I was amazed to suddenly discover, aged 16, that Canterbury—this sleepy Cathedral ‘city’ where I’d go to watch my Grandparents playing lawn bowls—was home to one of the most radical and progressive music scenes of the ‘60s. When I first started getting into Soft Machine and Kevin Ayers my Mum would trot out this convoluted story abut once lending her Bob Dylan LP to someone out of the Wilde Flowers, bless her. Sadly when I raided her record cabinet to stock up on Canterbury scene goodies, I found only one Caravan LP – ultimately she’d preferred the folk revival stuff like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span to the whimsical prog sound of her home city. Anyway, I was honoured this week to be able to chat to one my musical heroes—and possibly one of my Mum’s school crushes—Robert Wyatt.
Now 63, it sounds like Robert’s having a marvelous time pottering around at home in Louth, Lincolnshire, listening to jazz records—he pauses to go and lift the needle off one while we’re talking—hanging out with his partner and collaborator Alfie Benge, and writing some beautiful, unhurried music. Last year’s Comicopera was a kaleidoscopic voyage that took in heart-melting love songs, savage tilts at religion and the Iraq war, meanderings about discarded takeaway food and a smattering of songs in various Latin tongues. The musical metiér of his last three brilliant solo albums has been a kind of woozy jazz-folk, but as much as Wyatt protests his outsiderness, he’s still got a pretty keen pop ear.
Which is probably why he’s found kindred spirits in Hot Chip. He thought the The Warning was “remarkable” saying, “I really empathised with the evocative, conversational use of words which is very much my territory too,” and is now poised to collaborate with them on some new material. He’s bursting with gratitude that a new generation of artists have discovered him, especially as he admits, self-deprecatingly, “Most of the music I listen to is by long dead black people, Palestinian drummers and whatnot.”
“I pre-date the youth culture phenomenon of looking for people you can identify with, against your parents or something,” he rambles, charmingly, apropos of the merest prompt about today’s music scene. “I come from the ‘I got on quite well with my parents’ generation so I have no sense of need for a figurehead, not from pop music anyway. When I was a teenager I wasn’t interested in my peers particularly. Nobody was. We were interested in Howlin’ Wolf or Ray Charles or Ornette Coleman. We weren’t interested in looking for someone who could show us how to be. That whole culture of having generational role models is completely strange to me.”
“I watch these pop shows on telly and I suppose it’s natural that people might want to talk about the shift in fashions from the New Romantics to Grunge or whatever. I can see that if you were there in the audience that would be an interesting and important phenomenon. But I look at it in a more abstracted way, I’m just listening to the music. With punk there seemed to be an enormous thing about what it meant socially but I just thought that it seemed like a good laugh, that Johnny Rotten was great and the Sex Pistols made some nice records.”
Only Robert Wyatt could describe the Sex Pistols as “nice”. Wittering away in the same mellifluous, unmistakably English way (he pronounces the evidently unfamiliar word “dude” as “de-yude”) as on his records, I could listen to him chat all day.