The following is an interview with former Stranglers frontman Hugh Cornwell. On February 23rd 1999, Hugh released a new album in America, “Black Hair, Black Eyes, Black Suit.” It’s a slightly different version of the album that came out in Europe under the name “Guilty.” This interview was conducted while Hugh we out on a short “Plugged & Unplugged” solo tour of the US. Hugh is planning on returning to this country in late July / early August. For the latest information, be sure to check out http://www.hughcornwell.com/.
When did your website start up?
“It’s been up for about 18 months. This massively enthusiastic fan rang us up and said ‘have you got a website?’ And we said, no we haven’t. So he said ‘would you like one?’ And we thought it was going to cost a fortune. And he said he’d do it just because he was really into what I’m doing. That’s what he’s done and everyone is saying it’s amazing.”
How involved are you with it?
“Quite intimately. He’s speaking with my manager David three or four times a week. So it’s instantaneously up to date, updated about three times a week, which is good. And I’ve done exclusive interviews with him, and if i’m doing a new project I go over it with him. It’s funny because he’s not doing it to be paid, he’s happy to be the first to find out things. Which is really nice. He’s a lovely bloke.”
Have you considered releasing music over the internet?
“Of course, why not? I’ve just finished a project with a poet. It’s music that I’ve done being put to his poems. He’s reciting the poems. And I’ve made them sort of structured like songs, but with no singing, just spoken word. It’s very psychedelic and we’re all really happy with it. But we’re not sure whether that might be the way forward, to put it through the web. Because it is a sideline. It’s not my next record or anything, but it’s a great little project, and that could possibly be the best way to make it available to people.”
It’s been a while since you toured America. How does it feel to be back?
“Bloody marvelous. I came in today. I was last here in 1990, but I wasn’t even playing. I came over to do some promotion for the last Stranglers album I made, which was 10. So I haven’t been here since 1990. 9 years!”
Why did you choose to do it by yourself, rather than with a band?
“Well, I’ve got a band together now. It’s none of the players that were on the album, but they’ve obviously learned most of the songs on the record. I’ve had them with me for about a year now, and I’ve just done 2 weeks with them in the UK and it was really jamming. We’re going to come over, but we thought it would make more sense at this stage, as the album’s just come out here, for me to just come by myself to do interviews and I can do these solo gigs with very little organization. Just show people that I am foremost a songwriter, and I can perform in a group or outside of a group. These gigs are unplugged and plugged. If you just go acoustic, people start thinking you’re a folk artist, and I’m not. It’s a nice way to showcase the songs, and everyone can hear the lyrics when you do this sort of a gig. So sometimes lyrics come through that they might not hear on the record or with a group. You actually get to know the songs quite well through this situation. We have to come back with the band in the summer.”
You’ve had quite a long career – what material have you chosen to do on this tour?
“A complete cross-section. The Strangler songs that I’ve picked are ones that I put a lot of input in. Either I wrote the whole song myself, or I felt that I put a lot of input into the song. It’s quite a lot, about 40% is Stranglers songs. There are even some songs from ‘Nosferatu’ that I made with Robert Williams in 1979. The band and I have actually learned some of these songs where the arrangements are a nightmare, one of them took three days to learn. It’s all 5/4, 7/4, 4/4, 3/4 timing. There’s a lot of overdubs on the drumming, and it took the drummer a long time to work out parts that could be played live. So I’m doing some of that as well now, by myself. And I’m obviously concentrating on the ‘Black Hair..’ album. And then I’m also … for my indulgence, playing some new songs which are going to be on my next album. 3 or 4. It gives me a chance to get to know them and hone them a bit. I’ve actually got crib sheets for the lyrics because I haven’t learned those lyrics yet. It’s very exciting to get the opportunity to let people hear some stuff from the future. They’ve been going over really well. People like them on first hearing … you could never get that reaction with a band, I think. It’s just that it’s a guitar and voice, it seems to be easier to latch onto new things in that way. ”
What have the audience been like? Do you find it mostly old fans, or people just now discovering you?
“About 50/50 actually. A while ago, when this record first came out in the UK, I was getting a lot of people …. for years now, I’ve been having a lot of people shout out old Stranglers song titles. And now, in the last few months, I’ve had people shouting out the names of songs off ‘Black Hair.’ So it’s very exciting for me. Because I have a lot of ambition left. I want to reach at least the success that the stranglers had by myself. And even then, the Stranglers at their height never had world domination. I’m a megalomaniac, I just want to sell truckloads of records and dominate the world.”
Do you get people shouting out any Stranglers songs that you don’t want to do?
“Well, the reason I might choose not to do them live … well, with Stranglers songs it’s easy. It’s either a song that I didn’t have much input into, or it’s I can’t work out an arrangement that suits the song. I mean I don’t do ‘Golden Brown’ live because it’s a keyboard-based song. I worked out the chords, but it doesn’t come alive like it does with a keyboard. So it’s easy to avoid those songs. Most of the new tracks on ‘Black Hair’ I can do by myself, they’re guitar-based.”
“Black Hair…” originally came on in England under a different name. What’s the story behind that?
“Well, we made the record in 1996. I didn’t want to be dictated to by a record company’s musical taste. So rather than sign to a record label and have to take in tapes of songs and have people saying we like this one, we don’t like this, I decided to get together with Laurie Latham, the producer, and my manager David, my manager, and the three of us would make a record that we liked. And once we made a record we liked, then we’d go and find someone that like that record. We thought that was a much better way of approaching making the record. I like that I’m in a position now where I can do that, as I’ve got my own studio. So that’s exactly what we did, we spent the whole of ’96 making that record. It came out in the fall of ’97 in the UK and Europe. And then Vel Vel got to hear it, and it’s take this long for it to come out. It was due to come out last summer on Vel Vel, but its been put back twice. That’s fine by me, I wanted it to come out at the right time. It’s just finally come out this past February. And the reason why it has a different title is because … this is record companies for you … as soon as the English record company found out that Vel Vel was going to release it here, they tried to flood America with imports of the UK version. So we managed to get that stopped, so with that in mind, we decided that it should really be changed to make it distinct from the UK version. We’ve actually changed quite a bit of it. We’ve taken one track off, the weakest track we had on it, and put two new tracks on, which were from those sessions and are very strong songs that we didn’t think were right for the UK market. ‘Jesus Will Weep’ is a very strong ballad, we left that off, and ‘Not Hungry Enough’ as well. So I think that it was just an astute decision, it wasn’t done to make people buy it twice. It was just done to make a difference
Were you frustrated by the delay of the US release?
“Well, of course. But when you’re a creative person, especially in music, things never happen fast enough. you’re always frustrated, things always take five times as long as you want them to take. But i’ve got a very philosophical view of life now, I just accept the way the card fall. It’s just whatever’s meant to be is meant to be. As long as I’m happy with what I’ve done, as long as I’m proud of what I’ve done, then I’m quite happy with whatever takes place in its own time.”
What was the creative process like making this album?
“The way we approached this record, and it really worked and i want to continue working like this next time ….the people played on it, I’d been out and doing concerts for about 18 months. About 1/2 of the album we’d been playing live. So we built up a sort of a playing rapport, between the four of us. So we would go in and play as an ensemble, together, and get a good backing track, the drums and bass. And when we were happy with a good backing track, then the rest would be taken off to my studio and we had limitless time to finish it. It’s rather like an artist doing a charcoal sketch on an easel, then when he’s happy with that he gets the paint out and starts trying the different paints. You’ve got your structure, and then you can do whatever you want to it, as long as the structure’s right. So I would be in the studio with Laurie Latham, the producer, we were in there 5 days a week, Monday through Friday, very regimented, and would spend 10 hours a day, just the two of us, trying anything. Guitars, sometimes keyboards, just trying out musical ideas and vocal ideas. We would just do it until we were happy with what we had done. Sometimes we tried things that didn’t work, or the sound was wrong, there was no pressure and we had such fun. We were laughing every day. And there was this great element of spontaneity about it, too. Because we knew the arrangement was there, but only for the backing track, and the rest was totally open to whatever worked. So all the time i was trying new things. At the end of the day, we’d just listen to what we had done and go ‘oh my god, when we walked in here this morning I had no idea it would turn out like this’ and I love that spontaneity in the studio, it’s so much better. In a group situation, you might go on the road and work out a new song to get it so you can go in the studio with it. And when you go in the studio with it, everyone’s got their parts and they’re all fixed. There so in their heads fixed because they’ve been playing them live that there’s no element of change. Whereas this way, you’ve got that, you’ve worked on the arrangement, but what goes on it is something completely different.,
What type of feedback have you received from long-time fans?
“Well, a lot of people have said that it sounds like a Stranglers album. And a lot of people have said that it sounds like the next record on from “Aural Sculpture”, which is funny because ‘Aural Sculpture’ is the last record that my producer did with The Stranglers. They definitely have picked up the similarity in sound between the two, which is quite funny. They say it without realizing it’s the same producer. Of people familiar with The Stranglers, that’s what people are saying. I mean, it’s bound to sound like The Stranglers because it’s the same guitar playing, it’s the same voice and a lot of the songwriting is the same, too. It’s quite a hefty chunk of the material.”
Why did you leave The Stranglers?
“I just got bored. The work in the studio was in the doldrums. The drummer was using a drum machine the whole time, you couldn’t get him to play live drums in the studio. And I hear he’s still doing that. People going in and recording their bits at different times, so it just wasn’t really an organic unit anymore. I just felt that it was time to assert my personality. I didn’t feel that I was rattling the cage enough. Because whenever you’re in a group situation with other people … The Stranglers were four very strong personalities and so our group identity is based on the combination of those four people. So no one is, hopefully, expressed through the group identity, and I just had enough of that. I wanted to be myself.”
How does doing a solo album now compare to the solo work you did while in The Stranglers?
“A completely different situation. Because when you’re doing it within a successful group situation, that has a career, it’s always got this tinge of ‘what I did in my holidays’ and I think that it’s approached as such by the media and journalists in general. It’s a sideline, and it’s bound to be. When you do it and you’re not in a group, it’s distinctly different. You’re taken much more seriously.”
Beavis and Butthead were watching The Stranglers “Skin Deep” video and really, really hated it. How do you feel about that?
“They really, really hated it? Good! Great! As long as it’s extreme, I don’t mind. It’s in the middle where I’m not very happy.”
When can we expect another album?
“Well, I want to record it in the autumn. I can’t wait to get in. I’ve already spoken to Laurie about it. We’re blocking off some time in the fall. I think it should be out by late Spring of 2000.”
What are you listening to now?
“I’m listening to a lot of bee-bop jazz, Art Blakey, Thelonius Monk, , Nat Adly, all that stuff. but also i’m still rediscovering stuff. Some of my favorites .. what happens with me is that i go into a cd store to look for something new, and I end up coming out with one of my old favorites that i find and buy on cd. I end up rediscovering all the things I listened to when i was forming my musical opinions. So i’m listening to Love at the moment, I think art blue’s an absolute genius. And unfortunately in the 90’s i haven’t heard much. I think songwriting has completely fallen by the wayside. there’s so little decent songwriting. The music seems to be there, but maybe it’s just standards of education or something. The wordplay just isn’t there. think back to The Doors, Jim Morrison. You could read his lyrics separately, and it would be like a poem. it didn’t matter if they have music or not. What’s happened to these values? Most songs now, if you listen to the music and read the lyrics apart, it’s just pointless. There’s no art, no craft. So I feel in a way a bit pioneering because this is what I champion, this is what i started doing professionally with The Stranglers anyway. Songwriting in the ’70s wasn’t that good and I thought I’m sure I can do better than this.”