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KEVIN AYERS INTERVIEW
by Jimmy James (May 1998)
As bassist, frequent songwriter, and occasional vocalist in the originalSoft Machine, Kevin Ayers was a key force in early British psychedelia andprogressive rock. In just two years the group had evolved from the goofy,effervescent psychedelic pop of their 1967 debut single “Love Makes SweetMusic”/”Feelin’ Reelin’ Squealin'” to the dada jazz-rock minimalism ofAyers’ infamous “We Did It Again.” After the Soft Machine opened for theJimi Hendrix Experience across the States in 1968 and recorded their firststudio album, Ayers left the group to establish a long-running solo careerwith more pop-oriented material, delivered in a witty, near-bass profundovoice.
On most of his albums he explored the little-trod midpoint between weirdpop and the most accessible, humorous face of prog-rock, crafting bouncysongs of indolence and whimsy that often tapped island rhythms. LeadingBritish experimental musicians like Lol Coxhill, David Bedford, and apre-Tubular Bells Mike Oldfield passed through his band while he veeredbetween sunnier variations of Syd Barrett and dissonant experimental jams.He never did land a hit album or single in Britain, despite issuingnumerous LPs on Harvest, and in the US he was a definitive ’70s cultartist. He’s only recorded sporadically in the 1980s and 1990s, with hismore recent efforts even harder to locate in the import bins than his earlysolo material.
Now in his early fifties, Ayers made a rare visit to the States to play afew gigs in California in May. Backed by the SF band Mushroom at the GreatAmerican Music Hall in San Francisco, he was in merry form as he wentthrough a set of some of his more well-known vintage tunes, such as “LadyRachel,” “Stranger in Blue Suede Shoes,” as well as the Soft Machine cuts”Why Are We Sleeping?” and “Save Yourself.” Before soundcheck he found afew minutes to talk about the Canterbury scene with a few local fans andwriters.
Q: What was unique about the Canterbury scene?
KA: Mike Ratledge from the Soft Machine had a degree in Oxford Universityin philosophy at 22. I mean, he won a scholarship and then said, fuck that,I’m going to play the organ. This was unique in pop. You don’t find manypeople with honor degrees playing pop, even from that kind of literarybackground. Normally it was sort of art school. England is so defined, theclass system, your education. I think what was unique about the Canterburyscene…these were all middle-class kids from literary backgrounds, joiningthis sort of train going by, this pop train, jumping on. Whereas the restof the rock scene, you’ll find that there’s mostly working-class people.
Q: Did you have a similar kind of literary upbringing to Robert Wyatt?
KA: Not from my parents, no. Robert had his from his parents, ’cause hisparents were middle-class intellectuals. I was brought up in Malaya. Butthat is the difference, that this was the first time that anybody from themiddle class, well-educated, joined the pop scene. This was comfortablekids who went to university.
Q: I’m surprised you call it pop.
KA: Well, I don’t know, what else would you call it? Plop? (laughs) Thewhole thing about Soft Machine was that it had all these people from, as Isaid, middle-class literary educated backgrounds, suddenly going “fuck it,I’m not going to join med school, I’m not going to become a lawyer or adoctor. I’m not going to be a professional.” And this hadn’t happenedanywhere else in pop. That’s why the Canterbury scene was unique, becausethat is what happened there.
Q: You started off in the Wilde Flowers, then you showed up in Majorca tofind Daevid Allen to put the band together. What made you go find him?
KA: Daevid Allen was the first hippie that I’d met. He was straight out ofthe beat scene, and he was very convincing (laughs). He read a lot. He wasarticulate. He turned us on, Robert and me and Mike, to allthis–especially American–beat literature. And we suddenly thought,wow…you have to imagine, just out of an English private school, andsuddenly you get this sort of exotic person coming through, who says, “fuckthis, fuck that. Smoke pot, read this.” He actually had something to say,he actually had a viewpoint. I suppose everybody else had no idea. Allthese people just came out of school, sort of wandering around in the jobmarket, “what do I do now”–suddenly Daevid Allen’s going, “Smoke pot now,peace love and fuck your neighbor.” That was something. As opposed tonothing.
Q: Is that hippie ethic something that still motivates you?
KA: I think that the basic philosophy was very good. It was just be nice toeach other, and don’t step on other people’s toes and infringe on theirfreedom. I think that’s still valid. It just made sense, especiallywhen…I keep talking to you about English schools. Unless you’ve been toone, you have no idea how bad they are. I mean, you just would not believethem. You only start learning when you leave school.
Q: The Soft Machine had a whimsical feel. Was that influenced by yourliterary background?
KA: We just had different references. We had literary references, so weknew what we were talking about. We could quote things, talk about bookswe’d read; you can say something, you don’t have to explain it. If you havethe same background, it doesn’t matter which school you’ve been to, ifyou’ve read the books, have the knowledge, and you have the intellectualcuriosity, you can talk to anybody who has the same thing, and you knowwhat you’re talking about. So you relate that way.
The music we made then was so amateurish, compared to the rest ofmainstream pop or rock and roll. But what differentiated us from whateverybody else was doing in the business was the fact that you could tellthat these people came from different reference areas. They’d readdifferent books. So we actually got away with making a lot of crap. I don’tmean crap–I mean that it wasn’t professionally as good as what otherpeople were doing. Other people had much better sound, and they had goodproducers. We worked alongside the Pink Floyd, we played gigs together, andwe suddenly saw them go, whooosh!! with huge sales. But we were justdancing in the dark. There were groundbreaking ideas, musically andintellectually. Post-war generation asking serious questions.
Q: When you made your first solo record, you were obviously still on goodterms with the Soft Machine, since they play on a lot of it.
KA: It was family for me–the only family I knew. We all lived together inone house.
Q: When you went solo, was it because you wanted to play and writedifferent material than what the Soft Machine were doing on their firstalbum?
KA: Soft Machine were going more in the direction of fusion jazz and Ididn’t like that. They were going more in the direction of jazz, whichdidn’t interest me. I was strictly pop. They were into what I considerreally to be incredibly self-indulgent music. It’s stuff you play foryourself, and “fuck the audience.”
Q: What about playing “We Did It Again” for half an hour for Brigitte Bardot?
KA: That’s a serious statement. I think she said to get those wankers offor something.
Q: In an interview you said all your songs, except for a few romantic ones,were pataphysical. Where did you come across pataphysics?
KA: I think that was just a literary thing. The fact that you actuallystring a few sentences together was important in those days. Soft Machinebecame famous in France before anything else happened. They adopted us. TheFrench like arty things, they like something a little bit different. Infact, what made Soft Machine was an article in Nouvelle Observateur, whichat that time was a very…in those days, things like Melody Maker and NME,it mattered then. If someone wrote something about you, it could make orbreak you. Now it doesn’t matter at all. We got written up, I think, ’causeMike was fucking the journalist, actually. So we got a good review, andthat was it. Suddenly France just opened up. We were the darlings of theliterary scene there.
Q: Who were your main literary or formative influences?
KA: Philosophically, the only person that influenced me was Gurdjieff. Whathe said made sense to me. What I really liked about him was, he was a totalcharlatan. He didn’t make any bones about it. His thing was that you cannotpresent the truth to people in simple form. You have to elaborate.Otherwise they’re not interested. Did you ever read his book? It’s justbullshit, absolute bullshit. But he says, you have to write 100 pages tosay one sentence, to make it interesting for people. Otherwise they won’taccept it as real. You have to say a lot in order to get a little across.
Q: Are you still inspired by things like that when you write?
KA: It’s still there. I mean, I still think he was absolutely right. Histwo premises were, you have to say a lot to get a little across. you haveto excite people. The other thing was, we’re only working at five percentof our potential, which made total sense. What I loved about him…he cameto America, you know, and he was very good at raising money. One of thethings he did here was, he was in New York, he invited a bunch of people,saying, “this is the time of your life.” And he made them have sex, andcharged them a lot of money for it. And they were saying, “Wow, thank you,this is the best night of our lives.” He just talked dirty to them, so theyall had sex with each other and [said] “wow, this is so good,” and theygave him thousands of dollars. What he did was say, “Look, this is what youreally want to do. I’ll organize it. Just give me the money.”
Q: When do you think you most fully realized your own potential withyour music?
KA: I don’t think I can answer that. It’s hypothetical, one will neverknow. I mean, some days you wake up and you think, Jesus, I could be areally good comedian. Then half an hour later, you forget the idea. Peoplewho really want to make money in this world make it. You have to havetunnel vision. You have to say, this is what I want to do. I believe that.If you wanted to make money, you would make it.
Don’t you ever wake up in the morning and think, geez, I could really dowith a lot of money? You think, I have a brain, I could use it, I couldactually do this, I could play the stock market, I could be a televangelistor something. You could actually do it if you really wanted to do it. Butyou would have to really want to it. So basically you wake up in themorning and say, “oh, I don’t really want to do anything.”
Q: Is commercial success something you still aspire towards?
KA: No no no. It’s all been a total fluke. I would have liked to have mademore money, ’cause I think everybody has a creative period, normallybetween about 19 and 30. That is the time when you have to establishyourself in life. If you haven’t made it by the time you’re thirty, younever will, basically. Okay, forty (laughs). If you wind up forty and youdon’t have a house and a car and life insurance and health insurance, youknow, you’re fucked.
Q: Was it frustrating for you not to have much success in the States?
KA: I didn’t really have that much exposure here. It would have been good.Basically the idea is to make a bunch of money with the creative talentsyou have before you’re forty. I’m not answering your question, am I? Thisis the underlying thing, this is what is behind it. Whatever it takes,whether it’s America or Holland, I don’t know, it doesn’t matter. You havea certain window in your life where you’re intellectually curious, you haveenergy, and you’re not blase, and you’re not tired of life. That’s when youhave to do it. That still doesn’t answer your question. It does, actually,really.
Q: You’re talking about hitting thirty- were you conscious of the Britishunderground that had started around ’67 losing momentum around that time?
KA: You only become conscious of things that you have things to comparethem to. You can’t make assessments if you don’t have something to comparethem to. I think that what happened with post-war society–suddenly youngpeople were going, we don’t like what our parents are doing. We don’t likewar. The war was over, people had money, and they had time. It was like aone-off. My youngest daughter says to me, geez dad, I wish I’d lived in thesixties. I know what she means, because there was a whole bunch of stuffhappening. People were pre-video and people read books in those days, andtalked to each other. It was a unique time. In fact, if you check thehistory of human beings, you’ll find it’s the only time that young peopleever got up and had any effect at all. What happened was that theestablishment moved in and discredited them- “they’re hippies, they don’twash, they smoke pot.” But there were huge advances in human rights andbasic freedoms. It never happened in the history of man, never.
Q: Are you going to do more stuff with the people you worked with in theCanterbury scene?
Q: Do you communicate with them?
KA: No, I don’t know where they are these days. It’s very sad, ’cause wewere very close to start with. That’s okay, it happens to the best oflovers.
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