Hugh Cornwell’s Moments of Madness

Random tales about music, touring and the joys of fusion cooking in Mexico.

Hugh Cornwell is one of the iconic figures of the new wave era. After leaving the Stranglers he’s continued to produce memorable music and will be playing Birmingham in May to promote his latest album Moments in Madness.

You were touring before Christmas. Are these dates a continuation of that?

“Yes, it came about because we were doing a sold-out show in Manchester but there were huge problems with the electricity supply due to electric trains running above the venue. We tried everything to fix the problem but we couldn’t do a good enough show, which was a great shame because there was a long queue of people outside who didn’t know what was going on. We rescheduled at a place where we know there will be no problems and my agent suggested I may as well do another couple of shows at places I didn’t go in the autumn. I suggested Sheffield, which I hadn’t done for years and then Birmingham where I haven’t played for a long time so I’ve ended up with a weekend of shows as an addendum to the tour last autumn.”

Is it the same format – a solo set and then some Stranglers stuff?

“Yes. We’ll probably do the same, although I want to try and get Too Much Trash from the new album up and running. I think that’ll work great live. We’re rehearsing later this week and if it’s good enough we’ll be doing that as well.”

In the sets you did before Christmas you dropped some of the bigger songs, the SingalongaStranglers stuff, and put some lesser known ones in their place.

“Probably. We try to vary the Stranglers content as much as possible; we’ve got about 25 on the go and you can’t play that many so we try to vary it from one night to the next to make more interesting for us.”

And audiences might not want to hear No More Heroes once again.

“Exactly. We left that out this time because we’ve played it too many times and there’s loads of others worth doing.”

The new album, Moments of Madness. From the first chords of the opening track Coming Out of the Wilderness, I could recognise that it’s a Hugh Cornwell song. And Iwannahideinsideya, that one had your identity all over it.

“Good, thank you. It’s good that there’s a strong presence of identity on my songs.”

A lot of interviewers have been mentioning the song Lasagna, which has a real Bo Diddley beat to it. That must have been the sort of music you were listening to when you were young.

“Exactly. He was one of the people I championed. He was so singularly unique. For that song it works great.”

That song could have been on your previous album Monster, when you were talking about your influences and your favourite people.

“That’s right, but then I’d have had to change the title from Lasagna to Bo Diddley. Bo… Didd-ley… da da daa… That would have worked. But I’d already promised the people who run an Italian restaurant in Mexico who make this pasta, and they were absolutely over the moon when they heard it.”

And just in case anyone might be thinking you’ve mellowed in your old age, there’s also some vintage cynicism on the album, especially on things like Red Rose with your opinions on tattooing.

“I hope it’s not totally negative about tattoos. They’re not for me but I’m trying to understand it. It’s jewellery body adornment, I can see the attraction. It goes back over a thousand years. It’s always been around and in the early twentieth century it was very fashionable in England.”

Talking of vintage, the title track seems a very authentic reggae tune, something Steel Pulse could have recorded.

“Great, thank you again. It’s my first time doing a proper reggae song and I was concerned that reggae fanatics could consider it a poor imitation so let’s hope they like it.”

The album was pretty much done on your own – you played all the instruments and produced it yourself.

“That wasn’t brought on by the Covid situation, but it’s a product of what I found worked when I recorded Monster, which was me and my engineer. I found there’s room for experimentation when there’s no-one else there. I can say to myself ‘Move that whole section, change that’ and you can’t do that when other people are around. I found that the songs benefitted from having that chance to experiment, and unless you know the other guys very well it would take a lot longer.”

And you can get it down when the inspiration strikes.

“Yes, there’s no ringing someone and saying ‘Get over here quick before I forget it’.

What’s next on the horizon – another album?

“I’ve got so much going on this year, not just music but novel writing – I’m on my fourth at the moment and I’ve got to devote some time to that. Then there’s the film podcast MrDemilleFM and another new project’s starting up. I can’t see myself starting another new album this year or even next year. I can’t see me having the time. And long may I still be able to do it, if you’re invited to do something you cant say no; you don’t know if you’ll get the chance again.”

You’ve got a massive back catalogue of books, albums, songs. Which would be the one you’d take to the mythical desert island as the work you’re most proud of?

“The Gospel According to the Meninblack. I loved that album, it was a very special moment for the four of us. We were all very, very, very creative at that time. Everyone was on the top of their form.”

We spoke a few years ago and you said you and they had both gone your separate ways and you didn’t know what would happen if they lost any more original members. Do you think that with Dave dying they’ve now come to their natural end?

“I wonder. I really couldn’t really tell you what they’re thinking. It must be odd for Jean because he’s surrounded by people who are new, it must be odd for the singer because he’s spend so many years working hard on something, so he wouldn’t want to call time on it because where’s all that work gone to, so I don’t know what. It’s a complex situation, I’ve got no idea what’s going to happen but we’ll find out sooner or later.”

There are bands such as Dr Feelgood, with no originals, and Slade, who are frankly appalling now. Does it worry you that a version of the Stranglers with just one original member might reflect badly on you and affect your legacy?

“It doesn’t bother me at all. I do what I do, to me the Stranglers catalogue is just an added gem in my pocket but it’s not really what I sell myself by, it’s ‘Oh by the way I’ve also got this’ and pull that out. I’m not leading with it, it’s just an added bonus so it doesn’t really affect me what they end up doing.

“There are so many things in life and they’re divided into two sorts – one is something you’ve got control over and the other is what you don’t have control over and the only things to be concerned about is the things you’ve got control over. There’s no point in being concerned about things you have no control over. You can’t do anything about it so what’s the point in wasting energy and that’s one of the things I’ve got no control over.”

Hugh Cornwell plays the 02 Institute, Birmingham, on 5th May. Tickets.