Hugh Cornwell

Stubble Interview by Ken Zebbyn

It was Saint Patrick’s Day in New York City’s Mercury Lounge where I got to speak to Hugh Cornwell before his first solo gig in America ever.

Ken: First thing I wanna do is like to thank you for just all the music you’ve done. We’ve really enjoyed it over the years, and glad to see that you’re back on the states in terms of getting the music out.

Hugh: Oh, thanks. Yeah. Absolutely. I’m enjoyin’ it. When I came over to here on the bus from the airport and saw the twin towers coming out of the bridge I thought “Ahhh, this is nice.” Yes. I haven’t been here since 1990. I was here to promote Ten with the STRANGLERS managers and we were here... Yeah and that also was here.

Ken: Getting to the beginning of how you started your solo career. You did the Nosferatu album first and when you did that you were with the STRANGLERS. What prompted you to break away to do something on your own while still in the band?

Hugh: I just needed to get away and do something. I didn’t tell the record company. I just went off to Los Angeles. I rang Robert Williams and said “Robert, do you want to do an album together?” and he said “Yes.” It was over the Christmas period and all the record companies are closed ...I’m comin’ over tomorrow... we charged it all to EMI.and they didn’t even know until it was done and they were very upset.

Ken: Have you known Robert for a long time prior to that?

Hugh: I’d met him ...I’d been to see Captain Beefheart... I was in San Francisco, that’s right, and I was hanging out there after a STRANGLERs tour. Every time we played America we came over to San Francisco to hang out and I was hanging out there with my friend called Jonathan Postal. We had a band called the READY MAIDS there. We’re hanging out and BLONDIE was in town and we all went off to see BEEFHEART who was doing like five nights there, two shows a night, five nights and we were all into Beefheart and he was changing the set, every set. Every show was different. That was Robert’s first real big gig with him. He had just started with him and afterwards we met...we hung in from there.

Ken: ...and then the album came and you had the two guys... the two brothers from DEVO on the album as well.

Hugh: They were on it, yep. Loads of people. Ian Dury was on it. Who else? Zappa’s keyboard player Ian Underwood Oh and then the CLASH just singing background vocals on “Puppets” They were in the studio when we were mixing it and we thought it would be funny to get them involved.

Ken: A few years later the band dissolved or at least you left the STRANGLERS...

Hugh: Yeah in 1990. Ahhh, I was just bored with it all. It was getting to be the same old thing. It wasn’t even new programming. It was like we were making a record but we’d all be there at separate... different times.

Ken: OK, so you were all kind of growing apart from each other?

Hugh: Yeah, I suppose so. I wasn’t part of that.

Ken: Are you still in touch with any of the original band?

Hugh: No, I mean, John called me very nicely before Christmas to wish me a merry Christmas. He wanted to meet up and have dinner and I said “Well, I can”t afford to have any rumors start of a reunion tour. I can’t afford that at the moment. You’re just gonna have to wait. As much as I’d like to, I can’t have any rumors like that because there’s absolutely no way I can, nine years working toward this and there’s no way I want any rumors ‘cause it’s gonna be no good and you know... I still hear from them but I mean they... over the years they... at first they were acrimonious and I can’t understand it because I left them in order. Over the years you’d think they’d kind of understand but if I was booked into a festival and they were gonna be booked by the promoter and they weren’t playing the same day as me... everyone’s gotta work but they stopped me doing that festival and I thought that was really childish behavior, you know. Someone did and it wasn’t the promoter and it wasn’t me so I think that was childish. Hopefully they’ll realize...

Ken: When .. then you went in and did Wolf and...

Hugh: Yup. ‘88, yeah.

Ken: you know, in a way it has still some of the flavor of what you’re doing now, ummm...

Hugh: Well, I hope there’s a link between them all, you know?

Ken: ...and on that album, just what was going on in your life and some of the things that motivated you to write some of the songs?

Hugh: Ahhhh, it was my first real solo album because it wasn’t... I mean, with Nosferatu’s working all the time in collaboration with Robert on those ideas, we were actually both putting a lot in but when I put that one out I was totally alone and it was ahhh... I realized the all and the importants of a producer. On the last two tracks I worked with Clive Langer and Adam Lee Stanley who’d done all the Madness stuff. Clive’s a complete and utter lunatic and Adam Lee Stanley I knew anyway from the early sessions.

Ken: Then from there I guess it was the CCW was the next thing or was it the Wired?

Hugh: No, it was CCW.You’re absolutely right.

Ken: Did you know those two gentlemen for a while or did it just...

Hugh: Yeah, well my publishers, EMI publishing had rung me up and said do you want to... because this bloke comes over from Nashville all the time, he’s not really from New York... songwriters in England... we were writing and I at the time was helping out a young band I’d found in Bath with Andy West who was the lead singer and guitarist and ummm... Roger and I would write these great songs and then we’d give them to the publishers and they’d sort of be sitting there and reading their papers and they never did anything with them. I had already introduced Andy to Roger and I said why don’t we do it together? Andy was up for it and Now Andy West is living in Nashville. Yes and he’s writing country and western songs and he’s on the verge of some big covers.

Ken: Fantastic! Good for him!! Are you gonna be going towards Nashville on this tour?

Hugh: Well I hope... not on this leg, I mean, I’m only here for a week but I hope to be going down there at some point in the near future and work with him.

Ken: Beautiful. The song that strikes me the most off that album is one that none of you had wrote, that “Psycho” song.

Hugh: “Psycho”? Well that was Andy’s. Andy brought that in. Yeah, great.

Ken: On the liner note I think it says Leon Paine or something?

Hugh: Yeah... yeah, yeah...

Ken: ...and I was trying to figure out who Leon... Yeah, I think it does say L. Paine on it.

Hugh: Leon Paine. Yeah. I think he’s a sort of a country western artist.

Ken: Yeah. So now that you’re telling me all this country roots because I didn’t even realize that Roger had this big... ‘cause I’m not really well versed in country music so...

Hugh: Oh God, yeah. Well, his career now is basically writing hits in Nashville for country and western artists. He’s done a couple of huge ones... he’s got a couple of huge ones this year... or last year.

Ken: From there you did Wired

Hugh: ...Yeah Right, right. How did that happen? Well, Wired happened... You see CCW was a disaster, I mean the guy that released it only printed up 4,000 copies. It really needs to be re-mixed, to get put... to give it to Laurie, Laurie Lathem and say “Re-mix it Laurie.” She can do an amazing job. That’s what it needs to have done to it. I had limited access. Dave had great ... what he said made sense ... very much a maveric man. He would do things ...and the whole thing fell apart, project fell apart while we were making the album.We anguished for about six months and Dave being very brave he went around and it came out, the original sponsor we couldn’t find so when it came out, wanting to sue us all of us. We hadn’t spoke None of us . Instead of putting them all around a table and sorting it out and saying “You have half and you have half and let’s get it done.” it all just was frozen and suddenly Hugh Cornwell meant, “Ohhhhh, litigation!” suddenly to everybody. And so I couldn’t get arrested. It was ridiculous. Then uhhh... I hooked up with David and we decided right from there to make it go, going to the accountant ... you know ... yet so we were happy. We went out and pushed that record. We found a way was to give them Snapper in England, gave it to them only for the U.K. ...

Ken: I follow your web-site pretty closely and the gentleman you have to do that web-site is... He, he... I tell you... I get up-dates, I mean I probably know more about you than I... than I, as far as... it was funny. When I was calling the publicity people for Velvel they didn’t even know you were in negotiations and...

Hugh: Yes.

Ken: ...and yet all the stuff was on the web-site so it was... it got me very excited that “Gee, maybe Hugh Cornwell’s gonna actually come back to the states and do some music.” I know how difficult it is to get sponsored for a tour to come over and...

Hugh: Yeah, yeah. That’d be great, I mean, originally they wanted this out last summer but it got put back to the Autumn and then it got... this is the second time it’s been put back. I think the timing for me was perfect. Perfect timing.

Ken: When you re-did the album, changing the title for Velvel and added the two new songs, dropping one, did you have total control of how the album was designed? ...or was that?

Hugh: Absolutely. Yeah, The thing is as soon as the record company found out it was gonna come out in America they’ll be flooding America with copies of the import thank you very much ... and we actually had to get it at the courts to stop them doing it. Then, when that happened was we felt the best thing was to change the cover, the Guilty is very nice but not foe America and lets cut it complete, cut the crap. Let’s just change the title. Change it ... and we had “Jesus” and “Not Hungry Enough” which at the time we were happy with, the way they turned out. In the sessions we didn’t think it would play in Europe, Jesus Will Weep that the profiling or we didn’t think that I could pull it off there but it is right for me to put it on this release.

Ken: Yeah. after doing “Hanging Around”.

Hugh: It wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t... It just wouldn’t... (more laughter) We thought America yeah ‘cause I’ve been out of the picture for so long in America that it would be different. Fine, you know? It’s just a great song. But in England they put connotations on it all so we ummm...

Ken: The title cut...

Hugh: Yeah?

Ken: It seems to be about ummm, I don’t know?

Hugh: Well, I mean, the first verse is about people being victims being named for things, rightly or wrongly. That’s what happens in life and the second how it’s a mans world. OK. I love it ‘cause I’m a man but it’s not very fair, is it? It’s a mans world. It’s terrible. The third verse is about just ummm... being ummm... how tough it is too that nothing really ever changes. We have all this technology and were suopposed to be civilized ... tape off that.

Ken: Absolutely. When you started negotiating with Velvel were there certain key people that helped set this up for you or, in your earlier comments, you made it sound like they really were approaching you from the outside.

Hugh: Absolutely. Yeah, Bob Franks and Steve Propaz uhhh...

Ken: Putting together a solo uhhh... I noticed that you did do some solo gigs over in England. I see them on the web-site.

Hugh: Just a couple, yeah I’ve done a couple.

Ken: How difficult was that for you the first time you did one?

Hugh: Daunting. It was in Bristol and I wasn’t singing my songs... I’ve done quite a few now.

Ken: You mentioned there might be another leg of the tour? Is that possible that you bring some bandmates over or...

Hugh: Well yeah but the idea is to spend on and off for the next six weeks or so doing this situation and I’ve just come off tour with another guitar, bass drums. Yeah. We’re just on two weeks of dates and it’s just going beautifully. The bags are packed and they’re ready shoes are polished and they’re ready to hit the road.

Ken: One of the cuts is “Torture Garden”. You’re calling your web-site the torture garden... What does torture garden mean to you?

Hugh: Well, I mean the song has those cryptic messages. parts where it’s a cryptic and I’m not telling you there about because someone actually got it. The guy that mastered the album, he said to me “By the way ... worked out, du-dul-la-da du-dul-la-da is, isn’t it?” and I said “Yeah, you’re absolutely right ... I’m so glad you’ve worked it out ‘cause it means I don’t have to explain it. If you ... to work that means other people can work it out.” There’s some other clues in there. It’s quite easy. It’s just a tribute to some people. ..Theres a book titled Torture Garden, didn’t even know about this book and the guy gave it to me yesterday in Canada. I freaked out. It’s a novel about a bloke that goes to the Orient and there’s this salon and there he meets this woman called Clara who takes him to China to this garden of tortures. Dangerous things go on in this garden and people act ... fences ... very Sadeid. DeSade, you know.

Ken: Hmmmm, interesting.

Hugh: So I’m... just started reading it.

Ken: So, you’re inspiring other things that you didn’t know about.

Hugh: Yeah, I mean I just remembered seeing a movie, there was a film called Torture Garden which I think is banned.

Ken: How do you judge gigs and what can we expect tonite, I heard you strumming Never Say Goodbye?

Hugh: Uhhhh, well I approach all touring now I don’t take it seriously .there’s always some other situation ... If you’re doing a gig and you’ve got a responsive audience it doesn’t matter if it’s 50 people or 500 people or 5,000 people. If they all come together and really appreciate what you’re doing. I really don’t have a favorite. Complete retrospective. Never Say Goodbye, Well, I’ve never done that yet and I was thinking of doing that tonight. I’ve just sorted it out. Some of the STRANGLERS songs lend themselves perfectly to just acoustic guitar for solo. I’ve tried to do Baroque Bordello”. I’ve realized now, I mean I’ve been doing... I’ve been in music now for 21 years and now I’ve got enough solo stuff so I’ve actually got a complete catalogue of stuff. The STRANGLERS isn’t the majority of my output now. Now I’ve got enough where it’s actually a healthy chunk but it’s not most of it so now I feel happy about putting... doing about 30 percent Stranglers and other stuff that’s become quite a bit of material to counter-balance it. I think the old band’s mistake is always going out and doing the old material. see the STRANGLERS are making a, I think making a big mistake. They’re not establishing their new stuff whole catalogue of material they don’t play live and they’re gonna get nowhere. I actually stopped for a few years and people would say why don’t you just play it but doing that to say “Look, you’ve got to realize that I’m seroius and they thought I was being disrespectful or something ... that’s not what I meant and I make a statement of being a solo act, and it’s worked because now when I’m doing STRANGLERS things, I mean I’m getting now people shouting out just as much for “Black Hair, Black Eyes, Black Suit” or “One Burning Desire” as “Peaches” and “Then What, More Heroes?” I’m getting half and half and I’m going “Ahhhh, this is working.” Now I’m getting people shouting out as much for my stuff as STRANGLERS stuff.

Ken: absolutely. your solo stuff has bviously but its got it’s own identity and it’s extremely entertaining. The only thing that really, I guess, Nosferatu and CCW are the two that stand out as different.

Hugh: Because they’ve got a lot of input from other people.

Ken: Right but as far as like your sound. and it also gives me an idea of what percentage of the original STRANGLER material was really attributable to your certain writing.

Hugh: Absolutely. Well I mean I’m touching Nosferatu tonight. I’m touching Wired slightly. I’m touching a lot of Black Hair obviously. I’m playing the songs I picked to ones I had major imput as I said, I could but also ones that I either I wrote the whole song and brought it into the band as “Always The Sun” is and Strange Little Girl that I wrote with Hans the guitarist who died unfortunately a couple of years ago ummm, so I mean I feel happy about playing those STRANGLERS songs because they were mine or I put a lot into them. So it all... it’s part of my show and I’m actually playing some new songs which are gonna be off the new album that I haven’t recorded yet but...

Ken: But you’re already planing on it.

Hugh: I’m writing and I’m really happy with some of these new songs. They’re shit hot.

Ken: Does your Velvel contract include an additional album?

Hugh: Not yet but we’re checking each other out. We’ve given them this one.

Ken: That’s been announced, on your web-site at least.

Hugh: So they’re gonna do that and we’ve gotta see how they like what... I mean, if they can’t do anything then they won’t want to do the record. ... I really hope it works because I think they’re the kind of people... they’re big fans, the chairman’s a big fan and ...

Ken: Have you done a video yet for this recording and is there one playing?

Hugh: Nope, not... Well we’ve got ahhh... I’ve got a genius lined up. I always like working with geniuses. I’ve got Laurie Lathem on the record side and I’ve got this genius for the visual side and he’s already to work can’t wait to start

Ken: Any final words to end the interview?

Hugh: Don’t take life too seriously.