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Though Hugh Cornwell is vastly underrated as a musician, his many talents should become more widely appreciated over time. Cornwell ranks among the best and most prolific songwriters of his generation. He can also bark with authority just as convincingly as he can melt your defenses with his smooth as silk croon.
Cornwell has had two distinct parts in his long and storied career. In the first, he was the main singer and guitarist of the Stranglers from the group’s 1974 inception to 1990 when he abruptly left to pursue a solo career. The second part of his career shows Cornwell, 62, to be very productive, touring the world and making records.
(The Stranglers continue to tour and make records too in their 39th year. See my recent interview with bassist J.J. Burnel.)
Cornwell’s new album Totem & Taboo will be released by Red River Entertainment in the U.S. on Tuesday, June 25th. I recently spoke with Hugh (another all-time favorite) by phone after Big Takeover publisher Jack Rabid was kind enough to make the introduction. Below is an edited version of our discussion.
BT: Tell me about the title and what it was like to work Steve Albini.
HUGH: Funnily enough the title had been in my head for a long time. It was one of those books on my parents’ bookshelf and it sat there for years. And because of the title it was very mysterious to me. About 10 years ago I read it and thought it was a great little book by Sigmund Freud. I started writing songs for this record. Everything was finished except the title track. I played the others to my manager and he asked where’s the title track? I said there isn’t one. And he said you’ve gotta have one. So I came up with “Totem & Taboo.” And I’m glad it was the last one because I had a chance to reflect about the meaning of the whole thing. It deals with things I hold in respect and things that I feel are subjects that should be thought about and discussed because I think the danger of modern thought is that some things are thought to be off limits and that’s a very dangerous state of affairs.
BT: It seems that on many of your songs you press the envelope in terms of subject matter with lyrical ambiguity. Things can be construed in different ways. If you dig a little deeper, I think you can get more of what you’re trying to say but someone giving it a superficial listen may not.
HUGH: Exactly. Titles for me are very important. I nearly always start writing a song with a title. “Love Me Slender” is obviously a new take on “Love Me Tender.” I have done that before on “Nice ‘n’ Sleazy.”
BT: And “Bad Vibrations.”
HUGH: Yeah. So I’m always trying to subvert the course of things that have gone before to a new take on them. That’s part of my signature I think.
BT: In terms of the new album, it’s faster, more direct and stripped down than its predecessor, Hooverdam.
BT: What’s the philosophy behind this approach?
HUGH: When we did Hooverdam it was very interesting working with such a confined system — eight-tracks. So I learned a lot from that. I realized that to make a big record you don’t need a lot of things. Less is more. So I took that forward this time even further. A lot of the guitar parts are just single notes. They’re not even chords. Some of the guitar parts alternate between some chord patterns and then just single notes or octave notes. It’s amazing how much space you can fill up with something so simple. I’m really pleased with it and I’m going to continue to do it because it works. Steve Albini was a perfect choice to work with with this idea in mind because he is very good at recording simple things and getting great sounds on simple things. He found it very easy working with us because we didn’t want anything complicated.
BT: You can really hear everything. It’s all there. Nothing is buried too low in the mix. All the instruments are fairly prominent.
HUGH: There are very few overdubs. On “A Street Called Carroll” when the solo is going the riff guitar is double-tracked but when I play live I don’t play the other one and it still seems to work. And on “God Is a Woman” when I play the solo the chords are going on in the background. But live we don’t bother with that cause it’s just the three of us and it’s still fine.
BT: One thing that jumped out at me on the record, aside from its intensity and energy, is your guitar playing took a leap in terms of being ambitious and experimental. “The Face” has a great solo that runs about a minute. It’s inventive and unpredictable. It doesn’t play the melody note for note. There are pauses and different directions are pursued. Yet it’s not self-indulgent at all.
HUGH: It’s a bit of a jam actually. When I was doing the demos I just did a jam and it worked very well so I learned it. A bit like Captain Beefheart.
BT: On “I Want One of Those” there’s another really nice solo and on “Bad Vibrations” an exciting solo at the end.
HUGH: There are some good backdrops to play solos on this album.
BT: “A Street Called Carroll,” which you mentioned before, has great energy. I read it was about Silver Lake, California.
HUGH: Carroll Street is in L.A. but the way it was described to me when I was shown it was “this is a street called Carroll,” which is a really odd way to say it. I thought that was a great title. And it turned out to be a very interesting and unusual place for L.A. It defies our expectations. As a British person you have a certain preconceived notion about what L.A. will be like based on films you see. But then you see Carroll Street and it’s completely unusual. It’s wooden houses on a hill, which you would expect to find in San Francisco. It’s very odd. So I like things that defy expectations. That’s totemic for me.
BT: Speaking of hills in L.A., Arthur Lee of Love wrote a wonderful song called “The Red Telephone” from Forever Changes with lyrics reflecting Arthur’s perspective on a hillside. He’s also one of my all-time favorite musicians.
HUGH: Oh, me too, me too. With “Gods, Guns and Gays” I was just trying to write my impression of an Arthur Lee song. It’s a bit of punk a bit of psychedelia and a bit of a pop all at once.
BT: Which he does oh so well.
BT: You released a song in 2001 called “The Prison’s Going Down,” which was about Arthur Lee. He was released in December 2001 so you must have written this not too long before he was freed.
HUGH: That’s right. It was on Hi-Fi. And then I had the pleasure to see him play. He came to tour England with his band (Baby Lemonade) who were great. All young kids. No keyboards. They did it all with guitars. It was a fabulous gig. And I knew the promoter who was a friend of mine. And he said do you want to come up and see Arthur? I said I want to give him a copy of my album because it has a song on it about him being in prison. He said, I don’t know if that would be a good idea. Whenever you mention prison he just goes crazy. So I got scared and didn’t go. He never knew that I had this song for him.
BT: Wow. Robyn Hitchcock in 1993 on his album Respect did a song titled “the Wreck of the Arthur Lee.”
HUGH: That’s a great title.
BT: And it’s wonderful song. Have you heard it?
BT: It’s amazing. It has these wonderful symphonic elements and is really rich sounding. The title sounds negative but at that time Arthur kind of lost his way. Musically he wasn’t doing much. He was widely considered a sixties casualty (before rising like a phoenix post-prison from 2002-2004 then tragically passing away in 2006). Apparently someone brought the song to his attention and he got very defensive.
HUGH: I bet he did.
BT: But it was actually paying homage to him.
HUGH: He wouldn’t see that.
BT: He had some real blind spots and issues but was a total musical genius.
HUGH: I agree totally.
BT: And you also covered “Message to Pretty” on You’re Covered. Anyway, back to Totem & Taboo. The melody in “God Is a Woman” really stays with me.
HUGH: I’m very pleased with that one. I think it’s my favorite song on the album. It just works in so many ways.
BT: The intro bears a resemblance to “Badge” by Cream but it takes it to new places. Can you discuss the lyrical theme?
HUGH: Before Christianity, God was considered to be a woman. Most of the reason for this was because early people did not make a connection between making love and childbirth because of the time that passes in between. So suddenly out of nowhere a woman would give birth to a baby. So she was a god. Only gods can do that. It’s fascinating isn’t it?
BT: It is and totally makes sense in hindsight!
HUGH: And then the invading northern tribes were very aggressive and brought down a different idea, which was that man was in charge. They slowly removed this idea of female divinity. And if you look at the world and the way that women behave, they control everything anyway. For example, take the idea of a man going to a bar to pick up a woman. Well in fact it’s not true at all. She’s seen him and she has put herself in this position so that she will meet him. And men take the credit. I’m not complaining about it but think it’s very naïve of men to think they’re in charge. Superficially, it looks like they are. So that’s a taboo subject, God being a woman. Oh no, you can’t say that. But it used to be the accepted idea.
BT: Tell me about your next trip to the U.S.
HUGH: In October we’re coming over to the west coast. Then I return here for a run of acoustic dates and come back to the east coast in December including New York and Washington D.C. There are a lot of shows being organized and to be announced. The beauty of this record is when you play it live, it all works. When people hear it live they love it more than the recording.
BT: I can see how it translates so well. You don’t have all these overdubs or special effects. It’s just very straightforward. Going back a bit in time, you did a video in 1988 for “Another Kind of Love” from the album Wolf that was designed and directed by Jan Svankmajer.
HUGH: He’s a Czech filmmaker based in Prague.
BT: How did you develop an interest in his work and at what point did you decide you wanted to work with him?
HUGH: I’d seen a lot of his films. He’s a master of animation and stop-frame animation. That’s what happens with me. I see something and get enthusiastic and suddenly I want to work with that person. I tried to get a hold of him but it was very difficult to find a contact for him. I had given up hope. Then my contact suddenly came through with a person to speak to in Germany who represented him. So I managed to get a hold of someone and they organized it. It was a great pleasure and honor to work with him. And he never made another made another video for a rock song again.
HUGH: It was the only one he ever made. And he had plenty of people ringing him up. Sting contacted him after he saw mine. He said no, I just did it the one time. That’s it. It was a long process. It took six months to make. I had to go to Prague four or five times for two or three days to do the sequences and they had to make plaster casts of my head, face, teeth, all sorts of things. A lot of work went into it but it was a bit of an artistic achievement. I was very lucky. All the time he said no, no. I don’t want to do it. And then he was invited to accept a prize at a Madrid film festival. He was in his hotel, switched on the television and saw MTV. And of course, that reminded him of me. So he thought I’ll have a look and see what they make. And he thought the standard was so bad of what he saw on MTV that he said I’ve got to make one just to show what you can do.
BT: That’s an amazing story.
HUGH: And that’s why he did it. He told me this quite honestly and openly. I used to go and have dinner with him at his house every night. He insisted, so I used to go with the agent who translated because Jan did not speak English. So we had these conversations through translation. And this has influenced me. I am making a series of films that go with Totem & Taboo. A film for each song. Sometimes I’m in them. Sometimes I’m not. They’re little stories. I’m making one for “the Face” now that has some scary animation in it.
BT: Great. When do you expect this to be released and in what form?
HUGH: Some of the films are finished. “God Is a Woman” is finished and we’re trying to get that released now. It’s got a lot of beautiful nude women in it. A bit like Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland. “Dead of Night” is finished. That’s me playing a guitar on a beach at night. “I Want One of Those” is finished. And “Totem & Taboo” you’ve seen.
HUGH: So that’s four. And we’re just finishing “the Face” now. We’re just getting some animation sequences done. I’m not in that or “God Is a Woman.” And then next week I’m going to Spain to shoot “a Street Called Carroll,” which I’m in. Then I’m planning “Love Me Slender” next.
BT: This is giving the album an afterlife. A part two in a way.
HUGH: When they’re all finished, maybe in a year’s time, we’re going to put them together so it will be a film of all the films together.
BT: Will they be in the same order as the album?
BT: And will it be released on DVD?
HUGH: Yeah. I hope so.
BT: That’s great. You mentioned Spain. I know you have a deep affection for Cadiz. You named a song, which is tremendous, after it. What can you tell me about the town?
HUGH: Cadiz, funnily enough, has a music connection with me I’ve discovered. It is where the Spanish composer Manuel de Falla was born and buried (in a crypt in the Cadiz Cathedral). He wrote some very famous pieces of music. He lived in Paris most of the time but when he died, they brought him back. The interesting thing is his celebrity came because he had an orchestra of maybe 30 instruments but he made it sound like 130 with the arrangements. And it’s very funny that this echoes what I have been doing with my music. He wrote a very famous piece called “the Three Cornered Hat,” which was a comment about the Spanish and French military regimes that were in place about 1900. In fact, I’ve got a CD here by de Falla. “Nights in the Gardens of Spain” is a beautiful piece of music that he wrote. He also wrote an homage to Claude Debussy. Isn’t that funny that I should find out that a guy doing a similar thing to me in classical music comes from Cadiz and he’s buried there.
BT: Right. Like a kindred spirit that you were unaware of. Speaking of artists you admire, “Henry Moore” is another terrific song from the album Beyond Elysian Fields. What does Henry Moore (the English sculptor) mean to you?
HUGH: A Henry Moore is when you make love to a woman and her daughter.
BT: I was unaware of that.
BT: Is that commonly known there?
HUGH: Yes. In the art world it’s a code word. The reason why they say that is because a lot of his sculptures are of man, woman and child. It’s very funny. So when you read the lyrics again you have to bear that in mind.
BT: Ok! And what’s the status of Arnold Drive, your second novel?
HUGH: It’s finished and ready to go. I’m very pleased with it and think it’s better than the first (Window on the World, published in 2011). It should be coming out at the end of the summer. And I’m doing another one now that I’m about a third of the way through.
BT: One last question. When you were in the Stranglers, you did a video for “Who Wants the World” in about 1980. There is something about it that I always found puzzling. About 1:30 into it, you guys are playing at night and a light streaks across the screen, almost like a shooting star. But all the other people and objects in the foreground remain in place so none of the reference points are moving. Do you know what this is?
HUGH: I don’t understand how that happened. I think it was a bit of no one could quite explain it.
BT: Is that right?
HUGH: Yeah. It’s very odd.
BT: It is very odd because visually it doesn’t seem to make any sense. It was also interesting because it came right on the heels of your whole Meninblack phase. Hmm… Perhaps it’s best this remains a mystery!
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