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Robyn HitchcockAlong the same lines as 'what to buy someone who has everything' must be 'what to ask someone you know in an interview.' This is my quandary as I'm set to talk to Robyn Hitchcock about the upcoming Matador reissue of the Soft Boys' classic Underwater Moonlight. The album has been re-mastered and there's a bonus disc of unreleased rehearsals as well, so that should give us something to chat about - you'd think. Fine in theory, but our conversations always get diverted and Robyn's a busy man, what with rehearsing for the forthcoming tour and numerous other interviews, so time is tight. At high noon I make the call.
Robyn answers and we get down to business. After, that is, he's left me with his cat Figgy whilst he goes to grab his coffee.
by Laurence Arnold
"Figgy's looking," Robyn tells me, though the lack of an audible purr suggests otherwise.
"She always tends to come and molest me when I'm on the 'phone, it's a bit of a cat magnet. It's interesting because with the speakerphone she can hear the other person and I don't know if that puts her off, but when she can't hear the other end of the conversation - so she's just got me, apparently speaking at random, earnestly, into this little household object - it just magnetises her and she climbs all over me."
Maybe I should get a mobile and walk around cat infested areas to lure them!
"Yes you should and if you didn't want to use a mobile you could talk into a shoe, cats don't know."
They're pretty intelligent.
"They're intelligent, but they've probably been long baffled as to why people do this. Do you remember when mobiles first appeared in the 80's?"
They were the size of bricks.
"Exactly! So you had these people - I used to think they were praying - you'd see them wandering up and down stations talking into their bricks and, as an observer, if I'd come from a different culture, I'd think that these men must be praying before they go to work. It's the etiquette that's the problem. If I use it I make sure I'm standing in the bit you're meant to stand under if there's an earthquake in the building..."
"The portal. I wouldn't pull it out on the train unless I was being attacked by ghouls."
Do you change your answer machine message every day?
"Pretty much. At the moment I'm working on 'Jason Keen, Man Of Action', which Grant Lee Phillips and I hope to do as a feature length film sometime. The cheaper thing would be to do it as a radio play, so I'm shooting both high and low and I'm hoping that somewhere in between the BBC and Hollywood..."
Like a Baltimore thing with John Waters or the Homicide guy... Levinson.
"I don't think this would be a Barry Levinson film, I'm not even sure it'd be a Jonathan Demme film actually. There's probably some cheesy person who bungs them out cheaply. Anyway, Jason Keen, Man Of Action and his nemesis, Johnny Blue Jeans - the sinister operative who has a sidekick called Doctor Rock n' Roll. They've also got to have a troupe of people - I'm not quite sure what they are, they might be a dance class."
"Like cheerleaders, but a bit more like... [people] whose inner ears are all gyroscopically unbalanced so that they can cause havoc at will and you know Doctor Rock n' Roll is operating them."
Like some deranged modern dance troupe who just bounce off walls and throw each other around.
"Yes, yes, exactly, but in inconvenient places when they want to pull heists in art galleries. Jason Keen, Man Of Action is a, sort of, slightly less hetero Bond. He's not as effective and he's also fussier. Not like he's a queen - he's probably a bit like me, he doesn't want to get his hands dirty or bend down too far as he's got a slightly bad back and all that kind of stuff... So this guy has to save the world and it's a real pain for him. He doesn't want to have to get up early and he oversleeps so he gets ratty sometimes. I don't know whether Grant or I will play Jason, or if we'll just write the scripts, but I'm working out some of my fantasies on the answerphone."
Would his catchphrase be 'Is my hair alright?'
"Probably, yes, that's right! He would ask the bloodied lump of the evil mogul as it breathed on the floor and spat teeth 'I say old boy, is my hair alright?' Yes, that's a good one."
Talking of art heists, did you know there was one in Stockholm when you played? At least I have an alibi - I was at the gig. They made off with some Renoirs and Rembrandts and they got away in a speedboat, it was fantastic!
"Yes, in fact it was on the British telly. They got away with a load of stuff and they haven't recovered it yet. That's while I was playing."
Yeah, while we were in a basement around the corner. When we were walking back from the gig we went past another museum and all these police came screaming along.
"Did they go after you and Sally?"
No, I guess they thought it obviously wasn't us as we didn't have a speedboat, not even an inflatable dinghy or any means of escape.
"Bizarrely enough, Michele and I drove past you in a taxi and she said 'oh look, they haven't got a dinghy'. We didn't find out about the heist until we got back to the hotel, so we too have an alibi."
I only found out when I read about it when I got back to England.
"Oh, so you weren't watching CNN, or whatever news channel, oh right, because you always watch Eurosport."
Either that or the cartoon channel.
"Ahhh, the cartoon channel. In Gothenburg there was an incredible version of 1001 Nights hosted by Bugs Bunny. The dad is Yosemite Sam with a Lemmy moustache and a turban and he has a rather prickly son and Bugs is trying to get away. The frog one in that is brilliant, where the frog won't sing in public."
Have you seen Cow And Chicken? t's probably the best of the recent batch, that and 'I Am Weasel', who actually sounds a bit like your hero - he's got a semi-British accent and talks very posh. He always manages to save everything and his friend/sidekick/nemesis is I. R. Baboon who is completely stupid and once destroyed Hollywood by playing a theremin at the Bowl and invoking an earthquake.
"Wow, I think there's people who would pay billions of good money for that, people have been trying to do that for a while."
All you need is a theremin.
"Obviously wishful thinking on the part of the scriptwriters."
Bruce Woolley plays a theremin doesn't he? Matthew Seligman played with him and they had the Radio Science Orchestra and they played this theremin stuff.
"Was that at Madame Jo-Jo's? You can't hang around Soho all night waiting for Bruce Woolley can you?"
And there might be an earthquake but, if there is, I'll just follow you as you know where to go.
"Oh I do know, I go to the portal, but just check that I'm not carrying a concealed theremin!"
Matthew was with Bruce before in the Camera Club.
"That's right - when we recruited him for the Soft Boys. At that stage he was quite young and his speciality was being in about three bands at once."
He was in the Tom Tom Club wasn't he?
"No, no, the Thompson Twins."
Someone has just sent me an email saying the Tom Tom Club are playing soon.
"The graves really are opening, it's no surprise the Soft Boys are coming out! I noticed that Soft Cell are playing, things you think are long extinct."
Presumably, they're riding on the back of David Gray's revisiting of 'Say Hello, Wave Goodbye.' He also goes into bits of 'Into The Mystic' and other Van Morrison songs.
"I imagine they'll just get a substitute if [Van] does pop off... 'Touring as Van Morrison... Paul Stevens!' If Dylan croaks they'll just get the Bob Dylan Orchestra - leader Tom Petty. Or they'll get Jason Keen, Man Of Action."
Matthew also played with Bowie at Live Aid in Thomas Dolby's band.
"That was Matthew's apotheosis I think. Kevin Armstrong, Matthew and Dolby were backing Bowie. It was my mum's birthday and there I was, in front of a colour telly - and in 1985 colour tv was quite new for me, I can tell you, we were like [adopts Yorkshire accent] 'Oh blimey it's in colour n' all'. In my race to keep behind the times I don't think we actually got a colour telly 'til 85, so this was probably a rented colour telly, in a rented house, with my rented mum and a rented Tom Petty and it was Matthew in a fantastic blue Chinese suit standing up there playing with Bowie, looking gorgeous and as audible as somebody can be playing to 56 thousand people from Wembley Stadium, globally transmitted to an estimated listenership of 40 million watched through a small rented colour tv."
I was at some music exhibition a few years later and one of the stands had it playing on a big screen tv and the guy was going 'isn't Bowie great?' and I was going 'Yeah, but look at that bass player, it's Matthew Seligman' and got really excited whenever he came on - the man didn't understand the significance of it.
"I hope he started his own Matthew shrine."
He's probably stalking him right now.
"Matthew has got a stalker, but I think it's a female. He said that his stalker shows up at the football matches he goes to, so either he and the stalker like the same games or..."
Are you sure she's not stalking the football?
"No, I think they're stalking Matthew because they kind of, I don't know what they do but I know there's certain games they don't bother to show up at and Matthew wonders if it's a comment on him or the quality of the game the person's expecting."
There's nothing worse than a selective stalker. 'Well I would, but it's raining. I know where you're gonna be, but I haven't got an umbrella'.
"It's a bit like if the police weren't bothering to survey you. It was wet so they couldn't be bothered... "
They just carried on reading their books.
"They'd turn up, but they wouldn't bother to monitor you anymore. These are the kind of people that Jason Keen is up against. In a way, it's like an extension of that Pulp Fiction thing where they have that long, Pythonesque, conversation about hamburgers before going to shoot someone. I think it was really horrible as it reduced violence down to a level of Monty Python. I mean, Python was brilliant, but it was a mixture of cartoon violence and horror, I'm not sure about that. I don't like seeing helpless people being shot anyway, I certainly don't see the reason to pay to go and see it, especially women. Have you seen Quills?"
No, I don't see many films these days, I just go to gigs. The Soft Boys in New York will be the only ones I can make, by the way.
"Hopefully we'll be there, I have to check to see that the ear, nose and throat guy says that I will have a voice, because it's getting appallingly thin. We just did this version of a Paul McCartney song for a Paul 'in tribute to Linda' record and the money goes to a breast cancer charity. So we had the first Soft Boys session in about twenty years, which was great. We did this old McCartney song called 'Let Me Roll It', which is from 'Band On The Run'. It sounds good, but my voice is ummm, it sounds a bit like Richard Butler doing a Rod Stewart imitation. So the Soft Boys are, supposedly, on tour in Britain in late April, early May so that's it."
Where are you playing next Christmas? Hawaii?
"Ha ha, Peter Buck's got a place in Hawaii."
Yes and my friend Kendal will be there.
"You could get Kendal to chop up some tofu and pineapple on the beach."
Well she's really into sushi, so she'll probably be able to sniff out some within seconds of landing and Peter could find the pistachio nuts.
"It'd be interesting to see if Peter is fitted with a device that enables him to track down pistachio nuts."
I just remember when I had a bowl of nuts in front of me with a load of pistachios and Peter was fixing it, in that Wile Coyote looking at Roadrunner way, and he was saying 'you've got more pistachios' and I said 'you've got more cashews' and he replied 'but this is Seattle'. I just assumed it was some kind of code for 'give me your pistachios or I'll kill you'. So we swapped bowls.
"He might have said something sniffy about your record collection if he'd have really been pushed into a corner. Wow, Shanghaiing your pistachios, I'll have to have words. You've certainly conjured up an interesting fantasy afternoon on a Hawaiian beach with Kendal and Peter."
Do you know what one of the biggest industries in Hawaii is? Coffee.
Yeah, and wherever there's coffee there's cake, so we'll be alright.
"Well you'll have to watch out for Hawaii Chimichanga roast or whatever. It's probably en-route. Anyway, what I was going to say is, don't go and see Quills because it's horrible. Hannibal is quite entertaining, in case you find yourself frog-marched into the cinema... by a frog."
And with that our intrepid hero headed off, ready to save the world. Let's hope he can keep his hands clean and his hair intact.
CWAS #7 - Spring 2001