‘Whatever happened to the heroes?’ sang Hugh Cornwell in a sneering tone on one of The Stranglers’ most memorable tracks. Well for those of us who consider Cornwell a musical hero, he has been up to much since he sang those words 35 years ago.
Leaving British punk rock icons The Stranglers in 1990, after over 13 years of writing the band’s staples like “Golden Brown,” “Peaches,” and of course “No More Heroes,” Cornwell has been forging ahead with a succession of successful tours and a run of solo albums. His latest effort, Totem and Taboo, lays out his characteristic loose-hipped guitar licks and Cornwell’s trademark laid-back Cockney drawl and stinging lyrics.
While gearing up for his latest tour of the UK, Cornwell and I discussed his latest music, dealing with criticism, and preferring a toilet to Madonna. It’s all here in black & white…
Geeks of Doom: Your new album, Totem and Taboo, was funded through a Pledge music campaign.
Hugh Cornwell: That’s right, we formed sort of a relationship with them to fund the record. It was very successful.
Geeks of Doom: Were you surprised at the reaction you got because you’re well over your total now, aren’t you?
Hugh Cornwell: Well you always hope for more than 100% [of the total target] because the 100% that you set isn’t the full cost of the record, it never is. Because the thing is, no money is released until the full money is reached so if you put the full figure in you may never reach it … so I was relieved when we reached 100. I was more relieved than anything I think.
Geeks of Doom: Your last solo album, Hooverdam, you released as a free download – why did you do that?
Hugh Cornwell: Well I didn’t pay for it and the people that paid for it wanted to do a free download so I agreed!
Geeks of Doom: But this time were you more in control?
Hugh Cornwell: Of course. Because I was able to fund it through other means than asking a record company to.
Geeks of Doom: I’ve heard the album and I think it sounds fantastic.
Hugh Cornwell: Oh, great, thank you. Part of that’s down to Steve Albini the engineer and mixer who works out of Chicago.
Geeks of Doom: Absolutely. Was it your choice to go with him?
Hugh Cornwell: Yeah, my manager’s and my choice. We sat down, had a list of a few people and he was at the top and he was available and wanted to do it.
Geeks of Doom: And as is typical for him the production is light, certainly more so than Hooverdam. I don’t mean that in any bad way…
Hugh Cornwell: Well there’s very little to produce. It’s just a guitar and bass and a set of drums and some vocals on top, a couple of keyboards occasionally, but very little. There’s not much to produce, you’ve just got to get all the instruments sounding right. Someone told me about a group from England that went in with Steve to work with him and they weren’t happy afterwards and he says, What aren’t you happy about? and they say, Well we don’t like the way it sounds, so he said, That’s what you sound like! So he’s not going to produce you, he’s going to produce what you sound like and that’s what I wanted. I wanted him to record us the way we sound live.
Geeks of Doom: What’s the Madonna story behind the song “The Face”?
Hugh Cornwell: The face that launched a thousand ships! It was a party I went to for Madonna and I was enjoying myself at the party, met The Stranglers’ lead singer that replaced me at the party which was bizarre [I was] introduced to him, Paul, he’s mentioned in the song, and then I joined this queue because I thought it was for the toilet … it was moving very slowly and then somebody told me it was the queue to meet Madonna! So I was very embarrassed because I suddenly found myself in this queue to meet Madonna, so I immediately got out of that!
Geeks of Doom: In your time you’ve experienced some controversy over some of your songs – when you write, do you know which ones are going to incite a backlash and do you plan a defence?
Hugh Cornwell: Well when you write a song you write a song because it wants to get written. I don’t know, for some reason it’s like it’s got a preordained existence and I don’t really feel that I am creating it. I think a lot of writers say they act as conduits, that things come to them and through them and they don’t really feel that they’ve created, they feel they’ve just received them and I feel a bit like that. So when a song turns up and it’s a certain subject matter or whatever and you start to think, Well how am I going to explain this? and you have to be very careful.
Geeks of Doom: And have you met any of that for Totem and Taboo?
Hugh Cornwell: Not for this album but it’s too soon. I’m sure I will do. I mean, I don’t want to. I’m glad this is for an American based thing because “Gods, Guns and Gays” is in no way using gays in a derogatory term at all. It was a great phrase, I just thought, Well, it would make a great title to start with. I love titles, I work from titles and then my bass player who’s American told me that there’s a lot of people who have stickers on their cars that says ‘gods, guns and guys’ which is interesting.
It is an observation, my observations, about America and the word ‘gays’ in that title represents freedom of speech. To me America is about three things: religion is huge, violence is huge and freedom of speech is huge. Three of the most important things that America represents to me so it’s just a nice term of reference. I could have called it ‘gods, guns and freedom of speech’! [laughs] But it doesn’t quite roll of the tongue … I haven’t had any negative feedback yet but I’m sure there will be from someone saying I’m gay bashing.
Gays aren’t mentioned in any of it at all apart from in the title so just because I’m using the word gay in a song title that means that I’m gay bashing? That sounds a bit paranoid to me. That’s why the albums called Totem and Taboo; it’s all highlighting the ways in which people interpret things.
Geeks of Doom: You’re going on tour in October playing Totem and Taboo and also No More Heroes in its entirety – why did you choose that album?
Hugh Cornwell: Well the last tour we went out with Hooverdam we did Rattus Norvegicus, the first Stranglers album, and so it was suggested that we do No More Heroes for this one. There’s a few songs that I’ve never played since I left The Stranglers so that made it more interesting to me … then I said why don’t we play the ones we haven’t done before with keyboards? So my bass player is going to actually play keyboards and bass keyboards as well so we’ll be a three piece with keyboards. No bass player for a few of the numbers? Shock horror!
Geeks of Doom: This year will be the 35th anniversary of the first two albums by The Stranglers [Rattus Norvegicus and No More Heroes].
Hugh Cornwell: Oh well, I bet The Stranglers won’t miss that opportunity to squeeze more money out of the lemon! They’re always celebrating something! [laughs] You know, it’s the 25th anniversary of this or, well, that’s what people do. It’s not just them, everybody does it, it’s a natural thing isn’t it.
Geeks of Doom: Two albums in a year just doesn’t happen anymore – what do you think was different then?
Hugh Cornwell: Well with us it was more understandable because we’d been playing around for so long that we’d stock-piled all these songs and it was more than enough for one album. So we had half of one, half of another one recorded at the end of the first sessions. So in order to create a second album it wasn’t that much of an effort, we just had to write two or three more songs.
Geeks of Doom: Was there any danger of overexposure for that?
Hugh Cornwell: Well the managers and the record company, they’re the ones who came up with the suggestion of doing an album straight away and it didn’t seem to make any difference at the time. Who knows what would have happened if we’d waited another six months? I don’t know, who knows.
Geeks of Doom: Well it could be said that they are the best Stranglers albums.
Hugh Cornwell: Well there you go. That is understandable too because it was the time when we were very close knit and we were living out of each others’ pockets and had the same interests and the same loves and the same hates and the same philosophies and everything. So that would make sense.
Geeks of Doom: Thank you so much for your time.
Hugh Cornwell: Nice to talk to you, Dan.
Hugh Cornwell’s new album Totem and Taboo was released through Cadiz Music on Monday 10th September. His UK tour began on 3rd October.
Tickets: 0844 478 0898, www.thegigcartel.com. Further info: www.hughcornwell.com.