An Interview With Robyn Hitchcock

When one thinks of artists that might have influenced Robyn Hitchcock, a lengthy list comes to mind. One might cite the Beatles for their emphasis on melody, or Pink Floyd's Syd Barrett or Captain Beefheart for their offbeat lyrics.But Neil Young is not the first name one would attach to Hitchcock, whose pop smarts and sometimes cryptic lyrics have earned him acclaim throughout a career that began with the influential new wave band the Soft Boys, continued through a productive stint fronting the pop trio, the Egyptians, and now has entered a new solo phase with the CD Moss Elixir.Yet Young's influence is very much at the heart of Moss Elixir, which with the possible exception of his 1990 solo CD, Eye, is Hitchcock's most intimate outing yet."I wanted to make it quite a tender record," Hitchcock said. "I mean, there's all sorts of songs that didn't make it on there, but there's a few like 'This Is How It Feels,' which I think are much more tender than sort of the songs I used to have. I was quite influenced by Harvest Moon, that record Neil Young did, because he'd have a band on it occasionally, but if he wanted to have two minutes of just him and an acoustic (guitar), they'd do it. Whatever was applied was applied quite sparingly. But that was a very tender record, and I think that was partly the feeling I was after with Moss Elixir.In a very real sense, Moss Elixir is an entirely new type of record for Hitchcock. And it is a direct reaction to his dissatisfaction with the production approach of the final two records he made with the Egyptians -- Perspex Island in 1991 and Respect in 1993.In particular, Hitchcock had intended to make Respect more of a stripped down CD than the previous records he made with his bandmates in the Egyptians -- bassist/keyboardist Andy Metcalfe and drummer Morris Windsor."Andy and Morris are both big fans of Steely Dan and the Beach Boys and people like that," Hitchcock said. "Their music is very airtight, especially Steely Dan. There's no gaps in it. Everything is just so. I don't really think that suits me. I mean, I'm not sure production suits me at all. Maybe I've just never found the right producer."What was good (about the Egyptians) was the simple organic interplay between the three of us," Hitchcock explained. "That's what I had hoped to get on Respect. When we were touring around on a bus and playing at radio stations, we'd play an acoustic bass and acoustic guitar and Morris would have a couple of Coke cans and a couple of shakers. And you'd get three-part harmonies and this, we were very good technically at doing that. But the records weren't interplay. The records were a series of overdubs, and increasingly I felt I had less and less to do with them. So I just found that very disempowering, and I wanted to make my own record where the buck stops at me. People always say Hitchcock's records, but it wasn't. It was Metcalfe, Windsor, a producer and Hitchcock. And I would often defer to everybody else because I figured they knew more about things technically than I did and had more patience. So I'd come in, sing and play the guitar and then go off again or something. I wasn't overseeing every stage of the music, which I should have done. That's what I'm going to do from henceforth."So Moss Elixir officially marks the end of a partnership between Hitchcock, Metcalfe and Windsor that dates back to 1976, when along with Alan Davies, they formed the original Soft Boys lineup. Metcalfe left the Soft Boys a couple of years before the band as a whole split in 1981. But then in 1984 Metcalfe again teamed with Windsor and Hitchcock in the Egyptians. The group released six studio records for A&M over the next decade, frequently denting the college radio charts, but never scoring any major top 40 hits.Even though Hitchcock's concentrated on band records during the Egyptians' tenure, the notion of taking a more stripped down approach to his music is actually nothing new. In fact, the solo CD, Eye, was a step in that direction.In the interview, Hitchcock said he was ready to pursue a solo career by the time he made Eye. Instead he chose to reactivate the Egyptians and take one more stab at gaining commercial success with a full-band approach to his songs."I felt A&M (Hitchcock's former record company) would only take me seriously if I had records with bass and drums and all that stuff on there," he said. "And so I think I was probably being a bit timid, really, over-cautious. I wasn't sure my material was strong enough to just be on its own, although I did do a 65-date tour of the United States in 1990 with just an acoustic guitar. You know, we made one final attempt with the Egyptians. We got going again in '90-91,' but also with producers this time, and I think the producers really just increased the Steely Dan effect."So now Hitchcock is intent on establishing his own musical voice outside of the confines of a normal group. And while Eye (as well as a previous solo record released in 1984, I Often Dream Of Trains) have given him the chance to explore a solo format, Hitchcock views Moss Elixir as a distinctly different type of record."(Before) I'd either always had the full-band works or I'd been just by myself," he said. "What I wanted to do with this record was choose whatever was necessary for each track. So it could just be kind of my own record for a change. So if I needed a band, I'd get a band, and if I wanted a trumpet, I could hire a trumpet player. I wasn't spending a lot of money on recording, but I had enough money to do it, and do it professionally.Indeed Moss Elixir spotlights Hitchcock in a variety of musical settings. On "I Am Not Me" and "Sinister But She Was Happy," he teams with violinist Deni Bonet to create a guitar/string sound that is both hard-edged and haunting. On "Filthy Bird," the duo teams up again, but this time their instruments create a feel that's a bit more gentle, although even this song has its share of tension. On a couple of other songs ("Heliotrope" and "The Speed Of Things"), Hitchcock goes it alone. The result is some of his most intimate performances to yet be captured in a studio. At the other end of the spectrum are the songs "Alright, Yeah" and De Chirico Street," which feature a full band. Those songs come closest to reprising the Egyptians frisky pop sound.What's also a new twist with Moss Elixir was that Hitchcock funded the project himself, recording the record before he had gotten his deal with Warner Bros. Records -- with no guarantees the record would find a label to release it. While such a gamble would be disconcerting for many artists, Hitchcock had a far different reaction to the circumstances."Oh, it was very liberating because there was no one saying play us some demos or well if we hired (Nirvana producer) Butch Vig or something, we could get you on KROQ (radio) or whatever," Hitchcock said. "There were no ulterior motives. There were no other people riding on this record."

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