In anticipation of his impending visit to the Shaky Isles, it was with more than a little trepidation that I waited to be connected to the man in black. He was in Mexico, a long way from the chillier British climes where he wrote the classic Stranglers tracks Peaches, (Get a) Grip ( On Yourself), No More Heroes, Something Better Change, Nice “n” Sleazy, Golden Brown, Skin Deep and my favs Strange Little Girl and Last Tango in Paris.
The trepidation was not only because of his notorious nature when it comes to interviews: there are myths that back in the day when The Stranglers got a bad review they captured and tied the hapless reporter to a lamppost with his trousers down and warned him not to do it again. My nerves were also fueled by my very good friend Simon who, it’s fair to say, is a disciple of said band and warned me: don’t f#&k it up whatever you do. Words that were ringing in my ears just as Hugh answered the phone.
There’s no shame in admitting I was a little starstruck and incredibly excited as I introduced myself as a part-time reviewer, interviewer and novice DJ for Radio 13. Losing any semblance of cool, I couldn’t help adding that I was a fan from way back in the day when my cousin Denise introduced me to Feline, which set me on a spiritual journey going right back to the beginning of their career and first album Rattus Norvegicus.
Mercifully, the reply from Hugh was upbeat with just a little hint of cheekiness. With the pleasantries out of the way, before I could even launch into my well-researched questions, Hugh got in first with a mischievous comment that caught me by surprise and set the tone for the rest of our chat: “Dave I hear that the Indians are in New Zealand at the moment?” It might help to point out the interview was back in February, but even then it took a little wondering what the hell he was going on about before I got there: “Oh you mean the Indian Cricket team?” He said: “Yeah I hear they’re giving your guys a little bit of a cricket lesson” followed by a good crackly laugh.
Sensing this was going to be quite a relaxed chat I felt more at ease and agreed the Black Caps were being brought back to earth after their incredible run against other teams that summer. Hugh followed on at some length suggesting that this year’s world cup would most likely see the Black Caps facing England in the final and he would be there enjoying every moment. Incidentally, he said his favourite batsman was Kane Williamson. As it transpires Hugh is a bit of a cricket nut.
You might wonder what this has to do with music. Back in the heyday, he would organise an annual cricket competition featuring artists vs music journos. Dressed in black pads, he would have many a bowler quaking in their whites, especially if they hadn’t been so kind about a gig or album.
Entering his 70th year, I asked Hugh after all this time what drives him to still tour and what could we expect to see when he comes here with a full band behind him, given his previous visits was just him and his guitar? He said that it was a chance to play along with some old mates and bring his back catalogue of Stranglers songs to life, choosing those that he loved the most.
Every night has a different setlist, something I guess he can do with a back catalogue of not just Stranglers hits but his own solo work as well. And he is celebrating by playing a number of new songs off his recently released album Monsters.
I said I thought it was his best work for some time (yep I said that out loud) and quickly followed with a question about how he chose the short set of acoustic songs on the album, which included a couple of tracks from Feline. “Yeah, it was all about what would fit well for the album and that I could have a little bit of fun with at the same time.”
With time running out (I was told I had 15 minutes but we spoke for over 40!) I really wanted to get some gold nuggets and to test his memory at the same time. Most of which I have to declare came from Simon, but I took the credit on the day.
“Hugh you used to draw cartoons in the Strangled magazine. Do you still doodle or draw?”
“Nah not that often Dave, but now and again, mainly places I have been to or people that take my interest, along with the odd album sleeve, given vinyl is coming back.”
“Over the years you seem to have had a love/hate relationship with America, has it got any better than the first time you went there and had all your gear stolen?”
“Ha yeah that’s funny now, but back then it wasn’t a laughing matter. I think the driver of the van at the time decided to pay his missus a visit and when he came back the bloody van had been nicked. Funny thing is that van was found five or six years ago in a shed fully intact with all the gear!”
I then asked him to go back to 1979 and talk about how the album Nosferatu came to pass and what led it to have so many eclectic contributors, including Ian Dury, Ian Underwood from the Frank Zappa Band, and Mark and Bob Mothersbaugh from DEVO. Also, how was the recording done given his mate and collaborator Robert Williams, drummer of Captain Beefheart's Magic Band, was in another country, given it was before the Internet, emails, and digital recording.
“It was bloody hard to be honest, he was in the States and I was in England, we would play stuff over the phone and then send tapes to each other until we had what we wanted and then finally put it all together in the studio. I didn’t even tell the record company until it was finished! Not the happiest, but they released it and, of course, it was based on the film of the same name, which I am a huge fan of; in fact movies are a real passion for me as well. I’m actually working on the screenplay based on my latest novel “Arnold Drive” and the soundtrack, which is going to be turned into a film after six years of trying.”
Hugh Cornwell was articulate, insightful, funny, engaging and genuine. He seems to have found comfort in his own skin and perhaps might be mellowing just a little.
A little left field but really wanting to show off my (well my mate’s) encyclopedic knowledge I asked Hugh: “Is it true the noises at the beginning of Losers in the Lost Land, off said album, you recorded a blind man lost on a construction site?” After a long pause, he said: “Well you have got me there but it does kind of ring a bell, let me think about it and I’ll come back to you on that one.”
We talked a little more about what we could expect by way of songs and all the bangers I hoped that we would hear. I did pop in a little request, which was terribly poor form but had to ask, I said: “I know everyone will have their favs on the night but if you are able to slip in Strange Little Girl I would be the happiest man in the Powerstation.” Hugh said: “Well you will just have to wait and see, but what I can tell your mates back in New Zealand, it will be a hell of a fun night and expect quite a bit of banter because that’s what feeds me on the night.”
And with that, we said our goodbyes. Hugh Cornwell was articulate, insightful, funny, engaging and genuine. He seems to have found comfort in his own skin and perhaps might be mellowing just a little. But don’t think the gig will be a soft happy clappy affair and for goodness sake don’t ask what he thinks about the current Stranglers lineup or you might just find yourself in a boot of a car or tied up against some lonesome lamppost in the middle of nowhere. And rightly so!
Catch Hugh Cornwell at the Powerstation in Auckland, NZ on May 03.