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The Fall & Rise of the Post-Punk Renaissance Man – in Conversation with Hugh Cornwell

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There are times opportunities you never thought you’d have present themselves and of course you jump on them full force. Thus it was that when the chance came up to interview Hugh Cornwell via a dedicated telephone connection I leaped without hesitation. After having to forego our first effort to hook up – Hugh was in the midst of a tour, making the prospect of a lengthy phone interview problematic – we sat down on our respective ends of a pristine international connection (oh we love you, modern technology) and chatted this way and that. Ostensibly set up in connection with the recently released solo career retrospective The Fall & Rise of Hugh Cornwell (reviewed by SEM here), the conversation of course drifted about a bit, taking in recording techniques, biochemistry, the surprising effect of keyboards on a rock’n’roll band, writing songs about Hedy Lamarr and, inevitably perhaps, John Cooper Clarke. [interview has been edited for clarity][feature photo: Neil O’Brien Entertainment]

Stereo Embers Magazine: Congratulations on the new retrospective. Hard to believe it’s been over 25 years since your first solo album and that long exactly since you left the Stranglers. Listening back to the collection, there’s the occasional nod to what might be called ‘the Stranglers sound’ but in the main the songs on Fall and Rise paint from a widely different palette. So what’s driven your choices in direction over the years and steered you in this way or that way musically?

Hugh Cornwell: Well that choice of songs on Fall and Rise wasn’t in my hands, and I’m rather glad it wasn’t because if it had been it would have taken me forever to decide. The record company that wanted to put it out had a pretty good idea of what they wanted on it so I went with it. I thought ‘They’re enthusiastic about it so let them put on what they thought was the best.’ So, listening to it, it’s a bit lighter than I might have chosen. I think I would have gone a bit darker and rockier. They’ve kind of gone on the light and melodic, more romantic side.

SEM: I was wondering about that. So what does make you go this way or that in your songwriting these days?

HC: Well, when I was first starting writing outside of the band, I was trying to put things in the writing that didn’t have a place in the band. So that explains why Wolf, the first one [released 1988 while Cornwell was still in the Stranglers – ed.], and Wired [1993, his first solo after leaving the band – ed.] are probably a bit lighter in texture and subject matter. And then once I got my feet into being a solo artist I started going back to where I was originally. And as time has gone on I’ve gravitated away from keyboards and I hardly ever use them in the studio now. That leads to a toughening up of music as well. It’s surprising how keyboards can soften up music. But I don’t really have a pre-determined agenda when I’m writing. Whatever seems to work for what I’m trying to get across for the song, y’know.

SEM: Right. And you don’t seem to be beholden to any expectations that a Stranglers fan may have had when you set off on your solo journey.

HC: Yeah, well, I don’t even consider Stranglers fans when I’m making a record. I make it for myself. And then there are a few Cornwell fans that aren’t really interested in what the Stranglers did. I meet a lot of people that come to my shows that say ‘Why do you keep playing songs from that old band you used to play in? We want more of your solo stuff.’ The worst thing you can do is try and cater to an audience, because you’ll end up getting in lot of confusing trouble. You really can’t please everybody and the only person you’ve got to please is yourself.

“I don’t even consider Stranglers fans when I’m making a record.”

SEM: So how’s that going for you, are you pleasing yourself?

HC: Yeah, absolutely. Every time I make a record now I’m happy with it, happy it has my name on it, and it’s a lasting feeling, y’know? I mean, Totem & Taboo [Hugh’s most recent studio album, from 2012 – ed.], I’ve got a great deal of pride for that record. I’m happy about every sound and every instrument and every little bit of it. I stand by it, and I just hope the next one I make will have the same lasting effect on me.

SEM: Cheers to that. So let’s talk about you working with Liam Watson at Toe Rag in 2008 [for the album Hooverdam – ed.], a studio known for specializing in a rawer, more stripped-down sound. Is that what you were looking for at the time and were the results as you hoped?

HC: Well when I went round to meet with Liam I didn’t realize he was working with an 8-track, a little 8-track machine. So when I saw it and he said ‘Oh I record on to 8-track’ I was a bit shocked. I said ‘But what do you do about a drum kit,’ I mean normally a drum kit will take eight tracks and he said ‘You record it on stereo, two tracks’ and I said ‘OK, fair enough, but if you do that, what happens if later on in the recording process you’ve got the levels wrong on the drums in that mix?’ and he said ‘Easy, you just re-record it.’ (Laughter) And it suddenly made sense, and I started thinking ‘What I like about this guy is he’s trying to make things simpler rather than more complicated’ and isn’t that going to make it a lot easier to make a record if you simplify things. And it’s amazing, he carries that through all the way to the mixing process. It’s all on eight tracks, and he actually mixes a whole album in a day, in a couple of hours.

SEM: Wow.

HC: Yeah. What he does is, once everything’s recorded, and he’s happy and you’re happy that you’ve got everything you need for the record, the next day he comes into the studio, puts the tape on, with all the songs on it, and he just does a mix of the whole album, which he can do because it’s all on eight tracks. And he just does a pass and it takes him about an hour, hour and a half, and then he takes it home, and the next day he does it again, and maybe a few days later he does it again a couple of time, and then at the end of two weeks he’s got about eight or nine mixes of each song, and then he picks the best one.

SEM: Huh. That’s pretty extraordinary, actually.

HC: It’s a fantastic idea, and it makes his mixing process a very creative thing, because it might be better on one day on one song than another. So I was really into it, I love the idea, and after that two and a half weeks I phoned him up and he said ‘I think I’ve done it now, I’ll put together all my choices of all the best mixes and I’ll send it to you.’ I think it’s great what he’s done.

SEM: Do you think you might work with him again?

HC: Possibly, yeah, but there’s a lot of people I’d like to work with so it seems a bit of a shame to back to the same person. I’d like to work with all the people I’ve worked with before but then there are so many others.

SEM: Ha, yeah, that’s kind of funny. I was just talking the other day about traveling, how I’d like to take my wife to Prague because she’s never been but I’ve been to Prague. And it’s so expensive and rare for me to be able to travel like that these days, why would I go back to Prague? But anyway, let’s talk about other producers that you haven’t worked with yet.

HC: Well, my manager and I talked about Rick Rubin a few years ago, I’m still quite excited about that. We haven’t approached him about that but I’m quite excited by the prospect. Can’t think of any others at the moment because I’m not really thinking about producers at the moment because I’m sort of working on new songs and, y’know, you’ve gotta do one thing at a time.

“My manager and I talked about working with Rick Rubin a few years ago, I’m still quite excited about that.”

SEM: Just to finish up on the producer aspect of things, how important is a producer, in your mind, to the ultimate product?

HC: Oh I’m sure I could produce my own albums by now, I know enough about it, and in fact I’ve just produced an album of John Cooper Clarke singing.

SEM (chuckling): I’m so glad you brought that up. We’re gonna get to that…

HC: OK, so anyway, yeah, I can produce, and I produce my demos, so I’m sure I could produce myself but it’s so interesting bringing in someone else in some capacity when you’re making a record. It adds other colors to the palette, y’know? You may not need them but it adds a nice little interesting, 5% shade you hadn’t thought of before, or maybe more, who knows.

SEM: Yeah, to me there’s a corollary to the director of a movie.

HC: Yes, excellent.

SEM: OK, the John Cooper Clarke thing. That was further down my list of possible targets here but I’m really glad you brought it up. I adore his work and have forever, and certainly his work back there with Martin Hannett was just marvelous, and fairly groundbreaking in its way. So when I heard that you two were involved I was naturally going to bring that up. So, is that record done and imminent, and how was it working with him?

HC: Yeah, it’s done. We’re just finishing off the mastering of the songs and it’s pretty much there, y’know, just a couple more tweaks to do on it and it’s going to be fantastic. It’s not new songs, it’s a collection of old classics which I thought he could do a good job with. And when he came down to sing I said ‘John, where’re the lyrics?’ and he said ‘I don’t need any of the lyric sheets cuz these are all my favorite songs.’

SEM: So just to be clear, they’re not his songs, they’re…

HC: They’re old classics, yeah. They’re old torch songs, which is really an important – you don’t get many torch songs these days, y’know.

SEM: Well no, and to have John Cooper Clarke doing them is just a stroke of genius, if I may say. And I’d much rather hear him doing them than, y’know, Rod Stewart.

HC: Well the thing is, you’d be surprised at how good of a voice he’s got. He’s got an amazing baritone voice, with lots of juicy character and expression. You would not believe how well he can sing.

SEM: That’s wonderful. I mean, yeah, he’s not really been given too much of an opportunity to sing over the years. His voice was always appealing. It was a bit nasal but it was perfect for what he did. So no matter how much I agree with your assessment (of his voice) it’s still surprising, wonderfully surprising, to hear he’s done a collection of torch songs. I just think that’s brilliant.

HC: Yeah, I’m really happy about it. I spent a lot of time working on it. I mean, he came to the party and he’s nailed it, and it’s great. I’m sure it will be out early next year [2016 – ed.]

SEM: That’s fantastic, and I thank you in advance for facilitating that. So…your science background is pretty intriguing. Aside from the expected comment about how unusual it is for an erstwhile ‘punk’ to have a degree in biochemistry, is there any extent to which that discipline informs your musical instincts?

HC: (pause)…Umm, not really. It instructs me in my life, though, because I’m interested in nutrition and all the biochemistry of life. I want to live as long as I possibly can, and the biochemistry helps me decide what I’m going to put in my body and what I’m going to become and how I treat myself. So it’s helping me in that way.

SEM (after a quick aside about aging and mortality): When you were setting out to become a solo artist, were there others that you viewed as, if not models, sort of guiding lights for where you were going? I mean, shifting from the dynamics of a group to being on one’s own must be a little challenging I would imagine, so were there any artists you looked to?

HC: I guess the one shining light was Lou Reed, y’know? He was in an influential, famous band and then trying to establish himself as a solo artist, and so I was keeping an eye on how he was doing, just out of interest.

“I guess the one shining light for me was Lou Reed, y’know?”

SEM: Huh. I like that answer because I wasn’t expecting it. On a similar note, and maybe the torch songs project would play into this, maybe not, but are there influences you have that people reading this would be surprised by?

HC: If you’re meaning musical influences, I’ve got loads. The reason being, when I was a kid I had two brothers that were into music, and my dad was into music, so there were all throwing stuff into my ears the whole time, whether I liked it or not. So I got multiple musical influences from that. My brother turned me on to Mose Allison when I was 12 years old. He did so without realizing it but I was sharing a room with him so I heard it.

SEM: Well, if Mose Allison influenced you then I guess the answer to the question is ‘Yes, there are some influences on you that would surprise some people.’ OK…a Stranglers-related question: by the sound of it, leaving the band seemed as much a case of psycho-emotional survival for you as it was a quest for a broader musical freedom – and certainly the two are intertwined – but with the perspective of two-and-a-half decades, can you speak to the pluses and minuses of the split? And, if you feel like it, touch on why the band, as they remain anyway, still seem to retain such enmity toward you. That’s truly perplexing.

HC: Uhh, I think the first thing I’d like to point out is I have absolutely no enmity at all toward the surviving Stranglers. Absolutely none whatsoever. In fact, I’d be stupid to have any enmity, because what they’re doing is, they’re working on my behalf. 90% of what they play is the old catalog, and when they play the old catalog it’s like a tribute to my contribution. So no, no enmity whatsoever. I mean, I’m appreciative of them doing that because I get paid, I get some income because they’re out there playing the old catalog which everyone loves. But I am a bit disappointed. I wish I could read somewhere that one or the other of them has said some nice things about me. They never seem to saying anything nice about me and my contribution. I haven’t been to see them, I don’t have an opinion about what they sound like, but it’s just amazing, the catalog of songs that we created together more than 25 years ago is still attracting an audience now, and not just in the UK. I think it’s incredible.

SEM: Well that time was so full of explosive energy and boundless curiosity and a sense of adventure that I’m not surprised it continues to attract attention. I do a radio show here in Portland based around that time and over the years it’s evolved to where most of what I play now are young bands from everywhere – Indonesia, Russia, Italy, everywhere – that are infused by and influenced by that era, and the Stranglers were right in the thick of it.

HC: Yeah well I find it all kind of hard to believe this is all still going on. It’s remarkable. I’m in a very fortunate position because, not only am I one of the beneficiaries of this maturation of this amazing period of time and this amazing catalog of songs, but, I’ve actually got an independent existence. I don’t have to still walk around with that uniform on. I’ve got my own identity. So I’m doubly lucky.


SEM: And it’s not even really a case of you playing your cards right, it’s just the way things transpired and I’m happy for you, it’s an excellent place to be. You couldn’t have engineered an outcome any better, really.

HC: Exactly. I’m so happy I left the band when I did, I’m so pleased with the artistic freedom I’ve got now. I’ve started writing novels now, I’ve started working in the film world, all these things and I wouldn’t have been able to do that within the confines of the Stranglers. I’m so glad I’ve got that freedom and that diet, y’know, it’s a creative diet that I love.

SEM: What kind of work are you doing in the film world? Is that a musical capacity or a visual capacity?

HC: The visual capacity, or, well, creative, really. I’m just finishing off making films for every one of the tracks on Totem & Taboo, and some of them have got a little bit of performance in them but most of them haven’t. The music is just the backdrop for the film. They’ve got independent scripts, storylines, and it’s a visual journey and the music of the songs is just the soundtrack. It’s nearly three years since I’ve started on this and I’m just finishing the last one now. So that’s going to be put together and released [in 2016] so I’m very excited about that. I’ve learned a lot about filmmaking and everything to do with it. And so I’m moving forward now, and I’m hoping my first novel is going to be made into a movie. I’m not directing it but I’m glad I’ve learned about directing because when I speak to the director I’ll be informed. I have been working on the script with the director so we’re hoping to raise some money next year and then we’ll have a film going. So it’s a really exciting time for me right now, all these different horizons coming into view.

SEM: That’s fabulous, and pardon my ignorance on this but I assume the novel’s published?

HC: Yes I’ve got two published, I’m working on a third one now.

“It’s a really exciting time for me right now, all these different horizons coming into view.”

SEM: I feel a bit sheepish for not having known all this going in.

HC: Don’t worry, I don’t expect you to know everything I’ve been doing, y’know. Yeah the first one was published five years ago, called Window on the World, and the second one [Arnold Drive – ed.] a year and a half ago, and I’m about half way through a third one now.

SEM: Are these literary fiction or genre or..?

HC: Well the first one’s a dark thriller, the second one is a sort of rite-of-passage melodrama, and the third one’s a futuristic thriller.

SEM: So it would seem that labeling Hugh Cornwell ‘Renaissance Man’ would be pretty accurate then.

HC (laughing): I dunno, I’m just having so much fun at the moment doing everything I do and I feel very fortunate that I’ve got the opportunity to do it. Long may I be able to continue. People say ‘You’re always working,’ but the trouble is I really enjoy what I’m doing, and if I can create the time to fit it in then I’ll try to do that.

SEM: OK, last question, I believe. “Live It and Breathe It,” the new track on Fall and Rise is a stomper of a track, and as we’ve already established that you’re going to keep making music and art for a very long time still, can we assume there’s a new album in the works?

HC: Yeah, absolutely. I’m writing now, I’ve got about half the songs done. They all seems to be songs about people that I wanted to write songs about, people that haven’t had songs written about them or no one knows about the songs that have been written about them. And there’s a lot of people where I think ‘I can’t believe this person hasn’t had a song written about them.’ I mean, I’ve just written a song about Lou Reed, and I’m not sure anyone’s written a song about Lou Reed but I’ve written one and it’s all about my failed attempt to meet him. We had a mutual friend that worked with him, and he was going to be doing a tour a few years ago and he was going to be rehearsing in New York and I was going to be in New York at the same time, so this friend said ‘Would you like to meet Lou?’ and I said I’d love to so he asked Lou who said he’d love to meet me so I was going to go down to his rehearsal space and we were going to hang out but then on the day before, we both, on the very same day, got a terrible terrible flu. He cancelled his tour, we were both holed up in bed in different parts of New York and then a blizzard hit New York and I had to get out before all the airports were closed and that was that. And so the song’s about that, my failed attempt to meet Lou Reed.

SEM: I love the concept of the record, a whole album of songs about people that no one’s written songs about yet.

HC: Exactly. I’m writing a song about Hedy Lamarr, the most beautiful girl in Hollywood. And her history, the story of her life, it’s fascinating, and I can’t believe no one’s written a song about her. They’re not all good people, I’m writing a song about Mussolini as well. Some of them are villains, some are heroes. It’s a nice thing to hang the the songs on.

SEM: Well yeah. I mean, if it’s to be considered a gimmick it’s a great one.

HC: Of course there’s also the Stranglers song “No More Heroes” and if I name album Heroes and Villains which is what I’m thinking of calling it, it believable that it’s me that’s done it, because of that song.

SEM: That’s a nice bridge. So is Totem & Taboo going to be reissued with the videos?

HC: Yes. What I’m going to do is, all the films I made they’re all going to be linked together, one into the other, so it’s a stand-alone 40 minute film. What we’re going to do is, I’m going to do a director’s commentary with it, which is good fun, and then I’m going to link it to a vinyl issue of Totem & Taboo – we only did an edition of 200 (originally) – so I’m going to redo it in vinyl, same artwork, and there will be something else to make it a little package.

SEM: Nice. That’ll be an opportunity for me to get the record since I don’t have it yet.

From here we finish off with some back and forth about Portland – the drummer in Hugh’s touring band, Seve Sheldon, makes his home here and they rehearsed here before their last tour (plus Hugh’s pals with Fred Armisen so Portlandia, as it seemingly must, gets covered as well) – and a discussion of upcoming US tours (which, sadly, come nowhere near Portland) from whence we drift into a highly collegial fare-the-well and click off. Cheers, Hugh, and thanks again for giving this newly-turned 60 year old a fresh dose of inspiration. Long may we both run.