Robert Wyatt – interview with a reclusive legend

Robert with Alfie

Fresh from soaking up Robert Wyatt’s newish book of lyrics and illustrations, GARY STEEL thought the time was right to disinter and publish – for the first time ever – his complete interview with the reclusive legend.

Robert Wyatt interview
Robert with Alfie

Note: This interview was conducted on August 23, 2007, around the then-imminent release of his Comicopera album. I was nervous as anything because Robert Wyatt means a lot to me. His music has been a constant in my life, from the early psychedelic explorations of Soft Machine to his idiosyncratic early ‘70s group Matching Mole and on to an ever-evolving solo career that touches me so personally and so deeply that it’s hard to critique or explain. Recently, Wyatt – now 76 – announced his retirement from recording projects.


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Comicopera – the artwork

Robert Wyatt – Hello.

Gary Steel – Hi, I’m Gary from New Zealand.

Robert – Yeah, I’ve been trying to work out… it must be very early morning there or something.

Gary – It’s not too bad, it’s 9am.

Robert – Okay, I’m relieved to hear that, I couldn’t work it out, because I know Japan is about eight hours different, I thought it must be something about that, maybe more I suppose, I don’t know.

Gary – We’re normally about a full day… you’d be about 9 o’clock at night?

Robert – We’re 10 o’clock in the evening.

Gary – We’re about 12 hours ahead of you.

Robert – It’s quite convenient in a way but it’s just upside-down. How very Antipodean.

Gary – The complication is that we have daylight savings, and so it changes at certain times of the year.

Robert – Well we do that too. I thought Britain was the only place that did that. We change twice a year, we change the time as well.

Gary – Anyway I don’t want to waste your time!

Robert – Yeah, it’s just interesting.

Robert Wyatt interview
Robert Wyatt

Gary – The record company said they’d try to get me a copy of Comicopera to listen to, but it hasn’t turned up, so you’re going to have to help me a little bit.

Robert – You’re going to have to write from a different dimension.

Gary – It’s not, I take it, an actual opera.

Robert – No, what can I say. I made a record a few years ago called Cuckooland, and this record has got much the same core of people on it. So it’s me with three or four musicians that are sort of imitation family. I say “imitation”, because we don’t actually go on the road and live together in a van like a real band. But in fact, they’re so desperate… if we were a proper band they wouldn’t have me in it anyway.

But they’re mostly jazz musicians, and just for a day or two in the studio, I’ve found the people who really help me do my songs right. A bloke called Yaron Stavi on double bass, and Gilad Atzmon on saxophone, reeds and clarinet, and a woman called Annie Whitehead who plays trombone, and that’s the basic add-ons to me, and I do a bit of percussion, a bit of singing, obviously, and a bit of trumpet, and we’ve got a few guests. I got a couple of rock and roll guitarists in, but they don’t really play rock and roll on my record. I just like what they do and they’re friends.

Gary – Phil Manzanera and Paul Weller?

Robert – Phil did a wheel-on part on one track on this one, and he did one on the last, and Paul did two songs on this one and two songs on the last one, and two songs on the one before I think. He always comes up with something nice, and I love him. It’s basically a bunch of jazzers not playing jazz is what it is. It’s a bit more “bandy” than the last one. On the last record, I had my songs and I do this, I take stuff in as if I was going to make a solo LP with keyboards and beef it up with guests, but in this case, I actually planned it more with these elementary musicians in mind, so it’s more upfront with the trombones and stuff like that playing a bit more “in there” like a band sort of thing. And that’s about it really, it’s not an opera, you’re dead right there (laughs).

Robert Wyatt interview
Paul Weller with Robert Wyatt

Gary – You described them as jazz musicians as though you’re not. I would have called you a jazz musician in many ways.

Robert – Well, that’s my music but… it’s what I’m based in. There are such a lot of squabbles that go on in the jazz community about what is jazz and who is jazz and what it isn’t. I’d rather keep out of it and use jazz musicians.

A lot of how I work and what inspired me to be a musician… when I was a schoolboy, was jazz. I mean I listened to lots of other stuff, my Dad had lots of 20th Century classical music and I had pop records and I liked all these things, but the thing that completely grabbed me and took my heart was jazz, and it still does really, and the same records too. Old Duke Ellington things and Charles Mingus and Coltrane and, the usual suspects.

Annie Whitehead, who is the perfect trombonist but like a lot of us struggles to write tunes, said ‘where do you get ‘em from’? She’s very nice about my tunes and says she likes playing my tunes. I said I’ve got a really, really good record collection. I don’t consciously nick stuff, it’s just that I get so many ideas. Like in one Sonny Rollins solo, there’s about 18 really good ideas for a tune, if you slow those little bebop lines down. If you hear what they’re doing, on any chord sequence, even if it’s just a well-known song or a blues, they’re showing you how to get so many different notes out of any given situation, and I’m just so grateful to them for that.

So in that sense, jazz is my roots and my sustenance and everything like that. But on the other hand jazz musicians I know, they can all read music properly and have some kind of virtuosity on a musical instrument, and the only thing I ever really got to grips with was the drum kit, and of course, I stopped playing that 30 years ago.

Robert Wyatt interview
Robert Wyatt in the early ’80s

Gary – There are many so-called jazz musicians out there who do interpretations of jazz standards and even their own tunes, but they sound just like carbon copies of what went before. In your case, every single record you do is just uniquely you to the naked ear. Do you feel that you’re in your own way interpreting your influences? I guess what I’m trying to say is that when I listen to your records, they sound like a new vocabulary of music in a sense.

Robert – I’m glad you hear it like that. As far as I’m concerned, especially since I stopped drumming, I’ve had to invent a kind of music that I can do, that suits me, and has elements of other kinds. But I’ve had to invent a one-person genre in a way. It’s not a deliberate attempt to be different, or anything like that, it’s how I find I can work.

One of the things about being a singer is that any sort of American influence shows up very strongly in people’s accents… (mimics ‘I want to go’ in both English and American accents). Everybody becomes a sort of ersatz American and I find that slightly embarrassing. English popular musicians were so drenched in black music that it’s quite natural that singers all the way through rock and jazz history have sung in American accents. Joss Stone now is brilliant at it or English blues singers in the ‘60s or whatever. That was alright when I was doing other people’s material, but when I write songs the words are so English really, and they just don’t come out like that. The only thing that works for me is to sing more or less how I talk, it’s nothing like anybody who invented jazz talks, really, it’s not deliberate, I wasn’t born in New Orleans.

Gary – Was there any great flash of inspiration when you came up with your vocal style? Of course nobody sounds like you do, or can turn a tune on its head the way you do. Is that just the way it came out when you started singing, or was there some thought process going on?

Robert – Just an instinctive flinching when things went wrong, and trying not to do that again, whatever it was. There’s a sort of… really I don’t think particularly like a singer so I don’t particularly sort of listen to other singers for guidelines. Not now, when I was younger I used to listen to… well because I had a high voice, I couldn’t sing like any of the blokes, so I used to try and sing like Dionne Warwick or something. That was a good place to start, because she hits good notes and had some fantastic material to sing and that nailed it; how to do good songs with a true but soulful voice.

But I just found that… some French person once said to me it’s so sad, the English, you haven’t got any great operas, because nobody can sing in English, and I knew what she meant. Latin languages are much more conducive to singing, somehow, the way words flow. And English, being Germanic, is more guttural. We’ve got strange little grunty noises that don’t turn easily into long notes. There are so many things I tried to do that just don’t feel right coming out of my mouth, they sound like I’m a bad actor. And getting rid of all that stuff, I just use what I’ve got left really, and my influences how to phrase tunes come as much from listening to Coltrane doing a ballad, or something like that, as much as any singer.

The main thing I’m trying to do is hit the right note for about the right length of time, and have the vowels and consonants in the correct order, and the rest of it is just being really careful what material I choose to sing in the first place, so that it’s got a good chance of coming out the way that it’s meant to be. And the rest is just professional technique… I’ve learnt quite a lot about breathing and all that, common sense stuff like if you’re going to do a long note, take a deep breath first, get one in you know? [laughs]

Wyatt drumming for Soft Machine in the ’60s

Gary – Have you ever thought of doing a whole album of covers? Like years ago you did ‘At Last We Are Free’ and of course, ‘I’m A Believer’.

Robert – I guess you could put an album together of all my covers. I really like singing other people’s songs because it makes you do things you might not think of yourself. All I’m really interested in in a record is making a kind of record that I would like to hear that doesn’t already exist. Simple as that.

Preferably I’d probably always put on an old Charles Mingus record, but I’m not going to make one of those, I’m going to make a record that I want to listen to that ISN’T a Charles Mingus record. [laughs]. I sort of nailed that one.

I’m more interested in the whole record, the totality of the record. My singing, I take the responsibility for the voice and having to carry it, but I also like parcelling out the sound, because even a good singer can get monotonous.

So one of the things about the ‘opera thing’ was to split it up into three 20-minute chunks. It’s over an hour long, and 20 minutes is a reasonable length of time to listen to a piece of music. The last one I split it up into two halves, and this one three thirds. And then I bunched the pieces together roughly in a sort of either atmosphere, or what the words might be about.

There’s one song on it which is very difficult to sing because the words are written by my wife, a song called ‘Out Of The Blue’, just about what it might be like having your house bombed from an aeroplane. And you can’t put after that a little comedy song about walking down the street… so you have to be careful where you put things. So the first third is more personal songs about love and lust and stuff, the second lot is walking around the streets seeing things that go on, and then it goes to this bombing thing, and then I go off into singing in foreign languages, speaking in tongues, and there’s a bit more improvisation and kind of general alienation. The last third I get totally fed up with being English altogether actually, and pretend I’m not. You sing in a foreign language and it’s a nice feeling, it’s a bit like putting on ladies underwear or something… it doesn’t make you foreign but it gives you that frisson of difference.

Gary – You’ve done a lot of collaborations over the years and going back to the ‘70s you seem to have friends who were in bands like Gong and Henry Cow and Hatfield & The North, and you worked with Mike Mantler and so forth. Of course, on your latest output all those musicians are long gone from your musical world. Is that just a kind of natural attrition from your musical fraternities or is it more a friendship thing.

Members of Soft Machine with Wyatt in the middle

Robert – I’ve forgotten what attrition means. Well, some of the early collaborations, they split into two sorts. One is where they ask me and the other is where I ask them. And so some of them I didn’t seek out but they just arrived. For example I would never have dreamt of saying to Mike Mantler or Carla Bley ‘can I sing some of your music?’ It wouldn’t have occurred to me. So it was an amazing thing that just cropped up, and I’ve stayed friends with that little family; and I’ve been working with Mike and Carla’s daughter, and she’s on the last record and she’s the same age as Carla when I first worked with Carla. A cycle of events really. However, Mike lives in Denmark and Karen lives in New York and her mother lives in upstate New York so there’s not much. Karen is on the record I’ve just done, I used Karen’s voice which I’d recorded last time she was in England, put it onto keyboard, sampled it and used it a bit. I like doing that.

But I always look for musicians who are a combination of really good friends, people I really like, and some ways unique, and have a voice that’s really distinct. Again, that’s something I learnt from jazz, like Duke Ellington, where everyone in the band had a character, so you’d have a trumpet section but Harold Baker didn’t play many solos but had a very distinctive lead sound, they all had character, and I thought that’s what distinguished Duke Ellington from bands where you just had a sax section or a trumpet section.

And I always wanted everyone on my records to be an identifiable human being and not just a clever noise. I wanted that, and I wanted to be friends with them because I’m fed up with playing with people that were clever but we didn’t get on that well. I’m not doing that anymore. But also musicians that are really good but… don’t patronise me but are comfortable working with me because I can’t really read music, and I know they will understand the chords without me having to say what they are. A lovely bunch. And Annie Whitehead can read anything. But also modern jazz musicians now are more broad-minded, because everyone’s used to playing with people from different parts of the world, and you get all these jazz experiments with Africans and Indians and people with completely different traditions, and it’s taken on board now much more than the old days.

I don’t really feel very associated with a lot of the musicians I did happen to work with in the ‘60s and ‘70s. I dunno, although what I do isn’t pop music, it’s not deliberately extra clever or anything like that. I don’t know how to put it. I try to be pretty clear and emotionally direct in what I’m doing. I don’t really like being deliberately obscure or taking pride in the fact that people can’t understand what I’m doing. I get embarrassed by that. It’s hard enough to get across to people anyway without putting obstacles… I found the musicians I work with now more comfortable. It’s changed a lot since I was a drummer as well. And I just really like these people, and I really like working at Phil Manzanera’s studio, and I like his engineer Jamie. And I’ve also got some guests on this one. I like getting a few, because I don’t do live gigs or anything.

I don’t live in London or near London anymore, I live in a small country town which is very nice, but I do miss cosmopolitan things, so on the first track I think it is, I’ve got a young woman of I think Chinese origin, who plays clarinet and sings like a theremin, and there’s a Brazilian singer called Monica Vasconcelos, who sings on the second one, and a bloke called Orphy Robinson who plays vibes and steel pans on another… he’s of Jamaican ancestry. It just keeps the pot boiling for me, you know? It shifts the colours around a bit, but it still ends up just another Robert Wyatt record really.

Robert Wyatt interview
Wyatt out and about

Gary – Well it’s quite a good work rate, only three years since the last one.

Robert – Yeah, I think it’s because everything about the setup of the last one seemed good, so I wanted to carry on really. I thought this is really great, with Annie and Yaron on bass. He’s lovely, we get on really well, and Jamie the engineer is terrific, and we’ve watched him grow from novice adolescence to… in a few years he’s become a married man and a dad. In fact, his father’s a member of parliament, he’s got much grander, and he’s just engineered the Razorlight record, so I have to pay him more now. But he’s not flash with it, he’s really nice and funny.

Phil Manzanera’s studio in Kilburn is really friendly. Phil’s a great friend, and Brian Eno lives just a bicycle ride around the corner, and it’s like ‘I’m really enjoying this, I want to do it again’. In the past when I’ve tried to make records I’ve thought ‘if I have an idea, how am I going to do it, who am I going to do it with’. This time I knew, so it encouraged the process of getting all my bits and pieces together. That, and finding myself in my sixties and thinking ‘blimey, I’d better get some more stuff done before I’m completely ga-ga’.

Gary – Well you’ve outlasted Top Of The Pops.

Robert – I’ve outlived Top Of The Pops, you’re right! Blimey, what do you know.

Gary – So what do you make of youngsters who would debate the merits of a Soft Machine live reissue?

Robert – Well, I’m very grateful. In fact, there’s a French magazine called Improjazz which, as the title suggests, starts off with the Ornette Coleman area, and Sun Ra and stuff. But they also deal with a lot of the music I was involved in when I was a kit drummer, and they do indeed go through that stuff. I don’t think about it much, but I have been shown a couple of videos people have dug up of when I was beardless and drumming. And it’s so long ago it’s like someone else, but I find it quite poignant really, and I’m grateful that people hold onto some of that. All the acrimony that went on in the band at the time, young men too much testosterone stuff, that’s all just evaporated and I can appreciate what we were trying to do. Wincing at the mistakes, but realising it wasn’t a complete waste of time.

I mean I’m still listening to Duke Ellington for god sake, you don’t only have to listen to the stuff of your time. I find it difficult to listen to, but some of it is much better than I realised at the time, and does in fact involve a musician of New Zealand origin, which is Dave MacRae. He ended up with us in Matching Mole. There’s a Matching Mole On The Radio put out by Hux records, and Dave’s such a knockout on it on electric piano. He was married to a woman called Joy, a session singer, who’s also a New Zealander. I think they now both work in Australia, but I miss Dave, I’d certainly work with Dave if he were available. He was one of the first jazz musicians I knew who was a cracking technician, but so confident that he didn’t mind at all playing with people like me. He actually did quite a bit of session work with people who knew less about music than I did. But he was always very nice and wasn’t at all snobbish about his skill, he would just use it where it was appropriate.

People go away and move around. Some of the people I used to work with I have no idea where they are really.

Robert Wyatt interview
Wyatt in the ’70s

Gary – Are you familiar with this saying ‘Wyatting’?

Robert – Yeah, it means clearing a room quickly by putting on an intolerable record, and I was chosen.

Gary – I don’t know if it meant terrible, just weird I think.

Robert – I’m very sad and I feel very sorry for myself.

Gary – I thought you’d see it as a great honour.

Robert – I don’t because I’m not like that. I would never put on a record if I thought somebody in the room didn’t like it, and I never even send people my CDs and say ‘this is my CD’… I’d be too embarrassed. I wouldn’t impose what I do on anybody, because I know it’s not everybody’s taste, and so the idea that other people would impose my music on people who didn’t like it I find a bit… I would never do ‘Wyatting’, put it that way.

Gary – I was thinking that the first time you hear something that’s out of the envelope, your reaction tends to be in the negative. Anything that’s good you tend to go ‘I don’t know if I like this’, and then you play it again.

Robert – Yeah, well I’ve done that, that’s true. When I first hear what used to be called modern jazz, bebop, in the ‘50s when I was still at school, they were playing so fast I just couldn’t think why they were playing so fast, I couldn’t tell the difference between one note and another, it just sounded like they were beating a bottle, I didn’t see the point of what they were doing at all. It took me quite a lot of work to actually hear the underlying chord sequence that they were playing variations on, by listening out for what the piano and bass were doing, and I realised that it was in fact a chord sequence based on some popular song, and I’d sing along to it, and I’d realise the amazing skill and ingenuity of what they were doing. It baffled me at first, it was just like people shouting at you in a foreign language. But I stuck with it because it seemed to have such an authority to it. These people really know what they’re doing, but I can’t work out what it is. But I was just intrigued. My Dad had brought me up listening to Stravinsky and everybody, I don’t need ‘easy’, but I just didn’t know what they were doing. So I can see that maybe some of the stuff we’ve been involved in might have been a bit like that.

Gary – A lot of your older records seem to be out of print at the moment.

Robert – [I hope] Domino will take over the back catalogue and put them out, because there’s a heap of a few thousand records there, and we certainly don’t want them scrapped just because they haven’t got the right record label now. So, they’re a bit dubious about it, but we’re hoping they will do that, but apart from that, they will be doing the back catalogue.

The Ryko thing… Ryko sort of got asset-stripped by some vast anonymous conglomerate and lost their bearings. They were surprised that we left and very pissed off, but my wife is my manager and she’s very canny, and she had a clause in the contract that said we can’t be used as collateral in takeover stuff in record companies. We want to choose the record company we’re with and know who they are, and Domino turned up and they’re great, I like them very much.

Gary – Yes well, it’s interesting that in little old New Zealand Domino is being distributed by EMI, so you’re back with the same company that distributes Virgin.

Robert – There’s no escaping monopoly capitalist society as old lefties like me already knew. There you go. It still means I know who I’m talking to, and it’s not some anonymous Texan who hasn’t got a clue what I do. I’m too old for that crap.

Robert Wyatt

Gary – Robert, I could talk with you for hours but I should let you go.

Robert – I hope you think it’s alright [the record]. It’s not that surprising, it’s what I usually do, my wife wrote half the words as usual, and then a few songs by other people… with an old Cuban folk song, and the rest is the usual stuff really with a bit more instruments in it. You don’t have to hear it now, do you? [laughs].

  • Selected Lyrics by Robert Wyatt & Alfie Benge – Side By Side is out now. Get it from Schrödinger’s Books.

Steel has been penning his pungent prose for 40 years for publications too numerous to mention, most of them consigned to the annals of history. He is Witchdoctor's Editor-In-Chief/Music and Film Editor. He has strong opinions and remains unrepentant. Steel's full bio can be found here

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