A Conversation With Robert Wyatt (Pt. 1)
In the summer of 1986 I was very graciously granted an audience with Robert Wyatt—one-time drummer of Soft Machine, enormously respected solo artist, and one of the most fascinating figures in contemporary music. Ostensibly in the UK to interview him for the American release of his album Old Rottenhat, I was welcomed into the home of Wyatt and his wife Alfreda Benge and assured that he’d attempt to answer any question I cared to put before him. So I thought I’d go all out. It’s a quite lengthy interview, broken into two parts.
Let’s start off with an abstract question: Before I came here I listened to Soft Machine’s “Love Makes Sweet Music” 45–and I noticed you billed yourself on your End Of An Ear album as an “out of work pop singer.” When do you think you stopped being a pop singer?
Well, I never really got the work, so I just dropped the… (laughs) … I just thought there must be life outside the charts. There is, you know–a lot of people live outside the charts. So I guess I just sort of … in the end, it was the record companies that were more interested in the charts than the musicians, really. They’d just sort of make the odd single to keep them encouraged. (laughs)
I think the only Soft Machine single that came out in the States was from your very first album.
The managers would go bonkers trying to get us to have hit records. Because in those days, in England, if you didn’t have a hit–you didn’t have a single hit–you didn’t exist. And I sort of thought about it, and I thought, “Well, I don’t know–Shostakovich made it without any hit records, now it’s gotta be worth a try.”
What do you think when you listen to any of those old Soft Machine records?
I haven’t got any of them. So it’s an academic question.
When was the last time you listened to them?
(pause) See, I can’t even remember that.
Well, when you look back at them, what do you think? Do you like them, do you think you were naive musically; are you very proud of what you did? I should tell you, we just had a poll at our magazine for the Top 10 albums of all time, and Soft Machine Volume Two was on my list.
Cor. Well, it was … (pause) … things I remember … It’s funny having a record left over from that period, because at the time, they were kind of just sort of things that happened once or twice a year on the side of our life. If I look back to that period, I don’t principally remember making records. You know, I remember a few friends, I remember seeing some funny places, and meeting people, more. The actual work was just that –I mean, it always has been, for me, playing. It was always suspiciously like hard work. (laughs) So it was a question of really quite simple problems–like trying to keep your drum kit in one place, and trying to play it properly. I just remember it as a job now, trying to do work, really.
Yeah, really. Just trying to do something right–because I hadn’t got much else right. So I thought, “Well I’m gonna try to get something right,” so I decided to really play the drum kit, to get everything out of it that I could.
So I guess the last time you sang with Soft Machine was on the Third album–you just played drums on the fourth.
There’s no words on End Of An Ear, but there’s sort of funny noise. But there’s no songs on it.
Oh yeah, but I don’t consider that to be a Soft Machine record–though I guess it turned out to be one, considering whom you had playing on it.
Well yeah, but it was sort of–no, I would say it wasn’t. It was sort of a 40-minute burst of frustration, in a way.
Frustration with what?
Well, I think a lot of drummers are neurotics–that’s the sort of thing you used to get in jazz…
You said, “drummers are neurotics”?
Yeah, because the thing in jazz is, “this band’s got four musicians and a drummer,” that sort of thing. (laughs) And there was always that feeling. I was and have remained virtually musically illiterate. And you sort of feel–I mean, they used to say to me, “Why don’t you learn to read music?” And I would say, my excuse was, “So you can’t write down what I’ve got to play.” (laughs) But it was sort of feeble–I always felt sort of on the defensive, you know? So from The End Of An Ear onwards, I started to go on the attack.
Was there any particular formation of the band that you were most fond of? You started out with Daevid Allen and were very rocky, but by the time of the band’s fourth album, there was very little rock being played at all.
It’s funny, because there again, I don’t think the records are necessarily like what seemed to happen. Because for me–I’ll tell you why this is difficult to answer, because if I look back on my early days, I think more like a fan than a musician. And what I remember are my school days in the ‘50s, when I was a jazz fan, and coming out of that. And what I remember was, a very experimental era in the early ‘60s, when we were mucking about with tapes, and where there were no holds barred and stuff like that. And the early group live was an extremely open format, I think. And gradually, it started to narrow down, and became what you’d call a jazz-rock group. And I felt like the options were closing, that the possibilities were being cut off. Although also during that period, we all got to play much better. So it was odd, we got freer in terms of technique, but it seemed to hamper and predetermine what we actually did with it. We were much braver before we had any technique.
Were those tapes you fooled around with the sort of things that you did with overdubs on The End Of An Ear, or Terry Riley-type things?
Yes, a bit more. Jazz records were doing things, like for example–I can’t remember quite when it was, it was later on, there were a few things like…It was later, but there were precursors of Charlie Haden’s Liberation Orchestra, where he would use tapes from songs and stuff, and other records, and play over the top, sort of doing a collage using tape and tape loops, bits of speech, things like that woven into things. Which we were doing. And funnily enough, we did less of it as we became more of a live band. Before we could get work, we used to sit around doing those sort of things. On tour, you don’t do it so much. (laughs)
When you look back at the band, after you left, do you think the name should have been changed–that you owned part of it?
Oh, I don’t know–in retrospect, they’re welcome to it, you know? But I think we should all give it back to Bill Burroughs and forget the whole thing. (laughs)
Are you still in communication with any of them?
Not really. Hugh wrote us an–Hugh Hopper wrote us a tune a couple of years ago, which I did words for, called “Amber And The Amberines.” But I haven’t seen him since.
Whatever happened to Mike Ratledge?
The last I heard, he’s part manager of a company that does TV jingles. But since TV jingles on the whole aren’t credited, I’ve no idea if I’ve heard him play or not. (laughs)
One trivial question: There’s been a credit on The End Of An Ear that’s been hard for me to read over the years–was it Mike Ellidge?
Mark. Mark Ellidge, he’s my older brother. But he’s got a different–he’s a half, a half-brother. He was a photographer–and still is, of course–five years older than me. And shall remain five years older than me for eternity. (laughs) And he had a record collection when he was a teenager that had a big influence on me, and he also played amateur piano and alto. He studied violin when he was very young. So I just roped him in to do a bit of playing on my record.
OK. what did Matching Mole offer you that Soft Machine didn’t?
That’s a very interesting question–let me see. (pause)
You were singing again…
Yes. It was really … (pause) … a necessity, I had to put something together. Because it’s very difficult to find bands to work in. I mean, very often if you’re a drummer or a singer, there’s some opportunity to join this band or that band. But the particular way in which I like to operate–which is, you know, I might want to do songs, but I might want at least as much instrumental, and I might to have a few very accessible pieces, and a few pieces where we try everything we can think of on them–I couldn’t … there wasn’t any band to join where you could do that in. So the only way was just to find some sympathetic friends and carry on. But people who, even if they didn’t like you singing, didn’t have the power to stop you. (laughs)
I can’t imagine anyone not liking you singing.
Oh, believe me–that was really the problem. One of the main problems was I started to get very interested in singing and words and songs …
Thus the asterisk by your name on End Of An Ear…
Right. And it was considered very devious territory. So I found some friends who let me do it. (laughs)
I’ve been told “Matching Mole” sort of means “Soft Machine” in French?
Yeah, that’s right, I think.
OK–when Little Red Record came out, that was the first time I think I ever linked you with any sort of political orientation whatsoever. Did that just suddenly happen?
Let’s think. So we’re talking about the ‘70s. The funniest thing is that didn’t really arise in the ‘60s, consciously. But from the ‘70s onward–records look very sudden, because they don’t come out every day. But I think gradually, different priorities started to grow. Because during that time, I did a lot of unrecorded work with some South African refugees working in London. So the whole question of politics was brought onto my doorstep in that way.
Were those musicians the ones who played with Chris McGregor?
Yeah–Mongezi Feza, Dudu and so on. And later Ernest Mothle. And it just–more and more, the actual circumstances that surrounded our work seemed to become more and more naked. It became less and less possible to lose yourself in your work, avoiding the consequences and the context of your work. That’s how it seemed to me. But it was a gradual thing, I would say. I think on Little Red Record, there’s always been that kind of, there’s an underlying joke going on. But I’m afraid that I can’t remember the punch line. (laughs)
You’ve got a way with the one-liners there, Robert. One other thing: About your work with Kevin Ayers–which I thought was great–did he just ask you to come on and help him?
Yeah. Well, he’d been through a similar thing with me earlier, as someone who wrote simple, clear songs. He’d been put on the defensive much earlier. And really, since that was all he enjoyed doing, although he liked playing bass guitar, he went off just to concentrate on songs. But I’ve always been, I’ve always sort of defended simple songs, and people who could write them. And he used to write a lot of good ones. He had a real talent for–his songs, some of them sounded like they’d been written for years…
And you also played on Syd Barrett’s first album?
Oh yeah. (laughs) That was just a phone call–and Syd Barrett’s strutting around the studios, scratching his head and staring into space. I’m saying to him, “Well, what do you want us to play?” And him, “Well, I don’t know–can’t you think of something?” (laughs) Or something quite like that. I really liked his songs, too. It really pleased to be on that, I thought it was–The Madcap Laughs I thought was a very good record.
Someone told me this a long time ago–did you play on an Eric Burdon track that either had Jimi Hendrix on it, or was produced by Frank Zappa?
I never played on anything produced by Frank Zappa, but during, at the end of ‘68, when we were staying …when I was hanging around, really, in some of the places that Hendrix had hired to hang around in, people living around were Eric Burdon, and there were some of the late Animals knocking about. And we did go into the studio at various times, but I honestly can’t remember who did what with whom. I mean, there was a lot of sitting about each other’s studios. There’s one thing that certainly doesn’t exist, which is a demo tape I did of a song which Hendrix played bass on–which is lost, and I’m really sorry about. It had a kind of Mose Allison-y feel, and he did a bass line on it. My singing wasn’t very good, but I would like to have it anyway. But there was some other stuff there–there was a short period there when we had a guitarist with us who’d played with the Animals…
Yeah, right, Andy, and he was playing with us–and he introduced us. But I can’t remember any specific record … Oh wait a minute, Eire Apparent, an Irish group.
I was going to ask you about them as well.
Were they on tour with you—did you share the same management?
It was the same management, that’s right–and they asked Hendrix to produce it. I think he was a bit uncomfortable, but he did his … did his…did what he could with it.
I figure since you were thanked on the back of it, you might’ve played on it..
I don’t know who played on it. I might’ve done some percussion, but like on a lot of things, I’ve been roped in to help out with the girlie chorus–which, since my voice never broke properly, I’ve always been able to help out on girlie choruses.
And you played drums on a Sugarcane Harris album?
That was a sad thing, that. Because what happened there was, we’d been on tour with Jean-Luc Ponty–and then suddenly, the gig was with Sugarcane Harris. Who’s a wonderful musician, but I was so nervous in front of this vast, very, very well-heeled German audience. And somebody backstage had got us stoned, and I’m not used to getting stoned. Well, one of the things I did while I was stoned was, I tried to nail my kit down, so it wouldn’t slide around the stage. But being stoned, I nailed it down in a pretty sort of surrealist pattern. So then when I came to play it, I couldn’t sort of reach the bits and pieces. Added to which, I couldn’t hear what Sugarcane was playing–I simply couldn’t hear him. So it was like a nightmare–you wake up screaming, thinking, “Oh, thank God it didn’t happen”–only it did. (laughs)
Just two more: On Daevid Allen’s BYG stuff, you sang “Memories”…
Oh boy–that’s quite possible, I mean…
Do you still talk to him?
He hasn’t–I don’t think he’s been to England for years. I mean, none of those people–that I know–live in England. He’s Australian and lives there, or in New Zealand. It’s quite possible, but I really can’t remember. I mean, it’s 20 years now–and you do spend time in studios with friends, but I really can’t remember much of what I’ve done.
And the final obscure thing–you sang on Keith Tippett’s second album.
Oh, that’s right, yes (enthused) –I worked on a couple of Keith Tippett things. There was Dedicated To You, But You Weren’t Listening, with the smallish group, and then there was the enormous…
Centipede was good live, but I don’t think it was recorded properly. And then the smaller group. That came about actually through the connection with the South African musicians. I was playing with Mongezi, and Keith played with some South African musicians as well–like sometimes, he played with Louis Moholo on drums. So we’re talking now about the sort of London jazz scene at the time, most of which wasn’t recorded. That’s why I say it’s misleading sometimes, with a record. Because a lot of things I remember most weren’t recorded–like working with Keith, for instance.
I should tell you tell you there’s a small network of people out there who trade tapes of you and your various groups, either playing on the radio or on other gigs. There’s a lot of documentation there you might be interested in.
(seems interested) We did play a lot of radio things.
Now I heard that before you had your accident, you were planning to release a third Matching Mole album. What were you planning to do–where was that band headed?
Oh, it was gonna be some sort or version of Rock Bottom in the end, but it would’ve ended up more like the LP I did afterwards, which was Ruth And Richard, because it would’ve been my material interspersed with other people’s material. And really, yes, I was preparing for what turned out to be Rock Bottom–that would have been the basis for the third LP, yeah.
What did it take to get you back in the studio after your accident?
In a way that was the easiest record I’ve ever had to make. It was the first record where you didn’t have to spend half the time trying to carry the drum kit around all over the place. (laughs) Somebody else was the drummer–this was very liberating. I’ve got a friend called Laurie, who did the drumming. So there was less to think about. Because before, I’d been trying to get about drumming and the kit, and writing and arranging and organizing gigs, and singing and writing songs. So cutting it down to those last two, just concentrating on the bits I could handle, and leaving more to other people, was quite liberating.
It was just because I wasn’t in a group, and I wasn’t having to organize that, and I wasn’t having to worry about what four people were gonna eat that week, you know? I could concentrate on the music. Like I hadn’t really been able to before, you know? So it was… that was easy. And the thing is, there was a piano in the hospital as well, in their visitors’ room–and there weren’t many visitors. At least there weren’t after I got at it, got near the piano. (laughs) They stopped coming. (laughs) And so when I got out of the hospital, I was really ready. Because I had to spend about seven months in the hospital, and the last two months I was already in the chair, just learning to get around.
Did you write those songs prior to your accident?
Yeah–people think it must’ve been written all afterwards, but in fact no, as I say, it would’ve been something like that anyway.
What did you record first–I’m a little hazy here–“I’m A Believer” or that bit on the Hatfield & The North album, do you remember?
Yeah. I think straight after Rock Bottom, I did some stuff with Hatfield–which I later wrote words for, that thing, but they were never recorded. Then afterwards, I got roped into trying to do another couple of singles.
Yeah, right, yeah. Luckily, the record company didn’t like “Yesterday Man,” so they didn’t push me on that. (laughs)
Around this time I think you were coming out onstage at a few places–was there a benefit for you at Drury Lane or something?
Yeah. I was still in the hospital for that, so I don’t–yeah, because I didn’t have any money, we were a bit stuck. I was with Alfie by that time, and we hadn’t … we were very stuck. And then the Floyd–yeah, the Floyd did a benefit, and gave us the proceeds, and that really saved our lives, that did it. I really don’t know what we would’ve managed without that.
Have you been on the stage since your accident?
I tried a couple of gigs in the wheelchair, but they were very difficult to…to organize, and I didn’t enjoy it. Partly I found that, performing as a singer wasn’t quite comfortable for me. Drumming’s actually easier as a performing thing, and then doing the occasional vocal. But just going out there as a singer, doing a string of songs, it didn’t feel right. But also physically, I couldn’t really handle it, because in some ways I’m a lot … you know, there’s a lot of physical problems–you can’t get it, you know, obviously, just being in a wheelchair–and I just couldn’t deal with the amount of organization that was involved.
How did you meet up with Brian Eno? I always thought your early music had some similarities with Terry Riley’s stuff, but his own early stuff seemed to borrow much more.
I think it was Kevin who introduced us–because Kevin had once done a concert, and roped in all kinds of people, and Eno … I think those of us who’ve been sort of aliens in our own bands have a sort of brotherhood. (laughs) Rejects from some big deal going on. And I dunno, we got on well. Funnily enough, we haven’t got anything in common really, musically–but we did used to get on really well, just company. I used to like sitting around with Brian talking about everything under the sun–that was really the basis of it, and we’d rope each other in on each other’s projects.
Phil Manzanera’s album–you sang on one track of it, and it was very nice. What language was that?
Well, it was from a Spanish phrase book. It’s called Etienne Frontera–I just went berserk with a Spanish phrase book, that’s basically what happened there. Served him right for calling himself Manzanera–his real surname’s Targett-Adams, I think. (laughs)
It seems to me that after Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard, there was some degree of silence from you, at least insofar as you writing your own material. Would you say that’s true?
Well, I’m trying to–I can’t remember quite–where are we now?
Mid-’76 or so, I guess.
Well, Mike Mantler and Carla got us to do a couple of things, but I can’t remember exactly when. During that period I sang on a Harold Pinter play, and The Hapless Child. There were always things like that going on, but…
How did you run into them, by the way?
I think–how did that happen? Carla was trying to get some distribution in London, had come to London, and I think she’d heard Rock Bottom, and she was looking for people to sing on things. I think–but I can’t honestly remember, quite. I think that was it. So she sent me a record to make. But there again, we got on very well, so…
I especially like The Hapless Child.
Yeah. Jack DeJohnette’s wonderful on that, I think. Because he had a way of sailing through quite complicated time signatures, with changes in them, as if it were the simplest thing in he world. And just sort of frothing and foaming along–and I think that made everyone else keep lively, keep on their toes. But you have to be accurate as well. It was quite a disciplined record, so it worked out all right.
That Fictitious Sports album that came out under Nick Mason’s name–was that one of those records you did then, or did that come out later?
That was later, really, because I think all the Floyd were contracted to make one LP. And he hadn’t got any tunes for his, so Carla had some tunes that she felt uncomfortable doing with jazz musicians, so she just dumped them on Nick.
Do you find that–I hate to say snobbery, because I know she’s not a snob–that sort of attitude happening even now, that division between jazz musicians and rock musicians? Do you think that way sometimes yourself?
Let’s think. Well, not just those two–but right the way through. I guess we will always get our breakthroughs, but I remember once doing a record with an orchestra and jazz musicians, and a rock rhythm section. And the orchestra, all the violinists are sitting around in their tea breaks, sort of wishing they were playing Beethoven, and all the jazz musicians were wishing they were doing some bebop, and all the rock musicians were wishing they’d get a phone call to back Chuck Berry next time he was on tour. (laughs) None of them had anything to say to each other, and they all looked down on each other. It was very funny.
One thing I’ve never heard you speak about before–you did a collaboration with Ben Watt, who’s with Everything But The Girl now. I thought it was great, and it sounded much different than the stuff he’s doing now.
Yeah. He hadn’t even decided then whether he was going to be–he was a student at that time–whether he was going to follow it up, be a musician. I didn’t get to know him, really. His manager, or record company person at the time, he was the one who actually said, “Could you come down and help Ben out, because he hasn’t been in a studio very much?” But I didn’t help at all. I did what I do on things, you know–doodle away. I think it was because he hadn’t done much at that time, and just liked having somebody who’d been in the studio more.
The song was very nice, “Walter And John.”
Yeah, I thought that was a good song. I won’t play on any old rubbish, see. (laughs)
The Animals soundtrack–did someone approach you on that?
Yeah. A bloke called Victor Schonfeld. There are two Victor Schonfelds, there’s an American–well, there’s probably millions –but I know there are two, and they’re cousins, and one’s English and one’s American. They’re part of the dispersed…
Dispersed Schonfelds, yeah. Well obviously, after the Second World War, some came to England, some went to America. But the American Victor Schonfeld is a filmmaker, and, oh… (pause) … I think someone over here was working with them on a film, and they were just looking for somebody who could … Well, it wasn’t really that they needed music, you don’t need music for a film like The Animals Film. But a lot of it being shot very cheaply, without sound–and when you run out of narration, apart from just getting the narrator to hum and say it over again in Spanish or something, you’ve got bits of silence. And they just wanted to have something, something appropriate, noise to have doing for blank bits on the film. And it was really never meant to be any more than that, the sound for that. But they were a bit frightened, because at first they tried to get–they thought, well, we’re gonna get a lot of publicity for this Animals business, and they tried to get, they got an American group, just to use a track they’d already recorded, for the opening sequence, and they’d been charged 500 pounds or something, just for the use of that, and they got frightened. They thought, “Well, we’re not gonna be able to do music for a film if we start off, the first few minutes cost us 500 pounds.” So the other thing was, I was very, very cheap. (laughs)
Where did you record that?
There’s a demo studio up the road that’s closed now–it was somebody’s front room up the road.
Do you have a studio here?
No. I’ve got a portastudio, a little Japanese thing.
(End part 1)