Robyn Hitchcock digs in for the long haul
The singer/songwriter reflects on success and music after death
Released last March, Robyn Hitchcock's Love from London (Yep Roc) found the British singer/songwriter in a reflective mood befitting an artist who turned 60 just days before the album arrived. Sanding down the overt lyrical surrealism, and the jagged and jangly psychedelic guitar-rock of his best-known works, it's a compelling, understated album, anchored by vivid imagery and thoughtful contemplations of love and mortality ("Death & Love," "End of Time," and the rather straightforward "I Love You"). On the eve of a pair of solo shows at Eddie's Attic, Hitchcock discussed a four-decade career that has spawned more than two dozen albums with the seminal early '80s group the Soft Boys, the Egyptians, the Venus 3 (with R.E.M.'s Peter Buck), and as a solo artist. In the midst of it all, he also shared his thoughts on his place in the musical landscape, and his hopes for the future.
A lot of press for Love from London focused as much on your 60th birthday as on the album itself. Do you get the sense that you're becoming a kind of elder statesman?
People know me from the past, some of them, and so I remind them of their own history. Others know I was there when I was younger, back in the cassette age, and I could well seem like a gray-bearded elder to them. If I grew a beard, it would be gray now, for sure. I'm older than Jerry Garcia lived to be.
How has your relationship with writing and playing music changed since you started out? Do you have the same goals as an artist that you did in your 20s, or even 10 years ago?
It's much more familiar to me now. I know where the bends in the road are, and where you go over the precipice if you aren't careful. Does that make me more careful? I don't know. Is a younger fisherman more exciting than an older fisherman? It doesn't necessarily follow that the fish are any older.
How do you think your music has changed over the years?
It's probably slower, wiser, less inventive, less derivative, and generally less manic. Deeper but duller. More empathic.
How do you see yourself at this stage in terms of your place in the rock/musical firmament?
My position is that of any artist: I am a link between one time and another. You take the baton from the older guys and pass it on to the young. But the baton changes shape and color as it passes from hand to hand. The baton is our culture, or a fragment thereof, and even as we live and die, our culture adapts and mutates. Maybe it's our culture that is the true life form, not us. Maybe we will be the mythical ancestor gods of the computer race. Or just known as the species that gave the universe the Bee Gees.
You've said in interviews that you've never had a pop hit, that you've never sold particularly well. Has that ever bothered you? Have you ever felt you haven't received the attention or the commercial success you were due?
I never expected — or wanted, really — to achieve success the way that, say, R.E.M. did; but my brushes with major labels and the business generally back in the tape age made me a bit greedy, and I aimed for a while at things I didn't need. But it was OK; I missed. I'm in it for the long haul, like John Lee Hooker and British folk singer Martin Carthy. But who says no to more money, or a larger audience?
What can audiences expect from your shows at Eddie's Attic?
I'll be playing my acoustic guitar and singing songs of mine from 1979 to the present day. I will try not to play too much harmonica. The encores tend to take a different approach from the main set, if we get that far. I love playing acoustic guitar more than ever, and I think I inhabit my voice more than I did.
Are you working on any new material?
I have a new record out later in the year, produced by Joe Boyd — the man who nurtured Nick Drake, Pink Floyd, the Incredible String Band, and Fairport Convention, among others. It features half cover songs and half my own. It's acoustic with a female harmony, cello, and occasionally a piano. There's no drums, not even artificial ones. It's called The Man Upstairs, and will be available from Yep Roc as an LP, download, and CD.
You've said that rock is an old man's game these days, with artists like the Rolling Stones and other older acts dominating the concert business, and that you plan to keep at it. How long do you plan (or hope) to keep writing and performing? Is there a cutoff point in sight?
The cutoff point is when and if I am physically incapable of composing and performing. I hope I never see the cutoff point. I might stop touring any time, but I plan to keep writing and recording up to and beyond my death, by whatever means necessary: a soul transplant or turning into an app, like iCock or something.