A Robyn Hitchcock interview to promote Moss Elixir back in 1996. Originally conducted for BigO magazine, this is the full transcript.
Robyn Hitchcock is one of pop music’s best kept secrets. A songwriter of unquestionable depth blessed with a vivid imagination and a formidable wit, Hitchcock is indeed that rare hybrid of infectious tunesmith and lyrical master.
Unfortunately these gifts have not brought him the fame and fortune of say, Michael Jackson (or even Michael Bolton) but those who have been touched by his quirky brilliance, a meaningful impression is burned onto the consciousness which lasts much longer than your average one-hit wonder.
Longtime admirer Kevin Mathews is one such person and Mathews caught up with the singer-songwriter via a dream-come-true phone interview and discussed at length the brand new album from Robyn Hitchcock, Moss Elixir.
Kevin: Moss Elixir is the first album since Respect-it’s been about three years-are you satisfied with the final record?
Robyn Hitchcock: I think so. It often takes a few years for these things to sink in. You arrange it all and ten years later you see what it was really like. Every album when I finished it, it’s the best it could be. But looking back they don’t always last so well. There’s usually three or four good songs on each record that will last. Some have a few more than that and some a few less. I think this record’s pretty good.
Kevin: Yeah, I agree. Any particular favorite track?
Robyn: I like De Chiraco Street because it’s got all these different arrangements and its got a horn arrangement. The guitars and the voices-it was just fun mixing that, putting it together. And I liked Heliotrope-that’s come out pretty well. And, Speed of Things is quite good. Beautiful Queen-I liked most of them actually.
Kevin: Why did you re-record Alright Yeah?
Robyn: Well…have you heard the first version?
Kevin: Yes, it’s on the so-called Greatest Hits that’s been released by A&M.
Robyn: Gee, where did you hear that?
Kevin: It’s out! I have a copy of it in my hands right now!
Robyn: Well, that’s just A&M’s term for it. Trying to make a bit more money out of people they’ve dropped.
Kevin: Yes, and timed with the release of Moss Elixir…
Robyn: Yeah, I know, we noticed. Well, you have to compare the two-the one with the Egyptians really sounds very tired as if it’s recorded between two slices of bread. It’s not really a song the Egyptians worked on, I think. It wasn’t a great song for that line-up, I just felt that it’d be good with this group Homers that I’ve been recording with. They’re the drums and bass and rhythm guitar on this album. I just thought it could be done better and also it’s the kind of thing that gets on the radio, so that’s useful.
Kevin: It’s my favorite track on the album.
Robyn: Ah! There you are then! It’s just as well I re-recorded it.
Kevin: It’s the slide guitar that grabs me straight away…reminds me very much of #9 Dream.
Robyn: Yeah…me too. Although I put on #9 Dream the yesterday and it actually sounds pretty different, but it’s the way it starts (makes the sound). But my lead guitar playing is very different from Jesse Ed Davis-I think he had all these pedals to make him sound like he was playing underwater. It was a sort of crying sound on the guitar and mine is much cooler, it’s more steely, shinier, I think. The notes I play are shinier than the ones Jesse Ed Davis played on that record.
I think it was because of all the kind of denim they were wearing-the big flares … kind of muffled their music somewhat.
Kevin: Whatever possessed you to record it in Swedish (on Mossy Liquor) ?
Robyn: My friend Tim (Keegan), he learnt Swedish at school and also played rhythm guitar on that record. I said “Could you translate it?” and he said “Yeah”. We’ve done one in German as well. But apparently the record company-Warners in Sweden and Germany-think these versions are so dreadful they refused to release them. Anyway, we couldn’t resist putting the Swedish one out.
Kevin: How did the Warners deal come about?
Robyn: I had people I knew at Warners who were refugees from A&M. I just rang up and they basically said “Why not?”-subject to lawyers and things like that.
Kevin: I noticed that some of the lyrics on Moss Elixir are very sad.
Robyn: They were pretty sad on Respect. Respect was more of a death record. My father had just died and the Egyptians were dying and I kept moving house-it’s was quite unsettling. Moss Elixir has been recorded in a time of comparative peace. Speed of Things is quite sad.
Kevin: But even on Alright Yeah there are portions that sound quite sad-“I want to laugh/But there’s part of me that wants to sit and cry”…
Robyn: Well, there’s a lot to be sad about. I think it’s good to be able to put that sort of thing out. The emotions that I evoke-people don’t think of them as much-they concentrate more on the pictures that my work conjure up and whether they like those pictures or not and that tends to be how I’m criticized.
Kevin: Sex and death.
Robyn: Some people are turned on and some are turned off but there are feelings that lie behind. And I’ve always liked sad music and I could never write them when I was young. In any case the emotion doesn’t come across in the words but in the music. A sad lyric isn’t going to be poignant unless it sounds sad-the way the voice is going over the chord.
Kevin: But I thought that that line in Alright Yeah was quite a counterpoint. I was a bit shocked when I heard that line. Because I was jumping along to it and it hit me quite hard when I heard it.
Robin: Oh dear.
Kevin: And the other song that is quite affecting is Filthy Bird.
Robyn: Which bit?
Kevin: The whole song is rather creepy.
Robyn: I’ve written creepier. Like I said before, there’s a lot to be sad about. I don’t write about things outside my own experience as a rule. I’ve never been bombed, I’ve never been shot or raped or beaten up or starved. But you know that this is happening to people all around the place. But my perspective-suburban England-you can feel the menace out there. On the whole, nothing happens to you, it might happen to your next door neighbor. There might be people being dragged away in the bushes whilst you’re having a cup of tea. It goes on all around you but it doesn’t seem to happen to you. That creeping sense I’ve had most of my life because basically I’ve always led a safe and unadventurous life. And I’ve tried to stay at home and dream my own dreams but you can feel it sort of seeping in through the walls. And Filthy Bird, it’s a song for the right wing, a song for the Tories because that’s what they are-they’re happy at someone else’s expense. The whole pyramid version of society-you take what you get because you’re standing on the shoulders of those beneath you who are bowed down in the shit. The whole system is based that way-merciless capitalism like it happened in the eighties. People watching atrocities on television-they can watch people starving or photographs of relief people standing there and the flies bubbling about all the people under the sheets. That’s what’s really going on but someone like Billy Bragg will actually sit there and sing about it. I know it’s there but for me to write about it would be to insult all the people suffering-I don’t suffer in the conventional sense. I’ve got plenty to eat, I’ve got money but that’s the backdrop-that’s what’s in the shadows as I raise my glass of lime juice to my lips. Or as I pick up my guitar and sing about beautiful things.
Kevin: Filthy Bird strikes me as one of your more overtly political songs…
Robyn: Well, I don’t try to write politically because it sounds contrived-I used to try to do it in the eighties but I never published any of them-they just seemed fake. There’s some stuff about Rush Limbaugh in Devil’s Radio. I’ve got little bits coming through.
Kevin: You & Oblivion, is that an update of My Wife and My Dead Wife ( from Fegmania ) ?
Robyn: The song? No, not really, because My Wife and My Dead Wife, there was a singer and two other people-one was there and the other wasn’t. But the one that wasn’t there was there more that the one who was. That still happens all over the place. But You & Oblivion is just the singer singing to someone who isn’t there and probably never was. Though I suppose that the person I was singing to in You & Oblivion is the original Dead Wife, very perceptive of you to spot that.
Kevin: Who is the Great Ray ( a cryptic reference in the Moss Elixir sleeve) ?
Robyn: The Great Ray hasn’t happened yet. My father’s name was Ray. I just had this vision of the Great Ray sweeping back and forth in the heavens. It was black you know the Ray-
Kevin: Manta Ray?
Robyn: That’s it. I just imagined one sweeping back and forth high up in the sky. Looking a bit like a Concorde or something. But with that long wavy tail. And maybe incorporating the spirit of my father, I dune’s think he would have liked to have been some kind of aircraft.
Kevin: Why the lack of a band in Moss Elixir?
Robyn: It just wasn’t necessary. Because with a band you’ve got to find things for them to do. You can’t say to a drummer, I only want you for three tracks but here’s your royalties anyway, go in the corner and play dominoes or something. All I wanted was a violin, the occasional trumpet, basically what you got.
Buy Robyn Hitchcock Moss Elixir from Amazon.
… still there’s more …