KEEPING IT REEL ON STAGE
WHEN SINGER/ SONGWRITER HITCHCOCK VISITS CITY, FILMMAKER EDGINTON’S CAMERA WILL ROLL
/ firstname.lastname@example.org 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.”
Singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock, is in town this week, appearing and performing as part of the annual Indie Memphis Film Festival.