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 IV

CN: You know, we have the facility, we have a label. I run the label. I'm not going to be arguing against doing something quite different. We even have a 'Read and Burn' series where we can [do] something different, where it's clearly identified as being 'this is not the next album.' So we developed a series of frames in which we can put something, ranging from the legal bootleg series, where we can cater for rabid fan needs, for old concerts and unreleased material, right up to full albums with big promotion and all the rest of it. We can slot things in, we can find a space in which to put something (in). And it's deliberate because, in a way, this is, I mean apart from the kind of solo album aspect, what we probably should've had after 154. Because if we had been able to accommodate everything... we didn't have the structure, we didn't have the money, we didn’t' have anything. Now we have those things in place and let's play with it.

GL: Yeah, because the thing you were saying about that side of the work doesn't appear to be ra-ra-ra when you come to Read and Burn 3. What was the first track?

CN: "23 Years Too Late."

GL: "23 Years Too Late." It's completely a straight line to the '80's stuff. And, at the time we were like 'Hmmm.' It wasn't the direction to continue in at the time but it's a damned good direction. It shows a maturity, which (with) the '80's material... we were unable to accomplish quite often. I think it's open for discussion, but we've had a damned good time doing the guitar thing again.

CN: We haven't given up on that. We definitely need... For a live band, it's the easiest way. We're a two-guitar band live but why not experiment? In many ways, Read and Burn 3 was a quiet classic. It's probably better than Object 47 in many ways.

GL: I think so.

CN: For various reasons, and I think that may be to do with...

GL: Being short [laughs]

CN: Yeah, being short. But it's not because actually the presence of Bruce on it is pretty minimal to be honest, and the final art effects... I mean, those are just the ones he would have known best. It's gone, you know. Maybe we have that idea and it's not going to work, for various other reasons. I think the main thing that we have to care about and we're going to feel completely different about in a year's time is...

GL: It's kind of funny, you know when we go to the Astoria release on the Bootleg series. I think that version of the group, the band plays the material better than we were recording the records. And that's kind of strange. It had the physicality that we could not somehow capture... with the recording process.

Q: Do you mean it was strange for Wire or do you think strange for music in general?

GL: I could possibly broaden it, but for us, it was, how do you interface, with the technology at the time? It was very, very difficult and there was something which was lost. It was the physicality somehow, which was lost, which is to do with how you make the records. It was like when we took that material on the road. I think particularly like A Bell is a Cup – you hear things like, "the King of Er and the Queen of Uh." It's like, it's like "Elephants on Parade" played by Sun Ra, you know what I mean? It's just got such a swing to it. It's so brutal.

Q: The first time I saw you was when you were touring that record in Philadelphia, in 1987.

GL: In that weird disco place?

Q: It was kind of a disco. I'd been to there, was it the Trocadero? Anyway, they had a very strange booking policy where they always managed to have an opening act that had nothing to do with the main band and well, you brought Band of Susans with you, I think.

GL: OK, right, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Q: So that made sense, and I think they even covered you on one song. Yeah, that record, the whole record has like a strange internal pulse – the first album, The Ideal Copy, which at the time critics couldn't quite understand, but it was one I was really excited about, it's probably where I discovered you guys before hearing the older stuff. And then I went back, and then A Bell is a Cup came out and it seems quite intentionally not to have that drive. It has more of a swaying, internally – it's not an electronic-sounding record but it's kind of moving that way and then moving away from that way. You know, it's hooky but it doesn't have the rhythmic hookiness- it's more like a melodic hookiness. But it's funny because I've experienced that live where, normally you go out, you want to hear a driving band – this was a very different type to experience live so when you bring that up, you know that's what I recall.

GL: Good. It was good, wasn't it?

Q: That record? I really liked that record.

GL: No, but I was talking about it live.

CN: You should check out the bootleg series because it was something that kind of came from... We have a very active and vocal set of what I refer to as 'core fans.' And they tell you stuff. And for years, people have been saying to me 'you need to hear the '80's live stuff, because live you guys were so much better than the records.' And I was always dismissive of that.

GL: You were so dismissive about that period.

CN: And, when I started hearing how the band sounded live on these recordings – it was kind of a revelation. You know, and it's great to be in the position of just getting that out to people and people being really excited about that as an item.

GL: It just had great, great physicality to it.

CN: You know, it's an audience recording but you know, it gives you more than a sense of, you know, we were... Mark describes us as being 'in full pomp.' We were full '80's pomp, we were a fucking machine. We turned this kind of strange non-rock... I mean there was no distortion. The distortion wasn't really played the same.

GL: It was a band phase really.

CN: And we turned that into this kind of great, lumbering monster.

GL: It was a particular Sunday night, you know, Sunday gig which has to be fitted into the tour in order to make things move along. We played this club in Montreal and I would say half the people were asleep, looked like to me, when we took to the stage. When we did what we did – I don't want to say it – (we were thinking) 'what are we going to do now? What we're going to do now is we're going to do Drill. And now we're going to enjoy ourselves and we played it for 29 minutes and 30 seconds.' That's how strong we were.

Q: It's hard to remember if, at that Philadelphia gig, you played "Drill."

CN: I'm sure we did.

Q: I think you did.

GL: Because everybody came for that, I remember like... Steve Albini turned up in Pittsburgh, and was just going 'pfff, don't like the other stuff but pfff.' It was like research and development.

Q: I mean that was the sense I got in the '80's stuff was that I could kind of hear- on one hand, you did have this production gloss that was on top, but you could see you were working with the ideas. I mean, of course, (you) had put out a whole record of "Drill," so every record was kind different, some were better than others, in my opinion.

CN: Yeah, I mean it was woefully inconsistent, the '80's albums. I mean, the material wasn't good. I've recently got really interested in... there's a recording from 1990 from the Hibernia, of us playing live after Manscape.

GL: It was after Rob wasn't there.

CN: Rob – we'd worked through the whole thing together and programmed together and it really is Rob's drumming. There's some stuff in that set which I've never heard from Wire before or since, which is somehow the simplifying down what he did for the live thing- for the Manscape material, (that) makes it sound better because we all had problems with the mix at Manscape – it was an album lost in the mix. It's a much better album than anyone thinks it is. It's famous for being Wire's worst record but actually.

Q: I guess generally I would say that.

CN: But actually there is some amazing material on there. Of course, as the authors, you hear the material not necessarily the record. And actually, it is one thing that comes round every now and then is maybe to remix or re-do Manscape.

Q: It's funny because to me, it seemed that you actually built to a point in America at that time, where you were kind of breaking again and it did feel like with Manscape, the wind went out of the sails a little bit. But it also seemed as though you were having label issues in the States, in terms of distribution because I don't think that record even got around that much. I mean I was a fan so naturally I went out...

CN: Not long after the album came out, Rob left and then we didn't really have a band. We toured with the three of us, and that's what that Hibernian gig is from, and that felt just weird. It was the first time we stepped off stage, just the three of us and it felt just completely weird. It wasn't a natural feeling.

GL: It's funny with Manscape – it had a fundamental flaw in the process, which none of us had foreseen. I was starting off with Dave (Allen), who was the producer. He came to the rehearsals, we had rehearsals and writing material – everything was MIDI-ed up, and it had a great beginning in that way. Of course, what nobody thought about was, when we disconnected everything and then recamped to the next studio and then put everything back together again, it was 'well, we have all the midi information but we don't have the sounds.'

CN: We must have had some.

GL: We had some but, you know what I mean? There was a huge gaping hole of information, and of course, because we've been working in this new digital format, we haven't really attached names to things so we just like had numbers. I remember Dave saying: 'Where do you think we should start?' And he said 'What about number 9?' And that was the point where I remember we went 'Oh number 9, I think number 9's fantastic.' [laughs]

Q: So you didn't view that as an opportunity then?

GL: Well, we did. We had to do what we had to do but I'm saying, nobody had foreseen it. Because the whole idea of working in the studio... in the rehearsal, in that way was, it was when suddenly, you could actually loop things.

Q: So if you just had had post-it notes at the time.

GL: Well, Dave actually had a book of notes like this but it didn't actually add up to reality.

CN: Obviously, you could save a disc of sounds from the sampler on its own disc, so it was possible to keep some of it. I can't remember – maybe we didn't, the notation wasn't as good. We had like MIDI merge boxes at that point, so the information could really come from anywhere into the sequencer. I was basically running the sequencer and recording people in real time.

GL: it was like a very large train-set in some ways.

Q: But the end reconnected.

GL: Yeah, yeah.

CN: One of the most famous Bruce quotes is (when) there was nothing coming out of this set up and he was like 'well I can't hear anything,' and so we went through everything and then he needed a new MIDI cable. 'We need to get a new MIDI cable, Bruce.' 'So, how much is that going to cost?' 'It's probably going to cost you 10 quid or something like that.' And he said 'Hmmf, that represents two pints of beer,' like 'that's outrageous that I need to spend that much.' So, you know, I'm not going to get any information from you if you don't get one, you know?

Q: And that's I guess why you tour because they give you the beer and you can save that money and put into equipment and cables and things.

GL: Yeah, yeah.

CN: Maybe.

GL: No, it was a record which... there were all sorts of awful things [that] befell the record. Dave Allen, his life just turned to... something very unpleasant.

Q: Not because of the record?

GL: Not because of the record, no. In the period we were doing, he sort of experienced a fatality in the family, he had a family member who went crazy. He also found out that he was pregnant unexpectedly with his wife, and it just went on there, and his father's house (his father died), that was robbed and it just went on like this. Like every day he just came in and thought...

Q: So he was a little distracted.

GL: 'What the hell?' Dave said 'Should I resign?' and we're all going 'I don't think it's right thing to do, you know.'

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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