An Audience with... Robert Wyatt - Uncut N° 242 - March 2009
obert Wyatt is sitting in the front room of his townhouse in Louth, Lincolnshire. He's slightly exhausted after having some of his grandchildren over for Christmas. 'What kind of granddad am I?' he ponders. 'Well, I can be jumped on and forced to do anything. I just sort of sit there and I hope to accumulate gravitas by not showing resistance.'
But the 64-year-old is certainly not entering his dotage; instead he's enjoying what he describes as 'an Indian summer of work'. In the past 18 months he's collaborated with Billy Bragg, Hot Chip, Mike Skinner, David Gilmour, French pop god Bertrand Burgalat, Brazilian singer Monica Vasconcelos, German electronica maverick Barbara Morgenstern, David Byrne/Brian Eno and his old Soft Machine sidekick Kevin Ayers (the last two virtual collaborations in cyberspace). Oh, he's also released the acclaimed Comicopera, and found time to oversee the re-release of almost his entire back-catalogue on Domino.
"Still, it all feels so silly being an artist when the Israeli army are sending tanks into Gaza," he says, in a rare moment of glumness. "It seems such a whimsical occupation. What did you do in the war, daddy? Oh, I expressed my deep melancholy. Yeah, right. Fuck off!"
You always seem to have a cigarette on the go. How has it affected your voice? Garry, Manchester
Oh yeah, they've probably knocked out about half an octave from my top range. But I'm quite happy now singing at the lower end. It's nice down there. The weird thing is that, although people say I've got a high voice, it's never actually been that high-pitched. Technically, I'm a baritone [starts playing a middle C on the piano and sings along]. I can get to about a fifth above middle C. But it's a light voice. It's a bit like Gerry Mulligan, he plays the baritone sax so lightly that you don't notice how deep the notes are. Same with Lester Young on the tenor- people think he's playing alto. It's very deceptive.
You were at the launch of Red Wedge in 1985, which surprised a lot of people. Why?
I thought the people involved were really nice. Billy Bragg, Paul Weller, Jerry Dammers, Jimmy Sommerville - I like them all very much and I wanted to express solidarity with them. Billy is a practical person. He deals with what can be done in the real world with the real House of Lords, and so on.
Politically, I'm somewhere else, in some strange dreamland. But, occasionally, I live in the real world, too, and I also want to make things better. My involvement was counterproductive, of course. I think it was The Sun who discredited Red Wedge, saying, "It pretends to be a reasonable: democratic organisation, but it's supported by that communist Robert Wyatt..." So, sorry lads! I'll get back to Twickenham and twiddle my knobs...
When was the last time music made you cry?
The tenor sax solo on "Stolen Moments" by Oliver Nelson had me hot behind the eyes when I heard it the other day. It's such an angelic and singing thing. Actually, Bertrand's music gets me a bit teary sometimes. He contacted Alfie to write some lyrics for him, which was great. Then I ended up singing on one of his tracks. Bertrand is a real one-off. It's not an English phenomenon, the Serge Gainsbourg-style writer, producer, auteur, but he's brilliant at it.
What's your favourite Dionne Warwick song?
People will be surprised that Evan, a great, avant-garde saxophonist, is also a big Dionne Warwick fan, someone who filled in some of the gaps in my Bacharach collection. But the thing about musicians is that they're not corralled into ideological ghettos the way their fans are. "You'll Never Get To Heaven (If You Break My Heart)" comes to mind [starts singing the entire chorus}. It's an absolute knockout, a real bossa nova thing, but with wonderful harmonies. There aren't many song writers who match up to the great days of Cole Porter and Gershwin and so on, but Bacharach does.
There was a rumour that you were working with Mike Skinner - is that happening?
Jamaal, New York
We did record some stuff, but I don't think it was finished in time to go on his album. He came up to Lincolnshire, just him and his box of tricks. We went into the studio where I recorded Dondestan and other things, and sang on a track he'd written, which was really good I met him when we were both shortlisted for the Mercurys - along with Franz Ferdinand, Amy Winehouse, that nice English blues singer Joss Stone and The Croutons, or whatever they're called. They're all very good, but I thought he should win, as he'd already reached a mature, innovative musical identity. Even the way he speaks on record betrays a wonderful sense of musicality.
What was your tipple of choice when you were a drinker?
Towards the end of my drinking career, I'd moved on from vodka and whisky. I think, stuck on my own, with nothing to live for, my desert island barrel would be very, very good whisky. But, about a year-and-a-half ago, I was advised to go to AA meetings, which I did. In terms of ticking the boxes, I'd definitely become an alcoholic, which means that when you start drinking you can't stop. I went for months and months of meetings, and I've completely stopped now. I do miss it, but I also apologise profusely if I have behaved appallingly to anyone over the last 50 years when I was drunk.
What do you love about Winnie
I maintain that the greatest crime committed by America - with the possible exception of the carpet-bombing of Laos - was the Disneyfication of Winnie The Pooh. But the characters in those original books are wonderful. I relate to Pooh, the way you can almost hear his brain struggling, the pleasure he gets from articulating such simple thoughts. Then there's Eeyore, who is such a splendidly depressive figure, the kind of person Hollywood would never create. Most of all, I like the sly dig at people who profess to be wise in the form of Owl, or "Wol", as he spells it. I think that anybody, whenever they look at a silly judge or priest or mullah or rabbi or politician, or any stupid bearded git who gives himself gravitas - including myself! - should remember that there's a bit of Wol there.
British rock'n'roll drummers - Charlie Watts, Keith Moon, Mitch Mitchell, Ginger Baker, yourself - were always frustrated jazz drummers. Discuss.
Well, I'm not sure. I don't think they need or should go together. I think that rock musicians tend to make clunky and old-fashioned jazz drummers, and jazz drummers tend to make rather effete and precious rock drummers. I don't think they're that good at each other's jobs, on the whole. Ringo Starr was happy doing whatever he was happy doing, and was all the better for it. However, Ginger Baker was a jazz drummer who crossed over: I saw him play with the Graham Bond Organisation, featuring Dick Heckstall-Smith, and it was an absolutely phenomenal band. Same with Mitch Mitchell: I'm a bit biased because we were quite close friends, but he sailed perfectly from playing in Georgie Fame-style jazz bands to heavy rock with Hendrix. But with, say, John Bonham and Alan White - I don't hear much jazz in either of them but, gosh, you don't get too many better rock drummers than either of them.
What was Ivor Cutler like?
Karen, Tooting, London
I'd known him for some time - we'd often get solo artists to support us at Soft Machine gigs, so it would be Loudon Wainwright or John Williams or Ivor. We became great friends. He used to visit us, almost weekly, when we lived in Twickenham, as he used to visit Kew Gardens with his mate, Phyllis, and they used to stop off at our place for sandwiches and cups of tea and listen to Bulgarian folk music, then off they'd go. He was wonderful company, funny, clever, very entertaining. He did me a big favour by singing on Rock Bottom, as he never usually sings other people's words. The song he sang required a kind of Scots Jamaican accent, which only he could do. He was very polite about it. He only left out one syllable.
How do you feel about inspiring the concept of "Wyatting" - where pranksters hijack
pub jukeboxes and play "difficult" records to baffled patrons?
Richard, Crosby, Merseyside
I wouldn't do it. I've never tried to get myself heard where I'm not wanted. I just make records for the kind of people who like the kind of records I make. It's as simple as that. I've never had any need to reach beyond that or to make people listen to me or to expand my audience. There's plenty of music for everybody. If I was in a pub I'd put on a Girls Aloud record, or whatever anyone else wanted to hear. The last time I put stuff on a jukebox. I put on some Ray Charles. I wouldn't have thought that was offensive to anybody!