Robyn Hitchcock, former frontman of British psych-pop band the Soft Boys and purveyor of his own rich, brilliant, and deeply weird universe of solo songs, turned 60 this March 3. And while Hitchcock was celebrated in London, his friend Colin Meloy, leader of the Decemberists, thought American audiences should get a chance to fete the man as well. So Meloy put together ¡Viva Hitchcock!, a birthday concert tomorrow, Thursday, May 2, at the Fillmore, featuring Rhett Miller (of Old 97's), Amanda Palmer, Lemony Snicket, Meloy, and, of course, Hitchcock himself. Prior to the show, we spoke with Meloy about how Hitchcock influenced Meloy's music, why they chose to do the Hitchcock show in San Francisco, and what to expect at the Fillmore Thursday night.
How did this come together?
I've been an acquaintance and a friend of Robyn's for a while, and I'm always willing and able to be a cheerleader for his incredible career and body of work. I knew this year around the time of his birthday he was planning some special events... and I thought that American audiences deserved no less. So I actually suggested to him that we throw a kind of a tribute birthday bash somewhere in the States, and it seemed like San Francisco would be a good spot, since there's a history with that city.
How will the actual show work?
It's a night of Robyn's music, so everybody's going to be playing a handful of Robyn's songs from some point in his career. And then Lemony Snicket is going to be emceeing, and introducing everyone as they come on. And that will be finished with Robyn doing a proper set at the end of the evening. Then I think we'll all be coming back onstage for a grand finale.
What originally drew you to Hitchcock's work?
I feel like he of anyone shaped my approach to songwriting from a really early age. I feel like he was a teacher to me, even though it was pretty remotely. But I think that hearing his records somehow connected with me, vibrating at a kind of a wavelength that I could read, or that just made sense to me. Early in my teens, when I was just kind of getting a little proficient on guitar and getting enough confidence to start writing songs, his approach -- this amazing absurdism, and this aesthetic that's really consistent to all of his songs and his writing -- really opened it up for me.
That's one of the pitfalls as a young songwriter that you can fall into: it's like you're afraid to break out of any kind of expected format. Especially with pop music and as a teenager, it takes a lot of courage to break out of some of the bounds of stuff that you're hearing on the radio. Hearing Robyn's records, and digging into them at a cerebral level -- picking them apart in a way that you do as a music obsessive, and a beginning guitar player and songwriter -- really changed my whole approach and freed me up to find my own voice.
It gave you a sense of freedom?
I think it just showed the possibilities. At that time there was kind of a flood of music that I was discovering, and a lot of it was in the same bent. You kind of discover the obtuseness of REM lyrics, or like the off-the-wall juvenilia of Camper Van Beethoven or Zen Arcade or Paul Westerberg. All this stuff was percolating, but I think Robyn's songwriting showed me really how much you can just explode the thing and find your own kind of voice and not be tamped down by being overly abstract or angry or angsty. It also introduced me to real narrative songwriting, because so much of his songs do have a kind of narrative bent to them, and that was something that I really loved.
Was there one song in particular that got you?
There are so many. The very first Robyn Hitchcock song I ever heard was the first track off of Globe of Frogs. And that was called "Tropical Flesh Mandala." I think I was maybe 13 or 14 years old, you know, having mostly listened to like Depeche Mode up to that point, just being like what? That's the title? "Tropical Flesh Mandala," like what? So you had to sit down and listen to [it], and try to figure, well, what is this tropical flesh mandala? And then once you unpacked the lyrics and followed it, it did have a story. It still was just as kind of puzzling as it was at the beginning. He was just very evocative, and you had to come to it with your own sensibilities and your own imagination, and try to figure out what this tropical flesh mandala was.
You suggested doing a celebration here to follow the one in London. Do you think he's under-appreciated in the U.S.?
I think he's under-appreciated. He sort of doggedly stuck to his own aesthetic and his own approach to music, and I think as a consequence it appeals to kind of a slim margin of music listeners. I think most people tend to think it's a little too weird. And I think that's [one thing I] always tended to respect about him, that I don't think he's ever backed down or compromised that. If anything, he may have just been getting weirder and weirder. That's a choice that he made, and I think he has fervent fans, but maybe not as many as your average band, who's sort of willing to change with the times and try to court popular opinion. So I like to think that I have an opportunity to introduce him to new fans. I think that he should be celebrated. I think he's an important voice in music.
Why did you pick S.F. out of all American cities to hold the party?
One of his best records, which is Eye, was written and recorded in San Francisco, and I think it was even dedicated to San Francisco. So I think for some reason I've always associated Robyn's work with that city. It just seemed like an appropriate place to do it.
He tends to fall in love with cities, which I respect. And I think he's had a similar love affair with other cities, with Seattle, with Tucson, and now with Oslo. I think he's back in London now. I think he sees cities as people, and he saw at one point something inspiring and beautiful in San Francisco, like people often do, and developed a kind of attachment to it.
Robyn once wrote that you were "the ultimate British rock star."
Had you seen that?
You should read this thing. There's a whole letter he wrote to [Paste] magazine where he talks about you, and he calls you "the ultimate British rock star, in a way that he couldn't be if he was from Britain, because he'd have to come from some sector of society that other sectors would resent him for."
[Laughs.] Um, yeah, I could see that. I mean what is a British rock star? If it's sort of the kind of Davies brothers and Nick Drake mode, I think I probably fit that: pale, living in an overly rainy climate and a bit of a housebound misanthrope.