Mole in a hole - Melody Maker - April 29, 1972
Robert Wyatt talks to Richard Williams
On a clear day, you can see the South Downs. Robert Wyatt looks out of the 21st floor window, down at the traffic speeding along Westway, and right over London to the chalky hills beyond.
At the moment, all he an actually see is trouble. Which is ridiculous, I'm sure you'll agree, for a man acclaimed as one of rock's most intelligent drummers and most inventive vocalists, with a solid background in one of our most respected bands.
But his child, Matching Mole, is up to the neck in it. A little earlier, he and his manager were forced to cancel two gigs, in Plymouth, and Penzance, for the craziest of reasons.
“My manager rang me up,” he says, “and told me that it would cost us £180 to do the gigs. And we were only going to be paid £160 for them. So we couldn't afford it, and we've had to cancel.”
He admits that it goes against his personal motto — “When in doubt, play” – but there it is, and he's sorry for the people who genuinely wanted to hear the Mole.
The band was formed last year, after a period of emotional turmoil for the small, flaxen-haired drummer. “I wanted to use the kind of electronic, sounds you hear in rock and roll, but for improvising. I suppose it doesn't sound like a very extensive philosophical dream. But I was happiest in the Soft Machine when it was an all-electric trio, first with Kevin and then with Hugh and after that it wasn't quite my dream band any more.”
So he put together guitarist Phil Miller from Delivery, organist Dave Sinclair from Caravan, and bass guitarist Bill MacCormick from Quiet Sun. Since then despite an outward appearance of calm and certainty, it's been mostly trouble — at least on the business level.
To begin with. they were severely undercapitalised, unable to buy the equipment they wanted. They're in trouble now, for instance, because the Soft Machine have gone off to Italy for six weeks with most of the gear that the Mole was using.
Their equipment was either inadequate, unreliable, or late being delivered, and that's why they had a string of bad gigs at the beginning. Robert stopped singing for a while, even, because neither he nor the band could hear what he was doing.
They've never had their own van, which makes it harder, because hiring stuff is more expensive than owning it, and that's why they had to blow out those two West Country gigs. While I was there, Robert and Bill were discussing the possibility of buying a van which their manager had heard was for sale, for £50. It's not all limousines and expensive dope in the rock and roll world.
Their album, which has just come out, was a chapter of near-disasters. They were told to record it at CBS's old studios (unlike the Softs, who can pick their own independent studio), and little went right. They had to junk a lot of the stuff when it was discovered that two of the 16 tracks weren't working, and Bill reckons that the equipment as a, whole was functioning properly on only three of their 16 sessions. The tape machines, for instance, were found to be revolving at varying speeds, which isn't exactly a help. They went to CBS to master it, and the machine broke down, so the company did it while the band was in Holland, and cut it with too much bass. That had to be rectified, and the record was weeks late coming out.
Other problems: someone nicked the Softs' mixer while it was In the Mole's care, and it cost them £180 to replace. Bill then had to spend £190 on a new Fender, after another light-fingered gent had lifted his instrument. They're so low on equipment, that two of the special amps they bought for the monitor are being used to amplify the PA.
On the credit side, there's been the tour with John Mayall, which has got better and better for them. A few weeks ago, Sinclair left the band and was replaced by 'New Zealander Dave MacRae, from Nucleus.
“Dave Sinclair left: because the band wasn't playing as many songs as we'd originally intended, and he's a songs man really. He likes to know whether a piece has got a four-bar intro or an eight-bar intro, and not just a ‘sort of intro.’”
“Actually, his departure reflects me finding a balance. Late last summer, I felt a very strong need to do songs — but maybe I was over-reacting, I tried to get Dave Sinclair to freak out a trifle, and he does it beautifully, but he feels uncomfortable while he's doing it because he likes to know what note the bass is going to do next.
“I'd been very impressed by Dave MacRae, even when he was tuning up, because he's one of those musicians who can play anything and make it sound beautiful. I thought it was amazing that such a great musician wasn't unavailably committed to some exclusive project.
“He's my very favourite keyboard player now, and I think we all feel that — one of the great musicians. Every band should have Dave MacRae in it!”
The present situation gives Robert a severe sense of deja-vu, because it's obvious that the only way they're going to make it is by working heavily on the Continent — just as the Soft Machine did, in the late Sixties.
“We've thought of buying a house there, and just corning over for gigs. But don't like it, because I'm a Londoner really, and I want to live here.
“It's worse than it was in the early days of the Softs, because then we could live with my Mum and practice in the front room, with no panic about rent or food.
“The Continent could be our salvation, because there's a general all-round interest in new music as soon as you cross the Channel. We've got three gigs in France in May with Mayall, for which we're getting 4,500 dollars. Here, we've been going out for £65. Of course, if the bands I've been in had relied on Britain, I'd never have made a living out of music. It's not the same situation, but it's freakily reminiscent.
“Musicians tend to get a bit poncey, expecting the world to fall at their feet more than other people, but this isn't like that.”
Musically, though, the band is going from strength to strength, with vast improvements weekly over the music represented on the album.
“Because of the Soft Machine, people expected polished results — from the shifty studios and broken-down equipment that we were using. But the second Festival Hall gig with Mayall was definitely a turning-point— it pulled things together.
The most exciting thing recently is that Dave MacRae's tentatively pushed a couple of his tunes in front of us, and they're just ecstatic to play. You can't wait for the next note to come along.
“Phil and Bill are also writing. Bill's first composition is very clever — it's too hard to play. So he's trying something slower.”
There are just nine gigs in the book. “We'd like people to come and hear us, while we're still around.”