Interview: Hugh Cornwell

Hugh Cornwell
Hugh Cornwell
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Back in the days when The Stranglers were emerging as one of the most original and potent forces in 1970s British music, the four-piece was instantly tagged as one of the leading proponents of that vilified beast, punk rock.

In truth The Stranglers were always smarter than the majority of their accidental contemporaries, and much more polished.

It was a lazy catch-all that has clung onto them ever since.

The band continues to tour but without its original frontman, Hugh Cornwell.

He’s been out of the band for 21 years – longer than he was in it. With The Stranglers he recorded 10 albums; he’s made 18 on his own since 1979. And each one is different to the one before it, making Cornwell impossible to pigeonhole.

He’s so much more than an elder statesman of punk rock – a club he never belonged to in the first place.

Cornwell arrives in Yorkshire on February 4 for a solo acoustic gig at Huddersfield’s Lawrence Batley Theatre. It promises to be an intimate affair: just the man and his guitar. From February 24 he’ll be in the US and Canada; in April he heads to Europe for a tour taking in Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria and Holland. To all of them he will bring his style of eloquent and fiercely intelligent rock.

Cornwell is 62 now. From his late 60s beginnings in school band Emile and the Detectives via The Stranglers and a succession of other outfits, he has performed at venues all around the world.

The latest tour brings him to small theatres as opposed to stand-up venues. It’s a deliberate choice.

“What we found with the acoustic show was people are standing up at the bar and they can’t stop talking through the performance,” says Cornwell, who is on the telephone from the United States.

“When it’s just you with an acoustic guitar, it’s very hard to concentrate on what you’re doing when you can hear someone shouting at someone at the other end of the room.

“We realised that the only way to get round this was if you could get people seated in rows in a theatre; it’s easier for them to stay quiet. It was almost a necessity, really.”

The present crop of shows represents the first of Cornwell with an acoustic guitar since 2006. For the last five years he’s been active with other musicians. His acoustic roots stretch back to the late 90s. At first he wasn’t sure whether he could deliver an acoustic set; now the fans demand it.

Tied into that was a decision to tackle Stranglers songs again. For several years after he quit the band, he played only his solo material. And being a solo performer allowed him to explore previously uncharted territory.

“It was the case of that expression: jump and a net will appear. Sometimes you just have to go with what your gut really is and that’s what my gut really was at the time,” he says.

“[I dropped Stranglers songs from my gigs] because I was so close to it all for so long that I just needed a break. After a little while I realised that they were great songs, they were my songs and I couldn’t think of any reason not to play them.

“[Then] someone invited me to do an acoustic show, and I’d never done one.

“I spoke to my manager who said ‘People are gonna expect you to play some of the old songs’. That sort of broke the ice. I could play them again in a different way and I could see their value.”

The current crop of concerts features sets that comprise a 60-40 split between Cornwell’s solo work and his vintage Stranglers songs.

His last three albums – People, Places, Pieces, Hooverdam and Totem & Taboo – feature heavily. Each project is markedly different from the one that preceded it – which is as it should be as Cornwell continues his process of musical evolution.

“It’s odd. Since I’ve been working by myself, it seems to have been almost on the dot every four years [that] I do a new album.

“And as soon as the album’s finished, I start getting ideas for the next one. So it’s a long process – a four-year process, really.”

And what of The Stranglers’ songs? Is it merely nostalgia for a collective lost youth that makes audiences want to hear the music that formed them more than 30 years ago?

“You’re always gonna get that. I’m nostalgic for the songs that I grew up with,” admits Cornwell. “And it seems to happen to people who grew up with The Stranglers.

“The evidence for that is that the band are still going. Ninety-five per cent of their set when they go on tour is material from that period of their career when I was there. Whether it’s right or wrong doesn’t really matter.

“If I just went out and played nothing but my solo material probably a lot less people would go.

“Everyone hopes that their work is looked at as a constant process of evolution. I would like to be certainly looked at like that. I would hate to think that my creative life ended in 1990 when I stopped playing under the name The Stranglers.”

Hugh Cornwell plays the Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, on February 4. He is on stage at 8pm. 01484 430528.