I suppose we can blame Bob Dylan, The Beatles and Syd Barrett for the musical journey of one Robyn Hitchcock, pop music’s wizard of odd. He led The Soft Boys, a collective of neo-psychedelic surrealists who delivered two albums to critical acclaim, but after that band dissolved, Mr. Hitchcock became an indie wonder, releasing albums full of unlikely beauty and awkward grace — songs about men with lightbulb heads and making coffee for dead spouses.
Then came the pairing of a musical genius uninterested in fame with a pop music machine (A&M Records) driven by manufacturing it. Those years transformed Mr. Hitchcock’s cult status into a dash of mainstream success, even generating hit singles “Balloon Man” and “Madonna of the Wasps.”
As part of a rocking 2016 that sees Mr. Hitchcock playing The Barns at Wolf Trap in Vienna, Virginia, Wednesday and the District’s Black Cat April 22, the singer spoke about the time he was “prioritized,” the possibility of another Soft Boys reunion and what you can expect to see at gigs he’s co-headlining with comic Eugene Mirman.
Question: If you hadn’t discovered Bob Dylan, do you think you would have become a musician?
Answer: Like trillions of others, if it wasn’t for Bob Dylan, it would have been a different musical landscape. Pop music wouldn’t have been my thing at all. I did also grow up listening to The Beatles, but I never thought of being a Beatle.
Ironically, 50 years later, I think The Beatles are the lasting influence on me, even more so than Dylan. Syd Barrett I loved. Listening to him showed me how to translate Bob Dylan into being English. In many ways Syd Barrett was “the English Bob Dylan.” The enigmatic curly haired l’enfant terrible visionary.
Q: Without music what would you have become?
A: I would have become a college lecturer who wrote poems. And possibly did stand-up comedy on the side.
Q: With such a vast catalog of songs, how do you decide what to play?
A: If I played just one song from every album, I would be onstage for two and a half hours. No one wants a show that long. I know Springsteen plays for three-plus hours. I wouldn’t want to see anything for three hours — even a Beatles reunion. I’ve never been burdened with a hit record, so I don’t have to play the same songs. I play songs people think they like.
Q: Are there any songs you don’t want to play anymore?
A: Generally, I have an instinct for the noncommercial. And the unpopular. I remember the first time I saw REM play “Losing My Religion” in Athens one night in a little club at the end of one of my gigs. I thought, “This is awful! What have you done? Minor chords with more minor chords? Who the f*** is doing this?” Of course, it was the breakthrough song. [laughs]
It’s the same with my stuff. I would be quite happy never to play any of my better-known songs again. But unless you’re Dylan, you can’t afford to completely disregard what your audience wants.
Q: Was there ever a time where you tried to write, or were pressured into trying to write a hit?
A: Only when I was with A&M in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. There was a wonderful point where I was “prioritized.” That was the closest I would have come to it. But it wasn’t my intention. We tried to sort of say, “Look we don’t want to …. We just want to sort of chug on as we are.” They would say things like, “How many records do you want to sell? You think we’re gonna sell 400,000 records?!” Yes! We’re gonna sell a sh**load of records!”
They made you think you wanted things that you didn’t actually need. It was collective hypnosis.
Q: Your live shows have a lot of comedy in them.
A: Comedy is what happens when you cross the dateline from the unbearable. Things become so unbearable they become a joke. Most comedians I know are quite serious, anxious people who find life rather difficult. As a consequence, they make people laugh.
Q: The D.C. show is a co-headline with comic Eugene Mirman, yes?
A: I’ve known him for some time. Eugene is a big music fan. He’s friends with folks like John Wesley Harding and Amanda Palmer. He has been a portal to my life in the last few years. I’m hoping that we will do an encore together. We’ll get onstage to riff together and unravel the world.
Q: The Soft Boys reunited a couple times over the years. Will you ever play together again?
A: Not as a touring entity, and I don’t think as a recording entity. But I wouldn’t rule out some of us getting together and playing at a party. It would be great fun. The band is like a vintage car. You take it out to go for a spin for a couple miles, but you wouldn’t drive across the country.
Q: Are you working on any new music?
A: Yes, I’m making a record in Nashville with Brendan Benson producing. It’s got a lot of the old elements and a few new ones. At this stage records are not done for commercial purposes. If you make money back from your record, you’re doing it smart. It’s an expensive hobby. I’m lucky enough to still make a living as a musician through live work and odd bits of royalties.
I’m 63. It’s kind extraordinary that I’m out here at all and people want to see me.
Mr. Hitchcock appears at The Barns at Wolf Trap Thursday and at The Black Cat with Eugene Mirman April 22.