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 - very generally speaking - 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 - "Love Makes Sweet Music" and "Feelin', Reelin', Squealin'" - wound up as minor hits for their next band, the Soft Machine.
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 - 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 Coxhill.
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 solo Ayers albums throughout the '70s - Whatevershebringswesing, Bananamour, The Confessions of Dr. Dream and June 1st, 1974 (his collaboration with Brian Eno, John Cale and Nico) - 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 - 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."
Kevin Ayers comes from a time when the song was important, but not so important that it couldn't be played with - 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 - 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 - 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 have done."
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 - 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."
Kevin Ayers performs at the Gig, Friday, May 29, with a band made up of L.A. musicians Ken Rosser, Vinny Golia, Richard Derrick, Brad Dutz, Chris Wabich, Paul Roessler; and singers John Talley-Jones, Kevin Keller, Michelle Biernat and Lauran Gangl.