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Interview: Hugh Cornwell of The Stranglers

Interview: Hugh Cornwell of The Stranglers

Chris Cudby / Thursday 11th April, 2019 11:50AM

Original singer and guitarist of punk / new wave legends The Stranglers, UK songwriter Hugh Cornwell is returning to Aoatearoa after a decade away for a three date tour with band this May. Cornwell co-founded The Stranglers in 1974, his trailblazing work with the group (up until he quit in 1990) birthed such timeless singles as 'Golden Brown', 'No More Heroes', 'Nice And Sleazy', '(Get A) Grip (On Yourself)', and 'Peaches'. Cornwell's influential early spoken word singing style (which he describes as "rap") has echoes in the work of such genre-busting groups as Headless Chickens and Sleaford Mods, while The Stranglers' innovative approach to instrumentation, incorporating synths and aggressively angular bass into their rowdy anthems, has parallels with New York's late 70s No Wave movement and can be heard on such recent releases as Christchurch duo Dog Power's 2018 debut mini-album.

Hugh Cornwell promises a set full of stone cold classics from The Stranglers, plus an opening selection of songs from his own solo career, which spans nine albums including his 2018 collection Monster. The affable singer, guitarist, novelist and actor generously spared some time to yarn with Chris Cudby about his life in music, what fans can look forward to with his New Zealand shows, his recent collaborative record with punk poet Dr. John Cooper Clarke and more...

Hugh Cornwell (The Stranglers)

Wednesday 1st May - Churchills, Christchurch*
Thursday 2nd May - San Fran, Wellington*
Friday 3rd May - The Powerstation, Auckland

Tickets available HERE via UTR*

You'll be playing in both the North Island and the South Island. Do you remember the last time you were in New Zealand?

I came and did an acoustic tour, or Australia and then New Zealand afterwards, about ten years ago, I played in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch I think. I remember very distinctly playing in Christchurch.

Christchurch will be very different to how you remember it, because the central city was destroyed by an earthquake about eight years ago... so it could be quite weird or interesting. It's still under construction. This time around you're touring with your band, right?

I'm very pleased to come to New Zealand with the band this time, rather than just acoustically. It's a great little band, it's just the three of us. A very very good bass player called Pat Hughs, who my drummer found. My drummer is a guy that I found in a music collage about 15 years ago, he was 20 years old at the time. He joined my lineup for a little while. He was sensational, I took him on board, he's Windsor McGilvray and he played for about five years. Then he went off and did some other things, and he's come back in. He's brought Pat with him, so I'm very happy. The great thing about this lineup is they don't mind singing backing vocals and they're very good. It's amazing what you can create with bass, drums and guitar, but with three added backing vocals, it's like another instrument.

You'll be performing a selection of Stranglers songs and your own work.

You bet. We're gonna start off highlighting about half the tracks from Monster, the new album, dotted in with some of my other solo records. Then we're going to take a little break and then we're going to come out and ram those Stranglers songs down the audience's throats until they beg for mercy, and pull white handkerchiefs out saying "we can't take any more".

The Stranglers had such a singular sound in the 70s and I’m really interested in how you came up with your spoken word / singing style, which is so distinctive and still sounds so amazing.

Well, I tell you, one of those was 'Midnight Summer Dream'... and then 'Peaches' was a rap and then 'Down in the Sewer', the earlier ones, they were sort of spoken word as well. It’s an interesting genesis. I think what made me do that was they where the pieces that had very strong melodic things in the music, I didn’t think [they] needed a melodic thing in the voice. For example in 'Down In The Sewer', the main bit, Jean (Jacques Burnel) sang me "dow dow dow dow dada da dow". I said “well listen, thats a great guitar break, I cant custom a lyric to go with that because it’s going to be very difficult. It would be better to turn that into a guitar break". Because that’s what it sounds like, it sounds like Hank Marvin playing or... the surf guitarist Dick Dale, it sounds like a Dick Dale thing. So that’s why the spoken word came in 'Down in The Sewer'. 'Peaches' was again, that riff was the perfect bed to pile onto sort of a rap thing. Nobody else was doing rap in those days so 'Peaches' was possibly the first rap song.

I think it’s really interesting that you describe it as a rap song. I was stoked to discover that you put out that album with John Cooper Clarke, because I’m quite interested in the English tradition of the late 70s, early 80s, guys who would be doing an everyday talking voice over rhythmic music from the UK.

That’s very interesting that you should bring up John Cooper Clarke. When I first thought of that, him doing 'McArthur Park', that was my first idea, I imagined him talking too... I didn’t expect him to be singing it. Then he turned up to the studio to record it and he started singing it and it was great and I said “John, I didn’t expect you... I thought you’d be talking in your Mancunian accent, and I thought that would be really surreal to have to doing that in your Mancunian accent. But now you're singing it, great!” You just gotta go with the flow.

Yeah man, I saw him do a performance in Auckland in the middle of last year and it was just him and a microphone and it was one of the most amazing live shows I’ve ever seen.

He’s got a very good musical sense, John. He’s got a great sense of melody because he can hold a tune, as you know on that record. And he's got a very very highly skill musical sense, even though he doesn’t play an instrument he’s still very musical and I think it comes through in his poetry.

I feel like a kind of template The Stranglers came up with, tracks like 'Nice and Sleazy' with the aggressive bass and the synths and your singing style still sounds so fresh today and it seemed to anticipate a lot of musical developments that followed... I get the feeling people were picking up on your innovations but I kinda wonder, how did you guys come up with that sound originally? It seems to come out of nowhere in some ways.

You know about the necessity of invention, when one is restricted by what you have at your disposal. The aggressive bass sound was a complete accident, it wasn’t by design at all. Jean had a big 8 x 10 box of speakers and he turned the amp up so loud that they were all blown and we didn’t have any money to replace the speakers so the sound that he used on those first albums was a necessity. He didn’t want that sound, we didn’t want that sound but it was the one that we had because we couldn’t afford to buy another bass rig. It became a trademark and there’s a lot of truth in this idea that invention comes from necessity and circumstances. A lot of it is not by design.

I’ve got a bit of a thorny question – you don't have any affiliation with the group currently touring as The Stranglers do you?

None at all, the remains of The Stranglers, no none at all. I think they were down there last year.

Yeah, that’s right.

That’s good, I don’t mind. It’s a calling card for me, they go and say here we are and then I can come after it and say here I am so it’s fine. I think it’s a mutually beneficial situation.

Why did you originally leave The Stranglers in 1990?

I didn’t want to imagine a time in the future where I’d be what they’re doing now, which is a slave to that catalog. Because it was becoming clear to me on the last two albums that we did, that we’d gone off the boil as a creative unit and people weren’t reacting to the latest stuff as well as they were always reacting to the old stuff. When I sensed that I realised there wasn’t really a place for me in that environment any more. I didn’t really have that much familiarity with the other members any longer. At the beginning we were living in each other's pockets. We all had separate lives and I didn’t really know what they were doing in their lives, apart from when they turned up to rehearse or play gigs or do interviews and stuff. I just lost an enthusiasm for it, not for music but just for that set up.

It was a cricketing moment that I watched on television that made me do it. There was a fast bowler called Devon Malcolm who used to play for England and he was a terrible batsman, well he came in to bat the night of the last gig I did with Stranglers and he hit a six which no one was expecting him to do. When I saw him do that, it really gave me the courage to say “well, this is my last gig”. So I did the gig and then the next day told everyone I was leaving.

You’ve been active as a solo artist since the late 80s. I was listening to an amazing album that you did with Robert Williams from 1977 called Nosferatu.

Oh yeah, we're gonna play one of the tracks from that, 'Mothra', were playing that in the set.

Awesome. You’ve always had an artistic identity outside of The Stranglers... what solo material will you be playing?

We're doing one from Nosferatu because I really like playing that and it puts the bands through their paces because it’s well arranged. It’s almost a progressive rock piece and people love it so that goes down very well and it’s a challenge to play it, so we're featuring that. We're doing a track from Hi Fi, were doing a few from Totem & Taboo and nothing from Hooverdam on this tour. We re doing one from a very old solo album called Wolf called ‘Getting Involved' and that’s great, that's turned out really well.

Is that the late 80s one?

Yeah, I’ve got a lot of solo material so I can’t really touch every album on this tour, just about half of them I guess.

What’s the reaction been like for Monster?

Very very good, people are saying its the best thing I’ve done... ever. Even including The Stranglers work, which I found a bit over the top. For me it’s just the next album. I went “you really think so?’ and to me it’s just a development y’know. But I’m very pleased with the reaction and hope that it will continue to please new people. I like melodies and I tried to write simple songs, if you can do a bit of education along the way, then you’re quids in innit?


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Hugh Cornwell
Thu 2nd May 8:00pm
San Fran, Wellington
Hugh Cornwell
Fri 3rd May 8:00pm
The Powerstation, Auckland