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Robert Wyatt
Singer Drummer Paraplegic

A 54-year-old communist and veteran of the psychedelic era, may be the most compelling pop musician working in 1998. Flagpole's Phil Waldorf caught the artist on the phone at his home in England...


Few living musicians can claim a life and body of work as marvelous and intriguing as that of Robert Wyatt, 54, who recently released his first album in eight years, Shleep (Thirsty Ear), to low-key but intensely favorable critical acclaim.

Wyatt first gained recognition for his thundering jazz drumming and unmistakable lead vocals in the pioneering 1960s art-rock band Soft Machine, one of the few groups that could share bills with the likes of Rashan Roland Kirk and the Art Ensemble of Chicago as effortlessly as it could with Jimi Hendrix or Pink Floyd. After four albums, the other members of Soft Machine resented Wyatt's idiosyncratic singing style, and wanted to venture in a jazz fusion direction, which eventually led to his dismissal from the group he originally founded.

With his next endeavor, Matching Mole (a pun on the French translation of Soft Machine, "Machine Molle") Wyatt released two excellent records, but prior to the recording of a third record everything changed. Drunk at a party, the musician fell out of a fourth story window, and was rendered paraplegic, thus ending his career as a drummer.

This tragic accident did not slow Wyatt; after a speedy recovery he recorded his masterpiece, the dark and beautiful 1974 solo album Rock Bottom (Virgin/Caroline Blue Plate). Rock Bottom is a visionary record a collection of six atmospheric songs featuring Wyatt's unbelievably strange, nursery rhyme-like, melancholy vocal style.

Since then, the artist has steadily continued to record seminal music to challenge reigning aesthetic and political paradigms Wyatt is a professed communist who once covered "Song For Che" by Charlie Haden. Shleep, his latest, finds Wyatt's music as beautiful as it has ever been, combining elements of poetry, jazz, pop, and world music to create a sound that is uniquely his. What follows are excerpts from a phone interview with Wyatt from early 1998 that give a glimpse of his artistic past and present, as well as some of the ideas behind this idyllic body of music.

Flagpole: Your voice is unmistakable. You use it to sing, in the standard sense, but you also seem to think of it more as an instrument in and of itself. How did you develop this style?

Robert Wyatt: There are singers that I have enjoyed, from Nina Simone and Ray Charles onward. But the music that made music the number one thing for me as a youth was jazz, like Coltrane. That sound reached my soul in a way that few singers did. When there is a voice in a piece of music we tend to focus on the voice. That is probably something from when we were babies and we depended on hearing our mother's voice our survival depended on this voice from all other sounds around us. And the most effective instruments do have a vocal quality.

Having said that, what interests me is the whole composition, what is going on harmonically and so on. I've been criticized by people in the past for not taking enough trouble to highlight the voice. In the mixing, I let it fight it out with the other instruments

FP: Tell me about recording Shleep.

RW: I find writing songs hard, because it does not come naturally to me. I never set out to be a songwriter or a singer, in fact. On my previous record, Dondestan, I started out by taking half a dozen bits and pieces of my wife's poetry and writing from her notebooks, and wrote music for those. I find it easy to write music to those. Not easy, but they do fall naturally into music.
In other cases on Shleep I took tunes by people who didn't sing them, or don't want to sing them. When I had enough I took it to Phil Manazera's studio. Phil is a friend and a musician. His studio is unusually relaxed, so I could get on with it and take time out to redo things. This is unusual because normally the budget for a non-commercial person like myself is very strict, and in this case it was a bit looser.

FP: You seem to be influenced by all types of music. Tell me about your interest in folk music and traditional world music.

RW: It's interesting: with the most avant-garde musicians, the music they're closest with is the most traditional music, which reminds me of how it was with modern painters and sculptors earlier this century. What they were in tune with is not of the European tradition, but of a so-called primitive tradition from around the world.

FP: Do you take inspiration from modern rock and roll?

On the whole, I tend not to listen to my peers. I find it hard to take rock groups very seriously or treat them with respect. To me they are all like the group in Spinal Tap. That is not the story of a heavy metal band, but every band I have ever known. There is something absurd about these gloomy young men getting together and banging away.

Discuss the impact that jazz has had on you and your music.

I was in the U.S. in 1968 and there were several assassinations of major figures, and there was a war going on, and certainly there was a feeling that everything in culture resonated politically in some way. Black music from the jazz side played an important part in that. I think that with Charles Mingus onward with some of the black groups there was a terrific resonance with me. Not because they wanted to be anti-authority, but somehow the establishment didn't want them or accept them.

Your lyrics are often political. Would you consider Shleep to have many political songs on it?

(The song) "Alien" is about a bird that is basically a kind of swallow, and it can't land because it is constantly in exile everywhere. It is a strange kind of freedom and it is definitely a song and a poem with reference to the great deal of refugees around the world who find it increasingly hard to get somewhere safe, particularly in Europe at the moment. It seems to becoming more and more racist, kind of exclusive, in who it allows in and so on.

I think there is something biologically utterly moronic about racists, because in the end they are advocating incest. Any biologist would tell you that's not a very good way to strengthen one's biological gene pool. I was very pleased that the Italian government has refused recent pressure from Germany and Austria to stop admitting refugee Kurds. The Italians have said, 'Look, the Kurds have nowhere to go.' And that is thanks to a more left-wing government: I don't think the previous Christian Democrat government would have any qualms about sending them back to hell.

So you still are a political individual?

I see the world in a certain way. If you are some kind of communist like me, it is part of who you are. Sometimes it comes out in a song. It orientates all my life the way a religion might. I don't have ideals. I do have certain loyalties. I basically think that in the long run, just letting the world be run by gamblers on the stock exchange doesn't lend to security for most people. There is nothing criminal about being a businessman. It is certainly honorable, but your duties are to your shareholders and not to the public at large. It is not the duty of a businessman to run the world's schools and hospitals.

I understand you feel somewhat exploited by your experience in Soft Machine.

It's really hard to think of anything much that was salvaged from it, from my point of view. We did not get any money from the early records. It was all taken by crooked managers. It is just a gangster's paradise. The '60s are a washout to me. There was nowhere to turn, really. I was thrown out of that group at the end of the '60s. We weren't really able to communicate with each other, the crooked managers or the record companies. It gives me a queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach when I remember the whole era. It's like trying to ask somebody on the Titanic if they had a good time until it went down.

With the solo album Rock Bottom of a few years later, however, you reach a new artistic high. What are your feelings towards that record?

That was important to me, in terms of getting something done with a lot of help from my friends. It was a breakthrough that stemmed from the fact that I didn't have a group really. I could just concentrate on the music. I just got married and it was a happy time, really. It was physically difficult, adjusting to wheelchair life, but I remember a great relief and happiness that I was finally getting somewhere, finding musicians to work with that were sympathetic.

What do you think about the fact that it is 1998 and you are still actively making music, more than 30 years after your first records came out?

I'm surprised. George Burns said once: 'If I'd have known how long I was gonna live, I'd have taken better care of myself'. I have certainly been careless. I have never made anything like that awful phrase that came in during the '80s, you know, "career moves." Maybe it is just that I am a slow burner. Ideas take awhile to sort of incubate, and then I sort of process them and that is how it goes. Perhaps other people work more in the trajectory of an athlete. They burn an intense flame for a short period of their lives in their 20s, but their careers are like a comet that burns bright and fast. I have never felt in tune with the whole rock industry anyway.

I know people who grow old and bitter and I don't want to do that. I want to keep making a fresh start. I don't want them to defeat me. That would be suicidal.

Article by PHIL WALDORF -Taken from Flagpole Magazine Online