On his new group, new album, and why a Tele® is his favourite electric …
Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3: Peter Buck,
Hitchcock, Scott McCaughey and (seated) Bill Rieflin.
Photo by Tom Oldham
One of our favorite songsmiths, Robyn Hitchcock, is on the air and on the road with a new ensemble and new album. Olé! Tarantula, the sparkly disc debut of Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus 3, was released in September 2006, promptly earning four stars from Rolling Stone magazine and once again satisfying the ceaseless cravings of Hitchcock fans far and wide.
The whole effort has the joyfully noisy air of a bunch of friends out playing rock ‘n’ roll, because that’s exactly what it is. Hitchcock assembled crack musical commando unit the Venus 3 with his Seattle-ite buddies, longtime guitar collaborator Peter Buck (REM, The Minus 5), Scott McCaughey (The Minus 5, REM, Young Fresh Fellows) and drummer Bill Rieflin (REM, KMFDM, Ministry).
For a group of friends just getting together to have fun, that’s some pretty major musical DNA. The phrase “impeccable pop credentials” comes to mind, and Olé! Tarantula delivers some of the ever-prolific Hitchcock’s best full-on group songs since his popular work in Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians and seminal Cambridge art-punk band the Soft Boys.
An inventive guitarist/songwriter informed by a tradition of inventive British guitarist/songwriters, Hitchcock often favors delivering his artful songcraft with a Telecaster guitar. When Fender News spotted sir Robyn wielding one at a recent RH&TV3 performance, we just had to ring him up and pester him about it, and we were honored to hear that it is in fact his favourite electric guitar.
We had a few more questions for him while we were at it, and Hitchcock very graciously took the time during the busy holiday week to tell us more, British spellings and everything …
FN: You’ve called the Telecaster your favourite electric guitar. What is it about them that grabs you?
RH: The Telecaster chose itself for me as my favourite electric guitar, because so many of my favourite guitar riffs were played on it. In no order, this would include:
Robbie Robertson playing with Bob Dylan & The Hawks on the Live 1966 concerts, particularly the solo on “Tom Thumb’s Blues”; Syd Barrett’s playing on the early Pink Floyd recordings and his two solo records, especially Wolfpack; Bill Harkleroad as Zoot Horn Rollo on Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica—check out “Moonlight on Vermont”; Martin Carthy on Please to See the King, Steeleye Span’s second album—“Cold Haily Windy Night” and “Lovely on the Water” are delicious, icy pieces.
George Harrison also played a Telecaster in the late Beatles days …
It turned out all these great explosions came from Telecasters. So I bought one in 1979 and have seldom played any other electric since. That chunky, slightly edible look—as if a bite has been taken out of the front of the guitar—is mirrored in the sound of the instrument. Ideal for rhythm/lead, à la Mick Green of the Pirates and Wilko Johnson.
"Great explosions": Hitchcock and friend onstage.
Photo by Carina Jirsch
FN: What do your memories of that first Telecaster evoke?
RH: See above. This was when I was in the Soft Boys. Back then I had very few pedals—maybe just a volume booster—and I had sound battles with (fellow Soft Boys guitarist) Kimberley Rew. He always won. I think I cheated once and unscrewed one of his valves. Maybe I dreamt that. Kim could drown you out with a tennis racket if he wanted to—what sustain!
FN: Would you change anything about a Telecaster?
RH: Nothing. Though I know you can customise them with heavy pickups, which can come in handy if you are experiencing guitar duels. I’d like one with lights that flashed according to what you played, though that could be tiring.
FN: What are some of your favourite songs or types of songs—your own or otherwise—to play on it? Does it lead you to play a certain way that a different model might not?
RH: For me, the fifth-fret A chord—anchored by the thumb, leaving the A, G and E strings open—is the pivotal sound. You can hold that position and travel up and down the neck without clumsy, irksome bar chords. “Jewels For Sophia” and “Oceanside” are two of my songs that feature that shape live. “I Often Dream of Trains” is picked on a Tele—acoustic playing on an electric guitar. The broad neck lends itself to picking (sounds like a goose!), but also you can really make a Tele honk (even more like a goose—but you can’t force-feed a Telecaster with sweet corn).
The guitar riff on the Soft Boys’ “Kingdom of Love” is one of my proudest moments—Kimberley and I played that in unison; me on the Tele, he possibly on a Stratocaster® by then. That’s in E. We never got around to 12-string Rickenbackers, despite what some people speculated.
If I play a different guitar, it seems to sound like a Telecaster anyway. It’s all in the attitude, like so much in rock music.
FN: You and Peter Buck go way back. What’s your guitar chemistry like with him?
RH: Fabulous. Where Kim and I have very distinct guitar sounds that merge occasionally in a unison riff, Peter and I sound interchangeable. He doesn’t sound much like me when he plays with REM, but once we’re together we become one twenty-fingered organism that spangles away above the rhythm section. He’s a very empathic player, and very seldom plays a bum note, even on a first take of something he’s never heard before. He’s a fountain of music, but never overplays—the instinct of a bee for a flower. A tidy bee.
Two of my other favourite guitar partners are Tim Keegan, who finds concise guitar parts quickly, and David Rawlings, who is more baroque but most silvery when he gets going.
Olé!: The new album.
Image courtesy Yep Roc Records
FN: You’ve always seemed to be such a prolific songwriter—do you deliberately sit down to write, or do your songs just sort of happen? Or both? Or none?
RH: I feel like an animal that needs to lay its eggs. When the egg is there, lay it; when it isn’t, don’t strain yourself. Songs are best not to fuss about—I just give them priority when I can feel them coming through me. If a song doesn’t come out intact, let it die and wait for the next one. When a song is coming through, I find it helpful to look at a fixed spot; a plant or toaster maybe, or something in the distance out of the window.
This isn’t an innate ability of mine—I spent so many years making myself write songs that now I can’t seem to turn it off. Sometimes you need to write mediocre songs just to let the good ones follow afterwards.
FN: How did you enjoy making Ole! Tarantula, and how are you enjoying live dates with the Venus 3?
RH: It was great fun, as we had very little time and no rehearsals; so there was nothing to recapture and no demos to live up to—which is always fatal, I find. Peter agrees with me there, I think. The arrangements those songs developed as I introduced them to the band are still with us, even having played all those songs 50 times or more live. Bill Rieflin’s drum part on “Adventure Rocket Ship” was amazingly foresighted; it’s worked for him ever since, but he made it up on first hearing.
So far the shows have all been fun—we never tour for very long, and the Venus 3 are in two other bands apart from mine (REM and The Minus 5), so we aren’t glued to each other. Well, maybe they are, but gracefully so. I’ve never enjoyed playing rock music so much in my life—and I’ve played with some great musicians!
For more on Robyn Hitchcock and Robyn Hitchcock & the Venus 3, visit www.robynhitchcock.com.