Click on the link for Part One of the interview.
You recorded with Syd Barrett.
Well he asked us. I was really surprised, but we [Soft Machine and The Pink Floyd] were two bands that played in the same places that weren’t playing “In The Midnight Hour” and stuff – because neither of us could play it very well, probably.
You get curious about the other one. I liked working with people from the Floyd, because they were the other, they were so different from us. We would play 100 notes, as many as possible, and they would play as few as possible. I would try and do the most complex rhythm thing. Nick Mason would just hit a snare drum and wait for the next interesting beat to come along. We were so different, and I was fascinated by that, and I was very pleased to go and do “The Madcap Laughs”. I think it’s a lovely record.
What was Barrett like at the time?
Very polite, quiet. I didn’t know he was meant to be mad or disturbed or anything. He just seemed very well brought-up and polite, jolly good songs – that’s all I knew.
You must have played the UFO Club a lot with the Floyd?
We did. I remember the dressing room at UFO was very small, with benches either side, and The Pink Floyd had incredibly long legs, so their legs would come across and sort of cross each other in the middle like the giant scissors they did in “The Wall”. They were very kind to us. we had crap equipment that tended to blow up. They had good equipment – they were never poor – and they would let us use their gear, which was actually quite unusual in those days. Very nice bunch of people, I always liked them. But in all the din and racket, the traffic jam of it all, I can’t say I have intimate knowledge of any of these people.
What about Keith Moon? You drank with him quite a lot?
Yeah I did. He took me down the blissful road to hell several steps at once in the Scene Club in New York. Hendrix and I used to go down there. And there would be Keith at the bar. And if you went to the bar to get a drink, his arm would go around your neck and say, ‘what are you drinking? Look, you want this, never mind that other stuff. Try this; Southern Comfort.’
I’d go, ‘it’s a bit sweet.’ He’d say, ‘yes it is, so what you need now is a tequila,’ and we did it with the salt and lemon. I’d say, ‘oh that’s a bit salty.’ He’d say, ‘yes it is, so what you now need is another shot of Southern Comfort.’ And he taught me how to get completely blasted very quickly, so within 40 minutes you were on another planet. Thanks Keith, I enjoyed it, but it probably wasn’t good for me in the long run, and it certainly wasn’t good for you, old son. But what a nice man.
Why wasn’t it good for you in the long run?
Well I obviously did get into trouble as a drunk, but you’d have to ask the people that were upset by it.
Was that what you were drinking the night of the accident?
What i remember is mostly punch – what on earth is that? – but Kevin [Ayers] I think brought out a bottle of scotch whisky, and then I felt like I was flying out of the window. Turned out I was [laughs]. It wasn’t just a feeling. That’s all I remember about that. Only people who’ve been that drunk know – in fact the English do know now, we’re a nation of binge drinkers.
Did it stop you drinking?
No. The first thing we did when I got out of hospital, Alfie wheeled me off to the pub and we had a drink. We were penniless when I was in hospital. I was staying in a flat of Alfie’s on the Harrow Road which has now been demolished. It was on the top floor, so we couldn’t go back there. We were really broke – we had about 15 quid. A couple of people sent us money to the hospital, the first one Ronnie Scott – 100 quid I thnk – Alfie’s dad Ronald and then the Pink Floyd did a benefit for us for a few thousand.
We’d just heard about it and it was fantastic for us. What are we going to do when we get out? So we went out and got drunk, and when we got back in, Alfie was reprimanded for being drunk in charge of a wheelchair.
No it didn’t stop me at all. We both used to drink a lot, me and Alfie.
When did you calm down?
About two months ago. I finished this record and then I stopped. I’ve had about six relapses, which sounds like a lot, but it’s fantastic for me. I just tried to write a tune the other day and I can’t remember writing a tune sober ever before. I may have done, I can’t imagine it. I couldn’t imagine normally even sitting down at a keyboard without the bottle of wine on the left hand side and the packet of fags on the right hand side, Fats Waller style.
Would you describe yourself as having had a drink problem all that time?
It seems like I had, yeah. Answering the questionnaire for alcoholics, it turns out I’m one of the unlucky ones who’s an alcoholic, yeah, so it turns out I can’t drink moderately or anything. We’ll see how it goes.
What about smoking? It’s two days to the smoking ban.
Well yeah, we’re going to have to do that. Alfie’s really desperate to give up. But one step at a time, let’s get this record out and get back to domestic solitude and we’ll give it a go. But I don’t want my nerves to be snapping for a fag if I’m meeting people.
It’s incredible, looking through 40 years of photos, that you’re always smoking.
People ask, ‘how many do you smoke?’ And I say it’s the wrong question. The answer is as many as possible. If there was a mile-long cigarette that I could just sort of have suspended in front of my mouth, it would just go straight into my mouth in the morning and come out at night before I go to sleep.
You signed to Virgin in ’73?
They came to see us when I was in hospital, ’cos I don’t remember the details but I’d started working on stuff, moved in with Alfie, we’d been together for a year or more.
You’d gone to Venice with Julie Christie?
That’s right. Alfie was working on that film and I was at a loose end. Alfie got us a keyboard so I did some stuff there and a bit more in her flat. But anyway they came along and said, ‘we’re signing people up, this record company’s fairly new, and you don’t have to make singles, you can just make an LP.’ So I worked towards that, came out of hospital and got a few friends together.
I hadn’t really worked on my own before, though people think “End Of An Ear” is the first solo record, really the first solo record is “Moon In June”. I knew I could do it at a push, but I didn’t have the confidence in the studio. We were a live band, I’d been in live bands all my life, really. We were rarely in the studio. So I asked Nick Mason to come along and cast his professional eye over the proceedings, which he did, and then Mike Oldfield was already in the building because the paint on “Tubular Bells” was still wet and he was still hanging about and he’s a lovely lad. I played with him in Kevin’s band. That was good fun, and Lol Coxhill. Lovely band. Mike helped a great deal, so between them they held my hand through the record.
You seem to flourish as a collaborator with friends, but not as a bandmember.
That’s exactly right. I say this as a joke, but jokes don’t work if they’re not sort of true, but the trouble with a band is I can’t take orders and I can’t give orders. So there’s no comfortable role for me in a band, whereas on a project – if I’m working for Carla Bley or Mike Mantler or Nick Mason or whoever – I think, well, if they’ve asked me I shall try and do whatever it is they’ve imagined me doing. As close as possible. There’s no pressure on me. I try and do what they want.
I also like the idea of projects where certain different people are appropriate. On “Rock Bottom” I was able to use two bass players; Hugh [Hopper] on tracks that I thought he’d be most comfortable on, and [Richard] Sinclair on tracks that I thought he’d be most comfortable on, whereas if you’re in a band you cant really do that. If you’re in a band with a guitarist and you’ve written four tunes that don’t have a guitar on he’s gonna get pissed off, and so the rock group format always seemed a tiny bit trapped to me I now realise.
I mean I enjoyed it very much, and maybe if I’d not been drunk and behaved myself better the Soft Machine thing could have gone on – well, I’m sure they were happy without me. I remember Charlie Haden was asked about working with Ornette Coleman. He was asked, ‘how did you feel when he started using his son Denardo on drums when he couldn’t play drums? Cos I know Shelly Mann and people were very shocked.’ Charlie Haden said, ‘you don’t think like that. With Ornette Coleman, you get up and you play what there is to play. Where you hear something, you play it. You don’t sit around judging what the others are doing, you just try and go with it.’ I think thats part of Ornette Coleman’s thing, his harmolodic theory, if everybody does what they do, and listen to everybody else, it will come out as some kind of harmony. Don’t worry about it, just let it happen, don’t get personal, don’t get anxious, just do it.
Maybe that’s why your records sound organic. It’s lovely how they sound very crafted and thought through, but there’s also a spontaneity and a value of error in them.
I’m very interested to see what happens. I respect what other people are doing even though I choose them knowingly, and I’m very interested in that. It seems to me a thing that we’ve got . I always thought it’d be a very good thing at the Tate Modern if there was a load of artists, one was given blue, one was given red, and told do a painting, and they each did their thing. I think that’d be really interesting. Musicians work like that as a matter of habit and I like that.
The levels of craftsmanship of the people I choose vary enormously because it’s not for the instrument they play or the style they are, but what kind of company they are. I might ask Fred Frith and he might play violin or piano, but it’s Fred. With Brian Eno, you never know what he’s going to do, if he’s going to do anything at all. He might just drop into the studio and think of something to do, and I’ll always go with it. The craftsmanship to me is that someone’s got to take responsibility for it, so with the final record I believe in a sort of benign dictatorship, you won’t be surprised to hear given my politics.
Benign’s not a word that always comes to mind, but certainly dictatorship. I will edit ruthlessly ‘til everything sounds good to me, simple as that, ‘cos my name’s on the cover. The buck stops here, as it were. I always try and treat musicians with respect and give them their moment.
Click on the links for Part Three and Part Four of the interview.
Robert Wyatt Part Two
Click on the link for Part One of the interview. You recorded with Syd Barrett. Well he asked us. I was really surprised, but we [Soft Machine and The Pink Floyd] were two bands that played in the same places that weren’t playing “In The Midnight Hour” and stuff – because neither of us could play it very well, probably.
Click on the link for Part One of the interview.