KEVIN AYERS INTERVIEW
by Jimmy James (May 1998)As bassist, frequent songwriter, and occasional vocalist in the original Soft Machine, Kevin Ayers was a key force in early British psychedelia and progressive rock. In just two years the group had evolved from the goofy, effervescent psychedelic pop of their 1967 debut single "Love Makes Sweet Music"/"Feelin' Reelin' Squealin'" to the dada jazz-rock minimalism of Ayers' infamous "We Did It Again." After the Soft Machine opened for the Jimi Hendrix Experience across the States in 1968 and recorded their first studio album, Ayers left the group to establish a long-running solo career with more pop-oriented material, delivered in a witty, near-bass profundo voice.
On most of his albums he explored the little-trod midpoint between weird pop and the most accessible, humorous face of prog-rock, crafting bouncy songs of indolence and whimsy that often tapped island rhythms. Leading British experimental musicians like Lol Coxhill, David Bedford, and a pre-Tubular Bells Mike Oldfield passed through his band while he veered between sunnier variations of Syd Barrett and dissonant experimental jams. He never did land a hit album or single in Britain, despite issuing numerous LPs on Harvest, and in the US he was a definitive '70s cult artist. He's only recorded sporadically in the 1980s and 1990s, with his more recent efforts even harder to locate in the import bins than his early solo material.
Now in his early fifties, Ayers made a rare visit to the States to play a few gigs in California in May. Backed by the SF band Mushroom at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, he was in merry form as he went through a set of some of his more well-known vintage tunes, such as "Lady Rachel," "Stranger in Blue Suede Shoes," as well as the Soft Machine cuts "Why Are We Sleeping?" and "Save Yourself." Before soundcheck he found a few minutes to talk about the Canterbury scene with a few local fans and writers.
Q: What was unique about the Canterbury scene?
KA: Mike Ratledge from the Soft Machine had a degree in Oxford University in philosophy at 22. I mean, he won a scholarship and then said, fuck that, I'm going to play the organ. This was unique in pop. You don't find many people with honor degrees playing pop, even from that kind of literary background. Normally it was sort of art school. England is so defined, the class system, your education. I think what was unique about the Canterbury scene...these were all middle-class kids from literary backgrounds, joining this sort of train going by, this pop train, jumping on. Whereas the rest of the rock scene, you'll find that there's mostly working-class people.
Q: Did you have a similar kind of literary upbringing to Robert Wyatt?
KA: Not from my parents, no. Robert had his from his parents, 'cause his parents were middle-class intellectuals. I was brought up in Malaya. But that is the difference, that this was the first time that anybody from the middle class, well-educated, joined the pop scene. This was comfortable kids who went to university.
Q: I'm surprised you call it pop.
KA: Well, I don't know, what else would you call it? Plop? (laughs) The whole thing about Soft Machine was that it had all these people from, as I said, middle-class literary educated backgrounds, suddenly going "fuck it, I'm not going to join med school, I'm not going to become a lawyer or a doctor. I'm not going to be a professional." And this hadn't happened anywhere else in pop. That's why the Canterbury scene was unique, because that is what happened there.
Q: You started off in the Wilde Flowers, then you showed up in Majorca to find Daevid Allen to put the band together. What made you go find him?
KA: Daevid Allen was the first hippie that I'd met. He was straight out of the beat scene, and he was very convincing (laughs). He read a lot. He was articulate. He turned us on, Robert and me and Mike, to all this--especially American--beat literature. And we suddenly thought, wow...you have to imagine, just out of an English private school, and suddenly you get this sort of exotic person coming through, who says, "fuck this, fuck that. Smoke pot, read this." He actually had something to say, he actually had a viewpoint. I suppose everybody else had no idea. All these people just came out of school, sort of wandering around in the job market, "what do I do now"--suddenly Daevid Allen's going, "Smoke pot now, peace love and fuck your neighbor." That was something. As opposed to nothing.
Q: Is that hippie ethic something that still motivates you?
KA: I think that the basic philosophy was very good. It was just be nice to each other, and don't step on other people's toes and infringe on their freedom. I think that's still valid. It just made sense, especially when...I keep talking to you about English schools. Unless you've been to one, you have no idea how bad they are. I mean, you just would not believe them. You only start learning when you leave school.
Q: The Soft Machine had a whimsical feel. Was that influenced by your literary background?
KA: We just had different references. We had literary references, so we knew what we were talking about. We could quote things, talk about books we'd read; you can say something, you don't have to explain it. If you have the same background, it doesn't matter which school you've been to, if you've read the books, have the knowledge, and you have the intellectual curiosity, you can talk to anybody who has the same thing, and you know what you're talking about. So you relate that way.
The music we made then was so amateurish, compared to the rest of mainstream pop or rock and roll. But what differentiated us from what everybody else was doing in the business was the fact that you could tell that these people came from different reference areas. They'd read different books. So we actually got away with making a lot of crap. I don't mean crap--I mean that it wasn't professionally as good as what other people were doing. Other people had much better sound, and they had good producers. We worked alongside the Pink Floyd, we played gigs together, and we suddenly saw them go, whooosh!! with huge sales. But we were just dancing in the dark. There were groundbreaking ideas, musically and intellectually. Post-war generation asking serious questions.
Q: When you made your first solo record, you were obviously still on good terms with the Soft Machine, since they play on a lot of it.
KA: It was family for me--the only family I knew. We all lived together in one house.
Q: When you went solo, was it because you wanted to play and write different material than what the Soft Machine were doing on their first album?
KA: Soft Machine were going more in the direction of fusion jazz and I didn't like that. They were going more in the direction of jazz, which didn't interest me. I was strictly pop. They were into what I consider really to be incredibly self-indulgent music. It's stuff you play for yourself, and "fuck the audience."
Q: What about playing "We Did It Again" for half an hour for Brigitte Bardot?
KA: That's a serious statement. I think she said to get those wankers off or something.
Q: In an interview you said all your songs, except for a few romantic ones, were pataphysical. Where did you come across pataphysics?
KA: I think that was just a literary thing. The fact that you actually string a few sentences together was important in those days. Soft Machine became famous in France before anything else happened. They adopted us. The French like arty things, they like something a little bit different. In fact, what made Soft Machine was an article in Nouvelle Observateur, which at that time was a very...in those days, things like Melody Maker and NME, it mattered then. If someone wrote something about you, it could make or break you. Now it doesn't matter at all. We got written up, I think, 'cause Mike was fucking the journalist, actually. So we got a good review, and that was it. Suddenly France just opened up. We were the darlings of the literary scene there.
Q: Who were your main literary or formative influences?
KA: Philosophically, the only person that influenced me was Gurdjieff. What he said made sense to me. What I really liked about him was, he was a total charlatan. He didn't make any bones about it. His thing was that you cannot present the truth to people in simple form. You have to elaborate. Otherwise they're not interested. Did you ever read his book? It's just bullshit, absolute bullshit. But he says, you have to write 100 pages to say one sentence, to make it interesting for people. Otherwise they won't accept it as real. You have to say a lot in order to get a little across.
Q: Are you still inspired by things like that when you write?
KA: It's still there. I mean, I still think he was absolutely right. His two premises were, you have to say a lot to get a little across. you have to excite people. The other thing was, we're only working at five percent of our potential, which made total sense. What I loved about him...he came to America, you know, and he was very good at raising money. One of the things he did here was, he was in New York, he invited a bunch of people, saying, "this is the time of your life." And he made them have sex, and charged them a lot of money for it. And they were saying, "Wow, thank you, this is the best night of our lives." He just talked dirty to them, so they all had sex with each other and [said] "wow, this is so good," and they gave him thousands of dollars. What he did was say, "Look, this is what you really want to do. I'll organize it. Just give me the money."
Q: When do you think you most fully realized your own potential with your music?
KA: I don't think I can answer that. It's hypothetical, one will never know. I mean, some days you wake up and you think, Jesus, I could be a really good comedian. Then half an hour later, you forget the idea. People who really want to make money in this world make it. You have to have tunnel vision. You have to say, this is what I want to do. I believe that. If you wanted to make money, you would make it.
Don't you ever wake up in the morning and think, geez, I could really do with a lot of money? You think, I have a brain, I could use it, I could actually do this, I could play the stock market, I could be a televangelist or something. You could actually do it if you really wanted to do it. But you would have to really want to it. So basically you wake up in the morning and say, "oh, I don't really want to do anything."
Q: Is commercial success something you still aspire towards?
KA: No no no. It's all been a total fluke. I would have liked to have made more money, 'cause I think everybody has a creative period, normally between about 19 and 30. That is the time when you have to establish yourself in life. If you haven't made it by the time you're thirty, you never will, basically. Okay, forty (laughs). If you wind up forty and you don't have a house and a car and life insurance and health insurance, you know, you're fucked.
Q: Was it frustrating for you not to have much success in the States?
KA: I didn't really have that much exposure here. It would have been good. Basically the idea is to make a bunch of money with the creative talents you have before you're forty. I'm not answering your question, am I? This is the underlying thing, this is what is behind it. Whatever it takes, whether it's America or Holland, I don't know, it doesn't matter. You have a certain window in your life where you're intellectually curious, you have energy, and you're not blase, and you're not tired of life. That's when you have to do it. That still doesn't answer your question. It does, actually, really.
Q: You're talking about hitting thirty- were you conscious of the British underground that had started around '67 losing momentum around that time?
KA: You only become conscious of things that you have things to compare them to. You can't make assessments if you don't have something to compare them to. I think that what happened with post-war society--suddenly young people were going, we don't like what our parents are doing. We don't like war. The war was over, people had money, and they had time. It was like a one-off. My youngest daughter says to me, geez dad, I wish I'd lived in the sixties. I know what she means, because there was a whole bunch of stuff happening. People were pre-video and people read books in those days, and talked to each other. It was a unique time. In fact, if you check the history of human beings, you'll find it's the only time that young people ever got up and had any effect at all. What happened was that the establishment moved in and discredited them- "they're hippies, they don't wash, they smoke pot." But there were huge advances in human rights and basic freedoms. It never happened in the history of man, never.
Q: Are you going to do more stuff with the people you worked with in the Canterbury scene?
Q: Do you communicate with them?
KA: No, I don't know where they are these days. It's very sad, 'cause we were very close to start with. That's okay, it happens to the best of lovers.
Also see our 2008 Ayers interview and our Robert Wyatt interview
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