Talking Shop With Hugh Cornwell

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In an age where it’s nothing unusual for bands to break up, reform ten years later, release a retrospective compilation or two and stage elaborate reunion shows, one might wonder how British protopunk legends The Stranglers have been any different. They have, after all, embarked on more than one reunion tour and last year released the double-disc compilation Decades Apart. Since his departure from The Stranglers in 1990, however, original lead singer and guitarist Hugh Cornwell has refused to take part in any such activity with the other band members, choosing to focus largely on solo projects instead. With a solo career spanning more than two decades now, comprising seven solo albums and a number of collaborative efforts, Cornwell is unquestionably a success in his own right.

The current tour will see Cornwell doing two sets: the first featuring his best solo material and some of The Stranglers’ biggest hits, and the second seeing The Stranglers’ debut album Ratttus Norvegicus IV performed in its entirety with an electric three-piece lineup. Though distanced from the original band members, Cornwell – now 61 years old – is the first to admit just how much he owes to The Stranglers name and their enormous success in the 70s and 80s.

When I finally get through to Cornwell on the phone, he’s on his way from a rainy Sydney to Canberra, where the Australian tour is kicking off.

SS: I understand you’re coming with a three-piece band.
HC: Yeah, well, Steve Fishman [whose credits include Paul McCartney, Blondie and Roy Orbison] is on bass and Chris Bell [formerly of the Thompson Twins] is on drums. We worked out recently that we’ve been playing on and off together for nineteen years, which is actually longer than I was in The Stranglers for. So we know each other pretty well by now.

So it’s been 21 years since you left The Stranglers…
Has it been that long already? Oh God.

…and yet you seem to be more comfortable now than ever playing Stranglers hits on your tours. Are you simply giving into the demands of Stranglers obsessives, or is this something you really want to be doing now?
Well, I started playing the old songs again after I’d been out of the band about three or four years. For that period of time I just really needed to get a distance from it; it was all too tense and I needed a break. Then I started working with Laurie Latham on one of my solo albums, and I actually wasn’t even playing guitar at the time. He said to me, ‘I’m only gonna make this record with you if you start playing guitar again’, so I started playing guitar again, and when that happened I was invited to do an acoustic show and I thought, well, if I do this acoustic show I’m gonna have to play some of the old Stranglers songs, and playing them acoustically sort of reintroduced me to them and I suddenly realised what good songs they were, and that they were worth playing again and revisiting.

Are they note-for-note recreations of The Stranglers versions, or have they been reworked?
The whole point of the lineup now is that we don’t actually have any keyboards, which was always a big part of the Stranglers. The important factor there is that when we play the old songs, we play them with a new arrangement. The songs sound fresh again, but they’re not totally unrecognisable, I mean they’re still quite faithful to the originals. A lot of people have said how surprised they are and how well the songs work without the keyboards.

Personally, one of my favourite moments in your career is one of your earliest deviations from The Stranglers, the Nosferatu album that you did with [ex-drummer in Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band] Robert Williams in 1979. Do you ever play material from that album on your current tours?
I’ve played [Cream Cover] White Room several times. Occasionally when I’ve been in America I’ve played it, it goes down well over there. That material on that album is very highly arranged and complicated – it would take a lot of work to start bringing those into the set. Actually, my mind boggles at the thought of it.

Do you still keep in touch with Robert? I seem to remember him having a showdown with Johnny Rotten on Judge Judy about a decade ago, that’s about how up to date I am with what he’s doing.
Well Robert’s changed a lot, bless him, through the years, and he’s had less and less contact with the music world and so I think he finds it a bit difficult to interface with it these days.

Nosferatu, which was obviously an album inspired by the film of the same name from the 1920s (at the very least in the cover art), implies that perhaps cinema is something that’s important to you. Is that true?
Oh, totally. Other than music, cinema and cricket are my other passions. I don’t watch television, I just watch movies.

You were even lucky enough to have your clip for Another Kind of Love directed by legendary Czech animator Jan Švankmajer in 1988. What was that like?
Well he hasn’t done any more music videos, which I was pleased about! Mine was a one-off. He did get approached after he made mine, I think Sting asked him to make one and he refused. I would love to work with him again – he’s a master and a genius.

You were famously quoted in NME in 1979 as saying “We’re never going to use a producer again. They are just shitty little parasites. All they’re good for is telling jokes. And we know better jokes than any of ’em.” How does that make Liam Watson [producer of Cornwell’s latest solo album Hooverdam, famous also for his work on The White Stripes’ Elephant] feel? He seems to have done a pretty good job.
(Laughs) Well you must remember to put that in context! That was after The Raven and we produced a lot of it ourselves. We were full of it, you know, we thought we’d done a good job. I think it was Alan Winstanley who engineered it, and we sort of produced it together with him. But I mean, there are producers and then there are producers. Liam is a perfect example of that. Liam is a producer who’s really an engineer; an engineer who produces. It’s the producers who haven’t got a hands-on approach, who just sit in the producer’s chair, that I don’t like working with. The role has changed though, and I can’t imagine producing an album myself these days.

A lot of musicians who’ve been playing for as long as you have might have decided to kick their feet up and retire after all this time.
Oh, well that would be boring wouldn’t it?

Would you say your motivation has grown as you’ve gotten older?
Well time’s running out, isn’t it? As you get older the time you have starts to run out, so I think people get more and more active as they get older – that’s true with a lot of people I know anyway. We want to do as much as we can before the big sleep.

I’m sure you get asked this question by every Australian interviewer, but how do you feel about Australia?
Every time I’ve come to Australia I’ve really enjoyed it. The first time I came, we toured Japan and came to Australia afterwards. Everyone was really excited about going to Japan but I was most excited about Australia. It was a fabulous time, and every time I come back here it’s very welcoming. It feels very homely; the way of life is familiar of course because of the connection with the UK. It’s very familiar.

We’ve still got a lot of room for rock & roll too.
Absolutely! There are great music fans here. Australians have a great interest in music. All you journalists really know your stuff too. I mean, you sound like you wouldn’t have been around for the original Stranglers, am I right?

Correct. I was born a few years before The Stranglers broke up.
There you go! That’s great; I mean there’s a new generation of people who came to the music that I started making through their parents.

And the Internet of course…

Speaking of which, I know that you offer your album Hooverdam for free on your website, which is still seen as a fairly new thing for artists of your calibre to do.
I think it’s a good idea, I mean why not? For me I see it like a supermarket offering something for free in the window to get people into the store – maybe when they’re in there they’ll realise there’s something else that they’ll like! It’s a marketing tool, you know, and why not? It’s using the Internet how I believe it’s meant to be used, as a perfect music delivery system. And it knows no barriers.

Well I’m looking forward to the show.
It’s gonna be a good tour. What’s the Australian word for a beer?

In Melbourne I suppose we call it a ‘pot’.
A pot? Alright, okay, great. We’ll have a pot.


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