With a new LP out and an accompanying tour next month, Hugh Cornwell is commuting between his Somerset home and a few old Surrey haunts at present, getting his band truly match-fit.
And it turns out that the former Stranglers lead vocalist/guitarist has been back to his Guildford roots, from where the band that made his name first emerged 44 years ago.
“The band members I play with live and work in that area, and I’ve been rehearsing with them. We’ve still got the final polishing to be done.”
His current bandmates are tutors at the town’s acclaimed Academy of Contemporary Music, although – as I pointed out – he was with Chris Bell (drums) and Caroline Campbell (bass) when I saw him at Preston‘s 53 Degrees back in 2013.
“Ah, yes. That’s absolutely right. Well now, I have Windsor McGilvray, an exceptionally-talented drummer with an exceptional work ethic, who I first found when he was 21 years old and had just graduated from that college. He played with me for around five or six years, then Chris came in, and now Windsor’s back.
“And the bass player is now Pat Hughes, again very good, And the thing is that both sing like birds, which means we can capture those three-part harmonies quite easily.”
Despite making his name in a four-piece, Hugh’s long been a fan of the classic trio, something going right back to his love of Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
“You can do amazing things with it, and it leaves those bits of space, which I like. And voices – I think people under-estimate what you can do with backing vocals. The Who were fabulous with that, and I’m a fan of all that.
“And with the Stranglers songs we’re playing, we have to be a bit original, with creative arrangements … but no one’s complained yet.”
When I saw him touring Totem & Taboo tour five years ago (with my review here), he followed each track off that fine album with a Stranglers oldie, and it proved to be a great fit. But he’s trying something different this time.
“Well, it made sense to have input to both catalogues. But this time around I’m being very brave. I’ve got two sets – the first is about half of the new LP plus selections from my other solo albums, and then we’re going to take a little break, then ram Stranglers down their throats! We’re genning up on a lot of Stranglers stuff, so we’ll be able to give a good hour of Stranglers at the end.”
Including a few more obscure choices?
“Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s the first time I’ll ever have done a set with just my solo stuff in it. I’ve always done that mixing before. But because there’s a new album and we wanted to concentrate on that, that’s going to be the first thing.”
Last time he toured, earlier this year, was with another great three-piece, Wilko Johnson’s band. And Wilko’s an inspiration to us all, yeah?
And his band’s not so shabby either.
“Wonderful guys. Very talented.”
And before that Hugh joined forces for a tour and album alongside legendary punk poet/comic John Cooper Clarke.
“Absolutely fantastic. John’s a gent, and has quite a good voice. We were astounded how he went to it like a duck to water. He was so in his element, singing with us. It was great.”
The first track aired from the new album, impressive title track, ‘Monster’, has a bit of a rock’n’roll feel, I reckon. Was that a case of you still being in the zone after your collaboration with JCC on the This Time It’s Personal album project?
“Well, you get a bit of that when you don’t put keyboards on. Soon as you take them out of the equation, you’re back to the classic rock situation set-up. So it’s bound to do that, but it wasn’t intentional. If a song’s good though, it should stand up either very little done to it, and that’s something I’ve tried to stick to.”
Well, you proved that with the raw and rather stark feel you got on Totem & Taboo, through working with acclaimed engineer Steve Albini.
“Yeah, absolutely … with as little over-dubs as possible.”
Any other artists still on your ‘I’d like to work with them’ list?
“Oh … let me think. Yeah, loads of people. I won’t go into names, but you never know. Something might crop up.”
After 45 years playing music, does Hugh think he might have hacked life as a biochemist, as he studied?
“Mmm. I don’t know. I think I’d have got bored. I like travelling, it’s in my blood. That’s what this job entails, and it suits me, doing this.”
Touching on your studies, I can see you there in the lab in your white coat, which takes me (somehow) on to you creating Monster. The title track is about Ray Harryhausen, who you call ‘an inspiration for fantasy film-makers throughout the world’. He was responsible for so many memorable pre-CGI, painstaking stop-frame special effects on movies from the era of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953) and It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955) through to ’60s classics like Jason and the Argonauts (1963), First Men in the Moon (1964) and One Million Years BC (1966), right on to Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger in the year of ‘No More Heroes’ (1977) and Clash of the Titans in the year you recorded ‘Golden Brown’ (1981). Was he … erm, a hero to you?
“Oh absolutely, and not just me. Something I like about him is that I found out that his father took him to see King Kong when he was about seven, and when he came out of the cinema, he said, ‘That’s what I want to do when I grow up’. Just like that. And that’s what he did. That’s amazing, to be so convinced, know what you want to do with your life, and should be an inspiration to us all.”
Don’t take this the wrong way, but the title track of the album, particularly regarding your clipped kind of approach on the main vocal, makes me think Suggs and Madness could cover this track.
“Oh, I see. Well, that’s a good idea. Maybe they should cover it.”
That would pay for a few more recording sessions, maybe.
“Let’s hope so. Yeah, that’d be good. I’d never thought of it like that. Thanks for the idea!”
And, going back to the theme, cinema’s had a big effect on you, not least with a little acting in the past. Was that the dream as a child – a life in the movies? I’m wondering where else your ambitions might have taken you.
“I haven’t done it for a very long time, but I love films and getting involved in all that. Actually, I’m just getting involved in a feature at the moment. I doubt if I’ll be on that side of the screen, but I love all that, and for me, movies are the ultimate escape.”
“Yeah, I’m on two at the moment, one’s almost there – it needs another rewrite – and with the other I’ve only just started. It’s just finding the time to do it all, fitting it around music.”
Any hints about the one that’s nearly done?
“It’s science fiction, set within the next 30 or 40 years. All sorts of things have happened. A bit of a noir thriller, set in the future.”
Meanwhile, although this tour is an electric affair, the Monster album is a record of two halves (or maybe four quarters). So what was the idea behind Restoration, the second LP included, featuring 10 acoustic Stranglers tracks recreated in the studio?
“I’ve been out doing acoustic tours regularly these last 10 years, every couple of years, and over that time I’ve found an amazing number of old Stranglers songs – some quite unusual ones – that fit really well with just acoustic guitar and voice.
“The record company said, ‘Why don’t you commit some of those to a record’. And although I’ve done acoustic albums live, I’d never recorded myself in a studio doing things acoustically. I like doing things I’ve never done before, so I thought it was a great idea.
“And I tell you what, I went in and it took me almost as much time to make it as it did to make Monster, but it was very enjoyable. I’m very pleased with it, and maybe some Stranglers people will find it interesting.”
Speaking of which, it’s now a staggering 28 years since he left that amazing outfit after 16 memorable years. That kind of puts it into perspective.
“It does indeed. Amazing.”
There’s 44 years for starters, and before that there were your days with Johnny Sox, your first as a bona fide live performer.
“Oh God, yeah, that was ‘73/’74, and those were all different phases and all part of my plank-playing* history that I’ve learned something from. I learned from playing with Johnny Sox and learned from playing with Stranglers.”
(* I think he says ‘plank-playing’ there. It certainly sounds like it. I may be wrong of course, as I have been with some of his lyrics over the decades)
I think we all did.
“Ha! Yeah, it’s interesting looking back at it all. It’s been a long and chequered past.”
And what an amazing legacy. That said, I wonder if while fielding these calls you start a stopwatch to see how long it is before there’s a mention of that band who made your name … and I don’t mean Johnny Sox.
“Ha ha! Well, you know … it’s to be expected.”
Any words with JJ Burnel, Dave Greenfield or Jet Black of late?
“I don’t keep in touch with them. They do their thing and I do mine, y’know.”
It’s sad to see Jet’s had his health problems of late.
“Well, he’s not playing, which is unfortunate and rather sad. Imagine being told you can’t do what you’ve been enjoying doing for the last 30 or 40 years. That must be a shock. So I hope he’s managing to fill his time.”
Perhaps for old time’s sake you could get back over to him, take one of his vans out, make a few quid selling ice creams to help top up his pension.
Next year marks your 70th – is that an important one to you? Or is that too far ahead to think about?
“I’m not a big man for birthdays. They just come and … if you have too much time to think about them it means you’re not busy enough.”
Finally, I reminded Hugh how he was one of my very first interviews for this website, after leaving journalism and going it alone, back in the summer of 2013. And I told him how part of the way through our conversation, he told me to stop interrupting so he could answer the questions properly. He didn’t actually tell me to shut the fuck up, but as good as did. I was kind of shocked at the time, but he probably had a point.
This makes him laugh, and I share with him that maybe I was trying too hard to impress upon Hugh that I knew my stuff and had been a big fan of his work over the years.
“Yeah, probably … over-enthusiastic!”
I don’t doubt it. Well, hopefully it’s been better today then.
“Sure, it has. It’s been lovely!”
For this website’s November 2015 feature/interview with Hugh Cornwell, head here. And for the July 2013 writewyattuk feature/interview with Hugh, head here. For a July 2014 writewyattuk interview with Jean-Jacques Burnel, head here. And for a March 2015 writewyattuk interview with Baz Warne, head here.
Hugh’s Monster Electric UK tour opens at Chinnerys in Southend (Thursday, November 1st) and runs through to Brighton’s Concorde 2 (Sunday, November 18th), including visits to my own patch at Manchester’s Club Academy (Saturday, November 3rd, 7pm, £22) and Clitheroe Grand (Saturday, November 10th, 7.30pm, £20). For a full list of dates – including four shows in Ireland in late November – and ticket details try 08444 780 898 or this link.