Thirty years later, Robyn Hitchcock continues to number amongst the most subtle and witty songwriters in Britain. And R.E.M. agree – half their members make up his band.
For this interview, Hitchcock has suggested as a meeting place a Finnish caf in Soho. It is an entirely appropriate choice, given the Nordic title of his new album, Goodnight Oslo.
The tall man with his floppy shock of white hair resembles a walking lighthouse as he approaches across the Square. With his elegant coat and scarf, he has the laid-back and yet authoritative air of an artist – a painter, perhaps, or a sculptor – who has prospered without bending to the rulers of the business.
The impression is not entirely wrong. Hitchcock may have been fronting rock’n'roll bands of one sort or another ever since he can remember. But he also paints (his new album contains a sheet of examples of his doodle-like art), he is married to the artist Michle Noach, who contributes to the album cover, and his lyrics often have a painterly density of imagery, even when dealing with abstract ideas.
“Norway is a place that my compass often points to,” he explains. “In fact, my wife, Michle, also has developed an appetite for Norway, and she started making images of old Norwegian glaciers, one of which is on the cover. She’s making them lenticular, which means they look like 3-D, they shimmer. They’re kind of exotic.”
It is 26 years since Hitchcock first travelled to Norway and experienced the night that has now been framed in the song, Goodnight Oslo. “Like most songs it’s a feeling in a bottle.” he says. “You can’t necessarily define these feelings except by giving them their titles. For me they’re like slices of time. They’re sections of my life. Like when you cut down a tree and look at the rings. You can see, ah, that ring was 50 years ago, and that ring was 75 years ago, and that ring there was just six months ago. So that song – it’s not exactly nostalgic. It’s just one of those memories that is hard to let go of. You no longer even know whether it really was like that at the time or whether you just remember it that way. Experiences mature in your head. The way they resonate in your mind changes. Good wine takes 20 years to be ready to drink, supposedly. Of course, if you leave it too long it tastes horrible, it’s all gone off.”
Hitchcock – vintage 1953 – enjoyed one of the better educations this country can offer, at Winchester College. Small wonder, then, that the Punks regarded him and his ironically-named band The Soft Boys with a certain amount of befuddlement. Their witty brand of power pop did not fit the Punks’ supposed hard edge, especially as it was served up with a strong hint of Syd-influenced psychedelia. Drugs, however, never played an important role in the development of Hitchcock’s muse.
“I grew up listening to that music, but I think it was the attitude that affected me, not the idea that you got there by taking drugs,” he says. “Even as a kid I was looking at pictures of Bosch and Dali and Breughel and Magritte. I think little boys like surrealist pictures, stuff like that, and I was reading HG Wells and JG Ballard long before the psychedelic stuff appeared, which was when I was an adolescent.”
He elaborates further. “Long before I smoked any pot or took any acid that whole way of seeing was important to me. And if anything, what drugs I did take made it harder to function and to focus. On the few occasions I took acid all creativity seemed pointless. Why play the guitar or write a picture? You can’t compete with your internal world. You don’t need a poem if you can see what’s happening inside. I think that was an assault to my ego.”
The Soft Boys segued into The Egyptians in the early 1980s. Later on, Hitchcock performed mostly under his own name (although there was also a Soft Boys-reunion in 2002). For many years, though, his smart songs and his unconventional sense of humour earned him a lot more friends in the USA – where consequently he lived for a while – than in Europe.
“Monty Python paved the way for me.” he reckons. “They were a sort of Alice in Wonderland for the psychedelic era. What they did was more than comedy. And it wasn’t just theatre of the absurd, either. Like all great things, it was defined by itself, it was Monty Python. I’d say they operated in the same tradition as Lewis Carroll. And so I suppose I came along and I probably reminded them of that a bit, just being very, erm, English.”
But he is English. “I don’t know what the difference between English and very English is, but I was just referencing my own world. And there’s things that seemed inane or silly to us because we live with them, over there these things seemed exotic. The tradition with road songs and travel songs is that you can sing about St Louis and Oklahoma City and the Golden Gate and all that lot, and it sounds romantic. But if you sing about – as Billy Bragg proved – going down the A13 it just sounds banal. So when I recorded I Often Dream Of Trains, people went, ‘oh yeah, Basingstoke, Reading, very funny’.”
The reaction Stateside was slightly different. “The Americans didn’t think it was romantic, either, but they’d go, ‘oh, Basingstoke, wow, is that like Hackensack, or Yonkers?’, these sort of branch lines, strange places, and they’d often reference Monty Python when they were writing it up. Quote ‘Robyn Hitchcock’s claustrophobic small-town English world’, unquote. They were happy to imagine it. And I think it was easier for the Americans. To the British it was too close to home to enjoy it at the time. They seem to be happy with it now. It just takes a while to adjust to things.”
In the United States, Hitchcock became a favourite on college radio. Early on, he became friends with the as yet rather minor band R.E.M. From 1985 onwards he occasionally teamed up with the group’s guitarist Peter Buck to play music. Today, Buck is a fully-fledged member of Hitchcock’s band The Venus 3, together with honorary R.E.M. members Scott McCaughey and Bill Rieflin. The lush interplay of guitars on Goodnight Oslo sometimes carries an echo of the influences Hitchcock shares with R.E.M. – The Byrds spring to mind. The vocal and brass arrangements, on the other hand, have an undeniable aura of Englishness about them. “Peter and I have worked together, played together, since 1985,” says Hitchcock. “So on the map I’m like the little old town that got engulfed by the metropolis. It’s fine. It’s all family.”
Goodnight Oslo is the last instalment of a trilogy of albums which began in 2006 with Ole! Tarantula – the second instalment, tentatively entitled Propeller Time, is still awaiting a decision on its fate. It is the title of a Live EP released in 2007 which best sums up Hitchcock’s lyrical concerns, complete with oblique Dylan-reference: “Sex, Food, Death… and Tarantulas.”
Hitchcock is a master of the chipper sort of melancholia which permeates the work of so many singing British songwriters. “It may be that zebras and cats and even shrimps are aware of their own demise on some level,” he wonders aloud, visibly warming to the theme. “But we have enough time to really move into ourselves, like somebody who moves into a house. You set up your life, you set up your friends, but you know it’s all gonna go. You can have the best life in the world, always have nice coffee, and never drop things on the carpet, and never be unemployed, be happily married, have lots of orgasms, and have lots of very very sane relatives and win a Nobel price and always breathe through your nose and never smell and all the great things people might aspire to.”
“But it’s gonna go, and you know it.” he continues. “There is that sadness of the animal that’s gonna meet its end. And that’s why we need sad songs. Each culture has its own way of hitting that nerve, hitting that sadness. We here understand our own because we grew up with it. It might take longer to understand a Senegalese version or a Chinese version. To me that’s one of the big things about music, you console yourself for what’s gonna happen to you, and all your friends, and what’s happened to your ancestors, and what will happen to your children, which is to be born and be demolished, to disappear, to rot down, to become part of the compost. And I think that’s what music is for, really.”