Audio Autopsy, 1991: "Perspex Island"-The Robyn Hitchcock Interview by Amy Hughes
The 38-year-old Londoner freely dishes on songwriting, label drama, and everyone's expectations! Now 70, you'll also get a taste of what this influential Soft Boy has been up to lately!
“The Hatching of Hitchcock”
Originally published in Metronome Magazine, November, 1991, by Amy McGrath
It's very tempting to think of Robyn Hitchcock in cool terms reserved for those above it all: enigmatic, provocative, existentialist. It's even harder still to believe that our young Mr. Hitchcock has been spinning tales of eccentricity and weaving his witty, warped humor through fifteen albums in thirteen years.
If you're wondering why Robyn hasn't reaped the rewards for all this hard work, well, the man has refused to conform to basic pop sensibilities. He's addressed love's afterlife ("My Wife and My Dead Wife"), changed professions for affection ("If You Were A Priest"), pondered acapella psychology ("Uncorrected Personality Traits") and even toyed with the music business ("Rock 'n' Roll Toilet"). Quite a resume.
This year's objective collection is titled Perspex Island (A&M Records worldwide, 1991, shown above). He's re-grouped after a sabbatical, with his band The Egyptians (bassist Andy Metcalfe and drummer Morris Windsor) and has bent the public ear with perhaps his most straight-forward, universal -- dare I say, bouncy -- release to date [with R.E.M.’s Peter Buck on electric guitar, and Mr. Mister’s Pat Mastelatto on percussion]:
Performing the song live on Late Nite with David Letterman, 1991:
The first single "So You Think You're In Love" has all the catchiness befitting a classic pop tune, so what the heck? Robyn's happier, we're happier, but lest you think he's "gone commercial", eavesdrop on our conversation... somewhere between Maryland and Massachusetts...
Amy McGrath (all questions in italics): So, what have you been doing with yourself?
Robyn Hitchcock: I've been down here with my daughter, only she's out with my fiancee's family selecting a cat. So I'm here doing interviews.
What a choice. Go get a cat or talk to somebody on the phone.
Well, interviews leave a trace in a way. But they don't have to be fed.
They only come back to haunt you later on.
They come back to haunt you when somebody asks what you said in another interview and they ask you the same questions again. They hope you were lying the first time and this time you'll tell the truth. It's a bit like that thing with children -- if you don't finish your supper today, you'll have to eat the same piece of moldy food tomorrow.
Then what do you do about that?
Well, eventually you refuse it. Then they make you eat it when it's about three weeks gone, covered in mold and then you gag. Then this enormous huge moldy caterpillar sort of evolves somewhere in your esophagus and you vomit it up. Then it comes out in newsprint -- this enormous fluttering bad news moth -- and it sits in front of your food whenever you want to eat. People no longer want to be seen with you at fancy restaurants 'cause you've got the bad news moth with you.
So, you take to wearing sunglasses and going around the place. Every time someone asks for spare change, you put out a little scoop of Jell-o and slap it into their upturned palm and say "Go in peace my son."
What happens if you're on television? Can you do that in front of an audience?
Oh, people expect it. They only invite you on television if you're prepared to. But then the whole audience has got little circular holes in their palms. When you slap Jell-o into their hands, it falls onto the floor. Eventually you wind up being interviewed by the bad news moth and you threaten to marry it in an attempt to buy it off, but it's no good. It's sexless and remorseless. It's almost like a terminator. So, that's what's happening, really.
With regard to your newest batch of songs, there seems to be a strange jarring image between the beloved old "weird" Robyn and the "happy, new" Robyn.
They're just songs, really. That's all they ever are -- ever were.
The general consensus has been that this album (Perspex Island) is going to make you a household name.
[aside] I love predictions. [Normal voice] That's interesting, 'cause it's not really very different. Morris' comment was "It sounds like us, but only better." He also said he thought the songs were quite consistent. We rehearsed for it more and we had a producer [Paul Fox], so we had someone taking responsibility of things, which was good.
[Editors note: Paul Fox was just off producing Gene Loves Jezebel’s Kiss of Life the year before, and XTC’s 1989 Oranges and Lemons album the year before that.]
As regard to the actual songs, whenever I put out a record, there's always a lot of contenders that don't make it. Fifteen go into tape and ten come out. For some reason, those are the ones that work, but in a different ten songs, you might have a very different vision of things. In other words, deducting my psychological state from these records is precarious because I happened to find those ten songs work together. It's not a manifesto, it's a collection of songs like they always are.
Generally, yeah. I don't regard myself as a, kind of, Prince of Chaos [laughs]. I don't glorify incomprehensibility or the futility of life as much as I did. Maybe it's just a case of being a mirror: I saw garbage, so I reflected garbage. That's what I sent back into the world -- more garbage. Life was an insult to my intelligence, so I deliberately thought the incomprehensible. Plus I've never been interested in football or computers or that kind of stuff.
It sounds like an oxymoron: Robyn Hitchcock, Top 40 artist.
But I never said I wasn't. Other people put labels on you. Some people will always like you because they think others don't. When you start off -- whether you're R.E.M. or Robyn Hitchcock -- that's the market you begin with. When I was a kid, I used to buy records because I thought they were cool and other people didn't like them. It's a natural thing that people do at a certain stage.
Then some people actually like you because they like you. These innocent souls should be held on to at all costs because their judgement isn't clouded by peer pressure and what they think is cool. So it's all down to people's perceptions. For me, it's just a collection of songs. And yes, I try to be more concise and yes, I'm happier.
Speaking of R.E.M., in ways it's good that Out Of Time [above, 1991, Warner Bros. Records, worldwide] has become so popular, because people now know who R.E.M. is.
Right. They're plugged into the cerebral cortex of the silent majority and good [for them]! I don't even think it's their most accessible record, but it's the record they've made with the biggest marketing opportunity behind it. The same probably applies to us. I mean, songs back in The Soft Boys [Robyn's first band, 1976-’81, shown below] days we could have been Top 40, but there was no opportunity for them to be so.
People had decided that we weren't a band that could be marketed and we were consigned to the underground. Stuff on Fegmania! -- that could have been a household album. Anybody could listen to [1985’s] "Heaven" or "My Wife and My Dead Wife" -- they're not difficult.
Are you upset that the earlier material could have been hits?
To a degree, but there's a psychological element in that. I don't think we were really in the right state -- mature enough -- to be successful. When I say we, I mean Morris, Andy and myself. I think we would have blown it. We've all had various crises to get through since then. I don't want to sound like Pete Townshend in The Who -- the more they hate each other, the more they slap each other on the back -- but we're in pretty good shape now. And we're getting old, man. We're twice the age of most of these young bands now.
We can't sit around indefinitely. If we were going to sell some records, now would be a good time!
Around the period I got interested in you, people tried to put me off buying Globe Of Frogs because it was on a major label [A&M, 1988].
[Angrily] People like that are assholes! They don't even need to read the books on their shelves. All they have to do is have the titles displayed so people know who they're buying. And they have their Lydia Lunch album lying on the floor so people know they bought that. They keep the cover pointing the right way, then no one's gonna have to see they haven't even opened it.
What about the time period just before you did Perspex Island? What's your opinion on the songs you were doing around that time?
I wasn't in a particularly good state when I made Eye [a solo acoustic album released March 12, 1990]. I was burned out around that time and Queen Elvis [A&M, 1989; seventh studio album, fourth with The Egyptians] and Eye were recorded immediately one after the other.
Now I've had a long break and we did Perspex Island this March . Queen Elvis was a good record, actually. I love that. It suffered for lots of things in terms of the public, nor did we have anything very radio-friendly. And I was in an appalling state when I made that, but it's come out well. It's very jittery -- like somebody being hit over the head with one sheet of glass after another. It's an accurate document of how I felt, but then maybe people don't [quietly] want to hear it.
[Normal voice] It's much better than Globe Of Frogs -- that's got about two good songs on it. I suppose in about five years time, there will probably be only three good songs left on this one. My favorite is "Birds in Perspex":
I'm interested in how you got an outside producer [the late Paul Fox, below] involved in Perspex Island. You've never done that before.
Andy was talking to a friend of his who just said, "Well, until you get someone else in there, you're basically carrying on making the same record with the three of you forever. You're either gonna have to get a producer or a different musician if you want to change things in any way."
So Paul came in -- and it doesn't sound like a million dollar production. We thought he was going to smooth things out, but he didn't (which was nice). But he did get us to rehearse so that when we were recording, we were in much better shape than we usually are.
Do you feel you waste time not getting your act together before going into the studio?
Yeah, probably. Because when we play in the studio, it's rather a constipated affair: I've just written the songs and we've just worked it all out together. So although it has a certain freshness, it's not very competent. It's hard to differentiate because we're very much an organism, so you can't tell who's doing what. But the overall thing in the studio is a bit slack. So this time we had a good set of headphones, good sound. It actually felt to us like we were on stage while we were recording. And we had Paul there being an audience and being Dad, so that was good.
What about a change in the set-up when you go out on tour next year?
You need money to get extra musicians and on the whole I'm against it, because I like the organic effect on the three people playing. But it always happens -- musicians want to get extra people in to play the twiddley bits that they can't do live. Certainly, I'd like to put it off as long as possible.
I think what you'll see more of is us swapping instruments around and playing more acoustic stuff -- Andy playing more piano. We swap around for one song at the end, but we've been doing that for years. [Ponders] I think this time, we'll start the show off acoustically or something....
[At this point, I hear a bustling in the background as it's apparent that the dreaded furry feline has arrived. Robyn is cursing slightly -- "Oh no...bloody hell..." and he gets back on the receiver.]
Well, I've got to go. I hope you've got enough stuff here for about eighteen volumes. And I'm going to look at the cat!
This live solo performance (with Sean Nelson on background vocals) at KEXP/Seattle was recorded on May 1, 2017, and not only features four songs (3 from the self-titled album), but also a brief interview with Robyn as he reveals the angst of having to deal with the pressures of A&M Records’ A&R department to have hits and fill venues:
Many thanks to Amy for digging this 1991 interview gem out of mothballs! Read and subscribe to her musically fabulous writing and perspective, “Write Hear”:
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