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A Rocker Grows Roots

[whitespace] Robyn Hitchcock Flat-Out Emotional: Alternative rock demigod Robyn Hitchcock gets wrapped up in relationships on 'Jewels for Sophia.'



Robyn Hitchcock gets emotional about a new low-tech record

By Gina Arnold

RECENTLY, I INTERVIEWED a techno artist who referred to rock as "music played on traditional instruments." The guy made me realize that rock & roll is essentially becoming folk music, which seems odd when referring to hard rock bands like Pearl Jam and the Flaming Lips. But such a concept is not much of a stretch when applied to British singer/songwriter Robyn Hitchcock.

Hitchcock's work in the seminal late- '70s psychedelic rock act the Soft Boys and, later, as what he jokingly calls an "alternative rock demigod" has always sounded good when performed just on acoustic guitar. He writes lovely, folky jangle pop with complex, surreal lyrics, half Roger McGuinn, half Pink Floyd, and his new LP, Jewels for Sophia, is no exception, although the songs on it are far less detached usual.

Instead, for the first time, on songs like "NASA Clapping" and "I Feel Beautiful," Hitchcock sounds fully emotionally engaged. The whole record is a love story--specifically, about the joys of new relationship, and less specifically, about his old relationships with musicians like R.E.M.'s Peter Buck and former Soft Boy bandmate Kimberley Rew, both of whom appear on the album.

Hitchcock is beloved by all rock critics, not just for his delicious music but for his personal charm and verbal wit. In both music and speech, he has a way of phrasing ideas that lights them up. I caught up with him by phone last week in Seattle--a city he sends up on the new LP "Viva! Sea-Tac"--and posed the idea that, compared to the techno holocaust of the late millennium, he is now a venerable folk artist.

Hitchcock: "Well, I use real hands! But actually, I've always had a large injection of folk in me. I always listened to old British and Irish stuff--and I've long been homesick for 1967. But I see what you mean; nowadays, I'm practically a roots musician. Soon my records will only be found in the roots section in the store, me and Leadbelly.

"I think there should be room for both types of music--techno and rock. I don't think we should be eternally frozen in a golden age of Byrds-like rock. But nowadays there's no such thing as artist development. The corporations will concentrate only on safe returns. It's all about economics, a subject I never wanted to know anything about. But I do understand that the way record labels have been swallowing each other up is just like a little fish being eaten by a bigger fish and on and on and on until there's just one beached fish gasping on the beach with this big undigested weight in its belly.

"In short, I don't think capitalism has served us that well. But then, culture is also changing, and popular music is increasingly rhythm-based. As has always been the case, the blacks come up with the best stuff and the whites profit by it. But I don't know. You can proclaim anything dead--like three-minute jangle pop--and then turn aside a curtain and find it thriving away behind it.

"The good thing about now is you can do anything. I think the '90s are all about mixing and matching. It's like we went through five decades of youth culture so fast that they've all been chopped up into each other. Like in an advert, you'll see a '50s head on a '70s body within a '40s background. It's like all these styles are swirling around in bits in a toilet, just before they're about to be flushed down the drain forever.

"Anyway, the more technological crap there is, the more inclined I am to do without. I still don't have a computer, just on principle. I heard Bill Gates say he wanted to see one on every desk, and I thought, 'Not on my desk, you won't!'

"Right now, I'm just touring by myself. I carry my own guitar and amp around. Soon I'll get rid of the guitar pedals and the P.A. You know, I wouldn't want to have to make a living busking on Haight Street, but on the other hand, when Y2K happens and everything crashes, you'll still just be able to ring me up on a manual phone and I'll strum my songs to you."


Robyn Hitchcock plays Thursday (July 29) at Palookaville, 1133 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $20 adv/$22 door. 831.454.0600.

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From the July 29-August 4, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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