Mad Professor

Robyn Hitchcock looks back on his long, strange career.

Robyn Hitchcock alt-rock the Beatles
Robyn Hitchcock and his guitar soak up some rays.
Robyn Hitchcock and his guitar soak up some rays.

You can't blame British pop eccentric Robyn Hitchcock for feeling a bit out of time lately. Next week, Yep Roc will release a five-CD box set, I Wanna Go Backwards, which contains three of his early solo albums plus a whopping 57 bonus tracks.

With that project wrapped, Hitchcock is now hard at work prepping even more reissues of his back catalog — a wholly influential canon full of psychedelic garage rock and quirky power pop, all envisioned through his highly fantastical, creative lyrical eye.

Is it kind of weird spending time with your past?
Yeah, you do get a bit sick of yourself. On the other hand, it's good to get it out, and it's good to be able to sort of supervise it, I suppose.

Is this the Egyptians stuff that was really out of print? I know that the early, early stuff is out of print, because I look on eBay every so often, and some of the stuff goes for crazy money.
Basically everything that we have the rights to is coming out. But the stuff that was on A&M [in the late '80s and early '90s] is not in my control. A&M was swallowed by Polygram, which was swallowed by Seagrams, which was then swallowed by Universal, which I think is unswallowable. [The music has] wound up as just some kind of little facet on the multicolored coat of a huge corporate beast. It's a sequin on the jacket of a cosmic goat. And suffice to say, we're not able to access that particular sequin, so we can't get those records out. Even without the major label stuff, there's piles of this keeping me busy for quite a while.

Where is it stored? Is it just kind of archival stuff, like tapes that you're looking though?
It's stored in a giant warehouse in southeast London, where I have 27 boxes. But my 27 boxes are among three or four million other boxes, and you have to give them about two weeks notice to go find your boxes. And they put them down by some doors where there's some light where you can see them. It's a bit like the last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark. But unlike the Holy Grail, I know exactly where my tapes are. And also unlike the Holy Grail, they have to be baked in a sort of big pizza oven. So these tapes are cooked, and they then are playable, and the acetate doesn't rub off on the machine. So, as you can see, it's a slow process.

When you go back and listen to the stuff on I Wanna Go Backwards, what are your thoughts?
That I was faster when I was younger. You know that you're faster in terms of you're physically faster. You run around more, and you think quicker. But you realize that you actually played songs faster when you were younger.

I can see that. I saw the Police this summer, and it was definitely slower.
Maybe they decided that they wanted to play them at tempos that they are more comfortable with. I've long noticed that if I play old songs from my Soft Boys days, they're about half the speed they are on the record. It's not intentional. But even my solo acoustic stuff is way slower than on record. So if anyone comes to a gig, it's going to take hours.

You played a Sgt. Pepper's tribute gig with a symphony at a festival in Milan. How did that go?
That was fun. We had a bunch of singers in a huge car park. Milan is a bit like L.A. It's not a charming old Italian city. It seems to be just a series of huge industrial buildings linked by traffic jams. So there was this car park, sort of like a mile long, surrounded by monolithic buildings — one of which was filled with people playing guitars, and another was [selling] shoes. I got to sing "I Am the Walrus" with an orchestra, which was really one of the best things I've ever done.

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