Perfect Sound Forever


photo by Adam Scott; left to right: Colin, Graham, Robert Grey

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

Q: You haven't talked so much about your '80's work, which is actually how a lot of people, especially in America, discovered you. You know, when The Ideal Copy came out and when Drill sort of became a thing in the underground.

GL: I think the thing about it is, it's about fashionability, isn't it really? You know, I mean it's like the relevance of work changes over years and I think it's not a subject... the 80s is not particularly a period which... people are interested in apart from the platform-soled boots.

Q: Oh they're here, they are here.

GL: They are now, of course. I think it's damned good. Did some really good stuff then.

CN: Personally from the '80's stuff, I think some of the material is really strong but I don't think the records are very good. That's my personal view.

GL: Technology was very clumpy. It's difficult.

CN: Yeah, we had enormous problems negotiating that as a band. You know, what we do now is, you know, the recording methodology is every bit... much, much more techno. But that's able to encompass full band recordings so that means everybody gets to play, everybody gets to be part of it. Nobody gets to be programmed. And that a participatory thing. That means you can do things like real time arrangement, you know, 'Hey, you know that- that bit where it ends at the end of the verse – really there should be a gap there or it should go somewhere else.' Or you know, 'I'll do a 1, 2, 3, 4 and we all go here. How about that?' You know, and you can work out those things really fast and if you were doing it by some method of layering, or in a sequencer, you'd just be hours doing that and it still would sound wrong.

GL: And that's why we've released the album. We've spent an awful lot of time in this... There was a real difficulty in this... You know it's the democracy of viewing the screen. You can only get two people round it, so it's why most electronic things are two people. Because once you get three people, it's really uncomfortable because you can't actually see what's going on. Because the screens were small, now they're big.

Q: The last few records you've been doing since reforming, they sound guitar-based. In a way, it's more of a shocking break than when you came back the first time in the '80's and you were working with all this new technology then and I guess a different sort of producer as well. But in a way, these are more technologically-based records that sound like they're guitar-based records?

CN: Fundamentally, it's a hybrid thing. The basic recordings, we go to a good studio, this one was recorded in Rockfield which is an extremely good studio– we went there because you can record a full band... and get total separation in the first performance. You don't have to layer anything. This is really important if you're not quite sure what the final form of the piece is and you want to work it out on the fly, you've got to be able to do it all in one go. And have it done – not to have to go back and 'oh no, we've got to go back and do this bit again' or whatever – you can't. Cut and paste in virtual, that's just too complicated, it's too boring and nobody can hear the whole piece. You know, people have to sit in the control room after have played something and say 'Yeah, that's what I played. That's right. That's good.' Then you have a second phase after that of the actual production which I do in my studio and that takes a long time. And that's working within Pro-Tools and engaging with the audio and the idea of it is to be as transparent as possible so that really, ultimately what you have sounds like a group playing. But it's almost been de-constituted and reconstituted in a way that is kind of anal in its perversity but it really comes in many ways from an attitude that starts with dance music. I start with the bass drum because that's the most interesting place to start. Get the bass drum and snare drum to work and then get the bass to work. And then once you've got that...

Q: You're isolating the individual sounds of each instrument as well, like each individual drum?

CN: Of course, everything is recorded separately.

Q: This is kind of fascinating to me because this record, it sounds mostly like short arty punk songs, you know? It's a very live sounding record. But in fact it's...

CN: It's not. To be precise about it, every single hit, every single note has been cut, chopped and placed in the right place.

Q: So you spend 35 years on the ideas. How long are you in the studio?

CN: Six months, it takes me six months.

Q: Are you working on it too, Graham or on this...?

CN: He was working parallel on text, because some of the things had to change in terms of textual content and Graham was in Sweden basically trying to kind of wrestle...

GL: Yeah, you know it's like the same thing again, it was like... we've never done this before and I don't think it's possible that we'd have to do it again because it was a very odd process, because then you came to a point, it was like... Now that things are in sufficient shape and the transformations which had happened... Then, it was time to sort of rewrite the record. You know, there were some things which were 'tick' – it was good at the time and it's perfect, it stays what it is. Chorus good... rest not good. This is a completely new piece, needs a completely new text. Other things which were the hardest things were the things which we'd invested a lot in in the past and we thought were really good pieces of work. But (it was) through time and the use we'd made of those pieces in the previous live incarnations or whatever. I really felt things, you know, deserved new life and they were usually the songs about death really. You know what I mean? You need to (have a) different perspective. But it was a very weird thing because, at one point, he kind of said 'How's it going?' I said 'this is... horrible. It's like torture.' Because it was like having a 'record' and 'erase' on a tape recorder at the same time... you know what I mean?

Q: That doesn't actually sound like a bad record. That sounds like something that would come out in 1981.

GL: Well, I thought you'd understand recordings so I thought it was a good motive for... you know what I mean? Because that's what it's like.

Q: Sure, sure.

GL: And it's really peculiar. It was very odd. It's like time travel and I don't know if I recommend it.

CN: I would come, basically say 'what's happened with this piece is that I'm seeing a different melody and it needs (something) in a different place.'

GL: OK? [laughs]

CN: 'And the words don't fit anymore or they fit it's...'

Q: Is it the same process as you had 20 years ago?

CN: No, no, we would work in a different way – a more organic way and it was a more traditional way of recording in a way. Although, there is nothing you know, the plain old school recording of a band is essential to this process. As I said before, it's about the real-time arrangement because you know within 30 seconds if something's working or not. Why have people expend energy, and I always think about conserving Rob's energy 'cause where Rob (Grey), especially one of those ones where he's really going at the drums, there are only so many times that he's going to want to do that.

Q: And he's not really involved in the writing process of this record...

CN: Well, it depends on how you... We've evolved a way of crediting the writing now which has 3 layers. You have the song, which means basically the melody and the thing around the melody, the harmonic background to the melody, tends to be written by me; the text tends to be written by Graham and then there's a third element which is the music which is written by Wire and I think... although that sounds like it's just words, I think it says something. Everybody does have an involvement and an investment in it. And I think it's really important.

GL: But Robert's never written a single piece.

CN: No he's never written a piece on his own.

Q: But I've noticed he has got credited on the records.

CN: Of course, because there are ways...

GL: It's ensemble playing.

CN: Yeah, you know, there are ways in which someone will contribute. I mean there have always been in the past two basic views about how you credit writing on records. One is the traditional – lyrics and tune. And that means the tune just means the vocal melody. That completely ignores the arrangements. Which is, for a traditional kind of music, kind of OK, but there is a level of unfairness about it because it doesn't include the fact that someone may have come up with a really brilliant rhythm or a great guitar riff to that piece but they're not regarded as being anything, having composed anything.

Q: I mean, look at sampling – the most famous sample for years was the 'funky drummer' sample in hip hop which was played by Clyde Stubblefield on drums. Writing credit for the sample: James Brown. James Brown gets all the money and Clyde Stubblefield...

GL: Who's the guy... I met him. The guy who did all the arrangements for that time. Pee...?

Q: Oh, Pee wee Ellis.

GL: I met him at Ronny Scott's once. What an astonishing gentleman. He was the guy who invented the sound.

Q: The late '60s sound.

GL: And that's it.

Q: And then it's like, he fired his band and hired Bootsy Collins. But it's true- it's not just James Brown.

GL: The power of the work is just jazz man. It's just so fucking jazzy. It's so logical. It's fantastic.

Q: The Pee wee Ellis stuff? It's true.

CN: But what we're talking about is in many ways, these things have been sources of problems within the band in the past so why don't we work out a solution that makes everybody happy and having everybody happy may sound like a rather trite thing to wish for but in Wire, it's not a bad plan. Because that means, if everybody's happy then they're going to work together to try and figure out what we're going to do and they concentrated on the work, not on looking after their corner.

GL: It's like, you know what I mean, the roots of what we do – talking about the writing or whatever. It's like the most important thing was like when we started... was this coming together and finding common cause. And that's the best arrangement you can get [laughs]. You know, that IS the arrangement. You know, it's from that, then it grows and then it's, you know, there's complications...

Q: So is everybody happy?

GL: Ah, this is bullshit. I mean it's like, why are we talking about this?

CN: No but, in reality of course...

GL: ... Was Fletcher Henderson happy?

CN: There are always problems, you know but I think that the band is in a very good place and everybody's looking forward and nobody is thinking 'this is not the thing that we should be doing.' And was it this interview that we said it in? I mean, when we've had arguments in the past, it is really arguments about the work, it's not arguments about you know, someone thinking someone's an idiot or something like that. You know, it might come out sometimes like that but what they actually mean is 'That thing you're saying...'

GL: 'You're wrong.'

CN: 'What you're saying is wrong,' not you as a person are a wrong thing.

Q: So what's it like incorporating a new member into the band then?

GL: In this case, exceedingly easy.

CN: Yes.

GL: It's all credit to him. He was like as old as we were when we started this thing and he came along, auditioned, and not only had he done his homework, he could play the pieces. He'd actually found a way of interpreting the particular sounds. The one that really impressed me was that he'd come up his version of the kind of guitar solo sound in "Map Reference." I just thought, now that's pretty impressive because it wasn't an emulation. What it was, it was it but his version.

Q: It even sounds like a Wire song.

GL: Yeah exactly, and the thing about it was, when he walked out of the room um... well, I guess that's it.

CN: He passed with flying colours. I mean, he came in really as a touring guitarist.

GL: That's what he came to audition for.

CN: Over that year of touring, it became increasingly obvious, certainly to me...

Q: Was he the same guitarist that played with you when you were last in Berlin?

GL: Yeah, with the long hair. Yeah, yeah.

Q: I've seen you three times – every place is gone, that you've played at.

GL: You didn't see us at the Berlin Festival though, did you?

Q: No.

GL: Good. It was awful.

Q: I saw you at Maria though and that was great.

GL: Was that the bunker?

CN: In 2002?

GL: That was awesome.

Q: Actually I want to ask you about this 'cause actually you guys were not going to play an encore and they applauded for 20 minutes.

GL: I told somebody this, in an interview...

Q: You remember this?

GL: Oh man! It was one of the best shows we've ever done. And they forced us to go back and we knew nothing. It was so beautiful, the sound was so magnificent, and what I remember is it was the blue light and it was when the paint all started coming off the ceiling and it was snowing. It was snowing with white noise – it was beautiful. It was a great show.

Q: You came back, I think you played "Drill" and you killed it.

GL: Yeah, it was...

CN: Techno City

GL: You know the thing was, we'd been touring and a lot of places, people were rather confused. It was like, yeah again – it's like, what do you have to do for people to understand? I remember walking through the crowd at Maria, thinking 'ah here we are, we're in Berlin and here is the jury.' You know what I mean, because everyone's standing by and we came on and I think it was like halfway through the first number, it just went [smack] and everybody was in the same room and they were like, 'you get it' – it was the audience that got it 'cause it was techno. And they understood noise, they understood metal – it was like 'yeah, we'd like all of the things you'd like, that's what we like.'

Q: And I remember it was such a mixed crowd, old and young.

GL: It was stunning. Young, old – people were just vibing.

Q: You were all over the stage that night. I'd never see you do that, you hadn't done that the last time you were here. You were almost like an ape.

CN: [laughs] It was because I was feeling it, man. I was feeling the beats.

GL: Stunning. Great.

CN: Techno is very deep in me and you know I may appear on the surface to be a '70's person but there's a deep 90s current in me.

Q: Well, sure in your recordings in the late '80's and '90's and also with your wife, Malka Spigel, there's a lot of techno stuff.

CN: We used to release techno records and Swim (his label) had a 12 inch that was number 1 in the German DJ charts. It's the only number 1 I've been, on anything. Ever.

Q: I don't think it's necessarily something to brag about when you look at the charts sometimes.

CN: No, no, no – we're talking about '96 or something like that. It was pretty cool stuff at the time.

GL: I want to hear more about the other shows that you went to.

CN: I want to finish the thing about Matt because I think it's important to say the way that it worked with Matt, playing with us that year, he went through some intense experiences including, you know, a month and a half in a bus around Europe, which is pretty intense. And you began to get the feeling like: this person not only gets it, it's like, I can't imagine actually, us being without him. And it started to occur to me more and more, like, the plan was that he was just going to do that loop. He'll do everything to do with Red Bark Tree and then we'll find another guitarist, and I was thinking hmm.... I'm not sure if that plan's going to work. I can't imagine how we could do without him.

GL: He's a very good influence.

CN: And you know, Matt, he gets on with everybody.

GL: He loves noise.

CN: Yeah, he's a great guitarist.

GL: He's deeply musical. You know, he actually went to university and actually studied music. But when I said to him 'who were your tutors?' he said 'oh, for improvisation, it was Steve Beresford.' Well that's OK, isn't it.

Q: You'll have more tuba and French horn on your next record.

GL: Well, whatever, you get the idea. You know, and his father's a great music collector so I just kept thinking he was like us when we started. It's this driving curiosity. He just gets it and he's not a yes-person, but he's extremely collaborative.

CN: He's a great person to have on board.

GL: You know, you ask him a question, he'll tell you what he thinks. And we like that.

CN: And he's absolutely not a pushy person but he has no problem being the loudest person in the room. Absolutely no problem at all. And you don't get annoyed with him about it because if he's loud, it's for a reason.

GL: In 2011, we'd like toured for like four months – the last gig was in San Francisco and on "Boiling Boy," there was an on/off dynamic where it's done, the pretty bit, the song, then it goes bam [smack]. Right, and then it's like an on-off, it's like levels of distortion. But this last show, Matt went 'Bang!' and then he just stood there. And I looked at him and he went... And he came off and I asked him 'what on earth was on your mind?' He said 'I just wanted to hear the loudest noise in the world,' and he said I was the person closest to the source. He went 'great.'

CN: [laughs]

GL: That was he said 'I'm here.'

See Part III 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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