Interview by Pat ThomasI first heard the music of Kevin Ayers back in 1982, when I purchased the June 1st, 1974 live album featuring Ayers, along with live recordings by Eno, John Cale, and Nico. I bought the LP for the Eno, Cale, Nico material - and although I liked and sometimes listened to the Ayers stuff - I wasn't moved enough to seek out anything else by him.
Fast-forward about 10 years later and Ayers was making a rare live appearance in San Francisco - playing solo acoustic in a very small venue. A friend called me from the East Coast and asked if I'd attend the show and record it for him. So, I went and recorded it on my Walkman. Ayers played for about an hour and performed songs from his whole post-Soft Machine career. I was hooked. Not long after, I moved to Germany and started purchasing whatever Kevin Ayers CD's that I could find (there wasn't much available at that time circa 1992).
Anyway, as the years passed, I eventually had every Kevin Ayers album in my hands - and when I moved back to San Francisco in the late 1990's and formed the band Mushroom - I was very excited when a mutual friend hooked me up with Kevin for Mushroom to become his backing band for a live performance at the legendary San Francisco venue "The Great American Music Hall." Kevin also needed a place to stay and so for a week, Kevin stayed at my house. We rehearsed with the band, drank a lot of beer and wine and I gently grilled him about various parts of his career- touring as a member of Soft Machine as the opening act for Jimi Hendrix, the Soft Machine's love of 1950's jazz, etc..
One story I didn't hear about until it was brought to my attention via a press release quoted from a John Cale biography - concerns the June 1st, 1974 album which is how I discovered Kevin in the first place. It seems the 1975 John Cale song "Guts" with the lyric "the bugger in the short sleeves fucked my wife, did it quick and split" - refers to Cale finding Ayers in bed with his wife the night before the 1974 concert.
Anyway, Ayers has an amazing new album out The Unfairground - and I'm not just saying that because Kevin was my room-mate and bandmate for a week. I came up with the core questions and our good man Jason Gross threw the questions at Kevin recently and came up with some of his own as the interview progressed.
March 2nd, 2008
PSF: How are you today?
KA: It's a little cold and the central heating's broken down a little bit.
PSF: Ouch, sorry to hear that! Moving on to happier things... The Unfairground is your first album of new songs since Still Life with Guitar, right?
KA: Yes, I'm pretty sure it is.
PSF: Where did the inspiration for the songs come from?
KA: Uh... (laughs) Squeezed out, I think. (laughs) I... just had to keep on working basically. I don't have any pension or anything so I have to keep working. The inspiration came from... what might well be my last love affair and life in general I suppose. Just experience.
PSF: Was there a particular mood or theme you were going for?
KA: Yeah, well... I'm not getting any younger and it hits you after a certain age. What I mean is that you realize that certain thing probably won't happen any more. There's a kind of loss feeling more than anything else.
PSF: I enjoyed the thick and complex production of the new record. Any thoughts on that and how it came about?
KA: Well, I think a lot of it was due to the fact that most of the backing tracks were done by Ladybug Transistor, so a lot of the arrangements were up to them. They were sent the records and they got most of it together. I just added on bits and changed a few things and did the vocals. So, it's mainly down to them and the other musicians who worked on the backing tracks while I wasn't there.
PSF: Were you pleased with how that came out?
KA: Yeah, I was pleased with it. I was surprised though. It wasn't how I would have done it left on my own. But, there you go... (laughs)
PSF: How would have you done it otherwise?
KA: There would have probably been less production. Fewer instruments and... certainly more upbeat, up tempo.
PSF: It was great to see that you were reunited with (singer) Bridget St. John on the album. How did you come to connect with her again?
KA: Then again, it was the people from Ladybug Transistor who got in touch with her because I was away working in England somewhere. I think I mentioned it to them and they phoned her up and she agreed to do it. I didn't actually get to see her but maybe I will when I come to New York this time.
PSF: Also, Phil Manzanera of Roxy Music and Norman Blake from Teenage Fanclub are on the new record. How did those associations come about?
KA: There again, that was down to management. I don't really know... I don't really listen to much pop music these days especially as I live in France. I don't get the stations, so I'm really ignorant as to what's happening over there. I was very pleasantly surprised by the guys, I thought they were very good.
PSF: Since it's been years since your last record, have you been stock-piling songs or are these tunes more recent?
KA: Stock piling is a bit... (laughs) Certainly some of them go back ten years or six or seven years. They've just been around. I used to play with a band in Belgium and we tried out a few of them there. Indeed, I wrote some of them when I was with the band and the rest I wrote on my own back in France.
PSF: What kind of music do you listen to nowadays that inspires you or that you just enjoy for pleasure?
KA: Very little. That inspires me? I mean, French rock music is appalling and the rap is even worse! (laughs) I basically just listen to the one station that doesn't have any ads on, which is called Ballade, apart from several hours of the day which they insist on putting French rap on, which is REALLY, really awful! (laughs) They play a lot of world music, which is great- I get stuff from South America and Africa.
PSF: Do you listen to records from your own collection too?
KA: Yeah, I do. I tend to listen to jazz and classical mostly. I don't listen to much rock or pop. (pauses) It's not a really big thing in my life at the moment. I tend to read more than I listen, when I'm not doing anything else.
PSF: What do you read?
KA: I'm reading a lot of historical novels. I've just finished the Patrick O'Brien books, which is about the Napoleonic wars and stuff. And I read a lot of American crime writers. I'm trying to think of their names now- I can never think of them... People from down South somewhere.
PSF: Do you find that inspires your work also?
KA: No, not at all. It keeps me amused!
PSF: So you think of it as a nice diversion?
KA: Yeah, it certainly is. I'd be lost without it.
PSF: Do you have any tour plans?
KA: I really don't have any tour plans as yet because I don't have a band together. But I'm coming for a week of publicity and interviews in early March.
PSF: But do you plan to tour after that?
KA: Yeah, I think so. I mean, it's quite a big business because the rehearsal takes such a long time. And there's much more to it than just saying 'Let's get a band and get on the road.' (laughs)
PSF: Have you thought about recording again some time later?
KA: Well, I don't have any new material as yet so... No, I haven't really thought about it. I mean, who knows what will happen along the line? I mean, mostly... albums are inspired by love affairs. (laughs)
PSF: That's what you've found throughout your recording career?
KA: Yes, throughout. I don't necessarily have to write about the love affair but it just gives you the impetus to get going.
PSF: How so?
KA: Well, it just makes you feel crazy... Makes you want to communicate.
PSF: On the new album, Hugh Hopper and Robert Wyatt appear also. I know you've also shared concerts with Daevid Allen in the past ten years too. I was wondering, how often do you keep in contact with your former Soft Machine members?
KA: Well, I don't really keep in contact with any of them. I mean, we've been apart for such a long time now. And I've been living abroad all the time... First, I was in Spain and now I'm in France. So, I haven't really had a chance to meet up with them much. I've met Mike Ratledge and Hugh Hopper and Robert when I was in England... I think we just drifted apart over the years, you know.
PSF: Have you listened to any of their solo work?
KA: I haven't. I heard some of Robert's stuff in the studio when he was recording it 'cause we were in the same studio. I didn't really hear enough though to give any opinion. And Mike hasn't done anything at all for years and years and years and years. In fact, he's given up music totally. So, the answer to that is no... (laughs)
PSF: Do you have any personal favorites among your albums?
KA: Ah... I always get asked this question! (laughs) I don't know... I have a particular fondness for the first one (Joy of a Toy). It's a bit like first love... because I really did do just about everything on my own- played most of the instruments apart from the string things which David Bedford did. And I really had card blanche to do whatever came into my head at the time. Great people at Abbey Road when I recorded those things. Really sympathetic and willing engineers, which makes a huge difference. And they were prepared to try any idea that one came up with. They would never say "Oh, you can't do that..." Also, it was much more fun in those days before digital came in. You know, you actually sat and controlled things and... It's much more... 'organic' I suppose is the word people use. I felt much more in control and you didn't have so many choices so you had to be much more creative rather than having 200 sounds of an oboe... You just had one sound and you had to make the best of that. So, you had to use your brain more really.
PSF: Do you listen to your old albums at all nowadays?
KA: I do, maybe once a year, I get a couple out and listen to them. The thing is, once you've been through a recording session and rehearsals, you really just want to forget it for a while.
PSF: Do they bring back any nice memories?
KA: Yeah, yeah. A lot of the early stuff does. It just reminds me of being younger and more innocent. And I can see the progress from innocence to sort of... I suppose cynicism. Just sort of realizing more and not being so optimistic as one is when one is younger.
PSF: During the 70's, you worked with Nico and John Cale (they all appear on the live album June 1, 1974. Do you have any special memories of working with them? Also, did they have any impact on your work?
KA: I don't think I've ever been influenced artistically or musically or whatever by them. I was fascinated by Nico and in fact wrote a song about her called "Decadence." And... I don't know, it was much more to do with the record company (Island) than any particular friendship. They decided that because we were all on the same label that we'd have a sort of... concert with those artists. I did become fairly friendly with Nico but not with any of the others.
PSF: What was it about Nico that fascinated you?
KA: Um... I don't really know. (laughs) I mean, listen to the song.
PSF: So the Velvet Underground didn't make much of an impression on you either?
KA: Well, they did actually. The early ones (records) did because they were some of the first things I ever listened to. I mean, I hardly listened to pop music at all. I was mostly living in Spain in those days. I wasn't very interested in pop music but when I did started getting into it, the very first Velvet Underground one was one of the records that used to be played a lot.
PSF: What was it about that album that intrigued you?
KA: Well, it was such a long time ago... (pauses) I guess it sounded kind of dark and they were saying things that I hadn't heard people saying before. It definitely had an attraction. God, you got me there! (laughs)
PSF: Was jazz a bigger influence on you then instead?
KA: Well, I certainly use jazz chords and rhythms in some of my music but it's what I prefer when I'm on my own. I like classic American jazz mostly... BLACK American jazz I would say. And I listen to a lot of classical music.
PSF: Which jazz artists in particular?
KA: Oh, most of them! Thelonious Monk, Wes Montgomery... I'm hopeless at remembering these things. John Coltrane, Duke Ellington. You know, those sort of people.
PSF: Were they some of the same artists that you bonded over with the other original members of Soft Machine?
KA: Oh definitely. We definitely listened to much more jazz than we did to any pop or rock music. They were all mad jazz fiends. When I met up with them, I had virtually just came out of English boarding school, having come back from the Far East where I was sort of brought up. So I had no idea what was going on at all. And I had no interest in music at all. I was just interested in the people (in Soft Machine). They just seemed to be the most interesting people around, having just come out of a horrible boarding school.
PSF: So that's what you brought you together with the rest of the band?
KA: I was interested in them as characters and they were always playing and they introduced me to modern jazz and American poetry. They were quite a literary bunch so I had to do quite a bit of catching up because I was pig ignorant about everything, having been brought up in Malaya. But I sort of persevered and listened to what just seemed like rubbish to me to start with. I gradually grew to like it and love it even. And I read a lot, influenced by how they read a lot or were reading a lot. So they definitely had a big impact on my life and the way it went.
PSF: What are you most proud of in your career?
KA: I don't really think of things in terms of pride and stuff particularly. I just think that I'm PLEASED with myself that I managed to live my life the way I wanted to, more or less. I was sort of my own boss from about my early twenties onwards. So I mean I never had to work in an office or work for a corporation or something like that. More or less lived life on my own terms and managed to be productive and make a living. That I would think is my major achievement.
PSF: What are you looking forward to? What would you still like to accomplish?
KA: I'd like to make some money! (laughs) That would be good. That would be something new... I would like to own a small sailing boat and putter around the Mediterranean. That's about it- I don't really have... I'm not big on material things.
PSF: What about non-material things that you'd like to do?
KA: I'd like to feel less stressed. I get very, very easily stressed, which makes me into something of a hermit. The world outside, you know? Apart from getting older and feeling all the pains of getting old, OLDER. Just like anybody else, I would like to be able to feel more peaceful and less worried about everything. But I don't have any particular goal.
Also see our 1998 interview with Kevin Ayers
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