Hugh Cornwell Interview
By Alexander Laurence
Hugh Cornwell has been a force in music since the early 1960s. Back then he played in a folk band with Richard Thompson. His music journey starts then and leads to The Stranglers, Captain Beefheart, Blondie, and many solo records. He recorded ten albums with the Stranglers over sixteen years. He recorded an album, Nosferatu (1979) with Robert Williams from Captain Beefheart. There are seven more solo records since the Stranglers days, plus several live albums and collaborations. He has also written three books. The Stranglers started in 1974, but became more widely known in the UK punk era of 1977. The name Hugh Cornwell is slightly obscure to the American scene, but many of us have heard these songs over the years. It’s just in the past five years that Hugh and the band have been touring over here. I figured out that I had to meet him and ask him about music and what he is up to.
AL: You used to play with Caroline Cunningham on bass and Chris Bell on drums. Now on this tour you have Clem Burke and Steve Fisher.
HC: I came over with Caroline and Chris before. The thing is that English musicians need to have a work permit. IF I bring them over here it would cost me fifteen thousand dollars before I even got off the plane. I have made three solo records with Steve Fisher. He’s been in and out of the lineup. Steve was living in London for fifteen years. He moved back to America. Caroline replaced him. When we had the situation of work permits, Caroline had just joined Cradle of Filth as the new keyboard player. When I get back to England I am going to tour with Steve and Chris. And then we are going to Australia.
AL: How long have you known Clem Burke?
HC: I have known Clem Burke for a long time. I supported Blondie in Europe a few years ago. I met him originally in 1978 when we all saw Captain Beefheart together in Los Angeles.
AL: Is that when you met Robert Williams?
HC: Exactly. I went to all three nighhts. I met Robert at that show. I went with Clem and the rest of Blondie.
AL: How many American tours did you do with The Stranglers? I remember there was one show at the Whisky in 1980.
HC: We didn’t do enough. We were on an American label. We were on IRS and worked with Miles Copeland. He wanted to put out a combination of our first two records. We didn’t want to do it. Rattus Norvegicus, the first Stranglers album, that we are playing tonight: how do you cut that up? I was very arrogant and obstreperous. I sent them a Telex saying “Don’t fuck with our album.” They wanted to mix it up. They did a compilation, because that was what you did over here. And then we were dropped from the label.
AL: Did you ever do a proper tour of American?
HC: Later we were on CBS, and Epic over here. In the 1980s we finally did some bigger tours. Just in the past five years I have been in America and done six solo tours. I split it up in two areas. I do the east coast in the fall and the west coast in the srping.
AL: So are there many people who haven’t seen you play till the past few years?
HC: Exactly. So many people in America have come up to me and said “I never saw you play before. I have waited thirty years.” We didn’t come enough when we should have done. I remember coming to America for the first time and The Police were on the same plane. We did three dates: New York City, LA, and San Francisco. The Police were doing what I am doing now: three week tours at small clubs all over America. They were doing the hard work. The Police and The Clash were doing the same. They were coming over every few months.
AL: What was holding you back?
HC: The Stranglers were so successful in the UK and Europe. We had such a good life there we couldn’t be bothered. We were lazy. We didn’t see the big picture.
AL: Do you think the Clash lost the fans in the UK by being here so much?
HC: Not at all. It compounded their success worldwide. It doesn’t happen. You can do a small tour a few times a year.
AL: I think that a band has to tour America seven or eight times at least to build an audience. If you miss Hugh Cornwell one year…
HC: You will catch him next time. This is my fourth tour in eighteen months. So I am halway there getting my foothold in America. It’s got to be done. As long as it’s about a month at a time. It’s fun and hopefully not so tiring. I am not a young man anymore. We have driven seven thousand miles this month. England is smaller than California.
AL: So it is true that Richard Thompson taught you how to play bass guitar?
HC: That’s right. He was sixteen. We played for a few years.
AL: You said that the music business was not too interested in new bands in the early 1970s?
HC: In the early 1970s, there was all that prog rock. There was glam and glitter rock. There was Roxy Music and Bowie
AL: You didn’t care for it?
HC: Not the prog rock. I remember getting an album by Camel. I used to smoke dope then. I remember putting it on. I quite liked it but one side only lasted about twelve minutes. I couldn’t understand. I figured out I had put it on at the wrong speed: 45 instead of 33. I liked it at the faster speed. When I listened to it at 33, it was unbearable.
AL: Was that one of the ideas on Punk: it had to be fast?
HC: Sort of. I think people in London back then had short attention spans.
AL: I saw something on youtube. You were being interviewed by Rick Wakemen. Were you a fan of his music? How did that interview come about?
HC: Yeah. He was doing a series. He wanted me to appear. I bumped into him a few times. He’s a nice guy. He told me he was a fan because he told me. That’s perfect. I couldn’t think of a better guy to do an interview with. And we went way over time. I haven’t seen it.
AL: Did you get a lot of flack because you had keyboards in The Stranglers?
HC: People didn’t trust us. Quite rightly. We were too old. We weren’t part of the Punk thing.
AL: Before Punk there were pub rock bands like Dr. Feelgood and Kilburn and the High Roads. Did you play with those bands?
HC: Yeah the pub bands. We supported many of those bands. Dr. Feelgood and Kilburn and the High Roads were edging towards where we were. They had a bit of an attitude. Pub Rock was bands like The Yachts, and Ducks Deluxe, and Brinsley Schwarz. There were loads of them. There was one called The Scarecrows. They were very good musicians. It was supposed to be the next thing, and it didn’t happen.
AL: So when Punk happened you were included? You looked more punk than “not a punk” band.
HC: We were sneered at by the pub rock bands because they thought we were upstarts who couldn’t play very well. We refused to go away. We weren’t trusted by the Punks because we were older and we could play better than them. We were caught in between.
AL: You weren’t accepted by the groups of people who supported the Clash and the Sex Pistols?
HC: I used to go to the Roxy and have a drink and watch bands. There was an inner circle. It was like a punk monarchy. We weren’t part of that because we weren’t pure enough. We didn’t fit in with the rigorous definitions of punk: we weren’t young angry musicians who couldn’t play. We were older and we could play.
AL: You were writing songs about literary things, french novels, UFOs, nuclear waste, and vampires. That wasn’t really what most of the punk bands were writing about.
HC: I was writing about 90% of the lyrics, so all those subjects were my decisions.
AL: How did the “Men In Black” thing come about? The Gospel According to the Meninblack was a concept album that came out in late 1980.
HC: I remember distinctly. We were thinking about what we were going to do after Black & White. There was a lot of ska bands coming in after the punk thing. That was alien from us. We were wondering if this ska revival was going to affect us, and what we should do next. I was sitting around Jet Black’s house and he was obsessed with UFOs. He had all these journals that were sent to him. I thought that was some amazing stuff. I thought that we could do a whole album about stuff they were writing in those books. Everyone got excited about that. We all started getting into it. Jet didn’t realize that anyone would be interested in this weird stuff.
AL: You also had a fanclub magazine. Did you write stuff for that?
HC: Yeah. We all contributed to that. I wrote articles. There was some stupid stuff. Jet ran the magazine.
AL: What about the books that you wrote?
HC: The Pentonville book was a taped interview much like we are doing now. We taped it and the journalist took it away. He turned it into a book. That was the Pentonville book. Jet wrote a book about our time in Nice prison. I did a book about The Stranglers songs. It’s called The Stranglers song by song. It was another long interview. We did it in ten days. The reason for that was there was a Stranglers biography coming out right after I had left the band. I got a call from David Buckley who had done books about Bowie and Sparks. He said: “I am doing a book about The Stranglers and I think that I should talk to you.” I asked when it was coming out, and he said: “It’s nearly finished.” We spent a weekend brainstorming about the book. He added my conribution, but he had already written most of the book. I read the book when it came out. Although it was factually accurate about what happened and the dates, there was nothing about the music. I thought that he had missed a trick there. So I did the song by song book, which was about the music. After that I did my own autobiography.
AL: How was that received?
HC: Very well. It sold very well in England. I wrote it myself. I didn’t have a ghost writer. I worked with Harper Collins. As a result of that I have my first novel coming out in May. It’s called Window on the World. I am working on a second novel now.
AL: Getting back to the Pentonville days. Why didn’t you do the Keith Richards thing, and keep it in court? Why didn’t they let you off?
HC: They wanted to make an example of me. The judge said that I was a role model for the fans and he wanted to make an example of me. He said it in his summing up speech. I am more an implied threat to society.
AL: Your songs are in commercials and in movies. Do you make more money than the rest of the band because you wrote “Golden Brown” which has been used often?
HC: We always split the writing credits evenly within the band. I wrote that song with Dave Greenfield.
AL: When I think of your singing voice, it’s very dramatic. It’s very stagey, like Jim Morrison. Do you ever get compared to other singers?
HC: I used to hear Lou Reed.
AL: Lou Reed always sings the same note. He’s like Rex Harrison. It’s speaking-singing.
HC: Yeah. It’s amazing how people hear you. I have never been compared to Jim Morrison. Incredible.
AL: What about actual people in bands? What bands have come up to you and said “The Stranglers are a big influence on me?”
HC: There are no bands of note that have come out and said that the Stranglers are an influence. I wish they would. In time, these things become more evident.
AL: People like Lou Reed and David Byrne always get asked about doing a reunion. How about you?
HC: I don’t want to do a Stranglers reunion.
AL: What are you doing when you are not doing music?
HC: Mostly writing novels now. Writing songs and being in a studio all the time is very hard work. It’s time consuming. I have a new album called Totem and Taboo. I have all the demos done. I will record it with Steve and Chris in Autumn 2011.
AL: You are more productive at 60, than you were at 20?
AL: You have done four American tour the past two years. You have the book coming out. How many times do you tour in Europe?
HC: Probably once a year. Mostly in the UK. I am hoping to go to Germany soon. I have kids in their twenties telling me that they just got into my music and they just got into the Stranglers. It’s refreshing that they found out about the band because what I do.
AL: You went to University and studied bio-chemistry?
HC: Yeah. It came in useful when I started to do drugs. I knew what to look for. You study how the body reacts to chemicals.
AL: There were many French writers and intellectuals in the 1970s like Jean-Paul Sartre and Jean Genet. William Burroughs lived in London at some point. Were these writers influential to you?
HC: Yeah. I was really into Jean Cocteau. He was a master of several disciplines. He was so good at writing, film, and theater.
AL: Was Surrealism an influence back then?
HC: God, yes. I loved it. I read a book by Dorothea Tanning. She was living with Max Ernst in a French village. He came up to her and said “Happy Birthday” and gave her a painting. He was one of the top Surrealist painters. She took and said “I’ll take this into town and get it framed.” She put it in a plastic bag and took a bus. She got into town and realized she left it on the bus. She came back to the house and said to Max Ernst: “I’m sorry but I left the painting on the bus and lost it.” And he said “Don’t worry. I’ll do another one right now.” So there is an original Max Ernst painting floating around in some basement in France.
AL: Did you grow up with any religious influences? Was that all over by the time you were a teenager?
HC: No. It’s very sad. The Church in the UK used to be a social center for the community. It’s gone.
AL: What has replaced it?
HC: Nothing has replaced it. What has happened is these old beautiful churches are being sold off and being made into condominiums.