INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Pitchfork OCTOBER 29, 2007 - by Stephen Troussé
We met Robert Wyatt on a lovely late summer day, on the top floor of the recently refurbished Royal Festival Hall. The new well appointed member's bar overlooking the Thames is empty but for the two of us. "So, is this your London office now, Robert?" I kid. "Well, I did curate a Meltdown festival here a few years ago... and once you've done something here, you're supposed to have access to the building whenever you like. But the new lot don't seem to realize that. They've been a bit sniffy about doing interviews here. I would say something, but I don't want to be one of those awful people saying 'Don't you know who I am?' I really don't want to be that person!"
It's difficult to imagine anyone getting sniffy with Robert Wyatt. Maybe it's just the beard, but since the deaths of Ivor Cutler and John Peel, Wyatt has become something like the Santa Claus of the British counterculture. Since debuting in the Daevid Allen Trio in 1963, he's been a continuing, restlessly inventive presence, surviving successive fashions, revolutions, and even a fall from a third-story window. A list of his band-mates and collaborators reads like a secret history of all that has been most vital in four decades of British music: Kevin Ayers, Soft Machine, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd and Syd Barrett, Fred Frith, Brian Eno, Scritti Politti, Elvis Costello, Ultramarine. His new record comes out on Domino, and quite naturally comes with a press release written by his latest fan, Alex from Hot Chip.
Comicopera sees Wyatt reunited with what now seems to be his very own big band (featuring Eno, trombonist Annie Whitehead, saxophonist Gilad Atzmon, his wife Alfie, and Paul Weller, among others) and feels like the third installment in a series that began with 1997's Shleep: bittersweet, furious and funny protest songs against what Thomas Pynchon once called Empire's "dreamless version of the real."
Pitchfork: So, Robert: Comicopera. I think it's fair to say, you haven't gone Gilbert and Sullivan on us?
Robert Wyatt: No, not really. But it's more Gilbert and Sullivan than, say, Tristan and Isolde...
Pitchfork: You sometimes give the impression you'd like nothing better than to spend the rest of your days sitting around at home, listening to John Coltrane and gazing out the window. What motivates you to make a new record? A combination of your wife and record company?
Robert Wyatt: Well, we've all got to earn a living. And writing songs is what I do. But when I've done a record, it's not that I think it's better or worse than anyone else's, but if I think that nobody else would have done it if I hadn't, well then that's ok.
Pitchfork: Did Domino get in touch with you?
Robert Wyatt: No, on the contrary, we went to them. We just got on with it and finished the record. It's just much more comfortable to have the final record when you're happy with it and then look for a label. And a guy I used to work with at Ryko was now at Domino, and they're just perfect really. They're real enthusiasts for music. But they have also had a couple of massive hits, so they've got resources. So we're very happy.
Pitchfork: You were on Virgin in the 1970s, Rough Trade in the '80s - do you think Domino have the same spirit as those other labels did then?
Robert Wyatt: Well you know Virgin was never really about music. They did figure out how to sell records without having hit singles. But it was always an incipient business for [Virgin owner/founder Richard] Branson. Rough Trade was really the big breakthrough.
Pitchfork: Some people might look at Comicopera and say it's a concept album.
Robert Wyatt: I always thought that a concept album was one where you start off with a plan. But this was the opposite, really. I had a batch of songs, Alfie had some ideas. There were some Brian Eno tunes. But then I looked at what I'd got when I'd recorded a few things. I thought that I had three twenty minute sections which seemed to fit together...
Pitchfork: In a funny way, it's like a three-sided LP?
Robert Wyatt: Well it is going to be a three-sided LP! One of the great things about Domino is that they still do vinyl. So it will be three sides, with a short story I wrote on the back of the fourth side, just scratched into the vinyl. But, yes, a sequence appeared - a first section is at home, the second is out and about in the world, and then third is all over the place. It's not an opera in the classic sense. There's no real plan to it. But you've got to call a record something - and so that's what it's called.
Pitchfork: You've assembled a terrific band. I can't think of many other records that feature both Brian Eno and Paul Weller.
Robert Wyatt: I really like bands. Not particularly rock bands, but big jazz bands. As a jazz fan I want it to have real people there. There's still a consistency to it all, because it's my voice. And there is some improvisation. I never do anything the same way twice in the studio, and nor does anyone else, and it's not til the end that work out the best takes.
Robert Wyatt: Oh yes, that was really good. He said to me "Robert, can you do me some flies?". So I said, right great! So I imagined I was a fly - I method-acted my way into being a swarm of flies. And then we found out the tempo of Superfly by Curtis Mayfield, so that was obviously going to be the BPM. And I thought I'd do it in the key of F for Fly. And it's basically atonal. And then Brian put a song around it. It was a very specific request!
Pitchfork: How did you come to work with Paul Weller?
Robert Wyatt: What I've got in common with Paul are two things. Firstly, our main inspirations and points of reference are really Black American music. Except I go back about ten years earlier than him. But all the London mod clubs that Alfie used to go to, he loves to hear all about that. And the other thing is we have this basic sense of justice, of right and wrong and respect. We just have different ways of expressing it. One thing we don't have in common is he's a very sharp dresser! Him and Jerry Dammers were the last generation of pop or rock musicians I could get along with. I thought they were better, more astute, politically, than my lot were in the '60s.
Pitchfork: Did you once say that without jazz America would have been a mistake?
Robert Wyatt: It wouldn't have been a mistake. But if it hadn't been for the black cultural experience, from the gospel and blues and jazz, American would be no more famous than, say, New Zealand. Americans do make great films. But who doesn't make films? The Japanese do, the French do, the Iranians do! The Americans have a huge commercial advantage. So I wouldn't say cinema. Actually it was Clint Eastwood who said, the only things America has contributed to civilization are the western and jazz. And I don't think westerns are bad, but lots of people make great cinema. But jazz is right there.
Pitchfork: What do you make of hip-hop?
Robert Wyatt: It's none of my business really. It's a modern folk form and a very fertile one. The wonderful thing about the language - up til that time, black Americans had sung in a slightly secularized church tradition or soap operatics really. And when I heard hip-hop, I thought this is great, really. Because everyone knows in America that working class black American speech is incredibly fertile. Even in jazz, a lot of the language was coming into the music then. Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller. Lots of Black, Jewish and Gypsy things - the language is full of disguises, to throw the enemy off the scent. And words which mean the opposite of what they say - bad meaning good and so on.
But the language never came out in the songs at all - the songs were still "I love you". It wasn't really as good as Irving Berlin or Cole Porter. It was just kind of adequate. Until hip-hop, and then ordinary speech started coming - the incredible phraseology, how black Americans talk came to the foreground, which was wonderful.
Pitchfork: Were you a kind of teenage Beat jazz fan back in the '50s?
Robert Wyatt: Well... I went to a provincial school where I was caned a lot. There were a few reproductions of Paul Klee around the house. I was just wishing I was someone else, somewhere else. I wasn't living an alternative lifestyle.
Pitchfork: I read somewhere that your mum was a friend of poet Robert Graves?
Robert Wyatt: My mum was a journalist. In the 1930s she went out to Majorca and there weren't very many English people there, so she got to know Robert Graves, it's true. I didn't meet my dad until I was six, because he was fighting in the war. And he then contracted multiple sclerosis, and he was dead ten years later. But when I knew him, he was an industrial psychologist - he worked up the road, advising people who'd fallen off ladders what job they could do next. My mum wrote articles. We were fairly normal, to me. Well, it was the only family I had! I had a one hour bus ride to school, through acres of countryside. And when you're a young man you're not looking for acres of countryside. You're looking for girls. So I felt, to be dragged away from London and stuck out there on the brink... That was a cruel blow, I felt!
Pitchfork: Was there much music round the house?
Robert Wyatt: My dad had some jazz records. Most of his generation had started to listen to some jazz, but they played everyone from Debussy to Bartok. But one day my older brother came to visit us and he had loads of jazz records with him, real stuff like Stan Kenton. My dad was a bit shocked that that became my favourite, and I started to listen to less Bartok and more bebop. I think he was puzzled, by that...
Pitchfork: There's some beautiful singing on Comicopera, especially Just As You Are. How do you feel about your voice these days?
Robert Wyatt: Oh, cheers! I know more about my voice now. I've lost half my top notes, but it seems like I've gained just as many lower ones. In the old days I used to learn by copying women, like Dionne Warwick and Billie Holiday. But more recently my role models have been people like Johnny Cash... Because I'm now down in that area. I don't know if it's quite possible to imagine a journey from Dionne Warwick to Johnny Cash, but that's the one I have been working at!
Pitchfork: You once said that you were like a darts player, throwing some pretty haphazard arrows at the board, and that's what gave the impression of having lots of different musical directions. Do you think you're getting closer to the bulls-eye these days?
Robert Wyatt: Well, at the moment I feel a great sense of relief with this record. In fact, with the last two or three really. I'm getting in focus what I can do in combination with other people, that makes sense, that makes it a listenable record. I can't say I haven't done it before, I have. But now apparently I have this other thing, this alter ego as it were, which is the trumpet. I'm not a very original trumpet player. In fact I'm not a proper trumpet player at all. But it just enables me to get those notes I can't sing anymore. I just feel at home now, in my voice.
Pitchfork: You always undersell yourself as a musician... Were you ever tempted to learn music theory?
Robert Wyatt: I tried learning music, yeah. It's one of those things you sit down and try to do some days, like trying to understand the theory of revolution, or relativity, or how to win at chess or something like that. But I'm crap at it! It still looks like fly-shit on telephone polls to me!
Pitchfork: Even though Comicopera deals with the fiasco in the Middle East and the terrible state of Western politics, it doesn't feel like a particularly depressing record.
Robert Wyatt: I don't feel depressed! What I am is... pissed off that I'm probably not going to see a post-colonial era. One thing I remember from my childhood is that my parents' generation thought "Ah thank god, that's the end of racism, and empire and all that stuff, and now we can have a new world of equality and mutual respect... The empire was disintegrating, it was turning into the Commonwealth and the Americas seemed to becoming more democratic and so did the Australians. It seemed like the world was becoming more decent.
And then this thing creepy thing came along, where a kind of financial empire began to replace the military one. Lead from the United States. A pretty ruthless predatory economic approach. And the Americans became the most powerful people in the world, and became the role model for everyone else. I think it perverted everything. And of course economic power has to be constantly reinforced with military power otherwise people tell you to piss off. Every military enterprise that we've been involved in in the last fifty years, though in the guise of ridding the world of bad men, has been about not letting people get control of their own resources. But of course you can't say that. You can't say, "We don't want Iraqis and Iranians to own their own oil because we want to own it." Who's going to let you go to war on that basis? Nobody. So it's not just the crime that's annoying, it's the bollocks that goes with it.
Pitchfork: In the third section you cover a song by the Italian euro-communists, CCCP. Do you identify with that old Gramsci line: "pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will"?
Robert Wyatt: I don't do optimism or pessimism. Gramsci was Italian and they always think in religious terms! I don't do hope, I don't do despair. I just get grumpy about some things and less so about others! That's why it's comic, remember, it's not grand opera.
Pitchfork: People always talk about the sadness of your music. I think they tend to underestimate your sense of humour.
Robert Wyatt: Thank you for saying that! I consider myself a sit-down comedian really, as much as anything else. I love comedy. I love it when Extras is on. Or Eddie Izzard. And Alfie and I do make each other laugh. Silliness abounds in our house. My natural state is very light, you know. Life is a cosmic joke and all that.
But it just weighs me down sometimes. The imperialist shenanigans and the justifications that go with them. They're like a big ball and chain that English people have to live with. And it stops me really being able to have the fun I would like to have. I feel the next generation are going to say "What did you do in the war, daddy?" and... I didn't know what to do! I just sang a few grumpy songs about it.
Pitchfork: For the last third of the record you're so alienated by the Anglo-American establishment, you give up singing in English altogether. Are you ever tempted to move abroad?
Robert Wyatt: It's hard to move. Alfie's favourite country is Spain, mine is Italy. We like it in Lincolnshire. But you can live anywhere, really, in your mind. And that's what I do. I just leave England for the last part of the record. I fly around the world and into the past, and surreal revolutionary fantasies fill my head. And I'm a happy bunny.