“I think there are more jokes on it than people might realize,” says one of the most distinctive voices in British pop, Robert Wyatt, when asked why his latest album isn’t exactly a laugh-a-minute listen despite being titled “Comicopera.” “I used to joke that deep down I’m really shallow, and it does hold with what I do.”
As the singer/drummer with Soft Machine, Wyatt was one of the prime movers of the late-1960s progressive rock that came out of Canterbury, England. Since then he has pursued a highly idiosyncratic solo career. “Comicopera” is an ambitious but highly accessible jazz-pop opera in three parts (sung in three languages) that features guest turns from Brian Eno and Paul Weller.
Track that made me take up drumming
From “Jazz at Massey Hall.” It ends up with a blinding Max Roach drum solo. Wanting to play drums like that is a bit like wanting to climb Mount Everest before you’ve even got over a molehill. He’s a master, Max Roach. That’s what made me think, “Right, I would like to do that.” I certainly couldn’t do anything at school, I never learned anything useful at grammar school. Our headmaster was jealous of the private school up the road and he made us wear boaters; I was always getting caned because I’d stick my boater up into a cowboy hat. Horrible. I left at 16.
Track that inspired “Comicopera”
Steve Nieve, the classically trained pianist who works for Elvis Costello, wrote an opera, or song cycle, called “Welcome to the Voice” and I’m there with two or three “non-posh” singers; the women are the posh singers. What I really like about it is the way you can put the voice in a context which is much richer to me than if it’s just in a song cycle, if there’s some kind of dramatic coherence with different characters coming in and out, you can do more different things.
Track that makes me sad
She’s from Tokyo and she visited us some years ago with a little tape. It seems like a very abstract thing; she plays keyboards as if it was from an old 78, she sings it in a voice so quiet, it’s like an etching, like something inside the sound. Superficially, you think this is something otherworldly and oriental but in fact she’s singing “Edelweiss.” I don’t even know if it’s a proper record, that’s part of the pathos of it. It makes me sad partly because she came to visit us and wanted to do some stuff with us but I couldn’t quite work out what, and she disappeared. I thought she was too vulnerable, it’s like when you see a butterfly in the storm. If you put out a signal say, “Hello from Robert.”
My guiltiest pleasure
I suppose there’s a borderline pornographic thing with Janet Jackson sometimes. Not pornographic musically, but literally. I wonder about myself sometimes, am I a bit dodgy? But I also think it’s a beautiful record (Wyatt goes off in vain to find the CD). I’m quite happy to tell anybody that I like Janet Jackson. I think she’s got a lot of chutzpah.
Track that reminds you of Canterbury
“Yesterday Man” Robert Wyatt (1974)
Both Gary Windo (who played sax on the track) and Mongezi Feza (trumpet) died, and I think you can hear a glimpse of what I would have done. When you hear Amy Winehouse and her little brass section — that thing that you used to get on black music in the ’60s, that Otis Redding and all those people used to use — I really like that, and I was just about to get on to that. It would have been interesting for me to explore that more fully. It was meant to be the followup to “I’m A Believer” (a hit U.K. single in 1974) but Branston Pickle (Richard Branson, head of Wyatt’s label Virgin) heard it, and he said it’s too “lugubrious,” so he didn’t put it out, the f**ker, but he did charge us an immense amount of money for recording it, which I wasn’t able to get back. He was the first Thatcherite. It was so depressing, I couldn’t carry on recording for a while after that.
Robert Wyatt’s “Comicopera” is out now on Domino/Hostess.