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Q&A: ROBERT WYATT (Unabridged): Highlights from Issue 26: The U.K. Issue

Highlights from Issue 26: The U.K. Issue

Robert Wyatt in his home, photographed by Anthony Reynolds


Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The following piece originally appeared in The U.K. Issue. Presented here is the unabridged, 5,700-word Q&A

The Stop Smiling Interview with Robert Wyatt

By Anthony Reynolds

I arrive around five. Being England in January it’s dark and raining. The house is fronted by black railings to which bicycles are chained. There are two gates. I ring the bell and Robert Wyatt appears. We shake hands and he leads me into the warm, low-lit front room that has the feeling of a well-heeled bedsit. It’s tidy but lived in, with a hotplate beside a baby grand piano. There is a basic recording setup in the corner: a microphone, small mixing desk, a keyboard and various percussion instruments. On the wall is a Basquiat and smaller framed portraits are around the room.

Robert offers tea, but I pull two bottles of Bordeaux from my bag. He tells me to take a seat in the dining room while he finishes his business in the music room. Alone, I scan the bookshelves: Picasso, Beuys, Hockney.

Wyatt’s wife, Alfreda Benge, joins me. “Alfie” is also Wyatt’s professional collaborator, providing occasional lyrics and record art. She has just written lyrics for four tracks of Parisian DJ Bertrand Burgalat’s most recent album, Portrait Robot. It’s her first writing gig for someone other than her husband. As Alfie disappears into the back of the house, I am joined by Robert, who decides to take up smoking again. (He had given up three days previously.)

Wyatt was a founding member of the Soft Machine, (named after the William S. Burroughs book, although he no longer recalls why). Along with Pink Floyd, the group transformed the late ’60s psychedelic scene of the U.K. into a new and valid form of musical expression. They soon evolved into a jazz-rock fusion group, punctuated by Wyatt’s passionate, disciplined drumming and unique vocals. A substantial cult following bloomed across Europe. After countless sessions, extensive touring (including a 1971 trip to the States with the Jimi Hendrix Experience), Wyatt was sacked. He immediately assembled the improv fusion combo Matching Mole. (The name was a pun on machine mole, which is Soft Machine in French). They released two critically acclaimed LPs before splitting in 1972.

In 1973, after consuming considerable amounts of alcohol at a party in London, Wyatt fell from a third floor window, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. After recuperating in the hospital for a year, Wyatt married Alfie and embarked on a solo career. He emerged as a vocalist with a singing style that was both refined and haunting. (Ryuichi Sakamoto has called Wyatt’s voice “the saddest sound in the world.”)

In 1997, a new audience was introduced to Wyatt with the release of a long-awaited album, titled Shleep. Though self-produced, Wyatt benefited from the participation of friends like Brian Eno, Paul Weller, Evan Parker and Phil Manzanera. Another critically acclaimed album, Cuckooland, was released in late 2003, preceding a collaboration with Björk on Medulla in 2004. Wyatt is presently recording his next solo album.

Stop Smiling: Tell me about getting older.

Robert Wyatt: Getting older gives you a long time to think. If you’re a slow thinker, you need that time. I was lucky with music. It’s a humble aspiration to find a way to make a living. When I was a child my parents used to get me to sing along with Christmas carols and I thought, I can hear the difference between this note and that note. It was a thrilling moment. Like when you learn to ride a bicycle. To me, that’s what all music is. I thank God for it, because it gave me a living. When people would say, “What motivates you? Did you want to be a rock star, a pop star, an artist?” I said, “I want to earn a fucking living.”

I can’t read music. I know the names of the notes. I know the wrong note from a right note, even on a fast bebop solo. I know music aurally, not orally. Listening to music is instinctive, enjoying it is instinctive. But as a writer I approach it as craftsmanship. I might have a drum part on tape for 10 years before I hear a bassline that will go with it. I don’t like to force tunes into existence before they are ready to come alive. They come out right if you wait for the tune. You can’t say, “I want a baby a month from now.” It takes time. But even then, the only reason I’m creative publicly is because we need the money. If I didn’t have to earn a living I would sit around listening to jazz records and never write a tune in my life. There are a lot of things the world is short of — for instance, enough fresh water for everyone to drink. But it’s not short of songs. I’m embarrassed about that, in a way. I could spend the rest of my life listening to music that already exists.

As far as I’m concerned about music, the last thing that really mattered to me, that could save my life, ended when John Coltrane died in 1967. But when I started, I was so bloody lucky the beat scene came along. The standards were so low that even someone who had no idea what they were doing could actually earn a living.

SS: Some would say, with your voice, that you’re gifted.

RW: I don’t know. When I open my mouth, I do the best I can. That’s all I can tell you. But compared to the people that inspire me, I know fuck all. And that’s not a choice. That’s why I wonder about the idea of free will.

I think it’s particularly hard for people brought up in the Western individualist tradition to accept the fact that ecstasy comes from losing yourself within something else. The simplest way you can do this is through sex — when you lose yourself in someone else. That contradicts the intellectual tradition of finding yourself. Instead, you surrender yourself and become a voice in the choir, where the choir is going on and you can’t even tell which voice is your voice and which voice is that of the person next to you. That to me is ecstasy. This isn’t something that’s available only to artists, although they may articulate it more expressly. But it’s the same thing that makes advertisers realize why they should do these kitsch little dreamscapes of some kind of pinky, bluey dreamy landscape that adverts are full of. To me it’s the only possible explanation as to why people yearn for the utter idiocy of religion, for example. It’s so tiring to carry the physical weight of your body.

This will probably be the last interview I’ll do as a 60 year old. I suppose I’m now entering the land of Old Man. It disappoints and frightens me that a lot of the things we thought we’d do never happened — I mean, you never expected to win the war. But we thought we’d win a few little battles along the way. Against racism, for instance. And we haven’t really because it just gets transferred to Arabs or immigrants, Gypsies or something or other. I mean, I understand it. I don’t expect a great deal from humans. The only thing I’m prepared to stand by are the actual lyrics and tunes of my songs. The only times I think, I’m going to hang this on the hook and leave it to dry, are when I actually write a song and put it on the washing line. I would defend any song I’ve written. If someone says, “Well, that’s an anachronism,” I think, “Good, because any song I’ve sung that is no longer necessary means there’s a battle that has in some way been won.” I’ve written songs about Nelson Mandela being in prison, which is where I assumed he’d spend his life. But I was wrong about that. I’m happy that song is an anachronism. Another song is “Born Again Cretin” [from the Nothing Can Stop Us album] which is about the blatantly idiotic Christian movement in North America. Which now, in fact, runs America. I was writing about the mindset that somehow means that if you’re attracted to Christianity, the people who represent it are basically arseholes. You think, “Well, if Jesus was such a nice man, did he need this kind of help?” [Laughs]


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