Mike Atkinson

Interview: Kevin Ayers

Posted in interviews, Stylus by Mike A on October 23, 2007

An edited version of this interview originally appeared in Stylus Magazine.

Since the recent release of The Unfairground, the first new album from British singer-songwriter Kevin Ayers in fifteen years, there has been an increasing and long overdue acknowledgement of his position as one of the founding fathers of British psychedelic rock. Along with Robert Wyatt, Mike Ratledge and Daevid Allen, Ayers was a member of the original line-up of the Soft Machine. Following a grueling tour of the US in 1968, supporting the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Ayers left the band and embarked upon a remarkably varied and consistently engaging solo career, releasing a series of critically acclaimed (if commercially under-performing) albums during the 1970s, before slowly sliding off the radars of all but the committed few during the 1980s.

For his latest album, which marks something of a return to the freshness, eclecticism, and clarity of vision that characterized the best of his 1970s work, Ayers has enlisted the services of a wide array of younger collaborators. These include members of Ladybug Transistor, Architecture In Helsinki, Noonday Underground, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Teenage Fanclub, as well as Euros Childs (the former leader of Gorkys Zygotic Mynci, and a long-time champion of Ayers’ work), and the rising pop-soul singer Candie Payne.

Ayers is widely regarded as an awkward and reluctant interviewee, whose distaste for self-promotion could be attributed partly to unreconstructed hippy anti-commercialism, and partly to classic upper middle-class English reserve (he is, after all, the son of a diplomat). Speaking to Stylus from his home in Southern France, where he leads a simple and mostly reclusive existence, he willingly submitted himself to a guided stroll through his solo career to date. Choosing his words slowly and carefully, with frequent pauses, Ayers’ natural wariness was tempered by a wry humor and a gentle, understated charm.

To anyone who knew your work with the Soft Machine, your debut solo album Joy of a Toy [1969] would have been viewed as a radical change of direction: from free-form experimental jamming into a kind of classic songwriting approach.  Had you been storing up songs for future use over a long period, or was it a sudden decision, that you were going to switch direction and try your hand at songwriting?

The latter.  Basically, I’m a songwriter.  I’m not a virtuoso musician, or anything like that.  It was great to do the so-called “free-form” stuff – but after a while, you get the T-shirt, you know?  I think that songs are more enduring, and more fun to do.  A lot of free-form stuff is very self-indulgent.  That’s why I left, because Soft Machine was heading more into fifteen minute solos – and frankly, it wasn’t just Soft Machine.  There was a whole era, wasn’t there?  Endless guitar solos, and people just banging around.  Which is great fun for a while, but then you just want to move on.

You got out ahead of the curve, I suppose.  But then with Shooting at the Moon [1970], you threw another curveball.  You’re back with a band [the Whole World] – indeed, it’s your only album which is credited to you and a band – and there’s actually quite a lot of free-form stuff on there, where you’ve abandoned traditional rhythmic and harmonic structures.  It’s not quite heading back in the same direction, but it’s certainly a surprise.

Well, I was surrounded by some incredibly talented musicians, and it’s a side that’s just… there.  I still have it, to a certain extent.

Was that album more of a band effort, or was it more your vision as interpreted by others?

Both! [laughs]

So were you the benevolent dictator figure directing everything?

In a way.  I always consider myself as a sort of catalyst, for these very talented people.  I provided a sort of framework, and allowed them an incredible leeway.  Letting them have their heads, basically.

And I suppose you were also mentoring a young Mike Oldfield at that stage?

In a way.  He was quite a lost soul at the time.  I think it provided some kind of stability for him.

Onto Whatevershebringswesing [1971].  There’s a lot of eclecticism at work: you’ve got symphonic rock, vaudeville, avant-garde, and almost MOR balladry on there.  This genre-hopping is a key part of your appeal, I think.  What was the motivation?  Was it experimentalism; was it showing off; was it restlessness?

It’s just the way I am – it’s as simple as that – and it’s to my disadvantage, I think.  If you think about most best-selling albums, they’re all basically one tone, one direction, repeating the same thing over and over again.  I just wasn’t able to do that.  But there certainly wasn’t any showing off in it at all, I can assure you.  That’s just how my mind works.

It seems to me that you were constantly picking a new genre and seeing what could be done with it.  And then trying another, and then trying another…

Yes.  And also, a lot of stuff is kind of arbitrary.  It happens in the studio.  Choices are made, simply because some machine sounds better than another, or someone suggests another bass line, and you say: yeah, that’s a good idea too.  So it’s kind of random.

Thinking about the eclecticism: as someone who has always admired your music, I have always found it difficult to recommend a definitive Kevin Ayers album, or even a definitive Kevin Ayers track, as somewhere for people to get started.  But I think that Bananamour [1973] is as close as we get.  It’s a more unified album than before.

I’m glad that you said that, because that’s one of my favourites.

You must get asked the same question, and I wondered whether you’d give the same reply?

Pretty much.  I think it sort of covers the ground.

The reason I originally bought it was because of an interview you gave while supposedly promoting The Confessions of Dr. Dream [1974].  During the interview, you said that you were disappointed with Dr. Dream, and that Bananamour was the superior album.  I thought that was such an extraordinary thing for an artist to be saying, especially as you had just moved to a different label.  So I went out and bought Bananamour and left Dr. Dream for a couple of years, because you told me it wasn’t very good!

[softly] Oh, shit… [laughter]

Were you just winding up the interviewer, or did you have reservations about that album after it came out?

[ruefully] I don’t know; I’m always saying things like that, and putting my foot in my mouth… and always getting told off for it too.  Managers tearing their hair out, you know… [laughs]

Round about the same time, you collaborated on Lady June’s Linguistic Leprosy [1974].  Lady June was your landlady, wasn’t she?

[fondly] Yes, she was.  And a great friend… poor old soul.  It was actually quite a fun collaboration.

It conjures up images of arts labs, and happenings, and spontaneous poetry readings, and Bohemian life in general.

Yeah, spot on.

It’s an image of a free and easy time.  Was it as free, and was it as easy, as I imagine it to be?

In terms of things being open?   Yes, that’s how it was.  And it’s not like that now.  At all.

The live album June 1st 1974 [recorded with John Cale, Brian Eno and Nico] sounds like one of the first Big Pushes, if you like.  There was an attempt being made to turn you into a rock star, and it sounds like a pre-conceived showcase.  You’ve said that you weren’t always too comfortable with that.

No, I wasn’t.  It was too stagey, and you’re absolutely right – it was Island’s attempt to make me into a kind of pop star, with high heeled shoes and all that kind of stuff.  It just wasn’t me; I didn’t fit the picture.

And in any case, you were promoting the Dr. Dream album, which is quite “out there”.  It’s not something that you would expect to be pushing to a mass market.

Not at all.  Especially the second side, which is basically one track, all interlinked.  It’s sort of the remnants of my Soft Machine days.

And there’s an old Soft Machine song, “Why Are We Sleeping”, on the first side as well.

[gently bristling] That’s not Soft Machine, that’s my song.

I do beg your pardon! [nervous laughter]


It was round about this time that Ollie Halsall came onto the scene.  He then stayed with you, as your closest musical associate, for the next eighteen years.  At a time when an awful lot of collaborators were constantly coming and going, what was it about Ollie that led to the two of you sticking together for so long?

[long pause] Gosh, that’s a really hard one.  I think it was just instant empathy.  I met him while I was in the studio doing Dr. Dream; I think he was working with members of Colosseum at the time.  I needed a guitar solo for “Didn’t Feel Lonely Till I Thought Of You”.  I opened the door, and there was this guy walking along with a white Gibson.  I said, “Do you fancy doing a guitar solo?”  Sure, he said… and then came in and did this stunning solo, after listening to it just once.  That was it.  That was love, you know?

Ollie worked with you closely on the next album, Sweet Deceiver [1975].  This is a problematic one.  I listened to it again this week and absolutely loved it – I had forgotten what a good album it was – and I really do think that it’s one of your most underrated albums.

Well, thank you for saying that.  [emphatically]  Thank you very much for saying that.

It just annoys me, because up until that point, you’d been the golden boy of the music press.  You’d always had good reviews.  And then all of a sudden, they turned against you with this one.

They did, yeah.

I suppose it was because you were saying goodbye to the avant-garde, and they didn’t like the idea of you going in a more conventional soft-rock direction.  I think you were nobbled by the cool police, actually.

Absolutely right.  It was probably Nick Kent, or someone like that.  It was panned.  I think something about the title pissed them off.

And the cover art maybe, because there’s this rather of-its-time line drawing of you.  But these are very superficial reasons for dismissing an album.

Well absolutely, but it’s so damaging to the artist.  People don’t realise that.  They sit there, sniffing their lines of coke, writing you off, sniping away [laughs] …and you get slammed.  At that time, the musical press was very powerful.  Today it’s zero, compared to what it used to be.  If you had a good review in Melody Maker or NME, you sold records.  Now, no-one really gives a shit. [laughs]  But thank you for saying that it’s an underrated album; I totally agree with you.

And then came Yes, We Have No Mananas [1976], which makes me think of sunshine, beaches, palm trees…

Falling in love does that for you. [laughs]

That was the emotional context, was it?

[fondly]  Of course.  It always is.  Either falling in love or out of love; those are the only two things that motivate anybody.

Well, my favourite song on there is “Yes I Do”, which is kind of pining for love; it’s unrequited love.

Oh my God.  I squirm when I hear that…

Do you?  That song summed it all up for me at that stage.  But we won’t go into that.

No!  [laughter]

You had John Reid, of all people, managing you at the time – and I think this was another Big Push.  He also had Elton John and Queen on his books, didn’t he?

No, but the problem was that it wasn’t a Big Push.  I was like a token; a golden boy; another charm on his bracelet.

Was he trying to talk you up, into the idea of becoming this silver-heeled pop star?

Not at all, no.  He just totally abandoned me.

Did he sell you a dream and then walk off?

He didn’t even sell me a dream.  He just bought me somehow, I don’t know how, and then proceeded to totally ignore me, in terms of any positive, constructive plan of what to do.

Was there, at any time, any part of you that wanted that kind of mainstream rock star status, or was it always anathema?

[long pause]  I think probably when I very first started, with the Wilde Flowers or something way back then.  It was part of the dream, yeah.  But after that, not at all.

By the time that Rainbow Takeaway [1978] came out, the ground had clearly been pulled from under your feet, in several ways.  The album had no promotion at all, and punk rock had come along.  All of a sudden, people didn’t want to hear about sunshine and palm trees; they wanted to hear about high-rises and dole queues. [laughter]  Rainbow Takeaway isn’t even a rock and roll album, really.  It starts with flutes, and vibes, and one of your most easy listening numbers, “Blaming It All On Love”.  Then the very first line on the album is “I guess I’m feeling old today”.  How did you feel about that kind of paradigm shift?  Did it touch your world?  Did it make you feel like a man out of time?

I kind of numbed out on that.  I kept working, but obviously it wasn’t working.  What I was doing was out of context, as you rightly pointed out.  Because punk came in, and all this kind of mad… I mean, another generation had just clocked in, you know?

It was another explosion of creativity, but in a very different direction.

Yes, and the best of punk rock is great.  I was just rather out of context.

With That’s What You Get Babe [1980], there was more promotion once again.  You had a nice sleeve, you were getting daytime radio play for “Money Money Money”, and so on.  But once again, the NME absolutely savaged you, with the reviewer [Ian Penman] launching into a tirade against the whole concept of the Cult Figure, and holding you up as an example.  And in some ways, you are the living archetype of the Cult Figure – at least in terms of someone who’s actually living, of course.  Is it a description with which you feel comfortable?  Are there pros and cons, or is it a completely meaningless classification?

[mildly baffled] Having never been in any kind of cult, I don’t really know what that means.

I think it means that there’s a small number of people who really get what you’re doing, as opposed to having a larger number of people who might only have been half listening.

[sternly] Cult is the wrong word, then.  It’s a selective audience. [laughter]

You then left your major label, moved to Spain, and Diamond Jack & the Queen of Pain [1983] came along.  In many ways, this is your strangest album.  It’s the only time where it sounds as if you’re trying to follow fashion.  There are typically Eighties-sounding synths on there, and so on.

That’s because it was commissioned.  Someone offered to pay for it, but on condition that I agreed to his producer, and his musicians, and his ideas as to how things should be.  I was very poor at the time, so I had to do it.  And that’s really all there is to it.

Listening to it, I almost sensed an invisible stick, just off-camera, forcing you to sing in a way that’s not your normal singing style. 

Yeah, you’ve got it.  Absolutely right.

Various albums then emerged during the Eighties, which are less well-known: Deia Vu [1984], As Close As You Think [1986] – which no-one seems to have heard, as it isn’t available on CD – and Falling Up [1988], which sounds you’re just having fun.  One of the Amazon reviews says it’s as if you’ve “just drifted up from the beach bar to the studio with old friends”.   Was music perhaps less of a priority during this period?

[pause] Der der der… I think Falling Up was a good record, though. [another pause]  I mean, hopefully what you said was right.  It was coming up from the beach and having fun with friends?  Well, that’s good then.  Leave it there.

But there’s a track on there called “Am I Really Marcel”, in which you hold your hands up and talk about being lazy, and about how you lack any ambition – and you talk about it in a way that suggests that you’re very comfortable with that.  Should we take that at face value?

Well, obviously I’m not that lazy, or else I wouldn’t have had a whole career in the business.  But you have to be clear in terms of what “lazy” means.  It just means that you don’t need to be involved in the day-to-day hustle, or hassle, of city life.  You can actually exist as a person on your own, without all the trappings.  “Lazy” means that you don’t necessarily have to keep making an effort to make yourself… liked.  [pause] Jesus, I got that out! [relieved chuckle]

That’s a good answer.

Thank you!

Still Life With Guitar came out in 1992.  Shortly after its release, Ollie Halsall tragically died – and then you didn’t release another album of original new material for fifteen years.  It’s very tempting to draw certain conclusions from that.

Well, you’ve got it, yeah.

Right… [mutual pause; nervous laughter from both sides] 

I mean, you’ve answered… it’s a rhetorical question.

OK.  Well, I could delve further, but I kind of don’t want to.

[evenly] No, I don’t think you should.

That’s fair enough.

[quietly] Thank you.

Let’s fast-forward to The Unfairground – which, I have to say, has caused delight and celebration across the land.  I certainly think that it’s your best album in over thirty years.  Why now?  What gave you the impetus to return to recording, after so long?

That’s a really tough one to answer; I’ve been asked that already.  A: I need to earn a living.  B: I need some kind of intellectual satisfaction, and life.  I need to feel that I’ve been vaguely useful on the planet.  B… um, B, C, D, where are we?…  [laughter]

So there was a sense that you had something more to say, and something more to offer.  But there must have been a change in your general mindset…  in your confidence, maybe, I don’t know…

Well, I think it’s probably been made more from a lack of confidence.  I need to re-affirm that I still exist, you know?  It’s my job; it’s what I do; it’s been my whole life.  I kind of have to do it – otherwise I’m dead.  Dead to myself. [pause] Was that a good answer?

With some of the 1980s albums, it didn’t feel as if you were so firmly in the driving seat – but with this album, it comes across that you very much are.  I gather that you personally directed every note on the album.  Was this a happy experience?  Was it a long hard slog, or was it a joyous explosion of energy?

A long hard slog.  It always is!  There’s no such thing as a joyous explosion in recording studios…

I’m outside of it; I can romanticise these things. [laughter]

You might have it for a while.  You might have a few moments of it, but then you find it sounds like crap on tape – and then it’s the long hard slog.  It’s work; it’s like anything else.

Tim [Shepard], your manager, helped bring in a range of younger collaborators. 

He did.  In fact, he arranged most of those people.

Has it led you to a curiosity in their work?

Sort of, but I don’t really listen to pop music these days.  I listen to jazz – the old jazz – and classical music.  I’m not trying to be snobby about it; there’s just so much crap around.  I turn the radio on, and listen, and I just have to turn it off again.  I’ll listen to world music, but mainstream pop, or whatever, I just find to be totally uninteresting.

And how many more ways are there of expressing the same emotions, over and over again?  I have one specific question about the album.  Robert Wyatt features, and yet he doesn’t.  Instead, there’s a credit to something called a Wyattron.  What the blazes is a Wyattron?

It’s a synthesiser, with his voice recorded on it.  So you can play the piano, but instead of a piano or organ note, you get his voice.

Did he record a part for that particular song, and then have it shipped in?

No, no.  It’s a program on a computer, which I can use.

There has been a sustained period of publicity involved with this album, and I know it’s not your favourite activity in the world.  Are you longing for the buzz to die down, so you can go back to your quiet, bucolic, rustic life – or does this mark the beginning of a new period of activity?

It’s like a punishment tour for me.  [laughter]  No, you have to support what you do.  You don’t necessarily have to enjoy it.  But I do enjoy talking to people, sometimes.  And other times, it’s not enjoyable at all.

I would imagine particularly when they’re asking you questions which they could have found out for themselves, without too much effort.

Well, particularly when they know the answers already.

And they’re just trying to get you to parrot them back?  Fair enough.  Well, that’s just about covered everything.  Thanks for talking to me.  It’s the first time that I’ve ever interviewed someone as a fan – and I am a lifelong fan of your work.  It’s brought me a lot of pleasure over the years, so I just wanted to say thank you – and I just hope that you can find it in yourself to do some live dates in this country, at some stage.  Please.

I’d like to thank you for intelligent questions.

I did my best.

You certainly did.

Thank you.  All the best, Kevin.

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