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Music: The Surreal Life

The prolific Robyn Hitchcock's storied career and eccentric output gets the box-set treatment

By Gregory Gaston · November 7th, 2007 · Music
  Psych Pop legend Robyn Hitchcock finds surrealism everywhere, but says George Bush being in the White House is the
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Psych Pop legend Robyn Hitchcock finds surrealism everywhere, but says George Bush being in the White House is the "ultimate surrealistic act."

Taking his place in the long, cherished tradition of British wit stands Robyn Hitchcock, an absurdist custom fit for these times through which we struggle. With his cult status as a musician and his performance stories, he embodies the surreal aspects of English culture, iconic figures like Monty Python and Syd Barrett.

Hitchcock's eclectic career extends all the way back to his late '70s band, The Soft Boys, whose Power Pop influenced the likes of R.E.M. and The Replacements. Since then he's shifted through many incarnations, including his stint leading the Egyptians, his backing band in the '80s and '90s, as well as much solo work. Recently, he's been playing with Venus 3, a little-known combo that includes Peter Buck from R.E.M. and Scott McCaughey from the Young Fresh Fellows (as well as an R.E.M. sideman). It's a part-time job for these guys, but what a gig.

With the November release of a five-disc box-set retrospective titled I Wanna Go Backwards and the recent Hitchcock documentary called Sex, Food, Death ... And Insects, Robyn has rarely had a higher profile.

From New York City and speaking in a precise English accent, he tells me, "I'm in the city now filming a new Jonathan Demme movie called Dancing with Shiva, and in it I appear as myself playing at a wedding with a collection of musicians."

Now in his mid-fifties, Hitchcock says all this fuss is due to the fact that "I've been around long enough." The boxed set reprints three of his early solo records and also gives him the chance to contrast analog vs.

digital technology.

"My best kind of time capsule, my collected hieroglyphics, would be on vinyl," he says. "I think LPs will probably outlast CDs. In theory, any smart being able to planet-hop in the future would be able to look at this circular vinyl and figure the grooves are some kind of hieroglyphics. Why not spin it and drop a pin in? Of course, they might play it backwards."

It's this kind of absurd logic that has served him well through his career. In his solo performances onstage, there's usually a good bit of storytelling between the songs. He'll riff off of any word or lyric -- be it "vegetable," "insect" or "astronaut" -- and spin a bizarrely, mesmerizing anecdote around it. But maybe that's to be expected when your main influences are Syd Barrett, Bob Dylan and William Burroughs, the immortal trifecta of hallucinatory wit.

It's not just the British tradition, though.

"I see myself as very Anglo-American," Hitchcock says. "I'm English, but our cultures -- in terms of music -- are very intertwined. It's a true coalition of the willing, the good side of that. I mean Dylan and The Beatles were cross-pollinating 40 years ago, and then with the Byrds. I was 12 then. But what made me want to be a musician was Dylan rather than The Beatles."

Though he still lives in London, Robyn also often travels to the States, especially his favorite hangouts, Seattle and Tucson. Seattle is where he befriended like-minded residents such as Buck and McCaughey.

"Seattle has the damp, English climate and a breath of sanity blows down from Canada," he says. "The Venus 3 is based up there. Take me away and add Michael Stipe and Mike Mills, and you've got R.E.M."

For all his English background, he still finds himself aligned more with American musicians. Several years ago he recorded Spooked, a record he made with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, two well-known Americana/Roots musicians. Their spare accompaniment helped Robyn strip his sound down to its essentials. The result is a lovely, baroque-sounding record anchored by a Dylan cover. He's even recorded a Dylan tribute record called Robyn Sings, which mimics Bob's legendary "Judas" show.

The genre label "AltCountry" doesn't phase Hitchcock very much. He explains, "I think if The Beatles were going now they'd be called 'AltCountry.' It's another spin on two guitars, bass, drums and harmonies. It's really Rock music without the kind of overdrive that kicked in the early '90s with Grunge, when kids started taking their shirts off and punching the air. In a way, 'AltCountry,' sound-wise, connects more, in my mind, to the R.E.M., 10,000 Maniacs sound, sort of Jangle Pop that goes back to The Byrds."

The Beatles' and Byrds' chiming Rickenbacker guitar sound stacked with tremolo and reverb has spawned a thousand bands, of course, and Robyn's music has always been defined by that. Make no mistake -- it's his warped, eccentric version of it that spearheads most of his records, whether with a group or solo.

There's a madcap, playful spirit behind Hitchcock's best songs, and that attitude even ricochets through our conversation: We pinball between references to the Marx Brothers, George W. Bush and Monty Python, three of our comic faves.

"As far as surrealism goes, the ultimate surrealist act might just be George Bush sitting in the White House," he says, laughing.

No argument here. I doubt if even Salvador Dali could have imagined that holy goof.

Robyn tries once more to sum up the English/American contrast: "Yeah, the British are more sarcastic and the Americans more candid -- it's a less fatalistic culture than ours. All humor is based on fucking up, things going wrong and how you deal with it. We English expect things to go wrong, we wear our misery on the surface, whereas you cloak your misery in joy. Americans try to keep it out of the way, but we celebrate it -- which might be better for the mental health in the long run."

ROBYN HITCHCOCK plays the Southgate House Thursday with Sean Nelson. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.



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