Photo by Malka Spigel
"I just don't like rock 'n' roll very much really, to be quite honest"
2013 Interview by David Gavan
During Wire's Flag: Burning concert at the Barbican on April 26 2003, an ageing seventies skinhead shouted "Get on with it!" to the tardy band. An effete, speccy voice piped up with the opinion that the ASS was a "philistine." Colin Newman laughed when I recounted this to him.
There was always a schism in Wire's audience between boot boys and cultural studies buffs. Surrogate flaneurs often link references to Surrealism, installations, etc., to Wire, but then, there's a punky, street urchin element to their audience. I'm slightly torn between the two.
Wire have been so well-documented by the culture industry that writing about them feels like editing a huge randomly-generated collage (see what I mean?). My experience of the band has been mediated largely by journalists, and it's hard to avoid that influence. On some days, Wire remind me of Jake and Dinos Chapman's acerbic London milieu, so I was interested to learn that the brothers would do the stage design for part one of the aforementioned shows.
Matters are complicated by the band's fits and starts over the years, and the fact that three of its members-past and present-have released notable solo work. Colin Newman runs the band's website and record label, Pink Flag; the experimental record label Swim~ (along with his wife Malka Spigel); and he is a founding member of the band Githead (which also features Spigel). Newman has also produced the Virgin Prunes, Minimal Compact and co- produced Fennesz.
Ex-Wire guitarist and sound "collagist" Bruce Gilbert has described his former band as a "living sculpture" and this comment would seem poncey if it weren't partly true. Sometimes Wire sound like Squeeze jamming with Brian Eno.
Their 1977 album Pink Flag proffered expertly curated sonic slabs of postmodern (im)pertinence. "Mr Suit" was a cartoon punk ditty which amusingly out-punked the counter-cultural class of 1976; "Feeling Called Love" was "Wild Thing" 'played sidewaysí; and the title track was Johnny B. Goode "with one chord." As Colin Newman said, Wire were "cocking a snook" at rock 'n' roll.
The next two albums, the limpidly deranged Chairs Missing and the rock template-reshuffling 154, showed that Wire could create as well as deconstruct. These outings owed more to Brian Eno, psychedelic rock and Marcel Duchamp than to glam, pub rock and the Pistols. Bands which grew on the site of punk's "year/ground" zero groups like Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Cure, and Joy Division-had their muse nicely recalibrated by Wire's influence. Other bands, such as R.E.M and the negligible Blur, were admirers too.
The unit fell asunder in 1980, leaving their self-atomizing album, Document and Eyewitness (1981), to consider. This offering is a recording from that year of a Dadaist performance/art cabaret at Camden's Electric Ballroom, along with a show from the year before at the Notre Dame Hall. Document and Eyewitness was chaotic, but featured stirring sketches of Wire's unrecorded fourth album. They reconvened in late '84, releasing superbly inventive albums such as The Ideal Copy; A Bell is a Cup...Until it is Struck; and The First Letter (recorded as Wir).
These records saw the band craft something uniquely Wire-like from popular culture-something like aural readymades, the effete side of me is tempted to suggest. But it was more a case of lustrous pastiche, really. Wire were also curious about technology, using drum machines and samplers to incubate their their own strain of 'Intelligent Dance Music' (as opposed to 'Sub-Bakhtian Carnival Fodder For Thickoes'). The band hit the "off" switch in 1992, only to re-activate in 2000.
On the winningly vaporous Change Becomes Us, Wire used dormant material (from Document and Eyewitness, the People In A Room shows at the Jeanette Cochrane. Theatre in 1979, the Turns and Strokes live album from the same era, and some snippets found in Newman's shed) as a point of departure.
From here, they took their chosen pieces to some scenic destinations. The trips are akin to a temporally skewed exquisite corpse compositions; ones that sound both retro and sleekly new. But, somehow, this album exudes an inert quality that is quite different to the vitality of, inevitably, 154 (1979). Although Colin Newman's vocals are still heart-rending, he sometimes suggests a cyborg in temporal limbo. Touchingly enervated sonic jets.
Since Bruce Gilbert, "removed" himself from Wire in 2004, they have fiddled creatively to rejig the band's circuitry into something viable. The three post- Gilbert albums have been compelling and, since 2011, they have benefited from the musicianship of Matthew Simms on guitar. That said, they have yet to release an album as effective as Send (2003), and one senses that Bruce Gilbert will always be a spectral presence for Wire enthusiasts and band alike. Of which "hauntology," more in a bit.
Q: Your voice on Change Becomes Us sounds bracingly warm, despite being quite heavily treated. Was this an effect you aimed for and, if so, how easy was it to achieve?
Colin Newman: On the demos I used to make at home during the early eighties, I always sang through a chorus. I hate the sound of my voice without treatment and, being as Iím the one who got to mix Change Becomes Us, I can make it sound better to me. I have a way with voices: I use lots of different techniques; itís based on multi-tracking, but very accurate multi- tracking; so you donít actually hear that thereís more than one voice. When I want you to hear more than one voice youíll hear it- spread across the stereo. With me, the lead vocal is normally three voices. Some say this takes all the expression out of the voice, but Iím not really big on this notion of 'proper singing.í I hate all that diva style.
Q: During certain Wire moments- on songs such as "The 15th"- you have a very emotive voice.
CN: Ah, itís subtle emotion. Thatís the key to it. You donít lose human expression when multi-tracking IF YOU'RE ACCURATE!
Q: It's complicated with you, because you have multiple singing styles. One is a tenderly pleading rather English, voice which sounds like Ian Lavender from Dad's Army...
CN: (Laughing) "Ian Lavender!"
Q: Then you've got one particular voice that sounds like an exceptionally incensed Jack Dee.
CN: Yeah, 'general shouting,í is what I call that one.
Q: Then, at one point on "Doubles and Trebles," there's a voice that suggests an exceedingly irate Dalek.
CN: An irate Dalek!
Q: With Change Becomes Us, some Wireheads were saying-before the release-"They can't lose with this one: Document and Eyewitness, and Turns and Strokes are packed with good tunes." But certain pieces, such as Love Bends, were really good ideas in embryonic form.
CN: With "Love Bends," there wasn't a tune there.
CN: On Document and Eyewitness, "Love Bends" was a very good intro, and a fantastic drum fill from Rob, and just "general shouting." The better efforts were on the Legal Bootleg Series; the Jeanette Cochrane (Theatre) show featured the songs we had to fiddle around with less. But Document and Eyewitness was meant to be...Well, Graham Lewis (Wire's bassist, text writer, and occasional singer) says it was meant to be a mainly visual gig.
The music was an accompaniment to a sort of 'happening' of some kind. I mean, I didn't really enjoy it at the time; I remember not being really wild about that show. Everything has potential, though, and in a way, doing the Change Becomes Us album was a slightly absurd and nonsensical exercise.
Why would anyone do that? That was almost the raison d 'etre: 'Let's do this because it's the most stupid thing we could imagine doing.í And also do it in a way which is not about recreating the past in any way, because that would be anathema to the band.
So, as we went into the process, it became more and more absurd, and then it started to make more sense, and then it just became the new album, through this weird process. But it was never intended to be. Then, at the end of that process, certain people we trust were listening to the songs we had amassed and started saying 'Well, this is the new Wire album. Who gives a stuff about the backstory?'
Q: How did you feel about that response?
CN: In a way, it was a relief. The recording went well-eventually, I should say. Originally, I brought the tracks to the studio and started working on them. Then, famously, we did a show at the Villa Medici in Rome, which is an amazing place. It's now a French cultural centre; it overlooks the city, and Malka and I were staying at the top floor overlooking the Vatican, and Rome laid out in front of you. It was May, so it wasn't super-hot and the air is really nice up there. It was just a really lovely thing to do. So I thought, 'Yeah, I'll listen to these tracks in a different context, that'll be good!'- and they sounded shit!
I just thought: 'Oh, God.í I dunno, I always have this crisis of confidence at some point during the records, thinking 'this will never work out.í So I was really nervous. I didn't say anything to anybody else in the band. I thought: 'I'm just gonna to have to figure out a way of making it work.í That shock made me really concentrate on getting those pieces to work. They were working at the level of a band being able to play them, but they weren't working at the level of it being an album.
Q: What did you have to do to turn those songs into coherent album tracks?
CN: The performance director of British cycling, Dave Brailsford, once said that excellence in cycling is down to "small incremental improvement," which is the best way of describing my six month production process. This is the absolute key. You can't expect to get it all in one go, and I think that applies to a lot of things. Once you get one song working, then the others become pulled on. It's a very strange thing. "Doubles and Trebles" ended up starting the album, but it was almost dropped from the album because I just couldn't get it to work.
The very first version of that song was written in Spain and recorded on acoustic guitar, and I wanted to have some of that flavour in the beginning, with it starting on acoustic guitar and growing. So the intro riff was played on acoustic guitar in the beginning, and then suddenly the drums came in and it went up. The beginning was really quiet and the rest was loud, and it didn't sound natural. In the end, I added one guitar, and the piece suddenly came together, and then it was finished really swiftly. Then Malka came in and said 'that sounds fucking amazing: you have to start the album with it.í
We'd always talked about it starting the album, but before that point, if it wasn't on the album, how could we start start with it? The whole album just came together after that. Most of the mixes were done at that point, but the running order was all done in half an hour. On completing "Doubles and Trebles," suddenly the whole thing fell into place, and that was the last small, incremental thing; it was just one guitar that made the difference between a piece not working at all, and it working perfectly.
Q: One reviewer expressed concern that Wire were using Who-esque power chords in "Adore Your Island," and another said that Change Becomes Us sounds like a "Wire do Frampton Comes Alive," in places. Elsewhere, "B/W Silence" sounds like 10cc in hell, and "Re-Invent Your Second Wheel" evokes memories of Supertramp. Do you think that some push-button punks misunderstand Wire's postmodern mischievousness, or their wide musical taste, dismissing some tunes as hippie music?
CN: (Chuckling) I think it's more like once you have an idea, you just have to push it as far as it's gonna go. "B/W Silence" (formerly "Lorries," 1979) had to be beautiful- it had to be achingly beautiful-otherwise, what's the point of it? That's more the logic of Change Becomes Us, rather than pastiche. I think, on Pink Flag, it was more like I was taking the piss in the songwriting because I just don't like rock 'n' roll very much, really, to be quite honest.
Q: Some people who write about Wire seem to have an idea that Graham Lewis and Bruce Gilbert were on one side being gnomic and conceptualist, and Colin Newman was on the other side wanting to be rock-y and commercial...
CN: That is just complete bollocks. We are conceptualist in equal measure (His voice adopts a slightly professorial tone here). I mean, Bruce has his way; he's someone who is quite determined in certain aspects, and will dig his heels in to have certain ideas realised. But that will be completely subverted or seduced by a beautiful melody. So Bruce will declare himself to be interested only in noise, and then get very excited because something is very beautiful. But we're all perverse creatures, that's the way life is. People who really know the band find that kind of division between one very arty side, whereas I'm "Mr Rock" is just bollocks, really.
Q: Your colleague in Githead, Robin Rimbaud, is quoted as saying that the "pleasurable failing" of Wire is that they are "seen as too intellectual." How much did Wire's art school training influence your work? There's an anti-intellectual bias in England- a suspicion of Continental thought- and I wonder how much Wire has alienated audiences by its more arcane offerings. Also, you toured with a surrogate Wire group, The Ex- Lion Tamers, who played the Pink Flag album flawlessly when Wire reformed in the eighties. This meant that you didn't have to play old songs. A very Warholian idea.
CN: (Musingly) Yes, I think our art school background has been a mixed blessing. There is a solid notion in the band whereby you have to understand something about concept. You can't just say: "I did it 'cos I felt like it" or "because it will impress girls." That kind of mentality has never been sufficient in Wire. But finding the balance between understanding what the context of things are, and understanding how they relate to other things, and the pure act of creativity- which is normally quite unintellectualized and quite organic- is important. I think that finding that equilibrium in Wire has been an interesting process.
Change Becomes Us is a case in point: I mean, the idea itself had a certain conceptual interest. It's perverse. Our work in the seventies is always the yardstick we're judged by, however good we are in the present, so to actually go into the lion's den and work on unrecorded seventies songs could be seen as being very dodgy. But the whole approach to it was highly conceptual. Yet, as soon as we engage with the material, the original idea flies out of the window, and then the concept becomes something else.
Something that the artist/film director, Steve Mc Queen, said resonated with me- I'm sure that a lot of fine artists agree with this- and it's that you do the art first and then do the concept afterwards. This just seems logical and natural; that is the way of things. If you have half a brain, you want to understand what it was you just did. It has to mean something, and that meaning may not be immediately apparent. That's my reading of how work and artistic concepts interact.
See Part 2 of the Colin Newman interview
- This 1997 interview with Newman
- An interview with Wire from 2013
- Colin's 1997 article on the techno revolution
- this 2005 interview with Githead (one of Colin's other bands)
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