Kevin Ayers: An Interview

2013 NOTE: The interview was ostensibly for the “Hello/Goodbye” feature in MOJO 184 (March 2009), on Ayers’s time in Soft Machine, but was opened out a little to take in more of his early life and his current modus operandi. Unfortunately, by some oversight, the tape wasn’t dated, but the interview took place in the autumn of the previous year. Kevin was friendly and articulate, but was, by his own admission, “A bit pissed”, having made inroads into a bottle of vodka by the time of our midday interview slot. Just before I left, I broke protocol and told him that I had been a fan of his music since my teens, that it had continued to inspire me, and that when I went back to it, it always sounded fresh. He raised his eyebrows, looked at me and replied, “You know, that’s one of the nicest things that anyone’s ever said to me”.

Could you tell me about the circumstances that led to you becoming part of the Wilde Flowers in 1964?

I was just out of boarding school. I lived rough in London for a year, as I’d left home, not that there was any home to leave, but I did get a lot of street experience from that. Then I got busted on a phoney drugs charge, where a policeman puts his hand in your pocket and pulls out a package and goes “Hello, hello, what’s all this?” Really. It actually happened. I couldn’t even possibly have afforded what he was bringing out of my pocket. So I was put on remand in jail for two weeks and fortunately the judge threw it out of court but then he said I had to leave London, I had to go to the country – like in a Western.

So they sent me down to Canterbury to live with my mother, which was not a good idea. So I immediately started looking for work, I worked as a waiter, as a gardener, as a shop assistant, did all those casual jobs. In the meantime I had met with Robert Wyatt, Mike Ratledge and Daevid Allen and I thought, ‘Hey, these people are interesting; these other people aren’t in the last bit interesting’.

Robert Wyatt used to live in a place called [Wellington House in] Lydden just outside Canterbury, and Daevid Allen was living there and they introduced me to jazz, which I thought was utter nonsense at the time. I hadn’t a clue. I mean, I’d never played anything. The only record I remember was The Sound Of Music, which my parents used to play. But we suddenly found a mutual interest in poetry, modern American writing, classic French writing…[pause] I started learning when I came out of school.

When did you move back to the UK from Malaya?

When I was 12. But in the meantime I’d been through Catholic School, seriously, monks and all that. I’d been through Malay school: Koranic, strictly. Those were the two main ones. So it was quite a mind change. So then they sent me back to England and put me in public school, where I failed to learn Latin, and then I was put into boarding school, a serious one, with sadistic, homosexual masters, and in those days it was called a Cramming School, because having lived as a Colonial boy I was way behind the standard. So I had to go through at least four years of that and managed to get four ‘O’ Levels. The idea was to bring me up to the so-called standard, which meant absolutely nothing to me, and only when I left school and met these guys from Canterbury, they encouraged me to be curious to be more intelligent, to read, to listen. That’s where my education came from.

Wellington House was a big place, like a guest house. I’ve heard there were lots of interesting people living there.

Daevid and Robert Wyatt to start with. Somehow we had a connection: me, totally stupid from a stupid boarding school; Mike Ratledge with a first class honours degree from Oxford; and Robert Wyatt who was brought up in a totally literary environment. He was totally into jazz, and had read the panoply of modern literature. I had only read Charles Dickens and course books; I hadn’t heard any music. So these people were my tutors, my inspiration: I want to be like these guys; I don’t want to be like those guys. It was a weird combination of people, curious people, people who wanted to know, and I found that immediately attractive

When did you first start playing music with them? I suppose it must have been the Wilde Flowers?

No, even before the Wilde Flowers. Both Robert and Mike Ratledge could play things. All I could do was bang a saucepan. And because I liked their lifestyle and some kind of magic, I said, ‘OK I will learn to do this’ [play guitar]. And it took me two years. But I did it because I liked the people and wanted to be part of the scene, that very small scene, which has since been called the Canterbury Scene, which spawned Caravan and other people.

It’s interesting that you were put in a position of making music having had almost literally no experience of it as a listener.

Zero experience. Then suddenly come into in this milieu of people who were very bright, curious and were playing this stuff all the time on record. When I first listened to it I thought, what the fuck is that? Archie Shepp and Thelonious Monk and people like that, but I grew to love it and I was much more influenced by that than anything later.

When you started playing with Wilde Flowers in 1964, were you just the singer or did you also play guitar?

I think I tried to do both. Robert was the main singer at the time and I was just beginning to learn to play ‘E’ (laughs). Wilde Flowers was a training ground. It was inspirational and it gave me a direction to go in. I said, ‘Right I’m doing this’. Because after I had left school I went to the place where you they give you jobs, or suggest what job you should do…

The Job Centre or Labour Exchange, as it might have been known then?

Something like that. Because of my accent the guy said, “Officer, army”. Can you imagine? I said no.

I like the fact that they could instantly tell if a person was officer material because of their accent.

Accent and voice. You had to have an authoritative voice. Officer training school. But I didn’t do that, I went off to become a waiter. But that’s the English class system. So fucking unimaginative. That’s all they could come up with. Because I had a deep voice, I could have said, “Now! You go out and die!” I also worked as a brickie, chopping up cement floors, [laughs] on a farm picking apples and all that stuff, all odd jobs. One thing I didn’t do was beg. I always worked.

How did the Wilde Flowers leads into Soft Machine?

Don’t ask me the years, as I really have no idea. What happened was that we went from Wilde Flowers to Soft Machine, We still had Daevid Allen before he was banned from coming back to England. Shall I give you the whole story?

Yes, please do.

I was living in Deya [in Mallorca] with Robert. We were guests of Robert Graves who gave us a little shack to live in. Daevid Allen was there doing his stuff. We came together and then this guy from the States, a business man [Wes Brunson]. He sold spectacle frames and he was embarrassed about how much money he was making by it, and he heard Daevid and myself playing together and maybe Robert as well, and said, ‘You guys are the future. I’m going to give you money to get a band together’. And do you know what? He did. We went back to England, and lived in my girlfriend’s house and these thick bundles of letters would come through, each with a hundred dollar bill to buy equipment to get started. And from there, once we’d rehearsed and had a repertoire, we started working as Soft Machine.

Daevid was out because he was not allowed back into the country due to visa problems. We went on the road and we were lucky to get six pounds each a night, up and down the M1 and all points north. Then there’s a gap that I can’t tell you about because I can’t remember.

Basically, we signed up with a guy called Mike Jeffreys, who was the manager of The Animals and ran a company called Anim. Then the bass player from the Animals, Chas Chandler – who was also a partner – discovered Jimi Hendrix in the States and said, ‘We are going to bring him to the UK and make him a star’. He saw the potential, this wild, fucking mad guy, also a virtuoso guitarist.

I remember the first live gig he did. The Stones were there and some of The Beatles were there, but the electricity, the magic, the sheer power of this guy was making them shit their pants. They thought, ‘What the fuck is that?’ he was doing all that stuff, playing with his teeth and behind his back, and doing these guitar solos that no one else could possibly play.

Jimi liked what we did, especially some of my earlier songs with some weird time signatures. He said, “You’re weird, man”. And voila! There we were on the Jimi Hendrix tours to the USA – two of them. It put Soft Machine on the map.

The first time I went over, a young English boy, used to being with English girls, suddenly we met American girls. So, yeah, sex and drugs and rock’n’roll. But the second tour I did totally macrobiotic. I didn’t drink, I didn’t smoke, I didn’t do any drugs. The tour was non-stop it was gig, hotel airplane or limousine, that’s all you had, every day of the week.

After the initial thrill of American girls and the whole brouhaha of showbiz, I thought, ‘This is really not for me, this is not what I want to be’, but I was committed to Soft Machine. Sometimes I was so weak from the macrobiotic diet – brown rice and veg – that I actually had to be helped on stage and still played a 90-minute set.

Why does it make you so weak?

It’s because you don’t eat any protein. Your hair falls out; your libido falls to zero. I just did it at the wrong time of my life. It’s a total detox diet. But to try to and combine that with live gigs fronting for Jimi Hendrix for five or six nights a week was weird [laughs]. And after that second time I continued being macrobiotic and I went to live in Ibiza.

What was the reason that you left the group?

The group wanted to go in a jazz direction and I’m a pop songwriter. I think what I was doing was too simple for them and what they were doing was too complicated for me, it was something I was not equipped to do. I was not interested in rehashed jazz and as I had written most of the songs for Soft Machine I thought, ‘This is my talent, this is what I should do’. So I just thought, ‘Take a break, be yourself’. I only regret leaving because they were like a family for me, probably the only family I’ve ever had. We shared a lot, we had a lot of hard times starting up, we paid all the dues, but it was just a great training ground.

As you wrote most of the songs, was it, in effect, your group to start with, do you think? Robert Wyatt has said something along those lines.

[Long pause] Yes I did write most of the “sung” songs, but then we had input from Hugh Hopper, who wrote some beautiful songs, but that was basically the main input of songs for Soft Machine. And when they stopped liking that, when it became too simple for their wonderful minds, I thought it was time to get out and do my own thing, which was to be a pop songwriter or at least a songwriter.

Which you’ve managed quite well.

Well, I’m still alive.

The Unfairground got such good reviews and marked a return to form, to the sort of things that people liked about your best music. Have you any more music in the pipeline?

I knew I’d get asked this question (laughs).

One can’t help but be curious about these things.

For me, writing songs has always been about being in love with someone: either with them or without them. The feeling of love and the intensity is what provides the energy to write the songs. They don’t have to be ‘my bleeding heart’, but it gives you an energy that nothing else does. Creative energy comes from intensity which can be hate, fear, love whatever, but it has to be strong to get your arse out of bed in the morning and pick up the guitar, play the piano, write your article or whatever. Something that you feel strongly about. When that goes away it’s a bit like a drug withdrawal, so you no longer have the incentive to get up and say something to people. Because… you don’t have anything to say (laughs).

It’s like having a seizure. It’s like lightning. It hits you [claps hands]. If it doesn’t, then carry on in your own sweet way, still trying to earn a living one way or another. I’m lucky in that I did actually manage to get a lot of songs done and recorded so I have a good back catalogue and a lot of stuff that I’m proud of. Who the fuck knows what is going to happen tomorrow? Whether you will feel inspired to do this. It’s an impossible question really.

That’s fine, it’s just that some people might write a lot of material in a period of inspiration and have songs left over. Anyway, I thought The Unfairground (2007) was a very strong set and well arranged. To be honest with you, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from it.

To be honest with you, me neither. Because I do leave a lot of things to chance and circumstance, as in with whom I’m playing, what studio, how well I feel at the time or what the weather’s like. All these arbitrary things that actually matter in the end, when they are all pulled together. You must know that. Or whether you are having a good sex life or no sex life or eating well or not eating well, or drinking too much or not drinking enough. All these factors… I don’t need to say any more.

© Mike Barnesunpublished, Fall 2008

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