HIDING UNDER THE SPOTLIGHT
An enlightening interview with ROY HILL by Lindsay Sorrell
For Roy's entertaining September mailout, click here.
As anyone who has seen Roy Hill play live might expect, trying to work through a "set-list" of scripted questions in the name of an interview just wasn't going to work. From the second I met up with him at Waterloo station the conversation flowed wild and free, touching on almost every topic under the sun. This resulted in an extremely interesting afternoon and almost completely unintelligible notes which I have tried to put it into some kind of order. I have, I really have.
The chronology of Roy's musical career is well-documented on his Myspace and my intention was to try and find out more about Roy himself, both in and away from his involvement in music. After a little chit-chat and a lot of gossip we got down to the business of discussing Roy's childhood. He was one of three brothers born in the small market town of Ledbury, Herefordshire, and described the intense claustrophobia he felt growing up where everyone knew everyone else's business. (His mother was one of nine children, most of whom stayed in Ledbury).
Roy described his paternal grandfather as a hard-boozing bully, whose family had lived in fear of his drunken rages. Roy's own father was the exception amongst his brothers in being a gentle non-drinking man who considered some of the happiest days of his life to have been in WWII. The RAF had given him his first taste of life away from his cruel father (who incidentally ended his turbulent days by blasting his own brains out with a shotgun, whilst in an outside toilet). During Roy's growing years his dad earned well as a Jag-driving bricklayer in post-war Britain's building boom. The family home had previously been part of a Prisoner of War camp building, divided into two halves to become council houses. Roy laughed at the irony of the returning war heroes' reward. Despite less than palatial surroundings, Roy's family enjoyed a good standard of living and his dad seemed determined to give his own sons a happier start in life than he had known. His love of music including Buddy Holly and The Everly Brothers rubbed off on young Roy, and when he first showed an interest in learning an instrument, aged nine, his dad bought his first guitar.
Grammar school years soon followed, which Roy detested for a variety of reasons, one being the painfully obvious class awareness which existed among both pupils and staff. He was the only child amongst his peers who had passed the 11+ exam so while his mates carried on kicking a football about together at the local comprehensive, he endured a stuffy grammar school life. Stifling rules (such as not being allowed to take his cap off on the way to and from school) led to his earliest memories of wanting to rebel. Roy described his continuing admiration for an older boy who defiantly wore winklepicker shoes to the school. His final school report noted he was 'far too interested in pop music to achieve satisfactory academic qualifications'.
Having had enough of formal eduation and with three whole "O" levels to his name (English Literature, English Language and Art) at fifteen he hit the big wide world with a running jump as an estimating clerk for a company which made envelopes in Ledbury. However, that occupation may well have provided the break which led to the Roy we know and love, for a day-trip to London arranged by the company had an enormous impact on the young lad. The trip had been arranged to watch a Miss World competition at the Lyceum Ballroom in The Strand, and having tired of watching beauty after beauty on parade he sneaked out of the building for his first ever taste of London. It was 1966, he saw streets full of hippies ("Ledbury didn't have one"), exciting places he had only read about such as The Marquee, prostitutes, and the full range of sights and sounds of swinging London. The experience ("and my first feeling of anonymity") had a profound effect on Roy.
One of Roy's earliest memories of attending a live gig stems from when he watched King Crimson supporting Black Sabbath in Malvern; the excitement of the occasion was obviously flooding back as he recalled Robert Fripp and the magic of "21sth Century Schizoid Man" live. However, Roy described THE defining moment in his desire to be part of the music industry to have occurred whilst watching The Who perform in 1966, also at Malvern Winter Gardens. Awestricken, he watched Pete Townsend, resplendent in his Union Jack jacket. To Roy his angry performance seemed to scream "London!", and he knew his Ledbury days were numbered.
His relocation to the bright lights came when he was 18, and had been studying at Hereford Art School. His girlfriend of the time (they married when he was 21) took up a teaching post in Charlton, and he moved in with her. Chrissie (now his ex, with whom he and his partner Celia are great friends), exposed Roy to greater musical variety than he had known previously. Whereas he had mainly collected records by mainstream artists such as The Beatles, The Stones, The Kinks and The Who, her collection included singer-songwriters such as Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, the latter of whom struck a particular chord with Roy. After a while, and following a job offer in Cirencester (Roy was working in advertising agencies at the time), the couple moved to Cheltenham. Roy began writing his own songs and playing occasional gigs from around 1971-74 in local folk clubs. It wasn't that he played folk, but where else was a singer with an acoustic guitar to play? Roy found the clubs friendly places, where the majority of audiences were happy to hear something a little different. Whilst playing the clubs he became friendly with various local musicians including Dik Cadbury, Phil Beer, Bimbo Acock (later sax player in Roy's band) and Bimbo's brother John, who worked as a studio engineer at the De Lane Lea Studios, Wembley. This fortuitous friendship led Roy back to London for the occasional session of free studio time.
During this era Roy often put together bands which were as fluid as his performances, sometimes consisting of three, four or maybe five musicians. It all depended who was free at the time, and just as now, Roy revelled in spontaneity in his performances. He was writing songs prolifically ("George's Bar" was one creation of the time), and described how he would "bash out" song after song in a whirlwind of creativity. "Falling" was written, from start to finish, during a walk down Oxford Street. Roy's songs have often been characterised by lyrics which tell dark tales set to jaunty tunes which would generally be considered completely mismatched. That inability (or refusal) to "fit the mould" is part of Roy's unique fascination. His performances are often riotous, with his offbeat sense of humour having audiences doubled up with laughter and often wondering what will happen next. Roy told me his inclusion of humour (his own brand – be warned!) onstage happened in a very unplanned way. The Roy Hill Band was playing at Bradford University one night in 1978, it was dark, and Roy went flying as he tripped over an electricity cable while walking onstage. The audience laughed and Bimbo was close to hysterics. Roy realised instantly how humour had built good communication with those watching, and making people laugh was set to stay. Roy also recounted that when he later began playing as half of a duo with Chas Cronk he found noisy audiences in West London pubs very difficult to capture. By becoming "Mr. Pottymouth" with an inflated persona, Roy was able to grab punters' attention and get them to listen to the music. "The survival instinct", he mused.
Almost inevitably our conversation touched on how he had often managed quite spectacularly to be in the "wrong place at the wrong time" in his career. For instance, Roy's first album was produced by Gus Dudgeon, best-known for his work with Elton John. This "lucky break" unfortunately coincided with punk's overthrow of the existing music establishment, and Roy feels his songs would have better suited production in the style of Elvis Costello and his contemporaries rather than Gus's love affair with orchestration. Certainly, Roy's "handsome hunk" (my interpretation, not his!) album sleeve did not sit well in record racks next to covers adorned with scowling, emaciated punks with safety pins through their noses. Roy laughed about a time when he was working at Wessex Studios in North London and watched the Sex Pistols' publicity machine in action. The Pistols were to be photographed "gobbing" at kids going into the school opposite, and he laughed as he recalled how "set up" the whole episode had been, with the "gobbing" starting on cue as the cameras rolled. Roy recounted numerous interesting tales of his music business career, including the time he recorded a song called "When Love is Not Enough" with Roger Daltrey at Olympic Studios in Barnes. Daltrey had a couple of minders with him, but Daltrey was himself the "scary" figure at the time according to Roy.
Like most musicians, Roy has suffered his share of demoralising"bad press", and recalled one painful article which appeared in the music press headed "Hill Scores Nil". However, following subsequent good reviews written by highly credible journos Tony Parsons and Julie Burchill, sheep-like music journalists changed their tune overnight to sing his praises. Roy is well aware of the fickle ways of the music industry; a week after parting ways with Jim Beach (simultaneous manager of himself and the mighty Queen) he found himself selling massage machines in Norwich. As you may have already guessed, Roy is refreshingly willing to talk about his life and career, warts and all. He readily admits that in the past he must have proved very difficult to work with, and only half-jokingly declared that he has walked out on himself several times while working on his current project.
That project is an as yet unfinished album entitled Switzerland. Roy told me that until now he'd had zero interest in the technical aspects of music-making, and in the past, such as when Cry No More recorded at their makeshift studio in Kingston, Chas was left with sole responsibility for all things technical. Roy simply went along, sang and played, and left Chas to it. The creation of Switzerland, where Roy has been responsible for entirely everything, has therefore proved an enormous learning curve. The recordings are not perfect, ("you can hear the fridge door shutting, Celia walking into the room and stuff like that") but Roy relishes being in complete control of everything that happens to the recordings from start to finish. He has felt dissatisfied with everything he has recorded in the past due mainly to overproduction. Happy to admit to having a perfectionist streak, Roy feels with Switzerland he hopes to create an album which 'within the limitations of doing everything myself' he is happy in all respects. However, Roy declared that he would never again attempt to create a CD from start to finish completely unaided, as the project has sometimes felt like an endless and exhausting task.
The album is very different from anything he has attempted previously. He explained that he had been physically ill whilst writing the songs in 2005, which lead to several hospitalisations. Candidly, he told me that in January 2006 "the lights went out", and the root of his health problems was finally diagnosed to be clinical depression. Roy described dark times, including a flashback to an occasion when he simply stood staring out of a window, paralysed with fear and unable to move. Fortunately a combination of antidepressants, counselling (a doctor once told him to view depression as "interesting"), and hard physical outdoor work helped immensely and gradually he returned to a better place.
Work on Switzerland continues. Having unknowingly been suffering from depression while writing the songs, he almost feels as though they seem to belong to someone else. Lyrically they have not been altered, but Roy has been fine-tuning them musically. For him, the adventure into instrumental pieces lasting up to four minutes ("not quite prog, but for me it is") is uncharted territory. He has taught himself to play piano pieces in a way which fit the music precisely as he wants. Roy feels that with Switzerland he has finally bared his soul rather than masking bleakness, and he is obviously uncertain how it will be received with its references to sombre topics such as death and mortality.
Lest anyone should reach the conclusion that my time with Roy was all doom and gloom, I would like to point out that it very definitely wasn't. Roy is engaging, amusing, very open, and someone I would be happy to chat with for hours. As I did! Remembering a list of questions which had been sent by members of the Witchwood discussion group, several of particular interest to Strawbs' fans, I finished up by firing the questions at Roy which he obligingly answered:
Q: How did you come to support Strawbs on their "Deadlines" tour?
A: "I performed "George's Bar" acoustically on a tv programme called "So it Goes", which featured other artists including Elvis Costello and Iggy Pop. Dave Cousins saw the programme and invited me to support Strawbs on tour. That was a lot of fun. Dave was very supportive and I instantly hit it off with Chas Cronk and Tony Fernandez, both of whom later joined my band. The experience was very different from when my band toured as support to Styx, who refused to let us play one night just because there was a tiny buzz coming from one of their amps."
Roy elaborated that following "personnel issues" in his band which left him needing a bassist and drummer, John Cooper, General Manager of Arista Records, had suggested approaching Chas and Tony to join. Roy's reaction was to wonder why on earth they would want to join his band, but they did ("bringing 'good humour and professionalism' with them"). Two tours and numerous London gigs followed, after which they lost touch. Roy later rang Chas (whom he considers a "superb and highly intuitive bass player"), a duo gig was arranged at The Mulberry Tree pub in Twickenham, and they began writing songs together. Their writing generally consisted of Chas supplying the chords, to which Roy added a tune and lyrics.
Q: Were you a Strawbs fan before you toured with them?
A: "I knew of them by reputation. I was a bit shocked when I heard them on the tour though. I had been expecting more of a folk group than a full-on rock band."
Q: How did you come to take over as Strawbs' lead singer for a couple of gigs?
A: "I was asked to fill in after Dave had left to fulfil contractual obligations which Strawbs had. The gigs were a bit of a mish-mash where no-one (including the band) really knew what to expect, and we played a mixture of my own songs and Strawbs' songs. Strawbs without Dave Cousins doesn't really make much sense does it? Strawbs with me made even less."
A: "I wrote a song called "Cry no More" and we put it out as a single in a homemade cover with "Cry no More" printed on it using a lino cut. After I'd printed the song title I realised there was not enough room for a band name as well, so the band took on the name."
Q: What music do you listen to?
A: "Loads! A lot of Dylan, Tom Waits, Joni Mitchell and Randy Newman. I listen to classical music; Chopin, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Debussy, Mahler, Bach. Some jazz; Miles Davies, Bill Evans, Django Reinhardt, Oscar Peterson. Sixties stuff. Judy Garland, Edith Piaf, Dean Martin. My son Jamie keeps me up to date with the modern world. 'You've got to hear this dad …!'"
Q: What inspires you to write music?
A: "I have a need to write things down. It's like keeping a diary but my diary is full of songs and stories. I have no idea where the tunes come from. The words are drawn from personal experiences and observations, chance remarks, a view from a train, a line in a film, rain, barking dogs, cuckoo clocks, murder …"
Q: Has anyone ever covered one of your songs?
A: "Yes, Buck's Fizz covered "Tears on the Ballroom Floor". You have to hear it."
Q: Do you have any hobbies apart from music?
A: "People-watching, travelling, reading (current book: "London: The Biography" by Peter Ackroyd) and art galleries. I like painters who use their own language; Kandinsky, Klee, Mondrian."
(Roy and I had initially intended to visit the Tate Modern, but never made it - I suspect we would have been thrown out for talking too much anyway.)
Q: Do you prefer working as a solo musician, as part of a duo, or with a band?
A: "Solo. It's not that I don't enjoy playing as a duo or with a band, but working as a solo artist means I don't need to make any compromises or fit in with anyone else, either while writing or onstage. It is more scary to play solo as there is no-one else to exchange glances with if anything goes wrong, and everything is down to me. I often get very nervous before playing, even being sick, the feeling is similar to standing in line waiting to go on a giant roller-coaster, a mixture of wanting to do it and being terrified. Once you're strapped in though, 'Yahoo!' Playing solo is the ultimate adrenalin rush."
Q: Do you have any solo gigs lined up?
A: "Yes, my 2009 World Tour takes place at The Open House Café, in Brentford on 25th September." After well over five hours and several cappucinos in various South Bank locations, Roy and I parted company. I am looking forward immensely to seeing him perform at The Open Café on 25th September (tickets available from www.wegottickets.com). For more details, to check on the progress of Switzerland, or to venture into Roy's blog, visit his Myspace at www.myspace.com/royhillwordsandmusic).