Hugh Cornwell: interview

Hugh Cornwell

Hugh Cornwell

The Stranglers never really fitted in anywhere. They were too polished to be properly accepted by the punk movement. They were too punk to be embraced by the mainstream. But three decades on and their genius is now commonly accepted.

Songs like ‘Golden Brown’, ‘Peaches’ and ‘Strange Little Girl’ are virtually British national anthems. From The Stranglers’ inception to his departure in 1990, singer and songwriter Hugh Cornwell was the driving creative force behind the group.

Since embarking on his solo career, Cornwell has continued to release music and perform around the world. At the suggestion of the two Australians running the record label, Toerag, on which Cornwell released his latest record Hooverdam as a free download, the London-native and avid cricket fan began performing The Stranglers’ debut record, Rattus Norvegicus, in its entirety.

“The fans loved it. They’d never actually seen the album played from top to tail in order. The Stranglers never did it because we would perform our songs all mixed up. People [bands] are going out and playing famous albums now and I’ve got to say, I really enjoy playing [Rattus],” Cornwell says.

After 34 years since its release, Cornwell believes Rattus Norvegicus has remained fresh and relevant. “It just shows you what an amazing collection of songs it was. It’s a great body of work. I know Stranglers fans would beg to disagree with me, but for me it’s the stand out album. It’s so strong,” Cornwell says.

hugh cornwell 02There’s no great story behind the naming of the record, even though the epic closing track is called ‘Down In The Sewer’. “We didn’t want to name the album after a song, so we decided to be perverse – ‘obtuse’, I believe is the word – and pick the Latin name that represents the common rat, which is prevelant in the UK. We just thought it would be weird,” Cornwell explains.

The Stranglers’ music in the late 70s was sexually charged and often roused the ire of feminist groups. Their hit ‘Peaches’ was seen as glorifying the objectification of women, although it was actually Cornwell’s sardonic exploration of male behaviour.

The song doesn’t offend as many people in 2011. “People are more tolerant now. You can get away with murder now. In those days you couldn’t get away with a lot of stuff. They had very conservative views. But it takes people who push the boundaries to make people more tolerant. One of the worst things in life is intolerance,” Cornwell muses.

When he appeared in Australia in 2011 he played in a trio, which has been his arrangement for many years. “It’s just bass, guitar and drums -– I love playing in that format,” Cornwell says. “I just so happened to have been lucky enough to secure the services of the same drum and bass player that played on my first proper solo album after I left The Stranglers, called Guilty. We worked out last Autumn that I’ve been playing with Chris and Steve on and off, longer than I played with the original members of The Stranglers. I was in The Stranglers for 17 years – I’ve been playing with these guys on and off for 19 years.”

While a broad, droning keyboard sound became an integral aspect of The Stranglers’ sound, Cornwell explains that his trio revive the band’s earliest sound. “We’re doing new arrangements of these old songs,” he says. “What a lot of people don’t realise that in the early days of The Stranglers we spent a lot of time as a trio. wasn’t a very good guitar player then; I was more of a rhythm player. I didn’t do solos. So a lot of those songs on Rattus started off as trio songs. The keyboards were put on the top. [The songs] lend themselves perfectly to being performed by a three-piece.”

Cornwell attributed his prolific creative output after The Strangers to his low attention span. He needs to keep busy. “I’m constantly doing stuff. I hate sitting around doing nothing. Five years ago I broke up with a long-term girlfriend and I wanted to go on holidays. But I knew I would get bored by myself so I started writing a novel. It’s coming out this May.”

It won’t be the first book Cornwell has released. In 2004, Cornwell’s autobiograhy was published, titled A Multitude Of Sins. The book is a compelling read, covering his childhood, his time as a post-graduate biochemistry researcher in Sweden, his friendship with a charming bank robber, the rise of The Stranglers and his brief stint in Pentonville prison for being busted at a police road block with a cornucopia of drugs that been given to him by fans.

“Now when I’m on holiday I’m always writing, so I never really stop working,” Cornwell chuckles. “To me, writing is like a holiday. A change is as good a rest. Writing fiction is like another world. You’re still using your mind and creating, but you’re entertaining yourself. The problem is that I can’t read books now. I’d rather write one than read one.”

Cornwell explains that his soon-to-be-released book, Window On The World, is a thriller romance set in London, with the story shifting to numerous locations. “I like the dark side. I like tragic comedy, because life is a tragic comedy. “Some of the things that happen to people, you just couldn’t make up,” he says.

When held up against Cornwell’s remarkable and eventful life, never has a truer observation been made.

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