INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Uncut DECEMBER 2014 - by Tom Pinnock
ALBUM BY ALBUM: ROBERT WYATT
...looks back on his life's work, starting with Soft Machine: "We were incredibly loud!"
Since shooting from sleepy Canterbury to the clubs of London's '60s psychedelic underground as drummer and occasional vocalist with soft Machine, Robert Wyatt has remained one of England's most idiosyncratic, thoughtful and fascinating artists. "When you're working as a musician, you're in a dream world that's beyond rational explanation," he tells us, outlining a unique approach that has over the years seen him fêted and assisted by rock royalty, including various members of Pink Floyd and Roxy Music. "So what comes out comes out." Though it sadly looks unlikely that we'll see any new music from him, Wyatt is delighted to talk us through his varied catalogue - from Soft Machine and Matching Mole to his acclaimed solo records - with his customary wry humility still very much intact. "I'm an old man now... But it's very, very nice for me that you take an interest and you think other people want to read about this!"
• • •
SOFT MACHINE The Soft Machine - The toast of London's underground scene, Wyatt, bassist and vocalist Kevin Ayers and organist Mike Ratledge bashed out their debut while on tour with Hendrix in the US.
Robert Wyatt: Although we were a rock band, all the music we'd listened to live had been jazz, so the idea of extending songs with improvisations seemed totally natural to us. The original intention was to get together and do kevin's songs. He was the only one in the group who wrote proper songs - I think he could easily have been up there, in terms of success, with people like Donovan and maybe Ray Davies. But he got landed with us and waylaid a bit, though I think he enjoyed the ride for a year or so. We weren't really a recording band until we made an obligatory first record in the middle of a tour of the United states. It was just done in quite a rush. How long did it take to record? About as long as it sounds. We had a few weeks off in New York, around when we toured with Hendrix, before getting back on the road again, so we went into the studio and did a live gig, really. It's pretty ramshackle for a debut record by an aspiring band. Our management had offered us a record producer who had guaranteed hits, he'd done The Yardbirds and Donovan. But they said, he will decide what tunes you'll do and how you'll do them. We thought, well, what's the fun in that? So we turned that down. After that the management were really pissed off with us, so they just let us carry on in our own way.
SOFT MACHINE Third - Wyatt's last album with the increasingly complex Soft Machine featured his first foray into solo work, the twenty-minute, multi-part Moon In June.
Kevin had left at the end of '68 to do what he should have been doing, and Mike surfaced as the voice of the group as he developed his organ playing skills. Mike or [bassist] Hugh Hopper had started writing pieces more directly influenced by the jazz of the day. The difference was that we were incredibly loud, and there's no way I know how to play drums like a jazz musician and be heard at that volume, so what came to my rescue was watching Keith Moon and thinking, 'That's the way, yeah.' Just fucking get on with it! We experimented with tape on Third, there were people we knew who'd been doing tape stuff - Terry Riley, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and Delia Derbyshire. We took it in and used it in our context. Artists and musicians are just trying to stave off boredom really, so we tried to do stuff that interested us, whatever it was. I'd been working on my own when I could. 'Cause I can't write music, it's easier to just play it yourself rather than showing it to someone else. On Moon In June, I used all the keyboards that happened to be in the studio, to try to keep it varied. It was my attempt to do an extended piece that wasn't just about improvisation, but was composed all the way through. So it was a bit of a mountain climb for me, but it turned out to be useful for later on in my life. It was the start of what I would later do.
MATCHING MOLE Matching Mole - The first of two LPs that year from Wyatt's new "democratic" group, originally featuring his Wilde Flowers bandmate Dave Sinclair on keys, guitarist Phil Miller and bassist Bill MacCormick.
I thought I could carry on as the drummer in Soft Machine and as a vocalist and songwriter doing stuff in recording studios, but I think I'd become too drunk and irresponsible to work with, frankly. What was humiliating was that I sort of agreed with them. But I look back on it and think it sort of worked out. I didn't go straight to solo stuff after Soft Machine as I didn't think you could have a full life's work just writing songs. I thought, working life as a musician is being in a group. I thought it was the law, you know, all young men must go into a beat group. Just like ten years before that, young men had to go into the army, then they cancelled national service and invented beat groups, so they could carry on the tradition of sending young men over to conquer Hamburg. With Matching Mole, there was an attempt to be a democratic unit, though I did take it over with my bloody mellotron at the end of things. Phil Miller wrote lovely pieces, but they weren't completed, so they were perfect vehicles as launch pads for improvisation. Dave Sinclair was uncomfortable, he just wanted to do songs, but I really liked what he did on organ, I thought he was lovely on it. So he only lasted for that record. I thought it was a good band, but we had no money, and the business was ramshackle. It was very hard to develop, we really were poor.
ROBERT WYATT Rock Bottom - After 1970's jammy, uneven The End Of An Ear came Wyatt's solo debut proper, and the first he made after being paralysed when drunkenly falling from a third-storey window. Features a host of guests, including Mike Oldfield, Hugh Hopper, Ivor Cutler and Mongezi Feza.
People say, it must have been awful when you broke your back, and I say, not really. It just set me on another more fruitful path. Alfie [Benge, now Wyatt's wife] and I hadn't been together long when she got this job of going to Venice and making Don't Look Now. I was still a biped and tagged along. They hired a flat on Giudecca, one of the non-touristy islands, and plonked me there. Alfie got me a little keyboard to keep me busy whilst they were. Then I had my accident, and for the first time ever I had to spend a lot of the classic time just sitting back and going over ideas in my head as opposed to desperately trying to make something happen immediately. So I was primed by the time I came out of hospital. It's partly therapy in a way, because when people become disabled they can become very internalised and feel cut off from the world. I'm not brave, I just pretend it's not happening and think about something else. So that's what Rock Bottom enabled me to do. [Richard] Branson came up to the hospital, bless him, and said if you want to make a record when you come out you can record one for us, so that gave me a specific thing to come out and do. I thought because I don't have to work in a group I can ask different musicians to be on each track. It was a kind of freedom I hadn't thought of before. Nick Mason was great as producer, he was very funny. I've always got on with other drummers, we can speak to each other really. We were quite used to our lowly place in the hierarchy. Alfie thought the music I'd made before was too congested, so she got me to listen to things like Astral Weeks by Van Morrison and said look how he leaves the space. So Astral Weeks was an influence on the sheer spaciness of Rock Bottom. I wanted to make the most enjoyable, rich records I could make, and if that means me doing something then I'll do it, but if I think someone else could do it instead, I'll get them to do it. My voice is one of many, it's got some things it can do and other things it can't do. So just find somebody else who can, no problem. I say no problem, but when you have to find people who have their own character, their own way of doing things, but also don't mind having a go at your own stuff, that does narrow it down.
Rather like with the second Matching Mole one, with the second solo one I felt I should hand it over to the other musicians, I thought it'd be fairer. So there's a long piece on it, Muddy Mouth, which is basically Fred Frith's piano piece which I really loved, so I put words to that. It's lighter than Rock Bottom because I was hanging about with people in a studio and having a laugh. It just sort of lightens you up a bit, takes the weight off things. And unexpected accidents of a delightful nature can happen. On Team Spirit, George Khan, a wonderful tenor player, does the solo, and I got Brian Eno in, who hates jazz, to try and fuck it up as it went on. George plays so beautifully, and Eno's definitely trying to drown it out with computer noise and echo, but it's a battle that neither of them wins, so you get the best of both worlds. I think it's amazing, that bit. Laurie Allen [on drums] is pure jazz on that, and Bill MacCormick is very nimble, so aside from me just playing the piano chords, my favourite bit is the bit I'm not really on at all. It makes me laugh every time I hear it.
ROBERT WYATT Nothing Can Stop Us - A compilation of Wyatt's politically aware Rough Trade singles, including the Elvis Costello-written Shipbuilding and a cover of Chic's At Last I Am Free.
Virgin put me on a retainer so I could write, but I thought, 'This is dishonourable as I'm not sure I'm ever going to come up with anything, I'm just accumulating a debt.' So I said, "Look, I'm knocking it on the head." Branson was really cross and upset. It took us over a decade to pay off the debts, which is why Virgin wouldn't let me make an LP for anybody else during that time. It wasn't 'til Rough Trade said let's just do some singles that we found a way out of that. During that time, I found that there's more authentic and real things happening in politics than in music. While rock musicians were posing as victims of the establishment, there were people out there who really were victims, in Africa or South America, so I thought I would celebrate those people. Things like that overwhelm me, in terms of what goes on in my head, more than, you know, thinking up a nice little tune or something. I didn't plan to put these on an LP, they're quite topical and throwaway. Around that time, Swell Maps, Ben Watt and Scritti Politti came along and asked me to do a couple of things for them. Very nice people. So that surprised me - apparently, I had been heard! I certainly didn't feel guilty when I was charged as being a rock dinosaur, because I hadn't been successful enough to be a rock dinosaur. My records are all quite scruffy, so I already had a lot in common with punk when it came along.
ROBERT WYATT Shleep - After releasing two more albums sparsely recorded on his own, and battling depression in the early '90s, Wyatt returns with a host of guests, and a new lyrical collaborator...
People said to me, why don't you get other musicians on your records? And I said, well, I can't afford to hire them. And they said, just ask people, there'd be people who wouldn't mind playing. I didn't really know who, but people turned up, old friends like Brian Eno and some wonderful new ones like Paul Weller. And then the trombonist Annie Whitehead and saxophonist Evan Parker came along. It was a treat. It became a sort of imaginary group in the end. I was recording at Phil Manzanera's studio. That was a breakthrough. I'd always been clock-watching, as it's very expensive, recording. But Phil said, "Look, we'll set a price for it, then just do it as long as it takes", which was a fantastically generous thing to do. I found that I still did have ideas, you know, and I wanted to try stuff out. But the key thing that came up in the last of my solo things was that Alfie - who had already been doing my covers - started writing these poems and verses. She'd always done that, but I started using them because I found I came up with much more music than I had words. And her words were a revelation for me, they completely expanded what I could do. Singing words from outside that weren't standards by other people, but nor were they devices I had come to rely on, they had a completely different approach. That became my group, me and Alfie, and without that I don't really know what I'd have done.
ROBERT WYATT Cuckooland - Wyatt's surprising rejuvenation continued with this synth-led LP, inspired by jazz drumming and the finest painters.
Billy higgins came up with the avant-garde in the '50s, but he always liked to swing. His beat got lighter and lighter - there were some gossamer-light cymbal things he was doing, just a gentle swing. So that gave me ideas. Plus you could do a lot only using the top of the kit, without the use of legs. So I started using cymbals again. I know a lot of rock people thought, 'Well, there's the problem right there, Robert, if you cut out all those jazzy cymbals, and just had a rock steady beat there, you'd have sold loads more.' And I thought, yeah, but of what? It was lovely that Dave Gilmour was on this. I always think of Floyd as real aristocrats of music, not just a group who are up for a blowing session here and there. Paul Weller put the idea in my head, and David was up for it. But I was a bit embarrassed, 'cause at one point he said, "Robert, what's that chord?" and I had to say, "I don't know, David!" He was lovely, a gentleman. I was interested in becoming a painter long before I was interested in becoming a musician. If you think of painters like Turner, his work is awash with smokey effects which you can only just see things through, and I was impressed by that. I do a bit of that myself on Cuckooland.
ROBERT WYATT Comicopera - Perhaps his final solo album, this three-part epic moves from hazy introspection to political disenchantment, ending in a celebratory, foreign-language finale.
I didn't start with a concept, I start doing stuff I want to do and look at the shape of it afterwards. And having got these bits and pieces, I thought I'd put them into three sections. So it did end up as a concept but it wasn't devised as one. This is the album of mine that I least wince to when I'm playing it back. I managed to remember what made me wince about my previous records, and studiously avoid doing those particular things, including not burying the voice - thank you, David [Gilmour], for that advice! I think it helped that the musicians I worked with, although there were some new ones, had really got the hang of what I'm on about. Jamie Johnson, who was starting out when I first worked with him on Shleep, had become a very experienced and skilled engineer and was very quick and very funny too. Dave Sinclair was on this too - it was lovely, a link with the past. I still think it's terribly difficult to focus political ideas into songs. What's on my mind will come through in the lyrics, but that doesn't suddenly make me a frontline activist. I salute people like Billy Bragg, who has put himself out there to talk to people, but I haven't done that. There's nothing in my music that reaches out to people who wouldn't normally listen to it. It's like dreaming about politics, in a way.