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Interviews & articles
 Lost and Found - Plan B N°26 - October 2007


Words Frances Morgan
Photography Simon Fernandez

" For better or for worse, when you put on one of my records, you're getting me, " says Robert Wyatt. Plan B was only too happy to spend an afternoon in the company of the reluctantly iconic songwriter - and his bewilderingly beautiful new album, Comicopera

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"About 10 minutes ago I said, you've probably got some questions," says Robert Wyatt. "And then I kept talking. Look, go through your questions.
Eat. Eat and drink and smoke, "he urges, proffering a light and some cake. "Otherwise, life, you know, just dries up..."

I'm fine with the latter three. Cup of tea,
Drum Mild, a Danish pastry with custard in it. I'm fine sitting in a light front room full of stuff - instruments, records, pictures - and talking about Cecil Taylor and William Parker. Maybe we could just do that. I could do that all day, probably. It's what I do a lot anyway. Talk, smoke, listen, talk some more; the outside world driving around doing whatever it is it does on the other side of the curtains.

But the room I'm in belongs to Robert Wyatt, and I'm here to talk to him about his new album, Comicopera. I've travelled to Louth, in Lincolnshire, by train and replacement bus and a drive through big-skied cloud-blown countryside with Wyatt's wife, artist and writer Alfreda Benge, who says right away she's glad that photographer Simon Fernandez and I are smokers. This is a relief to me too because, throughout the journey, I've veered between making conscientious, illegible notes, gazing camera-eyed at an unfamiliar part of England, and getting nervous to the point of missing I'd wished the train this morning, and I could do with a fag. I don't think the weight of expectation has ever sat upon my head with quite such ominous heft as it has today.

Of course, the expectation budges as soon as I'm welcomed into Wyatt's room, greeted with an enormous smile and the offer of a cuppa from an instantly recognisable voice - a voice that, when singing, seems full of quiet concern for or knowledge of its listeners.

To be honest, that weight of expectation dissipates whenever I actually hear Wyatt's music, which is why I'm here in the first place. From the playful art rock of his early bands Soft Machine and Matching Mole, through 1974's revelatory, harrowing solo album Rock Bottom and the early Eighties singles that further defined his sweet, weird, drifting, impressionistic, committed and heartfelt free-pop, to the meditative and eclectic Shleep of 1997, and beyond, Robert's Wyatt's music asks a lot of the listener, but does not demand. Rather, it suggests, via dreamlike timbres, open chords, gentle percussion and an almost unbearable emotional honesty, nothing less than the map of a human spirit, sketched out in sound. But what that means is, it's music that means so much to so many people, in a quiet private way that they hold close to themselves. I'm one of those people, too, so I don't want to let us down.

So I gesture at my notes.

Yeah, I wrote some questions. I find asking them quite difficult.

"Just give it a go. I'm on your side, do you know what I mean ? It's your gig now. I've done my gig, I've made my fucking record."

All right, we'll talk about the record to start with. Tell me some stuff.
"Playing it back I realised that I do play very loud cymbals all the time..." Wyatt reflects, referring to the ripply, brittle scatters of cymbal that have punctuated his percussion since his early days as a jazz drummer "I won't abandon what I do just to be fashionable, so I keep going 'Tssh! Tssh ! Tssh !'. I feel a bit embarrassed sometimes that I'm drowning out all these wonderful musicians with my splashy cymbal noises."

That wasn't the first thing I would have noticed about the album.
"Thank you. But I just listen to it and get so embarrassed. It's like old people who get hairs growing out of their faces in weird places and you're having a conversation with them and thinking, 'Fucking hell, he's got a black hair growing out of his nose'... But no, it's just weird stuff," he laughs, describing the record's mood, or possibly his own on listening to it: "'I'm lost, I'm somewhere. But wherever that is, that's here'. The first track does it on this record. Thank you, Anja Garbarek, for writing it."

Comicopera's opener, 'Stay Tuned', is a slowburning, beautifully simple tilt between uncertainty and surety. The questioning verses - "In between, lost in noise, somewhere, somewhere, somewhere" - settle into encouragement and resolution, steady bass bolstered by trombone and trumpet: "Don't start searching, I'll get back to you."

You mean that state of not really being sure where you are, but being OK with that?
"Yeah, thank you for saying that. You've pinned it down exactly."

That sense of drift in your music is one of the things I like most about it.
"My physical response to what I'm doing is... Once I start making noise it's a bit like jumping into water and sometimes I'm in a pond, which I would call a pop song, and sometimes I think, 'Oh fucking hell, this isn't a pond, this is the ocean'. I'm somewhere bigger than a pond, and it gets a bit more scary."

Is that something that you can't really plan?
"You cannot plan it. If you do, you're being a cynical media bastard and it will always show up."


In a roundabout way, this is how we talk about Comicopera, an album that's both immediate and a bit unfathomable, like all Wyatt's records. It is an album in three discrete parts, 'acts', but I'd argue you could listen to it without knowing that. You would, however, notice how it deepens and changes: locationally, from domestic/internal to a confusing but familiar outside, to - suddenly and devastatingly - a world beset by conflict and chaos and thence back inside again into a rich, almost desperate imagination. Sonically, you'll hear the familiar washes of plangent chord and lilting, patchworked songwriting pick up speed into quirky, rhythmic energy, into an electronically charged, almost apocalyptic peak with the devastating, Enoenhanced 'Out Of The Blue'. The album's final section knits together songs in Italian and Spanish with loose, multicoloured arrangements of free jazz vibraphone, minimalist synth, distant trumpet, and all around a spaciousness that recalls, if anything, bands of the Brazilian Tropicalia movement, whose psychedelic bossa nova whimsy masked deeper metaphysical concerns and a wry, committed criticism of the status quo.

But at every signpost, there's a derailment or a surprise: with Wyatt, consistent as his vocal presence remains, the unexpected is, you feel, central to every song'Just As You Are', at first listen a soft love song, taps into the compromises, co-dependency and insecurity present in every relationship. The loping, lush 'Beautiful War', turns around and strangles you when the subject matter comes clear: its airiness is the methodical efficiency of a bomber destroying an anonymous settlement far below, safe in his cloudless sky. The stately, waltz-like 'Cancon de Julieta' fragments into the call-and-answer swoops of Chucho Merchan's bass violin and a weird noise undertow that befits its setting of Garcia Lorca's words.

Wyatts previous album, 2003's Cuckooland, navigated a similar journey between familiar and alien; internal and political-like Comicopera, songs gently whisked you from wry ontological questioning to cinematic evocations of 'Old Europe', from drifting, legato laments to jazzy scuttle. Comicopera is wider in frame, somehow; delirious with ideas, but with a settled assuredness of vision. How did it all come together? Did the structure come before or after the songs?

"It came out of the process. Things separate into chunks of preoccupation. I'm sort of floating about all the time, and it's quite disparate and quite chaotic. And then when I've got an hour and a half's worth I gather it together, then I sort it out in terms of what state of mind I was in when I wrote this song or that song, or nicked somebody else's song, or stopped singing altogether and let someone else play their instrument. Because I get bored, you know, of my voice sometimes. Anyway, then you sort it all out, and in this case it fell into three sort of categories, really.

"I'm on an animal level, using instinct most of the time, which is what I like most. But let's sort it out, help the listener here a bit. Cut it up a bit. This is one train of thought, that's another. It turned out it took three trains of thought".

It's a weird listen. You start off feeling quite safe but then as it goes on it starts to become a much darker record. It's quite disorientating.
"It's just that, having got past 60, I've done all the business of trying to tailor things to what people can digest. You get quite selfish at this age. You just think, 'I've got one last go, possibly, so I'm just going to throw it out the way it happens'.

"What I do remember is that youth always anticipates death as quite a dramatic, black and white thing. They romanticise it, and simplify it and cut it down. But it's a weirder and stranger journey. You start off, and you know roughly what's going on. Even if it's strange for you it's marked out. You become a teenager and think, 'OK, there's sex'. Then you get a job, and you think, that's adulthood and you've got there, to a sort of plateau. But then you could have another 20, 30, 40, 50 years of 'what then ?' Then you're in danger and in the wilderness, much more than teenagers ever understand about wilderness - they fantasise about 'weird', but they have no idea what weird really is. Weird is really fucking weird.

"When you're 50, life is just as unknown to you and unliveable, difficult and strange, as it is for a 12 year old. But then, I say all that stuff which sounds really pretentious, but all I've tried to do is make a really nice record. I've tried to string nice notes together. And if somebody's got any patience they will hear them. I don't put the beats in to help, I just say 'Look, the notes are there, believe me. Trust me, I've got a beard. How can you not trust me?'"

I don't know if I trust beards...
"No, well, I would never play a record with a person with a beard on the front, other than myself. This is why Alfie never, ever does album covers with me on the front, because it would put everybody right off."

Ever since I first heard it, I've found your music very comforting, even when it sounds unsure or sad or critical. But with this new album I feel more than ever this sense of you looking at the awfulness of things.

"If it's a bit distressing where I go, hang on in there because it's quite friendly in the end. I've just tried not to avoid the nastiness, but say that although the nastiness is unbelievable, it's not unbearable. That's what I hope. I would hope that in the end it would be some kind of comfort because god, there's just so much pain. But you've got to dig a bit deeper, not to come on all serious, but just to provide any comfort at all. Beyond the immediate comforts of orgasm and getting pissed and loud music and stuff. Life lasts longer than all those three events, which are crucial, but there's got to be a deep fun going on as well that survives all the tragedy."

In some ways I'm looking forward to getting older, getting past a lot of that stuff.
"I'll tell you, it's a lot to look forward to. It's really nice. It's kind of like climbing up the slippery bits out of an ocean and getting up to dry bits, and looking down into the valley you just crawled from of teeming activity and agony and sleepless nights and all the awful, well, wonderful things. Both. It's really nice. You think, wow, I've been allowed to live long enough to have a look at what's been going on in my lifetime. It's a great privilege."

I didn't mean to bring up the comfort thing so soon in the interview. It felt a little creepy somehow;
a little too familial. But what the hell: many of my generation are at odds with the idea of family, at odds with the media and government's current idealised view of love and domestic life, but also unsure about the countercultural values our own parents might or might not have tried to live up to, all at sea as to how and when and where we'll find our real homes and real connections. It is easier to look for the idea of 'family', of closeness, outside our own, and some of us find it in music, of course.

If we feel rootless, songs like Robert Wyatts (all at once steadfast and sharp, yet fragile and ambiguous) give us some tentative roots. While I am sure he'd laugh, embarrassed, at such a notion, there are people my age to whom his tremulous, conversational croon has an oddly mentor-like quality, a cipher for their own feelings about vulnerability, independence, where to put themselves in this world.

But let's not get too sentimental here.

This is music we're talking about, and much of the reassuring quality of Wyatts music derives, paradoxically, from his removal of himself from the songwriting process and his ability to set the listener afloat in sound. Even when his lyrics are heavy on the polemic, there's something sonically selfless about the way he approaches the idea of the song, which often emerges from shifting sands of resolved and unresolved melody as if you've unearthed it yourself. And this fluidity, this oceanic quality that's reflected in the timbres he works with, reassures by its assurance that some things are bigger than you and all you can do is cast yourself adrift in them.


Really, there's only one thing I came here to ask, and that's how Robert Wyatt makes such music.

So I do. And he scoots around the room, energised, demonstrating, sounding out notes on piano, trumpet and voice. "It's very, very simple how I work. I've got a room here; four walls like anybody else's and a door going through to where I make tea. Facing me is a CD player and a cassette recorder. On the left of the mixer is an eight-track recording machine. Right in front of me I can look out onto the car park and watch people driving into town and people driving out. On my right, I've got a baby grand piano. On the right of that there's a disused fireplace, and then I'll take you back to where we started; about a thousand vinyl LPs and some photos of my wife, including one of her smacking her previous husband in the face, just as a kind of warning to me. Look at that! That's actually from a film, two stills. Tha'ts Alfie when she was a little girl. And that's her now.

"This is where I work I just had to cut music down to very simple things. There are beats in my stuff, it's just that they're buried. There's a grid, in other words. I'm very old-fashioned. I want a beat and a tune. There are two kinds of music really, there's music to dance to and music to sing. You can have singing music, which has no beat. You can have dance music which has no tune. The intriguing exercise which I've embarked on for the last 50 years is to try and combine the two. I think, if I've made mistakes, I've erred on the side of tune, and let the beat be buried a bit; like the skeleton of a fish. It's there, but it doesn't look like a great bony animal.

"Then I work out the piano. About there I can hit it with my voice" He strikes a key. "Now, 20 years ago I could get up to there, but I can't anymore, so I have to do all that stuff on something else; trumpet, or something like that. So, that's notes. Then, I've got this metronome, which is fantastic;
it's Victorian, I think. Now then, that metronome is
a wonderful thing. It doesn't even rock steady, and there's a track on the new album where this is the only rhythm section, the one about 'Hattie in the at tic' [AWOL]. That's all I used. That's the drumkit.
So, I've got a beat, and the notes, and the trumpet, and then I've got heaps and heaps of bits of paper with words on... and I just try and stick them all together, my dear; that's all I do."

Do you do it every day?
"I play trumpet every day."

Do you write words every day?
"There I hit the buffers, because words and music don't always fit. The bit where you think about words is a whole different bit of your brain. It's that lovely transition zone between words and music that's got some sort of biological roots in humans. I don't know enough about human biology to know what the link is".

Is it about finding a balance between what you want to say and the musical words that will say it?
"Well, I actually think that way round, and I write more than I sing, because mostly what I write, I write. That's the form it takes. With music, I don't start with words; I start with noise, with sound. If it turns into words then I've struck lucky. You can't force it, though.

"I only make one LP about every five years because of that. It's not that I only have that many ideas. You've got to be so lucky. It's like panning for gold: every day you stick your thing in the water and drag up a bit of mud and leaf through it. Occasionally you pick something out and you think, 'Oh, that's really nice. There's a bit of mineral
there'. You put it in your bag to take home, and music's like that. Fishing about among all the notes and occasionally one will turn into a word or a phrase, and then you'll take it home.

"Singing and talking aren't the same thing. They absolutely are not. I remember a dreadful moment at a friend's house about five years ago. A bloke pulled out his guitar and Alfie rushed into the kitchen saying, 'Oh no, he's going to sing a song, it's going to kill the conversation dead! We're going to have to sit and listen to him now.'
He started singing some ballad and you could see everyone's metabolism slowing down. It's an awfully cruel thing to say, but people when they're singing gentle ballads think they're being gentle, but they're being quite interventionist, actually."

They're forcing you to enter their world.
"It's that kind of ersatz church mode. I much prefer making records to live gigs now, for that reason, because I don't want anyone to listen to me when they don't have to, or don't want to."

So you don't like the idea of reverence...
"I think it's appalling."

Do you still improvise with people?
"Yeah, I do a lot. In fact, even on my records I do. Most people start with the notes, and the beats, and fix which ones are going to work and expand on it. I tend to work backwards in a way. My brain is sort of a cross between Oxford Circus and a Cecil Taylor concert. Then I just keep cutting stuff out until I'm left with a followable thread - reduce it right down to a few words or a few notes. To me, songwriting is incidental to making music. What I'm trying to do is make records and I want them to be complete meals; vitamins, proteins, trace elements, the lot. "But I always work backwards from chaos into order. That's really the only thing I do that's totally not jazz and it's totally... well, I haven't learnt that from anybody. That's just the way I work."

It's probably an accumulation of all the music you've listened to.
"Yes, there's just an overwhelming amount of stuff that you can't deny or chuck in the bin, and it's irreconcilable so you just have to let it ferment in your brain, and then your brain will inevitably because you're only one little pathetic person - will reduce it down to the things that work for you and keep pushing everything else away and you're left with the utter simplicity of a Buddy Holly song - or you're left back with actually being a kind of folk musician representing an unknown tribe, of which there may be no other members! Just your own little one-person tribe."

You know, you've probably summed up there one of the best reasons I can think of to make music.


The most obvious, and pleasurable, evidence of Wyatt's eschewal of singer-songwriter egotism is the long-standing relationship he has with collaborating musicians - from rock notables like Paul Weller and Brian Eno, to jazz musicians such as trombonist Annie Whitehead, vocalist Karen Mantler, percussionist Orphy Robinson and loads more. It's not unusual that an admired musician should be able to cherry-pick others to work with them, but Wyatt's collaborative recordings stand out through giving the impression, always, of real musical dialogues, necessary and organic. Comicopera marshals a large cast that feels particularly able to draw Wyatt's compositions in odd, exuberant and atmospheric directions.

"I've given up working with people I don't like," he says. "I used to, because I thought they were really brilliant or clever, but I can't be bothered with that anymore. Because in the end, musically it's better - people open out. There's this illusion that confrontation brings out stuff that's exciting, like on Big Brother-no it doesn't. It's sort of all right, but you get further and deeper with empathy."

When Wyatt asked singer Seaming To, who provides the soprano vocal on Comicopera's 'Stay Tuned', to add clarinet, "She said, 'I haven't played the clarinet for a while', and I said, 'Look, it's not fucking Mozart, it's just a few notes'. I thought she did lovely on it. I know I could look through the Musicians' Union phonebook and get brilliant clarinetists, but I wanted someone I could connect with as a human being."

I get the impression you're open to people having their own take on your songs.
" Absolutely. I don't tell them what to play. The buck stops with me when I'm editing. They know that. So it's not in that sense a free-for-all. I will take responsibility for the end result, which is arrogant but also I don't want them to get the blame for the wrong notes. It's got to stop somewhere, because when you listen to a record it's partly for sound, but also for company. You want some kind of coherent sense of another person in the room when you play a record. So for better or for worse when you put on one of my records you're getting me. I get all the help I can to make it sound good."

Do you feel like you learn a lot from your collaborators?
"I couldn't do without them. I left school at 16 and I can't really read music. I rely on people like [saxophonist] Gilad Atzom and [bassist] Yaron Stavi and Annie Whitehead, who are fantastically well-schooled musicians, to hear what I'm doing and make coherent sense of it. I'm not really an individualist."

Wyatt's most significant collaborator, though, must be his wife, Alfie. As well as writing a great many of the lyrics to his songs, her paintings and collages have been the visual representation of Wyatt's music over the past few decades, and are almost inseparable from its sound.

Like Wyatt's songs, her designs are deceptively simple, their bright colours and irregular shapes belying a complex fluidity. What I regret most about this day spent with both of them is that I didn't record the conversation Alfie and I had on our drive back, an exchange about writing, feminism, war and families - and probably most of all, how lyrics and music work together. I remember it, though. It was great.

Do you tell her what you want her to do with the artwork?
"I wouldn't say a word. I let her get on with it. She knows what the songs are about because she wrote half of them. I know from doing stuff myself I don't need someone looking over my shoulder. I can get there myself, otherwise it's not a journey. I don't always know what's going in Alfie's head."

Do you ever disagree?
"I never disagree with Alfie."

Some of Benge's most moving lyrics on Comicopera are those of 'Out Of The Blue', which was provoked by the Israeli bombing of Lebanon last year. Focusing in on the domestic, it tries to express the sheer sudden horror of a house - a simple, safe place - destroyed by an anonymous enemy. Wyatt's turning to other languages for the remainder of the album after this is no coincidence.

"It's after the line, 'You have planted everlasting hatred in my heart'. It follows a woman whose house has been bombed to bits by some clever dick in an aeroplane - 'You've come to my door but you've blown it apart, so you might as well come in through the roof or the ceiling. You've fucked up my house - fuck you. There's nothing I can do, I haven't got a bombing aeroplane myself.' What do you do? What Palestinian women do is they do encourage their sons to and fight back, but of course that leads to more tragedy. But at the same time you can't just wipe people out by bombing them.

"Alfie was reflecting on the cycle of violence, where you may not intrinsically feel violent, but if great violence is done to you then one of the responses is to be violent back, and it's the point at which all these philosophies about trying to be nice just collapse in the face of that excessive rape of a soul. And I'm just not clever enough to know what to do next, so I just sang in foreign languages and did a bit of free jazz..."

Did you feel like there was nothing you could say?
"I just felt completely ill-equipped to come up with an appropriate response. So then I do what artists do, which is drift off into some kind of fairyland. The whole last section of the record is about trying on different alien guises: foreign language or a revolutionary rhetoric or a bit of free jazz, Orphy Robinson on vibes going bonkers, or surrealist dream-world stuff. I just turn back to my original craft, which is to try and make a nice sequence of notes that don't ignore reality. It sounds so pathetic. I'm not a wise old man. I can think, I can think, I can think, and then I just get stuck.

"I can't compete intellectually in words with where I've got to musically. I do feel like I've got much further... when I try and catch up with words it's sort of a bit clumsy...

He picks up a weathered-looking brass instrument.

"Annie Whitehead, who plays trombone on the record, on the fourth track of the album ['AWOL] she plays this. Alfie got it in a car boot sale. It's got the wrong mouthpiece on it. It's called a baritone horn. I tried to play it, but I can't fix the notes! The reason I mention that is because I said to Annie, 'I'm having trouble with Concert B - how do you hit that?' And she said, 'Robert, there's no short cut." Annie's been practising hours a day for 40 years, and she was politely telling me there were some things you just can't get to straight away. " He laughs. There's no short cut to a low Concert B."


Do people still ask you a lot about your politics?
"It still comes up a lot. The moment I joined the Communist Party I knew it was something I'd have to deal with for the rest of my life and it would be a real obstacle for some people, a point of interest for others or a point of contempt for others."

How do you feel about it now?
"I'm always nervous about sounding like Cliff Richard talking about his Christianity, but it's just that I personally have found a way of understanding the world that makes sense to me and I get more sheer intelligence - applicable ways of looking at the world -than I do from Marxists than I do from religion as the world is commonly used. I do see the power shifts and politics in the world in terms of military and economic power. Not in terms of an answer, but just an understanding of the process as we're living through it. That's all I'd say about it."

Would you say all your music is political?
"I would go further than that. I would say I'm more consistently a political animal than I am a musical one. In other words, who I am and the privileges I have come from political reality. And the fact that I've chosen to be a musician out of the various occupations I could do is sort of secondary, actually, to me. I love music. But I did anyway, long before I was a musician. As a teenager, music saved my life. But as a teenager I thought I'd be a painter.

" Thank god for rock music for one thing: that it went back to basics. Rock music is about a return to folk music. You don't have to know anything. You just have to get an instrument in your hand that plays a note, and sing, and anyone can do it.

"I started out from there. I was really grateful, because in the Fifties when I was listening to jazz or Stravinsky or something, it didn't occur to me that I'd ever be able to play it. There's no short cut to that stuff. But with rock'n'roll there is a short cut - you just sort of... do it. So that's what I latched onto. First of all, it wasn't very philosophical, it was more like, how do you get to dances, and one way was being the drummer. So that sort of thing - very simple."

Is it still very simple?
"It has to be. Any information I get, I try to take it all on, but in terms of processing it, I have to reduce everything back to all those teenage things - is there a beat somewhere, is there a tune somewhere? That sort of thing."

He pauses.

"Are you hungry? You must be hungry."


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