If Syd Barrett and Bob Dylan had a love child, they’d have named him Robyn Hitchcock. The perennial cult-favorite British singer/songwriter has shown an inherent knack for marrying melody with head-spinning lyrics since his early punktastic days with the Soft Boys in the ’70s right on through his major-label alt-rock hero profile in the ’80s and beyond.
And when many artists turned away from releasing vinyl during the height of the CD era, Hitchcock made sure his new music kept coming out on wax, though he certainly appreciates how portable music has become. “Portability changed the way we listen to music,” Hitchcock concedes. “And you could do it in cars. Otherwise, you had to be like John Lennon and have a record player decked out in your Rolls-Royce to be able to listen to an album.”
Hitchcock’s latest album, The Man Upstairs (Yep Roc), out now, follows a mostly acoustic tack. It was produced by the legendary Joe Boyd, who turned the knobs for many groundbreaking records from artists like Pink Floyd, The Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention, Nick Drake, Richard Thompson, and R.E.M. (1985’s transitional Fables of the Reconstruction). Many tracks on Upstairs find Robyn, his voice, and his custom Fylde Olivia acoustic guitar interacting beautifully with Jenny Adejayan’s cello on a fine HD blend of original songs (the garage-rockin’ Somebody to Break Your Heart) and covers (the heartfelt run through Roxy Music’s To Turn You On).
“Downloads are as much a part of progress as the nuclear bomb or a cure for cancer.”
Hitchcock, 61, recently chatted with Digital Trends about capturing vocal honesty, fetishizing cassettes, and a future that might just be filled with “summer currency parties.”
Digital Trends: Joe Boyd had six microphones positioned all around you to record your guitar and vocals while you were cutting this album. Did you discuss the reasons for that idea with him?
Robyn Hitchcock: No. I mean, I figured, he’s Joe Boyd; if he wants to do it that way, then great. Joe knows how to get a good sound. I just kind of had to wriggle past the mics and get myself comfortable. There wasn’t a lot of time spent going, “We’re going to try a few confusing options here. Wait here while the clock ticks.” (chuckles) We had to get on with it, which I liked.
So everybody was in the same room while you were recording, looking at each other?
Yes, pretty much. Jenny was playing her cello behind some baffles. Anne Lise Frøkedal [of Norwegian indie band I Was a King] came in and did some harmonies afterwards. And there was one song that Charlie [Francis] played piano on afterwards; he wasn’t on the original take. But everything with Jenny on the cello and I went down live. Charlie and I played together, and Anne Lise and I played on Ferries together. Overdubs were the exception rather than the rule.
It’s about 50/50 when your vocals have echo on them. The Ghost in You [a Psychedelic Furs cover] is one song that comes across pretty raw.
There is some reverb and things on it, but it doesn’t sound like it’s in a tunnel or a storage chamber, or anything like that.
The character of your voice comes through quite clearly. This is the real Robyn we’re getting here, and that’s important for the weight of these songs, especially as you have to balance originals and covers.
On a lot of my records, I try to take the vocal and alter the track so it has an artificial sound where more “technicality” is present. But there is an emotional honesty about singing and playing at the same time that you can’t beat. I know Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings always seem to play together at the same time. Dylan does that too. And so did Frank Sinatra sometimes with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra.
There’s something about a performance as it goes down that is different from a recording where you are doing things in pieces in order to make them sound as good as possible. It’s very much of the school of recording a live performance rather than creating a performance out of a mosaic of different takes. And on the whole, I prefer Joe’s way of doing it. That’s how I like to work. You’ve got the best one as is. But if it’s going wrong, you stop, and you do something else.
Your interactions with Jenny’s cello sound very natural and fluid to me. And you have to have that feel on a song like Comme Tojours; otherwise, it just doesn’t resonate.
Yeah, I hope so. That’s why I hope it sounds as good as it should. If we’ve recorded it well, it will sound good. It’s not something you can rescue or transform by overdubs and effects. It’s a very old-fashioned record, really. It could have been made 50 years ago, except we didn’t make it on tape. Joe Boyd had the option, but he preferred us to do it on digital, but mixed onto tape.
It’s also the right amount of music for a record these days — 10 songs.
Yes, yes! Well, it’s 38 minutes, which I think is the perfect length for a record.
I think that’s something that got lost in the CD age. Many albums went on too long and just meandered.
Yeah. I think a lot of the art disappeared when CDs came along. People no longer had to decide what tracks they were going to leave off. People were encouraged to put on extra tracks, and we entered the world of bonus songs. So an LP that could actually be 38 minutes — well, why not make it 75? “Here you are — here’s 75 minutes of music!”
“A lot of the art disappeared when CDs came along.”
Are you encouraged by this second vinyl age, where we’re seeing a younger generation getting into it?
I don’t know, because it can’t all be nostalgia. Like all those cassette fetishists, you know? They’re into wash bags or wallets, these other things made in the outline of cassettes — tape dispensers, tampon holders, or what would have been cigarette holders. They all use the topography of the cassette. And this is for people who have a dim memory of the cassette — it would have been fading out when they were growing up.
My theory about the LP, all nostalgia aside — there is something that’s very satisfying about it. You know, it’s a circle with a hole in the middle of it, and it’s sort of symmetrical — a symbolic rotating tablet. Also, information can be stored on it for thousands of years. As far as we know, the information will fall off of a CD. It’s certainly a moot point, as we may not even be able to play a CD in a thousand years’ time, but some being could get hold of an LP and play it on some kind of futuristic wheel, stick a pin in it, and spin it ’round. Who knows, they might even spin it backwards.
There’s just a sense of permanence with an LP. It’s funny — things move so fast, and we talk about LPs now as if they were old pieces of Mycenaean pottery, old Roman swords, Celtic bangles, or medieval breastplates. Look, a shiny beautiful thing! But compared to a CD or a download, the LP seems very dignified and regal. Now you can’t give CDs away. They’re almost worthless. They used to come into my letterbox and they’d just pile up in a puddle on my floor.
Do you feel we’re losing touch with certain things about music in the download era, regardless of whether we can get higher-resolution files or not?
Fortunately or unfortunately, downloads are as much a part of progress as the nuclear bomb or a cure for cancer, if it comes — they’re just one of the byproducts of relentless technological development. Unfortunately, we develop much faster technologically than we do spiritually, or morally. But downloads aren’t going to kill anybody.
The CD is slowly dying. And we know now, when something approaches extinction, it becomes fetishized. If there were only 100 cassettes left and you couldn’t buy them anywhere except in the thrift stores or from cassette machines, people would start going, “Waahhhh! Cassettes! Man, let’s have a cassette party!” I dare say as soon as the compact disc becomes a more endangered species, people will start saying, “Man, let’s have a CD party! Let’s go and listen to The Waterboys on compact disc! Let’s go listen to [Radiohead’s] The Bends!”
When you and I last spoke about 15 years ago, you said this: “Soon you’ll find a device that will become the global jukebox called The Utensil. The days of the separate wrench, radio, or rake will disappear. With a twist of your pen cap, you’ll be able to download Robert Palmer’s Addicted to Love, or your mobile phone will be able to give you counseling, open a can of tomatoes, ring your mother, and catch fish for dinner. You’ll ask your wife, ‘Honey, did you bring The Utensil?’” See, you predicted this technology shift.
You mean the iThing? Yes, yes I did. Well, it can do most of those things, can’t it? My dentist has one that tells him jokes. I don’t know if it gives him counsel yet, though.
I didn’t foresee that they’d have the little “i” in front of it, but I’m sure loads of people could see that one coming, really. You could see the forms were all going to merge — the camera, the phone, and the personal stereo, as it used to be called, would all merge. And even before they merged, they began to look more and more like each other. It makes sense. They knew they were going to merge — everything got flatter. The first time I saw an iPhone, I thought it looked like a meteorite. That was 6 years ago, and probably it’s in a museum somewhere, like a really heavy piece of pottery.
Technology ages faster than we do. You probably look quite similar to what you did 3 or 4 years ago, but your phone is probably utterly different. Human nature hasn’t changed a bit. The essentials have been taken care of.
So Mr. Predictor, what do you see coming next?
Money will only be for homeless people. And then maybe homeless people will have credit cards.
You’d still need some kind of keyboard, and there’s only so far things can be shrunk. It just depends on whether they can come up with a virtual keyboard, and then maybe you could have a pair of shades or glasses where the keyboard shows up on it. I don’t know how you get around that, but it has to be made to look nice.
But basically, I think we’re looking at implants, and we’re looking at all of our information being stored on us so that we don’t need passports or ATM cards, or even room cards for hotel keys anymore. All your information is carried in your wrist, and you swipe your wrist to get in and out of relationships (both laugh), front doors, back doors, and planes. Money will only be for homeless people. And then maybe homeless people will have credit cards that they swipe in some way. You’ll get a bump in your homeless wrist credit.
Essentially, cash and passports and all the rest of it will go the same way the ashtray and dial phone have gone. They’ll also be fetishized, so they’ll be lots of passport parties. People will be getting together in little villages in Denmark to have summer currency parties. Buy things with money! Bring your dollars and yen and euros and buy actual bananas with them, or something. Oh God!
What would you call the embedded wrist device?
It would be like Swipo, wouldn’t it? That’s kind of Australian. An Australian would say, “Swipo, mate.”
Give me one more prediction: Ten years from now, what will you be doing? Will we still be hearing new music from you?
If I’m alive, and unless there’s been a malfunction — then totally, yeah. I will keep working up to and ultimately beyond my death. That’s what I’m here for. I’m not just here because I’m a nice chap or a frequent eater of bananas and avocados. My function in the system is to produce songs and music, whether they’re my songs or somebody else’s. I mean, I’m here like Paul McCartney or Bob Dylan or Martin Carr [of the Boo Radleys] is. I do this to live, and I live to do this.
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