The Man in Black, ex-Strangler Hugh Cornwell, talks tours, sci-fi and his passion for Ray Harryhausen
As Hugh Cornwell returns to the North West, MALCOLM WYATT talks past, present and futuristic science fiction with the former Stranglers frontman
With a new LP out and accompanying tour visiting Lancashire next month, Hugh Cornwell is commuting between his Somerset home and a few old Surrey haunts, getting his band match-fit.
And the former Stranglers lead vocalist/guitarist, who visits Clitheroe on November 10, is back to his Guildford roots, where the band that made his name first emerged 44 years ago.
“The band members I play with live and work in that area, and I’ve been rehearsing with them.
“We’ve still got the final polishing to be done.”
His bandmates are tutors at the town’s acclaimed Academy of Contemporary Music, although he was with Chris Bell (drums) and Caroline Campbell (bass) when I saw him at Preston‘s 53 Degrees in 2013.
“Yes, and now I have Windsor McGilvray, an exceptionally-talented drummer with an exceptional work ethic, who I first found when he was 21 and had graduated from that college.
“He played with me around five or six years, when Chris came in, now he’s back.
“And the bass player is Pat Hughes, again very good, And they both sing like birds, which means we can capture those three-part harmonies quite easily.”
Despite making his name in a four-piece, Hugh’s long been a fan of the classic trio, going back to loving Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
“You can do amazing things, and it leaves those spaces I like.
“And I think people under-estimate what you can do with backing vocals. The Who were fabulous with that.
“And with the Stranglers songs we’re playing, we have to be a bit original, with creative arrangements … but no one’s complained yet.”
When I saw him touring Totem & Taboo tour last time, he followed each new track with a Stranglers oldie, and that worked well. But not this time.
“I’m being very brave. I’ve got two sets – the first is about half of the new LP plus selections from my other solo albums, then we’re going to take a little break, then ram Stranglers down their throats!
“We’ll be able to give a good hour of that. But it’s the first time I’ll have done a whole set of solo stuff.”
Last time he toured, earlier this year, was with another great three-piece, Wilko Johnson’s band. And before that he joined forces for a tour and album alongside punk poet/comic John Cooper Clarke.
“Absolutely fantastic. John’s a gent, and has quite a good voice. We were astounded how he went to it like a duck to water.
“He was so in his element, singing with us. It was great.”
When we spoke, all I’d heard from the new LP was impressive title track, Monster, which – like the This Time It’s Personal project with John Cooper Clarke – has a rock’n’roll feel, I suggested.
“Well, you get a bit of that when you don’t put keyboards on. Soon as you take them out of the equation, you’re back to the classic rock situation set-up. But it wasn’t intentional.
“If a song’s good, though, it should stand up with very little done to it, something I’ve tried to stick to.”
After 45 years playing music, does he think he might have hacked life as a biochemist, as he studied?
“I think I’d have got bored. I like travelling, it’s in my blood. That’s what this job entails, and it suits me.”
Monster’s title track is about Ray Harryhausen, ‘an inspiration for fantasy film-makers throughout the world’, responsible for pre-CGI, painstaking stop-frame special effects on movies like Jason and the Argonauts and Godzilla. A hero to Hugh?
“Absolutely, and not just me. His father took him to see King Kong when he was about seven, and when he came out of the cinema, he said, ‘That’s what I want to do when I grow up’.
“That’s what he did. That’s amazing, to be so convinced, know what you want to do with your life, and should be an inspiration to us all.
“I love films and I’m just getting involved in a feature. I love all that. For me, movies are the ultimate escape.”
He’s a published novelist, too. Any in the offing?
“I’m on two, and one’s almost there – science fiction, set within the next 30/40 years, a bit of a noir thriller – it needs another rewrite. The other I’ve just started. It’s finding time, fitting it around music.”
Meanwhile, while the live show’s electric, the Monster album comes with Restoration, a second LP featuring 10 acoustic Stranglers tracks recreated in the studio.
“I’ve been out doing acoustic tours regularly these last 10 years, every couple of years, and over that time I’ve found an amazing number of old Stranglers songs that fit really well with just acoustic guitar and voice.
“I like doing things I’ve never done before, and it was very enjoyable. I’m very pleased with it, and maybe some Stranglers people will find it interesting.”
It’s now a staggering 28 years since he left that band after 16 memorable years. Next year marks Hugh’s 70th birthday. Is that too far ahead to think about?
“I’m not big on birthdays. If you have too much time to think about them, you’re not busy enough.”
Hugh Cornwell plays Clitheroe Grand (https://www.thegrandvenue.co.uk/events/hugh-cornwell/) on Saturday, November 10 (doors 7.30pm), with tickets £20. And for more tour dates and tickets try 08444 780 898 and https://www.thegigcartel.com/Artists-profiles/Hugh-Cornwell.htm
For further tour more details and more about Hugh Cornwell and his new album, Monster, head to his website at http://www.hughcornwell.com/ and keep in touch via Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/hughcornwellofficial and Twitter at https://twitter.com/HughCornwell.