Robert Wyatt - Acting On Impulse - Modern Drummer - July 1998
Few musical careers parallel Robert Wyatt's. As the drummer and singer with England's Soft Machine, Wyatt literally
helped birth the genre of jazz-rock in the mid '60s. After
four albums and mounting tensions, Wyatt split, took a
stylistic about-face, and released a handful of amazing—if
esoteric—solo albums. He never looked back at the potentials of stardom, though, and in fact seems to relish the
artistic freedom available outside the mainstream. When
the topic of Sheila E's mass exposure via a 7-UP commercial
is brought up, Robert, tongue firmly in cheek, quickly
responds, "Well, there's been no 7-UP commercials this way—though it has a busy year."
by Adam Budofsky
child prodigy born to British intellectual
"bohemian" parents, and mostly self-taught on drums, Wyatt's taste for
modern jazz and twentieth-century classical music helped make Soft
Machine one of the most critically
acclaimed bands of the '60s. Along with keyboardist
Mike Ratledge, guitarist Daevid Allen (who left early
on to form the inimitable Gong), and Kevin Ayers (bass,
soon to go solo), the group baffled audiences with their
music, which clearly had more to do with amping-up
Coltrane than weirding-up the Stones.
Despite most people's inability to comprehend the
odd band from Canterbury, Jimi Hendrix invited them
to open up his 1968 American tour, and forward-thinking musicians in attendance began to dig their unique
sound. Of particular note was Wyatt's unbridled kit
work, which was oddly accompanied by his fragile yet
Directly after leaving the band, Robert formed the
group Matching Mole, participated in a number of side
projects, and released his first solo album, The End Of
An Ear. A fall from a window in 1973 left him paralyzed
from the waist down, after which his albums took a
fascinating turn. Without the option of heavy kit
excursions, Wyatt's music became rhythmically simpler—but more detailed. The treatment of every element
now took on much greater importance: The subtle
adjustment of a ride pattern signaled a change in
scenery, the turning off of snares beat a new path
through the woods. "Despite all this highfalutin education," he says today, "my songs are very simple. They are nursery rhymes half the time."
Wyatt also collaborated with an astounding diversity
of artists, including jazz pianist Carla Bley, intellectual dance-poppers Scritti Politti, electronic/soundtrack
legend Ryuichi Sakamoto, and Namibian consciousness-raising group the Swapo Singers. This last project
in particular highlights his passion for political
activism, which continues to be a constant source of
Today Robert Wyatt holds demigod status among a
small but fanatic group of followers. Among them is
Elvis Costello, who co-wrote the magnificent surprise
hit "Shipbuilding" specifically for him, as well as
Brian Eno and Paul Weller, both of whom made important contributions to his first long-player in seven
years, Shleep. Modern Drummer caught up with Wyatt
upon the release of the album.
AB: What have you been doing since your last album,
RW: I've done some singing for other people. A friend of
mine, John Greaves, did a record called Songs, and I sang
three tunes. More recently I sang a bit for Austrian composer Mike Mantler.
AB: You've worked with Mike in the past.
RW: Yeah, I have. One of the most exciting things I've
ever sung against was the rhythm section that he and Carla
Bley provided with Jack DeJohnette on drums on The
AB: Your new album seems to be more about collaborations than past records. You recorded at [Roxy Music guitarist]
Phil Manzanera's studio, and you played with Brian Eno again,
and Paul Weller—for the first time?
RW: Yes, although we've been involved in some of the same sort
of political pressure groups, but never as musicians. People have
been telling me that I should really work with some other people
AB: You have done your share of collaborations, though.
RW: I have played with a lot of people, but I do like working on
my own. It's a paraplegic thing: We like to do what we can whenever we can, given that in a lot of the world we can't do as much
as other people. So even on this album, I've done as much as I
could myself. I try and be my own sort of mini-group. But I wanted the company. I get lonely out here, [laughs]
AB: Are you way out in the country?
RW: Yeah, I'm in a little country town. But I just thought it
would be nice to see some of those musicians I used to know in
London, and because Phil Manzanera's studio is very near
London, I felt free to ask people on a quite casual basis to come
'round for an afternoon or two.
AB: A couple of people actually got pretty involved.
RW: Paul and Brian—neither of whom charged me anything,
incidentally—actually mixed some of the tracks that they played
on. I thought, well, they've made their contributions, and they
worked very hard. I was really grateful, and I also didn't want to
misuse their contributions. But they both seemed most concerned
with getting my voice right in the mix, which was very kind. And
I have to thank Phil Manzanera for providing an atmosphere
where I felt I could take time on things.
AB: One thing that is consistent throughout your career is a willingness to let the ride cymbal provide almost the entire driving
pulse in a song. From the new album, "Was A Friend" and "Blues
In Bob Minor" come to mind.
RW: It's a generation thing I think. I'm just about a year older
than people who were brought up on the closed hi-hat concept of
timekeeping. I come from the Kenny Clarke ride cymbal era. It's
not that I'm a jazz player, but to me that seems to be the natural
feel for the kit, and I'm a very top-of-the-kit person. I don't really
play "rock 'n' roll"—I don't play "rock" anyway. I like to roll
around my tunes rather than rock.
I also particularly like the jazz 4/4, which is of course a 12/8. It
just seems to me you can sort of imply the triplets with the ride
cymbal in a very organic way, and with a very light touch. One of
my favorite rhythm sections was Dannie Richmond with Charles
Mingus. I was very impressed with the way they would sort of
tug against each other. I don't always use that feel, but on
"September The Ninth" on this album the bass and drums are sort
of pushing and pulling against each other.
AB: You also seem to enjoy playing with the snares off.
RW: Oh, yeah. I did a whole LP with the snares off, which was
the second Matching Mole one, Little Red Record. There are
ways of getting a cutting edge without the snares on. I really like
that slightly hollow sound. There are drummers I used to like, like
Ed Blackwell, all of whose drums sounded like toms. And even
now, on this record, I have the snare kind of floppy and rattly,
like Max Roach. In R&B and other styles, an extremely tight
snare is perfect. But not for me. I like an organic, grubby sort of sound.
AB: A long time ago in an interview you made mention of "submerging yourself in the work of learning to play three or four
drums." You have always had a relatively small kit, even with
RW: It's even smaller now! [laughs] All I'm really using now is
a snare and two cymbals, with a few little toy ones for the odd
I like the gradations of sounds you can get on one drum rather
than always having sudden steps from drum to drum. It just
seems to be more organic than the rock thing. I really departed
from the rock thing, where you have this: [sings descending
notes]. I just like the sounds to merge into each other more. My
favorite drummer was Elvin Jones, and the thing about him that
really impressed me was that nearly every drum was almost tuned
It's the same with cymbals. I'd rather play a different part of a
good cymbal than have like eight cymbals up and only hit the same
place on each one. It's not intimate enough for me. To me, each
cymbal and drum is a complex instrument in its own right. And of
course it's a physical thing now. I can't reach out all over the
place; I'm quite liable to fall over, [laughs] So I like my kit close to
my body and tight and everything within very easy reach. That also
concentrates the mind.
AB: Do you think there is some connection to your lyrics and your
drumming style? You've made mention in the past of a conscious
decision to make the lyrics simpler and more conversational. Your
drumming has taken on a similar kind of evolution.
RW: Actually, I've never really thought of that comparison before.
I'll have to think about that; you may be right. I should point out,
though, that when I'm talking about music, everything seems more
deliberate than it actually is. When you are actually playing, you
are acting on instinct. You do a lot of calculating before you play,
and maybe after you play, but not while you are doing it. I don't
always know what I've done till I sit and think about it. Actually,
more and more, I've discarded every theory that I ever had about
what things ought to be like—even the thought that they've got to
be different. I'll use a common device just as happily as an unusual
one. All I think now is, "Does it feel alive; does it feel right?"
It's like when drummers are worried about their personality
coming through their playing. I don't think you have to think about
that. Being deliberately eccentric is as silly as being deliberately
conformist. If you just get comfortable, then your natural characteristics will come through. We are all unique without trying, as
anyone who has studied fingerprints or voiceprints will tell you.
AB: If you can call it this, one happy result of your not being able
to play a traditional trap set is a sort of elimination of the sound of
a drumset on your albums. When most drummers sit behind a kit,
they seem obliged to have to make noise with every limb.
RW: People do like to wiggle all four limbs at least once every
four seconds; I've noticed that. Actually, I don't think like a drummer really, or a singer, or any of these things. I'm thinking like a
composer. That may sound a bit pompous, but that's the best word
for it. I'm just trying to think about what the music needs. It's really exciting to realize that on some tracks I only need to keep time,
that I don't need to have a drum on it at all. It's amazing what you
can leave out, because immediately the space becomes available
for some other instrument. Everybody is in the rhythm section in
the end—not just the drummer. You won't fall down a great vacuum cavity if you stop using a limb temporarily.
AB: If you try that in rehearsal, you're liable to have the rest of the
band look at you like, "Well, why aren't you playing the whole
RW: Right. Very often the difference between an amateur and a
professional musician is that the amateur is playing and the professional is listening. That's really the job. That's another reason I like
the translucence of the cymbal sound, because you can hear right
through it. It's important for me to be able to do that. The real problem I had after my accident was not losing the bass drum, because
as I get older my tastes get more old-fashioned, and I really don't
need that bass drum thing very often. But I did have trouble not
having a hi-hat. Listening to Billy Higgins playing and realizing
that he was squeezing the hi-hat with such a light touch led me to
think, I'll just go one step further and fantasize about playing the hi-
hat, and my body will kind of move with that.
AB: I'd like to go back in time a bit. You were lucky enough to
grow up in a home where you were encouraged to listen to music
that a lot of your peers probably never even knew existed.
RW: I was very lucky. For one thing, a lodger came to stay at our
house once whose name is George Niedorf. I think he had taught at
Valley Drum City in California and had run clinics with Joe
Morello. But his favorite was Philly Joe Jones, and he used to teach
me to listen—not to drummers, but to rhythm sections. That was
very, very useful to me. So I used to listen to a lot of things, like
Jimmy Cobb with Miles Davis. My older brother had a terrific
record collection, so that was perhaps why my tastes were a bit
more old-fashioned than some of my contemporaries'. I mean, at
school most of my friends were listening to the Everly Brothers. I just liked my brother's records more than theirs—it's as simple as
AB: So by the time Daevid Allan [sic] came along, also as a lodger at
your parents' house, you two were listening to the same sorts of
RW: He had a lot of the same records as my brother. Even before
then, though, my father had listened to twentieth-century classical
music a great deal—not extremely avant-garde, but certainly
Prokofiev and Benjamin Britten and so on. So I got used to kind of
dense, twentieth-century harmonic ideas. I never had any problem
with what people called "discord." There's no such thing; it's just
conditioning as far as I can see.
It was only later that I discovered pop music. I didn't understand
it at all at first. When I heard the Beatles I thought Ringo Starr was
just so banal. Now I can see what a perfect drummer he was. But it
took me years. The people that are called "avant-garde," I hear it
straight away. [laughs]
AB: In the mid '60s, audiences were becoming open to more out
stuff. The timing seemed pretty good for Soft Machine.
RW: I think we would have been better off a couple of years later.
We had some pretty rough rides with audiences, I can tell you. I
think I had this need to kind of lose the beat and find it again.
People found that very unnerving—including a lot of musicians I
played with! But sometimes I just like to stop playing. Dannie
Richmond used to do that quite a lot with Charles Mingus. There
would be whole sections where he would just, BANG, stop, the
band would carry on, and he'd come back in a chorus later. But that
was because Mingus told him to. Nobody told me to.
AB: You've said that touring with the Jimi Hendrix Experience was
positive for the group, musically at least.
RW: First of all, they were encouraging personally. They didn't
pull rank, which headliner groups can do. Second, Hendrix very
deliberately allowed Mitch Mitchell a lot of space to create drum
parts and to improvise. And they were doing it, not in front of tiny
jazz club audiences or avant-garde elite, but stadiums full of rock
fans—and they were getting away with it! And I realized that if you
do something with authority, as if you mean it, people will go with
AB: Soft Machine and Pink Floyd have some common history.
Nick Mason, the drummer in Floyd, almost seems like your stylistic
opposite, yet you've worked together a few times.
RW: The Floyds were always very helpful to us. When I was working on Rock Bottom I was taking the responsibility for more than I
had taken on before. I just thought it would be great to have the ear
of someone else who wasn't in the middle of it, who really had a lot
of experience working in studios and making things sound right.
Nick drummed in order to make the piece of music sound right, not
in order to show off. He would just gently increase or decrease the
pressure throughout the song where appropriate. I felt that sense of
space and structure could help me in the studio, and I was right. He
was extremely helpful.
AB: The drummer on Rock Bottom is Laurie Allan, who American
audiences might not be familiar with.
RW: When it came time to do my first record where I couldn't really play the kit, Laurie was the first person I thought of. He was part
of the London scene and worked quite a lot with some show bands
and various free-jazz groups, but he understood rock music as well.
I felt in tune with him because of that. I also really liked his sound
and felt a real kinship with him, and that makes a difference.
Without friendship and companionship it's just a cold exercise.
Cleverness is not enough.
AB: You and the other members of Soft Machine worked on [Pink
Floyd founder] Syd Barren's first solo album. That must have been
quite a task, since his behavior had become quite erratic by that
RW: I was actually very touched that he asked us. People say, "Are
you upset you weren't given credit on the record?" But I think he
left our names off out of kindness, [laughs] We went into the studio
and he was virtually mute. He just played us the songs that he had
recorded, and they were quite difficult in the sense that there was
hardly any sort of steady, regular time going through them. They
were structured around the words, which were not in any kind of
We rehearsed the songs a little and then were ready to record
them, at which time he said, "Right, that's it. Thank you very
much." So those initial takes became a few tracks of The Madcap
Laughs. But I think it was a wonderful record, and today I can see
exactly why he wanted to leave it as this clumsy searching sound.
He didn't want a smooth thing. I enjoyed the experience very much,
and I liked him. All the Floyd were very nice people.
AB: It sounds like his ideas were more intentional than people
RW: If you look at other art forms—like the paintings of Max
Ernst or the dadaists or early surrealists—you see that there's nothing unusually eccentric about people like Syd Barrett. I myself was
brought up as much with painters as musicians. Syd didn't strike me
as particularly eccentric; he struck me as a perfectly normal and
sensible songwriter—which maybe says something about me that I
don't want to know!
But I do think that we are not here to please the structures in
music, or in life. The structures are there where and when we need
them to help us out of the chaos if we are lost. But they shouldn't be
our masters. I think when any idiom sort of petrifies, it is precisely
because the structures have taken over from the impulses that have
set them up.
AB: You've mentioned being influenced by visual artists, but are
there any particular musicians you've been into lately?
RW: Some of the things I've been listening to include a Japanese
group called Ground Zero, who do remixes and sampling and
things, but not as dance music. I also listen to a lot of the great
American standards—Gershwin, Cole Porter. And I've been listening to an old singer named Jimmy Scott a lot, as well as a record
that Linda Ronstadt did with Nelson Riddle, which was done with a
lot of respect.
People sometimes listen to my lyrics and think, "Oh, he must be
really anti-American," but that's not the case at all. It's just that I
find all imperialist governments a pain in the bum. But it's not the
people's fault; don't blame the culture. The fact is that something
extraordinary happened in American culture in the last hundred
years or so: Diverse immigrant groups came together and reinvented their identities alongside each other in ways that have just been
fantastic. When you think of Miles Davis and Gil Evans doing
Porgy And Bess, and you think of the history of the ideas on a
record like that—from black Americans to Jewish Americans to
goodness knows who else...that's really the area that interests me
most at the moment.
I don't feel any obligation to keep up to date. I agree with Byron,
who said, "Every time somebody tells me about a wonderful new
book, I go out and buy an old one."
AB: There does always seem to be old stuff to discover.
RW: That's right. In fact, I didn't really appreciate Bob Dylan so
much at the time, although Hendrix used to say how great he was.
But since then I've liked him more and more, which is why I've got
that little Bob Dylan tribute on the record, "Blues In Bob Minor."
AB: I guess you haven't heard from him on it yet.
RW: No. I just hope that he will realize that I'm "Bob Minor" and
he's "Bob Major"!
Thanks to John Godlewski from Absolute Vinyl in Montclair, New
Jersey for invaluable research help on this article.