by Richie Unterberger on November 18, 1996
Al Spicer from Rough
Guides charactarized Robert Wyatt as being 'the one performer
in England that EVERYONE there respects and loves- the
punks, the art rockers, everyone.' The legendary singer/drummer
was a founding member of Soft Machine and has continued
through his career with an impressive collection of solo
albums and collaborations (Syd Barrett, Scritti Politti).
Wyatt's solo work is characterized by his beautiful, quavery
voice and his earnest committment to socialism. I mean,
how many Marxists have a hit record covering a Monkees
Richie Unterberger (contributing editor for All Music
Guide and Rough Guide to Music, former editor of Option
Magazine and editor of music and travel sections of
the Whole Earth Catalog) interviewed Robert Wyatt
on November 18, 1996 for his book UNKNOWN LEGENDS
OF ROCK'N ROLL, which profiles 60 of the most interesting
cult acts of rock history, from the 1950's through
the 1980's. The book is published by Miller Freeman.
Special Thanks to Malcolm Humes
Richie Unterberger : What
sort of recording are you doing next week?
Robert Wyatt :
I'm just taking some songs...CDs are too long! I learned my
craft on LPs, which is basically two chunks of 20 minutes.
CDs somehow, you need more than that. I've reduced the
amount I do, rather than increase it. So I'm just trying
a 20-minute bunch of songs now. The same old thing, just
older (laughs). Then I'll try and do another 20-minute
chunk. Then, maybe when I've got two or three, I'll have
a presentable CD. I'll just have to see.
I'm recording at Phil Manzanera's studio. A really nice
bloke. We have mutual friends like Bill McCormick and
Brian Eno. He once said to me, you can use my studio if
you ever need to. So I'm going down there, and seeing
how it goes. I never know in advance. The last time I
went in the studio, I spent a few days in the studio,
and there wasn't a single thing I came out with that I
could use. This can happen.
The last thing I did that came out that sort of worked--it's
not even on record here. But there's a composer called
Mike Mantler who now lives in Denmark. He wrote an opera
funded by a Danish culture minister for their year of
culture or something. I sang a song on that called "Understanding,"
and made a video for that. Most everyone else was doing
a live opera thing. I just had a video insert, 'cause
I don't do live things. He sent me a tape of that, and
he said he might put the record out next year. I enjoyed
that. The actual bit of music I worked on was arranged--the
actual organization of the singing--was done by Don Preston.
He's apparently a friend of Mike's, and helped him on
things, doing programming and so on. So I've never met
him, but I've worked with Don Preston, which is nice.
Before then, the last thing that came out was I did three
songs on an LP by John Greaves on a label called Resurgence
based in Newcastle, I think--somewhere up north, anyway.
That was with some French musicians, 'cause John now lives
in France. He used to be with Henry Cow. It's nice to
keep in touch with those people. I did three songs with
him. The words were by Peter Blegvad. He doesn't go out
of his way to do stuff that's easy to consume (laughs).
None of us do, really. That's not really what we're about.
I like those people, so it was nice to be asked. That's
the last thing that came out that I was on.
What was it like to hear the Wilde Flowers stuff, when
that finally came out on Voiceprint?
R.W. : I think I prefer the
mystic clouds of nostalgia to the real thing, to be honest
(laughs heartily). What I would have done, I would have
taken about four tracks out maybe, and put 'em on a sort
of limited distribution thing for sort of fanzine-type
audience only. I feel quite cold-blooded about it. It's
impressive to hear how prolific Hugh (Hopper) was already,
writing songs, before he was working on more instrumental
things. I'd forgotten that. The only excuse I have for
the feebleness of the record is that, it was an attempt
to do nearly all-original material at a time when our
friends were doing covers of one thing or another, whether
it was pop or jazz. It's sort of harder to do originals
when you can't even play properly. 'Cause there's nobody
to sort of get your guitar riffs from (chuckles). That's
all I can say about that, really. I wouldn't have put
it out in that whole sort of "everything and the
dirty socks as well." But it wasn't up to me. Hugh
stands to earn from that--they're his songs. And I have
no right to stop him earning that, so I didn't veto it.
Although there's quite a lot of those things I would veto,
if it was up to me. But other people want them out and
it's not my business to stop them.
The first ten years or so of your recording career, you
were usually playing in groups. Since then, you've usually
worked as a soloist, or adding stuff to other people's
records. I was wondering if you had any preference for
working in group or solo contexts.
R.W. : In theory, I'd like
to work in a group. But the group I'd like to work in,
all the musicians in them are long since dead. The classic
Charlie Mingus quintets, I wouldn't have minded working
with! (laughs) In practice, I would divide it into when
I was basically a drummer. Then, when I lost the use of
my hi-hat and bass drum legs, I became basically a singer.
I was a drummer who did a bit of singing, and then I became
a singer who did a bit of percussion. Certainly I would
say that I would like to think that the singer is the
butterfly, and the drummer was just the little grub in
the ground, working to become a caterpillar.
R.U. : The Soft Machine
went through quite a few lineup changes while you were
in the group. Was there any phase of that group's development
that you felt better about than others?
R.W. : That's difficult,
because it's like talking about a marriage after a bad
divorce. If it's a bad divorce, then it kind of spoils
the whole thing in your memory. So in fact I have no happy
memories of that band at all now, because of the humiliation
of being thrown out at the end of it. I never quite got
my confidence back from that. I enjoyed the opportunity
to record "Moon In June," and to get that onto
tape. The first ten minutes of that I played myself. I
had a chance to sort of double-track instruments that
I didn't actually own at the time--they were in the studio--like
Hammond organ and so on. I really enjoyed that. It probably
helped me for later on, when I came to do things with
my own keyboard playing.
I just had a letter a week ago from somebody in Chile
saying, "Please, Robert, send me the words of 'Moon
In June,'" and I absolutely have no idea what they
are. I wrote them in New York, actually, I know that.
But that wasn't about anything.
I'm happy that, if people enjoy it (the Soft Machine),
that's good. Because that means it wasn't a waste of time.
But for me, the overall experience--I came out of it without
much self-respect, without any money, without anything,
really. So I haven't dwelt on it too much.
R.U. : When you starting
doing solo albums in the '70s, you did some originals,
especially at the beginning. Then there was more of an
emphasis on covering other people's songs. For someone
who's affiliated with the progressive rock movement, that's
kind of an unusual move. Do you feel more comfortable
interpreting than writing, or is that even an issue?
R.W. : That's a very interesting
question. I'd say, as you would expect, that when I feel
I've done my thing right--most essentially--it's been
my own material. Even like, for example, when I did a
bunch of singles later on which went onto a compilation
(on Rough Trade). There was a track there called "Born
Again Cretin," which musically was in my own words.
That was really the most me of everything on that.
I was very influenced by painters and artists, more than
musicians, when I was a teenager. I don't think it's necessary
for a painter to invent the things that he paints, if
you see what I mean. If you paint a tree, it's your painting
of the tree, it's your choice of color, what you put in
and leave it. If you really work it through--interpreting
something--it's you. People are quite shocked when you
remind them that Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra never
wrote a song that they recorded in their lives, as far
as I know. Because people associate those songs by (Otis)
Blackwell and Big Mama Thornton with Presley. They don't
say, well, he just did cover versions (laughs). They think
of them as his songs, and quite rightly so, because they're
no better than the originals, but they worked as Elvis
Presley songs. So they're his songs, because of his voice.
R.U. : When you did songs
which were pretty unexpected coming from someone from
underground rock, like "I'm a Believer" or "At
Last I Am Free," was there any consternation or puzzlement?
R.W. : Well, I was puzzled
(laughs). They're quite specific differences. "I'm
a Believer," I was sort of pushed into that by Simon
Draper, who was A&R for Virgin. It led, in the end,
to the breakdown of the relationship with Virgin. It was
a bit perverse. I actually only liked Virgin when I thought
it was a kind of small-scale, cottage industry-type record
company. I didn't realize that they were just using that
as a way in. They wanted to be a big posh record company
with pop acts just like everybody else. So I was a bit
disappointed at this pressure to do singles.
I didn't really mean to do that one. I thought, well,
what should I do that's just like the most unhip thing
you can possibly think of? But, that's really nice (laughs)?
And I thought of the Monkees doing "Last Train to
Clarksville" or something like that. But then, I
couldn't remember the title, and I did "I'm a Believer."
I'm not full of malice, but I do dislike Neil Diamond
a lot, and I'm sorry that I've done a Neil Diamond song.
If I lived my life over again, I would leave them to the
But I've always liked pop music. There was a bit of a
misunderstanding with the avant-garde rock scene, because
I think I was sort of swimming the wrong way, really.
A lot of the rock thing came out of people who'd started
out doing covers of versions of the English scene and
the American scene, the Beatles and Dylan and so on, and
then got more and more involved in instrumental virtuosity
and esoteric ideas. I was really going the other way.
I was brought up with esoteric ideas and modern European
music and Stockhausen, Webern, avant-garde poets, and
all the kind of avant-garde thing in the '50s, before
pop music--the beat poets, the avant-garde painters at
the time, and so on. To me, the amazing thing was to discover
the absolute beauty of Ray Charles singing a country and
western song or something like that. So my actual journey
of discovery was I discovered the beauty of simple, popular
music. And it was much more elusive, really, than people
who put it down realize. Anybody who thinks pop music's
easy should try to make a pop single and find out that
So that always interested me very much. I have a fantastic
admiration for really good pop musicians, just straight
commercial pop musicians with no hip associations of rock
at all. I'm quite happy with that.
Your material encompasses concerns which are pretty personal,
and also social/political. Is there a preference there,
or do you just cover all of them?
R.W. : It comes out like
that. In fact, they're all the former. Everything I do
is totally personal. I don't really have a lot of control
over what I write when I'm writing it. I think it's a
misunderstanding. I think artists can be overestimated
in the amount of control they have over what you do. You
sort of do something, and what you do, what you are, comes
out. I wouldn't write about anything because I thought,
gosh, I ought to write about this, or I ought to write
about that. Those times when it comes out as politics
for example, or whatever, it's because that's really something
buzzing in my gut at that time. And it's just as strong
and personal, as emotional, as being in love or anything
else. They're not arguable things.
I'm open to the criticism of that, which is, you know,
love is blind. My politics has been too. I think you can
fall in love with ideas, and you can fall in love with
people. It's a very subjective experience. And I'm loyal
to that experience.
R.U. : There have been
very few people who started in the underground rock scene
in the '60s who have spanned the eras from psychedelia
to progressive rock to punk and post-punk, and are still
very active in the 1990s. How have you been able to fit
in with all the various movements? And, why do you think
there have been so few musicians from 20, 30 years ago
who've maintained that sort of level of participation?
R.W. : In my case, what keeps
me going is a constant sense of disappointment with what
I've already done (laughs). One of the things that might
be a problem would be, if you were really happy about
something you'd done--you'd really thought you'd done
it at a certain time in your life. It may be, for people
who really got on top of what they were trying to do,
and articulated it well in a certain era, then they're
just trying to cling onto that, and make it harder and
harder, and more and more difficult. But if you've never
ever felt that you quite got a hold of it, you just feel
that before you die, you've got to try and get it right
once (laughs). And hope that the experience you have makes
up for the some of the diminishing energy.
The corollary of that is, maybe people really feel they
had their moment, and it can happen. I don't think they're
any the worse for that. Going back to pop music, as far
as I know, Sam the Sham & the Pharoahs only ever did
"Wooly Bully." But, you know, how wonderful
that they just did that! (laughs) And if they went on
to become used car salesmen after that, that's fine. They
had their one moment, and I think that's fine.
There are some people I know who soldier on. Because I've
never really been in the commercial world, it's a funny.
Because although I say, I like pop music and I love rock
and roll, I've never been in the commercial world, never
swam in the business end of it, really. I think that pop,
and to some extent rock, are like sport and fashion industry
in that they're about the exuberance of youth. That's
the sort of subliminal ideology, really. Whereas the things
that I draw on, and the world that I feel part of, aren't
particularly youth culture.
My heroes are--not people that I hope to emulate--people
like Picasso and Miro and people who at last really reach
something in their old age, which they absolutely couldn't
ever have done in their youth. I feel I'm more like in one
of those kind of art forms, than in a youth-orientated art
form. I think the people who did well, or are happy, in
a youth industry, where their youthfulness was part of the
act, obviously, by definition, they define themselves out
of the business after a decade or so.
I don't feel that I'm very adaptable, that I particularly
go with the flow of new ideas or something. I just don't
feel I've mined my own scene properly and fully yet. It
doesn't really matter what era I'm in. Because I haven't
ever really felt quite =in= an era, I don't feel out of
one. There was a certain amount of resentment, for example,
in the early '80s of the new kids on the block at that
time, the punks and so on. But since I hadn't acquired
any particular loyalty to the previous generation, to
my own generation even, I had no paranoia about anybody
else's. I had no what you might call era patriotism--"that's
my era, right or wrong" kind of thing. I've never
been any kind of patriot, including not a cultural patriot.
So I have no problem with new immigrants bringing new
ideas. I'm happy about that.
R.U. : You've collaborated
with a really wide assortment of musicians. Are there certain
kinds of collaborations that you seek out?
R.W. : Absolutely not, actually. To be honest, nearly everything
I've been on, I've been asked to be on. And I'm quite
surprised at them. I mean, they do surprise me on the
whole. I would say that the ones that have perhaps meant
most to me have been the most recent ones, Mike Mantler.
And things I've done with him before. But no, I wouldn't
have dreamt of asking these people. I don't ask people.
When I'm recording, I'm very shy of asking people, in
case they don't want to do it, or in case they don't get
the idea that I had in my head, and I'm too embarrassed
to not use it. Also, it's expensive. If you're going to
use other people, you have to pay them. People don't (get
paid), a lot of the time...
Things I do myself, I often imagine friends on things,
and there are people I would like to work with. It's a
bit harder, because I live out in the sticks anyway, and
plus being in a wheelchair means that I can't really circulate.
So I tend to stick to my own thing. I'm not, by nature,
a collaborator. I think, there again, going back to the
fact that my biggest influences were people like painters
and poets. These are solitary workers. It's been very
good for me to have been asked on various things, but
in the end it surprises me. I just try and do the things
that people ask me to do. It's nice, in a way. I don't
have the responsibility for the final thing. I'm quite
limited in what I can do, so sometimes I just have to
say no, not because I don't like it, but because I just
don't think I can do justice to the idea of the song.
But on the whole, that's rather misleading, this thing
about all the people I work with. Although it's a fact,
it's not a career decision on my part at all.
R.U. : You seem pretty comfortable
working in a variety of styles, whether rock, pop, jazz,
R.W. : In the end, there are notes and intervals and chords
and rhythms. Some I like, some I don't. But they are actually
very often, in all these different kinds of musics, all
these musicians from different styles are actually picking
and choosing from the same tiny little bunch of notes,
and the same little bunches of possible rhythms, and so
on. Underneath the kind of superficial differences of
style, the kind of music's haircut, if you like, or the
current clothes the music is wearing, when you're actually
working on a piece of music with at least one good idea
in it, that good idea is not really fixed or tied to a
style or an idiom. It's a good idea. There's no field
of music which doesn't have good ideas. So anybody who
has a good idea and I can deal with it suits me fine.
R.U. : With the music that
you're making now, are there any directions that you're
eager to stake out?
R.W. : No, I'm still trying to do the same thing, only get
it right! (laughs) The appearance of variety is a complete
illusion. It's like somebody who's got a dartboard in
his room, a large dartboard, and there's darts all over
it. And you think, wow, you've got a lot of different
directions you throw your darts. And you say, well yeah,
but all I was trying to do was hit the board. That's all
I've ever tried to do.
But I don't find the business easy. The moment you start
talking about the business, you start sounding like someone
in Spinal Tap. But the fact is, I have a great difficulty
in communicating with the record business. There are some
very honorable and nice record people. In fact, the people
who distribute my stuff in the States through Gramavision
(Rykodisc), they're very nice people. But on the whole,
I've found that there's always that problem that I had
with Virgin. I've never seen the need for this great split
between success and failure that the pop industry is like.
A bit like Hollywood--something's either a smash or it's
a complete failure. The world of culture in my head that
I come from isn't anything to do with that. It's to do
with just people pegging away for a lifetime at their
I mean, if you go to a shop down the road and buy something
from the shop, it doesn't have to be the most successful
shop in the universe. As long as he makes enough money
selling his stuff that he can eat too, he's happy. And
I'm like that with my music. I don't want to have to do
the things you have to do. I don't want to live the life.
It just doesn't mean anything to me, very much, the high-profile,
big money side of things. I just want enough to live on,
and to be able to get on with what I do, and hang around
my friends. This constant pressure from record companies
to come up with a hit single or something like that, I
find completely tiresome. I just find that there's no
understanding, really, of what the industry is.
And I find the same problem in the studio, even with
engineers who don't like scruffy noises. They like to
clean it up and get everything sounding really pristine
clear because this is going to go in their CV, and they
don't want another engineer to hear them on a record which
doesn't sound all clean and tidy. And my music isn't clean
and tidy. That's always been a difficult to me--just not
being in tune with the industry.
If I say I'm disappointed in what I've done--and I can
think of more wrong with it than right with it--maybe
the good side of that is, it sort of keeps me hungry,
you might say. It gives me a motive. People say, oh it's
a shame, you're not nostalgic about the '60s. Well actually,
it's quite good, when you think of it. Wouldn't it be
sad if I was sitting here wishing it back? And I don't.
So at least you can turn those things around. It's quite
healthy, I think.
R.U. : I wanted to ask a
question about someone else in the book who I won't be able
to interview. You drummed on some of Syd Barrett's solo
R.W. : I didn't see them (the Pink Floyd) perform very much.
I liked him. He was shy, he was thoughtful, and he was
definitely onto something.
R.U. : Did you find him difficult to work with?
R.W. : Absolutely not, no. Very easy. Almost too easy. He
was very, very easygoing. So easygoing that you didn't
necessarily know what he wanted, or whether he was pleased
with it or not, because he seemed quite pleased with what
you did. I think possibly he may have suffered as well
from moving into the world of commercial culture, as they
did. I think it might have been very confusing for him.
Being an artist, working in an attic, to us--this may
be a silly illusion, it's just a silly romantic dream,
just like being a pop star. But I don't his romantic dreams
were anything to do with the responsibilities of commercial
It's not a snobbishness, this thing about commercial
stuff. It's just the fact that it seems to have a momentum
all its own, and there seems to be demands made on it.
You know how it is with, for example, Hollywood films--they're
really accountant-led. Being big and famous doesn't get
you more freedom, it gets you less, you know what I mean?
It happens in the music itself as well. All the machinery
that starts to come into gear, from management and touring
and the whole way it's done, the musician becomes a fairly
small cog in a machine where all these sort of semi-comatose
people in the industry certainly come alive, and they
certainly know how to act. And suddenly, your whole life
is being run by lawyers and accountants. And you're meant
to be very pleased, because you've made it and so on.
But in fact, you're just getting carried along in a flow
where your own personal thing can get completely lost.
As I say, it's not a question of snobbery. Some wonderful
stuff comes out of that. But if you did have your own
little thing, maybe it can't survive being put through
that kind of process. I have no idea, but I imagine that
could easily have been what happened to Syd. That the
actual success of the band just completely threw him off-balance,
I can imagine.
R.U. : Is there truth to
the stories that the musicians on his solo albums weren't
told what key the song was in, or that they just had to
settle on whatever takes were completed?
R.W. : That's true, but I mean, that's not very...I was brought
up, musically, in the '50s. If you want eccentricity,
and that kind of non-verbal world and those kind of weird
signals that you have to pick up, you can't beat jazz
musicians, you know (laughs). I'm just reading the stories,
as I say, about working with Mingus and all those people.
Working with Syd Barrett's a piece of cake, I think. I
found him courteous and friendly. I can't think of anything
wrong with him. I really liked his songs. I liked them
musically, I liked them lyrically, and I liked the way
he sang them. I can't fault him, really. I don't think
he did anything wrong that I know of. I just think that
not everybody fits into the business. I know from personal
experience, it's not that easy.
The one that I actually got on best with--he was very
very kind and generous to me, and good company--was the
bass player, Roger. I know they all fell out later. But
I liked him and the others so much. I was very sorry that
they fell apart. I know how all these things happen. But
I really liked them, not just Syd, but all of them. Roger
was very important, I thought, his contribution. And so
was Rick's organ playing. It was a good band, and then
it became another kind of good band. It became something
else completely, obviously. Gilmour, as far as I can see--I
don't know much about guitarists, really, I haven't worked
much with them--but he seems like as good as a rock guitarist
can be in that field. But he's very much a man of the
world, you know. He's very at home in the world of power
and money and so on, and he can deal with it. That had
to happen. Syd Barrett fans shouldn't resent him, I don't
think. I don't see how anything else could have happened.
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