Flashes of light deep in the inky depths of the ocean are apparently the world’s commonest form of communication. “Light beams in the abyssal ooze,” Robert Wyatt marvels, as if coining a title for a particularly frazzled psychedelic rock album. “Who would have thought it? There’s so much more life underwater than above it.”
Wyatt, with his nicotine-stained white beard and watery blue eyes, looks like a dishevelled Neptune himself. We meet during a rare trip to London from his Lincolnshire home. He sits in his wheelchair taking drags from a plastic cigarette substitute. Thirty-four years ago he drunkenly fell from a third-floor window at a party and broke his back, paralysing himself from the waist down.
Formerly drummer and singer with the pioneering psychedelic band Soft Machine, the 62-year-old is a cult figure in British music. He hasn’t had many hits – a “best of” compilation a few years ago was dryly called His Greatest Misses – but admirers are unstinting in their praise. John Peel worshipped him; Björk raves about his voice. Brian Eno, Paul Weller and the jazz trombonist Annie Whitehead are among those who contribute to his records.
He has a new album out, Comicopera, his first since 2003’s Mercury Prize-nominated Cuckooland. It’s a welcome return to Wyatt-world, a fantastic place where sounds slosh against jazzy weirdness, and themes drift in and out of focus like his trembling, untutored vocals.
Comicopera’s central theme is Wyatt’s disillusionment with his homeland. Religion and, more bathetically, town-council politics are targets of his ire, but militarism is his principal hate. “I can deal with lots of strange little things about England, but these endless bombing campaigns, and their verbal equivalents, the bombast. As the placards said: ‘Not in my name’,” he says, quoting an anti-Iraq war slogan.
He ends the album by abandoning singing in English. It’s an eccentric act of musical protest. There’s a cover of an Italian song about feminism, and a version of a García Lorca surrealist poem about the sea. The final track is a reworking of an old Cuban anthem about Che Guevara.
Wyatt has a pedigree in protest songs. His anti-Falklands war single “Shipbuilding”, penned for him by Elvis Costello, gave him a rare top 40 hit in 1983. It was about that time that he decided to join the Communist party, “when everyone else left”.
He’s unapologetic about it today. “I know there are lots of arguments against it. Poles I’ve spoken to get quite grumpy with me about my politics. They say: ‘We like your music, Robert, but what is that shit about?’ Well, it’s all part of the kit. There are a lot of other records you can listen to,” he says cheerfully.
It’s hard to picture the gentle, genial Wyatt as a revolutionary firebrand. His brand of Communism comes across as incurably romantic. He enthuses about a “cracking” jazz programme he used to listen to on Radio Moscow and affects despair at the Soviet dissident fondness for progressive rock, a form of music Soft Machine helped inspire.
“Yes, there’s an appalling number of people who thought that was really good in Russia,” he says. “And I much preferred the music they were officially allowed to listen to. So I never really belonged to any gang, because I sort of invented a hybrid gang of my own. I invented the perfect Communist party in my head and I’ve lived there ever since.”
Wyatt has always had a dreamy, impractical side. As a child he remembers being fascinated by chemistry lessons without having a clue what it all meant. He grew up in Kent, where his parents brought him up on a rigorous diet of modernist music. His love of jazz – the “nuts and bones” of his music – was sparked by his elder brother but it was the beat explosion of the early 1960s that inspired him to take up drumming. If Ringo Starr can do it, he reasoned, why not me?
Soft Machine, leaders of the so-called Canterbury school of progressive rock, released their first single in 1967, the year Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band came out and the jazz saxophonist John Coltrane died. The latter had a greater impact on Wyatt and his band. “We thought, giant tree falls in the forest, more room for the little sprigs.”
His time with Soft Machine was fruitful but turbulent. As the band moved away from rock towards free jazz instrumentals, Wyatt’s liking for pop harmonies fell from favour. He left amid rancour in 1971. “The idea of a group as a biological entity is a non-starter in terms of longevity,” he says. “Four young men in a van – you just have to light the fuse.”
He began a solo career after his accident in 1973. At the time he was halfway through writing an album for Matching Mole, the group he formed after Soft Machine. The album transmogrified into his solo debut Rock Bottom, which was composed in his head while he recuperated in hospital.
Since then he has evolved a “much more humane” approach to making music than being in a band. He happily admits to getting most of his ideas from other people and credits the contribution of collaborators such as Eno. (“Brian gets on his bike if he’s got a few days off, sprinkles a little bit of fairy dust over the procedure.”) His wife Alfreda Benge writes many of the lyrics. “It’s really friendly stuff now. It’s taken me 10 years to get to this,” he says.
Like his music, Wyatt is a beguiling mix of inwardness and openness. His songs float between different states, partly reaching out to the listener, partly drifting off into inner realms. “It’s got to be nice to listen to. I don’t like the idea of giving people a hard time, it’s a hard enough time anyway,” he claims. “I only do this to give myself pleasure and hope to pass it on because I’m not that deep.”
So what’s the purpose of Comicopera’s mood of protest? Is it meant to be didactic, to hope for some sort of change? “In a pop record, if somebody sings a love song you can’t really judge it by whether it worked.” Wyatt gives a wheezy smoker’s laugh. “Did she come back to you when you sang ‘Baby, baby, I can’t live without you’? The song in itself, the aching desire, is a complete thing in its own right. It’s suspended in that sense. I don’t know what the end of the story is.”
‘Comicopera’ is released in Europe on October 8. ‘An Evening Chat with Robert Wyatt’ is at the Southbank Centre, London, on October 15, tel: +44 (0)871 663 2500, www.southbankcentre.co.uk