Hugh Cornwell ‘Le Grand Seigneur’

After leaving Punk/New Wave icons The Stranglers nearly 30 years ago and about to enter his 8th decade, frontman and principal songwriter Hugh Cornwell has refused to rest on his well earned laurels.

SOUNDS caught up with the man in black who brought us the likes of Golden Brown, Peaches, Strange Little Girl and No More Heroes before his recent Manchester Academy show to talk monsters, mothers, Hedy Lamarr and accidentally ending up on the front row at a Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars concert.

The “Monster” Album:

Sounds: Where did the concept for ‘Monster’ actually come from, the heroes and anti-heroes?

HC: Well, my mother passed away 7 years ago and I wanted to carve a headstone for her and thought the best way to do that was to write a song. The title ‘Le Grand Dame’ occurred to me, because she was half French and it suited her personality; she had a lot of dignity. I wrote a song about her and I really enjoyed the process. Family, brothers, sisters liked it, so it seemed to be a success and I started thinking well, I’ve been writing songs about people before: I wrote a song about Marvin Gaye (“Laughing” from Aural Sculpture); I wrote a song about Robert Mitchum called “The Big Sleep” on a solo album (Hi-Fi); I wrote a song about one of my biggest heroes, Arthur Lee of Love. I thought he was a genius songwriter. I thought it wouldn’t be unusual for me to write songs about some other people as well as my mum.

I’m a big movie buff and I happened to come across a George Hamilton film about Evel Knievel. I watched it and thought, “My God! This guy has had such a fascinating life, you really couldn’t make it up!”  He was the most famous man in the world in the 70s, but no one has written a song about him. I also had “Duce Coochie Man” as a title, it had occurred to me years ago, a play on “Hoochie Coochie Man” you know? I hadn’t known what to do with it at the time. So slowly it blossomed into this collection of songs. I wanted the album to be called ‘La Grande Dame’, a nice headstone for my mum, but commercial concerns took front seat and the record company said “Monsters” is a much better title and fits in with me as well: I’m a bit of a monster I suppose!

Sounds: Another strong woman featured on the album is Hedy Lamarr.

HC: Another remarkable life! She was married to the richest man in Austria, an arms dealer who happened to have Hitler round for dinner regularly and she’d be there in her gown. She was the first woman to show everything in the movie “Ecstasy” in the 20’s, so she was world famous; worldly infamous. Again, I thought no one has written a song about these people.

Sounds: I read that Hedy had done some work during the war on a torpedo guidance technology, which was a forerunner of Bluetooth?

HC: That’s right and during the war she presented her invention to the US armed forces, but they wouldn’t accept it, because it hadn’t originated within their “world”.

Sounds: Is that because they perceived it as a threat? If the technology had come from somewhere else it could be subverted?

HC: Yes exactly, maybe they were unsure for security reasons, but finally they adopted it after the war.

Sounds: It sounds like there are differing creative processes on the album: The driving guitar riff on “Pure Evel” evokes a motorcycle, but on “Monster” it sounds like you had the music first and then fitted the story around it?

HC: I was in my health club, about to go for a swim, when (hums melody) popped into my head and I thought, “Oh that’s good, nice little ditty.” I immediately recorded it on my phone. I had just seen a film about Ray Harryhausen and how inspirational he was to many movie producers. (Ray Harryhausen was a visual effects creator, famous for stop-motion model animation). I came up with the line, “Ray, you created a monster today”, a bit like Frankenstein, Mary Shelley, I’m into all that gothic stuff. That was a nice image, it creates a painting for me, it’s a new slant on the subject. For Ray it must have been really exciting having his dad knocking on his door saying, “What have you come up with? You’ve been in there two days! I’ve put the milk and sandwiches outside, but you haven’t touched them!” and Ray’s going, “I’ll be out in a minute!” Then he opens the door and says, “Look at what I made!” His dad was an engineer and did the armature work to help Ray animate the models; they worked together as a team.

Sounds: Some of the tracks started with the music and some of them were based on the feelings that you have around the characters, is it a mix of approach?

HC: Yes, it is a mix. The rule about this game is that there are no rules with songwriting, you could start with anything.

Sounds: “Monster” sounds like a natural development from “Totem & Taboo” (Hugh’s last solo album), but the recording processes were quite different?

HC: Yes, they were. I don’t see that one album relates to the next one, but there can be a song on an album that relates to a song on another and is a development. In that way “Bilko” is the next creation of “I Want One of Those” (from Totem & Taboo). I have chains of tracks; we had “Peaches” and then “Sleazy” was the bastard son of “Peaches”.

Sounds: “Totem” sounds like it was recorded in one take, whereas the new album sounds like it was gradually built up track by track?

HC: We prepared for “Totem” with live rehearsals, me the drummer and bass player, which were the same rhythm section I had for the album “Guilty”. My manager had said, “Wouldn’t it be nice to get that rhythm section back together, cos it worked really well”.  I did demos and I said to them, “Feel free, to make changes, you know what sounds right and what doesn’t”. We rehearsed the songs, but only had a 10 day period to record with Steve (legendary producer Steve Albini) in Chicago, we knew the only way to get it done was to have them ready to play live. A few days before we were due to go to Chicago we played the whole album live at a gig in Guildford, to see how it went, and it all seemed to hang together.

We went to see Steve, we spent the first day going through all the tracks and cutting down the parts, because he wanted to see if everything would fit onto a 16-track analogue tape machine. Which he thought would sound better than a 24-track machine. He mapped out all the musical parts for each song in different colours, like a colouring book. There were ten days of “colouring in” all the parts and I went back and mixed it a couple of months later. For this one (“Monster”), I did all the recording myself, educated by working with producers like Steve, Toni Visconti and Liam Watson.

Sounds: Great producers!

HC: They are great at what they do. I’ve learnt something from all of them and was able to put it all to good use. Originally, we were going to do this album live with musicians and find a producer to work with, but as I was sending more up to date demos to my manager he said, “I don’t think we need to go any further, you just need to finish these off.”

Sounds: It’s funny when you’re tracking things up, you have the freedom to keep going, it’s where to draw the line, whereas, when you have 10 days in a studio you have to be more focused?

HC: I was working in my home studio and because I had it in my mind it was going to be recorded in the same way as “Totem & Taboo”, I thought it’s still got to be simple. It was only very late on, when I had gone a long way down that path of “making it simple”, we decided we could finish it off and it worked out really well.

Sounds: The album sounds great, I think the guitar sounds really strong. I love the dark, middle section in “Pure Evel”.

HC: Yeah, very Doorsy, I think I just wanted to write a new Doors album!

Sounds: “Attack of the Major Sevens”, who’s that about?

HC: It’s about the major 7 chord, which is very bitter sweet and isn’t often used in rock. Arthur Lee used it a lot with his band Love: “Orange Skies” is one of my favourites. It’s a very misunderstood chord and a lot of people don’t put it in rock music, because they don’t think it fits, but Arthur proved it WAS rock and roll. Also, when I worked with John Cooper Clarke and we did “MacArthur Park”, that’s full of major sevenths. So, the lyric there is a cross between references to Jimmy Webb and his writing and references to Arthur and his life. “Attack of the Major Sevens” sounds like something from outer space! It sounds like something Harryhausen would have been involved in: “It came from 20 billion miles from earth”, so that influenced me.

Sounds: There was a film, “Mars Attacks” some time ago and it sounds reminiscent of that?

HC: Yes, that’s right. It was a film by Tim Burton, a real pastiche, very funny.

Sounds: Which characters nearly made it to the album then?

HC: As soon as I got the ten I thought, “That’s enough, that’s fine, they’ll stand by themselves.” I didn’t start any songs that then didn’t make it!

The “Restoration” album:

Sounds: The “Restoration” covers collection, was it hard to narrow down the huge Stranglers’ back catalogue to ten tracks?

HC: It wasn’t that difficult because I’ve done acoustic tours for a few years, about 4 or 5 of them, and every time I prepare for that I go back to the old catalogue, mine and The Stranglers, and find something that, completely against expectation works really well. Sony, the label, had said, “Why don’t we bring in The Stranglers fans”, by giving them an acoustic album. I’ve recorded acoustic gigs, but I’ve never actually gone into the studio to record an acoustic album. Immediately I thought “Outside Tokyo” has to be on there and “Ships That Pass in the Night” too. I had a “so what” attitude to the song selection and chose the ones I thought were great on the acoustic, rather than what had been hits.

Sounds: I like it for that though, I think there are only two obvious choices on the album, which are ‘Heroes’ and ‘Always the sun’. The two tracks from “Feline” and “Goodbye Toulouse” from “Rattus” are brilliant.

HC: I was very proud of it, but it was tricky to record, because I had this very dark, Johnny Cash feel in mind. We recorded the guitar and my engineer said, “It’s a great take”, but I wasn’t keen.  I went away for a while and kept thinking, “That acoustic guitar needs a kick up the arse!” As soon as I got back I said, “We’re gonna fix this!” We fed it through a Fender Twin amplifier and that improved it a lot, giving it an edge. It sounded like guitars on Everly Brothers’ records, those fabulous acoustic records from the 50’s that are so clean and lovely. Once the guitar was sounding right everything fell into place.

Sounds: There’s nothing from the “La Folie” or “Men in Black” albums. What would be your choice from La Folie? “Golden Brown” would’ve been the obvious one, but what about “Tramp”?

HC: Yeah, that works really well acoustically, I think you’re right there.

Sounds: Was it a miss as a single maybe, it always stood out on that album?

HC: It was due to be, the record company wanted it to be a follow up to “Golden Brown”, but the band talked them out of it, because “Tramp” was my song and they probably felt threatened that I was taking over the band by having “Tramp” selected. They talked them into releasing “La Folie”, a song in French!

Sounds: What about a choice from “Men in Black”? I’ve seen you play “Second Coming” acoustically, what about “Thrown Away”?

HC: I play that acoustically and it works too, one of those could’ve definitely gone on there.

“Arnold Drive” – Hugh’s second novel:

Sounds: How much of Hugh is in Arnold?

HC: Quite a bit probably, just like Jamie Thornbury in the first novel (“Window on the World”). It always happens when your writing, a lot of the writer goes into it. As you write more you take yourself out of the characters or you hide it better. I’d love to see Gary Oldman playing Arnold, he’s never played a vicar!

Sounds: Is there going to be another book?

HC: I’m on two at the moment. I’m on a second rewrite of a science fiction noir called, “Future Tense”. It’d be really nice to get it published. I’m on a western as well, set just after the battle of Little Big Horn. It’s about an Italian soldier in the US Cavalry, who actually existed, and I’m going to write about what I thought might have happened to him after he left the army. The only reason I started writing books is because I’m into movies and I was told by a writer that, if you can see a film idea in your imagination, you must start out writing a book, then it may get turned into a film.

Sounds: What’s the last film you watched?

HC: I watched a Linda Darnell movie called, “The Accused”, a film noir from the 40s with a woman who’s the psychology professor at a college. One of her students – they were older in those days – had managed to talk her into going out to dinner with him. He says, “I’m going to take you to California, where I go diving for abalone.”  She reluctantly agrees, but he starts molesting her and she kills him. She’s so scared that no one will believe her that she throws his body into the ocean and he dies of drowning. Then she spends the whole film scared that she will be discovered. The guy’s guardian turns up and he takes an interest in her and there’s a detective who is sure that it wasn’t an accident.  It’s really unusual, old and nicely scripted. I don’t see many new movies that are as well written.

Sounds: Have you caught the box set bug at all?

HC: I did. I watched “The Shield”, a drama about cops in LA who become corrupt. I got into that for about 3 or 4 series. Have you noticed everyone you speak to has got a different box set to recommend? Everyone has a different one that they champion. I don’t want to get into that, I like filmic story-telling, I like an hour and a half, maybe 2 hours of a story and it’s done. Whereas box sets – they never end! I thought The Sopranos was absolutely superb though, it’s the Michelangelo of box sets. I don’t want to taint the memory I have of that; I might watch it again.

The “Monster” tour:

Sounds: What prompted the decision to tour as a three piece? I’ve heard you say you thought The Jam were ground breaking when you first saw them on Top of the Pops?

HC: I always liked that, it’s a classic format. I grew up on Buddy Holly, Cream, the Jimi Hendrix Experience – all power trios. That’s the essence of rock music to me. I loved what The Doors did, but I guess they were almost like a jazz band. They didn’t have a bass player, they played bass on the keyboard. When I first left The Stranglers I started out with a keyboard player, but then thought, “This is going the wrong way, what do I need to sound like that for? It’s more interesting to do something different.” I’m playing a fair few Stranglers songs tonight and you have to experiment with the arrangement: you take the most important keyboard parts and either sing them, play them on guitar or the bass player picks it up. The songs were so good that they lend themselves to whatever format.

Sounds: Do you have any advice for young musicians?

HC: The secret of success is to do something no one else is doing, or something that hasn’t been done in a long time. Mickey Most said, “Find someone successful who has died and do what they did!” Be innovative, then you’ll be in your own class of one. With singing, people are very influenced by what’s going on around them, that’s why I don’t listen to newer stuff. I heard a street musician on the Portabello Road recently, singing with lots of warbling going on.

Sounds: Too many notes?

HC: Yes, that’s what Hans Warmling (ex Stranglers keyboard player) used to say about “Tie a Yellow Ribbon”, “Too many chords, too many notes!”  Many singers today sound the same. You’ve got to get your own sound, otherwise people will confuse you with someone else. Whereas, Amy Winehouse had character, you could tell her voice immediately.

Sounds: Was there was anyone who had a big impact on your career?

HC: There have been loads of those. I was living in Sweden and I came back for a couple of weeks break. I went to a friend’s and he said we’re all going to see David Bowie at the Finsbury Park Rainbow. It was the end of the Ziggy Stardust era and I hadn’t heard the album. The concert started and there were 10 seats at the front that were free, so we grabbed them! I sat there and I’d never heard anything like him before; “Suffragette City” and all these great songs. I could hear everything so clearly, the sound was immaculate, the vocal was so clear. It was a massive influence on me for what I played later. You hear so many records where the voice has just become another instrument. Do the people have so little respect for what they have written? They should be proud of it and want people to hear what they are saying. The music is the slave to the vocal, however out of fashion that might be. In the studio you’d always complete another mix with the vocal a little bit louder.

Sounds: Do you still use the same Telecaster?

HC: Yeah, the same one, I still have the old “grand daddy”, and I have spares. I have a few Mexican ones, they are a bit lighter to carry, but their output isn’t quite as strong.  

Sounds: What was the pointy black guitar you used on “La Folie”?

HC: I believe it was the ‘Razor’ by Hofner. Battery powered with a two-octave fret board to do all that really high stuff. All the La Folie album was played on that guitar. There were two prototypes made, a black one and a brown one, but the guitar never made production. I’ve got both: one went out of my possession for about 20 years, but I have it back now.

Sounds: Where was the cover shot from Rattus Norvegicus taken?

HC: It’s a house on Black Heath Common where they shot a lot of horror films. It might be a residential property now. There’s part of the common over a big dip, with a row of houses with back gardens that meet the common.

Sounds: What’s with the plastic pipe in your ear?

HC: That’s Aural Sculpture! It’s spooky that in that house we found objects that represented albums and songs throughout our career. We didn’t know it at the time, but in the late 80s it occurred to us that we had found all of those things in that room: the cat (“Feline”), the doll (“Strange Little Girl”), the “Man in Black” and the plastic straw in my ear.

Sounds: Keep entertaining us and thanks Hugh Cornwell!

Cover Photo Credit: Bertrand Fevre / Sony Music UK

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