The Sounds Talk-In - Sounds - April 17, 1971
LAST YEAR, Robert Wyatt was doing a lot of gigs with various bands outside the Soft Machine, and at one point there was even talk of him leaving them altogether. Now he says that he is happier than ever with the Softs, and in this interview he talks about the group now, the way they evolved, and his hopes for the future.
FEATURE BY STEVE PEACOCK
PHOTOGRAPHER : SPUD MURPHY
As far as a lot of people are concerned, the Soft Machine is a comparatively recent thing, but it's grown out of long friendships, hasn't it? You were at school together in Canterbury and things.
Brian Hopper, Hugh's big brother and Mike (Ratledge) were at primary school together, and by the time I knew them they were doing adaptations of various European pieces - Mike on piano and Brian on clarinet. Then at Simon Lankton school in Canterbury I met Hugh, and at that time I was very interested in Ellington, things like that. Hugh and I used to do violin lessons together, but we didn't all know each other that well at that time. Mike, as far as I know, didn't develop his interest in jazz at that stage. He was very into European music of all ages - Medieval French music up to the latest developments, Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, that sort of thing, which I didn't know very much about except from my Dad. He was very much into his idea of modern European music which wasn't in fact very modern, 1920s things really.
Towards the end of school life Mike and I would lend each other records sometimes, and he got interested in jazz - he started to show an interest in Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy and so on. Then I went away for a while with Daevid Allen who freaked me out completely. He and my big brother Marc really
got me into Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman, and they also got me into Terry Riley. He's a friend of David's and we did some little things with him in Paris.
David first turned me on, you know all that stuff – sort of – birth period of your adolescence. Then Hugh came out and started to play bass guitar tentatively doing Ray Charles bass lines, and also trying to learn a few Charlie Haden bass lines off Ornette Coleman records. We used to do a lot of freaky instrumental things as a trio, and then we drifted back to Canterbury and formed what was supposed to be a dance group to work in the local area, but already we were doing some of Hugh's original compositions and stuff by Mose Allison, Nina Simone, and Otis Redding who at that time wasn't particularly popular.
This was the Wild Flowers ?
Right. We didn't get much work — we were about the most unsuccessful group you could imagine. At dances people would just stare at us blankly after about ten minutes.
Kevin Ayers joined you soon after that didn't he ?
Kevin really was very important because, apart from listening to Ray Charles and realising that he was excellent although he wasn't in any sense avant garde, the person who really brought it home to me that songs and simple things were totally all right was Kevin. It never really occurred to me before that anything of majority appeal would ever have any interest for me at all — I'm a snob in every way; I'm a cultural snob, if I had the brains I'd be an intellectual snob, and at that time I was hoping to be a musical snob as well. Kevin would write songs, and at first they'd remind you of something, but after you'd heard it two or three times you couldn't imagine the song not having been written, they were such real songs.
I really had to think again about music then, about simple things that you recognise and know because I'd based my whole thing on music than on the element of surprise, and the idea of something not being surprising and still being totally beautiful was new to me. I realise in retrospect that I went through my own little mini pop revolution, just like everybody else did, but then I always had this great problem of combining this realisation with having always believed in totally freaking out, both with your music and in your lifestyle.
All the kind of rock things and pop things were the last things to occur to me really. When we formed the group with Kevin it was very summery I remember, and we were all growing our hair and walking round looking like girls, and Kevin was wearing make-up, and we'd just all lie around in the grass — just like everybody did in the mid sixties. It was a beautiful thing and we were part of it. Somehow, when we were sitting out in the sunny grass, there didn't
seem any point in freaking out, but as we got a group together with Kevin and David my background started catching up with me again, and I felt the need for some really tough musical minds to be working against. It got to the point where we made probably the most important decision of the lot, which was eventually to wreck the first Soft Machine and arrive at the one we've got now, by inviting Mike to join us on keyboards.
For a while, Mike would sort of politely "shift around on the chords behind Kevin, and we never quite knew how he felt about it. He enjoyed some things and not others, but he never really wanted to be a pop musician, I think he was a bit embarrassed by the whole thing. But I've always been in this position, where there's been a constant pull between my background and sort of simple harmony fun. That kind of paradox is the thread that runs through every situation I've been in I suppose.
When Kevin left, was it purely that Mike's influence was becoming more dominant ?
I don't think you can confine it to that because it's too narrow a thing to say that Kevin was into or what Mike was into. The thing you've got to remember with Mike was that he wasn't narrow-minded at all. For all his reservations, he did give up several years of his life at that stage to work with people who were by his original standards musically illiterate. He wasn't narrow minded at all, far from it, and he loved Kevin's bass playing — quite rightly, because Kevin is such an imaginative, interesting bass player. In the same way, to say that Kevin is just into simple songs is wrong, because he constantly surrounds himself with much more demanding situations than your average folkie singer.
He was very much part of what was unusual about the Soft Machine in those early days, and was really responsible for some of the freakiest situations we got into. In fact he was one of the first in the group to get into out-of-tempo passages with just sound — that was Kevin not me or Mike, who first got into those incredible noises. I mean I tend to give people two-sentence roles in the past, but you've got to bear in mind that they're incredible over simplifications.
You were doing a lot of singing with the first group weren't you ?
In the early days of Soft Machine I had to do the drumming, because we didn't know any other drummers really — we wouldn't have dared to ask any jazz drummers, and rock drummers at that time weren't that sensitive, so I had to do it myself, and Kevin and I did the vocals between us. It was basically a song group.
And that influence lasted until the second album…
Well fact it is always there in my opinion. It may be kind of more obscure, but I really like the Soft Machine at the moment, and for all the superficial effect it might have on the casual listener, it is very lyrical. I think both Mike's and Hugh's writing is not only lyrical but almost old-fashionedly lyrical. I certainly couldn't work with a group that I didn't think was lyrical. It's tunes that I think matter.
But not necessarily sung tunes.
Well, if you've developed the faculty for listening to say Charlie Parker, you've learned to hear quite quickly intervals and rhythms and things - you can ge’ into that whole condensed lyricism. Parker and Monk and people are just as lyrical and soulful as anybody before,
but they can say in ten seconds what people stretch out to a great loping thing of ten minutes. But if you're not really into picking up the things they're playing, then it's just a blur of notes.
Of course a lot of people who play fast haven't got the melodic inventiveness to keep up with their own speed, and they are the ones who are boring, but people like Charlie Parker retained all of that melodic lyricism at the incredible speed he played at, and it's the same at the moment with people like Gary Burton and Larry Coryell. I find that very ex-citing. So I'd say that the song thing hasn't left us, but it is harder to pick up on if you're used to the comparative ease of listening to rock music.
You've said in the past though that you are a singer rather than a drummer. Do you still feel that way ?
In a way. If I just knew how to do it so that I was in a situation where I was singing more, and was more involved with a traditional concept of lyricism I would do it, but meanwhile I don't consider the time wasted at all, because you learn so much with Soft Machine. It's a very demanding band and a very neurotic band - every other day I want to leave or someone gets p—ed off with someone else - but its because ,we put such incredible demands on each other. But considering that I'm not quite doing what fits my fantasies, I think I'm in the best possible group to be confused in. If I've got to be lost somewhere I'm very glad it's in the Soft Machine because offhand I can't think of any musicians around that I respect more than Hugh and Mike and Elton (Dean).
Last year, there was a time when you were going outside the Soft Machine for various things. There was the time when you were going to go with Kevin, and there was Symbiosis, and various other things. Are you not doing much of that any more?
It was quite a practical thing. At that time we'd spent a long time on the road, and Mike and Hugh wanted to take some time off to do some writing, and I didn't fancy doing any writing - I was getting a bit, ted up with the pre-planned stuff and I wanted to see, how much could be done just spontaneously again. That's what "End Of And Ear" is all about really - it's really an exercise in total spontaneity, and that whole time was really - Symbiosis, everything - but it wasn't meant to be my whole life. It was really to see what could come out of that, that wasn't coming out with the Soft Machine.
Did anything come out ?
Yes, but not really what I'd expected. What it mainly brought out was a lot of drumming things - paradoxically it gave me more, confidence as a drummer, than anything, whereas I've always been rather embarrassed about being a drummer in the first place because my main interest has always been beautiful chord sequences. I've learnt a certain pride in drumming now and I enjoy doing it.
You feel that you've learnt as much as you're going to from those thing now then ?
I don't know. It's just that Soft Machine's got lots of gigs now, and I think it's a better band than it was. It's not any more the three or us plus Elton, it really is much more of a quartet now. Mike and Elton in fact have found a way of working together that's stretched Mike out enormously, made him a much freer player. That time last year was just an interlude really. Symbiosis are still going incidentally, with Louis Moholo on drums.
You haven't done much writing recently then? Because you had a whole side of "Third", but nothing on the fourth album.
In a sense you could say that “End Of And Ear" and "Fourth" were a double album, one side of which was released before the other. In other words I got the contribution I would have made to this album done separately. It meant that I could stretch out, and Hugh could stretch out on "Virtually", which he definitely wanted to do, but probably wouldn't have felt justified in doing if I'd saved something of mine for the fourth album.
If I'm going to lead into anything else it's going to be more situations of singing, but it doesn't mean that I'm necessarily going to compose. Composing doesn't come naturally to me, though thinking up tunes does, because I haven't really got the skill to pin down what I think of. Melodically, I'm more impressed by other people's tunes anyway, and I'd like to work on some of Kevin's stuff, and on different versions of stuff that Hugh and Mike have written that could be interpreted differently from the way the Soft Machine interpret them. Not better, but just like throw another light on things that I feel are lyrical, but where the lyricism can get clouded over in the Soft Machine.
Essentially, potentially I suppose I'm a sort of arranger really — not like writing out arrangements, but going into a studio and working on tunes. Like that Gil Evans on "End Of An Ear" - I'm totally intoxicated by the idea of the original but I just felt that all kinds of things could be done with it that Gil Evans either didn't want to do, or couldn't have, or whatever. But I'm a bit confused as to how to go about it.
Would you want to do it like "End Of And Ear", or perhaps work as an arranger with a group of people?
I really don't know, I think I'll try all kinds of different things. First of all I'll see whether there are any other things that I could do within the context of the Soft Machine that I'm not doing now — like instead of just being the drummer, actually contributing conceptually — but it would have to be something that is acceptable to the others. Anything that doesn't seem to fit in with the Soft Machine… well I'd like to make lots and lots of records, I'd like to make a record a month but that would be financially impossible, so any little opportunities that come along I'll take. I mean, when John Walters gives us a ring and we can have ten minutes on "Top Gear", it gives me a chance to get a little song going - it needn't be for posterity or anything.
Can you see any particular way that the Soft Machine is going to develop?
I'd like to think that at the moment we're going to grow more and more together — accepting each others' differences and each others' similarities more. I'm much more confident about the group now than I have been at any other time. I'm more happy to be getting up on stage with the other three in pleasurable anticipation, though I still freak out sometimes after a bad gig. Obviously all of us have reservations about each other to a certain extent, but I think now the good qualities of the group outweigh the deficiencies. I'll just see what happens really - I don't want to get down to little details too much at the moment.
The Soft Machine are one of the very few groups playing your kind of music who have become successful in terms of commercial success, and "name" and publicity. How do you feel about the way you are handled by record companies and promoters and publicists ?
Well, God bless them all, but all of us want to be disassociated with some of the recent imagery associated with the group - to wit the poster for our Festival Hall concert and the record cover for "Fourth". I mean we made it quite clear to the__ people concerned that we didn't like either thing but our attitude was ignored. Luckily I think that most people who like the group like us for our music and don't worry about imagery, but to the extent that things like posters and LP covers give some extra information about the group and how they feel, I'd just like to say that that poster and that LP cover are not how we feel, on any level.
That cover photograph came out making us look like some solemn, ugly, broody pop group. It doesn't matter really, but that's the thinq that's representing you, for people to look at in their rooms for the next six months, and it's not exactly the kind of thing that is going to intrigue or interest our potential listeners. I don't know if the people who were getting that poster together realise it, but we've got an alto player in the group who has a head and a face - he's not that ugly, you know, we’re quite happy to have him on the poster as
You suffered a lot over that "pop at the prom" thing too, didn’t you. There was some very strange publicity going around at the time.
Well, I think that was really rather good, because it was a failed effort to make us respectable, and had it succeeded I think it could have done a lot more damage, I don't really have any interest in pleasing the Observer or the Sunday Times - I have no respect for those sort of papers, and I don't really want to be associated with that sort of thing. It kept the barriers up and to that extent, I think it was a very successful concert.