The man who invented himself

Robyn Hitchcock has performed for more than 30 years with the likes of R.E.M. and Dave Rawlings. His new record, The Man Upstairs, is a collection of originals and covers of artists as diverse as The Doors and Psychedelic Furs.

Before his stop at WorkPlay, he took time to reflect on his career and on the evolution of his influences.

You did some covers as Nigel and the Crosses (Peter Buck and Mike Mills of R.E.M., Peter Holsapple of the dB’s, Hitchcock, others) — what covers were included?

It wasn’t a record. It was one song of a cover by The Byrds. It actually wasn’t even a Byrds song. It was called “Wild Mountain Thyme.” It was a song Joan Baez did on her first record that was quite popular; early ’60s song. The Byrds did a version of that, and we, as Nigel and the Crosses, did a version, too. Yeah. That was in 1988.

You did a record called Robyn Sings that was a collection of Bob Dylan covers. What compelled you to take on that project?

Well, I’ve been a fan of Bob Dylan since I was 12. So I probably knew more songs by Bob Dylan than anybody else and I recorded a lot of them by accident, so I figured I would record a few more and make it into an entire project.

Did Dylan have more influence on you that the British sounds that were around you?

Dylan was what made me want to become a musician. Yes. But actually, in terms of music, the Beatles are probably the biggest influence. The Beatles’ music is a bit more sophisticated than Dylan. The thing with Dylan is that it was sort of like punk in a way. You could learn three guitar chords and you could sing most of Dylan’s songs: “Mr. Tambourine Man”, all those early hits. “Knocking on Heaven’s Door”.

There’s a thin line between being able to play a Dylan song and not being able to play a Dylan song. You can pick it out pretty fast. The Beatles was more sophisticated. Dylan got to me as a 12 or 13-year-old as he got to thousands of others back in the late ’60s. Ten percent of young males wanted to be Bob Dylan, but not many of us actually became Bob Dylan.

We have vivid images of Beatlemania and the British Invasion — what was it like for you when U.S. artists were crossing over to your side of the pond?

It was different. There wasn’t an American invasion. The Brits turn up all at once in the States, spearheaded by the Beatles. We kind of had that the year before. There had been no groups. The charts had been dominated by the survivors of rock and roll, but suddenly after the Beatles, these other groups appeared. The Animals, the Kinks, the Rolling Stones. The Brit Invasion in America.

For us, we got solo acts. Or it could be someone like P.J. Proby who wore a pigtail and would split his trousers onstage — that was his shtick. Or Bob Dylan who was mutating the whole time into something different and people could never quite catch up with what he was. He mutated so fast in the ’60s, like a virus.

Simon and Garfunkel and the Byrds — there was a folk rock sound, I suppose, that came over, which Dylan was behind, though he claims he had nothing to do with it. People like Sonny and Cher.

During that time, when the Brits and Americans — it was like they were mating, basically. Bob Dylan and the Beatles. They were mating and they produced the Byrds. It was a great time to be 12 [Laughs].  I’ve made a career out of working in that field ever since. I’m not actually a revivalist, I just like that kind of sound. When I recorded with Peter Buck in my group, there was that spangly sound, and I’ve always liked the harmonies like the Byrds. David Crosby started Crosby, Stills and Nash and they kind of all moved that direction.

Is there any chance that you’ll ever tour with the Dave Rawlings Machine?

Dave Rawlings? I don’t know. He’d have to ask me! [Laughs] They’ve probably got enough people without me. The thing with the Dave Rawlings Machine is that they’re all really good musicians, and I’m kind of more of a frontman. They’re all really top level pickers. I would definitely work with Gillian and Dave anytime. When I’m in Nashville, I go see them. I haven’t played with them for a couple of years. They’ve got John Paul Jones — they don’t need me. [Laughs]

Gillian did the art for your new album — how did you swing that?

She did! She did the cover for The Man Upstairs. She painted it for me. I didn’t want to do my own painting; I usually do my own. She sent me some posters that she did years ago, posters for shows that weren’t happening, advertising things that weren’t real. So I said, “Do you fancy doing a record cover for me?”

And she very sweetly said yes. She was very busy. She had a lot to deal with in one way or another last year, so it was very sweet of her.

You and your peers, like Rawlings and Buck, have always juggled multiple projects. Is it difficult? Why do you like doing it that way?

As time has rolled on, I’ve just met more and more people. I’m lucky. The good side of that is having been around for so long. Dave Rawlings  they were R.E.M. fans and they used to listen to my stuff when they were kids. I think I even introduced them to Peter eventually. I’m always happy to play with people. Everybody is constantly in motion, so you really have to see who’s around at the time and if they want to do anything. You might get somebody to make a record or to go on tour with you, but it doesn’t mean they’ll be around next year.

I’ve been musically promiscuous since 1993 when I stopped working with my old backing band, the Egyptians, which was descended from my old band the Soft Boys. I’ve had a floating cast of people. If there’s nobody around, I just work on my own. I’ll be touring on the next tour with an Australian singer, Emma Swift, who is opening the show for me. Emma and I sing songs together as well. I’ve been playing with a lot of people down here in Australia [where he is on tour as he does this interview].

Who will be backing you on this tour in the States?

I will be playing solo. Emma will be backing me on some songs at the end, but I’ll be solo. The last time I was playing in Birmingham, I was at a place called The Nick. That was probably seven or eight years ago now.

What were your memories of The Nick?

Well, I just remember they were all standing at The Nick. But they’re all a bit older now, they’ll probably want to sit down.

The Man Upstairs is a really gorgeous collection of songs. It’s diverse. How did you find that you could fit Psychedelic Furs and the Doors on the same record?

I’m big fans of both. They happened at different times. The Doors  I have known that song since it came out in Britain in 1968. I was 15. I remember when the Psychedelic Furs song came out. I was already touring in America and I knew the Furs  I had met them in Britain. The Soft Boys had opened for them at one point.

They’re very romantic songs. That’s the key, really. All of the songs that I picked have a sort of mood to them, an autumnal mood.

Who are the top five American rock bands of all time?

Rock bands.

American.

RH: Gosh. See, I don’t know newer people. Green Day  I guess they aren’t modern now, but I haven’t listened to much rock in years.

Bands versus artists.

If a solo artist is on there, that’s fine. If Dylan’s on your list, that’s fine.

Well, if you’re thinking about acts, Bob Dylan would have to be on there. The Velvet Underground has to be there. They aren’t very “American,” they’re very “New York.”

My favorite band of all time was Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band. Beefheart was the most exciting, inventive rock performer.

The Doors. Gotta have the Doors. And I doubt if they count as American or not, but I have to have the Band.

Levon was American. It counts.

Levon was very American. I think I have records by all of those people and I think I’ve also covered songs by all of them.

It’s probably more of a rock critic’s list than a popular list. I think a lot of my friends in music would agree. I think they are all great. I put them all at number one.

But then there’s people like Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra. They’re not exactly rock, but they’re great entertainers.

Then there’s people that aren’t so well known, like Townes Van Zandt.

Then there’s contemporaries, like my old colleagues R.E.M., who were quite something at their peak. All the people who I haven’t heard in the last 20 years. I don’t listen to bands, I listen to people like Jason Isbell.

Oh, you’re an Isbell fan?

Oh, yeah! I really like that record. The one that came out recently with “Relatively Easy.”

Robyn Hitchcock comes to the WorkPlay Theatre on Thursday, Feb. 12. Emma Swift will open. The show will begin at 8 p.m. Tickets are $17 in advance and $20 on the day of the show. 

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