“Life is always a bit of a shock to me. I’m always taken by surprise. Most of my songs, if they’re about anything, are about the shock of existence. You know, people say, ‘Well, Hitchcock writes about food, sex, and death, you know, with a side order of fish and insects.’ You know, as if I were being insanely whimsical: ‘Here comes the old food, sex, and death man again.’ But you know, food, sex, and death are all these sorts of corridors to life ... sex to get you here, food to keep you here, and death to get you out.” —Robyn Hitchcock, from the introduction to Sex, Food, Death ... and Insects
When Robyn Hitchcock toured with the Venus 3 in 2007, the shows stood out for a couple of reasons: the fact that Hitchcock and company rocked pretty hard, and the shows were just plain fun. Hitchcock and his bandmates were thoroughly enjoying themselves.
Part of that fun obviously came from Hitchcock’s persona as the mad uncle from the country, the one who speaks in stream-of-consciousness paragraphs, and who murmurs little ditties to himself about bugs, lamps, and whatever else might be in his field of vision. While it’s obvious at this point that Hitchcock’s not putting on an act (although the eccentricity probably gets blown out of proportion), that shouldn’t obscure the fact that he’s a serious, talented artist. Contrary to how it might appear, Oberon apparently isn’t wrapping songs in dew-kissed leaves and dropping them on Hitchcock’s doorstep.
The members of the Venus 3 obviously relish playing with him, and they’re no batch of hired guns. R.E.M.‘s Peter Buck, the Young Fresh Fellows’ Scott McCaughey, the Presidents of the United States’ Chris Ballew, and former Ministry and current R.E.M. drummer Bill Rieflin, know their way around a recording studio and a stage, and they certainly don’t approach their gig with Hitchcock as if they’re strictly a backing band. As Sex, Food, Death ... and Insects makes clear, they’re all working together to create their own path through Hitchcock’s signature sound. Perhaps one reason it works so well is that Buck’s trademark jangly sound, in particular, meshes extremely well with Hitchcock’s own ringing chords.
This process is captured to some degree by Insects, although the focus is squarely on Hitchcock, with the bandmembers giving their impressions of the songwriter, and with Hitchcock himself discussing his craft. By his own admission, Hitchcock is an “intuitive”, “instinctive”, and “indiscriminate” songwriter, but as the DVD makes clear, that doesn’t negate the need for practice. Insects finds the band convening at Hitchcock’s London townhouse to hear his latest batch of songs and record them for what would become the Ole! Tarantula! album.
It’s an interesting, if brief (at 59 minutes), look at Hitchcock’s craft that goes off in a couple of intriguing directions. Hitchcock reveals himself, especially in a bonus segment where he plays rough versions of several songs and discusses what is and isn’t working about them, to be a songwriter who works through his ideas like anyone else. On the other hand, interview segments from members of the Venus 3, Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, and John Paul Jones offer some insight into why Hitchcock resonates with other songwriters. Of particular interest are a couple of segments with Peter Buck, where he matter-of-factly illustrates the enjoyment he’s getting out of the Venus 3 tour by contrasting it with the logistical headaches of the R.E.M. machine.
The film rounds out with some footage of the group playing in America. As with the rehearsal footage, full performances aren’t to be found, instead being used to punctuate the interview footage. Full songs, however, make up the bulk of the bonus features, which include rough acoustic solo run-throughs of four songs, a rooftop performance of “Ole! Tarantula”, and a music video for “Adventure Rocketship” (which is basically a stylized performance video from the same rooftop).