Robert Wyatt Interviewed: The Quietus Salutes An English Treasure
, December 19th, 2008 09:51
In an in-depth interview, Robert Wyatt talks to Jonny Mugwump about his life and political beliefs, getting nervous when recording with Bjork, and the importance of imperfection in music
One of the highlights of the Quietus’ year was Domino’s reissuing of the entire Robert Wyatt solo back catalogue, an almighty treasure trove of delights from one of Britain’s truly outstanding and unique artists. He is, of course, gifted with one of the most sublime and idiosyncratic voices that was a real pleasure to hear wafting from my telephone receiver bright and early one morning...
Are you an early riser Robert?
“As a matter of fact yes. I was up at 5 this morning.”
What do you do - do you go straight to work?
"Oh, I’m just panicking. Dawn panic is my speciality. Then I get up and watch strange late night drifting into morning TV programs and then maybe I try and go to sleep again for another couple of hours, but I’ll still be up at 7 or 8.”
So what are your working hours then?
"Early to rise, early to bed - I work peasant hours. The first job I ever had was working in a forest where you have to be in the forest at 4.30 or 5 in the morning and you have to get up in the dark. Obviously you have to finish when the light goes which in the winter can be as early as 3.30, and then lunchtime used to be about 9.30 in the morning. That’s my time still. In them olden days [laughs] before artificial light, then people had to live by the daylight - I feel that I’m a throwback to more primitive times anyway."
Wyatt could be nothing other than English. He is a product of ancient traditions and the industrial revolution. His voice feels part of the landscape; of sweetly melancholy open fields and moorland. I offer that the English landscape is at its finest in the morning.
"Yes, it’s quite a secretive place. The world is so very different in the morning. In cities, if you’re coming home from somewhere you can hear echoing streets and when you see the first commuters going to work and you’re totally distant from that - you feel part of a different world and that can be very magical."
And the voice, your singing style seems plugged into those older cultures that sometimes can become apparent in these moments…
"I try and strip away various habits and mannerisms which popular singing has acquired. Accidents and habits occur and so styles change, which is of course necessary. But the first songs I ever sang were Victorian adaptations of folk songs which isn’t the same thing as folk songs themselves but this is what I grew up with. We had a friend called James Reeves who collected these kinds of songs and there was a political element to it in the first part of the 20th century, you know reclaiming people’s culture and that kind of thing. It wasn't so overtly political, though, more implied in the mere fact of taking this culture seriously.
"When I try and sing it’s like a process of elimination and I try and avoid doing anything that I don’t think is necessary. I feel like I work in a very primitive way. I like to know what the notes are, what the words are and what the most effective way of getting them across is. It’s important that I try not to perform in an actorly kind of way and obviously some people must find that easy to work with. I try and recede as a character and almost disappear behind the note and the word rather than stand in the front trying to wave myself at everybody."
I suggest that this might partly be down to rock being the more minor influence in Robert’s history. Even when touring with Hendrix, Soft Machine at their loudest were at the very least one half jazz outfit and that’s certainly the closest that he’s ever sailed to those shores.
"Well, In the mid 60s I was in a dance band, singing and drumming and I was actually trying to sound like Van Morrison. When I hear these tapes if it wasn’t for the fact that my name was on it I really wouldn’t know it was me. I did try and do that stuff and never very convincingly and I didn’t start finding me own voice until I started singing my own songs and it’s not even a decision, it's just what happens after that."
And, going back to your voice, you've collaborated with many artists from quite a range of genres.
"I never seek collaborations other with than the musicians who play on my own records. I get asked often but I don’t always say yes but I am surprised by some of the people who ask me to work with them. And I don’t see any barriers between genres as such. You know, if you compare John Lennon to Mendelssohn it’s quite simple that Lennon is a better composer and I just like him more. It doesn’t matter that one is classical and the other is pop. But I’m always surprised at who wants to work with me, always flattered. And it’s strange as I don’t feel like a particularly flexible musician but it obviously suits some people and it’s always nice for me as it stretches me and puts me into musical situations that I wouldn’t have been able to think of myself."
One of my favourite vocals of yours was with mid the mid 90s pastoral techno outfit Ultramarine - the ‘Kingdom’ single and then further vocals on the sadly forgotten but truly excellent United Kingdoms album.
"Oh yes. Geoff Travis from Rough Trade introduced them to me and they gave me some lyrics that they had found which is in fact one of the earliest songs I’d ever sung. They were from the middle of the nineteenth century, early industrial revolutionary songs which was funny as what Ultramarine were doing was so new. I came up with a tune that would work with them and sang it and just thought I would give it a go and they put it out on their record."
And you had a recent notable collaboration with Bjork on the Medulla album. She's somebody who I feel you have many similarities with. You both tap into older traditions and skim across genres and manage to make highly idiosyncratic pop music that no matter what more experimental influences are at work still remains pop.
"Well thank you, yes. I was very touched and amazed that Bjork got in touch with us and that she came down here to record for a weekend. I just sang everything I could and put it all down on tape and in some ways wish I had sung less but I was very nervous so I just sang my little socks off. And it was lovely to have her in the house, it was very magical and she was everything you could have wished for. Her approach to things is just so entirely unlimited and open."
I think something that marks out your career is a sense of intimacy and the feel of them having a home-recorded quality Does this go back to Rock Bottom and the situation you were forced into because of the accident [when Robert fell out of a window and broke his back leaving him permanently wheelchair-bound] or was this a more conscious decision and change in style anyway form your previous work with both Soft Machine and Matching Mole?
"Well, Alfie was working in Venice on a film set [Don’t Look Now] and I went with her and she had a keyboard which is what I wrote the majority of Rock Bottom on and then we got home and I was living in her little flat and I just had a notebook, a tape recorder and a keyboard, music was much simpler those days [laughs]. People assume it was written after the accident but that’s not the case at all. But essentially, I can’t remember which parts were written when but it's a lot more detached in my mind from the real life circumstances. People tend to think its a lot more anecdotal than it actually is and that it was about my physical circumstances but its not as straightforward as that. I was only affected in the obvious sense of not being able to play drums or have a band anymore and in the end it was liberating as I had the freedom of not being in a group. And this is all good for the record, as you have to pay attention to the keyboard, the singing and the songs.
"Paul Klee has this analogy of a tree taking root in the soil and taking up water and chemicals and it comes out with whatever plants and leaves its going to come out with, depending on the chemicals. But also if the tree is an apple tree then it’s going to come out with apples. The hospital experience and coming out of there was a mind over matter thing, though, and in the end I felt like it was just another silly practical thing I had to deal with. Obviously I had to get used to being in a wheelchair and everything, but otherwise I didn’t let it get to me." Continues below...
In the 70s your music began to become more explicitly political (although not entirely so). Why did this come about?
"Well I had always been politically motivated anyway but in the 70s I found a vicious drift to the right in the press and in politics. I’d been brought up in Post War Britain and this felt like a very positive time as it seemed that fascism had been beaten and we had a free health service and free education systems. I was born into this, so to see this return of nastiness and racism shocked me quite a bit. As things drifted more to the right I drifted more to the left.
"On the whole, I feel that the right wing forces have won and the left wing failed or fell into self-contradiction or whatever but I still feel a lot of victories were won for what we were fighting for. There’s much less colour prejudice now, more tolerance and things like fair trade are a lot more prominent - animal welfare and things like that are no longer the preserve of fringe academia and are part of a daily debate. A person like Nelson Mandela being released was very important. But the fact is that the world is still run by rich investors and the old colonial countries in their guise of super-powers are still screwing the Third World and hiding behind this façade of bringing democracy to the heathen masses, which is obviously really depressing."
Did you hear about the recent BNP thing when all their identities were revealed online?
"Yeah I found that quite entertaining in a way. I mean they’re not a serious political force but they were very scary in the 80s. I love the way that the bloke who runs it suddenly says: ‘Well now you can see that we’re in all in respectable jobs like teaching and the police’, and everybody else is ‘Well yeah, that’s actually the problem mate’ and they’re bizarrely trying to show that they’re not just working class or something. What a funny bunch. I mean they like to be exclusive in the old-fashioned sense and you know if they want to set up some peculiar incestuous whites-only enclave [laughing] then let them y’know, just don’t let them anywhere near any kind of governmental system."
Your music is always in motion. It is always you but you restlessly play around, using familiar and unfamiliar musicians.
"I don’t play live once I’ve done a song and ‘cos I don’t perform it over and over again for another six months, it’s one way to keep myself interested. Even though I record in Phil’s [Manzera] studio, the albums are homemade; they’re not machine-tooled to the point of mechanical abstracts. I like paintings and I like seeing sticky marks on the painting so you can see the physical reality within the canvas. That can be a huge problem within classical music where the perfection becomes clinical. It’s almost counter-productive to clean off every little speck of dust. Music doesn’t come from a conscious narrative thing – it’s not an analytical thing or at least it isn’t for me - it comes from somewhere different like the world of dreams. You see, I like the fact that you’re a person in sound trying to reach somebody else through sound and if you lose the imperfections you lose that human touch I think."