Meet: Punk legend Hugh Cornwell interview

No More Heroes, Golden Brown and Peaches are just some of the 20 odd hits singles Hugh Cornwell had a hand in penning before he left punk legends The Stranglers in 1990.

Over the last two decades he has recorded 11 solo albums that have never had the commercial success he enjoyed with the band, but he has relished the freedom that making his own decisions brings. Now he is back on the road plugging a solo greatest hits set, The Fall and Rise of Hugh Cornwell, picked by his record label.

So what can people expect from his upcoming sets at Blackpool’s Punk Rebellion festival or at Hebden Bridge’s Trades Club?

“That’s a good question, but it’s a mixture of old Stranglers songs, and my more modern catalogue. It’s a full band show if you call a trio of guitar, bass and drums that.

“I wouldn’t call the new album a greatest hits as I think a best of is a better description. But I’m happy with all the songs I’ve produced since I left The Stranglers otherwise they wouldn’t have been realised as I never put out anything I’m not happy with.

“When you are in a band format there’s some sort of democracy and it’s like everyone has a vote so it is freedom when you are liberated from that.”

His last album Totem and Taboo was produced by Steve Albini….

“Hang on a second – you shouldn’t use the word produced as it’s not correct, and Steve will get very angry if you call him a record producer. He hates record producers.

“He’s more a super technician who recorded it and mixed it with me, and he’s more comfortable with that so I had to jump in there.”

Ok, so did the relationship actually work?

“It was perfect, and he was very pleased I came in with a good strong idea of what I wanted the record to sound like, so with that brief he delivered. He doesn’t like making decisions and he prefers artists to know what they want.

“There is a slight percentage of freedom when it gets recorded so I’m always open to new ideas so Steve might suggest something and say you could do it like this, or play it like that. He was always on hand to offer those comments.

“I’ll be doing quite a lot of Totem and Taboo at these gigs because people love it and it’s still current. People say it stands up very well against everything else including The Stranglers stuff.”

There’s no doubt the first four Stranglers albums are stone cold classics that have stood the test of time, and a quick perusal of recent live shows on YouTube show Cornwell still as edgy and angry as ever. Nearly four decades on from his first album how does he keep it fresh?

“I know it’s terrible it? The way I keep it fresh is I don’t carry keyboards as I hate them,” notes Cornwell. “Rock and roll isn’t about keyboards as it’s about guitars, jagged edges, danger, drums, and noise. I don’t think keyboards really come into it.

“But because there are no keyboards we have to reinvent the arrangements and sometimes I play the keyboard part, or the bass does. Sometimes we sing bits of the keyboard so we try and take the most important keyboard pieces and play them another way so it does sound fresh to me.

“They’re great songs so the sign of a good tune is if you can reinvent it in different ways and people tell me it works so I’m listening to what they say.”

Offstage Cornwell is an affable chap, and despite his often austere image is always willing to play with songs, none more so than on a surreal version of his mega hit Golden Brown with a Mariachi band.

“For a long time I didn’t play Golden Brown because I couldn’t do that fingerpicking bit for the keyboard as I’m not dexterous enough. Then I was invited to do it a charity performance so I transposed the key and found I could play it in a more Flamenco style with trashy chords which worked.

“A few years I suddenly woke up in the middle of the night and thought it could work with a Mexican mariachi band, so I found one and recorded it.”

That version shouldn’t work but it does because this is an artist willing to think differently which is why the old punks are bringing their kids – and possibly grandkids – to Cornwell’s shows.

“There are kids who are very young and you say how come you are into this? They say I’ve been brought up with it since I was very small so they have been brainwashed by their parents which is terrible really.”

Hugh Cornwell plays Blackpool’s Punk Rebellion festival at the Winter Gardens on Saturday 8 August and Hebden Bridge Trades Club on Sunday 9 August.

The Fall and Rise of Hugh Cornwell is released on Invisible Hands Music the first week of September.



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