The former Egyptian comes to Israel

Post-punk pioneer Robyn Hitchcock making long-awaited TA debut that will include collaboration with local band Rockfour.

August 31, 2011 20:33
Robyn Hitchcock

Robyn Hitchcock. (photo credit: Courtesy)

It doesn’t get much more surreal than this: the multi-pronged terror attack is unfolding earlier this month along the Egyptian border, your daughter – serving in a combat unit in the Negev – is not answering her cell phone, you’re receiving stream of SMS messages from friends asking about her well being, and you’re sitting in the parking lot of a shore side hummus joint along the Kinneret trying to carry on a phone discussion with one of rock’s all-time, enduring singer/songwriters, Robyn Hitchcock.

So, instead of talking to the loquacious guitarist about his illustrious career – first as leader of the 1970s cult punk/pop band The Soft Boys, later as a 1980s college radio favorite with his band The Egyptians, and now as a respected solo artist and one of REM’s Peter Buck’s favorite collaborators – Hitchcock is more interested in hearing about what’s happening in Israel real time with the terror incident going down.

“You in Israel live in a world of blame – it’s very difficult to know how you start again and go on from here,” said the 58-year-old Hitchcock from his home in England.

“I think Israel is in an embattled state, surrounded by threat. I don’t want to make responses about things that I don’t understand, but I know that you’re on one of the fault lines, like we had here in Northern Ireland.”

“To me, violence occurs when people have nothing to lose. We’ve just seen that with the riots in London. It’s very difficult for those of us with something to lose to tell the people with nothing to lose how to act. When your back is against the wall, you see things differently. We liberals can wring our hands and say ‘this is terrible’ but we really don’t know what’s going on.”

Hitchcock knows what’s going on in Israel slightly more than most pop stars – he spent two months here over 40 years ago as a volunteer on Kibbutz Givat Haim near Hadera after he completed high school. Next week, he’ll be returning for the first time since then to perform two shows on September 9 and 10 at the Ozen Bar with special guests Rockfour.

“I had a wonderful time on the kibbutz,” said Hitchcock.

“But we were foreign volunteers and were sort of self-contained, so I didn’t learn too much about the country. At that time, I didn’t know much about Judaism, and what it meant to the Jewish people to be back in Israel. It was the beginning of an education for me. And as a result, I’ve been more sensitive, more in tune with Israel over the years.”

Returning to England following his volunteer stint, Hitchcock attended Winchester College and found himself sidling up to the artistic element of underground rock world centered around the peculiarly powerful music of Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett.

By 1976, he had founded the now legendary Cambridge-based band The Soft Boys, combining the experimental nature of psychedelia with the energy and attitude of the burgeoning punk movement. Fronted by Hitchcock and Kimberly Rew – who later went on to be the point man behind the 1980s new wave rockers Katrina and the Waves – the short-lived Soft Boys and their jangle pop sound helped launch a whole movement of post-punk guitar bands like REM. However, according to Hitchcock, their unique blend of influences was never something they sat around and deliberately planned, it just showed up in their music.

“We never sat down and discussed anything, and we never stood up and discussed anything,” he said with a laugh.

“It was a very British kind of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t step in each other’s line of vision.’ We kind of left each other alone – I was a master at that.”

“The one thing we all agreed up on was that we all liked The Beatles, but I think I was the only one who liked Syd Barrett and none of us really liked the punk bands like The Buzzcocks. We were reluctant observers of the punk movement.”

When the Soft Boys imploded, Hitchcock released a couple of solo albums, including the endearing solo acoustic I Often Dream of Trains, before recruiting the band’s drummer and bassist, Morris Windsor and Andy Metcalfe respectively, to form The Egyptians in 1984. Their 1985 debut Fegmania! featured typically surrealist Hitchcock songs such as “My Wife and My Dead Wife” and “The Man with the Light bulb Head” but its more straightforward followup Element of Light led to a recording contract with A&M Records and late 1980s success with the albums Globe of Frogs and Queen Elvis.

“We weren’t trying to be mainstream artists, but the company thought that maybe we could sell a lot of records. However, we only sold a few, so inevitably, they began making us use producers who diluted everything in a wash of reverb and overdubs,” said Hitchcock.

“The late 1980s were fine in terms of music, but terrible in terms of recording. It became very artificial, with snare drums sounding like a plane landing and our records sounding like the sound is coming from another room – which is exactly how it was recorded – a very separate sound.”

By the early 1990s, Hitchcock had scrapped the Egyptians and over the course of more than 15 resultant solo albums and collaborations, he’s become ensconced as the elder statesman of the rock iconoclast sub strata – channeling the music of Revolver-era Beatles, folkie acoustic compositions and trademark pop psychedelia into a luscious stew topped by his wry, literate lyrical observations that have prompted some critics to call him the British Bob Dylan.

“I’m always learning how to write songs,” said Hitchcock of his craft.

“I don’t think my songs today are better or worse than they used to be – just different. You go through different stages of life. A playwright might write a better play at age 30 than 60 because he has a different outlook.

“Songwriting is like traveling through a country and drawing or painting what you see. You’re recording things as you travel through – whether it be a country or your life.”

“Musically, if you’re looking for one thread through my career, it’s The Beatles. I was playing the songs from The White Album when I was on the kibbutz 40 years ago, and I’m still trying to figure them out. I’m playing Revolver in a pub next weekend here on the 45th anniversary of its release. And one thing you always find when you rehearse them is that musicians can never agree what those chords are. It’s intriguing what all those little diminished chords are – that’s the truly sophisticated part. All three of the songwriters used to put them into their songs, and here I am 40 years later still working it out.”

Hitchcock, himself, is also the subject of study. A 2007 documentary was made about him called Robyn Hitchcock: Sex, Food, Death... and Insects directed by John Edginton was shown on the US Sundance Channel and in the UK on BBC Four. And he’s established an ongoing relationship with filmmaker Jonathan Demme, who directed a live concert film Storefront Hitchcock in 1998 and has since used Hitchcock in acting roles in 2004’s The Manchurian Candidate and in 2008’s Rachel Getting Married.

Hitchcock’s musical progeny has also lined up to work with him, including artists like Gillian Welch, and REM’s Buck and their quasi-member Scott McCaughey, who maintain a side project with Hitchcock called the Venus 3 that has released a number of albums. His latest album – last year’s Propeller Time – found Hitchcock working with contemporaries, like The Smiths’ Johnny Marr, fellow new wave alumni Nick Lowe and Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones.

And at his concerts in recent years, which usually include a considerable amount of charming story-telling and ad-libbed monologues, he’s adopted the habit of playing with talented local musicians. In Tel Aviv, that honor has fallen upon Rockfour. The veteran psychedelic rockers, who share a love of Barrett-era Pink Floyd with the visiting master, will join him for a few songs during his solo shows here.

“It’s a great honor for us,” said Baruch Ben-Yosef, Rockfour’s front man.

“I think I first heard Robyn when I started listening to The Soft Boys when I was 22 or so. It was nice to hear other people who were influenced by the same music we grew up on and what Syd Barrett did. I think if Syd was still alive and making music today, he’d sound like Robyn,” he said, adding that he wasn’t sure which songs the band would be accompanying Hitchcock on.

Hitchcock, for his part, said that he’s inspired by playing with different musicians in various parts of the world.

“I’m lucky enough to have musicians who will play with me. In the US, I have Venus 3, I have a great British outfit now, and I have friends in Norway who I play with whenever I’m there,” he said, adding that he had heard positive comments about Rockfour.

“I like playing with all these collaborators and I like playing solo. I’m lucky enough to be able to do both. Playing solo requires a lot of trust with the audience. They have to be comfortable just hearing voice and guitar. Some people go to clubs to drink and talk, so sometimes it’s better off to play in a band so you can drown them out,” he laughed.

Hitchcock questioned how much between-song pattern he would attempt in Tel Aviv, inquiring as to the English level of the audience.

“I feel like if they want to listen, then I will speak some. In a way, it’s just word solos – a way of connecting to the audience. I think that any performer talks to the audience to make things more comfortable. Basically if you can make people laugh, then you’re not a threat to them and they’re not a threat to you.”

Threats reminded us about the reality that was taking place in the South while we were talking. Saying that he couldn’t wait to come back to Israel despite the day’s events, Hitchcock bade farewell to turn on CNN to get an update on the Eilat attacks. I hung up to find an SMS from my daughter that she was safe and sound. Sounds like a good ending to another surreal Robyn Hitchcock song.

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