t know. I’d be nervous. Especially if there were cameras about.