The Old New Media Blues

Punk icon Robyn Hitchcock and roots master Grant-Lee Phillips get their art down to science

Robyn Hitchcock and Grant-Lee Phillips took different paths to get to the exact same place. For Hitchcock, it began in Cambridge, England, starting the Soft Boys in the late '70s and getting thrown in with the class-of-'77 punk camp, even though his sensibilities were more closely attuned to early Pink Floyd psychedelia. In the 20 years since his band's demise, things have only gotten weirder; across nearly two dozen albums, Hitchcock has spun bizarre little tales about spiders and leeches and dead wives and other creepy-crawly things that aren't quite so tangible. You know the tingly things on the back of your neck? That's Robyn Hitchcock's discography.

For Phillips, it was simply a matter of getting out of Stockton. In 1983, Phillips left the Bay Area's outskirts for UCLA's film school and toiled in a variety of bands before forming Grant Lee Buffalo. Over the course of four albums before closing up shop after 1998's Jubilee, Phillips had perfected a cinematic yet rootsy approach to songcraft -- not quite as rustic as, say, Uncle Tupelo but not as cloying or melodramatic as Counting Crows, either. This meant that Grant Lee Buffalo had a hard time finding its way in the marketplace; Slash Records plugged the band's records to alternative, mainstream rock and adult-contemporary camps, which resulted in little beyond a fond cult and the moral support of alt-rock demigods like Michael Stipe and Bob Mould.

"It was hard for any of them (at Slash) to get a handle on exactly what we were," says Phillips. "These days, that's a real hindrance. I've always been a fan of those records that were diverse and filled with songs that don't have a twin -- I'm a White Album fan. I don't fault them for the quandary they were in. I just wish there was more tenacity on their part in terms of promoting us."

Robyn Hitchcock: "We have lots of information but no knowledge."
Ken Regan
Robyn Hitchcock: "We have lots of information but no knowledge."

And that's where Phillips' and Hitchcock's paths begin converging. If any artist ever needed to be demystified, it's Hitchcock. Over the past five years, his solo albums have become more straightforward folk-rock affairs, like 1996's clear-minded Moss Elixir and the dense rock arrangements of last year's Jewels for Sophia. The twisted imagery and wordplay are still there, but increasingly they've been couched in a sophistication that tinkers not only with traditional singer/songwriter modes but also older pop standards and the Beatles at their most complex. The die-hard fans will still take the Soft Boys masterpiece Underwater Moonlight or the solo Globe of Frogs, but all sides of the Hitchcock camp -- and those who have never heard his music at all -- could get behind Storefront Hitchcock, the live-in-concert documentary directed by Jonathan Demme. Because Demme's camera refuses to move from Hitchcock's face, and because the director fills it remarkably well with some hilarious off-the-cuff storytelling, the movie unrepentantly gives viewers a Hitchcock who's human, entertaining and not so weird after all.

Storefront Hitchcock was recently released on DVD, but Hitchcock believes that the movie could have found a wider audience. Though Demme directed the Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, easily the finest rock-concert movie ever made, Storefront Hitchcock was screened haphazardly, never got a proper theatrical release and made its way to DVD almost as an afterthought, without any of the added commentaries, footage and other bells and whistles the format was made for. "There's not much I can do about it," says Hitchcock with a sigh. "If I'm lying awake at night grinding my teeth, I'm grinding them about something else. It would've been nice if it'd been released, and it also would've been nice if MGM (the film's distributor) had said where it was being shown. There was no coordination. They were more concerned with the new James Bond film."

In the past year, both Hitchcock and Phillips have parted ways with their Warner Bros.-affiliated labels. When Grant Lee Buffalo broke up early last year, Phillips spent his time in Los Angeles working on "a lot of undoing" of his old musical habits. "I went through a period of three or four months where I just set my guitar in its case and went to the piano. I began messing around with drum machines and using more experimental devices, to throw myself a healthy curve.

"Grant Lee Buffalo was ultimately known for a kind of pastoral, grand approach," he adds. "And that suited the sound of the band. As an individual, it seemed as though I had to strip away a lot of the overdubs." Phillips' first solo album, Ladies' Love Oracle, is a remarkably understated affair compared with Buffalo's grand flourishes. For half-an-hour, the album works as a song cycle of intimate (but not depressive) contemplations, supported only by guitar, light percussion and the occasional accordion and other instruments.

Likewise, Hitchcock's A Star for Bram works as the flip side of Jewels for Sophia, presenting a set of witty, folksy tracks that start as Jewels outtakes but cohere well as a record in their own right. "I've learned from experience that people prefer outtakes," Hitchcock says. "I wanted to avoid making double albums or having a CD that's 75 minutes long. This album is about 45 minutes long, and Grant's album is as well. Revolver was under 40 minutes, and that's how it should be. Ideally, both (of my) records should be stuck in a CD player and randomized."

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