Richard Hawley has been through a lot, including drug addiction and debilitating injury, but he’s a survivor. As he releases his new album, he tells Mark Beaumont how he got through
He’s not the first young man to have a quiff and he won’t be the last,” says Richard Hawley, brushing off the suggestion that Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner turned into a lounge bar Elvis. “We were playing a gig in Paris together and backstage I was in the mirror doing my quiff, and I remember him saying, ‘How do you get them bits at the side that stick down?’ But I suspect it’s more to do with Eddie Cochran than me."
Typical Hawley, the modest modern master. Like a gruff Yorkshire denizen of a seamy Fifties Sunset Boulevard bar, his sublime brand of baritone torch noir has, over seven previous albums, quietly made him a cult treasure, adored by the rising rock generation and a regular winner of the fictional Most Snubbed For Major Awards award. Imagine Roy Orbison, Scott Walker, Johnny Cash, David Lynch and Chris Isaak sharing psychedelic shots of condolence and you’re close to his sound, given an introspective and redemptive slant on new album Hollow Meadows thanks to the summer he spent “incarcerated” when his entire body broke.
You did a Dave Grohl in 2012, refusing to stop touring when you broke your leg. Did you, like him, consider touring on a throne?
No, we had an NHS wheelchair. We performed at Latitude festival and Guy Garvey pushed me onstage. The health and safety people made him put on a high-visibility jacket so we looked like that couple off Little Britain. I’ve got an old-fashioned work ethic – I’d have to have an arm hanging off to cancel a concert. It [happened] the day before the first gig of the Sky’s Edge tour and we’d decided to fly out on the day before to have an evening in Barcelona. They polish the streets in parts of Barcelona and I had these leather soled shoes on. I just slipped on a marble staircase and bang, I couldn’t walk. I’d snapped my fibula in three places. The next thing I was in a hospital and they’d pumped me full of various substances. I had to make a decision whether to continue with the tour or go home. For health reasons I wished I’d gone home because that caused problems with my back, moving around when I should have been resting. I was then just laying on my back for five-and-a-half months.
How did you cope with a summer in bed?
All you’ve got is your thoughts. If you wanted to sum this record up, the majority of it is like a mental health change, realising your relationship with the outer world. All you got to think about was the inner workings of yourself. The other end of the telescope. I read a lot, washed and cleaned, I realised how kind my kids were. I saw things in a different way, little things that I’ve missed because I’m always so f*cking busy. But I was reduced to some limping, hobbling creature. There was a point where doctors were saying, “You might not actually be able to walk again.” That was really scary. But they put me on all these painkillers which f*cked my head up. I didn’t like that, I quickly got off that stuff. They’re highly addictive. Because of my history, my body went, “Hello! I know you, I haven’t seen you for 16 years!” I came off them and I felt like I’d been thrown down a lift shaft. It was hideous.
You’ve been very open about your past heroin use onstage…
The biggest thing with me is that I was given morphine tablets on tour in America. It’s a long time since I was involved in any of that sh*t and it was disappointing that, from a GP’s prescription, I was back in the room. I don’t want to dwell on this because it is a negative and this record is about being positive about a really bad situation.
Out of this trauma you got an album about appreciating family, nature and being alive.
The songs are definitely about where I am in my life. I’m 48 years old and it’s a f*cking miracle I made it. I got a birthday card from my dad when I was 30 and it said, “30? I thought you wouldn’t make it to f*cking Thursday."
Album track The World Looks Down is about our addiction to smartphones – what have you got against them?
I use them, I’m looking at my iPad now, but there’s a revolution happening that I might not be part of. We now have maybe two generations that haven’t got a clue what it was like before the iPhone. Even my mother, she’s 73 and she bought a smartphone. It was like teaching a cave person to fly a f*cking helicopter. I was with a friend of mine on a train and he’s looking at his phone and I said, “What you looking at?” He said, “I’m just looking at the weather.” I said, “Why don’t you just stick your f*cking head out the window? What you looking at now?” He said, “I’m looking at a dating site.” It struck me that on the next table to us was this really lovely girl and she was looking at her phone and I thought, “If you put your f*cking phones down you never know what might happen.” It’s weird. I see it because I’m an old git and I’ve lived in a world before that.
Can you get your head around music streaming?
I’m shocked at the change. I’ve still got 7in singles. Things have become reductive. Music is like sh*t in a field. It’s everywhere and it just becomes sh*t rather than something special. But I think kids have wised up that the MP3 is like buying a bucket of steam. My son, for his birthday recently, said, “Can I have a record player with one of them USB things on it?”
As the 21st-century’s prime crooner, have you ever considered a Vegas residency?
Could we do it in Sheffield? I’ve only been to Vegas once, for my then-guitar tech’s marriage. It was when we hit the bar at 6am and dropped acid that we thought, “Right, this isn’t going to go to plan.”
Have you been swept up by Corbynmania?
I’ve paid attention to what he’s been saying because I’m not New or Old Labour, I’m f*cking Jurassic Labour. He was talking about reinstating Clause IV and nationalising the railways, these are things that appeal to me. It’s time we got rid of those Westminster Oxbridge supposed-Labour people, because all they offer is Tory lie and that’s not a sufficient difference. An opposition should actually oppose, that’s how democracy should work – an open debate where people have opposing ideas. That hasn’t happened for years.
So what do you want from a political party?
One I believe in – true socialists with the basic ideas of caring for your fellow man and woman, I’d vote for them. Corbyn will take us back to the core values that are important to the human race – to care for your fellow citizens, or at least contribute to a society that’s fair and more even. It’s politics of decency and it’s no surprise that the young have latched on to him. This austerity stuff is really cruel, and as always the people who pay the price for it are the least well-off. The people who are leading us now don’t have a moral compass. It’s all about business and commerce. They’re selling off what we already own and then charging us to see it. There’s gotta be something out there that actually says no. As for Tony Blair, apart from the fact he should be handed in at the Hague, the fact that they made him the Middle Eastern peace envoy – you couldn’t f*cking write that.
Let’s finish on a lighter note… what’s the most expensive thing you’ve destroyed for fun?
It was a firework that looked like a refrigerator. You were supposed to have an area the size of a municipal park to light it. We didn’t read the instructions and we lit it and then realised that it was some kind of display firework. We were all pinned to the wall for about an hour, terrified.
Hollow Meadows is out on Parlophone on 11 September. Richard Hawley tours from 25 October