Perfect Sound Forever


photo by Malka Spigel; left to right: Robert Grey, Colin, Graham

Drill Sergeants
Colin Newman and Graham Lewis interview by D. Strauss, Part III

Q: I'm curious because I can see what he's adding, but what about subtracting Bruce Gilbert? How does that change?

CN: It was hard at the time. I mean, we were kind of left for dead. We didn't know... when he left, we weren't even talking to each other. We started a dialogue again we felt that we should, Wire should exist. Wire has the right to exist and we have the right to allow it to exist.

Q: He wasn't happy with that?

GL: The thing about it is, there were things we had to sort out. Issues that had to be sorted out and some of those had to do with very, very bad choice in management which we'd had. So we came together, there was common cause, at least about being against somebody who severely fucked with the group. Bruce had quit... and said he'd quit and he didn't want to talk about it either.

Q: For those reasons?

GL: No, no, no. It's far more complicated than that.

CN: We don't still really know why.

GL: But what happened was, when we... here we go again... before that happened, of course, an amount of material had been generated, it was on the shelf. And it was like, 'where does it go?' And Colin was saying 'well, is Bruce in or is Bruce out? Or should we ask him or should we not ask him?' and I said 'I think we should go through the material and everything that Bruce has made a gesture at, or was part of the composition.' We put in one box and the other stuff we put over here, because there was a lot of that as well. This stuff became Read & Burn 3, but when we got to a point where we thought it was cohesive, we sent Bruce a CD and said 'this is what we're doing – are you in or are you out?' and he said 'I'm out.' We said 'We will proceed.' He said 'Of course.' And that's what we did, you know what I mean. It wasn't within his power to stop it and I felt I was damned that I'd spent half of my life to see it just pissed away for no good reason.

Q: So you're implying he wasn't happy about it?

GL: No, Bruce was fine, Bruce said 'Yes, of course,' but it wasn't this. Somebody outside the group caused so much trouble between us, nobody had ever really managed to do that before and that was really scary.... you know what I mean? I just thought 'you can't leave this in the ditch.'

Q: How long had the management problems being going on for? Is this before you got together again?

CN: I think we should probably not get too deep in this.

GL: Yeah, let's not talk too much about it. Look, leave it.

Q: But was it a long-standing thing that needed to be addressed or was it from the recent past?

CN: I think there were long-standing disagreements between myself and Bruce over a lot of things and I think there was an element of... Bruce isn't a natural performer. He famously plays his guitar with his back to the audience and that's a certain amount of shyness. He finds touring extremely hard, but he doesn't really like being in a group. I think that's a truth. And I think he saw an exit. What his reasons were at that moment and whatever they were, I think he saw a possibility of getting out the door. And he probably thought that that was probably the end of it, but we felt differently and so we did the simple process of asking if he wanted to come back and he didn't want to come back. But we told him when we asked him 'we are going to go on anyway.' And so we were in quite a fragile state. You know, when a band has always been the same people... I know there have been times where everyone apart from Graham has left, but we had a common history, we had something but also didn't really know how we could make it work.

GL: I was going to say, you know when you what you said about Bruce is not naturally a group person, I think to a great degree, that goes for everyone although I think I am, I was a better team player in the sense that I like teams. But, it wasn't a natural thing, so you know what I mean, the fragility was always built into the strength, which is the strength of having four individuals with points of view. Which is great when you're pulling in the same direction but... when you're not, the possibility for swerve is there.

Q: Still, it sounds like you've always been able to maintain some level of dialogue even when things... a band is a tough thing to be.

GL: It's about work, and that's why we came together in the first place. It wasn't because we were mates and had a love for Joan Baez or something. Where did that come from?

Q: Who was she mates with?

CN: The thing is, even in that fragile state – we had the will and I think it was something we discovered, which really had been sort of not really present in the previous period. It hadn't really been present in the ’80’s. We had the seeds of a common direction, of actually you know, saying 'OK, we want to do this, we want to move forward, let's figure out how.' The first thing was obviously recording because there were some things that could be finished. We went to Rotterdam, recorded in a friend of mine's studio (and did) some live drums because that was something that wasn't present on Send. We weren't live – there wasn't really any specially nice live recording. So to give Object 47 a bit more, something that was a bit more ‘natural.' That's probably the wrong word...

GL: Less claustrophobic.

CN: Less claustrophobic, yeah. And then of course, we did the album and then it came to touring, we found an agent, we needed to find a guitarist, we took Margaret Fiedler McGinnis. She was absolutely perfect for that because it works on more than one level. she is a great guitarist and a great musician. She's not necessarily from our tradition in a way that matters but she was really the right person for us at that time. We needed someone who could do a great job.

GL: She's got fucking nerve, is what I think. She took on the job. Regardless of how we thought about it, there were people who thought she is replacing Bruce and that was no mean thing to do. It was fucking brave. You know what I mean, she's a really strong person.

Q: How come she didn't stick with the band?

CN: That was the idea that she would do like a loop of work- it's exactly the same idea we'd had with Matt. With Margaret, it's different because she doesn't come so much from the same frame of reference. She's from Laika. Laika are an important band they were actually a pretty big band, they were bigger than Wire.

Q: True, I remember Laika – they were a Too Pure band.

GL: But it was also because she comes from a very American music tradition as well. [long pause] [laughs] After Margaret had been with us for a while, she passed the audition with flying colours, you know, and we thought she was great and blah blah blah. And it was like 'But...' She was like 'But what?' and we're going ‘well, but you can't have your... vintage AC30 with the right valves and the right knobs and we're not really interested in that in terms of distortion.’ Basically, we asked her to change the way she'd worked and she'd built forever, and she said 'I'll do anything to please you.' That's what she said and she meant it. But the thing about it was, after a few months, you know we did Lyon, and we’re sitting, having a drink after the show and Margaret just burst into tears. I was with Frankie, and I said 'Frankie, what's wrong?' She said 'You've taken away everything from me, apart from my name.' And I said ‘well, I'd been thinking about it.' And then she laughed, and I think that really encompasses her... as an artist to come and do whatever was necessary. We asked her to do things that she'd never done before and she was great.

CN: But it wasn't natural.

GL: It's like the strength of her imagination and her brain that she could do it.

CN: Her idea about how to make a great distorted tone is to turn up the gain of the amp. Wire's idea about how to make distorted tone is to get a distortion box. You don't fiddle with the amp, you just set the basic tone and then the rest is done with boxes. That's basically...

GL: ...Basically it's distorted all the time [laughs]

CN: That's where Matt comes from. Matt is someone who has far more pedals than anyone could possibly use, ever. And is completely obsessed with them.

GL: He knows how it works.

CN: You know it's a different frame of reference. And that's why, in a way, it couldn't go on with Margaret because she doesn't come from... you know, recording would have been very difficult for her.

Q: And I guess she would have at some point been unhappy having to constantly be someone she wasn't.

CN: Yeah, yeah.

GL: Exactly. Matt came along, Matt came with his tray of delights... and started to have a bad influence on everybody and I was thinking 'Hmm...' By the end of the American tour, he'd basically replaced everything because we started to develop a new aesthetic. And that's what it's about. You're listening to what you're doing and that informs and it starts to....

Q: You've been touring a lot again and you've gone back to the old idea on generating material. Do you feel as though this is a more permanent working relationship, that you're going to be writing more?

CN: Of course. Who knows where we'll go for the next...

Q: You're jobbing musicians.

CN: No, we're not jobbing musicians. No way.

GL: What?!

Q: I didn't mean to offend you...

GL: That's what you fucking did though. You succeeded.

GL: You know what I mean. It's like, what I thought you were going to say is 'And you know what you're going to be doing next?' and we're going to go 'Not really.'

CN: No.

GL: What's going to happen next is we'll put this record out and what we'll do is what we've always done. We'll play some of this record live and we hope it's going to change. What else is there? There isn't anything else.

CN: I have some ideas about what we might do next but right now we need to work through this.

GL: Let's see what happens.

CN: And there is another iron in the fire which we haven't really talked about, which is the festival.

GL: Oh yeah.

CN: If the festival works in the way that I would like it to, that might be something we might do in other places.

Q: I am a poorly researched journalist, I don't even know which festival...

GL: No, you're not. It's something in London. The news is out about two minutes ago.

CN: We're launching the album in London with a festival called Drill London, and that's 3 days in 2 small venues and one day in a big venue, during which there are a lot of related people that we like. But the idea about the festival is it's very economic in that we don't fly anybody in- it's all whoever is available within the city. And a lot of younger, younger musicians because it's a very interesting context for us. We're partnering with a magazine called the Quietus who have been very good. And it's become something, because I've been very concerned about the whole thing of touring. I mean touring is quite hard and it's quite wearing and it would be nice to be able to go to a city and just do an event there and the idea of having a festival and then taking that festival somewhere else because people think that's an interesting idea or they want to be part of that festival– it's just another way of working with the traditional tours that we have. I don't think any of us like the idea of just being on the road for months. It is pretty tedious. I quite like being at home. If I like to travel, I like to go for at least a few days somewhere and maybe hang out, bring Malka– you know, just be somewhere different and experience that. Rather than 'yeah, we were just there, we played a show there and then we're on to the next place and the next place.'

(ED NOTE: The Wire festival details from December 2014 are here)

Q: How do you deal with that?

GL: My wife says it takes about the same time plus 50 percent for me to come back for however long it is. I think, in 2011, we experienced 3 summers and 3 winters in a year.

CN: In four months actually.

GL: And there was one particular day where it was snowing in Vancouver and the next day we played Coachella in the fucking middle of Palm Springs. And does it have an effect? You bet it has an effect.

CN: It's quite confusing.

GL: And you know when you get schedules, I don't know where you four hours of sleep for five days. It doesn't matter if you're 18, you'd be struggling. It's a bit...

CN: You have to think a little bit. I don't really want to think like old people but you have to bear in mind the fact that half of the band is over 60, some only just. I don't to be like some kind of suffering... kind of person, like the only way I can make some money in order to pay my bills is I have to go on the road and I don't really want to do it because I don't feel like it. This has to be a different kind of experience – it's part of a process, we're touring because it's part of a process but I really don't want to do it forever.

GL: We kind of did it.

Q: So now you want to bring the mountain to Mohammed.

CN: Yeah, to a degree. But we're always going to have to tour. You know, you can't get around that one.

GL: But there must be better ways of doing things. And at least there must be a different way of doing it.

CN: And also for recontextualising ourselves. I mean we did a thing in 2010 with The Quietus, we did two shows at a venue called The Lexington which is actually what will be one of the venues of the festival. It holds 200 people, it's a room in a pub but it has a great atmosphere and everybody loves it because the PA is really good, it's a great place to see a band. Everybody wants to be there, (which is) one of the reason why we chose it. Everybody likes to be there. And those two shows, at the time we chose two bands, both of them we know pretty well which is Factory Floor on night and Lone Lady the other night and it was just us playing with those people. But the context of it was really interesting and it helps contribute to the idea which we always want to foster about Wire being a contemporary band and we have friends who are in other contemporary bands. Just happens that we're a bit older than them.

GL: There's also things, you know, you can play in a small room under controlled and good circumstances but at the same time you have four video crews who are filming this thing, throwing it out onto the Net. It becomes another change again. It's like, where is the access?

Q: So have you booked this whole festival yet?

CN: There's news items. We have one night to announce, which is coming together. I just haven't had time to send all the emails that need to be sent to put it together but it is pretty much 21st to the 24th of March.

GL: And on the 24th, we play the album at Heaven.

Q: But that's funny- isn't that what you're going to do at most shows? You're going to play the album.

CN: No we won't– we'll probably play half the album. Because we're actually taking a keyboard player for that because we need the additional texture. I don't think we could easily perform all of the album. Some of it will be pretty hard to play.

GL: But.. yeah, we've never done that before. We've given ourselves permission just to play the album.

Q: You've given yourself permission in the past just in general but... I don't want to keep you that much longer. You've actually been quite generous with your time. Through the '80's, the 'Drill' ideas you seemed to work on for many years – it seemed to influence a lot of what you were doing and now with the new material, you hear less of a directly electronic feel although of course the process might be different so... Have you worked those ideas entirely out where there's nowhere else to go?

GL: [laughs]

CN: The answer is: definitely not. [laughs]

GL: [belly laughs] It's really funny.

CN: I'm in Berlin and I'm thinking techno.

GL: We're thinking techno, you know what I mean? I think, the answer to your question is exactly the opposite but yes. 'Cause that's exactly what we've been thinking. It's like we closed a loop, I think. It's like, it's done a lot of tidying up and it's presented a new thing somehow. What happens next is exactly, that's it. What's going to be exciting? The exciting thing is not to do the same thing again.

See Part IV of IV of this interview

Also see our 1997 interview with Colin Newman, Colin's 1997 article on the techno revolution and this 2005 interview with Githead (one of Colin's other bands)

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