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INTERVIEW: HUGH CORNWELL – February 2024

| 28 February 2024 | Reply

INTERVIEW: HUGH CORNWELL – February 2024
By Shane Pinnegar

 

Hugh Cornwell is best known for the seventeen years and ten studio albums he made with UK band The Stranglers, but it’s his work as a solo artist both during that time and since leaving the band in 1990 which is far more interesting to him.

With his most recent album – 2022’s Moments Of Madness – being lauded as “a modern day masterpiece” and “the most significant album of Hugh’s illustrious career”, he’s both bemused by the attention and excited to make more music.

Before that, though, he has an Australian tour to complete in August – his first since 2018.

Thursday 1st August The Great Club, SYDNEY (Marrickville)
Friday 2nd August Blue Mountains Theatre, BLUE MOUNTAINS (Springwood)
Saturday 3rd August The Croxton, MELBOURNE (Thornbury)
Sunday 4th August Memo Music Hall, ST. KILDA
Thursday 8th August The Triffid, BRISBANE
Friday 9th August The Gov, ADELAIDE
Saturday August 10th Rosemount, PERTH

After introducing myself, Cornwell – Zooming from Mexico – doesn’t hesitate, launching into a hilarious anecdote about visiting Perth zoo on a Stranglers tour many years ago and finding that, “everywhere we looked all the animals were copulating!”

As far as ice breakers go, this is very good one. I ask if he agrees with the praise Moments Of Madness has received?

“Well, I mean, I’m just gobsmacked, you know – I just can’t believe that they’re saying this. Are you sure you got the right album? Or have you picked it up by mistake? Are you sure you’re talking about this? You know, this is by ME. You know you you’re not allowed to say things like that about my records!”

After almost fifty years of making music, you must be chuffed with the reviews?

“Yeah, well, I must be going in the right direction – let’s put it like that. I mean, every record I make, it would be nice to know that I’m progressing rather than regressing!

“And it seems like the next one, which I’m planning at the moment, may be another step in the right direction. But I must say that when I used to make records a long, long, long time ago with The Stranglers, it was a very boring process, because we all had defined roles in the band, and therefore in the studio, you know? So we’d rehearse, and then there was always limited time – you had a studio booked for three weeks with this producer and then he’s got to go off and produce The Eagles or somebody else, so therefore there’s only that limited amount of time you could spend in the studio. So, you had to be prepared, which meant that there was no time for improvisation or mistakes or anything like that, so it was a bit like painting by numbers. We’d go in, and everything was done dang, dang, dang – Do the drums. Then you do the bass, then you do the guitar… it was the most boring process.

“It really was tedious and now I love recording, because I go in with basically unfinished songs. You know, I go and with just an idea and then I’ll shape it and model it and polish it all in the studio with my engineer. It doesn’t necessarily take that much longer, surprisingly enough. I’ve got used to doing things like this and it’s great. You come out at the end of the day and you think ‘my God, I had no idea when we started today that that little thing that I had was going to turn into this,’ you know?”

Surprisingly, whilst the album and its predecessor Monster sound like band efforts, Cornwell plays guitar and bass himself, and used a very real sounding drum machine.

“Well, it’s quite easy with my band because there’s only bass, drums and guitar and I’m the lead vocalist and the lead guitarist. So, it’s only the drums and bass to be added, and backing vocals. I don’t play drums, [and] there are no keyboards hardly ever on my records these days. I started off as a bass player, so on Moments of Madness it was possible for me to play bass, which I really enjoyed doing – and I’ve got the callouses to prove it, you know, which lasted about six months – I loved playing the bass on it.

Hugh Live Approved Courtesy Micah 2

“And the drums, well, my recording engineer, Phil Andrews, who I’ve been working with for a very long time now, he’s very good at programming drums, so you know, between us, we can shape what the drums could be. So I go well, how about if it’s a bit like this? And I tap something out to him, and then he does something. I go no or yeah, a bit like that, and then can you make it sound a bit grittier, you know? And he takes direction like this, and it ends up that people don’t know the difference – I mean, with Monster everyone thought it was a drummer playing and it wasn’t. It’s remarkable. It’s an illusion, Shane. It’s all smoke and mirrors!”

I believe you started working on this album in 2020 during lockdown, which is surprising to me: I’ve spoken to a lot of creative people who felt that the anxiety and uncertainty of the time actually overshadowed their ability to create, so they didn’t get much done.

“Ohh well, that’s a surprise to me. For me it was just the best way to use the time. You know? I never had any doubt that it was going to end at some stage. I don’t know why, but I didn’t even consider it. I thought, well, it’s gonna last a certain amount of time and then… maybe my biochemistry background, you know, knowing about viruses and bugs and diseases and all that which I studied a bit when I was at college, maybe because of that, I knew. And the flu epidemic of 1920. I mean, it took a while, but we came out of it, you know, and it was a similar sort of thing – killed loads of people but it got diluted and entered the status quo of our lives. So, I never doubted it – that anxiety didn’t grip me and didn’t inhibit me, I just had all this time to concentrate on making a record and uh, I really enjoyed it.”

I really love the film clips, especially for Trash, and Beware of the Dolls – they were made by a Japanese animator?

Yeah. His name is Teru Noji. He lives in the South of France. He’s a genius. A little one man genius – He’s remarkable. Does it all by himself. You know, he’s a one man animation show. It’s fabulous. A very, very talented guy. I love that, you know, I mean, who wants to see another boring video of a band playing a song or someone singing a song? It’s much more interesting to find people who can visually interpret the song, you know, into something that is enjoyable, pleasing to watch.

As for playing Stranglers songs alongside his solo work, Cornwell is sanguine.

“I can’t deny that I was in The Stranglers for 17 years and I can’t deny that I made a big contribution to the writing style of that band. And so, it’s part of me, you know, and to not play any songs from that era would be a bit primadonna-ish, I think. It just wouldn’t be me. And I’d feel very uncomfortable not playing any of those songs – they’re part of me. And I don’t play in the same way, because I don’t have keyboards, so it’s capable to play these songs with new arrangements, and some of them are quite fun.

“What we found over the last period of time while I’ve been a trio is that the older Stranglers songs are easier to adapt to a trio set up than the later ones, and the reason for that I’ve worked out is because when we started we were a trio – see, we didn’t have a lead instrument. It was me on rhythm guitar. Jean [JJ Burnel] on bass and Jet on drums and we were a trio, a power trio, and then we got a lead instrument because I wasn’t playing lead guitar – wasn’t, couldn’t, whatever. So, it was a necessity. We needed a lead instrument.

“So, Hans Wembling, who was a Swede that played in my band in Sweden and played great lead guitar and piano and saxophone, he came over and joined for a while. So a lot of the early Stranglers songs are just a power trio really. And when Dave [Greenfield] joined, he just added a bit of embellishment on top of it, but it didn’t really change the songs drastically. So those songs translate really, really well into a power trio, like Hanging Around and London Lady, Get A Grip On Yourself. They just fit seamlessly into the pocket of a three piece, you know, so it doesn’t bother me to play a selection of The Stranglers’ catalogue. It’s fun. You know, it’s fun.”

I enjoyed the album you did with Doctor John Cooper Clarke a few years ago. Wikipedia suggests that it came about because you heard MacArthur Park after a few drinks and wondered what it would be like with the Clarke on vocals?

“That’s absolutely correct. My girlfriend at the time was working with Richard Harris’s widow. And we were talking about the late Richard Harris – great actor, Irish actor – and she’d never heard him sing MacArthur Park. So I played it to her, and she loved it. And while it was on, I was in a state of inebriation and I suddenly thought that I could hear John Cooper Clark performing it. God knows why – well, I think we’d been out a couple of weeks beforehand, so I suggested it to him. And yeah, that’s exactly what happened. But when he came along, he started singing it, you know, which is not what I thought at all. It completely blew my mind – he was singing it really well. He said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry Hugh – what do you want me to do? You look like you don’t like me singing it.’ And I said ‘John, it’s just that I wasn’t expecting you to sing it – but it’s great, you know.’

“And so then we finished it. No one had told him he’s got a great [singing] voice, but he has got a great voice. And so we finished it and we played it to a record company and they said, well, this is great, but we need a whole album. So we immediately made a list of other songs that we both liked, old songs that we could do because it was quicker than writing a whole new set of songs. So we just went for some more other songs that we knew and liked between us and that’s how it came about. Yeah, the Wikipedia entry is completely correct. [Clarke has] got a lot of rhythm in his poetry, so it sort of made sense that he could sing.”

And you got Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull to play flute – that’s quite amazing in itself.

“I’d forgotten about that. Yeah, that’s right. He played flute on it, didn’t he?”

There was a time, of course, that punk and prog rock, the two camps just didn’t get along at all.

“That’s right. That’s right. Well, I mean, there are places where they overlap. At times what The Stranglers did and what I did with Nosferatu [Hugh’s 1979 collaborative album with Robert Williams] was a bit prog rocky. I mean, The Stranglers got a bit prog rock in some of the [1978 album] Black and White stuff got a bit proggy, and [1981 album The Gospel According To] The Men In Black.

I never really thought that The Stranglers sounded at all like other punk bands. How did you feel being lumped in with that punk movement?

“Well, nobody [in the band] was really bothered about it, because it was such a great opportunity, you know, for attention and audiences and to get a record contract. All the people around then, they all wanted to find an audience, to get recognition and a record contract so they could make records. You know – The Jam and Elvis Costello in the UK, Blondie in America, really, but they recognised the opportunity and grabbed it, and no one was complaining, you know.”

Hugh Profile Approved Courtesy Bertrand Fevre

 

You mentioned earlier that you’d studied biochemistry. Do you keep your hand in, in the whole biology side of things?

“Well, the only way I do is that I look after my health and my body in the sense of diet and stuff like that. That’s all down to biochemistry, you know, and exercise and all that stuff. It’s all chemistry. It’s fascinating. My diet is full of little things that I know have great effects on my health, you know, and I’m lucky to know – to be aware of that. [So] no processed food, you know, processed food is out the window as far as I go. If you can’t see where it’s come from, then I don’t eat it –like sausages, you know, very, very dubious thing sausages!” [laughs]

I’m a chef by trade and I have been to a sausage factory and there wasn’t a lot of meat going in there! [both laugh]. So, with, I think it’s 24 studio albums now under your belt, is writing a set list a difficult process?

“Yeah, it is. We just had that dilemma because we went out and did a couple of weeks in the UK doing one set. The only criterion I stick to really is that The Stranglers has got to be about one third of what we play, and then the rest concentrates on my solo material. And then of course, you’ve got to play some of the new album, so there’s that. Once you’ve thought about those sort of things and then a couple from Monster, and the more recent ones and then maybe there’s room to put in a few surprises from the earlier ones. You know what I mean? And the band – Windsor [McGilvray] on drums and Pat [Hughes] on bass – they are just… their appetite is quite unquenchable. They keep saying, ‘what can we learn now? What can we learn now?’ They see it as a challenge, and they love it.

“They especially love learning old Nosferatu songs. They bloody love that, because it’s so complicated and it’s a bit proggy as well. So they draw up their charts, you know, and we work out ways of playing all the bits and stuff and then it takes months of constantly going back, rehearsing, rehearsing, rehearsing these bits to finally reach an arrangement that works. So we’ll be pulling a few of those things, those surprises, out of the back catalogue, definitely.”

You’ve written six books, including three novels. How does the novel writing process compare to you with songwriting, or perhaps with writing and recording an entire album?

“Yeah, it’s completely, completely different. I mean, I had no idea it was going to be so different. I mean, writing a novel, it’s very considered, and however much you might right off the cuff get ideas, you have to consider the whole breadth of the whole [story]. Whereas an album is made up of chapters, which are the songs, and each chapter more or less sits independent of the other chapters. You can’t do that with a book. It’s an overall picture of something. So I was shocked how different it was going to be and how considered I had to be. You know, it takes years to write a book and you can write a song in a few minutes – so there’s a big difference there.”

You’ve also done a bit of acting and a podcast where you talk about movies – the wonderful Mr DeMille FM. Do you have any favourites in the rock and roll movie realm?

“Do you remember The Commitments? That was a really great one. In fact, that’s been one of the most successful ones, I think because it was fictional, but it was something you feel could have happened. And I like that – the idea that something is fictional but you can see how it could quite possibly take place. The credibility of it, you know, it had certain credibility.

“There have been some great films about music. I recently saw the new Elvis film and I was really pleasantly surprised because I’m not a big fan of Baz Luhrmann. And when I came to it, I was really expecting to not like it. And I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was a big fan.”

My wife and I had the exact same conversation afterwards.

“Yeah. And I’ve always been a fan of the Kurt Russell film that he made [Elvis by John Carpenter, 1979]. That was a fabulous Elvis. And I didn’t think that could be beaten. And yet here – I mean, Tom Hanks was just inspirational, as The Colonel. That’s the best thing I’ve seen. I haven’t seen the Elton John or the Queen or those ones. It’s that I’m not really interested in their music…”

I think probably more fiction than reality going on in those two.

“Yeah, there have been some great ones. The Commitments was brilliant. You know Quadrophenia, of course, Franc Roddam’s Quadrophenia was great. Then there was that one that Diana Doors was in – or was it Jayne Mansfield? The Girl Can’t Help It! Jayne Mansfield!

“I like specialists, you know, people who are specialists and things like … I had an interview recently [on my podcast] with a guy whose specialty subject is Sergio Leone and was a personal friend of Ennio Morricone, Sir Christopher Frayling. He rang me up and said, hey, why don’t I – Ennio had just died – why don’t I do a programme about him, you can ask me anything about Morricone because I was a mate of his, you know. So I went, yeah, you kidding me? I snapped his hand off, you know, so I like specialists.”

I just watched the documentary on Ennio a few days ago. Fantastic.

“Ohh, that long one called Maestro? Yeah, I got a bit bogged down about an hour into it – there were just too many people saying how brilliant he was, you know!”

One last question before I let you go because our time’s run out… I think it was Louder Than War did a great interview with you about 18 months ago, which delved deep into the origins of The Stranglers, which was very interesting. Do you ever feel a little wistful or sad to think how such good mates – who you shared all those great unique experiences with – ended up falling out so badly with each other?

“Well, I mean, I forget – sort of – the falling out bit. I remember with very great fondness some of the moments that I spent with each and every one of the other three – and also, in the same way, I had a band before that in Sweden, Johnny Socks, which transformed into The Stranglers and in fact, Jet Black was the second drummer in Johnny Socks before he became the drummer of The Stranglers.

“And so, they’ve passed away too, and I’ve got fond memories about them… so I don’t really dwell on the negatives. Melancholy is always positive, isn’t it? Because the mind wants to remember nice things and not nasty things, you know. So, I think it that’s a that’s a sensible way to survive, in that our main minds are programmed, wired like that. And I’m glad that they are.”

Hugh Live Approved Courtesy Robert Kenney 2

Category: Interviews

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