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."

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."

Bram and Oracle were released exclusively on Hitchcock's and Phillips' own Web sites (robynhitchcock.com and grantleephillips.com, respectively), a surprising move for Hitchcock, at least, given his proudly Luddite stance. "I'm very leery of the whole business," he says. "Pretty soon we'll have people sitting opposite of each other, talking to monitors of each other, or sitting next to each other and talking on cell phones, or making love via our mobiles. While people talk about increased communication, I think it's making people more distant. And I think it came on the backs of the hippies. Everybody distanced each other with drugs; although you can tell anybody anything, you're behind this cellophane. There's a filter between you and the world.

"As my girlfriend puts it, we have lots of information but no knowledge. We can learn in extreme detail about turtles on the Galapagos Islands 400 years ago, or find out about glaciers in Canada at www.novascotia-icepick.com. But do people listen to each other?"

That said, Hitchcock has taken advantage of the promotional opportunities on a fan-club-style level, something Phillips supports as well. Off and on, the two have been performing at Los Angeles' Cafe Largo, playing shows that are more full-blown theatrical revues than simple run-throughs of songs. "Grant and I are both metropolitan entertainers," says Hitchcock. "It's like an updated Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra -- acting, song, dance, telling jokes, singing ballads. That was an era where you were expected to do everything; after Bob Dylan, rock stars were meant to be heroic figures. Those people aren't necessarily supposed to be funny or be able to act."

Phillips says he's amenable to working with a record label again, but he's in no hurry to do so. "I was able to put something out that didn't bear the weight of interference. It was something I really welcomed after going through the gauntlet of the label system. It's proved to be a really great grassroots thing. For the first time, it makes sense."

More by Mark Athitakis

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