Hugh Cornwell plays Preston’s 53 Degrees on Friday, but the former bio-chemist student told Malcolm Wyatt he has other things on his mind – The Ashes
Hugh Cornwell turns 64 next month, but the ex-Stranglers frontman is still eager to push boundaries judging by most recent release, Totem and Taboo.
The Stranglers, the most commercially successful group to emerge from the punk and new wave scene, had more than 20 top 40 hits between 1977 and 1990, seven reaching the top 10, with Golden Brown only kept off No.1 in 1982 by The Jam’s A Town Called Malice.
Hugh is rightly regarded as one of the UK’s finest song-writing talents and accomplished live performers, his band enjoying 10 hit albums, the early fire of singles like No More Heroes, Peaches and (Get A) Grip (On Yourself) giving rise to a more mellow successes like Always the Sun and Skin Deep.
But if that suggests more mainstream material now, think again, his most recent album seeing him front a raw three-piece (with Steve Fishman, bass, and Chris Bell, drums), aided by acclaimed Chicago-based engineer Steve Albini, best known for work with Nirvana, Pixies, PJ Harvey, Manic Street Preachers and The Wedding Present.
Hugh said: “Steve did a wonderful job. We spent a lot of time demo-ing, and he had those so was in the picture.
“He doesn’t like to be called a producer – preferring to work with people with a clear idea of what they want.
“We managed to get it all on 16-track, for a richer recording, recording the album in 10 days and mixing it in four.”
Totem and Taboo received rave reviews both sides of the Atlantic, and will be performed in full at Preston’s UCLan venue 53 Degrees tomorrow night, alongside some classic Stranglers material.
Hugh said: “I play the whole album as you hear it, but with every second song a Stranglers song, slotting in a few hits as we go. And they sit very well together.”
Kentish Town-born Hugh also played 53 Degrees on his last tour, and said, ‘I’m looking forward to it’.
Does he still enjoy playing live? “I do, but it’s very hard work.
“Last week I went to a festival in Crete but was there less than 24 hours. Fabulous, but a hard trek.”
Does he still play his Stranglers albums at home? “Only when I’m doing a version live and try and remember how it goes.
“I tried Men in Black the other day, for an acoustic version of a song.
“I ended up doing Thrown Away, with the others almost impossible.”
Some key influences can be heard on the new album, from The Beatles, Kinks and Who to Cream, David Bowie, Lou Reed, T-Rex and … The Stranglers.
He said: “You’re bound to hear them, I was part of that and haven’t tried drastically to change.
“I still write songs and sing – the lyrical content, voice and guitar will be similar.”
One song, the superb God Is A Woman, is perhaps a more feminist-friendly rewrite of Peaches.
There’s an American feel at times too, and he has a number of stateside gigs coming soon.
So is the US a home-from-home? “Only by the necessity of going there so often.
“You get more familiar with places and get to know people. I prefer Spain, but I’ve a lot of time for America.”
I tell him there’s a ‘filmic’ feel to epic last track, In The Dead of Night.
He replies: “Well, let’s hope someone uses it in a film. Actually, I’m making films to go with all the songs.
“It’ll take a year to finish, but when it’s done we’ll link them for a DVD.”
Away from the music, he’s a keen writer too, his latest novel Arnold Drive – the story of a meek Somerset vicar’s journey from innocence to experience – published in September.
He said: “I like writing while I’m away. I can escape into it.”
So where’s home these days? “Central London, but all over the place.
“I’m not quite sure where home is.”
Is he a family man? “I wouldn’t be able to get away with all this if I was!”
And does the former Bristol University student wonder what life might have been like if he’d remained a bio-chemist? “I loved that, but you have to be good at something or you’ll have a very frustrating, unfulfilled life.
“Pick something in life you feel you’ve a chance to do well, otherwise you’re on a downer.”
After all these years he remains in love with his job, but the keen cricket fan – looking forward to the Ashes series – added: “I’ve a lot of friends in music, but the last thing you want when you’re relaxing is to talk about the business.
“I get completely away from it. I’d rather talk about cricket.”