Viva Hitchcock, A 60th Birthday Celebration for Robyn Hitchcock takes place at The Fillmore in San Francisco, CA, on May 2nd and features Robyn & The Venus 3, Colin Meloy, Amanda Palmer, Rhett Miller, Young Fresh Fellows, Andy Cabic (Vetiver), Eric D. Johnson (Fruitbats) and more.
Time and death are no strangers in the music of Robyn Hitchcock but there’s a somber, mortality contemplating undercurrent to his 19th studio album, Love From London (released March 5 on Yep Roc), where his humor and curious good will remain resolutely intact but this time there’s a bit of a sigh amidst his usual evolution of British Invasion greatness – there are few more obvious or satisfying sons of Syd Barrett and The Beatles. Beginning with a rumination over the ocean where pterodactyls once flew and concluding with the day breaking like an egg, Love From London moves with a maturity and sureness that befits an artist who just celebrated his 60th birthday and has been making music since the early 1970s.
[Editor’s Note: those unfamiliar with his stellar, pioneering pop-rock in The Soft Boys are ordered to listen to Underwater Moonlight forthwith]
As always, complications abound on the new album, and you’re made of sterner, more serious stuff than the Impound if you don’t grin numerous times during Hitchcock’s latest song cycle. In fact, his ability to find humor in odd places is one of his greatest charms, unmasking politicians and pontificators for the shaky, fault-riddled humans they are like the rest of us and generally offering a deeper ontological deep end than he’s often credited with. A beautiful-strange perspective runs in Hitchcock’s music, and while it’s shifted and shaped changed loads over the years, there’s something truthful and utterly unique about the man and his work that shines at the core of every chapter, including this latest musical missive.
Hitchcock recently shared a slice of time with DI where we swam around in the ideas inside his new album, kicking off into apt tangents about the end of the world, love and time. Read on and then delve into Love From London anew with a fresh set of keys for unlocking this always intriguing rock ‘n’ roller – one of the Impound’s All-Time Favorite musicians with one of the most unshakably excellent catalogs of any artist in the modern era.
I thought it might be nice to start out talking about time, what with your recent 60th birthday and the concluding track on the new album being a smiling tune about the “End of Time.”
Well, time moves forward. It doesn’t really make any difference whether everybody goes or we all go individually. There’s a point where the end of time is within reach for each of us, so it’s something we have to except. Fortunately, outside of societies with capital punishment, we don’t know the day we’re going to die. Even if we know our condition, we can’t know exactly when it will come, and it’s always possible some winged creature will swoop down and bear us off to the Elysian Fields and we’ll never have to actually pass away, like King Arthur or something. It’s pretty likely, statistically likely, that we’re likely to die but we’re not usually sentenced to death. However, we are sentenced to birth. So, that’s the context of that song, I suppose.
We are also at the convergence of an economic and environmental crisis. They’ve just published reports on the remaining amounts of fossil fuels available, which some worry will create fear and panic that we’re going to run out and drive people to search deeper and further for what’s left quicker, which just adds to the environmental collapse and expedites it. It’s a bit like someone with cancer being told they need to smoke more cigarettes. Our energy supply and the stock market is what it’s all about, and we’re definitely coming up to a convergence.
It’s a different kind of crossroads than humanity has been up against in the past. Our choices now directly affect the ability of future generations of humans to sustain life on this planet…
…certainly for the next few thousand years. The nature of our progress – if you can call it that – has always been a relay race. We’re always put here by dead people. We live in houses built by people who’re deceased, and we’re talking a language from now-vanished tongues. Everything comes from the time that has gone. So, whatever situation people find themselves in 500 years on will be because of what we and our ancestors did. If you’re an optimistic person you might say we face exciting opportunities in our time [laughs]. If you’re a pessimist, which I’ve always been, then you’ve just gotta say, “Well, fuck.”
It’s such a heavy environment but you still write a lot of love songs in the midst of this pessimism. The longer your catalog goes on love rises as a central maypole around which a lot songs dance.
Well, great! This [new album] is a celebration of life under these conditions, where life is more precious than ever. How we feel about each other, how we can reach one another is more important than ever. Maybe as times become more brutal people become sweeter; think back to the sentimental songs that were popular during World War II, which emerged as we were blowing each other to bits and trying to put the bits back together as if we were a race of jugs.
As a songwriter, on a more pragmatic level, how does one sustain the impact and creative juice of love as a theme given the loads and loads of love songs already written?
Love is a big word like God, but apart from two great John Lennon songs [thought trails off]. God is a word used to describe everything between fate, accident, destiny, time and everything between the Big Bang and today. It’s not only something in charge of our origins but our fate – the same entity is responsible for everything. Love is a word to describe how we feel sexually, emotionally, and mentally – all the different areas and colors and strata in humans. The kind of emanations we give off and responses we have to each other is just called love [laughs]. It’s no wonder there’s an endless source of it. The most fundamental force we know – whether we’re gay or straight – is whether we’re attracted to each other, how we feel about each other in that way. It’s attraction or its counterpart, repulsion.
It’s the same coin.
I think music is a form of prayer. It’s like an invocation or exorcism. You’re either, “Come here, baby,” or “Get out of my life, woman.” Or, “Leave me alone and fuck off,” or, “I can’t get enough!” Or alternatively, “It’s just lovely. Stay right where you are,” which is perhaps a less exciting sentiment but one we need to express, the idea that we largely dig this relationship and we would be lonely without it.
It’s hard to get as much zing in a song writing about that. Talking about contentment is a relationship is a tougher verse-chorus builder than the heat of new desire or the dissolution of love.
It is. It’s perhaps what I’m trying to do with “I Love You” [on Love From London], to celebrate how you feel about somebody where it’s not necessarily a sudden thing but more recognizing that the fireworks have been burning all this time, except it’s not like a firework anymore, it’s more like a chimney.
We take the sun for granted – well, not over here [in England] where we see so little of it – but imagine you’d never seen the sun before and then suddenly it appeared one day. “What the hell is that,” and we’d go around worshipping it and slaying each other like mad and making promises to it. “Come back and we’ll give you 20 virgins. Stay away and we’ll give you 30. We’ll slay our first born. What would you like? More goats? More vegetables? More diamonds? What can we sacrifice for you, oh Lord?” Then, people start appointing themselves priests. “Well, I can put you in touch with the sun, of course. It’ll just cost you two goats and one of your virgins.” Quickly, there’s a hierarchy.
That’s human nature to trust anyone who says, “I know you’re scared but I’ll safely shepherd you through this fear.”
I’ll be your intermediary but it’ll cost you.
Just a small fee and a willingness to obey a bit…
…and a degree of respect – a nice burial chamber and like that. It often takes the form of priests. There’s something to be said for being faceless I’m not sure I believe in anything that can’t be proved. You can prove love because you can prove the lack of it. I think you can prove the existence of a soul by looking at a dead thing and seeing the difference.
You have a rational mind, which is a trait, at least here in America, that’s on the ropes in some ways.
Was it Dick Cheney or someone that said we create our own reality?
[Editor’s Note: It was Karl Rove, dismissing the “reality-based community” that said, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”]
It’s a shame really because the good side of America is that your imagination is very open. In some ways I’ve benefited from that. People are prepared to suspend disbelief while I form an idea, and this childlike element in them enjoys it. But America is dominated by fantasy, and any culture dominated by religion is bound to be dominated by fantasy and not rational science.
If you had to do an epitaph for humanity now, what would you say is the best thing about us, the most amazing thing about us? That we managed to find out about galaxies billions of miles from our own and get interested in theories about the origins of time. What science we’ve achieved, what we know about the universe, is something no other creature could have discovered…but no other creature seems to need it. The worst thing about us is we’re just not able to coexist with each other or nature. We are an ongoing problem and we can’t get it right. Maybe we will, but there’s no sign of it at the moment. It’s a shame about that.
In the midst of this, there’s a desire to huddle, to feel the safety and closeness of others. There’s real comfort in that.
It’s comforting to find likeminded people. We liberal hipsters know what it’s like [laughs]. We try and pass this knowledge onto our nephews and nieces and anyone who’ll listen who’ll live on in the face of all the shredded attention spans and chaos.
You’ve been a musician for a long time. At this point, do you feel you’ve found the people who get you?
I don’t know. I hope there’ll be a few more to come, especially when I’m gone. I suppose I’m the property of a small group of people who’ve found me. A friend of mine in L.A. once said, “Stupid people don’t like your music.” That’s a good way of putting it. I accept that I’m visible to some people but not to most. I think there are more people who could hear what I hear and see what I see. I think if I was in the comedy world I’d have a larger audience, but I’m not a comedian. I can be funny but it’s not what I’m fundamentally about. I sometimes think the worlds of humor or literature might understand my stuff better than the rock world, but I’m a musician and that’s it really. It’s my field and I’m grateful to be in it.