This is an unpublished interview with Robert Wyatt, perhaps best known for his cover of ‘Shipbuilding’ by Elvis Costello and being a member of Soft Machine. I spoke to Robert in 2007 about his album Comicopera and had a fascinating and lovely chat.
Robert Wyatt-Ellidge is one of the last true enigmas left in British music. In an age when generic conservatism is frighteningly rife and the onslaught of tacky celebrity culture has tarnished creativity, Wyatt is like a beacon of hope from a lost era, defiantly soldiering on and still releasing remarkable and unclassifiable solo records since 1970.
The latest inimitable slice of Wyatt is Comicopera – an ambitious and diverse album divided into three acts. Recorded at home in Louth, Lincolnshire, it’s also his first with Domino Records, which means Wyatt is now an unlikely label mate of the likes of Franz Ferdinand and Arctic Monkeys.
Born during the final few months of the Second World War in Bristol, Wyatt grew up near Dover and was taught the drums by a visiting American jazz drummer called George Neidorf. After stints in the Daevid Allen Trio and the Wilde Flowers, Wyatt formed Soft Machine with Kevin Ayers and Allen. Soft Machine blended psychedelia with jazz fusion, becoming one of the most revered acts in prog-rock while Pink Floyd were bringing it to a wider audience. They were briefly managed by Damon Albarn’s father Keith. After four years of touring and three albums, Robert recorded his first solo album entitled The End of an Ear.
Fusion groups such as Centipede and Matching Mole followed, but in 1973 at a party in Maida Vale, London, Robert fell from a third floor window. Paralysed from the waist down, Wyatt was confined to a wheelchair. Pink Floyd staged two benefit concerts compered by John Peel and raised in the region of £10,000. Meanwhile, Wyatt decided that his days as a band member were over.
His first solo album since his accident, Rock Bottom, is a far more accomplished work than The End of an Ear. Indeed, he has often said since that he doesn’t even consider his debut as part of his “canon.” Ivor Cutler contributed to a track called “Little Red Robin Hood Hit the Road” and a lot more people listened up and paid attention. He married the poet, lyricist and illustrator Alfreda Benge in 1973, whom he still lives with in Lincolnshire and affectionately refers to as Alfie.
Wyatt scored chart success with covers of “Shipbuilding” by Elvis Costello and “I’m a Believer” by the Monkees. When he appeared on Top of the Pops, a BBC producer maintained that a man singing in a wheelchair was not suitable for family viewing. Famously, Wyatt “lost his rag but not the wheelchair” and the appearance continued without pandering to any ludicrous demands.
In 2001, Wyattt curated a Meltdown extravaganza that included Ivor Cutler, Baaba Maal, David Gilmour, Elvis Costello, Tricky and the Raincoats. In 2003, he received a Mercury Music Prize nomination for the whimsical Cuckooland, an album that ranks with Rock Bottom, Shleep and Ruth is Stranger than Richard as one of his best works.
His oeuvre is one of the most dazzling and uncategorisable in modern music and free of any token nods to eclecticism or fusion for its own sake. His work is also consistently brilliant. The release of Comicopera is thrilling news, further accentuating the magical and mercurial brilliance of the one and only Robert Wyatt.
One of the most interesting things about Comicopera is how well it functions as a complete piece. The art of album listening has been somewhat adversely effected by downloading culture, so I’d be curious to know if this in any informed your ambitions and intentions for this album?
I’ve got used to wearing comfortable set of clothes even if they’re not very fashionable clothes. I was brought up with the old two-sided LPs and I like that format. On my last record (Cuckooland) I split it in two. I still think in 20 minute chunks. I’m glad that you noticed that it is meant to be listened to as a whole, because it’s a kind of a journey or some sort of idiot’s pilgrimage.
In Act III – Away with the Fairies, you stop singing in English.
Well, that’s one of the ways that I’m away with the fairies! I’m very English. I’m very happy with so many things here and I like a cup of tea. What irritates me are boring council meetings and boring streets to walk down, but that’s nothing to go to war about. I do enjoy the cosmopolitan music scene which is why there is an instrumental track on there celebrating that called “The Town Square”. However, I can’t really wallow in happiness when we’re fighting our wars against defenceless people to the East. As a taxpayer, it irritates me and that’s putting it very mildly indeed. It’s a very odd idea to spread democracy by going around and bombing people.
As a British citizen, does Gordon Brown’s appointment as Prime Minister make you feel in any way more hopeful or optimistic?
It’s bit too late for me to shift my opinions on governments. It seems to me that the purpose of a Labour government is to look after the shop while the Conservatives go off on grouse-shooting holiday for five years. The basic problem remains that we’re still relying on the control of other countries for the supply of basic resources in one way or another. In Iraq, they’ll have a terrible dilemma of withdrawing without it looking like they’ve been defeated. We’re being beaten in Afghanistan and Iraq. That’s the unbearable truth and we should have learnt that a hundred years ago. You can’t just eradicate other people and replace them with replicas of yourself with impunity. However, it’s reassuring to have an adult speaking on behalf of the country rather an adolescent retard from pre-school, but that’s just a personal opinion. I don’t analyse things politically. I suppose I do view them artistically. It’s like looking at the sea. The journalist looks at the ships on the sea and what happens to them. What the artist has to do is look at the undercurrents and shifting waters. While I’m sifting around in the gloom, somebody else is looking at all the chopping and changing on the top.
Even though there is a lot of love, loss and war on Comicopera, I don’t find it a depressing album.
There are a few comic moments on this record although they probably escape most people’s attention. People think I’m depressing because of the beard and the wheelchair. If they could see me as I really am in my head, which is some kind of reckless little monkey scampering around in the trees, they’d be much closer to the mark quite frankly. I get pissed off like we all do. I get puzzled and frightened. Tragedy isn’t funny, but I do think the best way to see life is as some kind of vast cosmic joke. People who perpetuate evil don’t tend to be monsters, they’re just hideous people who shouldn’t be allowed at the controls. We haven’t worked that one out yet, as wonderful as human civilisation is. We haven’t learnt how to get the right fucker at the controls. Countries like England have always had empires and are always prone during a weak moment to suddenly think they have to do all that again. I have to distance myself from that aspect of England and that’s what the third act is all about. Both my son and my daughter have married into families of Irish descent and I’m delighted. My son has married a Birmingham-Irish woman and my daughter has married a Canadian Irishman called Patrick Burke. I’ve got got four grand-daughters, sorry, I mean three and a grandson! I think. Well, four of those little pinky things that squeak. Now, they’re all being brought up as Catholics, which is a bit of laugh considering their Granddad doesn’t believe in anything! But I don’t have too much of a problem with religion. I suppose it brings a sense of security, community and continuity in the face of a difficult world. I’m glad that my son and daughter have extended the gene pool. I’m not worried about immigration. This is an island, so I’m more worried about in-breeding. So that’s my connection with Ireland, apart from being a big fan of Samuel Beckett and Oscar Wilde, but I’m sure everyone says that.
This is your first album on Domino which is an extremely well-respected and label. Does this new relationship excite you?
I can’t believe my luck. We had to leave the last record company because it was taken over by a vast anonymous gang from across the Atlantic so we scuttled off. I’m glad they’ve got a great reputation. I don’t follow music as closely as you do, but I can tell you that as people they’re just terrific. They’re bright, funny, intelligent and they work really hard. They have a similar spirit to Geoff Travis and Rough Trade. They’ve struck gold a couple of times lately, which has given them a profile that good people don’t always get. I’m so lucky to be able to benefit from that.
I came across an interesting quote on a blog that claims you are the one performer in England that everyone respects and loves; the punks, the art-rockers – everyone…
I don’t quite understand that to be honest. I don’t mean to be falsely modest, but I have great difficulty doing what I do. Heath Robinson used to draw all these mad machines that wouldn’t work and sometimes I feel my records are a bit like that. I do the best I can. Whenever I hear one of my records on the radio, I wince with embarrassment. I think, “Take that off and put on a proper record!” I’m baffled really, but it’s nice when people say nice things about me. Some of my contemporaries got terribly paranoid about punk, but I thought Johnny Rotten was great. He made me laugh out loud and I thought he was a wonderful singer. I just couldn’t see the problem people had with him. When people get older, they sometimes forget that every generation will find its own subculture and these tribal divisions make life interesting. I’ve always welcomed it and they never had me waving their finger at them in some kind of school-masterly way. So, maybe there isn’t this feeling that I’m some disapproving elder looking down upon them. I know exactly how they feel. I felt that way too.
That’s funny when you say you feel uncomfortable hearing your music. Of course, your name has become a verb, as “Wyatting” refers to the practice of putting weird music on a jukebox with the aim of clearing a pub.
If someone put on one of my records in a pub it would certainly alienate me. I’d be straight out of there. Put on Girls Aloud or James Brown. Anything else. For fuck’s sake, who wants to hear an old man with a beard when they’re trying to have a drink? However, I do try and make tunes and I don’t go out of my way to be obscure. Most of tunes tend to be light pop songs, they just tend to go on a bit. I like jazz solos and I like moments of complete anarchy and freedom, but it’s always anchored in songs for me.
I don’t know exactly what the Cuban track “Hasta Siempre Comadante” at the end of the album, is all about as I don’t know any Spanish, but I believe it is concerned with Che Guervara?
That’s right. The instrumental part was recorded by some Italian musicians. It’s a remix of a piece I did some years ago for a fundraising CD for the Italian equivalent of The Morning Star (English socialist newspaper) called Il Manifesto. I resurrected it and remixed it with new vocals. They play it so beautifully.
The last track on Ruth is Stranger than Richard is called “Song for Che”.
Yes. This is my second song for Che and the second one I’ve done by the songwriter Carlos Puebla. He only died recently. He was a Cuban folk legend of the post-revolutionary years.
One of the most beautiful tracks is “Just As You Are”. Monica Vasconcelos’ voice is amazing. Who is she?
Isn’t she lovely? She is an amazing Brazilian lady and she has a record of her own called Hih. We did a swop. Instead of payment, we appeared on each other’s records, which is something I do from time to time. I used to do that with David Gilmour and Brian (Eno). She got Alfie to write her some music and I wrote some lyrics. She normally sings in Portuguese so when she sings on “Just As You Are” there is a touch of innocence in the way she sings and a real sensual knowingness. She was the yin to my yang! (chuckles)
Brian Eno pops up too. You’ve been working with him for a long time and you played on Music for Airports.
Yeah, he plays keyboard on the first track and sorted out the cymbal sounds. I used his voice as an ‘Enotron’ on “Out of the Blue”. Incidentally, on the very first copies of the CD, I left out Beverly Chadwick’s name who played baritone sax, which was my mistake entirely. There was so much going on that I just slipped up and forgot. I’m not so good at all the practical stuff afterwards.
I love “Out of the Blue”. I think it’s my favourite track on the album.
It’s a nice example of how me and Alfie can work together in a way that is almost spooky. She just came in with the words and they just matched. You’d think we had it prepared. I suppose we’ve been preparing for it in living together for 35 years.
I believe you did a live show recently in Lincoln.
Oh look, I don’t know how that one got out. There is a young bee-bop drummer called Dylan Howe who is brilliant. The nearest he came to us was Lincoln which is an hour and a bit up the road. He persuaded me to play for a little bit, but it wasn’t my show. All I did was mutter a chorus. It’s no big deal. I didn’t even get onstage. I haven’t sung onstage since 1982. The only other time I did something like that was with David Gilmour a couple of years ago, but again I just skulked in the corner and did a bit of grunting and muttering.
Is making albums more important to you than playing live? It certainly seems to be that way for Kate Bush and Scott Walker.
I suppose it is. When David Gilmour plays, people appreciate what it is but some people come up to him and they can get quite abusive about the fact that it’s not Pink Floyd. Ray Davies goes crazy because anytime he appears audiences just want him to do ‘Waterloo Sunset’. I don’t have that problem. I do my songs and people expect and respect that. Then I move on to something else. I enjoyed playing live and I loved live drumming in particular. Sure, there is a buzz involved but I don’t envy people who have to go on tour. I work more like a painter. I like working with small groups within this domestic intimacy.
I believe you’re very inspired by painters.
I’m married to someone who has an M.A. and went to art college for ten years. I like doing little cartoons and stuff. I look at paintings all the time. Right in front of me now is a Basquiat print that Alfie bought me for my birthday. It’s beautiful. I’m also looking at the cover of Comicopera and that’s beautiful too. I still love art. As a teenager, the only thing that I found interesting that grown ups did was painting. The painters of the first half of the 20th century were my bread and butter really. I love sculpture too. More recently, I could spend a whole other life only looking at older painters – from Caravaggio right back to Giotto. They’re gob-smacking. There is just so much. I’m quite happy with my little art books because I find art galleries a bit difficult. Plus, you’re not allowed to smoke in them, which I know is sensible so I’m not complaining. I find the luminosity of wet paint comes back when you see paintings reproduced on television. I went to see a contemporary Japanese art exhibition in the Hayward Gallery in London recently. It was wonderful and full of witty and bright ideas. I was entranced by it. I also saw some David Hockney portraits of his mother lately which were fantastic. They were the best series of portraits of someone getting older that I’ve seen since Rembrandt. I get a lot of brain food from painting, but it’s not what I do.
What was it like to work with Bjork on her Medulla album?
I just think she’s magical. What can I say? It was like being visited by an angel from the top of a Christmas tree who comes down for while, sits on your shoulder and has a chat. I was completely in a daze. She is a beautiful bit of magic that floats about the earth like Stevie Wonder or Nina Simone. Me and the missus were thrilled to have her in the house. I don’t listen to much rock music, but someone like that cuts right through. I still think I’ll wake up one day and realise it was all just a dream.
You’ve worked with a lot of amazing people throughout your career, such as Mike Oldfield and Ivor Cutler.
It’s amazing. It’s been my life really. It’s like she came out of nowhere and went back to nowhere. Well, not nowhere because she went back to Iceland obviously! I knew Ivor so well. He used to come round every week. We’d have some food and have a laugh and he’d potter off. Occasionally, we worked together, but to me he was just Ivor. It’s the same with anyone else. I’ve been lucky to have these great friends independent of their stature in the outside world. Personally, I’m more concerned to work with people who aren’t well known enough such as Monica. Some people are lucky enough to have struck some kind of common chord that resonates around the world, but other people haven’t. How people have resonated around the world means very little to me. What I’m concerned with is whether they have some kind of gift that they can share with me even just for one song. To me, Paul (Weller) is just Paul. He is such a smart dresser, even when there is no one around to see! I love him. They’re just people. Like Brian Eno with his bicycle. He just makes me laugh. You should hear his jokes. Actually, you shouldn’t because they’re disgraceful. Most of the time I hang around in our little town which is miles away from any media-attended event. I spent most of my time talking to Alfie, my Mother in Law Loreanna and Stan, who sells sausages in a bun with a cup of tea from his van for £1.20 in the market square up the road. We go to supper with our friends Alan and Patricia and Jane and Martin. None of them are musicians. Real life is anonymous. It just happens that a few of my friends are dead famous. It puts me off asking sometimes. I asked Paul’s missus Sharon if he could play and she told me he was off on tour. I felt a bit shy about asking him after hearing that, but she just said, “Come on Robert, don’t be a moron! Paul would love to do it!”
Your hometown sounds amazing. It must be a very conducive environment for creativity.
It is because there is no pressure to do anything. It’s a homely market town. It’s easy to live in and I can get around with great ease in my wheelchair within a ten minute spin around the block. In a place that might seem to have everything like London, I can’t really do that. It’s like toy town. It’s like a toy train set with the butcher, the baker and candle-stick maker. It’s got a few thousand people in it and a few industries that make cardboard packaging and plastic spoons. The people are friendly and very nice. There is a plumber next door and a shopkeeper on the other side. It’s more than good enough for me.
Do your neighbours know who you are?
There is a woman down the pub called Maureen who said to me, “Robert, I know you’re a celebrity, but I don’t think anyone knows what you do.” I just said, “Let’s leave it at that Maureen. Don’t worry about it. I’m celebrity for sure. Give us another drink.” They’ve got a vague feeling that I must be something or other, but nobody really knows what it is because I’m not on Emmerdale or anything like that so they’re a bit puzzled. There is a little record shop up the road called Off the Beaten Track and they know what I do. It’s really nice little shop. I wheel up there and get my old jazz records. They feed the local youth their rock records and I just sit there having a cup of tea.
Thanks so much for the chat Robert. Sorry, I’ve just realised that I’ve ran way over time.
Oh, that’s alright. I’ve still got my cup of tea going.