COLIN NEWMAN INTERVIEW
by Jason Gross (April 1997)
Having an illustrious past can be a blessing and a curse. Though I'm a stone cold Wire fan, I don't expect any of its members to keep cranking out the same music today. That's why I understand Colin Newman when he says 'hopefully (you're) not one of those 'so how come you haven't made a decent record since Pink Flag?" brigade!' Great as that record is, Colin's done a lot of impressive work after that- 'solo' (working mostly with his wife Malka Spigel), with Wire/Wir later on and now with his label Swim. As he admits, 'It can get quite complex. We really do a lot now, we are involved in many more things than either of us has ever been in our lives. We have to assume roles of record Company, publisher, artist, producer, A & R as well as husband/wife parents. We don't get a lot of free time but then we chose this sop we can't complain.' Also, I like to find people who get me involved in spirited conversations about music and use more more exclamation points than I do!!!
PSF: What were some early influences that convinced you to pursue a career in music?
COLIN: Yikes! I was your average trainspotter/fashion victim at school and into whatever was cool at the time. The list is endless and I could now spend three hours answering your question not wanting to leave anyone out! Easier to say I didn't go a bundle on opera, country & western, light entertainment & 50's rock & roll!!
PSF: How do you look back at Wire nowadays?
COLIN: Hard to really say, people see it so differently from the outside. Not all of it was great but some of it certainly was.
PSF: What made the group different from other bands at the time?
COLIN: That's really for other people to say. If you are in something you're bound to think it's special!
PSF: Were there other groups from then that you liked?
COLIN: Of course when a group starts one of the things you discover are common influences. It was 1976 so we were all well primed with having listened to The Velvets, the Stooges, The Dolls and then the new sounds from America The Ramones, Jonathan Richman, Patti Smith etc. This was basicly what yer average cool UK dude was into in '76. The the British thing started, The Pistols were ok, The Dammed in the early days, 1st Buzzcoks 7" (SPIRAL SCRATCH) blew my mind. Siouxie did the "Lords Prayer" at the 100 club and I was mightily impressed!
In the later 70's the Residents & Tuxedo Moon impressed, then Kraftwerk, Terry Riley, Eno etc etc... Basicly if you were there you knew what was cool. There's a history of what's been interesting at various junctures in history which has yet to be written but unfortunately I don't have time to write it now!!!
PSF: In the eighties, did you find it hard sometimes to be a 'solo' artist- SINGING FISH you played everything and another record was called COMMERCIAL SUICIDE (because of lack of drums, right?)
COLIN: Solo Records in the early '80's were mainly channels for the over-abundance of material I had. The idea with THE SINGING FISH was to do a real "solo" album, unfortunately I lacked the means to record myself so I had an engineer. I always liked the early Rungren albums especially A WIZZARD A TRUE STAR he mostly played everything! Ivo (from 4AD) told me later that after samplers & sequencers arrived he reckoned that THE SINGING FISH was a record waiting for the technology to catch up with it!
COMMERCIAL SUICIDE was much later, the title was ironic! There was a song which had started off sounding like the group Suicide but more commercial! I was just bored with the rock band format. I've only ever tried to make records I wanted to make, I'm not interested in trying to dress it up in a form more acceptable to any particular market.
PSF: How was it to be reunited with Gilbert/Lewis/Gotobed in mid 80s?
COLIN: Often difficult.
PSF: At a show I saw in New York in '86, there were a lot of fans clamouring for the early songs even after you had an opening band play all of PINK FLAG. Did you find it difficult to deal with fans who wanted 'Pink Flag Part 2'? Was this discouraging at all?
COLIN: America has different expectations from it's "rock stars." You are expected to give some kind of percieved "value for money" in fulfillment of audience & promoter preconceptions. I always though the argument highly dubious. If I go to watch someone do a performance, I just want them to be brilliant! I don't care if the material is familiar or not, I don't care how long they play (although for preference I'd say that it's hard to keep up brilliance for more than half an hour). Surely in everyone's heart of hearts they wan't to walk out of the concert or whatever thinking that they were part of an extraordinary moment, you rarely get it but still one can hope!
PSF: When working with Gilbert/Lewis/Gotobed, what kind of common bond did you find? Would you consider working with any of them again?
COLIN: Basicly we only ever really had the music in common and when it was good it was very very good... Does Wire have anything to say? It's the only question worth asking. Certainly not at the moment.
PSF: You moved from guitar-based to electronics-based music. What prompted that?
COLIN: Not really, that's an artificial divide. It's only because average, so called indie rock has been such a brain sapping influence on North America that it's taken it 10 years to wake up to it's own music which the Brits are now in the process of selling back to them. At some point in the mid-late 80's interesting rock just ceased to be. The post-punk bands were the last who actually tried to be original unfortunately most of them were rubbish!
I personally don't have a problem with guitars, the last year has seen some interesting attempts to reinvent rock from both a dance and a non-dance perspective. The Prodigy are a rock band! Plus my next album ("Bastard" ~ availiable June '97) is stuffed full of them (but no singing, what do you think I am? A wuss!). The real transition that music has made in the last 10 years is that the narrative song has become increasingly marginalised in cutting edge material. Who would have imagined 20 years ago that people would be dancing bare beats with perhaps one synth line, but then again it's perfectly logical no-one dances to the "tune"!!! Music has become a lot more abstract and I like that.
PSF: In terms of the music, has there been in influence from German electronic bands like Kraftwerk, Neu! or Faust? Some of Holger Czukay's recent shows been done with a techno DJ for instance.
COLIN: All these people were massive and Kraftwerk perhaps more so. It's the beats.
PSF: Your vocals/singing have always been unashamedly British-sounding: are you self-conscious about that?
COLIN: Well not any more because I don't really sing. But if I did, I certainly wouldn't sing in some fake American accent!!!
PSF: Lyrics always have described mood/feelings rather than pinning down specifics- not typical 'I love you baby' lyrics. Thoughts on this?
COLIN: I'm not really a poet, I prefer prose.
PSF: Which authors in particular are you keen on then that you think influence your writing?
COLIN: Prose as in e-mail, technical journals etc. I'm not a literary person.
PSF: How has working with Malka turned into such a productive, long-term collaboration?
COLIN: Well, we're a couple and both musicians. Either we spent the rest of our lives phoning each other from tour holel rooms or we worked out how to collaborate! Luckily we did the latter. What more can I say? We can't exactly hide from each other, being a couple, so honesty is high!
PSF: What's kept you interested in doing music for so long?
COLIN: The fact that it changes.
PSF: What have you seen as the changes that have been happening? For the better? For the worse?
COLIN: Better, worse? What does that mean? Too subjective. Different means different.
PSF: You've spoken of an active in interest in electronica music that's been happening. What do you think has brought this about?
COLIN: You're talking about something which happened 10 years ago! It's not a case of the "David Bowies" here. Basically, I heard "oochy coochy" by Baby Ford (seminal dance record in the manner of early Chicago Acid House) and was hooked. Malka & I dug deeper very quickly, we were lucky to have a contact with Rythmn King who were then in the Mute building at one point they were handling outer Rythmn & Warp so we got all the early Brit electronica releases. From that period LFO & Renegade Soundwave were massive plus the Orb ("Little Fluffy Clouds") plus the Baggie Remixes "Hallelulia" was massive. Then we started to get into the R&S stuff. I remember hearing "Didgerydoo" by the Aphex Twin for the first time plus of course we'd always had a place for Hip Hop especially the beats. We love to discover new things and moving to London in '92 got us much more in contact with the scene here from a personal point of view as we stated to meet people who's records we liked.
PSF: How do you compose and come up with ideas for songs?
COLIN: Beats first, nearly always. Don't write songs any more. Haven't you heard they've all been written :)
PSF: Material I've heard from SWIM has been this very catchy techno music. Do you feel that this is more physical (dance) or more a way to create environments of sounds (ambient)? Maybe it's both or neither?
COLIN: We try to cover as many styles and genres as are present in interesting contemporary music. We also try to find people who are honest about what they do. Not sure what you've heard, we've released quite a bit by now. Needless to say we don't put stuff out we don't like!!
PSF: In your opinion, what's the big differences between the truly innovative artists in this field and the hacks in terms of the music and ideas you hear?
COLIN: The same as in any genre. 90% is crap. The problem is you can't know what is crap or not if you don't speak the language.
PSF: What kind of future plans do you have with own career, other projects, label?
COLIN: Basicly to keep going, we are exeedingly fortunate to have some real talents on the label. Ian Hartley (Lobe), Rob Fitzpatrick & Ron Ross (Ronnie & Clyde), Gez Varley (g-man), Yoshio Maeda (dol-lop) the ever elusive Pablo's Eye, the ever unpredictable Plastic Venus as well as a host of collaborators Mark Gage (Cusp), Ru & Lex (Incarnate), Jon Wozencroft (design), Stefan De Batselier (photos) plus a host of others not forgetting the "g" artists Serge Imhof (DJ Fallovie) & Tomoki (Tomoki Tsukamoto). In truth Malka & I are well motivated by the excellence of our artists to do stuff as good as they do in our own projects (Immersion, Malka, Colin)
But wait, there's more! Witness Colin and I in a catfight about music
- An interview with Wire from 2013
- A Change Becomes Us era interview with Colin
- this 2005 interview with Githead (one of Colin's other bands)
- Colin's article about The Middle Ground of the Techno Revolution
Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER
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