Friday, November 16, 2007

robert wyatt

This summer, I had the extreme honor of talking to Robert Wyatt. While I have never been more cowed by an interview subject, Wyatt proved to be one of the breeziest interview subjects ever, effortlessly talking about everything from bebop to his recent enrollment in AA. While I still hold out hope that this entire interview might appear in print somewhere, I'm posting it here, as two previous pieces on Wyatt (for Paste Magazine and the Village Voice) were so brief so as to barely touch on the myriad of topics that came up over the course of our half-hour chat.

AB: What were you listening to just then?

RW: Oh, it’s this cdr of bebop. Someone at the shop, a record of 40s bebop, Charlie Christian, Charlie Parker. Charlie Christian with Benny Goodman I hadn’t heard. It’s one of the greatest losses. There was something special there, one of the great originals. He should’ve been famous, that poor lad. He changed everything suddenly. I think he’s more influential than any of them. More people play like Charlie Christian than like anyone else.

AB: Playing electric and whatnot.

RW: Yeah, that fluid flowing legato thing, most beboppers weren’t doing that yet.

AB: You’ve been a jazz fan for awhile. Do you draw more from it as you go along, get older?

RW: It’s a funny thing. It means all kinds of things to me as I get older. The actual music I listen is exactly the same really. When I was a teenager, more or less. If anything, I like more of it than I did then. I like the journeyman beboppers. Paul Haines said once, “I’m not an innovator, I’m just a participator.” I used to be really snooty about that when I was young. I wanted innovators. Now I’m quite happy by participators as well. It’s a different thing, it’s nostalgic, you know. Back then it was like, “God, what’s going to happen next?”
It’s funny in a way, I’m a complete retard. Arrested development at eighteen, only the body grew older.

AB: With each album, there’s more of a pronounced jazz feel to it.

RW: It’s partially because the musicians I liked working with on the whole. I was talking with Carla Bley about this. All kinds of people can play music, but on the whole, in the old days, classical musicians couldn’t really swing, and rock musicians couldn’t understand chords, so you were only left with jazz musicians. I got a sort of little gang now I really like working with, they’re so fast and they’re so good. I do keep my edge, I do know a few rock guitarists, who grace us with their presence on a few tracks.

AB: I wanted to ask about your frequent collaborators, conspirators: Eno, Paul Weller, Annie Whitehead. What is the key to having such longevity with these people?

RW: Well, I don’t know. Partially because the pressure of a group isn’t on me. Take a group like that Big Brother television programme where people are just locked together and eventually the differences emerge to a point where the center cannot hold. Whereas with a specific project like a record, you have people on it who wouldn’t normally go on the road with you necessarily or even play together. You can have an imaginary band. It’s just a few days in the studio and they don’t mind doing it. it’s more like I’m really slow and it takes me ages to work out what to do. I’ve spent the whole 60s as a kind of apprentice, thinking “What the fuck?” I’m incredibly slow tune writer. I grow like some tree, or like a glacier, a foot a year or something. I leave it lying around, (wonder) “What would be a good chord to have next?” And then I listen to a Gil Evans record and I think, “Oh, I know!”

AB: Steal one of his chords.

RW: So that’s how it goes. Alfie helps out a bit.

AB: It seems you’re working a bit quicker these days.

RW: Yeah, actually you’re right! I really got straight back into the saddle for this. It’s partly knowing these particular musicians, very encouraging. First of all Phil Manzanerra and his studio. Annie Whitehead is just an angel, she just gives a bit of warmth and critical chords. I haven’t got to invent who does it so much anymore. I just got to invent the actual music. I don’t write it all, I get tunes from other people, put them together.

AB: Speaking of inventing these things, I see credits for Enotron, Karenotron, Monicatron…

RW: I got the idea from mellotrons. I used mellotrons quite a lot in the 60s. I did a lot of keyboard stuff. I never had one. When I found one in the studio, I used it. the first Matching Mole record I plastered it with it with mellotron. I heard that Jack Bruce (don’t know if it’s true), made one with his own voice. and I thought, what a brilliant idea, a choir. The last record, with Karen, I got her to do a scale, singing every note and then stuck it onto the keyboard. I got a Karen keyboard. I tried it on myself and it wasn’t so good. It doesn’t work for everybody. Brian Eno did one for us and Monica Vasconcelos did one. I got those three at the moment.

AB: It seems on Comicopera you drew a lot from other people.

RW: I always thought the thing is to make the best record you possibly can. If you can come up with tunes that you yourself would like to listen to, that’s good, then use them. But the most important thing to me is that it’s tunes that I really like. I used to do standards like Round About Midnight. Sometimes I find musicians write songs and I think why don’t musicians do other musician’s songs. That’s why I did some Karen ones on the last record. I really like Mrs. Garbarek. I once had this idea of getting “The Daughters of the Revolution,” having Mike Mantler’s daughter, Jan Garbarek’s daughter, and Paul Haines’s daughter, Emily Haines. I really like all three of them. I never did that.

AB: You can always switch to A&R.

RW: My favorite bit of the record is putting it together and getting people to do things they otherwise may not do. And I accompany them.

AB: You make connections that otherwise wouldn’t get made.

RW: It sounds like very paternalist you know. I really like that connection. It’s not to do with daughters, I’ve known Carla Bley and Mike Mantler thirty years. It’s a great thrill for me to know their daughter. I'm working with Karen, who was the same age as when I worked with Carla. I always liked Jan Garbarek. I was a bit drunk at some concert he had done in London and said something about covering one of (Anja’s) tunes and he said, “Do it, do it.”

AB: I liked one of her records that Mark Hollis worked on.

RW: That’s how I met her. I loved doing that. In fact, I couldn’t do it any more as I’m on the wagon. I joined AA. I just got sooo drunk. He made me do a hundred takes. He used some of the last ones, the four o’clock in the morning ones. It was a really funny song. I liked it. I thought the whole record was really good.

AB: I think Mark Hollis works slower than you do. Let’s talk about Comicopera. Why that dramatic three-act structure?

RW: First just the aesthetic thing. I find the blank canvas of a CD with the potential to be 80 minutes daunting. You have the choice of making a record of listenable length or using the space up. It’s quite rare to have a CD by a musician that can keep your interest going for that long. Even Mozart operas are about 35 minutes long. There’s got to be a variety. The last record I broke it up into two halves. This one I’m doing three. I really like the old LP of 20 minutes sides, like Rock Bottom and all that.

AB: Rock Bottom has this symmetry for sure.

RW: It helps me when I have a blank canvas, to think like that. Twenty minutes is a good listening length. Really this is three twenty minute things. It was gonna be put out on vinyl and do what Rahsaan Roland Kirk, one blank side. The dramatic structure as well was simply because there were different songs on there. They’re not all singer-songwriter me-me-me things in the sense that there are quite different characters on it. There’s someone who’s idea of happiness is going on a successful bombing run. There’s a nihilist who feels alone cuz he doesn’t have religion. There’s a woman telling a man off. There’s hatred, there’s Italian quasi-mystical. There’s Lorca, his surrealist imagery, and of course there’s the Che Guevara revolutionary type. There’s all bits of me, but not really one person. They’re different characters. When you got different characters in a sort of sequence and there’s music and singing, it’s kinda like an opera. But it’s not a serious opera.

AB: It’s a retroactive move.

RW: Yeah, in the first section I didn’t write any of the words, by Anja and Alfie. They’re all about fractured relationships or bereavement, people not getting along or being panicked, losing touch with somebody you thought you were close to. That’s Lost in Noise. The second lot is more where I come in, popping about England and being bemused by little country towns and boring council meetings. The whole thing is relieved by the carnival and hearing steel pans and music. That’s me sort of musing about England. It ended with the bomber. There’s lots of romantic pictures of accurately painted airplanes flying over beautiful landscapes. It’s quite funny, where it’s flying over is beautiful, but if you look back behind…
After that, it’s that kind of thing, I wish to distance myself from that with the slogan, “Not in my name.” songs didn’t seem to be in English. That’s the end, I’m done here. The rest is all…Something Susan Sontag said quite late on, the question is not just compassion, but to really empathize with the Other. Of course, speaking a foreign language helps you do it. I got Italian songs, some Spanish stuff.

AB: What kind of difficulties do you have singing in those languages?

RW: Italian, a lot. I sang phonetically. The Spanish is …I have sung half a dozen songs in Spanish. There’s so many different accents. I’m sure I got my Cuban, my Chilean all mottled up. With Italian and Japanese names, I can never remember them. It all goes in a blur for me.

AB: Do you still feel alienated from Anglo-American culture?

RW: On the contrary, I think what exasperates me is United States culture is that it could potentially be the most extraordinarily wonderful civilization. All it would have to do is…it’s funny, people call me Anti-America, which is completely mad. I was brought up on…I couldn’t imagine my life without American culture, Duke Ellington to Basquiat and everything in between, Norman Mailer. That’s where the strength of the United States lies. It’s such an overwhelming contribution to human culture, that reconfiguration of people from different worlds, from Africa, Russia, English and so. It’s not necessarily to just go around bombing and killing. These wars are so silly. The trouble is we fought a serious one, or our parents did. And that was justified. But we’re killing all these poor soldiers, sending them out to every place in the world, kill every brown person that they see.

AB: America is so isolated.

RW: It is an enormous country. Spiritually, you don’t feel the rightwing mainstream American culture is internationalist at all. All of that provincial, puritanical streak going through that.

AB: There’s no attempt to identify with the "Other."

RW: Half the population knows that. Once the Roman Empire collapsed, they were just wonderful. They were assholes, but they were great. When they gave up colonialism, there was this wonderful culture. not that American leaders have more confidence in the staggering beauty of what they already got, let that conquer the world.

AB: There’s not enough money in that.

RW: You have people all over the world listening to American records. It’s only like a caricature, not in this superior sense, just this exasperation, really. Brian Eno just came back from SF, he said it was wonderful there. Americans are really thinking and talking about what the fuck they’re doing in relationship to the rest of the world. He doesn’t find it England. It’s still pushed under the carpet, let’s talk about something else. You know what I mean? He’d much prefer…

AB: It’s better to be out in the open.

RW: It’s real animation. Questioning going on there. He really enjoyed very much, felt very stimulated by it. the problem is not the people.

AB: When’s the last time you came over?

RW: 1968. no, we went back in 1971. We did a little jazz tour, shared a bill with Miles Davis. That was something. That was the last time. very good memories of New York, the first all day-all night city I’d be to. I’d never seen gays in full leather gear. It was all so new to me. The only thing that puzzled me was the white people I met weren’t interested in black music as English kids were. A paradox. The American thing was more folk-based. In England, the entire English rock scene is based on black American music. From traditional jazz right up to American GIs bringing over jazz and soul music. It was the main event in England. Every single rock musician I know until the 70s was absolutely rooted in black music. BB King records, Mingus, Jimmy Smith, that was the absolute bedrock. I was surprised that it wasn’t the case in America. I went through a golden era, Ellington and Coltrane, they’ll last centuries. I'm sure so. The United States will be a great golden globe, I’m waiting for it to happen.

AB: Let’s hope we both get to see it. Back to Comicopera, there’s a song about the lovers misunderstanding each other. I was wondering what you saw as the connection as the lovers as well as the bombardier and the bombed.

RW: You got it. this is what I thought the LP did, the trajectory of personal conflicts onto the world stage, that’s exactly right. It starts off with Alfie. She wrote this to get me to stop drinking, as I was drinking behind her back. That’s why I couldn’t sing the first verse. In the end, I used the line “I’m never gonna change a thing, love you just as you are,” a plea. I’m just gonna try and love you.

AB: When did you start AA?

RW: Nearly three months. It’s amazing for me. I’ve had a few lapses. It’s a complete revolution in my lifestyle, since my mid-20s. it’s hard. The next hard one is cigarettes. I can’t do it all at once. I don’t know why people bother with illegal drugs, you can get out of your brain and kill yourself on quite legal ones. (laughs)