ALISON STEWART, host:
Before a few months ago, anyone looking to supplement his or her Robyn Hitchcock music catalog might have had a hard time. But then Yep Roc Records, out of Chapel Hill, North Carolina released, "I Wanna Go Backwards." It's a compilation of three of the British songwriter's releases. "Black Snake Diamond Role," "I Often Dream of Trains," and "Eye."
Plus a collection of B-sides, outtakes and home recordings. And come this summer, Luminous Groove will focus on Hitchcock's 1980s and '90s works with his band, The Egyptians. We really didn't want to wait until then, so we invited Robyn Hitchcock into our studio. Hi, Robyn.
Mr. ROBYN HITCHCOCK (Musician): Hello, Alison.
STEWART: "I Wanna Go Backwards." Did you really want to go backwards or did Yep Roc Records come find you and say, Robyn, please let us do this?
Mr. HITCHCOCK: No, I knew my stuff was out of print because the deals are all, they expire every, you know, five or seven years or something. You know it's nice to be able to get these things out, because this is probably the last time people are going to want to pay to buy physical, recorded products.
Next time round, when this deal has expired, assuming that our society is still functioning in a technological way, if people want this stuff it will presumably be available just as a download. That's why I'm having them released on vinyl. I got Yep Roc to do vinyl simply because digital stuff tends to become obsolete quicker than vinyl.
In other words, the grooves won't fall off a record, but apparently, the bytes will slip off of a CD. So if you want to leave your oeuvre for the ears of history, you know, a being from the future just has to look at this rotating, rotary thing and if it's smart, whichever planet or time zone it comes on...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HITCHCOCK: You can put it on a wheel and stick a pin and in it and will hear this tiny little ant-like voice. I mean because they might play it backwards.
STEWART: Have you planned for that? Are there messages you've encoded?
(Soundbite of laughter)
STEWART: For the future?
Mr. HITCHCOCK: I hadn't thought of that. I don't know. Anyway, that was my, you know, my thinking was OK, I just want to get this physically out one more time, and the most eternal sonic medium we have still, the most lasting one, seems to be vinyl.
TEWART: Something else about the way you've decided to re-release these, which I had forgotten even, just today, how much I love cover art and liner notes. I mean, I'm a downloader, well, I'm like this, 99 cents here, 99 cents there. But then you start, you know, you forget what it's like to have the packaging and to let it fall out and feel it.
And as I was looking at the, is it "While Thatcher Mauled Britain?" That's the B-sides and the outtakes and all. Would you mind reading? I loved reading this, a little bit of your thoughts about demos.
Mr. HITCHCOCK: OK. This is what I wrote. (Reading) Between the birth of a song and its first public appearance on stage or record lies the demo. Ostensibly, the demo is a prototype not for public consumption but for its creator to see how it looks and feels outside of their own amniotic imagination. But as Matthew Seligman once remarked, there are no such things as demos. Once anything is recorded, it can be released.
STEWART: You still feel that way?
Mr. HITCHCOCK: Well, I kind of - I think it depends what you are going for, you know. If you are going for something that relies on a lot of production, the demo might just be a version of the song, but what you care about is all the little clicks and beats and chatters and chords and reverbs and delays that make up a soundscape that we call production. You know, like a Mariah Carey record.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HITCHCOCK: She's not going to sit there with a ukulele and go, OK, I think this one has got the feel, you know. That's what the recording industry is about and it's something that has never really worked for me. I've found that the greater the budget I've had with records and the more time and energy and love that has been put into making them, the less they work. People who like my stuff invariably throng to the stuff I've recorded as quickly and cheaply as possible.
STEWART: May we hear a song?
Mr. HITCHCOCK: OK, hang on. Yes.
STEWART: Hang on one second. They are going to change the levels, so you sound, not too perfect.
(Soundbite of guitar strumming)
Mr. HITCHCOCK: No, it shouldn't be too perfect at all. This is one of the demos on that record.
(Soundbite of song "Surgery"')
Mr. HITCHCOCK: (Singing) You'll never have the damn thing out, or meet the pope and kiss his neck, and like him more than you expect.
And in my mind the color red, is writ in blood above your head, tonight, when the time is right.
You'll never wash the damned stuff off, or meet the queen and kiss her throat, and ask her where you hang your coat.
And in my mind the color blue, will never be as dark as you, tonight, when the time is right.
You'll never shave the damn thing off, rr meet the judge and kiss his face, and ask him where he keeps his wigs.
And in my mind the color pink, will do more damage than you think, tonight.
And in my mind the color green, is oh so lovely and obscene, tonight, when the time is right.
STEWART: We're speaking with Robyn Hitchcock, who has come by our studios. And I mentioned that this summer "Luminous Groove" will focus on your work with the band The Egyptians, but I think the most recent group you've worked with has been the Venus Three. Yes?
Mr. HITCHCOCK: That's right, yes.
STEWART: From an album called "Ole! Tarantula." Tell us who the Venus Three are, because they are familiar names to you and to many of our listeners.
Mr. HITCHCOCK: The Venus Three are a mutation of R.E.M. with Scott McCoy, Peter Buck and Bill Rieflin, who are all in - well, they all are in R.E.M..
STEWART: Is this a one-off project? Or is this something you can think about for the future?
Mr. HITCHCOCK: No, I mean, it goes back ages, because Peter and I have been playing together since, jeez, '84, '85. And in fact, Peter is on a couple tracks in "I Wanna Go Backwards." So we just formalized it, like people who have been living together for ages and then decide to get married for tax reasons or something. We should be doing some gigs next year. We actually have a lot of songs recorded and sometime this year those will be mixed and finished off. So "Venus 3, Volume 2" will appear in, you know, January or something.
STEWART: Well, I do want to play a track from "Ole! Tarantula" called "Adventure Rocket Ship" for those who haven't heard Robyn Hitchcock and Venus Three.
(Soundbite of song "Adventure Rocket Ship")
Mr. HITCHCOCK (Singing): Adventure rocket ship, inside a head parade, a message from the future.
You crash upon a star. Attention rocket ship. A message from the grave.
STEWART: So Robyn, this time last year, though, you were also talking about a documentary called "Sex, Food, Death, and Insects." I believe it's recently come out on DVD.
Mr. HITCHCOCK: Yes, it has come out, that's right. It's out - I think it was being shown on the Sundance Channel last year.
STEWART: And one, sort of, cheeky reviewer said that the title suggests those are all your favorite obsessions.
Mr. HITCHCOCK: Well, I wouldn't argue with them. I'd give them a big kiss.
STEWART: So it's true?
Mr. HITCHCOCK: Well, as I say in the film, you know, sex is what gets you here, food keeps you here, and death lets you out. You know, take away those three and where are you? Not in this life. And insects are just like us, but slightly different. They will probably inherit the earth if we screw it up the way we are doing at the moment.
The cockroach will be one of the few things that will be reliably here. I'm very aware of the fact that we don't have very long. We have all eternity in which not to exist. We live for the strike of a match, you know. That's what we're here for. That's how - the duration of our consciousness is like a match struck in the darkness of eternity. That's Alison or Robyn, you know.
STEWART: Yeah, you're interested in documenting, though, clearly, by deciding to put out "I Wanna Go Backwards" in vinyl and you want to make sure it sticks around.
Mr. HITCHCOCK: Oh, yeah, I think exactly, yeah, because the, you know what - that's why - one of the reasons we have art. You know, it's our attempt to pass things on. We know we're not going to be here, but we think there will be somebody next and the closest we can get to immortality is by just passing on these messages.
STEWART: When you were choosing the material for either "Luminous Groove" or "I Wanna Go Backwards," did you think about putting together this story, the story of our culture, the story of Robyn Hitchcock's life?
Mr. HITCHCOCK: Oh, no, no. In fact, I think the less that's known about Robyn Hitchcock, the better. You know, I'm not really - I guess I'm not very good at being objective about myself. Being focused on - I don't know, you know. It's difficult.
You've got to make a living so you can't court obscurity, but as an artist I'm happier to be an observer than to be observed, and I don't really care about being remembered. What I do want to be able to do is to contribute to the way people see things and you know when it's working, because it gets to other people.
STEWART: Can you play for us a song that you know has gotten to somebody?
Mr. HITCHCOCK: Well, I can play - I can play this one, actually. I know one of the people that works here was very keen on it. OK. This is about where I come from.
(Soundbite of song "I Often Dream of Trains When I'm Alone")
Mr. HITCHCOCK (Singing): I often dream of trains when I'm alone. I ride on them into another zone. I dream of them constantly heading for paradise or Basingstoke or Reading.
I often dream of trains when I'm awake. They ride along beside a frozen lake. And there in the buffet car I wait for eternity or Basingstoke or Reading.
I often dream of trains 'til it gets light. The summer turns to winter overnight. The leaves fall so suddenly. The sun sets at four o'clock. Exactly what I'm dreading.
I often dream of trains when I'm with you. I wonder if you dream about them, too. Maybe we'll meet one night out in the corridor. I'm waiting for you, baby.
Baby, baby, baby.
STEWART: Robyn, you are currently on tour. You're going to be on the West Coast this upcoming weekend and I read in one article you describe tours as work described as fun. What dupes you when you're on tour and you're thinking, gosh, this is a terrible amount of fun - wait a minute, I'm working?
Mr. HITCHCOCK: Oh, well, when you wake up the next day.
Mr. HITCHCOCK: In theory, basically it's fun, I mean, you know, this may seem very intense but it's actually something that you would drink to, you know? I mean, you would sit there with some kind of intoxicant and groove to whatever it is that I'm playing or Nick Lowe is playing, you know, because I'm on tour with Nick, so, it's that kind of thing.
STEWART: So, when your tour is over, you head home to England?
Mr. HITCHCOCK: I'm doing a bit of film work - I'm doing some music for a film in Hollywood, of course, and then I'm going back home, yeah.
STEWART: Will that feel good?
Mr. HITCHCOCK: Yeah, I mean, I haven't been out too long but it's always great to complete the circuit and get home, definitely. You know, I've been to New York more times than I can count. I - there are certain places I've been going for, you know, longer than, I mean, a lot of the cops weren't even born when I first got to some of those places in New York.
And I'm still going there, you know, from back in the smoke age. So, I don't come from here but I appear here and then I'm, sort of, tipped back into my bottle and I re-emerge in the world that I actually inhabit. So I'm, kind of, manifesting in all these trails that I wouldn't necessarily - I don't come from.
STEWART: Well, we wish you safe travel in your trails and your journeys about, from Hollywood back to home and back to New York anytime. We hope you'll come back by.
Mr. HITCHCOCK: Thanks, Alison. Thank you.
STEWART: We should also mention that last song Robyn played is called "I Often Dream of Trains." Web editor Laura Conaway named that The Best Song In The World Today a few weeks ago. We're going to repost that on our blog, npr.org/bryantpark. Stay with us. Coming up on the show, a catch-up on the case of three men known as the "West Memphis Three." We'll explain. This is the BPP from NPR News.
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