The Mad Professor

Kooky rock legend Robyn Hitchcock takes a gander back at his career, and Ian MacKaye takes on new venues.

Robyn Hitchcock

One couldn't blame pop eccentric Robyn Hitchcock for feeling nostalgic lately. On November 13, Yep Roc records will release a five-CD boxed set, I Wanna Go Backwards, containing three of his early solo albums and a whopping 57 bonus tracks. In a nod to that time, the 54-year-old has embarked on a rare solo U.S. tour with Harvey Danger's Sean Nelson. And when Hitchock was reached at his UK home a few weeks ago, he was hard at work preparing more reissues of his back catalog — a wholly influential canon full of psychedelic garage-rock and quirky power-pop, all envisioned through his highly fantastical, creative lyrical eye.

B-Sides: What are you up to?

Robyn Hitchcock: I'm in my office, and I am just repackaging things. There's the Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians set, which is supposed to come out in May or June 'cause it's taking time to find the right art person and everything for it. And then supposedly the Soft Boys stuff from, like, 1977 to 1980 is meant to come out next fall.

Is this the Egyptians stuff that was really out of print?

Basically everything that we have the rights to is coming out. So the stuff that was on A&M, the radio hits the "Balloon Man" and the "Madonna of the Wasps" and stuff, that's not in my control. [The music has] wound up [as] just some kind of little facet on the multicolored coat of a huge corporate beast. It's a sequin on the jacket of a cosmic goat. And suffice to say, we're not able to access that particular sequin so we can't get those records out. Anyway, even without the major label stuff, there's piles of this keeping me busy for quite a while.

Where is it stored?

It's stored in a giant warehouse in southeast London where I have 27 boxes. But my 27 boxes are amongst 3 or 4 million other boxes and you have to give them about two weeks' notice to go find your boxes. It's a bit like the last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, if you remember that film. But unlike the Holy Grail, I know exactly where my tapes are. And unlike the Holy Grail as well, they have to be baked in a sort of big pizza oven. Peter Gabriel owns a studio, Real World, and I think they have a tape-baking oven there. So these sort of pizza-chef people put the tapes into the ovens. It's called "al forno," the Italian term for when things are baked rather than steamed or fried or grilled. So these tapes are cooked al forno, and they then are playable and the acetate doesn't rub off on the machine.

You've been playing with the Venus Three [his backing band] so much, is it an adjustment to play solo?

It will be a slight adjustment, but it won't take very long. I am probably ready to play some solo shows now, because I've played very few for the last two years. And I'm looking forward to it. When I'm playing solo, the thing I miss the most is a harmony singer — and the fact that Sean is there is great, because apart from opening, I'm sure he'll join me on harmonies for a bunch of songs. I'm happy usually with the tunes of my songs. A weak tune is no excuse. It's got to work by itself, but I just think a harmony really puts the salt on it or the relish or however you want to think of it. So it's going to be Robyn and Garfunkel.

So you said Nick Lowe is your neighbor?

Yes, he lives nearby. He came along and sang when we were recording at home. It's in that documentary, the John Edginton one. Sex, Food, Death...and Insects? That's the one.

Things take a while to get to St. Louis.

Well, I certainly have. I haven't been there since 1999. Is Beatle Bob still there?

Of course. He's kind of like the cockroach of the music scene. He will probably be at your show.

Well I hope so. What's the place I'm playing?

You're playing Blueberry Hill's Duck Room. Did you play there last time?

I don't know, because it was with the Flaming Lips somewhere upstairs.

The Duck Room is named after Chuck Berry's duck walk.

Oh right, not because it's an area popular with mallards. —Annie Zaleski
9 p.m. Wednesday, November 7. Blueberry Hill's Duck Room, 6504 Delmar Boulevard, University City. $20. 314-727-4444.

On an Even(s) Keel
As the frontman of the legendary punk bands Fugazi and Minor Threat and co-founder of Dischord Records, Ian MacKaye has proven himself to be both a prolific songwriter and a keen businessman. He birthed the highly respected independent label nearly three decades ago and it has since grown to be the very nucleus of do-it-yourself punk-rock culture. MacKaye's unwavering integrity and sincerity in the face of the shady corporate music business reveal his career path to be nothing short of inspirational. Viewed as the moral and dignified godfather of the hardcore and straight-edge scenes, MacKaye seems to start accidental revolutions by simply speaking his mind and doing his work.

With the much-missed Fugazi on indefinite hiatus, MacKaye has plenty of other projects to cultivate. In addition to speaking engagements, running the label and giving interviews, MacKaye is busy scheduling tour dates for his newest band, the Evens, a lo-fi (yet still intense) duo with Amy Farina, formerly of Washington D.C.'s the Warmers. Though the Evens could easily cash in their punk-royalty status in exchange for the best gigs in town, the band schedules the dates by itself and prefers to play small, non-traditional venues including art galleries, libraries and community centers.

Calling from Dischord House, the headquarters of his label, MacKaye is instantly likable. He seems smart, affable and warm. In conversation he's quick, but not rude. Funny, though not sarcastic. In this and every other forum, it is clear that MacKaye takes what he does very seriously.

"I work really hard," he says. "[Other] people, they punch out for the day and they go home. I never punch out. I'm never off the clock, in a way. The fact that I haven't separated my work from myself — it has its pluses and it also has its negatives." The lure, however, is clear. "I wake up every morning having something to do and wanting to do it."

Aside from the advantage of keeping costs down for fans, MacKaye reveals another purpose in booking alternative venues: "So we can be liberated from the rock world, which is pretty constricting when you get right down to it. I mean, you think about the kind of venues or the kind of establishments where music can be presented, and ultimately it's pretty limited and largely dictated by one of two industries, you know — and that's the rock industry and the alcohol industry. And since we don't feel beholden to either, then why not break free?"

When MacKaye is questioned about his constant work and touring, he pushes off any concern. "I like places, I like people! I like going somewhere. I like that fact that music is a point of gathering that can effectively work anywhere." Here he further clarifies: "I guess I don't feel ever burned out at all. I just feel fortunate to be able to go play music." — Jaime Lees
8:30 p.m. Monday, November 5. White Flag Projects, 4568 Manchester Avenue. $5. 314-531-3442.

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