Another Hitchcock thriller leaves him 'Spooked'
April 1, 2005
BY JIM DEROGATIS Pop Music Critic
Even after two dozen albums on his own and as a member of psychedelic
popsters the Soft Boys, Robyn Hitchcock has never produced a completely
dismissible disc. The mediocre efforts "merely" have three or four great
songs, while the great ones -- like his latest, "Spooked" -- are wonderful
from beginning to end.
Hitchcock recorded his 2004 release in Nashville with help from traditional
country musicians Gillian Welch on vocals and David Rawlings on guitar. The
album finds him back in introspective acoustic mode, after the more raucous
sounds of the Soft Boys' 2002 reunion album, "Nextdoorland."
I caught up with the singer and songwriter by phone from Los Angeles as he
made his way on tour to Chicago for two shows at Schubas, the second of
which is tonight.
Q. I've been interviewing you for 20 years, Robyn, and every time I get a
new disc, I think, "This one can't surprise me." But there are always songs
A. Thank you. The trick is that you don't know what the good songs are
until about 10 years after. When it comes to making them, I don't have a
clue; my pedigree would be impeccable if I could edit out the bad stuff.
Having said that, "Spooked" was a double album until we pulled out the best
songs to put on the main album.
Q. What prompted you to work with Gillian and David?
A. I ran into them at one of their gigs, and it turns out they used to
listen to me when they were kids. Gillian used to come and see me when she
was a floppy groover in Santa Cruz, and Dave used to come see me when he
was a student up in Berkeley. We met and they gave me their phone numbers
and told me to come to the studio. I was doing "The Manchurian Candidate";
I had a small part in Jonathan Demme's movie.
Q. I didn't know that; I'll have to rent the DVD.
A. With the DVD there are Hitchcock extras. Jonathan is good to his
friends; he always has been. I played a sinister operative, the sidekick of
the lead sinister operative; at the end, I'm arrested at O'Hare Airport.
Anyways, I had a weekend off and I went down to Nashville. Gillian and
David and I had not played together -- it was a kind of arranged marriage
-- but it was fantastic.
Q. Longtime fans might compare "Spooked" to "Eye" or "I Often Dream of
Trains." It's Robyn in his quiet acoustic mode.
A. Well, the year before, there was also "Luxor." It's all just acoustic
music. What you can say confidently is that as I am getting older, I am
slowing down and getting quieter. If I am playing with other people, I want
it to be quiet so I can hear the harmonies, while slowing down is just a
physiological thing with aging. Gillian and David, on the whole, are not
up-tempo players, and they are 15 years younger than me. "Spooked" was the
right kind of tempo for them.
Q. Did recording in Nashville create a particular vibe?
A. I wouldn't say it was Nashville; I would say it was them in their
studio. They're not overdub-driven, but they do take a lot of trouble to
get the major sounds right. We spent a lot of time sitting in a circle in
this wooden studio. I've never done that with other musicians, where you
just listen to each other without going through headphones, and it was
lovely. It was, I suppose, like sitting around playing in a temple, or to
make it sound less solemn, a kitchen with your guitar-picking friends.
It was very intimate. I didn't know them at all well, but it's the kind of
intimacy that you have with other musicians -- you can't help exposing
yourself. You don't know about their grandmothers or their sex life or what
is lurking in their hypothalamus, but you do get a feeling for them,
definitely. Musical promiscuity is one of the safest kinds, and I'm
definitely musically promiscuous.
Q. What happened with the Soft Boys reunion?
A. It's no more. It was only a temporary thing, and it was kind of gaining
a momentum of its own. It was a great outfit, but I didn't want to go back
to being a Soft Boy. I'm in my 50s. But [drummer] Morris [Windsor] and
[guitarist] Kimberley [Rew] always come and play when I have a party or put
a band together for a benefit.
Q. Now you're traveling alone, performing with just guitar and vocals.
You're more D.I.Y. than you were three decades ago when you started out.
A. I've gotten better at it. When I first started out at folk clubs, I
wasn't that confident of a guitar-picker. I'm now pretty good at it. I'm
not flash, but I know my way around an acoustic guitar. My wife doesn't
really like flying and I can handle it, so for these stretches, I just go
out on my own. It's nice not to have to get an army on the move, and I now
have a lot of friends in different American cities, so I can sort of make
myself at home.
Reasons for Living
At age 52, Robyn Hitchcock remains one of the most unique and consistently
creative forces in rock -- a surreal, whimsical, Dadaist pop genius. Here
is a guide to some of the best albums in his extensive catalog.
"Underwater Moonlight" (1980): The finest moment by Hitchcock's first band,
the Soft Boys, and a psychedelic-pop masterpiece. Reissued by Matador
Records in 2001 in an expanded edition.
"I Often Dream of Trains" (1984): Marking his return to music after a
three-year retirement, this is the strongest of Hitchcock's solo albums, a
quiet, introspective meditation on his place in the world. Reissued by
Rhino Records along with the solo efforts below in 1995.
"Black Snake Diamond Role" (1981): Hitchcock's first solo album, with some
of his most memorable psychedelic-pop gems, including his theme song, "The
Man Who Invented Himself," "Acid Bird" and "Brenda's Iron Sledge."
"Globe of Frogs" (1988): This is my favorite of the singer-songwriter's
college-rock-era discs with the Egyptians, the trio featuring former Soft
Boys drummer Morris Windsor and bassist Andy Metcalfe. "Vibrating" may well
be the best song he's ever written and "Balloon Man" is one of the silliest.
"Eye" (1990, above): This under-recognized folk-rock classic found
Hitchcock back in a similar mode to "I Often Dream of Trains," and it
comprises a strong trilogy with his latest quiet acoustic album, "Spooked."
Pop Music Critic Jim DeRogatis co-hosts "Sound Opinions," from 10 p.m. to
midnight Tuesdays on WXRT-FM (93.1). E-mail him at jimdero@...
visit him on the Web at www.jimdero.com.