Leaping head first into songs Music: Robyn Hitchcock brings a winning formula as he pops into town with 'Moss Elixir.'

March 05, 1997|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Some songwriters always begin composing with the chorus, while others build their tunes over a bass line or beat. But Robyn Hitchcock says he always starts with the song title -- an approach even he admits is slightly odd.

"It's as if people were conceived by their heads appearing in the air, and then their bodies grew downward," he says, over the phone from his home in England. "Or as if trees started with leaves, and then the branches appear, and then the trunk, and then the roots.

"I start with the title, and then it gradually fills in backwards."

That was clearly the case with "Sinister But She Was Happy," the first song from Hitchcock's latest album, "Moss Elixir." Once he had framed the title in his mind, it was easy for him to conjure the rest of the song's protagonist.

"I imagined that the person in this song would have no illusions about positive reinforcement or hoping for the best," he says. "None of those platitudes. This person accepted that life was a pit of evil, and they were fine about it. Which means they have to be pretty unfeeling, really, but they seem to enjoy themselves. Presumably, Karma is going to trip them up somewhere down the line."

Considering that Hitchcock used to live for part of each year in Washington, it's easy to imagine him taking his inspiration from some of the capital's denizens. But he says he got the idea from a Belly album.

"I was listening to the first Belly album, which I did get in Washington, and I just suddenly thought, 'Yeah! She was sinister but she was happy.' You know? And it was not about Belly. I just suddenly got that feeling, and I've been interpreting it ever since."

For "The Devil's Radio," Hitchcock found himself revisiting an image that had first occurred to him in 1982, when he wrote a song called "Listening to the Higsons," in which he imagined the devil in a small apartment, listening to indie-rock DJ John Peel, late one night on British radio, playing a record by the Higsons.

"Anyway, I had another vision of the thing -- you know, the devil listening to the radio again -- and wondered what it would be," says Hitchcock. "I guess the devil had moved to the States by this stage. He was frying two juicy, eggs-over-easy for breakfast, and he was listening to hate radio. So that's how that song developed."

Although "The Devil's Radio" is, in its oblique way, a denunciation of what Hitchcock calls "hate radio," the songwriter admits that he hasn't had much firsthand experience listening to the stuff himself. "Actually, I've never listened to Rush Limbaugh, but I don't feel that's any great loss," he says, laughing. "I've heard bits of Howard Stern and stuff, which is pretty scary. And they play that over here.

"But we don't have hate radio in Britain. We've got our bigotry, all right, but maybe because everybody is so cynical and apathetic, it's difficult for people to get seriously warped about these things."

While "Moss Elixir" may be typical of Hitchcock's work in its combination of melodic charm and lyrical whimsy, the way he made the album was a complete departure. For one thing, after (( spending the better part of two decades with bassist Andy Metcalfe and drummer Morris Windsor (first in the Soft Boys, later as Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians), the singer is now utterly band-less.

"I had a violin player with me [on my last tour] called Deni Bonet, who plays on the album," he says. "And sometimes, if I want a whole band, I borrow this band called Homer, whose main man, Tim Keegan, also plays on the record.

"But career-wise, I'm now on my own. People have had to be borrowed, treated as well as possible and then put back where I found them."

Has Hitchcock turned folkie in his old age?

"I'm 43 -- I think the clock has run out for me as a rock player," he laughs.

"Actually, that's probably not true," he adds, reconsidering. "I was never really that much of a rock player. You know, Lou Reed and Neil Young and Iggy Pop can still do it, but they were much more rock-and-roll-hearted than me.

"Then again, I think also that I'm able to be straight-ahead in a way that Andy and Morris weren't. I remember, especially in the Soft Boys, I could only keep them interested if we kept changing the time signature every couple of bars. Even though we went on to do things like 'Heaven' and 'So You Think You're in Love,' it was never the band at its best. But when I play with Tim's band, they're quite happy to just riff away on three chords. And there's no shame in that.

"So maybe, in a funny way, I am discovering rock and roll quite late."

Hitchcock live

When: At 9 tonight

Where: 8x10 Club, 10 E. Cross St.

Tickets: $10

Call: (410) 481-7328 for tickets, (410) 625-2000 for information

To hear excerpts from Robyn Hitchcock's "Moss Elixir," call Sundial at (410) 783-1800 and enter the code 6107.

Pub Date: 3/05/97

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