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Talking "I Often Dream of Trains" with Robyn Hitchcock

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After splitting from his influential band the Soft Boys, English psychedelic rocker and surrealist folk troubadour Robyn Hitchcock launched his solo career with a fine album called "Black Snake Diamond Röle" (1981). But then something went wrong.

Hitchcock found himself sucked into a disastrous and misguided bid for pop stardom with "Groovy Decay" (1982) as producer Steve Hillage (a veteran of progressive rockers Gong) buried his songs under obnoxious horns, synthesizers and disco grooves. "Hillage had justly got into his sort of 1980's Kings Road suits and was trying to be anything but psychedelic," Hitchcock told me years ago. "He was into club mixes and all that sort of stuff, and I was really lost and getting loster."

That spectacular failure prompted the singer and songwriter to withdraw from music and reassess. He kept himself afloat by writing lyrics for Captain Sensible of the Damned, but his own songs eventually began to accumulate again, and he finally returned to the studio after a three-year break to craft what many fans consider his best album. "I Often Dream of Trains" (1984) is a quiet, introspective and "wonderfully autumnal" effort driven by acoustic guitar, piano and vocals--"It's like wanting to see what you're like when you take everything else away"--and it includes moving and intensely personal songs such as "This Could Be the Day," "Sounds Great When You're Dead" and the title track.

Now, nearly two and a half decades later, Hitchcock is performing this classic live on a tour that includes two shows at the Old Town School of Folk Music. We recently talked about the recording and his decision to revisit it from his home in England.

Q. For many of your fans, "I Often Dream of Trains" is a special and personal record, not unlike "Tonight's the Night" by Neil Young or "Velvet Underground III." It's a quiet keeper.

A. Yes, but I think you never know when you've made one of those. I'm very pleased that it now seems to have become that. To me, the things like "Time (The Revelator)" by Gillian Welch and the second Band album and "Avalon" by Roxy Music are my great favorites along those lines, though the genres are a bit different. They are still essentially very private records. While I think I've got better songs on other records, that's probably the most atmospheric record I've made. In other words, it's the closest thing to a concept album, though I don't know if the concept of the concept albums ever actually fulfill their concept!

Q. Where did you get the idea to revisit it?

A. Oh, well, it was coming out again [as a CD reissue from Yep Roc]. It's probably the third or fourth time it has been released, and each time it has a different artificial history attached to it and a new collection of outtakes. I'm going to be doing a director's cut [in concert], which means it's not exactly the same as the recorded version, but it's actually the original song selection. I'm doing two shows in one night in Chicago, so I'll probably vary a couple of songs.

In any event, it was actually my wife Michele who said, "Why don't you do one of your own records instead of doing those Pink Floyd tributes?" She helps put those on and we do them in a pub in Clerkenwell; we've also done "The White Album" and "Sgt. Pepper's" and "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn"--records that were in my collection as a lad. We do them unadvertised. But you know, in terms of doing things in public, she said, "Why don't you do your own thing for a change?"

Q. You're going to have some help from bandmates Terry Edwards and Tim Keegan in concert, but when you made the album, you pretty much did everything on your own, right?

A. It was mostly me, and it was the first time I had access to a multi-track [recorder] on my own. The idea of having your own four-track machine... You could really get going very fast, and it was the first time I was able to experiment with recording with multi-track without having to go through other people.

I had very, very basic kind of effects--I pretty much built it as I wanted it to be, which is why when you listen to the demos on the outtakes on the latest version, they are ones I recorded myself, and the recording quality isn't noticeably any different from the 24-track versions on the main album.

Q. I remember seeing you perform at Maxwell's in Hoboken, N.J., not long after this album came out, and you were playing just piano and acoustic guitar. I've always enjoyed you in that mode, especially when you sit at the piano, which you don't do that often.

A. Good of you to say that. I don't play the piano much, and the less you do something, the worse you get at it, unless you do it. I compose on the piano, but I'm not that comfortable as a performer on it. I have to practice on it. In the '80s, I lived in a house with a piano, and then I got a piano back in here about 10 years ago, so I play it more regularly now.

Q. How close were you really to abandoning music before this album? It's hard to accept that now, when you've released some 33 discs since "I Often Dream of Trains"!

A. Yes, well, this is 22 years ago. Me and the times I was in were particularly at odds with each other then. I think what I wanted to do in music... sometimes the wind is behind you, and sometimes it's against you. I think when we got going with the Soft Boys in the late '70s, there was a bit of wind behind us because people were ready for a change, but what they wanted to change into wasn't what me and my colleagues wanted to change into. I think the Soft Boys did what they could, and then the ship floundered and we bailed out.

On my own, I found myself in a musical landscape that really didn't make any more sense. There were nods to psychedelia in the form of the Psychedelic Furs and Echo and the Bunnymen and Julian Cope, but not in the same way. It was a much more wide-screen, punky sort of way. Ours was old-fashioned and intricate, standing around with three-part harmonies. We were an alt-country band, really, and back then we really didn't fit. I think very often if you don't fit, you're invisible. It didn't work, so I sort of shut down and wrote lyrics, did some gardening jobs...

Q. Really? You were on your knees with your hands in the dirt?

A. Yeah! I thought, "I am not going to do any more gigs!" I kind of wanted to see what it was like, and I wanted to challenge myself and say, "OK, do you really not want to do any gigs? Are you really going to give up the idea of yourself as a performer? You're the master of your own destiny; do you want to be this guy in the background that does stuff but you're not an act and you're not going to write your own songs?" I think while I was making a living doing other things, I had this four-track machine, and I realized after a year that I had stockpiled all of these songs, which then became "Trains" and "Fegmania!" (1985). So actually, it wasn't over.

I think I was coming up to 30, so I had the menopausal thing going: "Look at what the kids in the Kings Road are wearing." I passed it. In the youth culture you keep running across those things that are warning signs that you might be past it, and then when you finally are, you don't care, because the world is filled with fifty-something rockers grinning at their awards, and we're just all thrilled to exist. I couldn't care less that I don't look good anymore on stage because I'm 55. I don't have to; all I have to do is be there!

Q. Now, you see a band like Black Sabbath, and they all look like hell--they look like they died 20 years ago. But they get up there and crank it out and you go, "Alright!"

A. They're called Black Sabbath; where would they be except hell? It's fine. If you've lasted that long then you've earned it, but back then, I was still getting to my first age hurdle at 30, and I thought "Man, it hasn't worked out." I think I just wanted to give into my doubts and say, "OK, doubts, if you win, then what's it like? Let's find something else to do." Inevitably I found out that I didn't actually want to shut down for good--I did have some sap left in me, and quite a lot of it, as it turns out. I was ready to go off and hit Chicago and have a wonderful time like I had in the mid to late '80s--my time as an alternative demigod, my latest time as a psychedelic troubadour or whatever I've become or have been.

Q. An elder statesman, I suppose.

A. An elder statesman or whatever! I am on the conveyer belt, but maybe for the simple reason that I haven't had an enormous amount of success. I've had a lot of publicity and a lot of people interested in what I do, and I'm really grateful for that, but my flame has never been extinguished by an explosion of sales, so I'm still gnawing the bone. The new record we've done is pretty fantastic. It's called "Goodnight Oslo" and I think it's up there with "Fegmania!" or "Element of Light" (1986).

Q. This is with the Venus 3: Peter Buck, Soctt McCaughey and Bill Rieflin of R.E.M.?

A. This is the Venus 3 and a few guests. It's at the pop end of the spectrum. It's not overproduced or over-recorded; you're allowed to make natural-sounding records now. We're not at the mercy of the effects pedals. Maybe because rock is now truly dead, you can do what you like with it. You can dance on the grave or dance in the grave; I'm not sure exactly where I'm dancing.

Q. It's interesting to hear you say that, because there is this sort of intentional old fogey-ness to "I Often Dream of Trains." It sounds like the work of a much older and more nostalgic man, but you were only 30!

A. I think that's a good point. I sort of went from an adolescence and sprung towards something in my mind. I already went from that sense of doom that you have as a teenager sometimes to that kind of feeling that I should probably have now in my 50s. I kind of got it out of the way early.

I hope my stuff is still soulful, but I don't think it has that same sense. It's like the difference between Dylan singing "Tombstone Blues" and Dylan singing "Floater" or something. They're utterly different. You can prefer one or the other, so I wouldn't necessarily say that what I do now is better than "Trains," it's just fed on different nutrients. Sometimes you say, "Well, Lou Reed, whatever his nutrients were on the third Velvet Underground album, it's a shame he didn't have it anymore when he did 'Sally Can't Dance' or 'Mistrial' or something." In a way, I suppose, it's what you're processing.

Q. Let's talk about some of the specific songs on "I Often Dream of Trains." I've always really loved "This Could Be the Day." Despite the dark undercurrent, it's really very romantic.

A. Well, it's romantic underneath, really. It's just you hope you're going to get out.

Q. You had some surgery at that point, right?

A. No, I didn't have surgery for a while. I'm not sure it was me who was having surgery [in the song]; there seemed to be a few people who were going under the knife with that surgery song, but "This Could De the Day," I think I wrote... I made that up. There were three or four songs I made up in a row and that was one of them. That's a fun one to do live. It's rock music without drums, really.

Q. So with another song like "Sounds Great When You're Dead," you weren't necessarily in a bad place, it was more like, "What comes next for me?"

A. I have to remember now! I think I was in quite a brooding state. I was definitely at the disengaged end of my spectrum; I was quite a long way off from everybody. I felt that a lot of the best things were behind me and I didn't know if I was going to get out of where I was. Not necessarily physically, just as a state of being: The world was not my oyster. I didn't have the passport to International Smoking; I don't think I even had an American Express card in those days. I was letting my horizons narrow. I just sort of took a sort of fast track into middle age on the phantom line. Maybe I sort of lived out a high speed personality that was a sub-personality of mine that was essentially aimless, as if I turned into an uncle of mine... a phantom uncle, who didn't do anything, didn't have relationships, or had had them years ago and was looking back on them. I turned up those elements in my life, if you like.

If you ask me why, that's a whole other story. Maybe it was to investigate that emotional frequency and then see what it did in terms of songs.

Q. I'm sure if we took all of the dates off of the entries in your discography, shuffled them up and asked someone to put them in order, people would put "I Often Dream of Trains" very near the end, when in fact, it was album number three.

A. It's a slow waltz: Autumn, like the title suggests. It's a morose pondering thing. But I'm past it.

FACTS

Robyn Hitchcock performs "I Often Dream of Trains"

Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln

Nov. 15, two shows: 7 and 10 p.m.

(773) 728-6000, www.oldtownschool.org

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This page contains a single entry by Jim DeRogatis published on October 30, 2008 10:01 AM.

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