Interview: Hugh Cornwell

Hugh Cornwell (Picture: Bertrand Fevre)
Hugh Cornwell (Picture: Bertrand Fevre)

With Hugh Cornwell heading to the region for a couple of solo shows in the next few weeks, DAVE STEVENS talks music with the former Stranglers man – and films and cricket, too.

We’re looking forward to a couple of local gigs, in Bury St Edmunds in November and Norwich in December. Are there any particularly memorable gigs that you’ve done in the region?

I remember I got a slot with Blondie, who are long-standing friends of mine, for a tour of the UK, and the first date was at UEA and the next show was in, believe it or not, Cardiff. That’s quite a long way.

I’m based in Wiltshire. I remember driving back with my bass player and drummer at the time, because you can hit Cardiff quite easily from Wiltshire the next day.

We got there at 4.30 in the morning or something. It was ridiculous. That journey is one of the longest journeys you can do horizontally across the UK. It’s one extreme to the other, but it’s fun.

The drummer I had then has come back. His name is Windsor McGilvray and the bass player at the time was Caroline Campbell. He’d found her and she came in, then he left after about five years and an earlier drummer came back.

Then Windsor came back with a new bass player (Pat Hughes) about five or six years ago. That’s the set-up I’ve got at the moment – still a trio.

I don’t carry keyboards. I haven’t carried keyboards on the road for a long time.

I’m glad I don’t, because it is a point of distinction between me and The Stranglers, as they’re still playing and they still have keyboards.

You’ve done a few gigs with The Undertones recently. How was that? They were really complimentary about you and the band.

They’re all great! I think we may be doing some stuff in Europe with them next year.

They’re so easy going and we all get on really well. And it’s a good combination.

What can we expect at your forthcoming shows?

It’s a big evening and a long evening. It’s over two hours.

We do a first set of a selection of solo material, going right back to Nosferatu, an album I did when still in The Stranglers, and also something from Wolf, which is a solo album I did when I was in The Stranglers, but just before I left.

Obviously, we want to highlight a selection of songs from the new album Moments Of Madness. So, we start off with that and I’m doing about half the songs on the new album.

Then we take a break and come back and do as many Stranglers songs as we can fit in before the curfew.

This time around we are featuring two songs that have never been performed by any line-up of The Stranglers, ever.

They’ve never been performed live and they’re going down quite favourably with the audiences.

Heading to East Anglia: Hugh Cornwell (Picture: Bertrand Fevre)
Heading to East Anglia: Hugh Cornwell (Picture: Bertrand Fevre)

That’s something to look forward to. As people are coming to see Hugh Cornwell, why not play the sets the other way round with your solo material at the end of the night, or why not mix it up?

I don’t know, really. We want to get the new stuff out there. We want to highlight that. I suppose we could start with The Stranglers, but then there’s the fear, the possibility, that some of the audience would leave after The Stranglers set!

I’d hope not!

You would hope not, but you don’t know. There are some funny people out there with funny tastes.

Some people might be that weird and just come along to see my Stranglers set and then go home saying “I’m not interested in his other stuff”!

It would be quite funny and odd behaviour, but this way it doesn’t happen. They can just come later…

I’ve read that you recorded the new album all by yourself.

It ended up like that by default.

For many years now and the last half dozen albums, I’ve been making demos with Phil Andrews.

He’s the first guy who played keyboards for me after I left The Stranglers and he’s my engineer now, and a multi-instrumentalist.

He went on tour with Page and Plant and played about 10 different instruments on stage with them.

He can play anything. He’s a very talented guy and he’s got an amazing pair of ears.

I started asking him to engineer my demos after I got rid of the keyboards from the band.

We kept in touch, and he started helping me put together demos before I made a new album.

I made Hooverdam with [White Stripes producer] Liam Watson. In those days a producer wanted to hear what the new material was like before they committed.

I used to make demos and those demos were me and Phil in the studio. I played guitars and bass, or we programmed the bass, and then we’d program the drums together. It worked.

We did the same for Totem And Taboo with Steve Albini, and then rerecorded the songs in the studio with live musicians.

When we were doing Monster in the same way, my manager suddenly came in and said: “These demos you’re making sound great, can’t you take them up a level and finish them off?” If we re-record, we might lose something.

There’s some in the business called demo-itis, where people get used to hearing demos so much that they fall in love with them and don’t like the final reincarnation when they are re-recorded. To avoid that demo-itis, we finished off the Monster album from those demos and that worked very well.

Sony loved it and it got released, and it went down very well.

When I got together with Phil for Moments Of Madness, we just carried on. It works, don’t fix it, it can only get better.

We’ve upped the bar a bit. I played bass on this one, which I hadn’t done before.

I started out as a bass player and some of the songs started as bass riffs, rather like a lot of the songs in The Stranglers started out as bass riffs.

It sort of works. It’s by default , really. I didn’t set to do that, it just happened that way.

These days with drums, you can do remarkable stuff. You can pick and choose snares and toms. You don’t have to use one kit.

A lot of top drummers around the world have recorded all their kits as samples, so you can make up mongrel drum kits. I couldn’t tell you where any of the bits come from.

A lot of people don’t realise that the drums are a very, very important part of a song, not just to keep time but for arrangement purposes as well.

I learnt that by listening to Captain Beefheart and working with Robert Williams on Nosferatu.

Captain Beefheart (Picture used under licence and originally posted to Flickr by Jean-Luc)
Captain Beefheart (Picture used under licence and originally posted to Flickr by Jean-Luc)

Drums are totally underused in rock music. You can do so much with drums and suggest things and help the arrangement and the dynamics of a song – just with textures and different ways of using drums.

Doing it this way we can create our own drummer in the studio that doesn’t exist. Windsor, however good he is, couldn’t come up with what we come up with in the studio.

When we play any of this stuff, the live musicians put their own slant on it and it does sound slightly different from the record.

It’s got their personality on it, because they play things in a different way and they add things and take things away. Not a huge amount, but they’ve embellished them for live performance.

They always say: “I’ve changed that bit – do you mind?” If it works I go: “Great, why not?”

You mentioned that you started as a bass player. Who were your inspirations?

The greatest rock bass player in the world is Jack Bruce.

I used to go to the Marquee in London and watch the Graham Bond Organisation, which was a four-piece without a guitar player. They had bass, drums, saxophone and Graham Bond on keyboards.

Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker were the rhythm section. They were fighting together back then, even before Cream – they were at each other’s throats the whole time.

The Graham Bond Organisation (Picture used under licence)
The Graham Bond Organisation (Picture used under licence)

I thought Jack Bruce was absolutely stellar. I haven’t seen anybody or heard anybody that’s better than him.

Jaco Pastorius might be faster or more inventive, but to play bass you can’t get any better than Jack Bruce. He just held it down there with Ginger.

He was obviously a very talented singer and songwriter as well, as become apparent when they formed Cream.

What about other influences, more generally?

We’re a victim of our influences. I grew up when The Beatles and the Stones started, and The Who.

Then we discovered Howlin’ Wolf, Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa and The Doors. The period of time when I was discovering music was so rich in quality that I don’t think it has ever been bettered or equalled.

There was also Love. Jimi Hendrix’s big inspiration was Arthur Lee in Love in Los Angeles. He stole a lot of his stuff off Arthur Lee, who I can’t speak too highly of.

Arthur Lee is one of my big influences. He was a great songwriter, he was mercurial, inspirational, had a great idea for pop, had a great understanding of pop music and created some beautiful music; memorable stuff you can whistle and sing along to.

He never got the recognition he deserved. Some of those Love songs are up there with the best.

It was when pop music wasn’t a dirty word. Pop music was great then.

Going back to the latest album, Lasagna has a real Buddy Holly / Not Fade Away feel to it.

The song had to be called Lasagna, as it’s about a real-life lasagna made by some Italian friends of mine in Mexico.

When you say “La-sa-gna” it goes with that beat. That’s how it got associated with that beat just because the title lent itself to that rhythm.

Can I also ask about a song from Monster? The Most Beautiful Girl In Hollywood is about Hedy Lamarr.

That’s right – it’s one of my favourite songs. We’re playing that in the set at the moment. I love that song.

Had you seen the film Bombshell and did it inspire the song, or did you already know her story?

No, I’d known about Hedy Lamarr quite a long time. I’m a big cineast [a film enthusiast]. I watch movies all the time and I have a podcast all about cinema, called Mr Demille FM.

We post one or two shows every month. It’s been going about three or four years.

We’ve got about 100 episodes in the archive. Each show concentrates on somebody’s career or a theme, like Kids In Film.

Another is Lucky Sevens, about the number seven – The Magnificent Seven etc, etc.

Sometimes I get the chance to do an interview with people like Brian Eno, David Putnam and other people involved in the business: directors, actors and actresses.

I always get an insight into something interesting that they’ve never told anyone else. They tell me afterwards that “I’ve never thought about that before or spoken about it”.

I love that because I’ve got an exclusive. I did one with Debbie Harry. They’ve got to have a history of film.

Brian’s obviously done a lot of soundtrack work. Debbie’s been an actress in [David] Cronenberg movies.

That’s how I knew about Hedy Lamarr. I’ve known about her a long time. A very misunderstood lady, she invented Bluetooth [and] there’s a show about Hedy on the podcast.

Genius! She used to cook dinner for Hitler. She was married to a big arms dealer, the richest man in Austria. He kept her in a castle.

Hitler used to come to dinner. She said he used to get terribly drunk, but he was vegetarian.

Debbie Harry has featured on Cornwell's podcast
Debbie Harry has featured on Cornwell’s podcast

You are a big fan of Fender Telecasters. Do you ever play any other kind of electric guitar?

Very rarely. It’s my go-to instrument.

I love the sound of it, and it expresses me perfectly. We’re a good fit.

I do own other guitars – I’ve got acoustics, obviously – but I don’t play them that often.

They’ve all got different feels, but I love Teles.

You are a big cricket fan. What’s your preference – 20/20, The Hundred, one-day matches or longer-format county and test games?

I’m an international man these days. I’m very interested in international cricket and the way it’s developing in other countries.

The Netherlands beat South Africa the other day, which is remarkable and just shows how it is developing if you them a chance.

England are T20 world champions – but Cornwell isn't so enamoured with some other formats of the game
England are T20 world champions – but Cornwell isn’t so enamoured with some other formats of the game

I switch off for The Hundred. It doesn’t do to anything for me whatsoever and I think that the one-day 50-over cricket is superfluous.

The sooner that they get rid of those two formats, in my eyes, the better, so we just have the long tests and the shorter 20/20, which has developed into a real skillset of its own.

It’s much quicker and much more interestingly than the one-dayers. I think the one-dayers and the Hundreds have got to be binned.

Finally, we look forward to seeing you at the two gigs.

That’s great! I’ll be out scribbling afterwards, on albums and stuff. Cheers!

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