An Electrospective Of Eclectic Folk-Rock
Robyn Hitchcock looks back on four decades of eccentricity
Singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist Robyn Hitchcock began his recording career in the mid-'70s in Cambridge, England. After stints with The Soft Boys and The Egyptians, he began a solo career that has included collaborations with a number of influential artists, most notably members of R.E.M.
During four decades of creating quirky, folk-tinged, psychedelic rock - a swirling mixture of Dylan, Lennon, Barrett and Beefheart - he's toured the world and released a stunning catalog of music. Beginning with his first visit to Georgia, for a show in 1985 at Atlanta's storied 688 club, the area has been a favorite destination for the prolific performer.
His most recent tour showcased Hitchcock in solo and band shows, including with Athens' Elf Power and pals from his current home in Nashville. Over the years, this writer has had the pleasure to speak with the enigmatic musician in a number of situations; on a sidewalk in Athens, at a Mexican restaurant in Austin and by phone from his home in London. This time we communicated via email as he completed the UK leg of his "Electrospective Tour." Here a few highlights of a lengthy correspondence.
Was the recent "Electrospective" planned as a deep dive of your catalog?
I'm now a traveling museum of my own career, permanently on tour. Like a micro-McCartney. I include songs going back to 1979 - which once upon a time was the scary distant future. Now 1979 is a quaint old dreamland with a benign Democrat president. [But] I'll revert to being a folk singer for the next year or so. Being a folk singer is simpler, cheaper and ultimately less exhausting than touring with an electric outfit; I'm also less likely to lose my voice if it's not fighting the amplifiers and the drum kit.
You're an incredibly prolific songwriter. How do you keep the process fresh and interesting after so many songs?
I have no idea where songs even come from; out of the blind spot or out of the depths, perhaps? The bubble and squeak of the subconscious. It does get harder not to roll along in the same old grooves, but you can't stampede music out of yourself any more than you can force a cat or a fish to come your way. All you can do is lure them and keep the channels open in case they head towards you.
Many of the bands we both love created great art during chaotic times, especially during the '60s. Do current events influence your work, even within your decidedly abstract concepts?
I'm sure they do but there's no point adding to the pile of human misery. Songs are a refuge as well as a warning light. That said, I've never been very reassuring, have I? And there are much more tumultuous times than these on the horizon.
'80s related, did you enjoy the MTV era, or was the video side of it all a distraction from the music? Was there pressure for you to sort of "one-up" each video with new and unique ideas? Yours were more artistic than the standard fare - but that's to be expected from a visual artist.
You're right, it was a distraction. But those videos are now wonderful time capsules for all of us who had to make them, and all the viewers. Still, it's a shame how much of our youth is squandered on bad hairstyles. My favourite of the videos I made are the early Super-8 ones that Tony Moon shot before A&M got their budget on us. "I Often Dream Of Trains" and "The Man With The Lightbulb Head" are little slices of 1984 for me.
We can't leave the '80s without talking about the R.E.M. connection. That Globe of Frogs show at the Uptown was just about ground zero for that whole era. How did you first connect with those guys?
Can we ever leave the 1980s? I don't think I ever left the 1960s! I met the R.E.M. family in 1984 in London. Over the next 30 years they became major characters in my life, and they helped me a lot - a generous bunch. My wealthy nephews.
Is/was Athens the Cambridge of the American South? If so, how?
R.E.M. being to Athens what Pink Floyd were to Cambridge? Good point! Cambridge is a lot colder though (I'm on a train there right now) and Athens has sexier fire hydrants.
Are you planning any anniversary-type shows and reissues for anniversaries as they occur? For example Globe of Frogs is 30 this year. A number of artists do "album" shows, playing the whole thing in order. Do you like that concept and would you do a tour playing certain albums in their entirety?
In the Electrospective we went back as far as "Leppo & The Jooves" from the first Soft Boys LP - that's 40 years ago. 40 years! I've done "I Often Dream Of Trains" "Black Snake Diamond Role" and "Eye" as live shows. Can't see myself performing the rest. "Trains" is the only one I would perform again - it's more theatrical than the others, for some reason. I guess it's my "Berlin."
I see that you have embraced Social Media - with a number of selfies, "real-life" photographs and posts. Do you enjoy it? I remember a time when you were particularly averse to photographs and enjoyed a sort of mystique as your image. Has that attitude changed over the years?
I still don't like being photographed, but I've learned to smile for the camera - it gives me an instant facelift. Try to look cool when you're older and you just look miserable. Social media is king...and queen. It is a path to global consciousness, and right now global consciousness doesn't seem very happy.
It's hard to believe but it's been 20 years since [documentary/performance film] "Storefront Hitchcock" was released. Is it time to do another concert film and if so, who should film it? What was it like working with director Jonathan Demme?
Jonathan Demme was a very simpatico film director and I was lucky to get to work with him. I do wish we'd had time to get to know each other better before he made Storefront me, though. We'd have been less respectful of each other and it would have been more fun to watch. Yes, maybe it's time to film one more live show. If we can find vaguely flattering camera angles...
What's coming next in the new year, record-wise?
Hopefully some EPs - collaborations with other characters. And maybe a 45 7".
You said recently on social media that you take a fast nap before showtime. Does that add a sort of "out of body" or at least stress-free feel to the performance?
A short sleep drains some toxins from my brain - I feel refreshed and recharged to go onstage. The day begins again when you face an audience: it's better not to drag all your preoccupations up there with you.
Speaking of social media, as we were up there somewhere, there's a great picture of you at Edinburgh Castle. Your first sentence is beautiful: "You can't compete with ancient monuments, you just hope to become one as best you can." You've definitely succeeded. Is this a sly way of summing up your career or how would you like to be remembered?
Thanks â€“ but it's not that sly. As I said, I'm very much a memento of myself - and the people who influenced me. Nobody is remembered for long, but I've always worked with tomorrow in mind. My work has endured this far, and I'm proud of that.
You've done more in a year than most artists would ever dream of accomplishing. But what's next? What's next for you to do that you haven't done yet?
Right now I'm editing my poems, and illustrating some lyrics - hoping to get something out on the printed page. Otherwise, I'm fixin' to tour till I'm all toured out then I hope to be made into an app so people can write Robyn Hitchcock songs on their phones - or mix a certain percentage of me with their own style. Our phones are merging with us anyway. If we last another 50 years, we'll all be iPeeps. Then I'll be inside y'all - heh heh!