Robert Wyatt: Life After Life
An interview with Robert Wyatt
(Copyright © 2007 Domenico Caccamo/ Giancarlo Costamagna | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )
An Introduction to Robert Wyatt

1. It has been 4 years since your last work, ‘Cuckooland’. Apart from being busy writing your new one, you've been busy collaborating with other artists such as David Gilmour, Steve Neive, Max Richter and even Bjork. Who did you most enjoy working with?

It was great to be asked by all of them. The biggest shock for me in a way was Bjork coming around to my house. In physical form I always assumed she was kind of a supernatural angel and to have her sitting in my house was awe-inspiring. The whole room went electric. I found her very intelligent, funny and kind. To be in a Steve Neive opera was great. It was great to be asked to do that. Muriel Teodori, who wrote the Neive opera ‘Welcome To The Voice’, she’s also a very interesting person. David Gilmour (Pink Floyd) is an old friend of mine. On the Max Richter album I did some spoken word.

2. Collaborating is something you enjoy to do, but what about producing somebody else. Have you ever thought about it or been asked to do it?

I have thought about it even if nobody has asked me to do it. In a way I supposed that when I work with other musicians, and when I work on my own stuff, I want them not just to accompany my songs but also to have a chance to be themselves somewhere. I enjoy how I can find the place for, on this record for example, Annie Whitehead, Gilad Atzmon or Paul Weller to do something slightly different from what they would normally do. In that sense I always thought that it would be interesting to produce a Gilad Atzmon or Annie Whitehead record. In a sense I feel I’m doing that, but in miniature (laughs).


3. Who would you most like to produce if you had the chance?

Gosh, this is a difficult one! I know that Cristina Dona’ has a record coming out soon. That kind of thing I suppose. I would like to see her again. But I don’t know what to do necessarily. But then again she seems to know what to do already so... There’s someone I produce on this record in a way: Monica Vasconcelos (she sings on track 2 ‘Just As You Are’), a Brazilian singer based in the UK. She’s preparing her new album all sung in English and asked Alfie to help her out with some lyrics, while I’ll be working musically on her songs.

4. I’m a bit puzzled by the title of your new album. Is it ‘Comic Opera’, or ‘Comicopera’?

It’s really funny that you say that ‘cos the last person who called me asked why it’s all one word like that. Being of Puerto Rican origins, that person explained that for them it means ‘A Funny Pair’. ‘Comincopera’ is a word that doesn’t exist. It’s like a word puzzle that you can work out by turning around its letters. You can have the word "commi", which is the pejorative of word for a communist, or also "comicop". I thought about dividing it in two words, but I really like the word ‘Comicopera’. I like the fun of it.

5. ‘Cuckooland’ was divided in two acts ‘neither here’ and ‘not there’, while ‘Comicopera’, being an opera, is divided into 3 acts, ‘Lost In Noise’, ‘The Here And The Now’ and ‘Away With The Fairies’. Can you explain how the songs relate with each act, starting with Act One ‘Lost In Noise’?

‘Lost In Noise’ is nearly all kind of quite private stuff: about relationship between a man and a woman who are separated or something keeping them apart maybe because one of them has died, or only coming in a dream or because one has lost trust in the other. Sometimes even the closest relationship you can have can get lost in noise

Act Two, ‘The Here And The Now’?

Here I’m acting in the reality of walking around England seeing various things that I like and some I don’t. For example, sometimes I’m amused other times I just think to myself. It’s me out and about, a character on his own, out on the street. It’s not about a relationship.

Act Three, ‘Away With The Fairies’?

‘The Here And Now’ ends with the unavoidable fact that whatever is happening in England we’re still sending soldiers to another country to kill people, which I’m fed up with it frankly. The invasion of Iraq, a country that never has been a threat to me or anybody else. They have never threatened us.

Many times over the centuries, we in England and the West have gone to Arabic countries to push them around but there is not a serious threat from Iraq or Lebanon, Iran or Syria. To me this is a gratuitous act of colonialism and the idea we get about dictators is stupid ‘cos if you attack a country like that, you make them more likely to resort to that to defend themselves. It’s not the way to democratized a country, bombing it. It’s stupid. So that’s my opinion. So I’m really fed up to be English, I want to be a foreigner (laughs). So in the end I just go ‘Away With The Fairies’.

There is also a beautiful song ‘Del Mondo’ which I sing in Italian even if I don’t speak much of it. I love the sound of the song, but I don’t really know what it’s all about. That young man is a very strange man (riferendosi al cantante del Consorzio Suonatori Indipendenti). To me there is a kind of sincere, strange mixture, a kind of modern feminist sentiment mixed up with a street prime evil, kind of a Virgin Mary picture of women, an inner generator of life spoiled by men and so on. Then there is ‘Cancion De Julieta’, a song by Garcia Lorca, a homosexual surrealist who was shot by the fascists, this just to remind everybody of the real danger of political religious fanaticism. That’s a kind of escape to sub aquatic surrealism that is very at home to me. I was very surprised how close I felt. I felt like he started to help me to write ‘Rock Bottom’ 30 years before I wrote it (laughs). That was a great discovery for me. Musically the song is quite improvised.

Then there is ‘Hasta Siempre Comandante’ (Carlos Puebla), a song of my generation about the good old Che Guevara. I love the version that Ricky Gianco done a while ago (‘Tandem’, 2001), quite sublime. What they have done in their version was to combine Cuba’s folk style music of Carlos Puebla to what they felt inside. Normally Cuban jazz, be bop, it’s quite distinct from the simple song of Cuba but in this case, the way the group of Padova has played it, they certainly got those elements which were perfect for me to sing with. So I wanted to do a very simplified version with me singing the voice, no solos. Instead of solos (which already esiste on record played by saxophonist Maurizio Camardi) I just wanted the fairies to help me out at the end. So I use the voices of Monica Vasconcelos and Karen Mantler to carry me away to dreamland, the final escape.

6. ‘Comicopera’ gathers together a variety of styles, from rock and avant garde to pop and jazz, very much in contrast with your previous work. Did you intend this as a reflection of the lyrics?

No, it was a purely musical decision at first and relating to circumstances which were there. These kind of situations, I also found them with my previous two records: ‘Shleep’ and ‘Cuckooland’. I’ve enjoyed so much what the other musicians were playing. So, instead of adding them, I wanted to incorporate what they play right into the basic skeleton of the music. This was possible ‘cos in the past ten years we got to know each other so well that I feel very close to them, just like a little family. We don’t play all at the same time. It was like playing with a band, an imaginary band that exist in my mind but not in real life. And it feels like something which I haven’t done since I was a drummer. So, as you can see, there is no way that you can get Brian Eno or Paul Weller in the same studio. But this happen with me. The atmosphere that we had created during the recording was amazing and I hope to relive this experience again for my next record.


*** To me ‘Comicopera’ is like tracing your life in music from ‘Rock Bottom’ onward…

It’s right, it’s kind of autobiographical. In a way you’re right. This gradual movement away from the prime-like personal thing inside from beginning a relationship, and then moving out into the harsh reality of the real world. And there are the strange political and mystical acts. You’re really right, I’ve never thought about it. It’s kind of a parallel pilgrimage. I very much accept what you’re saying. That’s a good way to hear it. I think this makes a lot of sense if I think about it. But you have to understand that when I’m working I’m not thinking conceptually of what I’m doing. So, afterward I think about what it was and what I’ve done. I think what you said, it’s quite a pretty good picture of what it is.


7. Using the same musicians makes you feel comfortable, as you’ve known them for a very long time: Eno, Annie Whitehead, Yaron Stavi, Karen Mantler and Paul Weller among others. Tell me, what characteristics do you look for in your collaborators?

Certainly it’s not style. I’m not really concern about style or even instruments. Mostly I’m concerned with the character of the musicians, whether we have some kind of real empathy. In the past I’ve worked with people ‘cos there were good musicians or kind of useful to each other in the project. Now I only want to work with musicians close to me, with real friends. Friends that I found in the past with my previous band Matching Mole, but that unfortunately was cut short. So this way of working is with no pressure. We have just to work for a couple of weeks, we part and then we meet together some other times, some other ways. To me this is a natural way of working without the pain of rushing around. For example, people were surprised with Paul Weller ‘cos he comes from a different background and way of working. But we have quite a lot in common ‘cos we both love American black music. And also because politically he has a very strong instinct of working class solidarity, defending some dignity of the workingman and that’s why his music is always very clear and comprehensible. Sometimes he’s a bit amused, kind of puzzled about things that people like me do, which obviously is very oblique and not necessarily easy to follow. But the fact is that we are good enough friends. There is that kind of mutual trust between us.

8. Amongst the collaborators is another old friend of yours, David Sinclair of Caravan. How did you get him involved?

Oh yes, it was a really lucky accident! He now lives in Japan (he’s got a Japanese wife). He came to visit us one day and, as I was writing the song ‘A.W.O.L.’ I asked him to play the piano. He did it in a very simple way with no ostentations of flashy bits. So that was a little magic moment. It was lovely to see an old and caring friend. There is nobody that can play like him. He’s quite a unique musician in that sense.

9. In your songs you write about personal and socio-political issues. Tell me which do write mostly passionately about?

Well, it’s really all the same, all passionate. If it’s not coming out from a really strong feeling I won’t write it. There is no differentiation in my mind if it’s about pain and pleasure. Whether it’s pain and pain, pleasure and pleasure, personal or international. If I have to protect myself in some way from anything that is painful, I would do it in a song. If it’s someone dropping a bomb or if it’s just somebody I’m not communicating with. Really it’s no difference ‘cos I haven’t got different compartments in my brain for that. It’s just a different part of our life you know. It’s all personal to me. Everything is personal to me.

10. ‘Del Mondo’, a song by Consorzio Suonatori Indipendenti, already appeared on ‘The Different You - Robert Wyatt E Noi’, a tribute to you by Italian artists. Is it the same version or a remix of it?

This is a remix. I’ve taken out some stuff that I had in there. For example the singer had some talking on it, but here I wanted some more acoustic elements. There are more or less the same keyboards and vocal, but I wanted Yaron Stavi to play acoustic bass on it. With this record I wanted more a physical presence of natural instruments. It more or less the same. I added the song in "Comicopera" because I thought the song was too good to be heard only by the people who bought the Italian tribute. Doing this I know it will be heard by a different kind of people.

11. And your experience working with Cristina Dona'? You invited her to the Meltdown Festival you curated in 2001.

Oh, it was great to see her performing live. The first time I saw her performing live I think it was in Turin at a music festival. She has a beautiful style. She is quite feminine without being girly, if you know what I mean. A woman totally in control and quite discreet, and her songs are good. Collaborating on her album was my pleasure.

12. Let's talk about the most important woman in your life, Alfie, who has been your tower of strength through all these years. Tell me what kind of influence she had and is still having on you and your music?

She had an influence quite earlier on, and although she enjoyed coming to see us playing (that’s when I was a drummer with Soft Machine and Matching Mole) even before we met, she felt that our music was impressive but a bit too congested, too much happening all at once for too long. And she thought that it would be nice if I would make more space, kind of simplifying what I did. Just let the music roll with more breathing on it. She was with us in Matching Mole. I tried to use that kind of free vocal moment, for kind of breathing moments literally accompagnati con momenti di distensione. She was always there to guide me in a way. You see, she’s not much into the jazz thing. She’s more into rooty music (world music), she likes flamenco and she likes people singing with lots of soul and lots of heart. She likes canzoni napoletane, those songs that she feels moved from and makes her sing and dance. In a way she felt that some things that we were doing were technically advanced but at the same time kind of showing off. She wasn’t being rude, but very kind about her impression on our music. She said, "Look, you can’t show everybody how good you can play every time." So, after I broke my back I couldn’t do that anymore, I couldn’t do that clever drumming anymore. I had to just simplify my way of playing and she gave me more confidence to control the pace. Now I was on a different level of music making. There was no more me showing off my athletic skills to impress people, but it was me making music in a sense that I could move people. She didn’t tell me that, she didn’t give lectures, but I can tell by how she responded to me that’s what she wanted in music. Anyway it was natural to me that I wanted to please her and that was a kind of magnetic influence of what I did.

13. Some of the songs on your albums are written together with Alfie. Who starts the writing first?

I suppose mostly I have more music than words. Many times I found that I have pieces of music that need words. I have millions of words written on pieces of paper but they don’t necessarily fit the music, so she has the attitude for finding words that (as she says) are not poems, not arguments, but lyrics that can be part of the song. Alfie has a great gift of writing words that feel part of the song, just like a good folk song writer. That’s how it normally works. But it has also been the other way round, for example on ‘Cuckooland’, she wrote the song and I wrote the music for that and I had to construct a structure for that, while ‘Site Of The Wind’ (on the ‘Shleep’ album) was based entirely on a poem that she wrote, a poem that I read so many times until I started to build up the music. So we also do it that way round, but mostly it goes from the music to the words.

14. How did you first discover music?

Well, the first interval I remember was a flatted third (a questo punto si assenta per andare al piano e farmi sentire la nota…the flatted third). And I think this was like me calling for my mummy from my cot saying (imitando la voce di bambino) ‘mummy, mummy’. I remember always calling her out for something. I think I must have been a real pain as a baby, so this was the first piece of music I remember.

15. What memories do you have when thinking about your first album ‘The End Of An Ear’ (1970)?

That was a very important moment for me. I’d already played the keyboards on ‘Moon In June’ and a few others. Those days I was listening to many improvising jazz musician and I thought I could try this myself to see what happen ‘cos I wanted to break free. So I needed to do something that was free from the normal music structure. In the original time of The Soft Machine we did that, but eventually became more structured in a kind of jazz-fusion mode. I was always interested in the simultaneous things in the ‘60s. Along with beat music there were all these people like Sun Ra and so on that were going into a wonderful music direction. I really wanted to do that. Originally I wasn’t going to do it with Mark Charig and Elton Dean, but with Gary Windo and Mongezi Feza. Then, when the studio time was booked they were going on tour with Chris McGregor, so I had to ask Mark and Elton to do it. This was my idea of freedom to play. Instead of having the feeling of this keyboard player looking over my shoulder to disapprove of what I was doing, I just wanted to play the keyboard like a free man. It’s not that I minded being in a group, but I just wanted run around and do my own things.

16. What are the highlights of your long career?

Gosh, this is an interesting one! Certainly a couple of moments with Mongezi Feza who collaborated with his trumpet toward the end of one side of ‘Rock Bottom’. I was kind of ecstatic of what he did with that, and the whole thing seems to take life for me. That was a fantastic memory. I’d like to have done more with Mongezi (morto di pneumonia nel Dicembre 1975 all’eta’ di 30 anni). This is one of the reasons why I love to play trumpet. Playing it not as a trumpeter but my own way, using it as an extension of my vocals. Playing with Keith Tippett was nice. Being invited to play with all those people (riferendosi all’album dei Centipede ‘Septober Energy’ del 1971 che vedeva dentro la crema dei musicist jazz rock inglesi di quel tempo) gave me great pleasure. Also, recently making friends with Gilad Atzmon and Yaron Stavi. They are really wonderful people to be and work with. They remind me of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza (laughs).

17. Which is your Robert Wyatt favourite song?

I can’t do that because I haven’t been listening to the albums recently. When I Listen to this one, I always look forward to the little duet between Gilad Atzmon and Orphy Robinson (‘On The Town Square’) in the middle of the new record, and I just sit back and bang some cymbals. For now this is my favourite moment.

*** For me, apart from the grandiose ‘Moon In June’, it’s the deep and intimate ‘Sea Song’…

Oh thank you! You know that I just heard a beautiful version of that done by an all woman folk group in England called Rachel Unthank & The Winterset. They come from the north east of England. They cover the song in a strange modern way, just with piano and drums. Becky Unthank sings the song in a wonderful way that very much reminds me of when I wrote it. It’s not a copy but seems to understand exactly the spirit of it. ( You can also hear their beautiful version of Nick Drake’s ‘River Man’). Il loro album is called ‘The Bairns’, a dialect word for babies. They are from Northumberland.

18. How come you signed a deal with Domino Records?

Paul London, who used to work as a publisher for my old label Rykodisc, left to work for Domino still remaining friend of ours. When we found out that Ryko was being taking over by some big American company, we weren’t happy with that, so Paul asked us if we were interested in coming to Domino because they were interested in what we were doing. We met the people at Domino and after a good chat they decided to put my record out. As simple as that!

19. Do you have any remaining musical aspirations?

Oh, let’s see! I’m really surprised by what has happened so far and some of the nicest things happened completely by surprise. Some of the stuff like the Steve Neive opera thing came out of the blue. It was fantastic for me to do that. I did some stuff with Cristina Dona’. All these things just come out. I don’t anticipate them, I don’t look for them. Mostly I’m quite happy to sit here in front of my window with a nice cup of tea looking out of the window and playing my old jazz records. If something happens, sometimes I can respond. That’s it really. I don’t really think as a musician most of the time. My life is all improvised, and so is Alfie’s one.


20. Do you see ‘Comicopera’ as one of your most personal records?

I must repeat what I said before to other people, it’s all personal to me, because if it’s not personal I cannot sing it really. So, that’s it (laughs).

Domenico Caccamo & Giancarlo Costamagna

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