"What makes this record for me is the musicians I was able to gather," says Robyn Hitchcock of Ole Tarantula, a surreal vision and Technicolor celebration of life - from its inception and the whole catastrophe of it - till its groovy decay and inevitable last breath.
"To me, the whole record is sadness cloaked in fun. But under that fun, more sadness," says Hitchcock.
Such seeming contradictions are what make Hitchcock a credible narrator to his incredible kingdom of song, the one he's built on a foundation of dreamlike, whimsical, tragic comedy and set to gorgeous and slightly askew melodies for the last 30 years. In Hitchcock's universe, adventure rocket ships, exploding, twist-off heads and crawling things are the norm, as are supersonic harmonies and an ever-present chiming guitar sound. Through the years, those heavenly refrains, the harmonicas and the hilarity conspired and drew a blueprint for alternative pop as we know it. Is it any wonder he attracts stellar company when he settles in to make a record?
Recorded in Seattle in September 2005 and March 2006, Hitchcock is joined throughout Ole Tarantula by the Venus 3 Peter Buck, Scott McCaughey and Bill Rieflin old friends who he notes are also "3/4ths of the Minus 5 and half of R.E.M."
"We sound like a smart garage band, to my ears, when we play live. The record is a little more tidy, but they still rock, and rock me along with them. This is the rockingest record I've made in years," he says.
The Venus 3 is joined by a cast of recurrent and new characters in the Hitchcock story: Soft Boys/Egyptians bandmate Morris Windsor and Sean Nelson (Harvey Danger) on gleaming background harmonies; Chris Ballew (Presidents of The United States of America) on harmony vocals and keyboards. Soft Boys guitarist Kimberley Rew assists on three tracks and the Faces' Ian McLagan adds his famous keyboard hands to "N.Y. Doll."
"'N.Y. Doll' is one of my favorites," says Hitchcock of the elegy inspired by the recent documentary on the New York Dolls' bassist. "I never met Arthur Kane but his story is another example of how precious a life becomes when it's over."
"Underground Sun," written for a friend of Hitchcock's who died last spring, jingle-jangles across the astral plane. "She was a very upbeat person so I wrote her what I hope is an exciting elegy, not a mournful one."
Fuelled by mysticism, the choogling "The Museum of Sex" is in Seaford, Sussex, "But only visible at low tide," he explains. "It's an elegy for my life as a human. Again not too mournful I hope."
"These songs were all written at home in London, though often reference the States. I've been commuting for over 20 years but I live here no matter how often I orbit through Los Angeles," says Hitchcock. Indeed, the West is an auspicious presence throughout Ole Tarantula.
"Belltown Ramble" is set in Seattle, its character and location drawn from "A 14th Century Uzbekistani warlord with an elegant name" and a bar in Belltown. San Francisco crops up in the Dirty Harry/Magnum Force-inspired, "Limitations, Briggs," as well as in the title song "About where babies come from" written after an extended stay in Tucson, Arizona.
Hitchcock has long made insects and sea creatures his favorite subjects and they have their say throughout Ole Tarantula, his self-described "twenty-somethingth" album.
"As a thinking person I'm completely in despair, but as a creature I'm quite happy," he told The Believer in 2005. That would explain quite a lot about the happy/sad world of Hitchcock's songs...
Beginning as a strummer in Cambridge, England's folk clubs, by the coming of the first punk rock era, Hitchcock had developed into a bandleader, heading up folk-pop iconoclasts the Soft Boys, one of alternative rock's least sung but most influential bands. Yet by the time R.E.M., the Replacements and pre-alt-rockers like them revealed its influence on their own bands, Hitchcock had moved on to what would become his distinguished solo career. Recording and releasing records like his stark debut, Black Snake Diamond Role, the warm, all-acoustic I Often Dream of Trains and the psychedelicized Groovy Decay sometimes with and sometimes without his band the Egyptians Hitchcock would unwittingly help shape the pop strain of contemporary alternative rock. In 1998, director and fan Jonathan Demme placed him in a shop window for the concert film Storefront Hitchcock, introducing his engaging live show to wider audiences. As Hitchcock continues to record and tour as a solo and band act, his direction has veered from the folky Moss Elixir and the rocky Jewels for Sophia to the folk-rock tribute to Bob Dylan, Robyn Sings! Each time out, he is consistently and singularly, Robyn Hitchcock. In 2002, the Soft Boys briefly reunited for the long anticipated Nextdoorland and Hitchcock followed with his 2004 Yep Roc release Spooked, a collaboration with alternative country artists Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. Hitchcock called the studio experience "An extraordinarily good dream." At the time of its release, The New York Times noted he was an "...acute observer of love, death and the entire evolutionary continuum..."
"Years ago I wrote a song called 'My Mind Wants to Die But My Body Wants to Live' and that was the only lyric in it," he told The Believer. "And really, that pretty much sums me up."