Robyn Hitchcock, Grant-Lee Phillips Team Up To Push Net-Only LPs

Singer/songwriters touring West Coast in support of latest releases.

Fans who don't purchase a CD from singer/songwriters Robyn Hitchcock and Grant-Lee Phillips during the joint West Coast tour will have to go online if they want one.

The veterans of major-label contracts released their most recent albums exclusively on the Internet. Phillips, formerly of the band Grant Lee Buffalo, is offering his Ladies' Love Oracle at www.grantleephillips.com; Hitchcock's A Star for Bram is available at www.robynhitchcock.com.

Other than their mutual embrace of the Internet, it might seem the two have little in common. The quirky Hitchcock is known for his quasi-psychedelic sounds and obscurely disturbing lyrics, while Phillips has developed a fanbase with lush indie-rock ballads.

"We first met just when Grant Lee Buffalo was beginning to tour, in the early '90s," Phillips said. "Over the years he's repeatedly come to Los Angeles, and we've been able to improvise together onstage many times."

The two grew close while playing together at the now-famous Friday cabaret nights at the Largo in Los Angeles, hosted by piano virtuoso Jon Brion.

"One thing led to another," Phillips said, "as it sometimes does. But this is not an elaborate tour — we called to see about getting a piano for each show, and I called a few places, and Robyn called a few places."

Promise Of Spontaneity

The outing kicks off Tuesday (June 20) at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. Phillips' background in improv comedy may serve him well during shows with Hitchcock, whose fans turn out to hear his bizarre between-song stories as much as his frequent "customization" of lyrics as he goes along.

"He's often more likely to sing a song that he made up in his car on the way to the show," said Phillips, who nixed one of Hitchcock's promotional ideas: customized traffic cones.

"He thought he could autograph them, and that he'd become known as the Prince of Cones. He felt really strongly about it."

Hitchcock also feels strongly about no longer being on a major label. He recently ended a relationship with Warner Bros.

"There were just so many different people for whom I needed to be making money," Hitchcock said. "[Leaving Warner Bros.] coincided, for me, with labels being increasingly accountancy-driven. I mean, labels have never been charities. They've always talked about talent and artists and all that crap, but now they are basically, entirely, there to make money. It's now become impossible — well, maybe 'pointless' is a better word — for someone like me to be on a major label.

"It's not as though people like me don't want to sell any records," he continued, "it's just that it's not primarily why we're in the business."

He's not worried about a dwindling audience, now that Warner Bros. isn't there to promote his releases.

"There are people who've followed my adventures for so long that they want to find out what the next one's going to be. ... I have what Nick Lowe described as a small but perfectly formed audience."

Hardcore Fans Will Want 'The Real Thing'

Hitchcock is similarly unconcerned about people trading MP3s of his material online, despite all the controversy over Napster and other file-sharing software.

"People who like my stuff probably want to have it, the real thing, anyway, because it's a small, personal relic they can keep," he said. "That applies to the hardcore fans of anybody, and my fans tend to be sort of hardcore, or not at all."

Phillips is also untroubled by the lack of major-label commitment. His previous band was dropped by Slash/Reprise last year, and his recent solo effort was released on his label, Magnetic Field Recordings.

Though he hasn't ruled out a relationship with a larger label, he's found the transition from the majors to the minors to be surprisingly easy.

"A lot of people came out of the woodwork to help me," Phillips said. "Even people at the mega-stores said, yeah, I like what you do, I'll help get this out. There are still plenty of people in the music industry who are there for the right reasons."

After Tuesday's show, the duo will hit San Francisco's Great American Music Hall on Wednesday; Sweetwater in Mill Valley, Calif., on Thursday; Alladin in Portland, Ore., on Friday; and the Crocodile Cafe in Seattle on Saturday.