'I've no idea what's next'

His voice may be a wino's mutter, but Robert Wyatt's optimism shines through. Tim Cumming meets the former Soft Machine singer

"Delfina was a Spanish woman we knew who had a farm in Wiltshire and invited us to stay after the accident," says musician Robert Wyatt, looking back on the making of his 1974 cult classic, Rock Bottom. The "accident" happened when he fell, drunk, from a fourth-floor window at a party. He broke his spine and was left confined to a wheelchair. Thirty years after that life-changing fall, Wyatt and his partner, Alfreda Benge, are once again Delfina's tenants at her live-in studios for visiting British and international artists on an untidy stretch of Bermondsey Street in south London. The studio has been Wyatt's London base for the past few years, during which he has recorded a new album, Cuckooland. It is an appropriate setting, with a spirit of internationalism and communalism that mirrors his own art and concerns.

"I was brought up on the music of Europe from the first part of the 20th century," he says, citing Webern, Hindemith and Bartok, "which sets you up for what happens in the second half. I was used to the idea that there were no wrong notes, and I was ready for the postwar stuff like Stockhausen. But what really grabbed me was black music: Duke Ellington, Ornette Coleman."

And then pop music, which came with coffee bars, girls and painful adolescence, and was the medium that held them all together. "I'm really grateful to Buddy Holly and Little Richard for providing the background to all that. To make it all OK."

Pop, jazz and the breakdown of harmonic structure; the three-cornered hat of Wyatt's career was already in place before he had even raised a drumstick. "I left school at 16 completely unable to do anything at all," he remembers. "Then the Beat Group thing started, so I started playing drums and singing, the two instruments you can play without learning a thing about music." He laughs heartily, a three-packs-a-day laugh. "They seemed about the right career choice for me."

Soft Machine, the band that established him as a drummer, vocalist and composer, emerged from what is retrospectively called the Canterbury Scene. Alongside Pink Floyd, they were psychedelic totems of late-1960s London. But their development into cerebral avant-jazz slowly eclipsed Wyatt's more playful, homespun conceptualism. He left the band after their fourth album in 1971, in a familiar tale of musical differences and personal conflict that led him to establish Matching Mole, its name a pun on the French for Soft Machine.

Originally intended as a vehicle for "simple love songs", Matching Mole's music soon expanded on the free style of Soft Machine, with Wyatt's exploration of vocal drones and myriad electronic effects. Remarkable live recordings recently released on the American label Cuneiform reveal a group whose inventiveness flirted with chaos yet came out on top, their avant-garde seriousness tinged with Wyatt's spirit of play.

Wyatt had been on the road almost constantly for a decade until his accident in 1973. Afterwards, Matching Mole was disbanded, and though there were a handful of solo gigs, his performing days were over. "I couldn't really handle it as a singer. It was too naked. I got stage fright."

After the accident he started crafting his own art in the studio. The submarine lyricism of Rock Bottom was the result, composed in Venice before the accident and on a piano in the hospital afterwards, during Wyatt's long convalescence. After a solo recording session on Delfina's farm, the tapes were taken to London, where musicians such as South African trumpeter Mongezi Feza added their parts. It had originally been planned as a band recording, but the accident freed Wyatt from the "terrible difficulties" of being the leader. "I didn't know how I was going to do it, and it was decided for me by circumstances. So what could have been debilitating turned into an excuse to work in a different way without the pressure and responsibilities of performing or being in a group."

Feza's trumpet also featured on Wyatt's next LP, Ruth Is Stranger Than Richard, but his unexpected death while being treated in hospital for a nervous disorder - a death Wyatt puts down to neglect engendered by racism - galvanised Wyatt towards a decade of political engagement with the Communist party. It was seven years before he released another album, and by then the musical climate had changed completely.

"What I liked about the Communist party," he says, "was that it was internationalist and opposed to the totalitarian global empire in which we're enveloped. It was the only party to see things on that scale." But as he joined, a new generation were about to embark on what Wyatt calls "a practice run for new Labour. So I was in the ludicrous position of joining it as a new member and immediately becoming an anachronism."

Punk and the rise of independent labels finally brought Wyatt back into the studio, but on his own terms. Geoff Travis at the Rough Trade record label secured his release from the huge debts and tiny royalties saddled on him by Richard Branson at Virgin, and, for the first time, he felt a degree of emancipation from a music industry that he felt had exploited him from the beginning. "My contemporaries felt alienated from music, just as I thought there was somewhere in it where I felt at home. Two Tone came along, Weller and all that lot, and I liked them, I felt more at home in their generation."

The 1980s albums - Nothing Can Stop Us Now and Old Rottenhat - were militant, impassioned and idiosyncratic, the former mixing Chic's Now I Am Free with Stalin Wasn't Stallin', a 1940s black American gospel song in praise of Uncle Joe. There were just two albums in the 1990s. He released Dondestan in 1991: the title is the Spanish phrase for "Where are they?" The highly acclaimed Shleep followed in 1997. By then he had won ownership of his back catalogue from Virgin, and struck a deal with Ryko after Rough Trade was bought out, giving him a measure of freedom and control rare in the industry. "Since Shleep," he says, "it's been the first time in our life when we haven't been poor."

These days he tends to work alone, or in pairs - with fellow musicians, and with Jamie Johnson, the co-producer on Cuckooland. "I concentrate exactly like a painter, with tape instead of canvas and instruments instead of brushes." Percussion, keyboards, cornet, trumpet, and vocals are all part of his palette.

The making of Cuckooland was one of slow accumulation. The jazz-tinged Trickledown dates back almost a decade. "I get ideas and put them on tape, and they're like viruses looking for a body." With the freedom to record at ex-Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera's studio without watching the clock, he could give free rein to his cinematic process of composition. "I like to work with musicians one at a time - get them in for a day or two, and go right through the material and find bits where they can add colour."

Guests on the album include trombonist Annie Whitehead, Israeli sax player Gilad Atzmon, as well as Floyd guitarist Dave Gilmour, Paul Weller and Wyatt's friend and collaborator for many years, Brian Eno, whose role he describes as "making appropriate discrete contributions, a very specific nudge in the right direction on all fronts".

The album is heavily instrumental, with as many textures and tangents as a late Picasso, or his beloved Juan Miro. "I do get my sense of form and rightness, the texture, the number of events and where they're placed, from painters. It makes sense to me what happened to Miro during his life - I can absolutely feel it."

His singing voice is lower than it was - a wino's mutter, he calls it - and he plays trumpet to reach the higher ranges where his melancholy falsetto used to take him. "I can still hear those high notes," he says. "I didn't want to feel pinned down as a singer, and the trumpet frees me from that."

Cuckooland retains that disarming humour that characterises much of Wyatt's work, mixing the celebration of what he calls "hopeless optimism" with the melancholy of that same feeling. Its brass fanfares hark back to the clear, bright playing of Feza on Rock Bottom, as well as his enduring love for Ellington, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane. Often avoiding conventional song structures, it is a music you can almost reach out and touch.

"I think sometimes you can get rather lonely," he says at one point, referring to not only a personal alienation but a political one, too. "I feel a chill of alienation when I'm told what Britishness is by someone for whom I feel contempt, or at least revulsion." For Wyatt, the nationalism of David Blunkett, the home secretary, on the front page of that day's paper is the kind of political and cultural parochialism that his music has long fought against.

As for the future, there are three new tracks on Cuneiform's Solar Flares for You, a fascinating collection of Wyatt's solo rarities, two of them home recordings completed this year with ex-Softie Hugh Hopper. Their looped and layered brass patterns sound as fresh and exciting as ever. "I've no idea what will happen next," Wyatt says. "I've got loads of things I could do, but they're all little viruses and flimsy bits. I never talk about what I'm going to do before I've done it. Not in my line."

· Cuckooland is released on Ryko on September 29. Solar Flares Burn for You is out now on Cuneiform.


Tim Cumming

The GuardianTramp

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