Soft Boys, 1980: Kimberley on left, Robyn with eyes missing, holding iron
Interview by Jason Gross (July 2001)
After a 20 year hiatus, no one (especially not the band members themselves) could have predicted a reunion of the Soft Boys but there were those four gents again, prepping for a tour with a show at Austin's SXSW music festival this March. Not surprisingly, singer/songwriter/guitarist/alt-icon Robyn Hitchcock was the most notable member to the press. When interviewed by Yahoo, Robyn had a lot to say while guitarist/singer (and later songwriter) Kimberley Rew only contributed a sneeze to the proceedings.
Rew would have a lot more to say after the Soft Boys when his pen drew up songs for the Bangles and Dolly Parton, not to mentioin his well-known hit for his next band, Katrina and the Waves, "Walking on Sunshine" (surely an anthem for the '80's). Sadly, that became the only big hit for the band in the States. Though they had years of European hits, they also gave up the ghost at the end of the '90's. Fate was kind enough to co-ordinate the Soft Boys reunion around the same time (in conjunction with the reissue of Underwater Moonlight by Matador), giving the gifted player and writer an old/new opportunity to make his mark again.
Thanks to a faulty tape recorder, the proceedings had to be recorded for posterity by hand. Thanks also to the lack of intelligible short-hand, Kimberley was patient enough to stop every five minutes to give my writing hand a rest and every ten minutes to hear 'that was a good line- let me get that down!'
PSF: How did your musical career begin?
It started out of my (musical) interest, being in Cambridge, with the Waves with Alex Cooper (drums), from about '75 to '77. We were just coming out of the 1960's then and it was kind of pop, "Walking on Sunshine" type of stuff. Later on, in '81, we decided to reunite and we revived the name and that's when we met up with Katrina.
PSF: So in between that was the Soft Boys?
Yes, that's when they come into the picture. I joined up with the group in January 1981. It was a small scene (in Cambridge) so they were another local band there, like the Waves and everyone knew everyone else, more or less. They approached me- they knew about the Waves.
PSF: What was it about Robyn that made you want to join his group?
There was obviously something going on there. He was, still is, a true original, obviously his own man. He was really delivering something there.
PSF: So how did you fit into the group?
At first, Robyn was the real inspiration- he was the lead singer, the personality, sort of the visual focus of the band. My job, then and now, was to supply the musical backing with the second guitar. It was a case of doing the right sound. Of course, that can vary a lot. It's not just a formula which applies the same way to every song.
PSF: What would you say were musical influences for the band?
Well, by age and by preference, it was music from the '60's, with the Beatles being the biggest common item among us. After that, for Robyn, I'd say it was the Beach Boys, the Byrds, Captain Beefheart (who he loved) and Syd Barrett. For me, it was the Beach Boys, Them, Beefheart, Chuck Berry and more of the R&B end of pop.
PSF: How did the group fare live?
We were a popular local act I'd say, even if we weren't in tune with the local musicians. You have to understand that at the time, in the mid/late '70's, relaxed jazz/funk was the rage so the young guys wanted to be in bands that sounded like Steely Dan. Because of that, there wasn't a huge market for us, even just in Cambridge.
PSF: So power pop wasn't hip then?
We weren't into the 'power pop' label really. The Bangles got a song of mine ("Going Down to Liverpool") onto a Rhino compilation of power pop and I'd say that's the closest I've gotten. It has a lot to do with image I think. 'Power pop' is a red herring and it can be a straight jacket. You have perfect pop with jangly guitars and harmonies. But nobody's been able to improve on the Beatles. Still, that doesn't mean that you can't cast around the horizon. In the situation that we're in right now, rock and roll is basically pick and mix from the last 50 years.
PSF: Well, you do have the Beatles still topping the charts now, after all these years.
Yeah, that's amazing. I guess that when young people first become aware of music, the Beatles is one of the first things they go for. If it's being advertised, it becomes a birthday present for a lot of people then and their parents will probably have it and won't mind hearing it and having it again.
PSF: That's true- it was one of my first musical loves. How would you describe the making of the first Soft Boys' record (A Can of Bees)?
We recorded that in mid to late '78 and early '79. There was a brief flurry of media interest when Radar Records said they might be interested in us. That was Elvis Costello's label and he was a really big name then. But that whole thing fizzled out and never happened. So instead, Robyn had to put the record out himself. We recorded it at a local studio (Cambridge) and did it pretty simply- we'd play the song and then do the vocals.
PSF: Was that the same situation for the second album, Underwater Moonlight?
Financially, the second album was done bit by bit. Every time Robyn got enough money together we could record a few songs at a time. Pat Collier was a great producer- he didn't change our sound at all. He was sympathetic and had a natural feel for it. He was low-key and confidence inspiring.
PSF: What had changed by then for the band in terms of the songs and the music?
Well, the songwriting certainly changed. Robyn was always developing- his songs appealed directly to peoples' feelings. The curtain of dark imagery just got thinner and some light came through. In the early days, we'd have competitions to introduce little twists into the music. We stopped that by the second album and simply supplied the musical setting for the songs.
PSF: How was the situation for concerts for the bands by then?
We were always playing live in Cambridge. You had the pub-rock phenomenon there. It was the pub-circuit after pub-rock was over. We did manage to break into the London circuit but we really didn't get any further than that. When we toured nationally, punk became a problem for us. It was the current thing that the kids subscribed to. Because of that, we couldn't get an audience in Sheffield or Leeds. The strength of being individual wasn't good enough. We did get to go to New York in 1980 but that's as far as we got, geographically.
PSF: So you thought of punks as being the enemy?
Well, not really the opposition. We were just contemporary with punk so it tended to set the tone at the time. You were forced to justify why your band wasn't punk then. Dire Straits and the Police did succeed very well but the Police started out by pretending to be punks with their short haircuts and they skillfully accommodated what people demanded.
To be successful, lots of things need to have to happen at once, like what happened with "Walking On Sunshine." That got played to death on the radio and in shops and we toured a lot. All the elements were there but we didn't sustain it.
For the Soft Boys, people weren't patient enough for '60's-type, mainstream rock. That was seen as old-fashioned and because of that, the group couldn't break through commercially.
PSF: So what happened after the second Soft Boys' album?
Robyn did his solo album then. He was feeling dissatisfied and wanted to use different musicians. After doing that, it was clear that the group was disbanding.
PSF: How did you feel about that?
Well, I was a band member and he was the leader. We never had a big meeting about this and there wasn't any dramatic storming off or anything. I saw that's what he was doing. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little disappointed. For me, the Soft Boys was all consuming- I did it blindly.
PSF: What were you doing between the end of the Soft Boys and the start of the Waves reunion?
The last Soft Boys gig was in February '81. In March, I did a session with the dB's. Then in April, the members of the Waves then decided to form the group again. It took us a long time to make progress then.
PSF: Why was that?
It was a bad time on the local music scene. There were a lot of venues closing down. There wasn't a strong local base, no media interest or any record companies sniffing around. So, because of all of this, the band build up its reputation very slowly.
For myself also, it took a while to get my musical style refined. I was coming in as a writer now. I had to get used to being a writer and to Katrina's style. I had to learn how she was as a singer and what the sound would be like for the song then. I wrote a few songs and sang a few of them but then she was singing more and more. I had no problem with her as being the lead singer- she's very, very good. Still, it took me a long time to get used to that. That's what you hear on the first Waves album.
PSF: Those were the ones released in Canada, right?
Yeah, that's right. We were going nowhere but the Soft Boys had a deal with a Canadian company called Attic so the Waves were able to take over that deal and put out two records there. We also got to tour in Canada because of that.
Then the Bangles recorded "Liverpool" and suddenly, we gained credibility. That helped us get a record deal with Capitol and we had our own hit. The problem was that there was no real follow-up to that. "Walking on Sunshine" is pretty timeless but it got a pop label put on us and we weren't seen as hip. That didn't help us with getting a fan base. We were just seen as a one-hit wonder. We got the image of being the "Walking on Sunshine" band. We'd play that at shows and the people would go bananas for the song. That was the appeal. The thing is, we didn't get any credibility for anything else. Thanks to that, we did get to tour with the Beach Boys in '86, which I'm very proud of!
PSF: I've heard that when you wrote "Sunshine," you were actually really miserable then, going through some bad times.
Well, I don't know if it was really THAT bad. (laughs) I do write happy songs to try to cheer myself up. I try to write a positive song to put myself in a positive frame of mind. If I'm going to write something somber, it has to be convincing.
PSF: For the second U.S. release of the Waves (The Waves), you were writing less songs.
The other guys wanted to have a go at it too. They all can write but maybe not as persistently as I do. They hadn't written things before and they just wanted to get in on the act.
PSF: The third album (Break of Hearts) that came out here had a very different sound to it.
By that time, the power structure was being balanced. Alex was the bandleader, Katrina was the most dominant personality and I was the most consistent writer. The style we were going for then was that big AOR sound- it was the Diane Warren-type big production. The group admired that and wanted to go for that but I didn't think it was our natural style. The main problem was that we couldn't do it as well as the people who usually do it.
PSF: What happened with the band after that?
That was the last Waves record that was put out in the States. The group ran until 1999. We did another four albums in Europe. There was actually a lot of interest in Germany- that happens with a lot of UK-based bands. In 1997, we won the Eurovision competition with "Love Shine A Light."
Still, Katrina decided to take the opportunity to launch her own career so she did a solo album with Pat Hannan- it's not out yet. The funny thing is that Robyn and I both know him for a while now- he's a good record producer. She's also staring in Leader of the Pack, a play based on Ellie Greenwich's life, that she's touring England with.
PSF: So that's when the group broke-up?
Yes… Just like with the Soft Boys, I was all consumed with the Waves so it was a little hard on me. I was keen to do my own work then so I did my first solo album last year, Tunnel Into Summer (on Gadfly). Now this year, with the Soft Boys' revival, doors have opened and things have come together at the right time.
PSF: Why did the Soft Boys reunion happen?
There were two aspects to it. First of all, even though the album (Underwater Moonlight) wasn't successful when it first came out, it picked up favorable comments. That led to its reissue and it became a big event. Also, Robyn and all of us stayed in touch over the years. We're all alive, healthy and can still play. Each of us has done bits with Robyn over the years too.
PSF: Robyn seems like a restless type, always trying new things. I think a lot of people were surprised to see that he'd revisit the Soft Boys.
Robyn's been through a bunch of different projects but he's always been consistent with his music. He's always sang songs from other stages of his career and always sang Soft Boys songs. He's had a consistent standard. He hasn't wildly changed his philosophy or style. He's comfortable with singing those songs. Also, he feels OK with the other members of the Soft Boys. He knew it wasn't going to be a gamble to have us together again since we've kept in touch.
This isn't something that I could have predicted. It was nice to be given another chance, to come back at a higher level.
PSF: Do you think the band may stay together after this tour?
Well, we could continue but it's got to feel right. Robyn has always had a nose for doing the right thing and always making it fresh. If it feels fresh, we could continue but we have to take it week by week right now.
I would like to keep writing and do another solo album. That's going to happen when inspiration runs its course. The first one wasn't a big seller so for this one, the record company is going to have to extend belief and not expect a lot of financial returns. (laughs) But one way or another, I'll make another album myself.
See some of Kimberley's favorite music
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