PREVIEW: Hugh Cornwell likes it when you’re moody
When Hugh Cornwell left The Stranglers in 1990 he’d gone as far as he felt he could with the veteran English rock band. Behind him he left a series of classic punk and new wave albums (The Raven, Feline, Gospel According To the Meninblack among them) charges of misogyny and a style that took as much from The Doors and The Music Machine as they did from any of the usual punk suspects around at the time.
That might have been because they were older and worldlier; their drummer Jet Black was already in his late thirties, and Cornwell himself was a seasoned musician with a stint as bassist in a late ‘60s group featuring Richard Thompson on his resume.
As a solo act Cornwell kept his often absurd and pointed lyrics but crafted a different sound, working with musicians like Captain Beefheart drummer Robert Williams (on 1979’s Nosferatu) and Pete Thomas of Elvis Costello and the Attractions (1988’s Wolf), as well as Bowie producer Tony Visconti (2004’s Beyond Elysium Fields.) The regular stream of under-the-radar records he’s put out have had their share of gems and a few are even genuinely great, though he has yet to achieve the notoriety he had as the front man for the meninblack.
Last time he was in Edmonton it was just Cornwell and his guitar, but for Tuesday’s performance at the Haven he’ll have Blondie drummer Clem Burke and bassist Steve Fishman of James White and the Blacks backing him up. They’ll be doing two sets, one including the entirety of The Stranglers’ Rattus Norvegicus album.
Q: You seem to have popped back on the North American radar after a bit of a break. Two shows in Edmonton over a few years is amazing considering we’d never seen you before.
“There was such a long time when I hadn’t come over, so it’s all about building an audience right now. It’s been great so far; San Francisco was fantastic, it sold out and things just seem to be moving along. I was invited to play the Ramones benefit bash in New York in May, and I’m booked solid six months in advance.”
Are you enjoying the ceaseless touring, then?
“Well, I like three to four weeks of it, but then that’s enough. This time I get a few days off and then I’ll rehearse a tour in the U.K. with a different set. We’ll be doing my Guilty album (from 1997) over there plus some old Stranglers stuff I haven’t gotten around to touching, maybe a few songs from The Raven.”
You’ve been performing the first Stranglers album, Rattus Norvegicus, in its entirety for a few years now, haven’t you?
“Yeah. We did it on the East Coast last fall and now we thought we’d finish it off on the west. Then it’s over for that one. It’s time to move on, because I’ve just finished writing and demoing a new album (Totem and Taboo), which I’ll record in Spain in September. Rattus is finished, I think, but maybe Guilty will turn out to be really successful on that tour, you never know, maybe we’ll get more requests for it.”
Your last album, Hooverdam (2008) was released as a free download on your website; have you found this to be a helpful maneuver?
“Yes I do, and I think that as time goes on it will continue to do so. It’s definitely helped in the States, and by that I mean the whole of North America. People come to the show and then afterwards they go to the website and download it for free. If they like it – and it’s received some positive reviews, so I guess it’s a good album – they’ll tell their friends about it. I met a guy last night from Reno, originally from Yorkshire, who came to see us in Tahoe. He didn’t know about Hooverdam, so there’s continuing potential for it to get out there.”
Q: It’s interesting to see the difference in opinions between people on major labels and those on indies about the subject of free downloading.
“Well, those people are in a different position from me, as this is the perfect way for me to increase my fanbase. I couldn’t stand being on a major label anyways; you’re in a pecking order, and at the beck and call of people deciding what they want on your record. I’m in control in this instance, and that’s much healthier.”
Q: It’s also probably for the best considering the narrow nature of the music business; I can just see someone on the label trying to get their fingers into your writing.
“Well, I’m a hard enough critic of my own writing that I really don’t need that. (Laughs) The stuff that gets out I’m proud of; if it’s terrible it’s my own fault and I can’t blame anyone else.”
Q: The Stranglers often had to bear the burden of being one of the more criticized bands of the English punk explosion. Usually you were called misogynist because of songs like Peaches, but I wonder if that had more to do with the popularity contest that was the London scene of the time?
“I reject the claims of misogyny strongly even now. The whole thing was very tongue-in-cheek; I very much write from the perspective of someone holding up a mirror to what’s going on around me. I’m a chronicler of mood and the sensibilities of the times. I’m not a misogynist, I’m an anthropologist, really, so those accusations of misanthro…hang on, actually I think I’m a misanthrope, not a misogynist. (Laughs.) It was overblown and hysterical and politically correct. Very unfounded.”
Q: Randy Newman used to write from other, less palatable perspectives, but I don’t recall him being raked over the coals.
“Exactly. There you go. And to dispel it I have a song on the new album called God is a Woman.”
Q: Very early in your musical career you played with Richard Thompson, and he eventually acquired a somewhat similar reputation.
“Has he? I didn’t know that. That’s interesting, I’ll have to ask him next time I talk to him. I made contact with him after not seeing him for so many years. We met at a fest and we both had a lovely reunion. We’ve kept in touch since, and he actually came on stage and played with me in L.A. last year; we did The Nashville Teens’ Tobacco Road, which was the first song he taught me on bass.”
Q: So you were actually friends back in the day, not just passing ships in a band?
“Oh, we were total mates. We both knew each other’s families so we talked about that, all of the personal stuff. We had big hugs.”
Q: So what do you have coming up after all the touring is done?
“Well, there’s the album, which I’ll go do in September with the band. I’ve also got my first novel coming out in May. It’s about a young, beautiful Australian portrait painter who goes to London to have a career and becomes very successful. Ever since I wrote my autobiography (2004’s A Multitude of Sins) I’ve developed this passion for writing. It started as a little idea, and then, as these things go, it took over and I end up with something completely different from what I thought. Funny how that works, eh?”
Who: Hugh Cornwell
With: Paul James Coutts and Cowls
Where: The Haven Social Club, 15120A Stony Plain Road
When: Tuesday, March 15 at 8 p.m.
Ticket are $13 in advance or at the door.