Robyn Hitchcock and Lydia Lunch Highlight Gonerfest 15 

As the always unpredictable Gonerfest has grown over the past 15 years, it has cast its nets ever further afield, spotlighting bands that one doesn't see at other festivals. Though we'll hear plenty of that trademark Goner slam-and-bash (as with Aquarian Blood, NOTS, Negro Terror, the Carbonas, the Neckbones, Ten High, the Oblivians, and others), there's a true smorgasbord of other styles and sounds (including many beyond category). Landing two major artists as different as Robyn Hitchcock and Lydia Lunch is a major coup for this most DIY of festivals, and yet the contrast between them can't obscure their shared quality of bucking trends, even punk, since the '70s. One of them does it through a tenacious and ever-inventive historical stubbornness; the other through a kind of "musical schizophrenia."

click to enlarge Robyn Hitchcock
  • Robyn Hitchcock

Robyn Hitchcock

The ascent of Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians in the 1980s, with such albums as Element of Light, marked the ascent of his previous work as well, as college radio junkies went digging through bins to find LPs by his first real group, the Soft Boys, and the solo albums that followed. While the former were full of slashing and chiming guitars, and the latter were more intimate affairs, all his work had the common thread of harking back to the perfect marriage of guitar jangle, harmonies, and songwriting that first peaked in the late '60s. The genius was in the way Hitchcock's songs subverted classic rock cliches by embracing surrealism and weirdly pointed lyrics.

Memphis Flyer: When you were starting with the Soft Boys in Cambridge, did it already seem like the '60s were antique? In hindsight, Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd had only started 10 years earlier.

Robyn Hitchcock: It seemed like that kind of music was not there, or accessible. But that was the vein I wanted to work in. I wanted to play 1966-67 music, whatever that was. It wasn't exactly psychedelic. It's a bit of a misnomer. I suppose it's more accurate than saying I was a punk or something industrial. But there was never an exact definition for what it was, and there still isn't. You could say "It is that which was played by people in 1966-67" — it was when pop became rock. And like all movements, it was unstable. It existed in transition. It existed really in motion.

If you come see me at Gonerfest, I've got three Nashville guys backing me up. It will have that sort of sound, the spangling guitars and the harmonies, which we had in the Soft Boys. The Soft Boys had more intricate arrangements than my more recent material, but all of it is now absolutely vintage. It's like an old car, and it has some of the beautiful qualities that old cars have. It may not be that reliable and you can't travel that far in it, but it should make it to Memphis. And you've got the old street cars there, so I'm kind of a complement to that, really. I'm the equivalent of a vintage street car.

Do you feel like an anachronism, being an English psychedelic folk-rocker living in Nashville?

No, it's very appropriate, because Americana itself is a throwback. Americana is basically white music before punk happened. Punk is never gonna happen. It's always 1974. People are playing "Cortez the Killer," you know? Gram Parsons is still touring. That's what East Nashville is. I was even touted as an Americana artist last year, which you would think is a misnomer, but 10 years ago, Americana was alt-country, and 10 years before that it was alternative. As I used to say, if the Beatles had come out in 2004, they'd have been an alt-country act.

Still, the Beatles' songs may last a long time, because they were so good. Through some freak of nature, they just happened to have three great songwriters, and they made each other greater through competition. It was sort of like an egg with three embryos in it. But sooner or later, there will be no Paul McCartney or Bob Dylan or Rolling Stones. That generation that were born in the early '40s will be gone. People like me will be the seniors about to go over the waterfall.

I'm not really, technically rock anymore. Essentially, I'm a folkie. It's all music that's written without a click track. But no definition really covers me very much. So you could say, well, he's a psychedelic folk singer, but what does that mean exactly? And I think it's hard to sell things if you can't define them. Is that a banana or an apple? What are these fruits you're selling me? Do you eat it with a skin, do you cook this, or where does it go? And I think I'm one of those unidentified fruits, you know?

click to enlarge Lydia Lunch - JASMINE HIRST
  • Jasmine Hirst
  • Lydia Lunch

Lydia Lunch

This multi-media subversive has been on music fans' radars at least since the 1978 Brian Eno-curated collection, No New York, which featured Lunch's band Teenage Jesus & the Jerks. Not long after that, though, she took a stylistic left turn with her jazzy debut LP, Queen of Siam, and ever since she's followed unexpected muses, while always keeping a taste of the downtown New York performance art scene, and its radical politics, that first nurtured her. Memphis Flyer: Who were your greatest inspirations when you started playing in the 1970s?

Lydia Lunch: They were all writers. They weren't musicians necessarily, but writers like Henry Miller and Hubert Selby. The Marquis de Sade, more for his philosophy. His outlandishness was just painting a picture of what goes on behind closed doors in parliament, for instance, or the White House.

You played dissonant noise in the No Wave days, but your debut solo album was very jazzy. What inspired the change?

Well, as a musical schizophrenic, I was always trying to contradict what came before it. There are many sides to express. Actually, half of the album is big band jazz, the other is nursery rhymes. I was listening to a lot of cartoon music at the time, and just wanted to do something that was just totally in a different vein. Something kind of noir and sassy. And then, bringing Robert Quine into the mix was just a highlight of my life. My favorite guitar player. He played with Richard Hell and Lou Reed and produced some of Teenage Jesus.

Then you quickly moved beyond that big band sound ...

But I'm actually back in it now. I came back around to it with an album called Smoke and the Shadows. And I've just finished recording an album with Sylvia Black, who is a very diverse musical schizophrenic herself, out of L.A. We've almost completed a totally jazz noir album that'll come out sometime at the end of the year. It's like swamp rock; I come in and out of it. And jazz noir as well. And also psycho ambient.

And at Gonerfest, you'll be upping the rock noise quotient again, playing your Retrovirus material.

I'm constantly flipping the script. What's interesting about Retrovirus is that it's chaotic, but somehow there's a cohesion when you hear it all together. The band somehow unites the mania into a different beast altogether. That's what I've been focusing on the last few years. Working with Weasel Walter is great. It's a fun, maniacal musical mayhem.

Gonerfest 15 runs from Thursday, September 27th to Sunday, September 30th. See www.goner-records.com for the full schedule.

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