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Robyn Hitchcock on surrealist pop, moving to America, and covering his own songs 

click to enlarge Robyn Hitchcock, Thursday, March 12, 7 p.m., Lulu’s Downstairs, 107 Manitou Ave., Manitou Springs, $25/adv, $28/door, all-ages; lulusdownstairs.com, 424-7637 - DAVID BECKER
  • David Becker
  • Robyn Hitchcock, Thursday, March 12, 7 p.m., Lulu’s Downstairs, 107 Manitou Ave., Manitou Springs, $25/adv, $28/door, all-ages; lulusdownstairs.com, 424-7637

Arguably Britain’s most influential singer/songwriter/surrealist since Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett flew the coop, Robyn Hitchcock first made his mark with his neo-psychedelic band The Soft Boys. Buoyed by singles like “I Wanna Destroy You” and their watershed 1980 album Underwater Moonlight, the group had a lasting impact on artists that include The Flaming Lips, Ariel Pink, The Replacements and R.E.M.

As it turned out, The Soft Boys would part ways after only two albums. Guitarist Kimberley Rew went off to explore the sunnier side of pop as guitarist for Katrina & the Waves, while Hitchcock continued to explore the deeper recesses of his creative subconscious, first with his band Robyn Hitchcock and The Egyptians and later as a solo artist. Along the way, he created a repertoire of jangly pop gems that range from the charmingly odd “Victorian Squid” to the hauntingly poignant “My Wife and My Dead Wife.”

In 2017, Hitchcock finally got around to releasing his first self-titled album. He’d recently relocated to Nashville, of all places, with his wife, the Austral-ian singer-songwriter Emma Swift. Produced by The Raconteurs’ Brendan Benson, Robyn Hitchcock included guest appearances by Swift, Grant-Lee Phillips and Gillian Welch, and was described by American Songwriter as the work of “one of music’s most pungent, eccentric and lovable journeymen doing what he does best.”
We caught up with Hitchcock recently to talk about the source of his metaphors, being possessed by the past, and arriving in America just in time for Trump.

Indy: A lot of your songs have used very surreal imagery to convey very relatable emotions. Are there lyrics you’ve written where you’re not sure where the metaphors are coming from?
Robyn Hitchcock: Well, I never know where the references come from. My songs are really just dictation from my unconscious, that’s the best way of putting it. And then I look at it and say, well, do I actually want to say this consciously, or should I rephrase it? So I’m never aware of metaphors or, you know, things being in code for something else. They might be. Like dreams might be a code, something that’s going on in the depths of your head. Or your dreams might be prophetic. Or they might be about your fears or your hopes, and they dress themselves up in unusual ways. But I never know whether you can really interpret them.

Nashville seems like a town where there’s a professional songwriter on pretty much every corner. And you kind of picture them all going off to their offices, picking up guitars, and saying, “Okay, now I’m gonna write some songs.” I’m guessing you don’t do that.
No, songs occur when you don’t look for them. I think that’s why so many people get writer’s block, because they think, ‘Oh man, I gotta write some songs.’ I mean, it’s different if you’re writing songs Nashville-style for other people, which happens less now. What they do here a lot is to have songwriters kind of getting into a cage with another songwriter and seeing if they can come up with something.
But I don’t do that really. I only ever write songs for myself. And I’ve got so many records out now, I don’t even need any more records at the moment. But I do write sometimes with Andy Partridge from XTC. He and I put out an EP last year called Planet England, which you’ll be able to buy at my show actually. It’s on Andy’s own little boutique label. Andy and I both have our own record labels now. We’re sort of coming out the other side of the record business and starting our own cottage industries.

I know that Andy Partridge never liked being onstage much. I remember one XTC show in L.A., where he wouldn’t go onstage and the promoter had to send people home. But it seems like you would like to be onstage constantly.
Well, I don’t really have much choice, you know? That’s how I make a living, and I enjoy it. I’ve spent my life working on writing these songs and, to me, it’s like a traveling museum, you know? It’s like, okay, this is what I did. This is 40 years of my life, I’ll unpack it for 90 minutes. And so I feel quite privileged to be able to go around to places and do that.

So when you play songs that you did with The Soft Boys and The Egyptians, do you ever feel like you’re kind of covering yourself?
Yes, I do. I think that’s the case with any song that I’ve been singing for more than 20 years — certainly the stuff that goes back to the Egyptians days and the Soft Boys, or the dead wife song and “Madonna and the Wasps.” So yeah, they are like covers. And I think, conversely, when I sing other people’s songs — like a Beatles song, or Pink Floyd’s “Astronomy Domine” or, you know, Bob Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna” — I’ve known them so long that they feel like they’re my songs, you know? Obviously I don’t get the publishing for them, but I feel like they’re part of me, because they also formed the way I write songs. Those songs are like my parents or my elder brother, you know? [Laughs.] I may not possess them, but they’re certainly family. I don’t know if family is something you possess or something that possesses you.

You’ve opened recent shows with “Astronomy Domine,” and I know you perform the occasional Syd Barrett cover. How much of an influence was he in your formative years?
I was definitely hugely influenced by Syd Barrett. I was also hugely influenced by Bob Dylan, and I still play songs by both of them in my set. I play “Astronomy Domine” on the piano, because I think it’s just a different approach to that song. So it takes it a long way from the way that Barrett and the Floyd played it. And I still meander around songs from [Dylan’s] Blonde on Blonde. Emma and I sing “Just Like a Woman” sometimes.

Will Emma be coming along on this tour, or will it be strictly solo?
Emma is going to be with me in Colorado, which is great. She comes and joins me for the last few songs in the set, and the songs kind of go from black-and-white to color. The harmony comes out, and I think it all just opens up at that point sonically.

click to enlarge Tubby, Hitchcock’s one-eyed Scottish Fold cat (see tinyurl.com/Tubby-the-star).
  • Tubby, Hitchcock’s one-eyed Scottish Fold cat (see tinyurl.com/Tubby-the-star).
Will you play electric guitar at all?
I think I’m just gonna be playing acoustic. I’m much better on acoustic, and electric guitar kind of demands amplifiers and pedals and shit. And then it becomes this whole other thing, where you really need roadies. And you need teams of mules and things, pack horses, and you need overseers. You need henchmen. All that stuff that, not only can I not afford, but it’s really kind of tiring to have to deal with. You have to get someone to manage management, and then someone’s going to come and ask you where to put the guy that manages the henchmen, and before you know it, you have an office traveling around with you. And then you get people sending memos to your cat, you know? “You’re scheduled for a feeding at 7:15.”

One last question: I know that when you moved to America, Obama was still in office. But didn’t anyone warn you what was on the horizon?
I don’t think anybody knew. I think the potential was there. But I think, like a lot of these things, that potential was seen as a joke until it was too late. I mean, even the night before Trump was elected, a lot of people thought Hillary was going to get in, and were in denial about the possibility of Trump getting it. And then meanwhile, in Britain, we had a parallel event with losing the common market, and a series of steps which has led to us having kind of parallel right-wing governments led by these kind of parallel atrocious comedy figures.

Although Boris Johnson is smarter than Trump.
Boris is smarter, but in a way, that’s worse. He’s a clever Tory. And, in a way, you feel that smart people by nature would not become conservatives. But he comes from that entitled class that doesn’t really feel for other people. So Trump is, you know, this oafish, uncultured hustler and Boris Johnson is like a sort of bumbling British toff. You know, he’s like “I say, old chap, I’m terribly sorry, what a fool I’ve been.”

Bush would do that same kind of thing. I always felt like he was playing the fool and pretending not to really know what he was being asked about.
Well, I never thought I’d say this, but George W. Bush seems like a fairly likable character. I mean, you feel like you could kind of sit him down in a corner and he’d be OK. Whereas with Trump, you really wouldn’t want to be in the same room as him. And I know people who have, and just say that he kind of gives off this malodorous vibe. You know, this sort of poisonous creature comes slurping in from the side of the room, oozes across it with his henchmen, and then goes again. I mean, it’s one of the basic defects in human nature that people like this often achieve power. And until human nature evolves, we’re going to keep suffering from the same thing.

So do you have an exit strategy if things don’t go well in November? Prior to Brexit, as a British citizen, you could have just moved to Europe. But I assume that’s no longer the case.
No, exactly. So I don’t have an exit strategy. I would love to go and live in continental Europe, more than I would in Britain. But most of my work is here in the States. I still love going around the great American cities, and I’m glad that, even at this stage, I’m still finding some new ones. So, you know, I relish my work. I’m very lucky to be doing it. 

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