The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - Cover Story - By Bob Mehr

/ mehr@com­mer­cialap­ SINGER-SONG­WRITER ROBYN HITCH­COCK is no stranger to cel­lu­loid. The leader of leg­endary U.K. post-punk band the Soft Boys and an ac­claimed psy­che­delic-folk singer-song­writer, Hitch­cock en­joyed sup­port­ing roles in Jonathan Demme’s films “Rachel Get­ting Mar­ried” and “The Manchurian Can­di­date” and was the sub­ject of the di­rec­tor’s 1998 con­cert film “Store­front Hitch­cock.”

This week, Hitch­cock will be in town ap­pear­ing and per­form­ing as part of the an­nual In­die Mem­phis Film Fes­ti­val. He’ll be fol­lowed for much of his Mem­phis visit by doc­u­men­tar­ian Peter Gil­bert (“Hoop Dreams”), who plans to cre­ate a film about the singer’s trip to the Bluff City. Hitch­cock

also wrote the score for the fea­ture “Women in Trou­ble,” which will screen at the fes­ti­val.

How­ever, Hitch­cock’s Mem­phis jaunt will largely be fo­cused on his most fa­mous mu­si­cal work, the 1984 al­bum I Of­ten Dream of Trains , and a new con­cert film, cap­tur­ing a live per­for­mance of the record in 2008 (also screen­ing at the fes­ti­val).

It was Hitch­cock’s wife, Michele Noach, who orig­i­nally sug­gested he take the Trains record on tour last year. “Much like Lou Reed does Berlin and Roger Wa­ters does Dark Side of the Moon,” says the 57-year-old Hitch­cock. “More and more peo­ple are do­ing it now. It’s sort of peo­ple be­ing tributes to them­selves.”

For Hitch­cock, re­vis­it­ing Trains and doc­u­ment­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence in such a big way was an in­ter­est­ing con­trast to the record it­self, which is a kind of min­i­mal­ist mas­ter­piece.

“The Trains record is a mood piece; its lim­i­ta­tions are in some ways its call­ing card,” he says.

“At the time I recorded it, I didn’t want to spend more than £1,000 mak­ing it, and I didn’t want to in­volve any other mu­si­cians. I also had no plans to ever play it live. I just wanted to get down to the essence of what it was I was do­ing.”

Hitch­cock toured the record live last year, with the help of his friends and fre­quent col­lab­o­ra­tors Tim Kee­gan and Terry Ed­wards (“I chose to bring them rather than hav­ing me over­dub my­self us­ing a ma­chine”). The trio played nearly a dozen shows be­fore cap­ping the tour in New York City’s Sym­phony Square, con­certs that were cap­tured by Hitch­cock friend and film­maker John Edg­in­ton. Edg­in­ton had pre­vi­ously worked with him on the doc­u­men­tary “The Pink Floyd and Syd Bar­rett Story” and the 2007 film “Sex, Food, Death, and In­sects,” which cap­tured Hitch­cock mak­ing a record at home.

Like Demme’s “Store­front Hitch­cock,” Edg­in­ton’s “I Of­ten Dream of Trains. A Con­cert Film” is less about big rock and roll action than the finely etched de­tails and mo­ments that emerge dur­ing a per­for­mance.

“I think for those sorts of film­mak­ers, they like the range of ex­pres­sions that go across some­one’s face while they’re play­ing. And they’re not nec­es­sar­ily flat­ter­ing ex­pres­sions,” says Hitch­cock, with a chuckle. “Th­ese aren’t like rock videos. If you make a rock video there’s an aw­ful lot of stuff about get­ting nice cam­era an­gles — and, of course, the older the sub­ject is the harder it is to find a flat­ter­ing cam­era an­gle.”

“But looking at the way peo­ple like John or Jonathan work, it’s ba­si­cally just cap­tur­ing the singing an­i­mal as it goes through its paces — and you’re in the cage of film,” he says. “As much as any kind of per­for­mance is hon­est, it’s pretty hon­est. There’s no beau­ti­fi­ca­tion.”

Watch­ing Hitch­cock go through his own back pages and per­form the Trains ma­te­rial — songs he wrote al­most a quar­ter cen­tury ago — is also a re­veal­ing look at how he in­hab­its his ma­te­rial.

“That’s re­ally what songs are: They’re feel­ings that are bot­tled at a cer­tain pe­riod in time. Rather like a fruit might be plucked from a tree and pre­served — of course, pre­served fruit isn’t al­ways very nice; at that point the anal­ogy breaks down. But, you know, you have your feel­ings as you go through life, and when­ever you want to re­cap­ture that feel­ing you sing that song again. So there is quite a lot of re-in­hab­it­ing go­ing on there.”

While other artists have strug­gled to find their creative foot­ing as they age into their 50s and 60s, Hitch­cock has blos­somed, turn­ing out a suc­ces­sion of in­creas­ingly in­ter­est­ing al­bums and projects. Much of the con­tin­ued qual­ity of his mu­sic is due to the fact that he’s not teth­ered to a cer­tain idea of him­self or his work. “I’ve never been bur­dened with a hit record, so there’s not some glo­ri­ous peak that I and my au­di­ence have to look back to,” he says. “Also, I don’t think what I do has ever re­ally been de­fined and some­times it’s mis-de­fined, even by me.”

“Es­pe­cially this psy­che­delic shtick I’m known for is a bit mis­lead­ing. I’m not re­ally about recre­at­ing the ’60s. I’ve never re­ally pre­tended it was 1967. I’ve per­haps wished it was; mu­si­cally, to me, that’s my year zero. But I’m not go­ing on­stage with a si­tar and big joint and my legs crossed chant­ing ‘om’ or what­ever.

“It is where I come from mu­si­cally, but it’s not where I’m go­ing. And that’s the end­less philo­soph­i­cal ques­tion: How much do you change? Is your end in your beginning? Do you wind up where you started in some way? I’m find­ing that out.”

Up next for Hitch­cock is the release of the ex­panded edi­tion of the live “Trains” DVD and ac­com­pa­ny­ing CD. In the spring of 2010 he will release Pro­pel­ler Time — the al­bum whose record­ing was doc­u­mented in “Sex, Food Death and In­sects” — and he hints that there are a va­ri­ety of other projects, both mu­si­cal and cin­e­matic on the hori­zon.

“Which I won’t dis­cuss, at the risk of them not com­ing to fruition,” he says, chuck­ling. “But they all look to be quite fun, so I’m looking for­ward to them.”

Nathan Gal­lagher

Singer-song­writer Robyn Hitch­cock, is in town this week, ap­pear­ing and per­form­ing as part of the an­nual In­die Mem­phis Film Fes­ti­val.

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