An interview with Robyn Hitchcock

Robyn Hitchcock transcended the U.K. post-punk scene of the '70s fronting the Beatles-esque pop antics of the Soft Boys. Later efforts with the Egyptians placed him in close proximity to the alt-rock elite of the '80s, but his penchant for surreal humor left critics scratching their heads. Goodnight Oslo — the latest offering from Hitchcock's current group the Venus 3 (featuring REM drummer Bill Rieflin, guitarist Peter Buck and bassist Scott McCaughey) — proves that even after three decades the white-haired troubadour still crafts brilliant, psychedelic pop songs that balance whimsy and sincerity while keeping one foot planted firmly in the surreal.

Chad Radford: With Goodnight Oslo I get a stronger sense of the chemistry between the members of the Venus 3. What's the songwriting process like with these guys? Do you rule with an iron fist?

Robyn Hitchcock: I bring the songs in as they collect in my notebook and we arrange them together. The harmonies on the Goodnight Oslo album evolved mostly through the mail, from Sean, Colin and Morris, though the voices on "I'm Falling" and "Your Head Here" were devised by Bill, Scott and Sean in Tucson. As soon as Peter hears a song, he echoes it with a guitar line. Scott was getting happy on the bass with this one, as you can tell listening to "Saturday Groovers" and "16 Years," for instance. I love the monolithic bass and drums on "Goodnight Oslo," which Jenny Adejayan plays along to on the cello. My fist is never iron, just plenty of bone.

Goodnight Oslo doesn't feel like an exercise in free association, but more like there is an autobiographical quality to the songs. How did you approach this album differently from one like Globe of Frogs?

All thought is to some extent free association. Who knows the warrens of the mind? Songs come to me now the same way they always have: I trained myself to receive them, and when they feel like it, they appear. These days I'm closer to other people — we're all on the same conveyor belt — so maybe my songs are more inclusive and less remote. They've always been autobiographical, if not literally. Often reflecting upheavals in my emotional geology, dating back for centuries. Goodnight Oslo muses on various parties, some of which still haven't ended...

Do you have a favorite song on Goodnight Oslo?

"I'm Falling" is probably my favorite melody on this record, mainly because of the myriad harmonies that have sprouted on it, first from Sean, then Bill & Scott, and finally Morris, gilding the shrubbery with some exquisite Wilson-brothers-type high lines, singing in the attic in Cardiff. Apropos of Morris, he features in the title track. It's about him as much as it's about me (though I can only guess at how he feels) and our experiences in Norway in 1982 filtered through the rocks of 25 years. I've listened to that song a lot, staring out of windows around the world. It hurts to give something up, because it's a part of you, even if it's destructive. That can apply to people too.

Do you get tired of the persistent Beatles comparisons? I see it a lot when I'm reading about you, but if you're going to drop names, I think Mark E. Smith from the Fall and Syd Barrett have something of an influence on your songwriting as well.

I've never really listened to Mark E. Smith, but maybe we have some of the same records in our collection. Syd Barrett was beyond genius, to me. His songs are pure being.

The Beatles evolved from "Love Me Do" to "She's So Heavy" as I went from 9 to 16. They are part of my emotional DNA and I don't ever want to lose that. As a lifelong professional musician I (and most other musicians I know) are in constant amazement at the subtle yet direct composition of Beatles' songs, whichever Beatle wrote them. They were a kind of school of songwriting, with three graduates, and Ringo. I would never complain about being compared to the Beatles; it's a bit like saying that I must have had a mother and father. I would like to be a graduate from the same school ... and John Lennon is my favorite rock singer, 45 years on.

Having said all that, I've been writing songs and performing them for the last 35 years, and the person I am most like is myself, for good or ill.