Get a Grip – An Interview with Hugh Cornwell.
In the two years since he last played St Paul’s Worthing, a very busy Hugh Cornwell has completed a soon to be released album, has toured extensively, collaborated with Dr. John Cooper Clarke on both a tour and an album, curated his website Mr Demille FM and started a whole raft of potential projects some of which we talk about during this interview.
We chat about his new album, working with Tony Visconti, Brian Eno’s discovery of some lost Bowie sessions, on listening to Cliff Richard, how he puts together an album and how to structure a live set.
I spoke with Hugh just a few days before his return to St Paul’s Worthing on October 19th. Hugh’s acoustic set will select songs from his 20 album career and will debut a couple of never before heard songs from his upcoming album.
I am sure Hugh won’t mind me saying this but he does have a reputation for being a bit of a curmudgeon. I have to say I found him, warm, open, friendly, funny and honest. He is still fighting dragons with his music but with so many projects on the go I think it is safe to say he is in a good place right now.
I began by asking him how he has been since he last played Worthing.
How things been since you last played St Pauls, was it two years ago?
Yes two years , good thanks, busy, this time last year I was releasing an album with John Cooper Clarke so what was a couple of years ago and I remember it being a great venue and a great gig, which is why I wanted to come back.
So what can we expect from this time round, similar to last time?
Yes, I plan to play songs from my whole career, but the songs will be different from last time. About half the songs will be a different choice because my catalogue and the stranglers catalogue is vast, there are 10 stranglers albums, that’s about 120 songs and I have had 10 albums so that’s another 100 songs, so there is over 200 songs to pick from and it’s a shame to keep playing exactly the same selection.
How do you choose a set list?
I think last time I picked a song from every album; well I am not doing that this time. I am just picking the songs I really like playing, there will be about a 50/50 split between stranglers and my solo catalogue I am also putting in some new songs from my next album, which was possibly going to be called Villains, but Queens of the Stone Age have just released an album called that. Now I might call it La Grande Dame, which was a song I debuted last time as an encore, and although that song is not in the set I am playing two new songs from that album.
I presume you have to do a different arrangement of the songs when you play a solo set?
That’s right, even the new songs will be a different version to the album. When I do my acoustic shows, I always play one of my favourite pieces of music before and after the show, by a guy called Mose Allison who was a big influence on me as a teenager and he died a couple of years ago. I wrote this song for him before he died and I was going to ask him to play on it, so I am going to play that song and hopefully a few people will pick up on him and his music, he was a real icon to a lot of modern musicians
Do you still get people turning up you your solo gigs expecting a full band and a set full of Strangler’s songs?
No I don’t think they do, it took me a while to re-establish my credentials but I have been making my solo records for over 20 years now and hopefully there are a few good tunes in there and they understand now there is a mix. One of the main reasons I left the Stranglers was to explore a wider range of musical styles.
What is your relationship to that old material?
There are so many good songs and I am excited because there are some of them in this set that I haven’t played for a very long time. It’s nice as they do work well for an arrangement for an acoustic guitar.
Back in the early days, do you think the Stranglers where co-opted into the punk movement by the media, or was that a strategy by the band?
No, you are absolutely right with your first comment. We were co-opted into it, we didn’t have much say in it and it wasn’t just us, the Jam weren’t really a punk band, Blondie weren’t punk, Graham Parker and the Rumour, Elvis Costello but they all got co-opted into that movement, none of us really had much say but we didn’t really care.
Is it frustrating that the humour and Irony of the early songs seemed to have been lost on the press and some of your peers?
There was a lot of tongue in cheek and people seemed to take it all very seriously, which in itself was funny to me, like I cant believe they are taking this so seriously, but that pales into comparison into what constraints we have now. I am surprised they even play them anymore.
The art of song writing is that it can be quite subversive and you can get across some big themes. You can actually, if you are clever enough and have an axe to grind sneak things in, which is why a lot of my lyrics are mysteriously unexplained. They might sound odd because I am sneaking things in.
What is your process now for writing?
I start with a brief of what I want to achieve with a subject matter. If you have an empty palette you have to put some paint on it and the way I do it is to get some ideas down just brainstorm. An album might be about this or that, so for this album I started by thinking about people who are interesting enough to have a song written about them. They might be someone who people haven’t heard of or who have gone un-noticed but I then have a starting point. People like Mose Allison or Ray Harryhausen or my mother, who all have songs on the new album.
The plan about song writing is to not have a plan, because you never know when you are going to get a dart of inspiration; you never know where it is going to come from so you can’t prepare for it. You just have to be ready and open enough to recognise it.
Are you still as passionate about music?
I will only be as passionate about it until I stop getting ideas, I still have a desire to write songs and I am open to collaborations, as long as there is a spark of inspiration to my brain; once that stops, well you may as well give up then. I learn something from everyone I work with.
What was it like working with John Cooper Clarke?
John was great, he is very unique, he’s a singular man, there is no one else like him, and I have a great admiration for him and we have respect for each others work and opinions.
The new album is all mastered and good to go is it?
Yes, we are just waiting to see who we will work with to get it released,
Over the years you have worked across different mediums, famously the quote attributed to you when you left the Stranglers was “I am off to be an actor now”, Do you still want to act?
Well that never came from me I won’t say who it came from, but that was Chinese rumours, when I left I didn’t know what I was going to do.
Which is your favourite medium, music, books, films, is there one you will focus on more in the future?
I have no idea, how can you say, you cant make decisions like that, you have to see what happens, the whole point of survival in a creative mediums is you have to be open and sensitive to ideas, opportunities, chances, I will do as much as I can and if the opportunities come up in different fields I will take them because I like challenges. I am not fortunate enough to be in that much demand to have to consider that dilemma.
Can you recommend a book and an album that you love?
The book would be Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky and the album wold be Forever Changes by Love, because those two show what can actually be achieved in those very different mediums, it shows the how far the limits can be pushed.
What was the first album you ever bought?
Believe it or not it was Cliff Sings, it was just as Cliff was straightening out, he was cool at the beginning then he got Norrie Paramor in with strings and orchestras and started doing old standards. I bought this album thinking it was going to be full out rock and half of it was and the other half was this Norrie Paramor old standards thing, and I have to say I was a tad disappointed.
If you had to pick one Album or one song from your whole career that best defines you, what would it be?
My personal favourite is a song called Cadiz, which is about a part of the world that I care a lot about and that is very close to my heart and I was very happy with what I created in that song, the mood suits the place and I felt it was a good achievement. I am playing that one on the tour.
My Favourite was Grip, it made me and my mates go out and form a band?
That’s good to hear, that was the first song I ever wrote for the Stranglers and I am very proud of it
Again it may be a false attribution, but I read that you didn’t always see eye to eye with producers, is that right?
No I am not sure that’s correct, if I didn’t think there was any value in producers I wouldn’t have worked with Tony Visconti or Liam Watson, so I think that is a mis-quotation.
Steve Albini did my last album; I just met up with Steve the other day, his band Shellac has been over here touring so we got together. Steve hates being called a producer, he is a master sound technician and that’s how he likes to be thought of, he is not a producer. We have some plans to work together to produce some acts, with him as engineer and me as producer and we are both very excited about that. We just have to find a willing victim basically.
Some of the best production uses that golden bit of information, you have to have someone who has the vision of what the sound should be and the other guy who understands that and knows how to get it. So a great producer and a great engineer and that’s the combination, so watch this space, there are some great things coming.
What was it like working with Visconti?
Yeah Tony is great, he is a musician, he’s a really talented bass player and he is very sensitive to song structure and arrangements, so when he is in charge you have a like minded person on the other side of the desk, but he is not an engineer he brings in someone to get the sound he hears.
Have you hear his remix of Lodger?
No, but if you are interested in Bowie stuff you should check out my website, I have a site called Mr Demille FM and there is an interview with Brian Eno and he talks about some sessions with David and there is some stuff, that no one has ever heard, during the interview he suddenly remembers he has a whole day of recordings with David that he never done anything with, that he had found locked in a cupboard.
Do you ever keep in touch with the rest of the Stranglers?
No, not really, we have gone off on different paths. I think it is great that someone is prepared to go out and play a whole set of Stranglers songs and keep them alive. I don’t think I would want to, no disrespect to it, but it’s not what I want to do.
I don’t mind paying homage to it or doing new interpretations, because when I play with my band I don’t have keyboards, so it has to be re-interpreted, but they go out and there is a demand for it so why not.
What advice do you have for someone setting out on a career in music?
Just that it is very difficult, be prepared for rejection and if you feel you have a great ide then stick to it.
Good luck with the tour Hugh and thanks for taking the time to talk to me
Thanks, no problem, see you later.
You can catch Hugh on Tour through to November; his solo acoustic tour covers material from across his career both solo and with the Stranglers