Even after two dozen albums on his own and as a
member of psychedelic popsters the Soft Boys, Robyn Hitchcock has never
produced a completely dismissible disc. The mediocre efforts "merely" have
three or four great songs, while the great ones -- like his latest,
"Spooked" -- are wonderful from beginning to end.
Hitchcock recorded his 2004 release in Nashville
with help from traditional country musicians Gillian Welch on vocals and
David Rawlings on guitar. The album finds him back in introspective acoustic
mode, after the more raucous sounds of the Soft Boys' 2002 reunion album, "Nextdoorland."
I caught up with the singer and songwriter by
phone from Los Angeles as he made his way on tour to Chicago for two shows
at Schubas, the second of which is tonight.
ROBYN HITCHCOCK; CARY BROTHERS
Schubas, 3159 N. Southport
Q. I've been interviewing you for
20 years, Robyn, and every time I get a new disc, I think, "This one can't
surprise me." But there are always songs that do.
A. Thank you. The trick is that you
don't know what the good songs are until about 10 years after. When it comes
to making them, I don't have a clue; my pedigree would be impeccable if I
could edit out the bad stuff. Having said that, "Spooked" was a double album
until we pulled out the best songs to put on the main album.
Q. What prompted you to work with
Gillian and David?
A. I ran into them at one of their
gigs, and it turns out they used to listen to me when they were kids.
Gillian used to come and see me when she was a floppy groover in Santa Cruz,
and Dave used to come see me when he was a student up in Berkeley. We met
and they gave me their phone numbers and told me to come to the studio. I
was doing "The Manchurian Candidate"; I had a small part in Jonathan Demme's
Q. I didn't know that; I'll have to
rent the DVD.
A. With the DVD there are Hitchcock
extras. Jonathan is good to his friends; he always has been. I played a
sinister operative, the sidekick of the lead sinister operative; at the end,
I'm arrested at O'Hare Airport. Anyways, I had a weekend off and I went down
to Nashville. Gillian and David and I had not played together -- it was a
kind of arranged marriage -- but it was fantastic.
Q. Longtime fans might compare
"Spooked" to "Eye" or "I Often Dream of Trains." It's Robyn in his quiet
A. Well, the year before, there was
also "Luxor." It's all just acoustic music. What you can say confidently is
that as I am getting older, I am slowing down and getting quieter. If I am
playing with other people, I want it to be quiet so I can hear the
harmonies, while slowing down is just a physiological thing with aging.
Gillian and David, on the whole, are not up-tempo players, and they are 15
years younger than me. "Spooked" was the right kind of tempo for them.
Q. Did recording in Nashville
create a particular vibe?
A. I wouldn't say it was Nashville; I
would say it was them in their studio. They're not overdub-driven, but they
do take a lot of trouble to get the major sounds right. We spent a lot of
time sitting in a circle in this wooden studio. I've never done that with
other musicians, where you just listen to each other without going through
headphones, and it was lovely. It was, I suppose, like sitting around
playing in a temple, or to make it sound less solemn, a kitchen with your
It was very intimate. I didn't know them at
all well, but it's the kind of intimacy that you have with other musicians
-- you can't help exposing yourself. You don't know about their grandmothers
or their sex life or what is lurking in their hypothalamus, but you do get a
feeling for them, definitely. Musical promiscuity is one of the safest
kinds, and I'm definitely musically promiscuous.
Q. What happened with the Soft Boys
A. It's no more. It was only a
temporary thing, and it was kind of gaining a momentum of its own. It was a
great outfit, but I didn't want to go back to being a Soft Boy. I'm in my
50s. But [drummer] Morris [Windsor] and [guitarist] Kimberley [Rew] always
come and play when I have a party or put a band together for a benefit.
Q. Now you're traveling alone,
performing with just guitar and vocals. You're more D.I.Y. than you were
three decades ago when you started out.
A. I've gotten better at it. When I
first started out at folk clubs, I wasn't that confident of a guitar-picker.
I'm now pretty good at it. I'm not flash, but I know my way around an
acoustic guitar. My wife doesn't really like flying and I can handle it, so
for these stretches, I just go out on my own. It's nice not to have to get
an army on the move, and I now have a lot of friends in different American
cities, so I can sort of make myself at home.
Reasons for Living
At age 52, Robyn Hitchcock remains one of the
most unique and consistently creative forces in rock -- a surreal,
whimsical, Dadaist pop genius. Here is a guide to some of the best albums in
his extensive catalog.
"Underwater Moonlight" (1980): The
finest moment by Hitchcock's first band, the Soft Boys, and a
psychedelic-pop masterpiece. Reissued by Matador Records in 2001 in an
"I Often Dream of Trains" (1984):
Marking his return to music after a three-year retirement, this is the
strongest of Hitchcock's solo albums, a quiet, introspective meditation on
his place in the world. Reissued by Rhino Records along with the solo
efforts below in 1995.
"Black Snake Diamond Role" (1981):
Hitchcock's first solo album, with some of his most memorable
psychedelic-pop gems, including his theme song, "The Man Who Invented
Himself," "Acid Bird" and "Brenda's Iron Sledge."
"Globe of Frogs" (1988): This is my
favorite of the singer-songwriter's college-rock-era discs with the
Egyptians, the trio featuring former Soft Boys drummer Morris Windsor and
bassist Andy Metcalfe. "Vibrating" may well be the best song he's ever
written and "Balloon Man" is one of the silliest.
"Eye" (1990, above): This
under-recognized folk-rock classic found Hitchcock back in a similar mode to
"I Often Dream of Trains," and it comprises a strong trilogy with his latest
quiet acoustic album, "Spooked."