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 8 out of 10 cats prefer whiskers - Mojo N°64 - March 1999


Home Counties jazz fan, psychedelic Heath Robinson, protest caroller and musical internationalist, Robert Wyatt is one of Britain's best-loved institutions. "I'd have to be some kind of paedophile to be that interested in youth culture," he tells
Barney Hoskyns.

'"I'm a bleedin' grown-up." Portrait by Peter Anderson.

THE DAY BEFORE I DRIVE UP TO Lincolnshire to interview Robert Wyatt, there is a march through the streets of Santiago - a procession of relatives of men and women "disappeared" years ago by the regime of General Augusto Pinochet, the former dictator of Chile. On this march, every wife, mother, and brother clutches a placard bearing a picture of a disappeared beloved and the simple, stark question, "DONDESTAN?"

I bring a newspaper photograph of the march to show Wyatt, who in 1991 released a quietly militant masterpiece called Dondestan - and who, as might be expected, is following the current Pinochet affair with keen interest.

"There you are!" he exclaims as he peruses the photograph. "And people think I make these words up! When I told people Dondestan meant Spanish for 'Where are they?', they didn't really believe me."

Although the song Dondestan itself concerns Palestine rather than Chile, the new five-CD collection EPs By Robert Wyatt does feature Wyatt's version of a heartbreaking song by one of Pinochet's most sainted victims. Victor Jara's Te Recuerdo Amanda, translated in the box set's booklet, is an exquisitely simple sketch of a woman, radiant with love, rushing to meet her lover on his five-minute factory break. Except that her lover turns out to be a man who "left for the hills / Who never did any harm / And in five minutes / Was destroyed...".

"Talk about brave protest singers," Wyatt almost shudders. "I think that's about as brave as it gets, really. And there's great pathos in singing about a disappeared person and then becoming one yourself. So it's pretty timely."

I ask Wyatt and his wife Alfreda Benge - the "Alfie" who has long been his caretaker, collaborator, and muse - if they think Jack Straw will let Pinochet go home. "I was gonna bet with Alfie that he'd want to stay on the right side of Spain," Wyatt says. "But now that the White House has spoken and said send him back to Chile, I think that's what he'll do. There's no question in my mind now".

Straw will prove Robert and Alfie wrong, but one can forgive these former card-carrying Communists for a certain ingrained cynicism about the cosy relationship between Blighty and Uncle Sam.

l never do get to ask them about the blitzing of Iraq that follows two weeks later.

The release of EPS by ROBERT WYATT is the final chapter in the reissuing of almost alI the recorded work by this English master, a paraplegic with a Marxian thicket of beard and the sweet, doleful voice of a chorister. Comprising such Wyatt projects as the 1983 EP Work In Progress and an edited version of his 1981 The Animals' Film soundtrack, the box ties up alI the loose ends of the man 's mercurial career, including his 1974 Top 30 hit version of The Monkees' I'm A Believer and the 1983 Top 40 hit version of Elvis Costello's Shipbuilding.

EPs also features remixes of tracks from 1997's acclaimed 'comeback' album Shleep, a serene, playful collection that chose the personal over the political and returned Wyatt to the murky dream-states of his post-Soft Machine classics Rock Bottom (1974) and Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard (1975). As a fan of the spartan, one-man-and-his-Casio loveliness of Old Rottenhat (1985) and Dondestan - and of the wonderful Rough Trade '80s singles collected on Nothing Can Stop Us (1982) - I was initially thrown by the spirit of collaboration that brought people like Paul Weller into the Wyatt frame. But in time I came round to Shleep as one comes round to everything this sharp, big-hearted man has done.

When I finally locate the house in the unspoilt Georgian town where Robert and Alfie live, I find them leafing through a dictionary of Esperanto in their dining room. Wyatt is trying to find a title for his next proper album, and Alfie is suggesting musical terms to look up.

"What's 'strum'?" she asks as she disappears into the adjoining kitchen.
"It's ludate, which is rather nice. "
"Look up 'sing'," says Alfie, out of view.
"I did. That's kanti."
A pause of several seconds.
"Hum itself is zumi. That's very nice. That's good, isn't it?
I was going to call the record Humdrum, so if I now look up drum... Timburo? Tamburo? That's aIl right, I suppose."

The Wyatts have been in Lincolnshire for 10 years. Prior to that, they'd been wedged into a flat in Twickenham where Robert never had any space to work and into which friends would drop at aIl hours. One day Alfie set forth and drove as far north as it took to find a house for the price that the Twickenham flat was worth. "This house simply worked," she tells me. "It was somewhere we could go out and get everything with the wheelchair. It's quite hard to find a place like that in a place where you're not cut off and imprisoned. Of course you miss culture. This is a total culture-free zone. No films, no art. Once a year there's some jazz in Grimsby. If we hadn 't got a Tardis full of entertainment that we've gathered along the way - books and videos and things like that- it would be a desert island, really. "

Alfie says the worst was when the Gulf War broke out and she was on her own here. (Wyatt was in the studio working on Dondestan.) "I was watching it aIl happen and it was so frustrating not being able to express your disgust and anger in any way, because the town went on as it was before and nobody talked about it. In London you could have gone out and sort of stood somewhere with other people. On the other hand, we're the right age where we know what we need and we've had our stimulation and our adventures. God help any child that's brought up here without any access to the Science Museum or anything else."

"The ones that worry you," chips in Robert, "are the ones who are brought up in Lincolnshire as children and then go on to become Prime Minister. Then you really see what the pay off of that deprivation is."

Given that the Thatcher years coincided with Wyatt's most trenchant musical statements about exploitation, imperialism and the like, this seems a suitable moment to ask him if he is dismayed by pop's wholesale retreat from political commitment.

"Ooh, that's difficult," he says, wincing slightly. "I'm not a sociologist, for a start. And I never felt that anybody ought to do anything at aIl in that regard. I was always pleased when people - Jerry Dammers or Paul Weller - got stuck into an issue, because they didn't talk obscurely. But l'd have to be some kind of... paedophile to be that interested in youth culture! l'm a bleedin' grown-up. I listen to grown-up music."

   > Zoom

MOJO : You've talked about how hard it is to fight against the "ideological soup" that is the centrist politics of Blair and Clinton. Was it easier to shout out against Margaret of Grantham?

Thatcher was exorcism for me. The other night we were watching Harold Pinter on telly being asked about this transition he made to where he was overtly and directly engaged politically, where there were goodies and baddies. He said he was traumatised in the early '80s. He was stifled by the climate. . . suffocated was maybe the word he used. You fight your way out of it like you do out of suffocation. When propaganda is disseminated in such vastly effective ways there is a feeling of, well, somebody's got to say the other side of all this. You get baited. The purpose of conservative establishment propaganda is simply to demoralise the opposition, to gas you into submission. You fight because you fight for your own mental survival. That's all it is.

There's a fair amount of political/protest music on the EPs box, from Peter Gabriel's Biko to The Animals' Film.

I would like some of my stuff to be more anachronistic than it is, but sadIy it's not an anachronism to be singing a song like Te Recuerdo Amanda, written by someone who was tortured to death by Pinochet's people. And the version of The Animals' Film is also timely. There's a central contradiction in the vivisectionists' argument: they say it helps to experiment on animals because they're so like us, but at the same time they're saying animals are so unlike us that they don't suffer like we do. Well, you can't really have it both ways. There is actually an organisation called DAARE, Disabled Against Animal Research - it adds moral clout if disabled people themselves say that the whole purpose of doing good is to reduce the amount of suffering in the world.

Have the Rykodisc/Hannibal reissues - including Dondestan (Revisited), which afforded you the chance to improve on an album that you thought had been rather hurriedly mixed - brought a cheer to your heart?

Yeah, it's made me feel like I've been doing something! I'm really grateful to Ryko. They're a terrific bunch of people - really friendly and helpful and conscientious. The way Joe Boyd has done his repackaging of people like Sandy Denny, who are completely outside the fast traffic of the commercial record world, keeps these safe little pockets accessible to anybody who wants to make that effort. It's also been a chance to refresh things, like Alfie redoing or adding to the artwork, and also getting some of the words printed that weren't there before. And really having another crack at Dondestan, putting it in more of a context with Alfie's photographs. It's a great feeling.

But I have been doing other things as well. New recordings that I've really enjoyed. One was the Federico Garcia Lorca centenary this year, and this bunch of Spanish people put together a compilation [De Granada A La Luna] setting Lorca to music. They sent me a bit of text and I did it just with a bass player called Chucho Merchan, who's based in England and played on a couple of tracks on Shleep - a lovely geezer and a shit-hot musician. They invited us to Granada for the presentation, even though I don't do any live gigs, so I was just there in my capacity as... mascot teddy bear. The other thing was an Italian group called CSI, who got a bunch of groups to do a CD of tunes that I've sung [The Different You: Robert Wyatt E Noi]. Half of them were my songs and the rest were things I've sung, like Yolanda. So I sang a track on that, one of their tunes called Del Mundo - the first time I've ever tried to sing in Italian. It was incredible to be asked. And the general principle of other people doing my tunes while I sit at home drinking tea is, I think, to be encouraged.

Going back to the start of your story, would it be fair to say that you were blessed with unusually hip parents?

My parents were great. I've only just been orphaned, in fact: my mother died about a month ago. I've actually very rarely been directly questioned about what went on in Kent. I don't remember it being as breezy and glamorous and easy-going as people describe it. My dad contracted multiple sclerosis when I was about 10, and my parents moved out to near Dover. So the backdrop was my dad retiring early and fading away fairly fast, and my mother struggling as a freelance journalist to make ends meet. They put their last money into a falling down old house, and we were there six or seven years. I went to school a one-hour bus drive away to Canterbury, and I have to say I was very unhappy there. And although it's true that I became interested in music and started playing with other people who were interested in music, this idea of some swinging scene is simply not how I remember it. It was grimmer, and I found Canterbury a rather pofaced sort of town - I remember going into Canterbury Cathedral and signing "Jesus Christ" in the visitors' book, and a school prefect came up behind me and I was caned. I couldn't keep up with school work at all, so I left when I was about 16 and spent six years or so floating about.

Floating about where?

It was a rather lonely time. In late teens people might be going to college or university, whereas I was having to earn a living. My parents went off to live in Italy, and then I worked in a forest, and then as a Iife model at Canterbury Art College.

Then I worked in London, a large kitchen, funnily enough at the LSE, though I'd only ever see the students through the hatch. There was a staff of about 80 people there, and I was about the only bloke and about the only non-Caribbean. They were such a laugh, and they made me so welcome. I didn't really know London very well, and they used to take me back to their places and to their parties. They mothered me around and sat me in dark rooms with cans of beer, blasting me with what was I suppose proto-bluebeat music.

Do you generally retain good memories of making music in the '60s?

I've been quite shocked to see bits of old film where l'm drumming, and I obviously used to get stuck in on the old drum kit. But it all collapsed in such an unhappy way that, to be honest, I don't dwell on it, no. Of course I worked with some great musicians, but in the end I never really found a home as a drummer. So that my period of stimulus and excitement sort of goes from having a really good time until I was about 10 or 11, until school started to get hard. Then it's sort of blank, really, 'til about 1971 or 2. What I do remember enjoying was just that little bit later on: working with people like Henry Cow, that kind of thing.

I know that your ejection from Soft Machine is something that's still painful to you. I wondered if the Shleep song Was A Friend, which Hugh Hopper co-wrote, had any bearing on that?

So did I!

Alfie: At the end of that song, when Robert sings "We are forgiven", I wanted to join in and say: "No! Never!"

RW: Alfie's a tough cookie. The thing is, I don't really like reading stuff where musicians talk about this stuff. It all gets so Spinal Tap when you start talking about "musical differences". How can anybody expect any number of lads to be able to do their own thing and stay together that long ? I could have done with some of the money when we came out of it, but we managed. So we must all be like Nelson Mandela about these things.

Could Soft Machine have ever been as big as their great rivals at the time, Pink Floyd?

No, it was too different. Pink Floyd had hit singles from the start, and terrific ones too. And they had a whole grandeur and presence that wasn't anything to do with us. The only thing we had in common was that some of the audiences were the same in the sense that they were prepared to listen to tunes they hadn't heard before. I don't think Soft Machine had enough vision or coherence to get a loyal public. We didn't really know what we were doing. I was too much of a jazz fan. I like to travel light, with a little drum kit. I honestly don't need a lot of the other stuff. I do like eating fried-egg sandwiches.

Do you still feel a connection to the avant-garde spirit of that period?

It's an odd thing, that. In fact, there were a lot more things like what we now call World Music before the beat group hegemony took over the record shelves, actually. People did go and see Ravi Shankar, and they did listen to calypso and bossa nova and all kinds of things. There was a reach to outside the local culture, a very wide one. Really this aIl happened in the '50s, and a lot of the stuff was cannibalised years later in the rock field - by people like us. I wasn't culturally a rebel at all in terms of my parents. In fact, I really liked my dad's records and paintings and stuff that he liked, which was the avant-garde of the first half of the century. Picasso, Prokofiev. So that was a starting point, but it was already a nostalgia for an imagined world that my dad lived in. And even when I got into bebop and modern jazz in the '50s, it was already nostalgia for an imaginary Harlem or something. When some people say art's got to be new, it's got to be cutting-edge, it doesn't mean anything to me at all. I have no ideology of newness.

When you played with Jimi Hendrix, did you think, this guy is light years beyond what most of us are doing?

It was a shock, yeah. It was a lurch. Just how far he'd got, having not seen the roots of it. Always underestimated, I think, was his group, and Mitch Mitchell particularly. There's very few drummers who could have ridden the storm and clocked where the beat was, what the time was, and dealt with that funky beat but at the same time flying like the wind and following Hendrix all over the place. Then again, Hendrix has to be given credit for such a loose group, far looser than anyone else at the time. As someone who'd spent much longer listening to the glorious disintegration of bebop into Sun Ra and Charlie Haden and Don Cherry, this felt more comfortable to me than the strict time and neat and tidy blocks of sound that rock music was locked into. The music breathed, it had air in it. Of course, bits floated off and got lost, but that suited me fine. They were a great encouragement to us, particularly Mitch, who at the end of the tour gave me his kit. Which I've still got [upstairs]. I've never used another. Everything you hear of me on a drum kit is on that maple-wood kit.

Also, Hendrix was not a prima donna. He was actually quite a modest gent, a bit of a grown-up. He' d done those things that conservatives say young men should do. He'd done his stint in the forces. So between the forces and Little Richard's band, he knew all about discipline! He was very, very secure in that way. But he took risks aIl the time. A great inspiration. I can't imagine that period without him. He was pure light. I did see him every night playing something like Red House, and every night it just made the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. I feel quite tearful about it, even now.

Do you think if you hadn't had the accident in 1973 that you would have found the musical voice that you have, and made the music you've made?

No. One thing I'm really grateful for is not being a drummer anymore, as a primary thing. That forces me to take charge of my own music. I should have done it before. It was a good career move... as everyone said when Elvis Presley died. I just carried on with what I do, which is basically slightly out-of-tune nursery rhymes. Up to that point, as a drummer and arranger, I'd been trying to sort of take on everything there was to take on, in terms of music-making - all the harmonic and rhythmic ideas that were available. Which is a great apprenticeship in music, but then you end up saying: What actually is your voice? What is it you yourself have to offer? And the accident made me have to work that out.

I was thinking about how hymnal many of your songs sound. The keyboards sometimes suggest an organ in a little country church, and the voice is like some doleful choirboy. Any idea where that comes from?

The first things I remember my dad playing, before MS stopped him, involved us standing round the piano and singing things like Away In A Manger. I've always liked that rather static feel. In fact, you get it in surprising places. Some South African music has it - you can hear the hymns in the background somewhere or other. Also, some of the most influential music l've listened to was the Charlie Haden stuff, as arranged by Carla Bley. Liberation Music Orchestra is stateIy but ramshackle at the same time. I loved the feel of it. The whole thing came up again in one of John Peel's daft projects, getting everybody to sing Christmas carols in the studio. I did Good King Wenceslas with Ronnie Lane - he was Wenceslas and I was the page, singing in this sort of falsetto. It came straight out, I had no problems with it.

Is it accurate to say your voice is a countertenor?

I don't know quite what it is. I've lost some top notes recently, a semitone every year, just about. I can get comfortably up to about a G above middle C. I've got a falsetto in my voice that a lot of people use and comes from black music. I used to listen to a lot of women singers like Dionne Warwick. I could sing along to Dionne Warwick easier than I could to Ray Charles.

I've always been curious to know how the sound of Rock Bottom - that dreamy, murky minimalism - was born in your head.
Where did the keyboard sound originate?

The keyboard itself suggested it. Alfie got this thing called a Riviera in Venice, and what I liked about it was that you were able to slow the vibrato right down - normally with things like the Hammond organ the vibrato is quite fast and it's set. So with this Riviera I was able to tune in with the kind of vibrato I wanted, and I was able to play rather like I would sing if I could be a little choir. I could set my voice right into it, and it was like stepping into a warm bath of sound. I felt really at home. But where it comes from, I don't know. I was impressed by the way Rick Wright used to play in the Floyd - it was nothing like the only way I knew how to play at that time, which was somewhere between Booker T. and Jimmy Smith. He left all the drama and dynamics to the other instruments and just created these glacial harmonic backdrops - a very good bit of stage-setting, and rather underestimated. So I was affected by him, although there's a grandeur to what they do, which is not a word that comes to mind with my tunes!

You sit at this intersection of so many different strands. There aren't many people who connect Eno to The Monkees, or Paul Weller to Mike Oldfield. Why is that?

I don't sit down and try and be eclectic. I really like Paul, and I really like Evan Parker. And me in the middle is just the same old thing. No, it's just that I really like all these people and the way they play. Sometimes it's not to do with their genre, but with the character of the particular musician. It's the thing I really like about music and working with other musicians. As a jazz fan, when you had an Art Blakey, there they were - Horace Silver, Benny Golson - and you felt these people in the room, you got a sense of the actual characters. The sense of contrast between Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, and Miles Davis I really felt them as people. There's a particular character trait of someone like Paul that I really find appealing, and it gives you an extra musical thing. It's the actual company, the imagined character that comes through the music.

Did you always intend Shleep to be a more collaborative venture than its predecessors?

Shleep was recorded like Rock Bottom, which is to say that I was prepared to record the whole thing myself like Dondestan. So that any musicians coming was a lovely luxury - a bit of virtuosity, whether it was Annie Whitehead's trombone or Paul's guitar or Evan's saxophone. But I'd mapped it all out myself, and wasn't relying on anybody else to make it work. Their role was to enhance it. Most of the guests on there would come for a weekend or something, and they'd work on a couple of songs. They really brought out stuff that hadn't occurred to me, or at least had in my head, but I couldn't write the sort of early Mingusy thing with trombones and saxophones weaving about, but Annie and Evan concocted much nearer what I had dreamed of. And I wanted Blues In Bob Minor to be a proper sort of blues, even though with my rickety rhythm section thing it's not as beefy as a blues would be done normally. With a bit of encouragement - he didn't wanna disturb the mood of the song - Paul took it much further than I had planned to.

Alfie: Robert's one weakness is that he's not assertive, so he can easily let things go in order not to hurt somebody's feelings, or because he doesn't want to be seen as a prima donna. He knows what it is in his head, but he lets things go because he doesn't want to mess up the atmosphere.

You've talked often of "rock" as opposed to "roll". Do you think "rock" as a phenomenon has burned itself out and become a bit of a joke?

I'd have been quite happy coming out of the '50s into the '60s if there'd never been any rock at all. l'd have been quite happy listening to jazz and bossa nova and rhythm and blues and Cuban music and African stuff. My favourite guitarist's still Wes Montgomery. I can't think of anything that was going on that wasn't quite enough for me already.

On the other hand, you'd never have had Hendrix.

That's right. When I actually think of it, there's lots of lovely rock bands and rock musicians. What happened in rock music was that the guitar took over the role that brass sections in rhythm and blues had had. If you listen to The Contours' original Do You Love Me, it strikes me as being a stronger, more powerful record than any beat group cover version: it's got a drama and a clarity and it swings like fuck. Who could ask for anything more?

Is it an argument, at the end of the day, about power versus sensuality?

I've got ears, and I can hear how dramatic and exciting electric guitars can be, but I can live without it. Maybe l'm not as eclectic as I've been suggesting. A difficulty I had with rock was that I wasn't altogether happy with what happened to drumming. I'd been following the history of drumming in jazz, where rhythm was broken up by drummers like Kenny CIarke and Philly Joe Jones into this wonderful breathing thing, and rock'n'roll seemed to me to take it back to that march-bond thump-on-every-beat, and it just gave me claustrophobia. It's also a musical thing - a lot of rock'n'roll is in eighth-note and 16th-note intervals, whereas what I really love about jazz, and why it's my music of the century, is the triplet feel of the 12/8 signature, the implied three and four simultaneously, which you'll hear in even the most simply equipped West African groups. That seems to me the organic live element that made jazz solos possible and gave a kind of flow to the music, and I'm sticking with that flow... But you could probably stick a bit of John Bonham on and I'd be going, Yeah!!

Do you try to keep abreast of pop music?

I don't feel I'm missing anything, but I can't say that I need much, either. l'm very intrigued by people like Tricky, and what's going on around his vocals. And a lot of what happened with dub, those lo-tech ideas of what you can do in the studio, and then that being picked up by New Yorkers and them doing pan-tonal stuff with hip hop. Perhaps the most recent influence I've had was Björk's last record. I took a bit of courage from her about how to place things. You have to have no fear of technology. There was a nice thing she said in an interview: "I'm not scared of technology, my dad was an electrician!"

Alfie: We really love this record by Wyclef Jean we've been hearing. Something about November.

Gone 'Til November?

RW: Oh, yes, that's great. As a bit of pop song stuff, that's the best I've heard since Björk.

You are - are you not? - a godfather of lo-fi. The very primitive drum machines on East Timor [Old Rottenhat], for instance.

Absolutely right. And it goes back to when I used to like Paul Klee's drawings: those spidery pen-and-ink drawings with splodgy bits on and rather feeble colouring-in. I really like precarious, rickety things and always have done. I spent quite a few years in very loud bands, making massive amounts of noise, and I enjoyed all that. If you're opening a concert for Hendrix in front of 15,000 Hendrix fans, you can't piss about. You can't be whimsical, you've got to come up with something. So I do know about all that.

What was the last occasion on which you performed on a stage?

It was in a little club, doing Born Again Cretin with The Raincoats. That would have been about 1983. They did it very nicely, as it happens.

Could you ever see yourself giving a live performance again?

I couldn't, no. I dream about it sometimes, and they're alwoys nightmares: I can't remember the words, the band doesn't know what key the songs are in, and I've forgotten what order we're doing them in.


THE CONVERSATION WINDS down with tea and doughnuts. Outside, a damp, grey sky unfolds across Lincolnshire. When Robert briefly leaves the room, Alfie tells me conspiratorially about a new keyboard a Yamaha "dance keyboard", she calls it- that he acquired after Shleep.

"I'm always trying to get him to buy something new," she says. "And he does buy something; but then of course he can't make any of it work. He's just not made for machines. He doesn't even know how to turn them on. He still has the Riviera, but some of the notes started to break up. The next thing he was really fond of was this Wasp, a little small computer thing that made a very good bass sound - he did a lot of Old Rottenhat with that. There are alI these sort of dead things upstairs. Like this old trumpet I got him in a car boot sale."

When Wyatt re-enters the room he plays me the nine-minute Cancion De Julieta that he contributed to the Lorca album. It's a huge, mournful thing, with groaning keyboards and horn sounds like baleful whale noises, reminiscent of something off Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra...

Un mer de sueno
Un mer de tierra blanca...
(Oceans of dreaminess
A sea of white earth...)

"This one was obviously meant for me," Wyatt says as we listen. "Sometimes I react against that kind of typecasting, but in this case they were absolutely right. It's serendipity I think... though I never quite know what that means. "

Alfie smiles across the table at him.
"I think it's the future, myself," she says.

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