Ayers is a rather cultivated, somewhat self-effacing British man somewhere
in his 50s. He is by occupation...call him a singer-songwriter. Which is to
say, he does do that if pushed, but he'd much prefer to snorkel in the
Mediterranean, sip a glass of sangria, read a good book. And who wouldn't?
The difference is: Ayers does it.
Back in the late '60s
he was a founding member of the Soft Machine, the fertile and humorous
pop/jazz/odd-ditty group whose ranks included the now-esteemed Robert Wyatt on drums and pithy organ stylist Mike Ratledge, as well as
fuzz-bass maestro Hugh Hopper and, in the band's early stages, Daevid
Allen, the Australian who has been called the world's first hippie and who
went on to form the cultish pothead-pixie space-jazz-rock band Gong.
Ayers grew up in
Malaysia, "the last of the colonial kids," as he puts it. Dad was
a district officer there, sort of like a mayor. Kevin felt a kinship with the
place and the populace, still does. "Being brought up with people
who're very open and very sort of warm," he says, "and then
coming back to the West, where people weren't either one or the other, it
was quite a shock."
After returning to
England, Ayers spent a few years in boarding schools, which he found a
hideous experience. He declines to detail this period, but does, with a
palpable shudder, indicate his conviction that the English are ÐÐ very
generally speaking ÐÐ a deeply constipated people. This being the '60s, he
sought an alternative.
The Georgian mansion
belonging to Robert Wyatt's mother was a gathering place for Canterbury
bohemians who dug avant-garde jazz, Dadaist art and poetry. Here the two
began jamming, banging pots and pans together, and this was the origin of
their first band, Wilde Flowers. Ayers had been teaching himself basic
chords on the guitar, just enough to write songs, prototypes of which ÐÐ "Love Makes Sweet Music" and "Feelin', Reelin',
Squealin'" ÐÐ wound up as minor hits for their next band, the Soft
Ayers' bent was
primarily literary rather than musical, though he developed an interest in
jazz from his Canterbury chums. "We were basically all middle-class
kids," says Ayers, "postwar, asking questions intellectually and
musically. And, basically, we found that that's what we should try and do
as a living, 'cause no one wanted to have a proper job."
Ironically, the Soft
Machine, which had begun as a loopy mishmash of heartfelt pop, edgy jazz
noodling and surreal pop-culture collages, ended up as a super-competent,
faceless jazz-rock band, all of the original members except Ratledge
eventually being replaced by heavy-duty "players." The band's
arrival in London in early 1967 had coincided with the flowering of
psychedelia and all things alternative, and they got a residency at the UFO
Club in Tottenham Court Road. Pink Floyd were the club's resident stars,
yet word about the Softs spread. Today, they loom large in the annals of
European progressive, psychedelic and jazz music ÐÐ hugely influential.
But Ayers was unhappy.
The Softs had toured America, opening for Jimi Hendrix, and the brutish
routine permanently turned him off the music industry. "That was my
first real brush with show business and the music industry, and I didn't
like it at all. I still don't. I liked Jimi Hendrix and the other
musicians, I just didn't like the record executives. I saw Hendrix getting
ripped off like mad, and I just didn't like it. It didn't go with the
artistry of the people involved." Ayers thus excused himself from the
Soft Machine, to write songs, and to further lark about down in Majorca and
Ibiza and little port towns in Spain.
He did have to earn a
living, though, and he did have songs. So he embarked upon a solo career,
and it was apparent that his songs were bright, observant and different
somehow. He attracted several of the more adventurous British musicians to
his recording sessions, including future Tubular Bells man Mike Oldfield, new music
composer David Bedford, and the uncompromising sax player/busker Lol
This comprised the core
unit for Ayers' first solo album, Joy of a Toy, a whimsical collection of
songs marked by strong melodies, colorful improvisation and moody lyricism.
Ayers named his band The Whole World, a group of disparate styles and
backgrounds that wove an enchanted, shrewd chaos around Ayers' songs. Shooting
at the Moon,
released in October 1970, combines the melodic and lyrical stretches of its
predecessor with an electric ambience, along with pretty, lush vignettes
such as "May I?" and several hair-raising Oldfield guitar solos.
A series of Ayers
albums throughout the '70s ÐÐ Whatevershebringswesing, Bananamour, The Confessions of Dr.
Dream and June
1st, 1974 (his collaboration with Brian Eno, John Cale and Nico) ÐÐ chart a wildly
uneven course of pop songs characterized by daring orchestration and
structure, and lyrics of both keen wit and intense introspection; he'd veer
from a nine-minute, eerie epic like "The Confessions of Dr.
Dream," a duet with Nico) to wrapping his mellow baritone around
lilting, sunny tunes like "Caribbean Moon" and the Dietrich
signature "Falling in Love Again." Taken altogether, it was a
somewhat schizo approach, guaranteeing Ayers a reputation as a musical
chameleon. Was he art-rock or the new Elton John?
Ayers cared not for such distinctions. He repeatedly chucked it all
to split for the Continent to loaf in the sun and ponder his place in
music. The problem was, he never had any sort of niche. "They never
had a clue how to market me," he says, laughing. "I was just
always an oddball. They found me interesting, like some eccentric oddity,
but they just didn't know how to sell it. My stuff was so diverse ÐÐ there
was nothing really to grasp hold of and say, well look, it's this, that or
the other. So I was a difficult number to shift."
Ayers comes from a time when the song was important, but not so important
that it couldn't be played with ÐÐ no need to be so rigid about things, you
know. Sleep and dreams are a continuing theme in his work, something he got
from an early fascination with the Russian mystic G.I. Gurdjieff.
"I think that's
where the fantasy is," he says. "That's the area you don't really
have any control over ÐÐ the dreams. And sleep to me means just going
through life being a robot, basically. That's what Gurdjieff meant about us
being automated rather than having conscious choice, even though you think
you do ÐÐ that's what he called sleep. But dreams are a very rich area. You
don't have to sleep to dream, you know. You can have a daytime dream, you
can have a constant dream, if you like."
That fairly describes
Ayers' relationship with life and music and "the music business"
and all the rest. While he's continued to gig successfully with bands and
as a solo act throughout Europe and the U.K., he's recently bought a house
in the south of France, and he'll soon be heading off down there to do
whatever he feels like doing; daydreaming, for example.
"I just feel at home
there," he says. "I don't feel at home in Northern Europe.
There's more of a Western uptightness, and I just don't feel at ease. Once
I get down to the Mediterranean, I start relaxing."
And will he be forming
a band, or...
"No, I think I've
just about had it with this business, actually. I don't really enjoy it
anymore, and I'm not writing any new songs at the moment. There's just
repeating old stuff, which I don't find particularly satisfying. I was
never really cut out for show business. I don't like it at all. I never
Kevin, what would it
take to turn things around, to be "Kevin Ayers" again?
"Love is the only
thing that inspires anybody to create anything."
So, in theory, if he
fell in love, he'd feel like writing songs again.
"Yes, I would, I'm
sure I would. Once you know how to write a song, it's pretty easy. All you
need is the input ÐÐ you have to have input before you have output, and I
haven't had any input for years now." He laughs. "There's no
point in trying to manufacture songs that don't communicate anything other
than the fact that they're manufactured. Some people do that and get away
with it and make money, but that's not something I can do."
Does he have any plans?
"I never make
plans. I don't think I've had a plan in my entire life." He laughs.
"Except how to get to the airport."