Perfect Sound Forever


Robert Wyatt
© Phil Franks, used by permission

Interview by Richie Unterberger

Al Spicer from Rough Guides charactarized Robert Wyatt as being 'the one performer in England that EVERYONE there respects and loves- the punks, the art rockers, everyone.' The legendary singer/drummer was a founding member of Soft Machine and has continued through his career with an impressive collection of solo albums and collaborations (Syd Barrett, Scritti Politti). Wyatt's solo work is characterized by his beautiful, quavery voice and his earnest committment to socialism. I mean, how many Marxists have a hit record covering a Monkees song?

Richie Unterberger (contributing editor for All Music Guide and Rough Guide to Music, former editor of Option Magazine and editor of music and travel sections of the Whole Earth Catalog) interviewed Robert Wyatt on November 18, 1996 for his book UNKNOWN LEGENDS OF ROCK'N ROLL, which profiles 60 of the most interesting cult acts of rock history, from the 1950's through the 1980's. The book is published by Miller Freeman.

Special Thanks to Malcolm Humes

Q: What sort of recording are you doing next week?

W: I'm just taking some songs...CDs are too long! I learned my craft on LPs, which is basically two chunks of 20 minutes. CDs somehow, you need more than that. I've reduced the amount I do, rather than increase it. So I'm just trying a 20-minute bunch of songs now. The same old thing, just older (laughs). Then I'll try and do another 20-minute chunk. Then, maybe when I've got two or three, I'll have a presentable CD. I'll just have to see.

I'm recording at Phil Manzanera's studio. A really nice bloke. We have mutual friends like Bill McCormick and Brian Eno. He once said to me, you can use my studio if you ever need to. So I'm going down there, and seeing how it goes. I never know in advance. The last time I went in the studio, I spent a few days in the studio, and there wasn't a single thing I came out with that I could use. This can happen.

The last thing I did that came out that sort of worked--it's not even on record here. But there's a composer called Mike Mantler who now lives in Denmark. He wrote an opera funded by a Danish culture minister for their year of culture or something. I sang a song on that called "Understanding," and made a video for that. Most everyone else was doing a live opera thing. I just had a video insert, 'cause I don't do live things. He sent me a tape of that, and he said he might put the record out next year. I enjoyed that. The actual bit of music I worked on was arranged--the actual organization of the singing--was done by Don Preston. He's apparently a friend of Mike's, and helped him on things, doing programming and so on. So I've never met him, but I've worked with Don Preston, which is nice.

Before then, the last thing that came out was I did three songs on an LP by John Greaves on a label called Resurgence based in Newcastle, I think--somewhere up north, anyway. That was with some French musicians, 'cause John now lives in France. He used to be with Henry Cow. It's nice to keep in touch with those people. I did three songs with him. The words were by Peter Blegvad. He doesn't go out of his way to do stuff that's easy to consume (laughs). None of us do, really. That's not really what we're about. I like those people, so it was nice to be asked. That's the last thing that came out that I was on.

Q: What was it like to hear the Wilde Flowers stuff, when that finally came out on Voiceprint?

W: I think I prefer the mystic clouds of nostalgia to the real thing, to be honest (laughs heartily). What I would have done, I would have taken about four tracks out maybe, and put 'em on a sort of limited distribution thing for sort of fanzine-type audience only. I feel quite cold-blooded about it. It's impressive to hear how prolific Hugh (Hopper) was already, writing songs, before he was working on more instrumental things. I'd forgotten that. The only excuse I have for the feebleness of the record is that, it was an attempt to do nearly all-original material at a time when our friends were doing covers of one thing or another, whether it was pop or jazz. It's sort of harder to do originals when you can't even play properly. 'Cause there's nobody to sort of get your guitar riffs from (chuckles). That's all I can say about that, really. I wouldn't have put it out in that whole sort of "everything and the dirty socks as well." But it wasn't up to me. Hugh stands to earn from that--they're his songs. And I have no right to stop him earning that, so I didn't veto it. Although there's quite a lot of those things I would veto, if it was up to me. But other people want them out and it's not my business to stop them.

Q: The first ten years or so of your recording career, you were usually playing in groups. Since then, you've usually worked as a soloist, or adding stuff to other people's records. I was wondering if you had any preference for working in group or solo contexts.

W: In theory, I'd like to work in a group. But the group I'd like to work in, all the musicians in them are long since dead. The classic Charlie Mingus quintets, I wouldn't have minded working with! (laughs) In practice, I would divide it into when I was basically a drummer. Then, when I lost the use of my hi-hat and bass drum legs, I became basically a singer. I was a drummer who did a bit of singing, and then I became a singer who did a bit of percussion. Certainly I would say that I would like to think that the singer is the butterfly, and the drummer was just the little grub in the ground, working to become a caterpillar.

Q: The Soft Machine went through quite a few lineup changes while you were in the group. Was there any phase of that group's development that you felt better about than others?

W: That's difficult, because it's like talking about a marriage after a bad divorce. If it's a bad divorce, then it kind of spoils the whole thing in your memory. So in fact I have no happy memories of that band at all now, because of the humiliation of being thrown out at the end of it. I never quite got my confidence back from that. I enjoyed the opportunity to record "Moon In June," and to get that onto tape. The first ten minutes of that I played myself. I had a chance to sort of double-track instruments that I didn't actually own at the time--they were in the studio--like Hammond organ and so on. I really enjoyed that. It probably helped me for later on, when I came to do things with my own keyboard playing.

I just had a letter a week ago from somebody in Chile saying, "Please, Robert, send me the words of 'Moon In June,'" and I absolutely have no idea what they are. I wrote them in New York, actually, I know that. But that wasn't about anything.

I'm happy that, if people enjoy it (the Soft Machine), that's good. Because that means it wasn't a waste of time. But for me, the overall experience--I came out of it without much self-respect, without any money, without anything, really. So I haven't dwelt on it too much.

Q: When you starting doing solo albums in the '70s, you did some originals, especially at the beginning. Then there was more of an emphasis on covering other people's songs. For someone who's affiliated with the progressive rock movement, that's kind of an unusual move. Do you feel more comfortable interpreting than writing, or is that even an issue?

W: That's a very interesting question. I'd say, as you would expect, that when I feel I've done my thing right--most essentially--it's been my own material. Even like, for example, when I did a bunch of singles later on which went onto a compilation (on Rough Trade). There was a track there called "Born Again Cretin," which musically was in my own words. That was really the most me of everything on that.

I was very influenced by painters and artists, more than musicians, when I was a teenager. I don't think it's necessary for a painter to invent the things that he paints, if you see what I mean. If you paint a tree, it's your painting of the tree, it's your choice of color, what you put in and leave it. If you really work it through--interpreting something--it's you. People are quite shocked when you remind them that Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra never wrote a song that they recorded in their lives, as far as I know. Because people associate those songs by (Otis) Blackwell and Big Mama Thornton with Presley. They don't say, well, he just did cover versions (laughs). They think of them as his songs, and quite rightly so, because they're no better than the originals, but they worked as Elvis Presley songs. So they're his songs, because of his voice.

Q: When you did songs which were pretty unexpected coming from someone from underground rock, like "I'm a Believer" or "At Last I Am Free," was there any consternation or puzzlement?

W: Well, I was puzzled (laughs). They're quite specific differences. "I'm a Believer," I was sort of pushed into that by Simon Draper, who was A&R for Virgin. It led, in the end, to the breakdown of the relationship with Virgin. It was a bit perverse. I actually only liked Virgin when I thought it was a kind of small-scale, cottage industry-type record company. I didn't realize that they were just using that as a way in. They wanted to be a big posh record company with pop acts just like everybody else. So I was a bit disappointed at this pressure to do singles.

I didn't really mean to do that one. I thought, well, what should I do that's just like the most unhip thing you can possibly think of? But, that's really nice (laughs)? And I thought of the Monkees doing "Last Train to Clarksville" or something like that. But then, I couldn't remember the title, and I did "I'm a Believer." I'm not full of malice, but I do dislike Neil Diamond a lot, and I'm sorry that I've done a Neil Diamond song. If I lived my life over again, I would leave them to the master (laughs).

But I've always liked pop music. There was a bit of a misunderstanding with the avant-garde rock scene, because I think I was sort of swimming the wrong way, really. A lot of the rock thing came out of people who'd started out doing covers of versions of the English scene and the American scene, the Beatles and Dylan and so on, and then got more and more involved in instrumental virtuosity and esoteric ideas. I was really going the other way. I was brought up with esoteric ideas and modern European music and Stockhausen, Webern, avant-garde poets, and all the kind of avant-garde thing in the '50s, before pop music--the beat poets, the avant-garde painters at the time, and so on. To me, the amazing thing was to discover the absolute beauty of Ray Charles singing a country and western song or something like that. So my actual journey of discovery was I discovered the beauty of simple, popular music. And it was much more elusive, really, than people who put it down realize. Anybody who thinks pop music's easy should try to make a pop single and find out that it isn't.

So that always interested me very much. I have a fantastic admiration for really good pop musicians, just straight commercial pop musicians with no hip associations of rock at all. I'm quite happy with that.

Q: Your material encompasses concerns which are pretty personal, and also social/political. Is there a preference there, or do you just cover all of them?

W: It comes out like that. In fact, they're all the former. Everything I do is totally personal. I don't really have a lot of control over what I write when I'm writing it. I think it's a misunderstanding. I think artists can be overestimated in the amount of control they have over what you do. You sort of do something, and what you do, what you are, comes out. I wouldn't write about anything because I thought, gosh, I ought to write about this, or I ought to write about that. Those times when it comes out as politics for example, or whatever, it's because that's really something buzzing in my gut at that time. And it's just as strong and personal, as emotional, as being in love or anything else. They're not arguable things.

I'm open to the criticism of that, which is, you know, love is blind. My politics has been too. I think you can fall in love with ideas, and you can fall in love with people. It's a very subjective experience. And I'm loyal to that experience.

Q: There have been very few people who started in the underground rock scene in the '60s who have spanned the eras from psychedelia to progressive rock to punk and post-punk, and are still very active in the 1990s. How have you been able to fit in with all the various movements? And, why do you think there have been so few musicians from 20, 30 years ago who've maintained that sort of level of participation?

W: In my case, what keeps me going is a constant sense of disappointment with what I've already done (laughs). One of the things that might be a problem would be, if you were really happy about something you'd done--you'd really thought you'd done it at a certain time in your life. It may be, for people who really got on top of what they were trying to do, and articulated it well in a certain era, then they're just trying to cling onto that, and make it harder and harder, and more and more difficult. But if you've never ever felt that you quite got a hold of it, you just feel that before you die, you've got to try and get it right once (laughs). And hope that the experience you have makes up for the some of the diminishing energy.

The corollary of that is, maybe people really feel they had their moment, and it can happen. I don't think they're any the worse for that. Going back to pop music, as far as I know, Sam the Sham & the Pharoahs only ever did "Wooly Bully." But, you know, how wonderful that they just did that! (laughs) And if they went on to become used car salesmen after that, that's fine. They had their one moment, and I think that's fine.

There are some people I know who soldier on. Because I've never really been in the commercial world, it's a funny. Because although I say, I like pop music and I love rock and roll, I've never been in the commercial world, never swam in the business end of it, really. I think that pop, and to some extent rock, are like sport and fashion industry in that they're about the exuberance of youth. That's the sort of subliminal ideology, really. Whereas the things that I draw on, and the world that I feel part of, aren't particularly youth culture.

My heroes are--not people that I hope to emulate--people like Picasso and Miro and people who at last really reach something in their old age, which they absolutely couldn't ever have done in their youth. I feel I'm more like in one of those kind of art forms, than in a youth-orientated art form. I think the people who did well, or are happy, in a youth industry, where their youthfulness was part of the act, obviously, by definition, they define themselves out of the business after a decade or so.

I don't feel that I'm very adaptable, that I particularly go with the flow of new ideas or something. I just don't feel I've mined my own scene properly and fully yet. It doesn't really matter what era I'm in. Because I haven't ever really felt quite =in= an era, I don't feel out of one. There was a certain amount of resentment, for example, in the early '80s of the new kids on the block at that time, the punks and so on. But since I hadn't acquired any particular loyalty to the previous generation, to my own generation even, I had no paranoia about anybody else's. I had no what you might call era patriotism--"that's my era, right or wrong" kind of thing. I've never been any kind of patriot, including not a cultural patriot. So I have no problem with new immigrants bringing new ideas. I'm happy about that.

Q: You've collaborated with a really wide assortment of musicians. Are there certain kinds of collaborations that you seek out?

W: Absolutely not, actually. To be honest, nearly everything I've been on, I've been asked to be on. And I'm quite surprised at them. I mean, they do surprise me on the whole. I would say that the ones that have perhaps meant most to me have been the most recent ones, Mike Mantler. And things I've done with him before. But no, I wouldn't have dreamt of asking these people. I don't ask people. When I'm recording, I'm very shy of asking people, in case they don't want to do it, or in case they don't get the idea that I had in my head, and I'm too embarrassed to not use it. Also, it's expensive. If you're going to use other people, you have to pay them. People don't (get paid), a lot of the time...

Things I do myself, I often imagine friends on things, and there are people I would like to work with. It's a bit harder, because I live out in the sticks anyway, and plus being in a wheelchair means that I can't really circulate. So I tend to stick to my own thing. I'm not, by nature, a collaborator. I think, there again, going back to the fact that my biggest influences were people like painters and poets. These are solitary workers. It's been very good for me to have been asked on various things, but in the end it surprises me. I just try and do the things that people ask me to do. It's nice, in a way. I don't have the responsibility for the final thing. I'm quite limited in what I can do, so sometimes I just have to say no, not because I don't like it, but because I just don't think I can do justice to the idea of the song.

But on the whole, that's rather misleading, this thing about all the people I work with. Although it's a fact, it's not a career decision on my part at all.

Q: You seem pretty comfortable working in a variety of styles, whether rock, pop, jazz, or avant-garde.

W: In the end, there are notes and intervals and chords and rhythms. Some I like, some I don't. But they are actually very often, in all these different kinds of musics, all these musicians from different styles are actually picking and choosing from the same tiny little bunch of notes, and the same little bunches of possible rhythms, and so on. Underneath the kind of superficial differences of style, the kind of music's haircut, if you like, or the current clothes the music is wearing, when you're actually working on a piece of music with at least one good idea in it, that good idea is not really fixed or tied to a style or an idiom. It's a good idea. There's no field of music which doesn't have good ideas. So anybody who has a good idea and I can deal with it suits me fine.

Q: With the music that you're making now, are there any directions that you're eager to stake out?

W: No, I'm still trying to do the same thing, only get it right! (laughs) The appearance of variety is a complete illusion. It's like somebody who's got a dartboard in his room, a large dartboard, and there's darts all over it. And you think, wow, you've got a lot of different directions you throw your darts. And you say, well yeah, but all I was trying to do was hit the board. That's all I've ever tried to do.

But I don't find the business easy. The moment you start talking about the business, you start sounding like someone in Spinal Tap. But the fact is, I have a great difficulty in communicating with the record business. There are some very honorable and nice record people. In fact, the people who distribute my stuff in the States through Gramavision (Rykodisc), they're very nice people. But on the whole, I've found that there's always that problem that I had with Virgin. I've never seen the need for this great split between success and failure that the pop industry is like. A bit like Hollywood--something's either a smash or it's a complete failure. The world of culture in my head that I come from isn't anything to do with that. It's to do with just people pegging away for a lifetime at their craft.

I mean, if you go to a shop down the road and buy something from the shop, it doesn't have to be the most successful shop in the universe. As long as he makes enough money selling his stuff that he can eat too, he's happy. And I'm like that with my music. I don't want to have to do the things you have to do. I don't want to live the life. It just doesn't mean anything to me, very much, the high-profile, big money side of things. I just want enough to live on, and to be able to get on with what I do, and hang around my friends. This constant pressure from record companies to come up with a hit single or something like that, I find completely tiresome. I just find that there's no understanding, really, of what the industry is.

And I find the same problem in the studio, even with engineers who don't like scruffy noises. They like to clean it up and get everything sounding really pristine clear because this is going to go in their CV, and they don't want another engineer to hear them on a record which doesn't sound all clean and tidy. And my music isn't clean and tidy. That's always been a difficult to me--just not being in tune with the industry.

If I say I'm disappointed in what I've done--and I can think of more wrong with it than right with it--maybe the good side of that is, it sort of keeps me hungry, you might say. It gives me a motive. People say, oh it's a shame, you're not nostalgic about the '60s. Well actually, it's quite good, when you think of it. Wouldn't it be sad if I was sitting here wishing it back? And I don't. So at least you can turn those things around. It's quite healthy, I think.

Q: I wanted to ask a question about someone else in the book who I won't be able to interview. You drummed on some of Syd Barrett's solo records.

W: I didn't see them (the Pink Floyd) perform very much. I liked him. He was shy, he was thoughtful, and he was definitely onto something.

Q: Did you find him difficult to work with?

W: Absolutely not, no. Very easy. Almost too easy. He was very, very easygoing. So easygoing that you didn't necessarily know what he wanted, or whether he was pleased with it or not, because he seemed quite pleased with what you did. I think possibly he may have suffered as well from moving into the world of commercial culture, as they did. I think it might have been very confusing for him. Being an artist, working in an attic, to us--this may be a silly illusion, it's just a silly romantic dream, just like being a pop star. But I don't his romantic dreams were anything to do with the responsibilities of commercial pop stardom.

It's not a snobbishness, this thing about commercial stuff. It's just the fact that it seems to have a momentum all its own, and there seems to be demands made on it. You know how it is with, for example, Hollywood films--they're really accountant-led. Being big and famous doesn't get you more freedom, it gets you less, you know what I mean? It happens in the music itself as well. All the machinery that starts to come into gear, from management and touring and the whole way it's done, the musician becomes a fairly small cog in a machine where all these sort of semi-comatose people in the industry certainly come alive, and they certainly know how to act. And suddenly, your whole life is being run by lawyers and accountants. And you're meant to be very pleased, because you've made it and so on. But in fact, you're just getting carried along in a flow where your own personal thing can get completely lost.

As I say, it's not a question of snobbery. Some wonderful stuff comes out of that. But if you did have your own little thing, maybe it can't survive being put through that kind of process. I have no idea, but I imagine that could easily have been what happened to Syd. That the actual success of the band just completely threw him off-balance, I can imagine.

Q: Is there truth to the stories that the musicians on his solo albums weren't told what key the song was in, or that they just had to settle on whatever takes were completed?

W: That's true, but I mean, that's not very...I was brought up, musically, in the '50s. If you want eccentricity, and that kind of non-verbal world and those kind of weird signals that you have to pick up, you can't beat jazz musicians, you know (laughs). I'm just reading the stories, as I say, about working with Mingus and all those people. Working with Syd Barrett's a piece of cake, I think. I found him courteous and friendly. I can't think of anything wrong with him. I really liked his songs. I liked them musically, I liked them lyrically, and I liked the way he sang them. I can't fault him, really. I don't think he did anything wrong that I know of. I just think that not everybody fits into the business. I know from personal experience, it's not that easy.

The one that I actually got on best with--he was very very kind and generous to me, and good company--was the bass player, Roger. I know they all fell out later. But I liked him and the others so much. I was very sorry that they fell apart. I know how all these things happen. But I really liked them, not just Syd, but all of them. Roger was very important, I thought, his contribution. And so was Rick's organ playing. It was a good band, and then it became another kind of good band. It became something else completely, obviously. Gilmour, as far as I can see--I don't know much about guitarists, really, I haven't worked much with them--but he seems like as good as a rock guitarist can be in that field. But he's very much a man of the world, you know. He's very at home in the world of power and money and so on, and he can deal with it. That had to happen. Syd Barrett fans shouldn't resent him, I don't think. I don't see how anything else could have happened.

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