Old Rottenhat 

Robert Wyatt’s rivmic melodies from the head and the heart

Thursday, Jan 22 2004

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Interestingly, Wyatt’s background is in avant-garde and contemporary classical music, under his parents’ guidance. He made his way into pop music from that base, rather than the other way around, as is normally the case. That would explain the wide territory his music covers now, and the varied musicians he plays with.

“The music I still love is about conversations with a guest, really — bebop and so on. Fundamentally, what we’re all doing is based on song and dance, and if it loses that, then it’s . . . something else, I don’t know. Music has a functional thing to the whole history of the world, and those two elements are irreducible. I really like to strip those down and find those things. It’s a bit like doing science, actually narrowing down the chemical there. Reducing things to the poetry of the thing.”

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On Cuckooland, a careful examination of all of this reducing to the essentials reveals that they’re made up of simple but unusual parts woven together as if by hand. If it’s a science, then it sounds like a very exact and exacting science. Wyatt feels otherwise.

“I feel a bit ashamed to say I still don’t really know how to go about doing what I do,” he says. “I sort of stumble across it sometimes, and then I think, ‘Oh, now I remember,’ and then it all sort of falls together. I have a studio here, keyboards, a mixer, a cornet, a tenor horn which I can’t play, and many, many notebooks of ideas, each filled with little attempts at effects or some interval I might love, a little trigger. But I have no system. I’m kind of just stitching, having a lot of ideas and then stitching them into a piece of music. It’s a bit like beachcombing, really, till you get enough stuff to make the album.”

Wyatt’s poetically plainspoken lyrics divide their attentions between the domestic and the outer world. Usually humorous but caustic, warm but wary, he takes a look at art, theology, life and himself on Cuckooland’s opening “Just a Bit”: “Transcendental art’s religion/thinking you’ll improve your mind/when all it does (if you’re in luck)/is camouflage the daily grind”; he’ll comment on what he might be seeing outside his and Alife’s window (two nuns, one standing, one dropping to her knees); might weigh in here on the plight of the Gypsies at Auschwitz, Lety and Dover (the deceptively breezy “Forest,” with guest David Gilmour on anguished slide guitar), or there on the victims at Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Vanunu and Mossadegh (“Foreign Accents”). On past albums he’s explicitly addressed issues such as the CIA’s terrorism in East Timor, or the evils of global capitalism, or, in “Shipbuilding,” the invasion of the Falklands. You might assume that Wyatt is inspired to write by topical events, the latest outrages, but you’d be wrong.

“I personally don’t; Alife does, Alife’s something of a news hound, and she’s very affected by what she reads and has a lot of thoughts on the subject. I try and talk about things that aren’t being talked about on the news. Sort of really bringing things to the surface that aren’t really on the surface on the whole. I find I can’t bear to check headlines; I’ve just never got the stomach for all that sort of stuff.”

Given the contemporary pop marketplace, with its unyielding stylistic demands and limited and limiting “genres,” what Robert Wyatt does will be referred to as “art-rock” or “art-pop” or something similarly simplistic, always with the word art attached to it. Come to think of it, I do remember one time long ago Wyatt saying something to the effect that he wanted to live his life as a kind of work-in-progress art project. I wonder if he still feels motivated that way.

“Well, it’s settled down quite a bit now, and, sort of . . . I’m just glad to be still making records. I’ve just had my 60th birthday. I just work, just try to do enough work that I’m able to feed myself and my wife and my mother-in-law and my mother-in-law’s dog.”

Reach the writer at jpayne@bluefat.com

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