Bluefat Archive July 2007

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Robert Wyatt

Robert Wyatt, Old Rottenhat

Surrealism, avant-garde jazz, a kind of mysticism and of course revolution

Robert Wyatt: Two calls from L.A. in one day.

Bluefat: Life is funny like that.

It is!

We had talked in 2004 about your last album, Cuckooland.

Right, my wife reminded me.

That album was fantastic, but this new one, Comicopera, is really quite another level of achievement altogether.

I put a lot into it, it took a lot out of me. I'm kind of nervous now 行 I'm in my '60s now, I've gotta really know this stuff in my head.

Partly what's inspiring is the ambition of the undertaking. A comic opera in three parts, at this time 行 not a lot of artists are thinking that way. Tell me about what you had in mind with this "comic opera."

First of all, you had the word comic, I mean I spell comicopera as one word, 'cause you can make lots of little jokes of it. But Greek theater was divided into comic and tragic; and comic didn't necessarily mean funny, it was simply that tragic Greek drama 行 you know, there's those famous masks, one smiling and one grimacing 行 but it really just means tragedy is to do with destiny, unchangeable destiny, as I understand it, and humans who fly in the face of destiny being screwed, really. [Laughs]

Comedy is much more just about human foibles and failures and mischief and madness. And that's the tone of it. And the other reason it's an "opera" is because there are different characters in this thing, they're all through me, but it's a bit more 行 like sometimes you listen to a singer-songwriter, and you think, "This is just one person crying aloud against the wilderness" or whatever, but Comicopera is not quite that, because some of the people on here are people telling me off, some of them are some nihilists; another part is somebody saying how wonderful it is dropping bombs on a sunny day.

There are different characters here, so it's a drama, but it's a drama to music.

You are saying that this new work doesn't concern itself with destiny as such.

That's right. But even those subjects which people associate with religion and destiny and the big sort of imponderable eternal things, I mean simply treating them as things that happen to the mind; specifically, various sorts of strategies that humans employ when life itself needs some kind of dealing with in the head, you know. It's my turn to draw on stuff that I've thought of in the past; that'd be surrealism, avant-garde jazz, a kind of mysticism and of course revolution.

I'm not really trying to make a new religion out of that [laughs], I'm actually talking about human searching, to live with unbearable truths, such as it may be fun bombing somebody, but the feedback from the bomb is incalculable. That's the world in which we live.

Looking at it that way, and skipping ahead to the last track, if you are singing an ode to Che, what is the significance of that, then? Who would this character singing this be?

It's some of us. I know people who 行 the kind of despair of the 20th century, in the '30s, it started quite early on 行 I mean the avant-garde artists and so on who worked in the '30s, and the Surrealists, are all people who were totally exasperated with the trajectory of history, you know, wars and that stuff. And they thought, Well, one thing we'll do is just completely change art, break the rules, get back to the subconscious, etc., etc. As religions fell apart, in terms of having state power, people sought new ways of conceiving the world in sum, and one of them, of course, ever since the middle of the 19th century, has been revolution 行 just start again, help the workers, never mind shaving.

And it's one I've always empathized with. I haven't really seen much of it that it gets you out of the morass, but somebody lives in hope.

Hearing music like this, which is so individual, gets me out of the morass. No matter what you're singing about, whether you're being specific or ambiguous, musically it's so different that, on its own, it's a kind of statement of intent about finding your own path.

Well, I'm relieved you said that, because in the end I'm not a politician or philosopher, I'm simply a person who makes records, and they kind of have to stand or fall on just: This is some place to listen to this. [Laughs] And so that's the only area in which I just sort of try and use all the skill I've acquired just to make some kind of listenable series of things happen to the ears. For now, that's the challenge, and even if nobody understands a word 行 and I'm assuming that the last third of the album, when I give up even singing in English 行 you know, a lot of people don't speak Italian or Spanish, they'll just hear the sound of the words.

But it's gotta work 行 it's a sort of test of music, whether you can still enjoy it in a language you don't understand. I mean, I do, I listen to Bulgarian music and German opera and all kinds of stuff, and if the music's strong enough, you're okay, you just go with kind of the message of the sound.

It's also that the particular combinations of things you're putting together are really intriguing. I wanted to go over a few specifics on some of the tracks, if you don't mind.

Sorry, I just went through this orientation 行 be as specific as you like.

I'm fascinated with the process for you, of writing. I know that you've called yourself an "automatic" writer 行

Very much.

And this is exactly what it sounds like; there's always this great blend of spontaneous movement with a more applied kind of structure.

I use the intellect before and after, but not during, you know, a bit like when I'm accepting food. [Laughs]

Jon Hassell

Yeah, yeah!

I remember his saying that he preferred to draw a circle around the arrow after he'd shot it 行 that reminds me of your own procedure.

That's great, 'cause that's a perfect 行 thank you, Jon Hassell, I couldn't have put it better.

So I was just wondering if that was a similar way of thinking...

Yes, that's absolutely spot-on, and I shall shamelessly borrow that quote. [Laughs]

But at a certain point in the process of composing Comicopera, because it is such a large piece, taken altogether, did you find a theme and pursue it?

Well, I found it 行 'cause this is quite a long process writing this stuff, and I've been in different moods. I mean, as Bob Dylan said about having an identity, he said, "I'm several people a day, and by the end of the day I'm nothing like the person I was in the morning." [Laughs] Or some remark to that effect.

I mean, so, in the process of 18 months, a couple of years writing this, different things come up. But no, in every case it was a very specific, and then I'd look back and see what the overall shape is, and then I'd think, Yeah. Y'know.

And of course I do philosophize a bit, everybody does. I haven't university-studied professional philosophy, but, you know, we all do wonder, as we're doing here, what's the best way of responding to it, and "Anything we can do?" And "We should try to do..." and so on; and just how to behave with other people, what's appropriate, all those things 行 everybody, it's nothing unusual. And those start to go in there, and of course they're all me, so that's gonna unify whatever happens. I mean, a big influence on me, funny enough, oddly, was Ornette Coleman. Although his jazz is totally free, everybody in an Ornette Coleman record is playing in an Ornette Coleman record. You know what I mean?

Because the buck has to stop somewhere, and on his records it stops with him. And in my case the buck stops with me 行 what makes sense to me and what I organize together. You know, it's only me, so it's gonna have that unity anyway.

I remember seeing Ornette Coleman perform with Prime Time and noticing how you could hear the music up close, zoom in on the interlocking parts, or listen further back, like hearing the wall or a wave or woven tapestry know.

That's right, yeah.

So the structures or song-shapes you're making are by themselves very interesting. And then in the grander scheme you're basically going opposite to the usual way of doing an "opera," which would be moving from dark to light. In fact, you're getting darker as you proceed to the end of this piece.

Yeah, I mean, there's a real schism; the real cliff-drop is after somebody's been bombed 行 actually we've all been bombed [laughs] 行 and just everything then is off the script 行 your roof's off, your floor's gone, and then it's unmanageable. But the brain, if you're alive, will find something to replace it.

And in the end, I have no knowledge of anybody who's got a general answer, but I do know of people who had interesting and rewarding lives just sort of exploring different ways of having a mental life co-existent with their daily life, which might not seem directly related to this, obviously things like religions and art and so on.

"Lost in Noise" is the title of the first act. What is the significance of that title?

Well, that's quite intimate, that early stuff, and most were written 行 well, they're all written by two women, Anja Garbarek and Alfreda Benge. And piecing them together, they're very personal things. I hear it as a couple of people who feel that they belong to each other but are kind of losing each other in some way, as happens with the closest couples, whether it's in the case of obvious bereavement 行 you know, in her mind she's still with this man; or in the second song it's the confusion of living with someone you're thinking intimately but who seems to be lying to you to get through it 行 that's a kind of bereavement, that certain loneliness that someone you trusted is not telling the truth.

And then the last bit of that is almost literally lost in noise, this kind of thick texture of trombone, saxophone, bass guitar and stuff, and the voice is just kind of peeking through, like just barely sort of audible, but just holds the melodic thread through the piece.

The first track, "Stay Tuned" 行 "stay tuned, I'll get back to you" 行 immediately sets a tone of intrigue. Then "Just As You Are," god, what great chord changes.

Oh, thank you.

Who is Monica Vasconcelos, the singer?

Monica Vasconcelos is a Brazilian woman, about 40, who lives in London at the moment, and she has a sort of job here, working for the BBC overseas service, but she also sings. But she doesn't sing and do music in the kind of "new beat" sort of way, that, you know, "let's put some more beats to it" or "make it more street" or anything like that. She actually is a sort of hero of bossa nova, really, that's her territory, the early '60s and stuff. I've got a couple of her records that struck me as, paradoxically 行 some of her records are more authentically Brazilian studio stuff than the kind of slightly kitschified stuff that the lovely 行 it was lovely 行 Astrud Gilberto had sung but seemed like it was geared very often more for the market. What Monica does is more like straight from what that is derived from.

So anyway, I just think she's a terrific singer, she just sings straight and spot-on. She just sings notes, you know. I could've got into "You could emote on that line," but the way she doesn't has a kind of punch, you know.

Yeah, it's that kind of older type of Brazilian singing, with less emphasis on vibrato, or none at all.

That's right, it's a very, very straight thing, it's a bit like instrumental singing. And I came across this record of hers, basically of couple of friends of mine, some jazz musicians in London, had made a couple of records with her, some fairly commercial. But I saw her singing with some Brazilians at the Vortex jazz club in London, and it was blindingly good. I mean, just the speed of a bebop player and at the same time all these intricate Brazilian things, amazing stuff.

Anyway, I mentioned this in some interview, they said, What've you been listening to lately? And I mentioned Monica Vasconcelos, and she saw this thing and wrote a sort of shy note saying, Look, I'm trying to make some records in English, maybe you and your wife could help me with some words and stuff. And so we met, and indeed I sort of joined in on a recording she'd been making, and Alfie wrote some words for her, for some forthcoming release she's trying to put together.

Well, it seems like fate, because the combination of her forthright, unfussy voice with your music is perfect.

It's kind of an extension for me. On the last record I worked with Karen Mantler, and she and her mother [Carla Bley], they love bossa nova, you know, and I know they love Chet Baker, and of course I did a well known Brazilian song with Karen. And it seemed a kind of natural extension that I should do another Brazilian song with a Brazilian. [Laughs] I just love doing that kind of thing. See what happens then...