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Q&A: ROBERT WYATT (Unabridged)

SS: You started as a drummer. Miles Davis said all white drummers play slightly behind the beat.

RW: I conquered my fear of what jazz fans would compare white drummers with by watching Keith Moon, who didn’t give a shit. He wasn’t sitting there thinking, “Am I reaching some standard set by somebody else?” Keith freed me from trying to think about standards set by someone else. Moon sustained a kind of momentum on the kit, plus a kind of human uncertainty about what was going to happen next. Which is what I wanted to do with my drumming. So, while I got my inspiration from black drummers, I got my confidence from Keith Moon. As for my own music, there’s nothing I’ve really done since the mid-’70s that I haven’t done because I needed to make a living. Saying that, I’m thrilled and amazed that there were other things yet to come out of my head after the mid-’70s. Creatively, I felt a terrific sense of relief about that because, since the mid-’70s, I’ve felt a weird resignation, a feeling of depression that relates to the political climate and the state of the world. And the triviality and silliness of being a musician or even an artist in that world. Politically, I’m one of the last survivors of a lost war.

SS: You recently worked with Björk on her Medulla album. How was that collaboration?

RW: Björk came here in the spring of 2004. It was a surprise visit for a night or two. She was working on a vocal album and she asked if she could come and stick my voice on a couple tunes. She sent me a few tunes she hadn’t completed. I had a listen and thought that I’d like to do as much as I could on all of them, but in particular the first track, “Submarine.” So I threw everything I could at it on a demo and played it to her over the phone. And she said, “Yeah, we’ll have a go with that.” So she came along with her engineer and I was so shy of her hearing me trying to stumble through doing a vocal that I sent her away. I made her go for a walk. When she came back I still hadn’t finished, so I sent her out again. The poor woman had to spend several hours walking around. I sang every note I knew. We sampled them all so she could play them through a keyboard. I threw everything at the track on the assumption they would pick out two or three bleating notes to go with hers. The engineer kept everything I did on it, to my great embarrassment. I myself would have cut most of it out. She ended up sampling my voice on another track too, “Oceania,” which ended up being the tune that opened the Olympics. My voice is just in there at the beginning. That was my little anonymous moment, opening the 2004 Olympics. But we spent an evening here as we have, drinking wine and playing records and talking. I thought she was charming, funny and intelligent. She came and went. It was an absolute fizzing buzz to have her around. I was honored that she wanted to come here. She’s one of the greats. I’d put her up there with Nina Simone.

SS: Did you and Björk sing together while she was here? You know, a few bottles of wine and then around the piano for a singsong?

RW: That would never occur to me. A singsong? Blimey! You’re kidding, son. I’m not a singer.

SS: Did you go to many gigs when you lived in London?

RW: Alfie and I used to frequent Ronnie Scott’s a lot in the ’60s. It was a place you’d go to after you’d done a rock gig and wanted to hear some decent music after all the rubbish you’d been playing. One night, someone was complaining because Spike Milligan [of “The Goon Show”] decided to stand on his head on a table. Some fat old Tory was moaning and Ronnie told him: “Shut up. You come for music, Spike comes to stand on his head.”

That night, Bill Evans was playing the piano with his head. You know when you’re having a meal with someone and they’re eating a bowl of soup and their hair is actually in the soup? When they are totally out of it? Bill Evans sat at the piano like a man dead drunk. He played piano with his hands way above his head because his face was dipped in a bowl of piano. I don’t know how he lived as long as he did.

Ronnie’s place was like the London equivalent of the Village Vanguard. Ronnie was a great host. He was so out of it, he blew so many rules. I loved Ronnie. I cried for Ronnie’s death. And I still do sometimes. I’ve got a photo of him propped up on my piano at the moment. He’s one of my reasons to live. Even though it was rumored that his death — at 70 — was suicide, he didn’t want to be a bad saxophonist. He realized that once he’d got his false teeth in, which they were about to fix for him, he wouldn’t be quite a good saxophonist because his mouth wouldn’t be as sensitive anymore. He didn’t want to be a second rate saxophonist. So many of my heroes have done this. Roland Kirk, who was always a regular at Ronnie’s, had a stroke. He could play with only one arm, which is quite hard on a saxophone. He was told, “Stop playing or you’ll die.” He said, “What will I do if I stop playing?” He just laughed it off. And he played and he died.


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