The Stranglers frontman on surviving prison, staying sharp, pedal power and the art of songwriting.
Hugh Cornwell has never been like other rock stars. The singer/guitarist best known for fronting punk rockers The Stranglers had already obtained a degree in biochemistry and was doing a post-grad degree in Sweden when he formed his first band. The sensitive soul has written books and done time in prison. He’s the tasty-looking geezer who sang Always The Sun while wearing a long, dark overcoat that looked like it belonged to Harold Steptoe. A genuine case of what you see not being what you get.
His new solo album, Monster, is the same. A wonderfully contemporary-sounding, forward-looking collection, it resounds with the same contrary attitude of his earlier work. It also comes with an accompanying disc of acoustic versions of several
Stranglers hits. Now 69, Cornwell remains an intriguing artist.
The whole culture behind releasing albums has changed.
Well, making albums hasn’t changed so much. You still have to go in somewhere and come up with the songs and record them properly. But CDs and vinyl have become almost like collector’s items.
Does that alter the way you think about making them? Like including a ten-track ‘greatest hits’ disc of acoustic versions of some your best-known Stranglers songs?
Yeah, cover versions of my own songs! Sony came up with that to see if we could get some curiosity from old Stranglers fans. And I’ve been doing acoustic tours every couple of years for the last ten years so I’m familiar with a lot of the old catalogue, and I keep finding songs that respond well to an acoustic treatment. I’m constantly surprised. The most unlikely ones turn out to sound great.
It’s unusual for older artists to come up with new material that lives up to their heyday. How have you kept your edge?
It’s a fluke! [Laughs] I just come up with a bunch of songs that I write at a certain period of time, which works out about every five years, and it’s a complete fluke if everyone says they’re at the cutting edge. I’ve always written songs from the gut.
I’ve also learnt a lot from working with different producers over the years. I didn’t take a lot of advice in The Stranglers. We did a lot of it ourselves. But when I left, I felt a bit lost when I went in the studio, so I worked with Laurie Latham on two albums, which was very educational. Then after that I made an album with Tony Visconti and after that an album with Liam Watson. Then the last one was with Steve Albini. You learn something from these genius people.
So when it came to this [new album] I had high-grade demos, which sounded good enough to finish off myself. It kept that spark of spontaneity. We thought very much about it – and decided not to think too much about it, if you see what I mean.
The Stranglers were always provocative – kidnapping music journalists, fighting with The Clash, scaring the hell out of people. Was that just who you guys were, or did you take on a certain attitude to make your mark in that scene? Probably a bit of both. The necessity of adopting a pose appealed to our provocative nature. A lot of it is perception. What people perceive of you determines how they behave. That’s the same in any field. There’s that expression: if you don’t shout, you don’t get what you want; but underneath, never show that you’re really quite scared. [Laughs]
In 1980 you were sentenced to five weeks in Pentonville prison for possession of drugs. What was that like in terms of not showing how scared you were underneath?
Well, yeah. You had to be very careful there. I wasn’t equipped for that at all. But I wanted to be in there for as little time as possible so I obeyed the rules and regulations, and then came out. There were a few occasions where I had to make decisions about what I was going to do or say with people who were in there. So I made decisions and came out relatively unscathed. For example, a few guys that I’d developed a nodding acquaintance with, they said they had some dope and would I like a smoke? The place was crawling with the screws. So I started following them up the stairs to a higher floor, then I thought: “This is ridiculous. What am I doing this for?” So I said I’d changed my mind and I just ducked out. There’s a difference between recklessness and being stupid.
Despite the tough image of The Stranglers, what also came across was the degree of intelligence. Mentions of Leon Trotsky, Sancho Panza and ‘all the Shakespearoes’, for example, in just one song, No More Heroes.
When I write I try to write from more than just one reference point. So a song isn’t necessarily about just one thing.
Golden Brown is a good example of that. That was ostensibly about brown heroin, and yet is so beautiful and transcendent. That’s a typical case of that. It’s a way for me to use the writing of lyrics as a personal statement, which isn’t necessarily obvious to the person that’s listening to them or reading them. That way, for me, it’s more of a cathartic exercise. I’m able to put things in lyrics that only I understand. Making lyrics work on two or three levels, it’s serving more than one purpose. Golden Brown was a case in point. There was a girl I was having an affair with who had beautiful golden brown skin, so it worked when I was writing the lyric. It made sense personally. But it could be interpreted [to be about heroin] as well.
Are you still riding your bicycle every morning? I read that you do about eight miles every day.
Not in London – it’s too dangerous. But when I’m not in London I do. If you want to continue living and enjoying things, you have to maintain a certain degree of fitness. The only way you can do that is by exercising all the bits you want to keep using and also watching what you eat. Those things become very important. I remember they asked Clint Eastwood why he runs ten miles every day. He said: “Because I want to drink a litre of red wine every night.”
Monster is out now via Sony Music.