Robert Wyatt, Old
avant-garde jazz, a kind of mysticism and of course revolution
calls from L.A. in one day.
is funny like that.
had talked in 2004 about your last album, Cuckooland.
Right, my wife reminded me.
album was fantastic, but this new one, Comicopera, is really quite another level of
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
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.
are saying that this new work doesn't concern itself with destiny as such.
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?
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.
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.
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
And this is exactly what it sounds like; there's
always this great blend of spontaneous movement with a more applied kind of
use the intellect before and after, but not during, you know, a bit like
when I'm accepting food. [Laughs]
Jon Hassell 行
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
great, 'cause that's a perfect 行 thank you, Jon Hassell, I couldn't have put
So I was just wondering if that was a similar way of
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?
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
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 or...you know.
That's right, yeah.
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
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
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?
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.
Who is Monica Vasconcelos, the singer?
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
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.
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
Well, it seems like fate, because the combination of
her forthright, unfussy voice with your music is perfect.
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...