Robyn Hitchcock is an acquired taste like the decadent cheeses he exalts in "The Cheese Alarm," a song from his most recent release, Jewels for Sophia. This is as it should be. Mass ingestion of Hitchcock's surrealist salad, Syd Barrett-as-fifth-Beatle music could make for an uncomfortable ear-meal for most. Although he hasn't scaled the commercial heights of some his fellow rock 'n' roll eccentrics, Hitchcock and his rabid band of fans don't seem to mind.
Most of Hitchcock's 20-plus-year career reflects an insular sensibility, seemingly unaffected by trends in popular culture. Beginning with the quasi-psychedelic Soft Boys in the late '70s, Hitchcock and crew were making music that forecasted the American alternative music of the mid- to late '80s, rather than reflecting the punk rock that was king in England at the time. It's a familiar story: The band, out of step with the music of its own era, went largely ignored. Only years later when bands like R.E.M. paid homage to the Soft Boys, in part by taking Hitchcock on the road for their Green tour, did the band and the man begin to get their due.
After the Soft Boys dissolved in '81, Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians were born, with most of the players from the Soft Boys onboard -- sans guitarist Kimberley Rew, who went on to join Katrina and the Waves. He stayed with this lineup, more or less, for the next 15 years, with occasional solo forays. Over the years, the music has lost some of its fragmented mathematical quality, gradually stripping down to a subtle style centered around Hitchcock's voice and guitar. His last three releases for Warner Bros. have not carried the Egyptian moniker, and the official core band is no more, though old players and friends still pop up in credits. Jewels for Sophia features the return of Rew and guest spots by Peter Buck and Grant Lee Phillips (of Grant Lee Buffalo) among other sympathetic comrades.
Hitchcock's complex musical world is populated by grotesque characters freed from an active subconscious. These "Flesh Cartoons" include the Man with the Lightbulb Head, Ye Sleeping Knights of Jesus and Queen Elvis -- a drag king Elvis impersonator. The characters fit comfortably into songs like "Do Policemen Sing?", "Uncorrected Personality Traits," "I Want to Be an Anglepoise Lamp" and "My Wife and My Dead Wife" -- which contains the jaunty sing-along question: "My wife and my dead wife/Am I the only one that sees her?"
A bona fide cult hero, Hitchcock has also ventured into other media. He's been the subject of a Jonathan Demme film documentary, Storefront Hitchcock (which ran in limited release last year and has yet to be issued on video). Hitchcock is also a fledgling author, cartoonist, painter and smalltime inventor.
Recently, on the road as part of the Flaming Lips' "Music Against Brain Degeneration" tour (which skipped Phoenix), Hitchcock found himself in the company of such underground luminaries as the Lips, Sonic Youth, and Sebadoh. Stripping down his live show to a solo acoustic session, Hitchcock presented himself as he has on his most recent recordings -- a simple, straightforward songsmith with an upside-down Dr. Seuss wit.
We caught up with the very English Hitchcock via telephone from Memphis. Our rambling, often strange conversation found the droll musician yielding much information, including his current waist size, his new record, the novel he's writing and points in between.
Robyn Hitchcock on crowd control and the audience:
NT: Tonight you're playing Memphis, at the New Daisy Theatre, which seats roughly 1,000 people. Do you prefer the larger crowds like tonight or the more intimate audiences?
RH: Well, I think if you're playing a big venue, it's good to have people in it. Tonight is going to be pretty sparse. They haven't sold many tickets here in Memphis. I'm not big on addressing the rally kind of thing. My declamation to the mob . . .
NT: Hello, Cleveland!
RH: Well, yeah. You know, I'm no sort of Nuremberg rally. If everybody goes to one end of the field, I go to the other. I instinctively don't like crowds. I guess if there was a crowd, I'd probably rather be addressing it than be in it, but either way, that amount of condensed humanity makes me jittery. Too many heads.
I like things like in-stores, where everyone's embarrassed because they're far too close together in the daytime, and you can see them. You never see an audience so clearly. That's the advantage of the in-store, because the audience is all there with horrible fluorescent lighting shining down on them, and you're looking shitty as well, but you know, too bad. I like that. It's like guerrilla art.
Hitchcock on the art of writing -- love songs and novels:
RH: My stuff is always direct, it just depends which direction it's going in. The best songs just appear. I don't have much to do with thinking about what they are. I don't think about them really. It's just like landing a big fish. It's like, "Oh, look at that!" You don't take it apart and stick it back together.
NT: I think "I Feel Beautiful" (from Jewels for Sophia) may be the only love song featuring tomatoes and enormous beasts.
RH: Well, why not? That's what it is. It's not old people walking through Central Park hand in hand with no emotion and ghastly mellow saxophone. In reality it's beasts and tomatoes. I just like to try to find a slightly different way of saying things. Because otherwise, no one's saying anything. It's just money changing hands and people's brains dying.
NT: Tell me about "Mexican God" from Jewels for Sophia. I'm thinking of lyrics like "The horror of you floats so close by my window/At least when I die, your memory will too."
RH: I don't like to add to the sum of human misery, but I felt that this was a good song. It was one of those that was written in the middle of the night. When you can't get away from anything, you just have to face up to how you feel. Can't sleep, no refuge from whatever it is that's bugging you, so I wrote it down, and I probably relaxed by looking at one of my books about who engineered what Beatles session.
NT: What's the status of your book?
RH: Well, I've done the first draft. And I think I have to do a second one, but it's bloody difficult writing a book. What tends to happen is, once I start trying to write the book, I just write a lot of songs instead. Probably the next crop of songs will come while I'm sitting there trying to finish this thing.
NT: Well, that's not bad at all -- at least you're not cleaning incessantly to get away from it.
RH: I clean a bit. I actually usually have to go somewhere where there isn't a guitar. Go away for a couple of weeks and leave the guitar at home. That forces me to write it. That's next year's project. It exists. It's just not good enough yet. Maybe I'll just wind up doing a lot of interviews about it, and it will never come out. I'm sure people will value the book much more if I never publish it.
NT: Or you could do a sort of a books-on-tape thing and have your guitar and speak it while you're strumming, if that's easier for you.
RH: I think people would get bored.
NT: I love your stories when you're playing live.
RH: Yeah, but they're improvised. Maybe if I got somebody else to read it out, like an actor. That would be better.
NT: I think Brad Pitt would be good.
RH: You do? Do you think he'd be good?
RH: Is he a friend of yours?
Robyn Hitchcock on cheese and waist size:
NT: Traditionally, the poets have been remarkably quiet on the subject of cheese.
RH: Well, they have. They have. Maybe they haven't had a problem with it.
NT: Little bit addicted yourself?
RH: Well, yeah, you know. Might as well face it if you're addicted to cheese. I've put on a lot of weight over the years, and it's not all alcohol. My girlfriend, she has this (cheese), it's so strong it affects her breathing, and she has to lie on her back with her arms and legs in the air like an upside-down table.
NT: That's some potent cheese.
RH: Yeah. It's this French stuff called Mimolette. It's disguised as a Dutch cheese. I didn't actually put it in the song, but it's the most extreme one.
NT: Extreme cheese!
RH: It's very extreme cheese. It's the cheese that you can't say no to. It's the crack cocaine of the cheese world.
NT: I noticed on this record you say, "I can't even fit into size 38." I wanted to ask you about that.
RH: Well, I haven't quite got that fat yet. I'm heading that way, though. I'm size 36. I used to be 28.
NT: "Some day, I could have a 50-inch waist . . ." Do you remember that one (an old lyric from Hitchcock's "My Favorite Buildings," a track from 1984's I Often Dream of Trains)?
RH: Yes, I do. I hope these songs don't come true. I need to write one about how I'm gonna be back to 34. I'm going to be.
NT: Right, you've got to manifest.
RH: Sure, it's a form of prayer.
NT: Pray to the waist god.
RH: Well, you've got to pray to the waist god. We pray to the weather god and it works.
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NT: Do the waist dance?
RH: What's that?
NT: I don't know. Rain dance, waist dance . . .
RH: Waist dance. For a second, I thought there actually was, like, an Arizona waist dance. Like people with phantom Hula-Hoops trying to bring on their periods by waist dancing.