Robyn Hitchcock looks back at his most introspective work

November 7, 2008


After splitting from his influential band the Soft Boys, English psychedelic rocker and surrealist folk troubadour Robyn Hitchcock launched his solo career with a fine album called "Black Snake Diamond Role" (1981). But then something went wrong.

Hitchcock found himself sucked into a disastrous and misguided bid for pop stardom with "Groovy Decay" (1982) as producer Steve Hillage (a veteran of progressive rockers Gong) buried his songs under obnoxious horns, synthesizers and disco grooves. "Hillage had justly got into his sort of 1980s Kings Road suits and was trying to be anything but psychedelic," Hitchcock told me years ago. "He was into club mixes and all that sort of stuff, and I was really lost and getting loster."

That spectacular failure prompted the singer and songwriter to withdraw from music and re-assess. He kept himself afloat by writing lyrics for Captain Sensible of the Damned, but his own songs eventually began to accumulate again, and he finally returned to the studio after a three-year break to craft what many fans consider his best album. "I Often Dream of Trains" (1984) is a quiet, introspective and "wonderfully autumnal" effort driven by acoustic guitar, piano and vocals -- "It's like wanting to see what you're like when you take everything else away"-- and it includes moving and intensely personal songs such as "This Could Be the Day," "Sounds Great When You're Dead" and the title track.

Now, nearly two and a half decades later, Hitchcock is performing this classic live on a tour that includes two shows at the Old Town School of Folk Music. We recently talked about the recording and his decision to revisit it from his home in England.

Q. For many of your fans, "I Often Dream of Trains" is a special and personal record, not unlike "Tonight's the Night" or "Velvet Underground III." It's a quiet keeper.

RH: Yes, but I think you never know when you've made one of those. I'm very pleased that it now seems to have become that. To me, the things like "Time (The Revelator)" by Gillian Welch and the second Band album and "Avalon" by Roxy Music are my great favorites along those lines, though the genres are a bit different. They are still essentially very private records. While I think I've got better songs on other records, that's probably the most atmospheric record I've made. In other words, it's the closest thing to a concept album, though I don't know if the concept of the concept albums ever actually fulfill their concept!

Q. Where did you get the idea to revisit it?

RH: Oh, well, it was coming out again [as a CD reissue from Yep Roc]. It's probably the third or fourth time it has been released, and each time it has a different artificial history attached to it and a new collection of outtakes. I'm going to be doing a director's cut [in concert], which means it's not exactly the same as the recorded version, but it's actually the original song selection. I'm doing two shows in one night in Chicago, so I'll probably vary a couple of songs.

In any event, it was actually my wife Michele who said, "Why don't you do one of your own records instead of doing those Pink Floyd tributes?" She helps put those on and we do them in a pub in Clerkenwell; we've also done "The White Album" and "Sgt. Pepper's" and "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn" -- records that were in my collection as a lad. We do them unadvertised. But you know, in terms of doing things in public, she said, "Why don't you do your own thing for a change?"

Q. You're going to have some help from bandmates Terry Edwards and Tim Keegan in concert, but when you made the album, you pretty much did everything on your own, right?

RH: It was mostly me, and it was the first time I had access to a multi-track [recorder] on my own. The idea of having your own four-track machine... You could really get going very fast, and it was the first time I was able to experiment with recording with multi-track without having to go through other people.

I had very, very basic kind of effects. I pretty much built it as I wanted it to be, which is why when you listen to the demos on the outtakes on the latest version, they are ones I recorded myself, and the recording quality isn't noticeably any different from the 24-track versions on the main album.

Q. How close were you really to abandoning music before this album? It's hard to accept that now, when you've released some 33 discs since "I Often Dream of Trains"!

RH: Yes, well, this is 22 years ago. Me and the times I was in were particularly at odds with each other then. I think what I wanted to do in music... sometimes the wind is behind you, and sometimes it's against you. I think when we got going with the Soft Boys in the late '70s, there was a bit of wind behind us because people were ready for a change, but what they wanted to change into wasn't what me and my colleagues wanted to change into. I think the Soft Boys did what they could, and then the ship floundered and we bailed out.

On my own, I found myself in a musical landscape that really didn't make any more sense. There were nods to psychedelia in the form of the Psychedelic Furs and Echo and the Bunnymen and Julian Cope, but not in the same way. It was a much more wide-screen, punky sort of way. Ours was old-fashioned and intricate, standing around with three-part harmonies. We were an alt-country band, really, and back then we really didn't fit. I think very often if you don't fit, you're invisible. It didn't work, so I sort of shut down and wrote lyrics, did some gardening jobs...

Q. Really? You were on your knees with your hands in the dirt?

RH: Yeah! I thought, "I am not going to do any more gigs!" I kind of wanted to see what it was like, and I wanted to challenge myself and say, "OK, do you really not want to do any gigs? Are you really going to give up the idea of yourself as a performer? You're the master of your own destiny; do you want to be this guy in the background that does stuff but you're not an act and you're not going to write your own songs?" I think while I was making a living doing other things, I had this four-track machine, and I realized after a year that I had stockpiled all of these songs, which then became "Trains" and "Fegmania!" (1985). So actually, it wasn't over.

I think I was coming up to 30, so I had the menopausal thing going: "Look at what the kids in the Kings Road are wearing." I passed it. In the youth culture you keep running across those things that are warning signs that you might be past it, and then when you finally are, you don't care, because the world is filled with fifty-something rockers grinning at their awards, and we're just all thrilled to exist. I couldn't care less that I don't look good anymore on stage because I'm 55. I don't have to; all I have to do is be there!