The Stranglers' Hugh Cornwell: Brit Punk's Renaissance Man

Categories: Q&As
hughcornwell.jpg
He could have been a scientist.

By the late 1960s, Hugh Cornwell had a degree in biochemistry and was working in a lab in Sweden. But fronting a punk band turned out to be the better gig. "It wasn't a very good degree, you know," he says by phone from his hotel in Austin, Texas. "There was no point going through with it."

Between 1974 and 1990, Cornwell was singer/guitarist/principal songwriter for what would become one of Britain's most popular punk exports, The Stranglers. Their Rattus Norvegicus IV stands among the best-selling albums from the golden era of London punk.

Since leaving the Stranglers, Cornwell's had an active solo career, releasing eight albums beginning with 1988's Wolf through 2008's Hooverdam, which he made available as a free download. In 2010, Cornwell released the live double disc New Songs for King Kong, recorded during last year's U.K. tour and says he has demos enough to record an album of new songs for release next year. At 61, Cornwell appears to be speeding up rather than slowing down.


The Stranglers - Strange little girl. by LostPirate77
OC Weekly: People are calling this your renaissance period. You've written a novel (Window on the World), made a live performance film (Blueprint), tour almost constantly, planning to launch a radio station in the U.K., and have a new CD in the works. Have you always been like this, or did some internal switch go on?

Hugh Cornwell: [Laughs.] It's just I'm getting the opportunities now. Like coming to America regularly, I've been waiting a long time to do this. What with one thing or another it hasn't been possible but now it is, so that's why I'm coming to the States twice a year. And I've just finished a novel, which is coming out in May in the U.K. It's funny. When you put work into something, and then it happens, rather than make you relax, it actually fills you with excitement and energy to do more.

There's more?

 I'm actually finishing off a second novel now.

Do you keep some manner of creative regimen? Is that the secret?

When I do the fiction writing, I do that in complete isolation from the music. I go off for seven to 10 days, and I just block myself away by the sea, and I just write. I do two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon seven days a week. You just get on a roll. You sort of ritualize the whole process, and you put yourself in the zone quite easily.

Do you write songs the same way?

No, no, songwriting is completely different. I just have to wait around until an idea comes. They do come, but you don't know when they're gonna come--the middle of the night or something. You've gotta be constantly on the lookout for something that could become a song. You've always gotta be aware that it could happen at any moment. It's completely different from writing fiction.

Words first, then music?

It's the idea first, the title. If I get a great title for a song, then I think, that's such a great title it'll be such a shame not to have a song for that title.

Rattus Norvegicus IV?

[Laughs.] Yeah, yeah, yeah. A lot of people can't pronounce it properly. You know, the idea for that came when we couldn't think of a title for the album, and we had the song "Down in the Sewer," so that was the idea for it, the biological name for the rat, and being from a science background myself, it appealed to my sense of the perverse.

Your autobiography, A Multitude of Sins--what's behind the title?

You know I love titles. And I just thought the way it was writing itself, the way it panned out and presented itself, the way it moved in and out of time, backward and forward, I thought it's not just a nice title, it's a book. I actually asked my father what he thought and he said I should call it "A Comedy of Errors." [Laughs.]

I'm wondering about your forthcoming CD, Totem and Taboo, and what themes you explore on it?

There's a song called "Love Me Slender," which is obviously a bastardization of the title "Love Me Tender." A lot of people don't realize that in art, the definition of beauty has changed dramatically throughout the years. A couple of hundred years ago, a woman was beautiful if she were fat. And the reason why you were beautiful if you were fat is it meant you had money. Now how fucked-up is that? It's a black-comedy song, but I'm sure I'll get a lot of stink for it.

I'm guessing Totem and Taboo won't be released as a free download . . .

No. [Laughs.] Unfortunately I can't do this all the time. I've gotta make a living.


Hugh Cornwell performs with the New Fidelity and Disguster at Alex's Bar on Sunday, March 27. $10.

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