Hugh Cornwell

Totem and Taboo

September 2012


Despite a career that has lasted over 35 years, Hugh Cornwell still remains somewhat of an enigma. As the main frontman and principal songwriter for The Stranglers (initially in collaboration, but increasingly in confrontation, with Jean-Jacques Burnel) he sold millions, and yet you feel that his solo career has never quite been given the recognition or attention it deserves. The fact that his former bandmates have also continued to make great records is inevitably a double-edged sword. Hugh may always be overshadowed by The Stranglers, and let’s face it legendary drummer Jet Black casts a sizeable shadow, but you would hope that every new generation of Stranglers fans are also discovering Hugh’s quirky output.

Hugh will never reach the ueber-cool status that the hipsters may afford to the likes of Joe Strummer, but then he is one of the finest songwriters that the UK has ever produced, so I doubt he worries much. Totem and Taboo, his latest album recorded in Chicago with Steve Albini, is yet another case in point; a collection of witty, observant numbers that fizz along courtesy of Albini’s anti-production and the power trio’s aggressive arrangements. Meanwhile, that voice remains one of the most unmistakable in British music, and his lyrics some of the wittiest. The Face tells the true story of a party that Hugh attended. Standing in the queue for what he thought was the toilet, he realised the queue was actually to meet Madonna. Consequently, Madge’s face became ‘the face that launched a thousand shits’.

It’s worth noting that Hugh’s supposed reputation as being sardonic, cutting and perhaps a little bit bitter was not at all in evidence. Instead, I found Hugh to be reflective, open, enthusiastic, filled with genuine great affection for his time with The Stranglers, and very happy with the skin he’s in. Now to get under it.

Interview by Erik Stein.


Hugh Cornwelldsoaudio: You instigated a Pledge Music campaign to raise funds for the making of Totem and Taboo. How did you find the process? Would you do it again any differently? 

Hugh Cornwell: It was wonderful. It’s an empowering situation for fans, both collectively and individually. They can be in control of whether an album is released or not. And there have been a number of totally unexpected things to come from it too. Two fans who pledged on the album have since become tour promoters and set up gigs in their respective countries. One of the gigs, in Holland, sold out.

So, would you do it again?

Absolutely, absolutely.

Totem and Taboo has been extremely well received and you’re getting a lot of media coverage, the most in years. You must be delighted?

I’m more bemused, to be honest. I’ve been putting out albums like this every few years, and I really don’t see this album as that different from the others. It’s very strange.

I guess the Pledge Music involvement has helped raise the profile. Fans have a vested interest in making it a success.

Yes, it must be that.

I wanted to focus in a bit on your writing. Two countries that have loomed relatively large in your writing over the years are the USA and Spain. I noticed that the album’s come out on ‘Cadiz Music’.

Oh, but that’s just coincidental.

Ok, but what is it about those two countries that fascinates you particularly? Have you feelings towards them changed over the years?

I’ve only really written two songs about Spain, Cadiz and then Spain with The Stranglers.

But I’ve heard you talk about your particular love of Spain.

That’s true. I’ve always had a certain empathy with people in Spain. Whenever I go there I feel at home. If I believed in such things then maybe I was Spanish in a previous life? Who knows?

And the USA?

Well, with the US there’s just so much to write about, so many aspects to it. Nothing really defines and it fascinates me.

Hugh CornwellIn Gods, Guns, and Gays from the album have you sought to define it?

God, Guns and Gays can be considered as three of their main obsessions. And of course only one of those is healthy.

I love the story behind The Face. I have to ask, did you get to meet Madonna? What was it like meeting Paul Roberts [the singer that replaced Hugh in the Stranglers and was by coincidence also in attendance]?

I didn’t get to meet Madonna, no. I didn’t stay that long and the queue was too long. It was odd meeting Paul. Very odd. It was obvious that neither of us were expecting it, but we hardly spoke really as I didn’t stay long.

And what is the song A Street called Carroll about?

It’s as the title says. There’s a street in LA called Carroll which is unlike any other street there. The houses are wooden, some are on stilts. It looks totally out of place, more like something you’d see in San Francisco, but not in LA.

It’s another song about the USA!

Kind of. Indirectly, perhaps.

The reception to the epic, nine minute long closing track on the album, In the Dead of Night, has been particularly strong.

Yes, which I’m pleased about. Right from the start I wanted a long song to close the album, it was very deliberate. A few years ago I did a tour where I played a set Stranglers ‘epics’ alongside my own songs. I really enjoy those longer songs, and we often closed an album with an epic. It struck me that I’d never done one in my solo career, so that’s how it came about. I intended the song to be that length right from the start.

The way you arrange some of the Stranglers’ stuff now to play live has turned some non-epics into extended epics. Bear Cage springs to mind.

Yeah, absolutely. And I Feel like a Wog, although when I perform the No More Heroes set I probably won’t do the fifteen minute version. I’m not sure yet.

How do you appraise Steve Albini’s role in making/shaping the album? I know he doesn’t like to be thought of as a producer.

We sent Steve the demos for the album, which we’d recorded using pro-tools, so they were much more synthetic. He had that as a brief. He said, “I can make these sound real” and that’s what he did. Steve is someone that really likes to manifest your idea. He doesn’t really like making decisions. Often those decisions were made in the studio, bouncing ideas around.

The outstanding quality of your lyrics have been sometimes overlooked I feel, particularly your subtle use of humour. Do you have any influences in terms of lyricists?

Well, I like people who play with words and I’ve always enjoyed that myself. Dylan plays with words and I’ve always enjoyed what Lou Reed conjours up. Words should be used like a little painting. Even Mick Jagger wrote some great lyrics, but they’re often really hard to decipher. I’ve no idea why his vocals are so hard to hear on Exile on Main Street, but there are some great lyrics there. If I should ever meet him again I’ll ask him why.

What about your use of humour?

I love Lenny Bruce. I only love intelligent comedians, and there are plenty I don’t like – I won’t name names. People are always saying that it’s so hard to make me laugh, but it’s just that I don’t like silly humour and don’t suffer fools gladly. I would love to have been a stand up comedian.

Hugh CornwellWell your quips on stage are legendary. I was listening to An Evening with Hugh Cornwell the other day [a Stranglers’ b-side that edits together some of the best examples of Hugh’s on stage biting wit] and it’s hilarious.

Is that on YouTube now? Wow, I must check that out.

How has growing older shaped what you write about? I’m aware that sadly your mother passed away quite recently at a grand old age. 

Yes, that’s right. I may write an album about her, or at least a song. I’m thinking of calling it La Grande Dame, which seems very fitting. In terms of growing older, not much. I still simply write about things that interest me. Luckily I’m just as inspired now as I ever was. And I hope that continues.

Do you find writing lyrics harder as you get older?

No, easier actually. And I never abandon a lyric either. Sometimes that can take weeks, with me returning to it again and again. Lyrics has always come to me fairly easily. Even in The Stranglers - and I don’t think Jean would mind me saying this - but lyrics came easier to me than to him.

Obviously the songwriting process between you as a solo artist and you as part of The Stranglers is very different. In a group, songs can come from jams, for example. How do you compare the two?

The Stranglers only every really jammed when we were short of songs. For example, Mannah MachineIn the Shadows. I can also remember we were short of one song for No More Heroes and John suddenly pulled out English Towns.

Well, the big difference is that I’m now writing exclusively on my own, although Stranglers songs came together in lots of different ways and towards the end Jean and I were writing much more apart and alone. In the early days, a lot of songs came from Jean’s bass riffs, which was interesting because I could view them objectively when he was playing. When you’ve written a song and are presenting it on guitar it’s harder to be objective because you’re focusing on playing it. In a similar way, Golden Brown came about by me objectively hearing a piece that Dave was playing.

Do you miss not having a writing partner, then?

Not at all, not now. But it’s a good way to learn, a good way to develop as a songwriter.

 You’ll be performing Totem and Taboo alongside The Stranglers’ No More Heroes album in its entirety in October as part of a UK tour. You did a similar thing with Rattus Norvegicus a few years back. Has revisiting the first two Stranglers’ albums revealed anything new to you about them or changed your perception? 

Well, it’s stirred up a lot of memories. Having Steve [Fishman] playing keyboards as well as bass on this tour is also interesting. We’ve found that for the songs that Jean sang, the bass parts are also a bit easier to play, which makes sense. So, Steve is able to play the bass parts on keyboards with the left hand and also play the keyboard parts too.

Hugh CornwellSo, is Steve playing keyboards on all the songs?

Not on all of the songs no, but he’s playing keyboards on about six of them. The others I’ve already been performing without keyboards for a while now. 

And will Steve also be singing John’s songs? 

No, I’ll be singing all of them. Steve’s got his hands full enough already. 

I know that some of the songs you didn’t sing on Heroes originally because the guitar parts were so tricky. Is it difficult performing them now? 

The only one that’s difficult is Burning Up Time, which is really high for my voice. I’m struggling with that one and I don’t know how Jean did it.

Has looking back at the arrangements revealed anything new to you?

Just that they’re great fucking songs. 

Obviously you tour very frequently. Where is your favourite place to play? Is there anywhere you've not been yet that you'd like to go to?

There's a possibility I'm going to Brazil next year, which I'm very excited about. I've played there before, but I'd love to go again. I've never played Russia. I've never played China. I've been to China, but never played there. 

Maybe if you get fans pledging from there they'll become promoters too.

Yeah, exactly!

And your favourite place to play?

Well, I know everyone says this, but the crowds are great in Scotland. I've also been spending a lot of time in Germany recently. I love the people there, they're very friendly and accommodating. 

A bit of a random one to finish. One of my favourite solo works of yours is your Sons of Shiva album [an experimental collaboration with poet Sex W Johnston]. Do you have any plans to record anything as radical as this again? 

I doubt I'll have time to make another Sons of Shiva album. I’m too involved in other things. I'm actively involved in making short films to accompany each track on Totem and Taboo. Stand alone films for each song. 

You had a DVD, Blueprint, to accompany the last album, Hooverdam. 

Right, but these won't be straight performance videos. In fact most of them won't feature me at all. I've also just finished another novel. 

Is it linked in anyway to your first [Windows of the World]? 

No this one's entirely separate. I submitted it to my agent about a month ago but haven't heard anything yet. I need to chase her up, maybe she's doesn't like it! 

Thanks very much for your time Hugh and see you on tour. 

Thank you, Erik.

Interview by Erik Stein

Hugh Cornwell photographs by Kevin Nixon


Hugh Cornwell’s Track By Track take on the new album Totem & Taboo...

Totem and Taboo
Strangely enough this was the last track I wrote for the album, but it's become one of my favourites. A hint of Rebel, Rebel with some Marc Bolan glam thrown in. I've always liked songs with the marching 4's on the snare, and that's what it is supposed to be, a rallying call for like-minded souls. I was playing this live most of last year so it went down easily enough in the studio. 

The Face
My favourite guitar bits on the album. I was stretched a bit to keep the solo going for that long, but Steve Albini liked it, which is praise indeed. Based on a funny story about Madonna.

Hugh CornwellI Want One of Those
I was very excited when I wrote this. After the melody came together I went for a walk in the country and wrote the lyric whilst I was walking in my head. Had to rush back to write it all down before I forgot it! We've all become slaves to a consumer society and its spread into all aspects of our lives unfortunately.

Stuck in Daily Mail Land
Conceived in a hotel in the Midlands about 5 years ago, over breakfast, alone, over a copy of - of course - the Daily Mail. Not that it's an attack on it; some of my best friends read it.

Bad Vibrations
People who are familiar with what I've done over the years will be familiar with a habit I have of appropriating titles and changing them perversely to my own evil ends. Good Vibrations is a classic pop song from the 60's that needed to be backdoored.

God Is A Woman
Probably my favourite track on the album. First few notes may remind some people of Badge, but I think this is an improvement. The voice is unusually very dry and in your ear, in contrast to the bass and guitar. Hopefully people will consider, as I do, that this is a modern day Peaches.

Love Me Slender
Another one of my favourites. I wanted to revisit Hendrix's Spanish Castle Magic somehow in a song, as I love that skippy beat, I find it very sexy. When I play this live I give Chris (drums) the tempo at the start and I sound a bit like Tommy Cooper when I do it, which always makes him laugh. It would take too long to go into what it's about. But it is another misappropriation, this time from Presley's Love Me Tender of course.

Gods, Guns, and Gays
A song about the United States of America and the obsessions you find there. The word 'gays' is only meant to represent the power of Freedom Of Speech they enjoy in that wonderful country of contradictions. No wonder so many of the Surrealists flocked there in the 1930's. Another one of my tributes to Arthur Lee and his band Love, God rest his soul. Amen.

A Street Called Carroll
Los Angeles. Silverlake. Overlooking downtown. A street called Carroll. The most unusual wooden houses. It's where they shot the Thriller video. Quite enigmatic. Not at all what you'd expect in LA. On a hill. Old style street lamps. Not quite sure what it's got to do with Totem and Taboo, but it was the time when the whole idea of the album became clear to me.

In The Dead of Night
I thought it was about time to write a long epic track, rather like we used to do when I was in The Stranglers. It had to be at the end of the album, and I wanted it to feature an extra instrument, rather like Banging On At The Same Old Beat did on Hooverdam, my last album. Steve (bass & keyboards) obliged perfectly, bless him. Bass riff came to me in the middle of the night and sat around for a while before I realised what was going on.


Hugh Cornwell’s new album Totem And Taboo is released through Cadiz Music on Monday 10th September. His UK tour starts on 3rd October. Tickets: 0844 478 0898, www.thegigcartel.com


Official Hugh Cornwell website: http://www.hughcornwell.com


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