The unedited transcript of Biba Kopf's interview with Robert Wyatt. A feature based on this interview appeared in issue #163 of The Wire
BK: You have just released Shleep, your first album for six years. Why has it taken so long?
RW: It might look as if. . . the last record I made under me own name was while there was no elected prime minister, and John Major was there by default as it were, I quickly made a record. When he actually got voted in, I was so depressed at the thought that another generation of English people were going to vote for a Conservative government that I went on strike for five years and now he's gone I have made another record. That's what I would like to say, but probably that's a load of old bollocks. I think, I just had a hard time collecting my thoughts throughout the 90s. They seemed to just dissipate. But I have to earn a living, so I just collected together scraps of tunes and words, with a lot of help from other people, other people's tunes, Alfie's words, and I found to my surprise that I had enough material for a record. And we remembered that Phil Manzanera said years ago to come down and try out his studio any time I liked. I gave him a ring, went down and did them.
RW: Some of my things are just sort of jokes, like, 'my wife is fat and thin', I mean, that was a kind of mood, that was the kind of feeling I was getting when I was recording, I was getting merrier and merrier instead of downer and downer ,and the merrier I get, the kind of sillier, more infantile, lightweight and childish I get, and the more I like silly games, and it is only when things are really going wrong that I dig deeper to find out what the problem is. And because the tunes are written over quite a few years, it is probably a bit more varied because of that. It wasn't written in one state of mind.
ENO IN THE STUDIO
RW: No, but when Brian came in, we did some stuff together, because he sort of turned it upside down, that particular tune, "Heaps Of Sheeps", and reworked it, and we did a bit of singing together on that, because we haven't done our girlie chorus act since Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy. It was great. The people who came in, they really livened me up, because when you are on your own, and not in a group, not on the road, you can get a bit. . . abstract, you can lose your grip on that visceral thing of music, that physical thing of making music, the momentum of working with other people. So it wasn't just their contributions that were valuable, it was the psychological effect, for me, of being back amongst other people.
RW: Well he had been doing some demos and a bit of recording, in fact, at Phil's studio, he lives fairly near there, I believe. When I first tried to book it, Weller was there, so I left a note saying if you need that kind of old man sound on any old hum vocals, a bit of the old gravitas, I am available, and I got a quite a witty note back saying, no I don't really think I need that, but if you need a bit of strumming on anything, I'll come along and have a go. He was extremely courteous and helpful and he wasn't going to presume to put on anything. The thing is people think I want to write Robert Wyatt records, you know, here we go, Jimmy Somerville on valium.
When he came in, I was a bit nervous, because I normally work with people I know, and I was also a bit nervous on his behalf, because he might feel that some of the things that I do are a bit on the whimsical side. But where I thought he might not necessarily go along with the words, but at least he could acknowledge that there was an attempt at making some kind of serious point along the way, then I would ask him.
THE ENGLISH AND SERIOUSNESS
RW: I mean, I am a muddle up, like lots of people. I know I joke that deep down I am shallow, and I think that is right, in fact one of the funniest things about recording was that though some of the songs had been written in the depths of despair, to coin a cliche, when I was recording them I never felt happier, so I felt a bit of a fraud by the time I had finished doing it, and in fact it is the most nursery rhyme-y things that most accurately reflect my feeling at the time I was recording. . .
What I don't like about anglophone culture is the relentless pressure to be anti-serious, in a way, the idea that seriousness is suspect, that anybody is serious, well they haven't got laid recently, you know, lighten up, man, and all that stuff. My dad used to say there is nothing more ponderously suety than light music. And there is nothing that can make you more miserable than a series of bright major chords and so on, and that, quite apart from any thing else, the desperate attempt to be liked has a very leadening effect. It's not that I believe in seriousness or believe in silliness, I just think you have to not be scared to be true to how you feel, because there is a constant pressure to be cowardly in what you do, which knows no boundaries.
RW: I don't know, I mean, if you are lucky enough to know Evan Parker, and think you can embarrass him into playing on your record, you do, don't you? Can you think of a better saxophone player? I can't. I know that Evan, like a lot of musicians, is a fairly open-minded listener. Evan Parker stocked me up on the gaps in my Dionne Warwick collection, for example. But other musicians are more like the Jesuits or Sufis of their particular train of thought, you know, who will not transgress the unwritten laws that they have written for themselves. People who follow Evan's music follow the philosophy of what Evan is doing very closely, because it is a very important part of the appreciation of it, and him playing along with me scraping away on Alfie's old Polish fiddle I don't think figures in any of these schemes. So I was a bit worried that they would think I had somehow blackmailed him into doing something, which wasn't quite the point. I wasn't worried about Evan himself, all he asks is that you are trying to do something and you're not following a formula.
BK: You are famous for being able to sing Charlie Parker solos note perfect, could you also sing Evan Parker solos?
RW: [Laughs] No fucking way! What I can't do, I don't now any fucking singer who can circular breathe, he'd die of asphyxiation. That's absolutely right, he takes thing beyond what I know the voice can do. Well, Coltrane also already did that, but particularly the point with Evan is, he really starts beyond somewhere even where you could get to and takes it from there, that's the great thing about him. He is a giant, Evan, there is a consistent trajectory, that he has been carving year in, year out, it is a monumental thing, you know, I think he will be seen as one of these figures.
PARKER'S TRACK RECORD WITH WYATT AND VIC REEVES
RW: Yeah, well, he played on the Vic Reeves thing, I think, because, I think it was Steve Beresford's idea. Vic Reeves hadn't been told how venerable a character Evan Parker was, and in the middle of one of his long solos, he shouted out, shut it, Parker! and Evan really broke up.
DEREK BAILEY AND CHORDS THAT HAVE BEEN DEALT WITH
RW: This may be apocryphal, this story, but I think I heard it from Evan, I don't think it is too like gossip, about Derek Bailey, whom I admire very much. I think it was that bass guitarist, Jaco Pastorius, he said to Derek, oh that was a nice little bit of playing there, to which Derek said, aw, that chord's been dealt with. Well, I wouldn't really have the confidence to know which chords have and have not been dealt with. I had conversations with Mike Mantler like that. He'd say, how can people go on using the common chord of a major arpeggio, and I just blushed deeply, because I think that there is at least two and a half hours of my recordings that are just sustained major arpeggios. I love major chords, I could just go on and on, play CEG on an organ and just hold it. I do like the basic alphabet of the common musical language, as much as I like what has been done with it, which is why I have never abandoned it to just become an explorer of new music. So there are a lot of people I would never ask because I know that they would feel uncomfortable with chords that have been dealt with.
RW: I can safely say with, not pride, but with defiance, that I have never in the end made a rock record in my life. If you lean on my rhythm tracks you will always sort of get tripped up somewhere. I just love the ducking and diving of the jazz rhythm section too much, I haven't checked back to see. . .
PICASSO, CHAGALL ETC
RW: If anything I have always felt more kinship with painters, like Chagall or Picasso, for example, rather than musicians and composers. That is very dangerous, and a lot of people have made the mistake of thinking that they can translate the visual arts into music. Even so, in my head I still see music almost as much as hear it. But you have to test it musically, because when I have only tested it visually, I have come a bit of a cropper, as on End Of An Ear, for example, where I treated the tape as a canvas to paint patterns on, well, you can't really do that, because music and painting are different senses towards the same thing, so you have to be really respectful of the uniqueness of music.
END OF AN EAR
RW: I learned a lot doing it, it was the first time I had ever really gone into the studio and just treated the tape as a canvas upon which to paint, so just that feeling was incredibly exciting and very euphoric, and it also broke my fear and intimidation of keyboard players. I had to play so much piano for example and that broke the ice in terms of playing me own piano bits. There is a sense of discovery which is often the most enjoyable thing in art for me, rather than just the business of manufacturing perfectly constructed objects. Some things are more important than that. I never had the courage of my convictions, which you need if you are doing things that have never been done before, my nerve would come in fits and starts, so End Of An Ear was a break through in terms of nerve, just the courage to take the tape and not feel constricted by all the rules and regulations of what music should and should not be, and I have been using that experience ever since.
THE SOFT MACHINE EXPERIENCE
RW: Well I think it was Tom Waits who said, I slept through the 60s. All I can say is, I certainly didn't do that but I envy him a great deal. I mean, for me, the things that came out of it were quite other. My son was born in 1966 so it wasn't a waste of time. something came out of it. I think, I find it hard to imagine that I wouldn't have been happier somewhere else, with someone else, as far as the music went.
RW: I don't think I have ever been a group musician really. Now this sounds sarcastic, but I was liberated by paraplegia from having to be in a group. It was only really since being in a wheelchair that I have had to do what I feel most comfortable doing, which is doing what I do then finding the people most appropriate to the particular tracks, I mean, there was no way I could go on the road with a group featuring Paul Weller and Evan Parker and Annie Whitehead. I don't have to think like that anymore. there isn't that awful anxiety of having to fit every person to every tune and every tune to every person, because that is your group.
RW: Well, I have to say that, although the first one is called a Matching Mole record, people like Phil Miller are bit bemused, he wasn't disgruntled about it, but he said, well it was very much Robert Wyatt's group, that's the way he put it, or, he called it a group, he talks democracy. . . But the fact is that is I created a skeleton framework upon which I constructed a sequence of events around the wondrous mellotron and so on. Maybe it was a group recording, but the production was where I took the opportunity to take over, and there was nothing the group could really do about it. So, feeling a bit sheepish about that, on the second Matching Mole record I very consciously gave them their head, you know, but even by the way I said that, you can tell, he gave them their head, you know, we were actually an equal group of equal people in every possible way...
Live it is either/or, you know, I start singing and the drummer stops playing, I mean, fuck, whenever I start singing, the drummer gives up. This was no good, I wanted a drummer who could stick by me in thick and thin, and recording was the only way.
Then again I didn't know what to do with that group, but spending 1973 in hospital resolved that one. I had other things to think about. How I kept myself together I just really kept working on the record in the hospital. But then there was no way I could ask the others to hang on. People had livings to earn. Matching Mole had no money, the other lot got that. So there was no slack, I couldn't keep them hanging around. Remembering how I worked on End Of An Ear, it was like I found the right way to work for when I came out. It was not so much a solo thing, because I depended heavily on other people's ideas and input, it was more that you could take appropriate measures for each tune, rather than think, oh god, it's 20 minutes since we had an alto solo, we better give him another one kind of thing.
As it happened after that, I did start to lose contact with other musicians and became more and more hermetically sealed in my own preoccupations. I had got to the point where I thought, I can't communicate with other musicians, you know. I had actually got to the point where I thought that I had chosen the wrong idiom, I shouldn't have been a musician, that I should have learned to draw, become a painter, like I had got stuck in the wrong world. At least until I got to loosen up in the last year, and start working again with other people. Just, like, ventilate the music a bit with these other people. Recording Shleep actually took me by surprise. I felt quite happy, it felt perfectly natural, a great relief.
WHITE MAN'S SUBTERRANEAN HOMESICK BLUES
RW: A bit po-faced, I always thought that as long as apartheid actually existed I didn't really have a right to play the blues, but now Mandela has sorted that one out I thought I would have a go at this old blues business. Never too late to learn. I always thought the blues was an unbeatable chord sequence. I just think it is quite extraordinary how it is endlessly regeneratable. And I had the lyrics, which went a bit like that Capri ad, Papa Nicole, Papa Nicole, Papa Nicole, well it went ah Alfie, ah Alfie, ah Alfie. . . But when Alfie heard it, she said you can't sing that, and I said I can, look, it's dead minimalist, it's really far out, and she said, no you're being fucking lazy, write some words, people want something to listen to, so I said, OK, you want some fucking words, I'll give you some fucking words, so I just wrote a stream of words, and I really like that tumbling relentless rhythm and I also like Hiawatha, and the whole thing comes out of that. The reason I referred to myself in the title as Bob Minor because to be any kind of Bob in that context is an honour, sir.
RW: In those cases, it is always me leafing through either her poetry books or scrap notebooks and just picking out images or phrases that she happens to write - it is a nice coincidence with what she writes is that the images are often very familiar to me, because we've sat side by side and seen these things together. Also her words have a happy knack of sounding very good. They're very out-loudable, very singable, and they really help me to find a thread to tunes that are swimming around in my head. They are actually what got this record off the ground, really.
THE SINGER, NOT THE SONG
RW: I do like a kind of integrity of the song, that the words are true to the way that it is done, the tune that is true to the lyrics and all that kind of thing, I do like that sort of consistency, although I play perverse games with it, but that is me being deeply shallow for you! In the mid 80s I was writing what sounded like mournful love songs whereas in actual fact they were vehicles to express my deep hatred of David Owen. Some people consider this a deceitful exercise, typical party hack behaviour, undercover work, but I don't think I have done that on this new record I think there is a consistency between the tunes and the words, they come from the same source.
PERVERSE IS POLITICAL
RW: My lyrics, as far as I am concerned, have always been fairly unplanned, they always end up as being what happened when I started writing. I have never made a deliberate attempt to either be political or not be political. In any case, politically I am a reactionary — if there is too much of one thing going on I try and tip the balance the other way. If there is a lot of acid I need a lot of alkali, and so on. The fact that that turned into quite a lot of songs with political references is simply a reflection of the preoccupations and pressures which came out or were exercised when I started to write them. Besides, I never in my own mind distinguish between the use of an utterly private image and a very public one. To me they are all in a way utterly private and then, as with all music, you just have to hope that they resonate somewhere beyond. To those people who say that image or phrase is contentious, I can only say, well, I don't have to fall in love with the same girl as Stevie Wonder when he is singing "You Are The Sunshine Of My Life" to actually enjoy the song.
Personally, I am quite capable of enjoying things where the intention is quite alien to me, like for example, I love mosques and synagogues, I think they are wonderful. . . One English composer I can easily admire is John Tavener, even though philosophically speaking it is hard to imagine anybody who I would feel more alienated from, but the fact of the matter remains that it seems to stimulate him into a way of making music that I find utterly empathetic. And I hope that people would go along with me in that same way. I am not a recruiting officer, so if people object or take offence, then, in the immortal words of Paul Weller, they can fuck off.
DOWNWARD SPIRAL INTO DEPRESSION CHARTED BY SONGS
RW: Certainly I felt there were assumptions being made on my behalf, which if they included me, I would feel very invaded and interfered with, like after a prime minister described to foreigners the British way of life, I would like to write to every foreigner I knew to say, she doesn't mean me, she is not speaking on my behalf, and so, via songs, I can do that, I can exorcise that viscosity of being stuck to things which made my skin crawl, wash them off via a song...
RW: If I were to nominate a prize for the musician of my lifetime, it would be Charlie Haden. Certainly his Liberation Orchestra, the things he did with Carla Bley. Now Carla is nothing like Charlie Haden, he is a very serious, solemn sort of chap, and she is so utterly mischievous and playful, now her arranging with his gravitas is a knockout combination. He is very rigorous musically. He started out playing in the best there was, in the original Ornette Coleman Quartet, so when he started to participate in the Cold War and not go along with his official country line, he did so very rigorously. But there again it is always music first, and I don't think you have to be interested in what the subject matter originally was to enjoy those records. So if anything was an inspiration or a sort of guide of how to approach things it would be Charlie Haden, more than any singer of songs.
NOTHING CAN STOP US
RW: The singles were done very quickly, one on the heels of another, the consistency only comes from the fact that my brain goes round and round similar preoccupations for years on end. Like Winnie The Pooh — in fact he was my earliest role model really — I nag away at one or two thoughts. That would be where any consistency comes from. Because I don't do gigs, everything I do has to be on record and it has this sort of posterity hanging over it, this dreadful weight. By doing them as singles, I wanted them to be almost like journalism, do them fast and then they should disappear. Old records are like old tattoos, you know, I love Martha, true and, like, oh no, I've been going out with Carol for two weeks, how can I get this fucking tattoo off. It wasn't my idea to compile them as an album, it was Geoff Travis's, so if it does hang together as a record, he can take credit for that.
RW: I really was depressed to a point of serious disorientation by the conservative revival, not on principle, but because, it was like. . . well, I still feel queasy by the idea of students having to go into debt before they even start working, or the fact that I don't even have the choice of a public dentist in my town anymore. Having been born in 1945 I was constructed psychologically simultaneously with what they call the welfare state. My parents thought at last after the chaos and misery of the past the basis of a kind of human civilisation was being built in our time, nothing grand, you know, just the basic framework that makes civilised life possible, and the idea that that was being pulled from under our feet just made me very very queasy. Depression was a biological response to conditioning. . . It was just too ghastly, it was nightmarish, there was something hellish going on, and it entered my dreamworld. I mean, I do live in a dreamworld and I never haven't done. I wake up just long enough in the daytime to eat lots of food and then try to go back to sleep. I mean, I am not by nature rebellious or activist or anything like that, I am really self-indulgent, but this business was stopping me enjoying myself, it totally invaded and disrupted my world and I had to exorcise it as best I could. And I desperately looked around for sympathisers.
People say, you only preach to the converted. Well, that's good enough for me. The reassurance of likeminded souls keeps me going.
POLITICS OF PESSIMISM
RW: The reason I had to sign up with a political party most identified with the enemy was only because it was a pathetically lost cause, and I wanted to at least give it a better funeral than it was going to get, because I still think it was the noblest experiment in human history, the Soviet thing, and its failure is nothing to be pleased about. Yet there are now people in what were once staunchly right papers saying that the free hand of market forces cannot be reliably benevolent in all cases everywhere. For this blazing insight I am deeply grateful. I don't feel so alienated just for that simple fact being acknowledged. . .
What pessimist wants to be right? I mean, I hope I am wrong, I don't wanna be right. I am not a fucking pervert! Jesus Christ, if anyone wants to persuade me that I am wrong, please do. Take this weight of my mind, set me free. Blondes just wanna have fun.