Interview: Robyn Hitchcock

April 05, 2007 04:18 PM
by Christina Fuoco-Karasinski
LiveDaily Contributor
British pop singer Robyn Hitchcock has never had an album break into the US album chart, but the lack of commercial success hasn't stopped him from enjoying a 30-year career.

"You've got to make a living, so you can't ignore it all together," Hitchcock told LiveDaily. "For me, it's more a question of commercial sustain than commercial success."

Hitchcock's latest creation is The Venus 3 (tickets | music), a band whose members have achieved varying levels of commercial success. Guitarist Peter Buck of R.E.M. has obviously seen accomplishment, as has drummer Bill Rieflin of Ministry. Bassist/vocalist Scott McCaughey rounds out the band, which is touring in support of its album "Ole! Tarantula" and the documentary "Robyn Hitchcock: Sex, Food, Death and Insects."

"[Peter is] very proud of his success, but he also enjoys traveling around in a little van playing clubs. Bill and Scott, likewise. You got to make a living. You don't have to make five livings. You just do as much as you can. We do whatever gigs. If we were 30 years younger, we might all be sleeping on top of each other in a van driving 200 miles after gigs. We like a certain element of comfort. So we don't necessarily do all the s---ty things we would have done when we were very young. We just play, really. It doesn't sound very exciting, but it is."

LiveDaily: How's the tour going so far?

It's lovely. It's great. We're just driving around in a van, getting out and playing, and getting back in again, really. We just got to New York City, and we are about to go and play the Knitting Factory for the first of a couple of nights. It all seems to be under control. I'm at the Thor Hotel on Rivington in the lower east side of New York, staring at a great wall of fire escapes by the afternoon sunlight, looking around at all the places where people used to have ashtrays and don't anymore. That's the story.

Your current band has a storied past. Peter is part of R.E.M. Bill was in Ministry. Peter, Scott and Bill are in the Minus 5, Scott's group. What does each member of the band bring to The Venus 3?

Peter and I have been playing together off and on since 1985. He's a really old playmate. Scott and I have been playing since the early 1990s. Bill appeared on my horizon around 2000 AD or so. He used to be in a band called Ministry, who my daughter was a fan of ages ago. When I took her to Lollapalooza, she got me to go and look at Ministry.

I used to be a big fan of Ministry, too.

Were you? Did you like Al Jourgensen?

He's an interesting character. I've interviewed him a couple times.

I think he's still alive. But it was all very kind of tattoo rock. I'm from an age before tattoos, really. Rock kind of went tattooed pretty much after my time. I don't think any of this band has tattoos. Bill, despite being in Ministry, was tattoo free. We're really from before the kind of tattooed hard rock and heroin thing came in in the late '80s and early '90s. Everything got very kind of noisy. It seems like that's gone again now. Modest Mouse and Death Cab for Cutie and our friends The Decemberists, who are from Portland, that's a lot of the music I hear that seems to make sense. That fits in with the thing we sort of play. I've been playing this forever, and it goes in and out of vogue. It's in vogue at the moment. I'm sure it'll go out of fashion at some point.

How did South by Southwest go?

It was lovely. Each year, the crowds get thicker. It gets harder to move along Sixth Street. It's hard to figure out which way you're going when you come out of somewhere. I like it just because I recognize so many people now from my hundreds of years in show business. There's a lot of Brits. It's a good place to meet British people. I like it. Peter and I played; we had Sean Nelson with us. He's in Harvey Danger. Sean is opening for us on the West Coast. He sings harmony on our most recent record, "Ole Tarantula." I hope he's going to sing on whatever we do next. He's another Seattle boy.

You're celebrating 30 years in the music business. Have anything special planned?

I'm having a cake. I just finished one, in fact. A lot of my stuff from the 1980s is coming out again starting this fall and, starting next year, maybe even some of the Soft Boys stuff from the late 1970s. Apparently, some of the stuff from Warner Bros. in the late '90s is coming out, too. The thing is, the formats keep changing. If you paint a picture, you just paint it once--and it's there until it's destroyed or the weevils eat it. If you do a print, you can keep printing up copies of that etching or engraving or whatever. If you wrote a book, if your book gets published, that's it. It could be hardback or paperback. That's it. If it's paperback, the pages will fall out occasionally. But with music, when I started, it was vinyl and cassette, and then it sort moved up to CD, vinyl and cassette. Then cassette disappeared, vinyl almost disappeared, now CDs disappeared and then vinyl's coming back. I'm thinking the next record will be vinyl and downloads only. It's a thing of having to constantly re-release stuff in new formats. Find extra tracks. I'm going back and finding demos that I've done 20 years ago that were on four-track. It took me ages to find a four-track cassette machine that I could play my old demos on. I'd love to get it all out once and forever, you know? Anyway, I'm glad people are still interested 30 years on. People want to hear yet again what we do.

Was it difficult to chose songs for those extra tracks?

You just pick the ones that aren't too bad. You listen to it [and say], "Would you really want to hear this? No I'll leave that until they re-release it in 10 years time and it serves them right if they want it." I just put the stuff that was reasonable. There's more of it than I thought. Some of it, I quite like. They were either demos or songs I lost patience with for some reason. I tidied a few of them up. It's quite fun, really. Anyway, the first lot is coming out on Yep Roc, the first package of Robyn Hitchcock solo stuff from the 1980s to 1990s. That's coming out in the fall. Next spring, I hope the Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians stuff from the '80s will come out, also on Yep Roc.

How did The Venus 3 come together? You mentioned you're longtime friends?

We came together like people who might have known each other for 20 years and then finally decided to go out on a date. Peter and I have been playing on and off for 20 years. I knew Bill and Scott and they all play together. Whenever they were in London, we'd play, or, if Peter, Scott and I were Seattle, Peter, Scott, Bill and I would play at the Crocodile, a local club there. I already recorded with Peter and Scott, actually, in the '90s. I think what happened was, I was coming up to Seattle and R.E.M. had decided to have a good, long break because they had been working for 18 months solid. They really needed to unshackle themselves from each other and have a good, long vacation. Peter doesn't like to be inactive; he likes to play. That's what he does. Peter said, or Scott said, "If you're coming up to Seattle, why don't we record? And Bill's here." We did a couple of sessions with the latest songs I'd written, and that went well. I had a gig in Portland. I can tell you exactly when it was: Sept. 8, 2005. And they said, "We'll come down to Portland with you and play." I said, "Yeah, why not." So, all three just came down, and they weren't billed or anything. It was just going to be me playing acoustic. We had such a good time that I said, "Would you want to come over to England when it's cold and damp in January and do some gigs?" I thought nobody would want to do that. My agent always sends me out in January in Britain because there's not much competition. They said, "Yeah. We'll come over to England."

So they all came over and, I don't know, we've just been doing it ever since. It's been great. They came over last summer and we recorded at home for a week. My wife said--she gets on very well with the boys--"Hey, get the boys over. Why don't you make a record in the house?" We got some equipment, miked it up in the living room and made a record. They stayed in the house. Well, one stayed up the road. We were just sort of living and eating together and playing music. It was like the early '70. People getting it together in the country. We just instinctively do it. To answer your question, there was no plan. There was no thinking, "We must form a band as soon as we get the opportunity." We've just sort of always been there, really. We just sort of formalized it. It doesn't mean the end of R.E.M., or anything.

Do you do Venus 3 songs live, or do you do some Robyn Hitchcock hits as well?

They're all my songs. We go back 30 years, so we do stuff from the second Soft Boys album and they go up to new ones that haven't been recorded yet. It's a 28-year span. And it should be. We're going to do some recording in Tucson when we finish the tour, just very quickly.

Tell me about the documentary "Robyn Hitchcock: Sex, Food, Death and Insects" that's on SundanceChannel.com.

That was [filmed during a week that we were] making the record ... in London last summer--during a heat wave. You can sort of feel it. It was very hot. The doors were open. We had to keep shutting them. That was fun. You get some guests. John Paul Jones comes along and plays mandolin. Nick Lowe comes and does some vocals and stuff. My niece Ruby is playing. There's a lovely shot of that--her and John Paul Jones overdubbing. And Morris Windsor, the old Soft Boys drummer, came and did some harmonies. Chris Ballew from the Presidents of the United States of America, he flew over and did guitar/harmony/piano for three days. It's a good assembly of talent. It's for music lovers, really. You see us on tour a bit. You see me running through the songs in the back garden and talking about them a bit. Then we're recording them in the house, playing them on stage in Seattle. In between, we're wandering around. It's just a document of what we did last year. It was good fun. We're still having fun as a group, partly because we're not tethered to each other and we're doing it for its own sake. No one's really hoping to get anywhere with it.

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