A short interview with ROBERT WYATT about the making of `Shleep’


My real feeling of lack of freedom… comes from the fact that I have to be anything at all, specific…. I get nearer and nearer towards happiness, or a feeling of being relaxed and free when I can lose myself in my environment… I mean I get lost in listening to other people’s music… or just… hanging round Notting Hill Carnival, ..you forget who you are…that’s one of the pleasures of it.. but… in a simple way, if you get in a warm bath, where the temperature of your own blood matches that of the water round you, you sort of get that lovely feeling, of just sort of melting into the world… and that’s really what I aspire towards – in the sense that it’s the opposite …. of those notions of artists…finding their own individualism, and kind of standing against the world, To me, that’s the ultimate nightmare. I want to get lost and diffused in the world, and that’s my idea of freedom and happiness.


The thing is that CDs…. even of music that you like very much, can get incredibly boring…because after about half an hour, you sort of feel you’ve got the hang of it. And I particularly wanted to …make sure that the songs on this record led to lots of detours – that the journey was, in a way full of surprises – that there were still things happening about 40 minutes into the tape which hadn’t happened anywhere before-hand.


LPs were very good, because you had two halves which needn’t be quite symmetrical….like the face….very organic. ….CDs just stretch on and on for ever into space – quite blank. So I’ve been thinking about the challenge of the CD quite specifically – and I think you have to carve a path through it and try and make an interesting journey – through blank space, of the silence.


Describing a CD or a piece of music as a landscape may seem rather a corny image – but it’s a very useful one I got, in fact, from Carla Bley, I think, when she was describing what she wanted from a piece of music – shesaid she didn’t want a piece of music, where you just simply, for example, went out your house, went out the front door, went down a flat road, went round the corner, went to the shop, came back down the same road and shut the front door behind you. She wanted a piece of music where you went out the front door, turned left and suddenly there’s a massive pothole, and you fell forty feet into the ground, and had to climb out on a ladder, and get through a burning house, and wade through a lake and then get somewhere. In other words, she wanted a real bit of adventure in her music, and this involves surprising detours…so that even if you’re specific about the character of one song – it’s more exciting to place them …to juxtapose them in such a way as to make an adventure out of the sequence of the songs.


In terms of making this journey, through the songs, I was able to do this because the different songs actually came from quite different moments in my life.In other words, the songs…..’Shleep’ wasn’t written in one go. So that some of the songs were written for other people’s tunes…sometimes at a time when I was feeling very depressed and disorientated. And other songs ( I was) feeling quite elated. Or I might be writing tunes for some of Alfie’s words – which were much more sort of escapist (had a) euphoric atmosphere in some way. And the simple fact that these songs are so different,…means that the journey could be varied through the record.


I’m often quite happy to make records all on my own, but….it’s not enough for me, if I want a new sound, just to sort of hire a flute player, or something like that. If I hire another musician, its because I want the company. And specifically in the case of this record…..because it has the feeling of a journey to me..you get lonely…and at certain points in your journey..travelling companions can sort of join you. And I choose musicians as much because I really enjoy their company, in the studio for a couple of afternoons…and the sound of that company on record. I’m also very influenced by…..Duke Ellington’s big band arrangements, very different from other big bands, which was that everyone in his band would have a moment to show who they were – where they could be themselves…they weren’t just a trumpet or a trombone, but they were distinct characters. That’s what made Ellington’s music so rich and alive. And I only choose musicians who I think will emerge..can emerge…with their own character, while still going along with the tune in question. I was very lucky in this case.

BRIAN ENO, synthesiser

I was once asked about Brian……’what’s it like working with one of the great cerebral intellects of modern culture?’……it made me laugh a bit, because what working with Brian is actually like…it’s like being two children in a little play-pit.He’s so….his pleasure in working the studio is so innocent and childlike – still- and that’s really what’s so enjoyable. He’s so enthusiastic……he kind of bounces around from one little bit of machinery to another – quite the opposite of me, I’m very intimidated by the machines – and he loves them and feels at home with all of them. And he came quite early in the session, and it was a great help to me – and I think also it was very exciting for Jamie, the engineer, to have someone with that amount of knowledge..just showing what could be done in the studio.

PAUL WELLER, guitars

The great thing that Paul Weller did…when he came to the studio….he insisted on everything being turned up extremely loud. Suddenly it made the music very very physical. And the rhythm section felt like rocks clattering down on your head, and I suddenly remembered what it was actually like, being in a group – the whole physical, visceral excitement of it…..and it cranked the whole session up.

EVAN PARKER, saxophones

Evan Parker I’ve known a long time. I find his audience more intimidating than him….he has an almost religiously loyal audience who follow his path through the outer reaches of improvised music, and might not approve of him working with people like me. But he himself is very amiable – very easy to work with – and you know that he’s not going to play anything standard or normal – even when you ask him to play a tune, it’s going to come out sounding strange….which is what I wanted.


Annie Whitehead came in for one afternoon, and stayed the weekend to work on her trombone parts. She’s wonderful because she listens, she’s not thinking…’how can I do my own thing?’, so much as `how can I help this song’…..and her ears are extraordinarily acute. She herself feels quite self conscious about the trombone – in that she’s always saying, `put it down..I can hear it, I can still hear it…put it down in the mix.’ But I love the sound of her trombone, I think it’s got a really warm human sound, and I can’t think of anybody else – even among the most famous trombonists who could have actually helped the voice, and accompanied the voice so sympathetically as Annie did – on trombone.


He really was the main other musician along with me….throughout the record. I should stress that point, because it’s sometimes assumed that an engineer has an auxiliary role. In this case it was an absolute partnership.


Phil Manzanera helped me even before I started by providing such a homely atmosphere in his studio. And I was really pleased that he was able to find time as well, to come and join me for what to me is perhaps the highlight of the record – which is his guitar solo in the middle of `Alien’…….I couldn’t have composed a better guitar solo for it, it was so much part of the tune…..He creates a breezy easy-going atmosphere..and also has a lot of authority………he’s on his manor -he knows where he is -he knows where everything is …..and just the feeling of having him around, and being in his place helped me relax much more on this record than I’ve been able to relax on any record for a very long time…..or perhaps for ever.

rw-windy.jpgRECORDING `SHLEEP’

The thing about making `Shleep’, was that thanks to Phil Manzanera, I was able to record without my usual anxieties, which are quite simply caused by the feeling that the meter is running the whole time. The rock industry is geared – and recording industry generally – to Big Bucks. To the kind of sales of people like Sting, or whatever. My records aren’t very commercial. I don’t try to make un-commercial records – but I have to try to make authentically me records, and there doesn’t seem to be an enormous market for that …..which means I have to record…within budget. ..In this particular case (thanks to Phil) ..I didn’t have that worry. I was able to do what I’ve never been able to do fully before, which was to take tapes home, listen to them…go back to the studio, try them again…..try them all in different ways…..and really see them through. In the past, so many of my records really, have been sketches for records that never really got made.

Interview by kind permission of RYKODISC Earful

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