All posts by The Mouth Magazine

HUGH CORNWELL

HUGH CORNWELL IS ABOUT TO EMBARK ON A UK TOUR IN SUPPORT OF HIS LATEST ALBUM MONSTER… THE ALBUM IS A COLLECTION OF BIOGRAPHICAL SONGS FOCUSING ON A DISPARATE GATHERING OF PEOPLE – MOTORCYCLE STUNTMAN EVEL KNIEVEL, THE NEW YORK MUSICIAN LOU REED, THE ITALIAN DICTATOR BENITO MUSSOLINI AND THE ZIMBABWEAN EX-PRESIDENT ROBERT MUGABE, AMONGST OTHERS… MOST TELLINGLY, THOUGH, THERE IS A SONG ABOUT HUGH’S OWN MOTHER. IN THIS NEW INTERVIEW WE DISCUSS THE ALBUM AND TOUR…


THE ALBUM MONSTER… THERE’S A SORT OF COHERENCE TO IT THAT REALLY APPEALS, AND I SUPPOSE WE COULD CALL IT A CONCEPT ALBUM… THESE BIOGRAPHICAL SONGS, DEALING WITH VARIOUS FIGURES – EVEL KNIEVEL, LOU REED, BENITO MUSSOLINI, RAY HARRYHAUSEN (THE ANIMATOR)… AND YOUR MOTHER…
Yeah, it’s a very strange collection.

… ALMOST THE STRANGEST DINNER PARTY EVER…
Ha ha… That would look great, wouldn’t it? A picture of them all sitting down to dinner together.

THE SONG ABOUT YOUR MOTHER, THAT’S WHERE THIS PARTICULAR PROJECT STARTED FOR YOU…
Yeah, she passed away about six years ago. I thought “well, why not write a song?”, ‘cos I wanted to do something to commemorate her. She was half French and so the title LA GRANDE DAME suggested itself to me. That really sums her up. So that title worked, and I wrote that song and it was very nice and I was very happy with the way it turned out. 

HOW DID THE BIOGRAPHY IDEA DEVELOP FROM THERE?
I love watching movies, so the second one – the next one I wrote – came because of thinking about a movie I’d watched. It was the early ’70s George Hamilton one about Evel Knievel, and at the end I thought about what a fascinating life Evel Knievel had had – stranger than fiction, you just couldn’t make it up. I suddenly realised that, furthermore, no-one had written a song about this guy. He was one of the most famous men in the 1970s  and no one had ever written a song! So the idea of motorbikes and sort of born to be wild / rebellion was there. I thought he was a fabulous figure for a song – and a great title: PURE EVEL…

… HA HA, WHO COULD RESIST THAT?!
Ha ha, yeah. Well, I couldn’t resist it. You can’t get a better title than that, really. Then there was DUCE COOCHIE MAN… I’d actually had that title in my head for about ten years but never done anything with it, so I knew I had that one I could use as well. The song was always going to be about Mussolini… It wasn’t until I had half a dozen or so of these songs about different people, biographical songs, that I actually realised which direction things were going, which way the album was going: “well, okay, I can see where this is all going now”… Then it was obvious to me who the songs should be about, really.

IT’S REALLY INTERESTING THAT YOUR MUM IS IN THERE AMONGST THESE FAMOUS PEOPLE… BUT WRITING THE SONG ABOUT HER MUST HAVE REQUIRED A DIFFERENT APPROACH – OR, IF NOT A DIFFERENT APPROACH, THEN IT MUST HAVE AT LEAST BEEN A DIFFERENT EXPERIENCE FOR YOU…
Yeah, but once I’d written her song and then had the others, there was no way I was going to not include it. There was no way she was going to be left out. She’s ended up with all these other people, these strange bedfellows.

… IF THERE WAS THAT DINNER PARTY I MENTIONED, WHAT WOULD YOUR MUM MAKE OF THE COMPANY? 

Ha ha ha, she’d probably laugh. 

WOULD SHE MAKE SHORT SHRIFT OF… SAY… MUSSOLINI?
I don’t know… Of the people on the album, I think Mussolini’s story is very interesting, one of the more interesting ones. A lot of people dismiss the guy, but the thing to remember about him is that when he first came to power he did a lot of good things for Italy and a lot of people, most people, loved him. The majority of the population loved him. We must always remember that he was a pacifist. He was never anything other than a pacificist, and also a great socialist. He was a man of the people when he began. It was only in the 1930s that his support left him, after he formed the pact with the man in Germany because he didn’t want his country to be invaded. They found what he’d done abhorrent, so that’s when he lost his support, that’s when he lost the backing of the people. But all the time, he thought he was doing the right thing for his country – but he ended up in a situation he created that he couldn’t get out of. And how often do we hear about those sort of situations occurring?

I THINK WE HEAR ABOUT THEM A LOT – PARTICULARLY IN POLITICS, AND PARTICULARLY THESE DAYS…
Absolutely. Exactly. Particularly with politicans. They try and manoeuvre themselves into a situation or into a beneficial position but when they get there they find that they’re backed into a corner and they can’t move. They can’t get themselves out of it… That’s how it often is – and that’s certainly how it was for Mussolini.

I IMAGINE IT WAS VERY EMOTIONAL FOR YOU TO WRITE ABOUT YOUR MOTHER AND YOUR RELATIONSHIP…
Well, of course! But I’m really pleased with the way I wrote the song and I’m really pleased at what came out. I love that song. In some ways it’s my favourite song on the album. The sentiment and everything in that song is perfect. Spot on…

PEOPLE ARE EITHER NATURALLY PRONE TO EXCAVATE AND EXPOSE THAT STUFF, OR RELUCTANT TO… I WONDERED WHICH WAY YOU ARE…
It was not difficult at all to put pen to paper and write about my Mother because she was such a remarkable person. She brought up four kids almost single-handedly. My Dad was never really around, he was always working, except at the weekend, and he was pretty useless with the kids anyway. So, really, she did the whole thing by herself, and yet she still managed to find the time to become an obsessional open air swimmer. She ended up swimming in the open air more than once every day, throughout the year, from the age of about twenty until she was ninety-six. Because of her zest for it I really wanted to put something about swimming in the song as a tribute to her character. She had incredible stamina and determination and strength. She had a lot of self-respect, and she had a lot of dignity, and she didn’t suffer fools at all.

YOUR OWN PUBLIC PERSONA HAS SORT OF MELLOWED OVER THE YEARS, BUT HOW FAR AWAY FROM THE PRIVATE PERSONA IS IT? IS THERE QUITE A DISTANCE?
Oh sure, yeah yeah yeah. I completely disappear from what I do, when I’m not working. I disappear into the film world, and writing, and travelling. I’ve got a lot of other things in my life, so I have no conflict about the private and the public. But then I’m not Hugh Grant. I don’t get recognised everywhere I go. It’s not that difficult to have a normal life.

YOU MENTIONED FILMS… OBVIOUSLY YOU’RE A HUGE FAN, AS ANYONE WHO FOLLOWS YOUR MRDEMILLE WEBSITE AND PODCAST CAN ATTEST…
Yeah… Next month we’ve got a podcast which is an interview with Brian Eno. That’s fascinating. Yeah, I love films.

… SO A FIGURE WHO IS FAIRLY WIDELY KNOWN AMONGST FILM LOVERS IS ANOTHER OF THE SUBJECTS ON THE MONSTER ALBUM… RAY HARRYHAUSEN… PROBABLY HIS MOST FAMOUS ACHIEVEMENT WOULD BE THE SKELETON ARMY SCENE IN THE EARLY ’60s FILM JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS…
… A scene which took six months to make. Four minutes of film took six months to make. Incredible…

I WONDERED WHAT YOU THOUGHT ABOUT THE IDEA THAT TECHNOLOGY HAS ADVANCED SO MUCH SINCE THEN THAT THE FACILITY CAN UNDERMINE CREATIVITY…
Oh, totally. Totally. I believe that limitations are a spur to creativity. The less limitations you have the less creativity can come through. You’ve gotta have your confines. Confinement leads to creativity. And so I agree with you. The realms of technology are so advanced that that can have a very bad effect on the creative juices. Totally.

GROWING UP IN THE 1970s I ALWAYS FELT THAT THOUGH STAR WARS WAS AN INCREDIBLE SPECTACLE THERE WAS CLEARLY SOME SORT OF A DECENT BUDGET THERE SO THINGS WERE EASIER… AND SO IN A WAY THE TV SERIES DOCTOR WHO WAS ACTUALLY MORE NOBLE AND MORE OF AN ACHIEVEMENT BECAUSE THEY WORKED WITH VIRTUALLY NOTHING TO TRY AND GET RESULTS… OFTEN THE RESULTS WEREN’T TOO AMAZING BUT THE SPECIAL EFFECTS TEAM REALLY PUSHED THE OUTER EDGES OF THEIR CREATIVITY.. 
Oh, absolutely. Yeah… I agree with you about that. I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but the current trend in action movies is a rejection of CGI – to not use computer generated graphics at all. To go back to ‘real’ special effects. Computers have their uses, CGI has its uses, but it’s been over-used and we’re getting to a stage now where we’ve realised that it’s not always good. There’s been some research and they’ve discovered that audiences are becoming pretty blasé about computer generated special effects. They don’t feel exhilarated anymore, or they don’t feel connected even, because they know that it’s computerised. So the filmmakers are rejecting CGI and going back to… real trucks flying through the air, or whatever… and finding clever ways of doing it. That’s great. It’s an interesting turn of events.

IN WRITING THE SONGS FOR THIS ALBUM THERE WILL HAVE BEEN INFORMATION YOU ALREADY KNEW ABOUT EACH PERSON, BUT I IMAGINE YOU WILL HAVE UNDERTAKEN THOROUGH RESEARCH AS WELL… 
Yeah, definitely…

… SO WAS THERE ANYTHING YOU UNCOVERED WHICH MIGHT HAVE MADE YOU THINK TWICE ABOUT CERTAIN PEOPLE? 
No, nothing, none of them. There was justification for writing about all of them. The most fascinating one for me is the one that isn’t about a person, but it’s about a chord (ATTACK OF THE MAJOR SEVENS). That’s fascinating, to me – the role of that chord, what it does in music, and its emotional force… and how it’s been overlooked. It isn’t used that much, really, in rock music… I mean, Jimmy Webb loves it. He was a champion of it… So, yeah, that was fascinating, writing that song. When I was writing the lyrics for that song I really felt like I was going into another dimension.

DO YOU CONSIDER YOURSELF A BIT OF A SCIENTIST? A MECHANIC? YOU LIKE TO LOOK UNDERNEATH THE BONNET?
Oh, yeah, yeah… Absolutely. Yeah. I’m totally curious.

EVEL KNIEVEL WAS AN INTERESTING CHARACTER… HUGELY ICONIC DURING THE 1970s… AND IN THE LAST YEAR OR SO HIS PROFILE HAS BEEN RAISED AGAIN. HE HAS REALLY ACTIVE SOCIAL MEDIA, AND THERE HAVE BEEN ALL SORTS OF BITS OF FOOTAGE AND PHOTOGRAPHS…
When it’s going on around you, you sort of take it for granted. But when they’re gone the enormity of what these people did is magnified, isn’t it? It’s like Picasso. When he was alive everyone sort of took him for granted, ‘cos he’d always been there. But then after he’d died, the enormity of his contribution to modern art, to society, kind of became clear. I think someone wrote a song called this, ha ha, but… everybody loves you when you’re dead.

… IT’S INTERESTING, IN EVEL KNIEVEL’S CASE, THAT THE AMOUNT OF STUFF ON SOCIAL MEDIA – THE ACCESS TO THOSE PHOTOS AND FOOTAGE – HAS ‘REWRITTEN’ THINGS A BIT SOMEHOW. HE’S NO LONGER AN ANACHRONISM… IT’S MADE HIM SEEM ALMOST CONTEMPORARY, IN A WAY… DOES THAT MAKE SENSE?
Yeah! It does! I mean, this is the beauty of technology, of the internet – anything old is now also contemporary. But that’s confusing. It can cause confusion. People start to think that things that are actually gone are still around. They’re not. When you use technology to recreate things from the past, really you’re creating a lie. We’ve got to make sense of it. We’ve got to keep our wits about us.

HAS THE INTERNET AFFECTED YOU AT A PERSONAL LEVEL?
Yeah, of course. Like it has just about everybody. Unless you keep your head buried in the sand it’s going to affect you. You have to be conscious of it… John Cooper Clarke doesn’t have a computer and he doesn’t use a mobile phone.

I HAD A WONDERFUL EXPERIENCE INTERVIEWING HIM, AND ONE OF THE THINGS WE DISCUSSED WAS EXACTLY THIS… HE DID SAY HIS DAUGHTER HAS A COMPUTER, BUT HE STAYS AWAY FROM IT, ‘COS IF HE WENT NEAR IT THAT WOULD BE IT. HE’D GO ON THE INTERNET AND WE’D NEVER HEAR FROM HIM AGAIN…
That’s right, yeah. His daughter’s got the internet.

HOW HAS IT AFFECTED YOU AT A PROFESSIONAL LEVEL?
What sort of answer do you expect me to give you? It’s changed everything. It’s changed everything. It’s an obvious answer… Nobody buys records anymore. They download and they stream. So the whole record industry, the whole music business, has been completely turned on its head by it. And the same thing is happening with books and films, now, too. So at a professional level everybody who is in any way creative has been affected by the internet. And there isn’t a way out. We’ve just got to make the best of it that we can.

ON YOUR FORTHCOMING TOUR GIGS WILL BE COMPRISED OF TWO SETS… THERE’LL BE A SOLO SET, FEATURING SONGS FROM MONSTER AND PREVIOUS SOLO RECORDS, FOLLOWED BY A SET OF OLDER SONGS – THE STRANGLERS SONGS…
I never used to split the two catalogues before, but my promoter – a guy I’ve worked with for a long time – said to me that it was about time I separated them up. He said “your solo work stands well on its own two feet. The songs don’t need to be hidden amongst The Stranglers trees, y’know… They can be planted in their own field”… We tried it last year, and it went down very very well, I must say. So we’re gonna repeat that – but we’re not doing quite the same thing. It’s about eighty percent different than last year. We’re now a year down the line and people are more familiar with the latest record, so we’re gonna do more tracks from MONSTER than we did last time, and also I’ve got an old solo record called BEYOND ELYSIAN FIELDS which has just been remastered for vinyl so we’re going to do some things from that. I’ve pulled out a few of those that I want to do, and they sound great.

SEPARATING THE MATERIAL OUT INTO TWO SETS PROBABLY ALSO MAKES THE STRANGLERS SONGS A REAL CELEBRATION…
Well, yeah. The other benefit of doing it that way is that it also puts a real spotlight on The Stranglers material and how good it was… We’ve got over twenty The Stranglers tracks we can do, now, and we know them all inside out. To make it more interesting for us on stage at these shows we’re going to call the tracks on the night. So there’ll be no set list worked out beforehand. We won’t know what the set’s gonna be until we go on stage each night. And when I say we call the tracks, I’m not going to decide all of them. I’m not going to decide everything we’ll play. I’m going to decide the first one we play, and then each of the other band members of the band will say a track, then it’ll be back to me again to choose one, and so on… So I’ve got no idea in advance what the set will be.

THAT’LL KEEP IT ALL FRESH.
Absolutely. I really didn’t want to be standing up there every night reading what’s coming next and it end up as a situation where I’m going through the motions every night. There is a danger that it could end up like that, y’know? You must remember that, for me, I’m so familiar with those old songs. That’s part of the reason I left The Stranglers – I didn’t want to be out there night after night just going over it ‘by numbers’, as it were. I lost enthusiasm – not for the songs though – and I felt a bit stifled. So I really don’t mind doing the old songs these days – but let’s make sure we’ve made it a bit more interesting…

… BUT IS THERE ANYTHING IN THERE THAT’S AN ABSOLUTE MUST, FOR YOU?
No there isn’t. The audience might get GOLDEN BROWN one night, but the next night they might not. They might get PEACHES one night, but the next they might not. The funny thing is, the catalogue is so rich that there isn’t anything I think I have to play. We did some shows in Europe, and one evening we did this ’round robin’ thing, calling the tracks as they come, and we didn’t end up playing GOLDEN BROWN or PEACHES or STRANGE LITTLE GIRL… The whole set was real up-tempo all the way. People afterwards said “Well you didn’t play GOLDEN BROWN but it was fucking great”… So you just don’t know. Maybe another night it will be a bit more low key, and we’ll play all the slower ones. Who knows? It all depends on what happens, so it’ll be a whimsical set of The Stranglers material, yeah…

… AND, THINKING ABOUT YOUR SOLO SET AND THE FACT WE’VE MENTIONED YOUR LOVE OF FILMS… WILL THERE EVER BE ROOM FOR THE SONG FROM WHEN THE WIND BLOWS..?
My God… WHEN THE WIND BLOWS! Well that was the name of the film… It was an animated film from the Raymond Briggs book… and the song I did for that was called FACTS AND FIGURES.

… YEAH. FACTS AND FIGURES HAD JOOLS HOLLAND ON IT…
Yeah, that had ‘whatsisface’ on it, from Squeeze… Jools Holland… He played piano on that track… I called him in, and I remember Jools playing that in the studio. He played on a few for me, actually. I remember he also played on DREAMING AGAIN. He played a great organ solo on that. He’s a great organ player. Anyway, he came in to do piano on the FACTS AND FIGURES session and we played him the track. He sat down at the piano and said “okay, who do you want me to sound like?”, ha ha… And I looked at the engineer, I think it was Alan Winstanley, and I looked back at Jools and said “Well, I want you to sound like Jools Holland” and he said “Oh! Okay”… I told him it was a weird thing to ask and he told me that whenever he used to do sessions people would just want him to play like someone else – ‘cos he can play like anyone else, y’see. So people would tell him “play like Jerry Lee Lewis” or something, y’know? He wasn’t used to someone saying “Just play like you”… So there’s an anecdote for you… FACTS AND FIGURES ended up with this really quirky solo in it, which I love… I have to say, though, that the band doesn’t have keyboards, so there’d be no Jools on it. FACTS AND FIGURES is one track that we’ve never played, actually. It’s been overlooked, ha ha…

… THERE’S YOUR ANGLE FOR NEXT YEAR’S TOUR, THEN!
Ha ha ha… Yeah, maybe. Maybe…

 

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