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Robyn Hitchcock 

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Q&A

Legendary English songwriter Robyn Hitchcock earned his first fame in the Soft Boys, went on to front the Egyptians in the 80s and early 90s, and most recently collaborated with Peter Buck in the Venus 3. On the tour that brings him to Chicago this Saturday, November 15, he's playing songs from a largely acoustic solo record he released in 1984, I Often Dream of Trains, accompanied by Terry Edwards on keyboards, horns, and bass and Captain Tim Keegan on guitar.

What prompted you to take I Often Dream of Trains on tour so long after its release?

Trains was a young man feeling like an old man, looking back into an impossible past. Now I'm an older man, trying on my clothes from 25 years ago—and of course they don't fit anymore. But it's where my life went, and to squeeze back into those old threads is to reclaim that section of it.

Do you have special memories of Chicago?

Yes, I have fond memories of Chicago from the smoke age. But even then I felt old. Now I am and I don't feel it so much. Ain't that a mercy?

Your music was recently featured in Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married—an old tune, "America," and another written for the film, "Up to Our Nex"—and you appear onscreen as well. What's it like to be in two roles in the same work? Which do you like better?

In RGM I am only featured being myself, singing songs. No acting involved this time.

How did you end up in the film?

Jonathan Demme sent me the script and asked if I would be in the movie playing music, in some way, as Paul Buckman (the dad of Rachel and Kym) is a music-biz lawyer. Hence "Up to Our Nex" and "America" (Jonathan's idea).

"America" includes the lyrics "Moving alone through the fossilized crowd" and "I gave America my blood and she drank it gratefully." Care to elaborate?

Everyone loves a vampire. It was a feeling, I'm sure you have it sometimes.

You have a longstanding artistic relationship with Demme: Storefront Hitchcock, The Truth About Charlie, a scene in his Manchurian Candidate, and now Rachel Getting Married. How did that relationship get started?

Jonathan appeared in a dressing room after a show of mine way back in 1995 and offered to film me in concert. He's a music lover, and he likes to bring music into his movies organically whenever possible, rather than just as a soundtrack dubbed onto the film. He wanted British villians for The Manchurian Candidate and I got the part of Simon McBurney's henchman. He used "Mr. Kennedy" coming from a radio in Charlie and he wanted to have me as part of a troupe of musicians who are playing on the lawn throughout Rachel. He's a lovely fellow, and I hope we do more while we are alive.

In an August interview with the Village Voice, you said: "Every artist wants to shake hands with the future." You also mentioned not being entirely comfortable with our high-tech society and its electronic means of communication. So which future will you shake hands with?

Whichever future has hands, I guess. We can't be choosy—let us not be forgotten until dusk.

This summer Yep Roc released the Luminous Groove box set, the second of a planned three sets documenting your career. Were you instrumental in selecting the tracks? Do these tunes hold a specific meaning for you?

Not specifically, but I like them to be available in my lifetime.

You've written a lot of songs. Is there anyone you feel competitive with? If you could be any figure out of history, who would it be?

Shakespeare, Milton, Bach, Mozart, Vermeer, Goya, Oscar Wilde, H.G. Wells, T.S. Eliot... I'd be one of the greats. But they're all men, you notice. Hmm...

In September you traveled on a Cape Farewell expedition to the Arctic, in the company of artists, scientists, filmmakers, and other musicians—including Jarvis Cocker, Laurie Anderson, and Feist—to take a look at the effects of global warming. What were the most important impressions you brought back with you? Would you take this type of trip again?

Yes. Some of us wrote some songs, some of us played together, most of us did a reading of Paradise Lost. I hope we all continue to cross-pollinate and produce eco-commercials or requiems for the victims of our progress.

You have written some political songs; do you feel pressure to explain or justify your political beliefs to fans?

People who like my work are mostly thinking types, and the chances are that our outlooks coincide.

Your music covers a lot of range. For example, "Nocturne" is dirgelike, dreamy, and evanescent. "Trams of Old London" sounds like a metaphor for a timeless love affair. "Autumn Is Your Last Chance" has a sort of struggling quality, and "Sounds Great When You're Dead" might've been influenced by John Cage, at least instrumentally. Are there periods where you can only write one type of song, or does one song lead to another?

Probably the latter. But those songs you mention come from around the same period. I was a lonely ghost back then. I'm still trying to figure it all out.

You're frequently called quirky, psychedelic, or eccentric. Are there better words to describe you?

They are default descriptions—like saying a bat is a mammal, or Dick Cheney is a Sagittarius. In fact, less helpful—"quirky" and "eccentric" are both relative terms. Relative to Dick Cheney I might be eccentric—but who knows? Michael Jackson is a known eccentric, but my work is not like his. Psychedelic—I wish!

Is there any subject you just won't tackle lyrically?

Sports.

Some artists go through periods of time when they reinterpret their own material, maybe through different instrumentation, tempo, or texture. Do your songs lend themselves to that possibility?

I'd rather write a new song than play around with an old one. But if rearranging a song brings it back to life, why not?

Has anyone written the perfect song?

Probably, but not me. My stuff isn't bad, though.v

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