Robert Wyatt interview

UK legend talks about The Canterbury Scene and the influential The Wilde Flowers

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I managed to get in touch with Robert Wyatt and eeked a few comments out of him about the Wilde Flowers days and his apparent disinterest in making music today. It seems that he’s been distracted by politics; let’s hope he recovers soon!

JK: What memories do you have of the Wilde Flowers recordings?

RW:  Most were demos, rehearsing material we could play at dances, and a few songs written by ourselves. Brian Hopper, who had a clarinet, a saxophone, and a guitar, liked to document our tentative ideas - I didn’t know that they would survive. But Brian became, professionally, a scientist, and perhaps already had the inclination to preserve specimens, however flawed, for what became his Canterbury archive.

I remember the mutual friendships among us, such as Brian and his friend Michael Ratledge, who I first knew as a nominal prefect at school. I doubt he ever disciplined us younger pupils at the Simon Langton grammar school for boys. That’s my kind of prefect!

Kevin Ayers lived in Herne Bay, on East Kent’s north coast. He was born in Malaya (now Malaysia), and had happy memories of times spent leaping about in the warm sea with the local children. This longing for a laid-back, sunny environment is clear from his later writings, a lovely body of work. Meanwhile, we’d been introduced on the grounds that he was the only other boy in East Kent with long hair. And indeed we got on very well. Simples.

Brian’s younger brother, Hugh (Hopper, latterly of Soft Machine), started writing early. I sang on what I believe was his first song - ‘Memories’ – only because he was too shy to sing them himself: a nice gift for me, then!

Guitarist Richard Sinclair had the advantage that his father was a professional musician, and so acquired all kinds of obscure information, such as How to Play In Tune. Always handy to have such a chap in a band, I think. Also guitarist ‘Pye’ Hastings, whose older brother Jimmy was a virtuoso reed-player, turned up. A real musician.  

I just remember that though our preferences varied, they sometimes complemented each other.

JK: The record making process has changed quite dramatically since then, is there anything about the way it used to be done that you think we should go back to?

RW: We liked tape recorders. Hugh and Brian had fun playing tapes backwards, and making tape-loops, like the great Terry Riley. Even made Mobius loops. You can’t do those things so easily with digital stuff.


JK: Why did this band not last longer?

RW: It was a teenage hobby, really, more about trying things out than achieving perfect results. Brian, at least, who took the original initiative, became a grown-up, so that was that. 


JK: I read that a producer on Top of the Pops didn’t want you to appear on a wheelchair for your performance of ‘I’m A Believer’, is that true?

RW: Yes. I asked him politely to go f**k himself.


JK: How have your musical tastes changed since the Wilde Flowers days?  

RW: Not fundamentally, but see answer to next question… My basic listening diet is the music BEFORE the sixties. From old 78 rpm records, to what used to be called modern jazz: Gil Evans, Charles Mingus, Archie Shepp….
Currently, though, music from the front lines of todays upheavals. For example the Syrian singer George Wassou, and the Russian-Ukrainian pianist Valentina Lisitsa.

JK: I see that Domino put out some of your solo work on vinyl again, what do you think of the vinyl revival?

RW: I love it. So nostalgic.

JK: Is there a chance of more music one day?

RW: My music room has become a dusty museum. I doubt that the ghosts who inhabit it would let me back in.

JK: So the only music that inspires you now is political. Have you written anything of that nature yourself?

RW: Me and Alf (Wyatt’s wife, Alfreda Benge) have written loads – our words and music have always been saturated with trying to digest the human world beyond ourselves. Musical inspiration comes from music itself. I was always interested in exploring beyond the idiom I inherited. My developing preoccupations are consistent, really, with how I’ve always approached living and working. I hope that makes sense. 

Incidentally, both George Wassouf and Valentina Lisitsa are massively popular internationally – for their music. These are not esoteric references!

The Wilde Flowers eponymous album is out on the Floating World label now. 

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