I really appreciate you making time to do this pre show
interview. Can you tell the Punk Globe readers about your early
years in North London?
Hugh Cornwell: Well, I was very lucky because I got a place in a very good
school where the percentage of kids that went on to a university
was like 98%. So I was there being groomed to go to a
university to study. At first I wanted to be a Dr. but I was no
good at physics so I ended up doing chemistry, botany and
zoology. I ended up going to university to pursue a degree in
biochemistry. I lived very close to the school and I use to
walk up the road. It literally took me five minutes to walk to
school every morning. A lot of the other kids that were there
were traveling two hours each way to get to the school. It was
on the edge of a big park in London called Hampstead Heath. It
was a beautiful location and in the summer months the school
would be closed and my two brothers and my sister would go and
roam in this park. It was quite a wild park, a bit like
Griffith Park, an English version of Griffith Park. It was
almost like living in the country in london. Round the corner
from me lived Richard Thompson and he taught me to play bass
guitar and we formed a band called Emil And The Detectives
together when we were about 15 years old. Then it came to the
point where one is 15 or 16 and you take exams. After that you
specialize in a course for university. We took these exams in
the summer and when I went back in the autumn, Richard had left.
He left to become a musician. About a year later Fairport
Convention came out and I was stunned. I missed him (we were
very good friends) and I missed the band we had formed and then
I went off to university. How about that for my life in North
How did your biochemistry studies effect your life?
What it did was give me knowledge about chemistry and the
biological and chemical processes of the body. So, it was very
useless when I took drugs during my drug taking phase. Now, I'm
very interested in eating well and vitamins. So it's helped me
maintain my health, which is good I think.
Very good. How did The Stranglers form?
The Stranglers formed as a process of transformation from a
band I had in Sweden. I did this degree in Biochemistry at
Bristol University in England and I liked it, but I wasn't very
talented at it. When I passed I got a very, very low class
degree. I probably knew in my heart of hearts that I wasn't
good enough to be doing it for a career, but I didn't know what
else I was capable of doing. I was playing a bit of music, but
I didn't really know. I was looking for a way to buy myself
some time. So, I managed to pursued a university in Sweden to
let me go and study for a doctorate in biochemistry there
because there as long as you passed they didn't care whether it
was a good pass or a bad pass. So they gave me a grant to study
there and it bought me more time. The reason I'm telling you
all of this is that it was in Sweden that I formed this band
with two Swedish guys being the bass player and the guitarist.
The guitarist was in the original Spotnicks, which was a
psychedelic instrumental band from Sweden and they used to wear
space suits and come off the planes playing their
guitars...really science fiction stuff. The Spotnicks were very
big in Sweden and Europe, Telstar was their big number one.
Look it up. So this Swedish guy playing guitar, Swedish guy
playing bass and two Americans. In Sweden at that time there
were a lot of draft dodgers. The draft dodgers were there
because they didn't want to go to Vietnam. Sweden offered them
a safe sanctuary and gave them somewhere to live. So a lot of
Americans went to Sweden and a lot of them were musicians. As I
was saying, I formed a band with two of these Americans. One
drummer from Chicago and a Poet from Washington State. So the
five of us were in this band called Johnny Sox and we played
sort of Rockabilly type two or three minute songs. Loads of
songs. I wrote a few songs then, but I was still learning.
Then Johnny Sox went to England to make it. It was while we
were in England trying very hard to get somewhere that President
Carter offered amnesty to all the American draft dodgers. So
the two Americans went back to America because their wives and
kids were there. I was left with this part of a band. The
drummer for The Stranglers, (originally The Guildford
Stranglers) Jet Black came in once the drummer from Chicago had
left. Then we all moved down to where he lived in a town called
Guildford. He had a spirits store and an ice cream business
called The Jackpot. When we were all down there the others
left. The Swede and the other American left. So it left me and
this guy that I'd only just met and I didn't really know what to
do, but he seemed like he had resolve and was worth sticking
around with this guy. I didn't really know anyone else, but I
knew one guy named Jean-Jacques Burnel who was driving a paint
truck selling paint. I was there by myself living with Jet
Black who I didn't really know very well and I went around to
see this guy Jean Burnel. I took a bottle of wine with me from
the spirit store and I got him drunk and made him agree to join
as our bass player. He couldn't play bass, but he could play
very good Spanish guitar and that's why all those early
Stranglers songs had very complicated bass lines. It comes from
his knowledge of playing Spanish guitar. He said, "But I was
going to go to California and work for Harley-Davidson." I
said, "Stick with me and you'll be able to buy your own Harley-
Davidson." He did and I was proved correct. So we worked as a
trio; bass, drums and guitar. We rehearsed, rehearsed,
rehearsed for months and months and months and then we decided
we were good enough to get someone else in because I didn't play
lead guitar. So I rang up the Swede, (Hans Warmling) the guy
from The Spotnicks. He was back in Sweden. I said, "I've got a
new band. Come and join us." And he came back over. He played
guitar, piano, sang, he wrote songs and played saxophone...he
played everything. I wrote a song with him called "Strange
Little Girl" which was a very early Stranglers song. He got
bored because when we played shows we had to do covers and he
didn't like playing covers. He said, "Our songs are too good.
We do not need to play these cover songs." I said, "Hey look,
we have to, otherwise we're not gonna get the gigs." And he
said, "I do not want to do this anymore." So he left and went
back to Sweden. Then we were three people again; bass, guitar
and drums. We went out and did a Bar Mitzvah and some weddings.
We also did some shows as a three piece, but I was playing
rhythm. I had no confidence to play lead guitar. We decided
that we really needed another person. So we got a keyboard
player and that's really when it started. Does that answer the
question about how The Stranglers started? It was a
transformation from this band I brought over from Sweden.
Can you tell the readers about the first album you recorded
apart from The Stranglers with Captain Beefhart (Robert
Williams)? How was it working with the Captain?
It was great, very stimulating. I was always a big Captain
Beefheart fan. I met Robert in San Francisco. Captain Beefheart
was doing three nights at a venue in San Francisco and I
actually went with Blondie funny enough. I think I went for all
three nights because he played different songs every night. I
loved it. So I met Robert after one of those gigs and we got
along very well and decided to make an album together with very
short notice over one Christmas and the new year. Being that it
was such short notice we couldn't get a studio for very long.
They were all booked. So we'd record for four days in one
studio, then we'd have to move to another studio and so on. It
was all recorded in Los Angeles where he lived. He was a very
Can you the readers about your other solo albums? The 2000s
seemed to be very prolific years for you.
The last album I did was Hooverdam in 2008 which is still
available as a free download on my website. That was recorded
with Liam Watson, the White Stripes producer. The one before
that was called Beyond Elysian Fields recorded with Tony
Visconti who I had worked with before and we'd always stayed in
touch with each other and that was in 2004. 2000 was an album
called Hi Fi, produced by Laurie Latham. Before that in 1996 I
recorded an album called Guilty, which I'm going to do the same
thing I did with Rattus Norvegicus and play the entire album
from beginning to end when I go back to the UK in April. I've
got Chris Bell and Steve Fish playing the Guilty album, which
they originally recorded.
Who are your favorite authors?
Paul Auster, Kazuo Ishiguro, Dostoyevsky, Charles Dickens,
Herman Melville, Jack London. So many great writers.
Can you talk about your own literary work?
I'm very happy to say that my first novel is being published
this year, in the UK at least and hopefully will be picked up in
America. It's called Window On The World and it's a thriller
love story about a beautiful young female portrait painter who
goes to London to become a successful painter which she does
Then things start happening. It's coming out this summer and
should be available on Amazon.
Right on. What bands do you find yourself listening to these
I don't really know what's happening or what the current new
scene is unlike Clem. Clem knows exactly what's going on but I
am totally out of touch. My excuse is that I'm so busy working
on stuff myself. I usually end up listening to bebop jazz;
Jimmy Smith, Cannonball Adderley and Art Blakey. I find that
that breathes open and I can appreciate it. It's so different
from the music that I make that I find a kind of freedom in it.
Does that make sense?
Yes it does. I don't read anything when I'm working on writing
projects and if I listen to music it's usually Money Jungle or
something bouncy with no vocals.
For some reason the human voice distracts people. It makes
one want to listen to it. Where there is no human voice, it's
easier to escape.
Do you think Punk Rock is still relevant?
It seems to be in America. It's so funny, when we did it we
thought that maybe in 30 years time it would catch on and that's
kind of what happened. What's happening is that the young kids
are hearing about it from their parents who were around when it
first started. As far as the relevance goes...I don't know.
The newer generations think it's very relevant.
I went to an art show about ten years ago and it was an
exhibition of all the art work to do with album covers from the
punk years. They were all in these big plastic sheaths and they
had the sleeves of the records, some 12" and some 7" and you
could look at the front and the back of the record. I bumped
into Glen Matlock there and I asked "What do you think of this?"
He said, "It's amazing. Would you have thought that when we
were doing this that people would still be listening to this and
going to an art exhibition about it?" And we stood there just
completely dumbfounded about how it's become so relevant. I
think the reason is that since then, nothing else has happened
with such force and ferocity. It was the last big cultural,
social upheaval of the 20th century.
Definitely. I think it's still teaching kids how to focus their
rebellion and use it...to change things. Or that's what I hope
Let's hope so. I don't think Punk has changed anything. Do
you think it's changed anything?
On a small political scale...yes. Kids start up distros, Food
Not Bombs, engage in direct actions. On a larger
scale...hopefully that is something we are still working on.
But then who knows what kind of world we'd have without all the
little distros, the FNB chapters and direct actions.
Maybe it's still spreading awareness in some sort of way. All
the social networking which is a product of the internet but
would the internet have developed in the same way without all
the punk freedom of expression. Who knows?
It's very interesting. Do you have any commentary about all the
uprisings we're seeing across the globe right now?
It seems to be internet lead. I don't think any of it would
have happened without the internet. People in these repressive
regimes can get a glimpse at the rest of the world which they
couldn't do before. They want a piece of it too; freedom for
the individual and freedom of expression. I guess it's good as
long as they don't get something that's worse than what they had
Do you have any causes or ideas that you find important and
would like to share with the readers?
The one thing that I can possibly try and do is try and
promote the process of discussion, debate and questioning
things. There are many beliefs in today's modern life that are
accepted without thinking about it. They're accepted just
because everyone else does it.
At the moment, I'm putting the finishing touches to a new
album that will be out this time next spring called Totem And
Taboo. That title is a reference to a Sigmund Freud book. A
lot of the subjects are about subjects that I think need to be
thought about. One track is called "God Is A Woman." Why is
God a man? Because men wrote the bible. I want to question
things that are out there and say, "Maybe that's not true."
Maybe there are alternative ways of thinking about this. The
deep deafening groan of male domination has gone on for
centuries and maybe there's a way of righting the balance
somehow. A prime example is the Bible. It reeks of male
Definitely. The Bible has a pretty good stranglehold here in
And all over the world. It's ridiculous. There's very few
communities in the world where women are the dominant power and
one of them is the Philippines. Philippine society is a
matriarchal society where the woman is the head of the
household. It's very interesting.
There's another song on the album called "Love Me Slender."
It's questioning the aesthetics of tastes. What is beauty and
whose right and whose wrong? Beauty is in the eye of the
beholder, right? It's very interesting that a few hundred years
ago the perfect woman was very fat. The reason she was
considered the perfect woman is that her fat was a signifier of
wealth and that means she's desirable. There you go. Talk
about a money driven society. This has been going on for
centuries. It's important to remember what has happened before
and keep an open mind about things.
Right on. Do you have any other projects you're working on that
you haven't discussed?
Constant touring. I can't see myself stopping working until
people stop coming to see me preform and stop buying my records.
Like most people, you keep going until you walk into a room and
there's nobody there and you say, "I think it's time to go now."
Can you tell the Punk Globe readers about any tour dates from
the month of April on?
April we'll be in the UK. At the end of April into May we'll
be in Australia. Then on May 19th we're going to perform at The
Ramones charity bash in New York. It's the tenth anniversary.
I'm going to be coming over from London, Fish is coming from
Japan and Clem is coming from L.A. and we're all gonna meet in
New York and play a set.
Really nice. I just interviewed Mickey Leigh who is Joey
Ramone's younger brother. He just released a book called "I
Slept With Joey Ramone." It's a powerful memoir and worth
checking out. Actually, I don't think I've met anyone who is
into punk rock and doesn't have a fondness for The Ramones.
Of course. I was bowled over when I first heard them. I
remember our manager at the time phoned me up on a saturday
morning and said, "Hugh, you have got to come out. I've got
something I want to play you." He called John up as well and we
were thinking, "What is going on? Why is he calling us up on a
saturday morning?" So we sat down and he said, "Listen to this.
It's The Ramones' first album and I've just brought it back
from New York." It was amazing to hear it. We were interested
that people in America were sort of doing the same thing.
I find that interesting. Many people have very strong opinions
about whether punk started in North America or in the UK. From
everything I've read and heard from people who were actually
there it seems to me like a phenomena that popped up everywhere
Yeah. Also remember that Malcolm McLaren who managed the Sex
Pistols and put all that together had previously managed the New
York Dolls and designed their clothes.
Oh yeah. I wonder how many Malcolm McLarens were running to and
fro across the pond. Interesting. Can you tell the Punk Globe
readers about the show this evening at the Viper Room?
Yes. We're doing this show tonight and I'm very proud to say
that I have Clem Burke from Blondie on drums which is great.
I've known him a long time and he's always been a supporter,
coming to shows throughout the years. He was free and he said
he'd love to do it. We did an east coast American tour last
autumn and that was great. Then I've got Steve "Fish" Fishman
from James White And The Blacks on bass. I've known him for 19
years and I've been playing with him for longer than I played
with the original Stranglers. He's from Los Angeles, but I met
him in London. When I did the tour last autumn and he was
available. When you're a solo artist you don't have the luxury
of having the same players all the time because people aren't
always available. In a way it's kind of enriching because you
end up getting these different inputs from people.
So we're playing tonight at the Viper Room and we're doing two
sets and the second set is made up entirely of the first
Stranglers album, which is called Rattus Norvegicus (or The
Stranglers IV). I won't say it's the first time it's been done
because I did that in the UK last year and it went very well.
The reason we're doing that is because I suddenly realized that
The Stranglers (who are still going, by the way) never did it.
So now I'm doing it and playing it without keyboards so the
songs will sound a bit different.
Thanks again. I'm definitely looking forward to the show. Do
you have any parting words for the Punk Globe readers?
Don't believe everything that you read. Just because it's in
print doesn't mean that it's true. The other thing is that the
truth depends upon where you're standing.
Tour updates, news and merchandise can be found at
All Photo's Of Hugh Cornwell
By : Robert Kenney
Cover Photo Of Hugh Cornwell
By: Robert Kenney