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Interviews & articles

 Or do you wanna get serious? - The Guardian - October 10, 1997


Jonathan Romney

Robert Wyatt makes music like a painter and can't play the piano like Liberace. Jonathan Romney meets him.

Four months ago, Robert Wyatt became a grandfather at the age of 52, and it's fair to say that the role suits him down to the ground. It's not just that he has the right beard for the part, a long shaggy mop that he sometimes tweaks into two forks, ideal for small children to tug. It's also that he makes the kind of music you'd rather hope a grandfather would make - melancholic, quizzical and fired by a mischief that those greybeards-in-denial the Rolling Stones could only dream of.

Wyatt probably has more stories to tell, too, than the average grandfather. 'There have been so many lives,' he muses, 'that sometimes it's hard to remember the correct one.' He started out in the 1960s, drumming and singing with English psychedelia's radical highbrows, the Soft Machine, followed by his own group Matching Mole. Then, in 1973, he fell from a fourth-floor window, breaking his back, and has been paraplegic ever since. He claims that was the making of him. 'As a drummer, I was dysfunctional. I couldn't be told what to do, and in my own group I couldn't tell other people what to do either. I didn't know how to function until I couldn't play drums any more, and that provided the answer.' Since then, Wyatt has forged a unique, diverse solo career. It began with a bizarre moment as a chart artist, reworking the Monkees' I'm A Believer, and took in a spell in the 1980s as purveyor of radical cover versions - from Cuban revolutionary anthems to Elvis Costello's Falklands memorial Shipbuilding, via Chic and Thelonious Monk. Then there were extraordinary LPs such as 1974's dense, harrowing Rock Bottom, setting Wyatt's racked lamentations amid a soundscape that sounded positively subaquatic.

It's been seven years since Dondestan, his last full-length record. But his new CD, Shleep, is his richest and most affecting in years.

Operating, geographically and temperamentally, far off the music-business superhighway, Wyatt works at his own pace, at least when circumstances allow. 'I've got an ideal picture of an artist's life - just a simple routine, pursuing ideas relentlessly week after week… I'm a bit of a hothouse flower. When there's fuss and bother I stop functioning.' The last few years have brought more than a usual amount of fuss. He recently fell out of his wheelchair, breaking both legs and losing a year's working time. 'They put me in one of those wheelchairs where your legs stick straight out - and I can't play the piano sideways like Liberace.' A further problem was a psyche too finely tuned to the state of the nation. In the 1980s, Wyatt established himself as one of the more politically vociferous figures in British music, his songs inveighing against apartheid, the CIA and the Tories. He was a member of the Communist Party, until he lost faith with its attempts to repackage itself.

Political and mental burn-out eventually came in the form of a nervous collapse. 'The right-wing triumphalism of the eighties got to me. The propaganda war is designed to demoralise rather than kill, and it works.' He tried Prozac, which left him feeling stupefied but, typically, it was the political animal in him that pulled him through. 'I thought, look at all the good things - Mandela, all the corrupt governments like Zaire falling, and millions of vegetarians. It's very rude to all these people to be depressed.'

Throughout his career, Wyatt has been an adventurous collaborator, turning up on records by the unlikeliest range of artists -from agit-brass band the Happy End and folk-technoists Ultramarine, to Ryuichi Sakamoto, who overdubbed him onto the Rolling Stones' We Love You, pitched in improbable harmony with Brian Wilson. But on his own recent records, Wyatt has tended to work entirely solo. 'As a paraplegic, you want to prove you can take care of stuff yourself. Because I don't sell many records, I work as a cottage industry mostly. Sometimes I feel like Samuel Beckett, sometimes I feel like… someone much more garrulous.'

It was in that mood that Wyatt decided to socialise again on Shleep, his most extroverted, not to say tumultuous, record in years. Its cast includes trombonist Annie Whitehead, improv saxophonist Evan Parker, and Wyatt's long-standing kindred spirit Brian Eno: 'Seeing him in a studio is like seeing a dolphin in water. He's nice on land - but you should see him in water.' Wyatt's most consistent collaborator has been his wife Alfreda Benge, aka Alfie, who is also his manager, sleeve artist, beard-trimmer and occasional lyric writer. 'She's at least the other half of the story. It's like Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo - she turned out to be the major figure of the two and I'm sure that's how it'll be with us.' Shleep features several of her poems, including the inscrutable A Sunday In Madrid. 'They seem to have a natural in-built music that comes out when you sing them,' Wyatt says. 'You know those Japanese bits of screwed-up paper which you put in water and they turn to flowers? Well, Alfie's words are like that - the music is already in them, you just have to wet them.' Although he's not one for the work ethic, Wyatt says that living with Alfie does stir him to a 'husband ethic': 'I occasionally have to go out and crack a bison on the head and drag it home for dinner. If it weren't for that discipline, I'd probably be like Jeffrey Bernard - concentrate on getting pissed and dissolute. My heroes are people like Artaud, who absolutely refuse to participate in any way in anything they're meant to do.' If one thread of continuity runs through Wyatt's career, it's the voice, matured but largely unchanged since the 1960s - a sort of distracted conversational whine, the plaintive sound of a costermonger lost in the woods. 'I don't consciously try to sing like me,' Wyatt says. 'When I started, I tried to sing like Steve Marriott and Van Morrison – even… Leonard Cohen, but none of it seemed to work. So I ended up making notes out of the way I talk. In the end the voice is different from other instruments and you listen to it in a different way.' Wyatt honed that voice on the first three Soft Machine LPs. Tradition has it that he was too much the maverick to stay in a band that was heading up an academic fusion path, but he has only recently, he says, begun to admit the real reason. 'I was a piss artist and they were very sober. I think that's why I was kicked out.' Wyatt's confidence never entirely recovered from the split, but he reacted by developed his own distinctive musical language - a style of keyboard playing, drumming and, most recently, trumpet, that somehow comes across as a direct notation of his psyche. 'If I see the tape as a canvas on which I'm mapping out shapes and textures, I feel totally comfortable. I… just think about Max Ernst and Yves Tanguy and so on. Painting is DIY, because you don't think, 'Who do I know who does blue?' You just get out your tube of blue.'

Maybe it's this painterly approach that makes Wyatt's detractors see him as a figure of whimsy, a hippie dabbler. But in an industry where rhetoric rules, there's something remarkable about an artist who can produce work so traumatically raw and yet maintain a stance of amused distraction. "I don't have a particular thing about self-expression,' Wyatt says, "it's just that I sometimes hear things in my head that nobody else is going to play if I don't. If it weren't for that, I'd be quite happy listening to everyone else. '

Shleep is released on Hannibal/Rykodisc.
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