Hugh Cornwell, an English musician, singer, songwriter and author, chats with Kevin Cooper about playing The Stranglers material, his most extravagant purchase, his latest album Moments Of Madness and his 2022 tour of the UK.

Hugh Cornwell is an English musician, singer, songwriter and author, best known for being the lead vocalist and lead guitarist for the punk rock new wave band The Stranglers.

Whilst at school he played in a band with Richard Thompson, who later became a member of Fairport Convention. In the late 1960’s after earning a bachelor degree in biochemistry, he embarked upon post graduate research at Lund University in Sweden. Not long after his arrival he formed the band Johnny Sox.

He returned to the UK in 1974 with the band that saw Jet Black join him. They were then joined by bassist Jean-Jacques Burnel. Towards the end of 1974, they had renamed themselves The Guildford Stranglers before settling on The Stranglers. Dave Greenfield joined them in 1975.

Cornwell was the band’s lead guitarist and he also sang the majority of the songs although he shared the lead vocals with Burnel who sang about a third of the band’s songs. By 1977 they had gone on to become the most commercially successful band to emerge from the UK punk scene.

In 1990, Cornwell became disillusioned with the direction that the band was taking so he left them after sixteen years.

Pursuing a solo career, he has released ten studio albums, the first being Wolf in 1988, released whilst he was still with The Stranglers, and the last being Moments Of Madness in 2022.

He has an interest in acting and he hosts a podcast that takes in his passion for movies and explores it through interviews and episodes on careers and themes. Guests have included Debbie Harry, Brian Eno and Sir David Puttman.

Cornwell has also written six books that include 1980’s Inside Information written about the time that he was incarcerated for drug possession, The Stranglers–Song By Song in 2001, his autobiography, A Multitude Of Sins and three novels.

Whilst taking a short break from his UK tour, Hugh Cornwell took some time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.

Good morning Hugh, how are you?

I’m fine thanks Kevin, not too bad at all. How are you today?

I’m very well thank you, and before we move on let me firstly thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

No worries, it’s not a problem at all. It’s always a pleasure whenever you and I get the time to have a chat.

I have to ask, just how is life treating you at this moment in time?

Life at the moment is good if not pretty busy (laughter). I have managed to grab a couple of days off from the tour, but I still have a lot of press to do and a fair bit of catching up.

Speaking to the likes of me; boring you senseless no doubt (laughter).

(Laughter) no, no, no, no, no, never think that. The last thing that it is whenever you and I speak is boring.

How did you spend your time during lockdown?

Generally, I spend a lot of my time in London simply because I am a Londoner by nature. I was born here, and I am in London now as you know. Lockdown happened when I had just got back from a long trip abroad. I had been back for around two or three days, and lockdown happened. And of course, London completely closed down. Everywhere was closed, and one of the good and interesting things about being in London is the variety together with all of the things that you can do when everything is open. However, when everything is closed down, there is absolutely no point in being in London (laughter).

So, I immediately hightailed it to the countryside where my recording studio is, and I just thought, ‘well, I may as well get on with some of the work that I can do. I can’t play shows and I can’t meet people, but I could at least get on with recording an album by starting work in the studio’ which is what I did. So, looking at it now, lockdown was actually quite beneficial for me, because I was able to produce the new album.

You mention everything being closed in London during lockdown; it was except a certain number 10 Downing Street.

(Hysterical laughter) that’s right, I should have gone round there for a few drinks.

Before we speak about your latest album, Moments Of Madness, can I just mention your last album Monster?

Of course you can, sure, yes. Go for it.

The fans were absolutely raving about the album. Were you happy with the reaction that it received?

Yes, I was, I mean it is always a surprise whenever people give me any sort of praise, since I left The Stranglers. I have had so many years of people denigrating what it is that I am trying to do. They would always be comparing it to that marvellous, bold, body of work that I left behind in The Stranglers. But, as time has gone on now, and I am finally getting further and further away from that, it seems to be receding into the distance slightly. So I now think that it is probably easier now for people to latch onto what I am doing. I wouldn’t say that Monster was anything special; it was just the next album after Totem And Taboo which was the next album after the one before that, etc, etc. It’s just the distance of time; it has allowed people to hopefully look at my stuff in a fresh way. Don’t get me wrong, I knew that it was going to take time.

Upon its release, people were saying that it was your best work to date. Would you agree with that?

(Laughter) if that’s their opinion then great, I’m happy. What you have to remember is that I don’t really do it for myself; I am doing it for an audience. I feel that I am too close to it to have an opinion, to me the last thing that I did is the best thing so far (laughter). Whenever you are working on something, you learn so much from the process, which you can then take forward. You sit on it for a while until the next time that you are going to make a record, and then you can put into action the things that you learnt whilst making the last album.

So, from my point of view, the last record that I have made is the most satisfying simply because it has put into action all of the stuff that I have learnt so far. And I feel like that about the latest album, so Moments Of Madness will be my most satisfactory work. I don’t know about the best, but for me, it will be the most satisfactory work that I have done until I make another one, if I do (laughter).

Coming right up to date, I have been playing Moments Of Madness for a couple of weeks now and I have to say that I think that it is a great piece of work.

That’s great, what, even better than Monster (laughter).

I’m torn between the two as you and I spoke before the release of Monster, and I have to say that I thought that the subject matter of the songs was fantastic. You could relate to so many of them. However, with Moments Of Madness, it is simply a bloody good album.

(Laughter) okay, alright, well that will do (laughter).

At this point I would normally be saying that I have got a number of go to tracks, but I have to say that I can’t do that with Moments Of Madness simply because they have all got legs, and they all stand up on their own.

Well, I will take that as a compliment.

Please do.

One thing that was different with this album from Monster is that I actually played live bass on it, which I didn’t do on Monster. I did on a few tracks, but not all of them. So, it is as I say an evolution; it is the next step. It has managed to give the album a bit of body, which might have been lacking on Monster in a funny sort of way although I don’t know why.

Are you happy with Moments Of Madness?

Yes, for sure, absolutely. I’ve learnt a lot; I have a lot of ideas so hopefully I will get the time and the opportunity to make another album in the not too distant future. You release an album, then there is the flurry of activity around the release, you are then going out playing it live, and doing all of the live work, so that takes a couple of years. And then when that dies down, I start getting jittery; getting hungry to start venturing and finding out what I can come up with next.

From writing to recording, how long did you spend on Moments Of Madness?

I don’t fully write a song before I go into the studio, which is the method that I used back in the day with The Stranglers. The exception to that rule was Men In Black. We did do a little bit of writing in the studio and I think that is why Men In Black is my favourite Stranglers album. Nowadays, I always leave something unfinished. I start them off, I have a basic idea, but I leave them unfinished, and then I will finish them off when I am recording them. I feel a lot more comfortable doing that because when you are recording things happen. You may get an idea, and you can change things if it’s unfinished.

It’s like a heavy sketch, with a heavy pencil but you can always get your rubber out and change it. Whereas, back in the day, things were already finished before you went into the studio which meant that the actual recording of it was a bit workman like. Does that make sense? (Laughter). Also, what happens is if you do it this way you get a freshness about it because it has literally just happened. The idea has just turned up and it has been recorded immediately which is great.

I have to say that I love Beware Of The Doll which, and please don’t take this the wrong way, it sounds to me that it would slot nicely into the soundtrack of a Quentin Tarantino movie.

That’s absolutely fine, let’s just hope that happens (laughter). I personally think that track is a bit of a sleeper. I think that it is going to take a while but it is going to slowly emerge as a favourite I think. It really is a sleeper. We have a great film being made for it at this very moment by an eccentric Japanese animator who I found. He is using stop frame animation and is working on it now. That should be ready in a few months as it takes him a while. He has already done one for Trash, and that will be unleashed on the public sometime in the New Year I believe and Beware Of The Doll will come later.

Two of the other songs that I think stand out are Lasagne and Coming Out Of The Wilderness.

Thank you, we have got movies made for a lot of the tracks on the album, Lasagne has got a movie, Moments Of Madness has got a movie, and it is all animation and you will be pleased to know that my ugly mug isn’t in any of them (laughter). I prefer it like that. I feel that it is nice to have a standalone film which people can look at regardless of what music accompanies it. I feel that is the way forward.

The last time that you and I spoke you were telling me about your love for the late Ray Harryhausen and his work over the years. He was an animator and special effects creator who created a form of stop motion model animation known as Dynamation.

Yes, I remember. I love Ray’s work. I have found a few people who are all animators, people that have been passed by or overlooked. It really is nice to find people like that. And the thing about it is that there are so many talented people out there so not everybody actually gets recognised. When you eventually find these people, they are so enthusiastic to be asked to make something like this which will go on YouTube and give them some exposure. They really do get so excited about it, so much so that they bring an enormous amount of energy to the project which really is great.

When I was speaking to Peter Noble (your PR) about the album, he informed me that, in his opinion, the album was a ‘guitar masterpiece’ and I have to say that having listened to it, I have to agree with him.

Wow, really, well that’s fantastic, thank you. Well, I don’t really consider my guitar playing to be my best suit. I have always considered myself to be a singer, and I only learnt to play the guitar so that I could accompany myself. It’s so hard to sing a capella without some sort of instrument. So, that is the only reason as to why I learnt to play the guitar. So, please don’t ask me about my guitar playing as I am always learning. I hope that I am getting better; I am nowhere near as good as a lot of other people, too numerous to mention, and if I do a solo gig then it is almost exactly the same every night (laughter). I can’t really improvise, so that is praise indeed from both Peter and your good self. Having said all of that, I think that you are both going a little over the top there (laughter). A guitar masterpiece, that’s funny (laughter).

How is the tour going?

It is going really well thank you. We are performing here in the UK up until 7th December then we are starting up again after Christmas. I have got some acoustic dates over in Ireland, and then we are going over to Scandinavia, France, and Germany. Then later next year we will be going to other parts of the world. So, it is like one continuous tour, with a few little stopovers (laughter).

A little bird has told me that the audiences are in for a surprise?

Just who the hell have you been speaking to (laughter).

I couldn’t possibly reveal my sources (laughter).

Well in answer to your question, yes, they are. We are playing two Stranglers songs in my Stranglers set, that have never ever been played by any line-up of The Stranglers that I have been in and that I have not been in. They have never been played live before which is great and they have been going down a storm I have to say.

Are you playing them acoustically or with the full band?

We are playing them with the full band. We are playing them absolutely as per the record, totally.

But, no doubt, you can’t tell me what they are?

(Laughter) no, I can’t unfortunately. Watch out here comes a spoiler alert (laughter). On the web, it is very sweet because if anyone mentions what the names of the tracks are, it says at the beginning spoiler alert. It’s a bit like the football scores; if you are going to watch the game later, then turn away now (laughter). It has been handled like that regarding the two songs in question and I have to say that I think that’s nice. That means that the people who come along to the shows will get a surprise, and that is how it should be.

Do you still get that buzz out of touring?

(Laughter) well listen, as long as I get a comfortable room, I can get a good night’s sleep, the sound is not too difficult to manage within the venue, and the audience is nice, then yes, it’s fine. It is when some of those things go array that you start thinking, ‘what the hell am I doing this for’ (laughter). And now, as time goes on, you are more in control of your environment, which means a lot of those things you can look after. You can avoid venues that are going to be difficult to deal with, and you don’t stay in hotels that aren’t going to be up to the task. Did you know that Stevie Wonder always stayed in Holiday Inn’s whenever he was on tour because in every Holiday Inn all over the world, the room layout is exactly the same? And with Stevie being blind, wherever he was in the world every room was the same (laughter).

How many of the new songs have made it onto the tour set list?

We are currently playing five tracks from Moments Of Madness. The first set takes you on a gentle stroll through my solo catalogue, which will remain constant through the tour. The reasons for that being firstly that we haven’t really had enough time to learn all of the tracks, so I picked half of them and secondly, I think that to play all of them, with a new product, the tracks are fresh to peoples ears and I feel that you have got to give the audience time to get used to it. For me to play the whole lot would be a bit over the top, I think. So, we are going for fifty percent and then a couple of songs that I have never played with the band before from my catalogue which are songs that I have always wanted to play, so that’s nice. And then there will be a few favourites, things that we like playing.

Knowing you as I do, are you already working on the next album?

(Laughter) you know me too well. Let me put it this way, I already have loads of ideas for it, and what I can tell you for certain is that I am going to have a waltz on it. I am definitely going to have a waltz on it at 3\4 time. As time goes on I am collating a few nice ideas which I want to explore, but I am not tying anything down. I am starting to get a few lyrical ideas, but the hard part is thinking of a good title. A good title is a very good thing to have. I like to have the title tied down as early as possible. Once you have got the title it helps you with the rest of the record. It’s a bit like a book, whenever I am writing a book I always get the title first simply because the title will help you write it. That is something similar between writing songs, writing albums and writing books.

You will be playing here in Nottingham at The Rescue Rooms on Monday 5th December, do the Nottingham audiences treat you well?

Yes, they do, they really do. The Nottingham audiences have always been very appreciative of what we are trying to do. They were very appreciative at the recent singing at Rough Trade up there in Nottingham. We played a short set, and I really can’t complain about it at all.

Have you noticed any changes in the demographic of the audiences coming to the shows?

There is always another audience who come along to see me who don’t really come along because of The Stranglers. It might be hard for you to believe that but I do have my own audience. They always wait to see me after the shows and say, “why didn’t we hear more of your catalogue, we don’t want to hear so much Stranglers material, why don’t you do another set so that we can hear some more of your stuff” but I do tell them that I would feel disadvantaged if I didn’t play any of The Stranglers stuff (laughter). I have done it for so long now. It would be odd if I didn’t play some but they are telling me that I am playing too many (laughter). I really do find that encouraging, that I have now got my own audience, which is different from The Stranglers overlap.

If someone is telling you that you are playing too much Stranglers material, then that has to be a massive compliment for the work that you have done on your own since you left the band.

Well exactly, yes, I totally agree with you on that. However, on the other side of the coin, someone recently said to me, “why don’t you do The Stranglers set first like it’s a support to your solo catalogue” so I said, “well if I did that maybe half the audience would leave half way through the show” (laughter). He said, “no, they wouldn’t do that” so I said to him, “well, this way they can’t” (laughter).

The last time I saw you was at the Glee Club here in Nottingham when you played an acoustic show.

The acoustic set is a completely different ballgame to the set with the band; completely different. There is now only me and two others in the band, it’s only a trio, but they are so talented, and so supportive, and they really do sing a lot. The drummer’s voice compliments mine perfectly. He’s almost singing on as many songs as I am. The pair of them are very good. So, it really is a totally different ballgame with the band.

How will you be spending Christmas this year; will you manage to get some time at home?

Yes, I will, I will actually be getting a couple of weeks off from all of the touring so that is going to be good. I hate it when it gets dark at four o’clock, I really can’t stand that. So, I want to get that over with as soon as possible.

What would you say has been the highlight of your career so far?

God knows, as there are so many. My own solo career has been a highlight because when I left The Stranglers I didn’t really know what was going to happen. I didn’t really know if people were going to like what I did. It’s taken a while but I am really pleased that I finally seem to be finding my own audience which really is a highlight within itself. I don’t think that anything else can top that.

On the other side of the coin, what would you say has been your biggest disappointment?

To be totally honest with you, I don’t really have disappointments because I always think that every cloud has a silver lining and if something goes wrong, I always look and think, and if you look carefully enough, you can always find a positive to come out of it. You can learn something from it; you won’t ever do that again, so I have had many disappointments, not regrets but disappointments, but you learn from it. You hope that if you are ever faced with a similar situation then you will make the right choice. Life is all about choices, and you can’t waste your emotions, and energy depressing yourself if sometimes you make the wrong choice. Nobody gets it right all of the time, and you have just got to look at it that way otherwise you will never get anywhere.

What has been your most extravagant purchase?

(Laughter) I once bought a very old Mercedes motor car, because it was the most beautiful car that I had ever seen in my life. I traded in the vehicle that I had, and paid more in order to get this Mercedes, which I did think was a bit risky to do. But I have since got rid of it because I will tell you what; classic cars are a bloody waste of time. They look good but when you are in them you can’t see them (laughter). Everyone looks at an E-Type Jag and says, “what a fabulous car” but they really are a pig to drive. They really are awful. That also goes for the Porsche 911; they really are a pig to drive and the view inside is awful. It’s all very well coveting things and saying, “oh doesn’t that look nice” but when you are inside it you can’t look at it. However, guitars are a little different. Because when you have got a nice guitar that looks beautiful and plays beautifully, then you are getting both aspects of it. So, guitars are slightly different, but I have never really been extravagant on guitars. You can only play one at a time can’t you (laughter).

What is on the top of Hugh Cornwell’s rider?

At the top of my rider are black towels, because if you use white towels it looks like you have got dandruff (laughter). I also like to have a few bottles of still water; still water in screw top plastic bottles, they are very, very important. And that’s about it, everything else I can do without.

You are quoted as saying that “Dave Greenfield was the one thing that stood between The Stranglers and the rest of the punk bands”. How did you feel when Dave passed away?

Well, I was very sad, although I hadn’t seen him for many, many years to be totally honest with you. It must have been twenty-five years or so since I last saw Dave. I always have fond memories of him; he would rarely show a bad temper. He was always in a good mood and in good spirits. He would never baulk at any suggestion that the rest of us made. Whenever we asked him to play something new or something different, he would try anything. Dave very rarely blew his own trumpet; he was a very capable musician, and he just lived a very simple way within himself, and that was to be commended. He left the music to Golden Brown to the rest of the world which really is quite an achievement.

On that note Hugh, let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me today. As usual it’s been a joy. I hope to see you sometime on the tour.

Thanks Kevin, it’s been great to talk to you once again. You take care and I hope to see you up there in Nottingham.