A staunch humanitarian with a high, keening voice that explores the outer reaches of both rock and jazz – it’s safe to say that Robert Wyatt is an almost unique figure in modern music.
After a tragic accident left him wheelchair bound in 1973, Wyatt picked himself up and embarked upon a singular solo career. Sometimes flirting with the charts, but more often than not a lone voice crying in the wilderness, Wyatt seems to embody the curious eccentricity that makes English pop music so endearing.
The recent Domino re-issuing of his back catalogue has provided a new generation with an entry point into the work of this wonderful songwriter. From ‘Rock Bottom’, recorded in the aftermath of his accident, to 2007’s double album ‘Comicopera’, the 63-year-old Wyatt remains a confusing, probing and above all engaging talent.
ClashMusic.com spent some time with this personable maverick. Here’s what we discovered…
What is it about jazz that you find so enticing?
Well my parents used to listen to a lot of classical music and stuff, so what I liked about jazz was the motion, the urgency to it. Classical music I always think is like a lake or a sea or something, whereas jazz is more like a fast moving river.
What came first, the drumming or the singing?
Well it was drumming really. I was basically a drummer, and I only sang because somebody had to, really! Sometimes we had a singer and sometimes we didn’t. There were some things that you could sing and play drums at the same time on. Like James Brown’s ‘I Feel Good’, you know (sings) “I Feel Good!”. One bar of singing and one bar of drumming! The harder the music got, the more jazzy it got. I mean when we started out we played club music and I sang, but then later on I concentrated more on drumming. Then in the ‘70s I mainly concentrated on singing, basically because I couldn’t really drum anymore anyway.
And a visiting American soldier taught you how to play the drums?
He wasn’t a soldier but he was a jazz drummer. He stayed at our house for a bit, and he taught us a bit of stuff. He was a bit of a drifter really. He taught me things like how to hold the sticks and that sort of thing. I didn’t take him up on a lot of it but I was glad to know what I should be doing, if I wanted to do it.
The Soft Machine moved to progressive music, how did that come about?
Well, it happened because we were a live band really. I would have liked to have recorded more stuff in the studio, singles and stuff, but we didn’t have the opportunity to do that, so we developed a live set where the improvisation aspect was extended. Eventually it just got longer and longer, until the songs were just points for starting off, and finishing. The type of audience we were playing to in the late ‘60s, I mean there was a really wide gap between the sort of people who listened to radio and the people who went to rock festivals and stuff. Almost like two different tribes, and we were playing to the type of people who went to festivals, outdoor stuff and things that went on for hour and hours. And the bands played accordingly. In retrospect there was a lot of space to be allowed to do new stuff, and in the venues we played there was no need to play songs that people recognised or anything like that. The idea was to just keep working out new ideas, and that just seemed to be allowed. We just played in places where that was welcomed, and when we played in places where it wasn’t welcome we didn’t get any work again.
‘Rock Bottom’ is regard as your first solo record. Could you describe the circumstances of this album?
What it was, simply, is that I spent about a year in hospital, and it gave me time to think about what I wanted to think about. In a way, oddly enough, the pressure was off. Having a band, and do we have enough money to keep going? Of course in hospital you don’t have any of that stuff to think about, you think more abstractly. When I came out I was full of music, but I didn’t really need a band as most of it I could just do on my own. So that’s what I did. Then I got a few friends in to play the other bits, just adding bits and pieces. It was kind of liberating in a way not to have to put everything into a group format.
You have had hit singles, such as ‘I’m A Believer’ and ‘Shipbuilding’ – what emphasis do you put on this?
Neither of those really made money, so they weren’t commercial successes in that sense; I just found myself in that situation. I mean, I’ve always liked pop music – I’ve got friends who don’t but I always did. When you’re a teenager and discover girls, pop songs are inexplicably linked to girls and wistful songs about them. I’ve always had nice sentimental, romantic things in my head when I think about pop records, and I’ve always wanted to have a go at them. I’m not a serious contender in the pop world though, as I don’t look right and I don’t sound right.
You mention your voice, is it true you can sing across multiple octaves?
It depends! Certainly when I was young I could get amazingly high and I can now get very low, but no longer get very high. So at no particular time have I been able to reach all those octaves, but I’ve been lucky in that as I get older I can reach the lower ones. So I can’t do all those girl songs any more, but I can now do Johnny Cash songs that I couldn’t do when I was younger.
You frequently work in a collaborative way – how does this work in the studio?
Well, I always try and do as much as I can by myself. I try to create the atmosphere of the songs and then invite musicians in. I sort of have an idea of the theme of the songs, how they’re going to be, because if you get a band in and they have no idea of how it’s going to work in their head then they won’t really know how to play. I can’t really write music well enough to tell people ‘well just play that B flat and everything will be alright’. They have to be able to hear what it is. I do as much as I can, basic keyboards, bit of percussion put a vocal on and then I invite musicians in. Actually, mostly one by one, and then I put it together afterwards to make it sound like a group. I prefer working with musicians one to one, in a more intimate way. I mean, every musician works in a different way – jazz musicians are different than rock musicians. For example, if I’m working with a double bass player he might want it a bit quiet, but if you’ve got Paul Weller coming into the studio he likes everything incredibly loud. You’d have everything really loud for Paul, just for a day or so.
You seem to record sporadically, on your own terms – what prompts this?
Well, what I like about this bunch of records is that when you add it up there’s quite a lot of stuff there. But I’ve still kept doing stuff on and off for 40 years, even if not all of it is very high profile. I’ve done lots of stuff that’s not under my own name, working for other people. Even last year a record came out – I did a bit of harmony singing with Billy Bragg, which was nice, just to work with other people rather than preparing stuff for my own record. I don’t earn a lot of money for my records so I can’t just sit around making my own records unless I’m really ready. I have to really know that I’ve got enough material.
I’m not like Elvis Costello or something, one of these people who can just sit down and write songs, like Pete Townshend. These people can just come out with torrents of wonderful stuff. I don’t find that I do – I have lots of ideas but I find that they’re not always in recordable forms. You can compare it with something like the gestation period of elephants. You know, elephants are pregnant for 18 months – they have the same process, it just takes twice as long as humans.
You recorded an album of political covers called ‘Nothing Can Stop Us’ – what prompted this?
Well I’m quite interested in looking outside yourself. Not just yourself and your own concerns, but look at the world around you. One of the ways you can do this if by doing songs that might not get heard in a rock context – South American songs, or songs in a political context that don’t get heard in one way or another. Billy Bragg does this brilliantly, he finds songs you’ll never have heard of and does them in a way that makes you listen to them.
It’s a way of showing off: I like singing songs in another language and quite a lot of political songs are Spanish. I’m not very good at it apparently, but I still like doing it. There are times in my life when it seems to me that the battle for justice is very intense, and music doesn’t seem sometimes to be helping very much in this battle against injustice at all. So that comes out in my songs a lot. It used to always worry me, and still does now, that after Iraq and Afghanistan we are battering Pakistan. I know we’re going after Al Qaeda but I bet we’re still killing thousands of Afghan and Pakistani peasants at the same time. It just makes me feel a bit ill, you know. It just seems like there should be a better way of doing things sometimes.
Is it true you joined the Communist Party in the ‘80s?
It’s true that I was a member of the Communist Party throughout the ‘80s, yeah. It sort of disintegrated towards the end. As a mass movement it was a failure but it was based on some great insights and I’m still very grateful for what I got from that. There were a lot of brave and good people who fought under the Communist banner, though you wouldn’t know that from watching Hollywood films. But there were. In the Second World War it was the Communists who bore the brunt of the fascist onslaught, and they helped in other areas, in other countries. In Italy and France and so on they were the hardcore basis of the underground resistance movement. But anyway, I’m grateful to Communist Party for what I learnt from it – and the mistakes are so obvious they are hardly worth pointing out. But I think that it has to be said that the Communist Party came about for a reason – that the capitalist system around the world just wouldn’t do, and still won’t as far as I am concerned. There are still trade unionists being killed all around the world, from Columbia to the Philippines, and people are still being forced to work for the big companies. I still think its wrong, and it may be slightly old fashioned of me but I still think it’s completely out of order – so I still stay on the left, while that problem remains. I think the fact is there’s an immense amount of wealth in the world, but the people who seem to do the hard work to make all that money always seem to be the last in the queue to get any of the benefits. And I think that’s wrong.
‘Comicopera’ uses many different languages, why is this?
Well I always worry about sounding samey, so I like my records to kick against this one way or the other so its not just the same old thing with every release. And one of the ways I can do that is by using other languages. Some of the material is just unique to that language, the Cuban song and so on, just have a resonance as a language. The music itself is Spanish anyway.
That album also uses one of Lorca’s lyrics – why did you choose this?
It’s an excerpt from a play, but it is certainly a poem as all his writing was really poetry anyway. I was asked to do it, originally, the Lorca centenary people got in touch. Lorca comes from Grenada in Spain, a very Arabic town in its day, a thousand years ago, and he was working against Fascism in the early part of the last century. He wasn’t involved with political groups but he did side with the Republic against the Fascist onslaught. The tribute record was full of people singing in Spanish, and so they asked me, but all the poems had already been snaffled by other musicians so I took this text from a play and just seemed to put the imagery – which is about underwater sea-scapes, nightmares – into the kind of thing I do anyway. There’s a Columbian exile bass player on it, and he did some wonderful playing that sounds like whales underwater. I was very happy with that.
Do you view your own lyrics as poetry?
No, I wouldn’t make those claims as there are people who write poetry who are experts in their language and I’m not. I never went to university. I mean, I was good at it at school but I never went on to study it at university. I wouldn’t consider myself to be well read, even. I wouldn’t claim to be a writer, as such, but I do work on it and try to make them singable. Going back a bit, but writers in ancient times used to chant their poems, which is just the same as singing really. There was a crossover between poetry and song, this ambiguous crossover – the Psalms for example. When you sing things you can change how they sound. You can sing things that work as songs but wouldn’t necessarily work on the written page. Like ‘Tutti Frutti’ by Little Richard – it doesn’t sound great, but it’s a wonderful song! It works as something to sing. Quite a lot of Stevie Wonder, as well – if you write them down they are very sentimental and wouldn’t work as poems but they just sing beautifully. (Wyatt’s wife) Alfie is brilliant at writing stuff that, particularly for me as a singer, is just easy to turn into music. I find it very natural, and that’s what I look for. And hopefully it means something as well.
Your wife creates the artwork, and you sometimes take an elaborate approach to packaging. How are these aspects linked?
One of the things I like about these re-releases is just seeing the amount of ideas she has come up with, when you see them all together. I’m very lucky. Ideally, Alfie in her mind knows that people can get free downloads and stuff from the net, so she wants to make people know that if they buy one of my records they will get added value in it in a way. A record won’t just be a bit of plastic in a cardboard box with sound on it, but something that’s actually a pleasure to have, just as a physical object. The extent that happens is a credit to Alfie, as an artist.
What is it that keeps you writing?
There still seems to be a frustration sometimes that I haven’t said something right. Or Alfie sometimes says, “Why don’t you do songs that people can dance do?” And I’m thinking, “Yeah, I ought to!” There’s always stuff that I haven’t done, or sometimes I’m sitting tootling on the cornet and a bunch of notes will pop into my head and I’ll think, “Oh nice!” And that’s it, really. I mean, I can’t really do that much around the house apart from the washing up for Alfie, or washing potatoes. I don’t pull my weight at home really, so if I don’t make records I’m going to get in big trouble!
Is there anything new in the pipeline?
I’ve got bits and pieces, but to be honest we’ve been having a rough year to be honest. Alfie has had a lot of eye trouble, which has required regular visits to the hospital, and that’s really frightening. Nothing you have to concern yourself with, but her mother’s been unwell and has been staying with us. So domestic stuff has taken up quite a lot of thought and time, we can’t just sort of wing it and live for the music. We’ve got real life stuff to get through. I always find that to make music you have to be in this sort of zone, a particular place, I need to clear the ground, the air, the horizons. But our domestic situation is a bit muddy. There’s always ideas in the air, you know, but nothing definite.
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Robert Wyatt’s back catalogue is reissued via Domino – get ‘Rock Bottom’, ‘Old Rottenhat’, ‘Drury Lane’ and more at all good retailers. Find Wyatt on MySpace HERE.