Charles Snider interview
Charles Snider of WMO US [CS] was interviewed by email by Graeme Rowland of Cracked Machine [GR]. Charles co-instigated the Wire Mail Order newsletter and label, along with creating the eclectic record label, Thousand.
GR: When did you first hear Wire live?
CS: 1995, under the Hungerford Bridge—it was Bruce's 50th Birthday. One thing about Wire's US gigs in the '80s was that they didn't come close to the South, which is where I lived at the time. Too bad—they should have played Atlanta. They'd have go down pretty well there!
GR: Any memories of the event?
CS: Yeah, I had a great time—I think Gez Varley DJ'd and Jimmy Cauty had his tank outside. The fact that they played at all was as important as what they played. There is a video of the event, but I have no idea why it hasn't circulated—it really should. It was a crazy event, which I think put Colin off, but I enjoyed myself.
GR: What did you make of the Wire 2000 Chicago gig?
CS: You know, that gig was broadcast over the Internet and I know it's been put onto CDR. I think everyone can judge for themselves. Of course, I thought it was brilliant, from what I remember. Only recently have I made the connections between Wire and Krautrock. It's definitely there.
I also really enjoyed Silo the night after. I think that almost every single Wire fan in Chicago missed out on that gig, which is a real shame. It was nice to meet with them; they are three wonderful Danes.
GR: What are your impressions of the pinkflag.com releases in relation to earlier Wire?
CS: As a fan, I think I was disappointed. But then again, I'm waiting for the follow up to The First Letter. That won't be an easy task.
GR: Kevin told the story behind setting up the newsletter—do you have anything to add to that from a US perspective?
CS: Wire's '70s albums weren't around for very long. I first found Pink Flag in late '77 or early '78 at a record shop in Milwaukee. The friend I was with bought Van Halen's first album—so go figure! Chairs Missing was an expensive import here and but 154 was released by Warner Brothers, so it was available. But that was about it. By the very early '80s, all these records ceased to exist except in the used bins.
So the other thing is that Wire's back catalogue is very collectable. The 45s from the early era are a formidable body—for the things themselves, let alone the music on them! And with all the diversity of solo projects, Mute doing a great job, creating product during their run in the late '80s, it all made for a healthy Wire 'aftermarket'. I can remember one dealer in the early '90s telling me that, "Yeah, Wire probably was worth collecting—one of these days one of those guys will have a hit!"
You know there's this profile of a Wire fan that's pretty spot on. That's probably why it worked, because it's really exact. You're male, educated (though perhaps not formally) and you're a completist. Colin always said he thought it sad Wire didn't have more female fans.
GR: But surely this is true of rock bands in general?
CS: Perhaps, but I think his comment was more to acknowledge that Wire music does indeed have a feminine side.
The newsletter was all about building a network. Wire tried with Wire Merchandising but I think Kevin and I provided the right energy—we were fans first and foremost.
GR: What was Wire Merchandising?
CS: Around the time of The A List, Bruce and Colin made up some T-Shirts for sale via Mail Order. I think they sold a few (I still have mine) but its importance is that it was the first attempt by Wire to contact whoever it was that bought their music. Of course, I can't imagine the two of them sat around one afternoon stuffing envelopes, so I think it was a natural when we more-or-less took it over.
Plus, Wire's profile literally vanished from any US radar after the release of The First Letter. I believe they were slated for an Erasure tour at the time, but nothing happened. The A List had a US release, but again: nothing. There was in a lull in Wire's output at this time. As an avid collector, I first contacted Jon McRobbie from Mute/Grey Area and I think he gave me either Touch or Colin's number. I faxed over my discography to Colin and a dialogue began. Ultimately I think I was looking for a way to get free records. It's important to note that initial contact was via fax, as I don't think any of us had email at that time.
GR: What is the story behind WMO US?
CS: Same as WMO UK. Set up first to provide a newsletter and for mail order, a place for people to find the releases. The Hammill/Sofa Sound newsletter was the model, maybe even Soleilmoon/Touch. Then we put out the records.
Whore happened because I met Lee Ranaldo and Robert Poss at a Disobey in NYC and asked them to do Wire covers. They said yes, and from there it grew. (I met my now-wife very shortly after that Disobey, which is also part of why Whore happened.) I think everyone thought it was a crazy idea at first. I recently went through some boxes of old papers and discovered that it was initially slated for Mute. Too bad that didn't happen, in retrospect, but I think the problem was we didn't get the green light from the top (of Mute). We walked in somewhere in the middle and it never went anywhere. So we went for P&D (production and distribution) deals with Vital and Caroline. Again, our eyes were bigger than our stomachs.
GR: Which covers were your favourites?
CS: My wife and I just listened to this album the other day. She's quite partial to the Petty Tyrant's Our Swimmer, which was the most expensive track on the album. But I'll have to give Resolution's It's A Boy my two thumbs up. I think the impression I'm left with is even the tracks that are just straight covers still have a spirited delivery. Everyone did it for the right reasons. I also think everyone we asked did the track; I remember when I went to Crystal Studios to pick up the Watt tapes, the engineer asked, "How'd you get all these people to do tracks?"
I said, "We just asked".
It really was that simple. One interesting thing about Whore vs Dugga is that nearly all the masters from Whore were on DAT; Dugga's were CDR!
I also remember Dugga being my idea... :-)
GR: Which WMO release have you played the most?
CS: Turns and Strokes because I really love that era of Wire—it still confuses me today. After that, I couldn't tell you. They're all special in their own right. But one thing about running a label—there's no better way to get turned off the music! I do wish Colin had done something together for WMO though. That's probably the one regret—that we never got Vox Pop out of him.
One thing that Kevin didn't bring up and maybe many of you don't realise is how few records Wire sold. It's an important part of the equation. If they had sold a lot, we wouldn't have had the opportunity to do WMO.
GR: Wasn't The Ideal Copy the best seller?
CS: Yes, The Ideal Copy sold the most. Bill Hein of Restless (Wire's US Label) told me that there was such a build up to that record, and I certainly remember the time as well. But each subsequent record sold less and less. I remember just happening upon Manscape at a record store when it was released; The First Letter seemed like and probably was deleted upon release here in the US; cut-out copies were very prevalent.
Getting back to WMO, Kevin's account of what happened with Vital is the exact same as what happened here in the US at the same time. Distribution fell out, returns came, bills didn't get paid.
The larger story here is that of what happened to Indie distribution in the mid '90s. Getting paid was a total nightmare—after twelve months you're calling to get a $100 invoice paid! The fact of the matter was everyone had a cool label releasing some oh-so-important record, but nobody else really cared. There were so many releases that, no matter what, were only going to sell 500 copies, so the whole thing imploded. There's only so much space in a record store, and only so many record stores. Records went out, records came back. Almost every Indie label and distributor got burned at this time with either returns or bills that weren't paid, WMO US and Swim included.
What did shake out over all this was the Internet. Selling CDs, such as via WMO, is absolutely possible now because of the Internet; set up a Web site, hook up credit cards, and bypass the whole system. All you have to do is figure out how many you're going to sell and keep your costs in line with that. But I'd venture to say that Napster and MP3 have changed things again. Why should music cost money?
GR: Why should anything cost money? I guess the thing is that musicians need to eat!
CS: I'll never buy this "I have to sell my albums make a living". Most musicians are on the dole or have girlfriends—people who want to feed their families have jobs. It's a privilege to make a record that people want.
GR: But people still buy CDs and records after they've downloaded MP3s in much the same way that they do after they record tracks from the radio! It's very naive of the larger labels to try to shut it all down as it can only help them in the end. After all, there's so much music out there and these labels have upped the price of it (certainly in the UK), so less people are going to check out new things without hearing them first. The compression on MP3 is so great that if there's something I hear in that format that I want to listen to repeatedly then I'll always get it on CD or vinyl (if available). CDR burners have also pushed open doors—the price of technology plummets and anyone can have a label. Some releases are MP3 only now! I'm sure you know all that!
CS: I can tell you—and my wife will vouch—that Napster has done nothing to decrease my appetite for music consumption! The sheer amount of music that has been made is so overwhelming. When I was a teenager (in the '70s), I could walk into a record shop and literally see all the music that had ever been made. When a record came out then it was in every shop. I remember seeing Yes albums in the five and dime store as a kid. But there's been so much music released since then, that you can't possible think about it.
I believe that it is only fitting that these breakthroughs extend to the listener as well. That's what I think the internet and MP3 have really done for us: given us the tools to better handle the vast amount of music being made today. Certainly a bigger wallet isn't the answer!
I've used Napster (and a DSL line) to sample music that I've never heard or only seen. If I like it, I may buy it. But we also shouldn't discount the fact that it's free—the record industry would have you believe that every download is a lost sale. That's not true: most things get downloaded because they are free! The main thing I've downloaded is MP3 copies of albums that I have on vinyl that I don't want to replace on CD. I'm really against this buying the same piece of music twice. This is another way record companies really screw everyone.
However, you're absolutely right. Why did I buy Pink Flag in the first place? Because the guy in the shop was playing it, and I heard it.
GR: How did working at World Domination fit in?
CS: It didn't.
GR: You played guitar on Malka Spigel's My Pet Fish album—have you played on any other records?
GR: How did Thousand relate to WMO?
CS: The artists on Thousand either played on a WMO compilation or we were somehow attracted to each other because of WMO. The network was the same.
GR: The DJ Fake CD had a lot of Wire related samples on it (Piquet and The Haring were the really noticeable ones). Did you ask Wire about that first (ie. feel that you needed permission)?
GR: Were you trying to bring up issues of copyright there?
CS: No—I was creating something new from something old. Copyright issues? I think it's called fair-use over here. Really odd isn't it? I mean, if you use old recordings to make up a new recording—it only matters if there's money involved. And there wasn't/isn't.
GR: Who is DJ Fake?
CS: I did a few shows with Mark Gage (Vapourspace) where he provided the beats and I played non rhythmic things over the top. Now I work with two friends here in Chicago who do the Kaos pad sampler thing. I DJ along with them.
GR: What instruments were you playing?
CS: Two portable CD players, one automatic turntable and a very crappy three-channel mixer—the low-cost alternative! I've also started making custom CDRs taking bits from CDs. Call it a poor man's sampler.
For me, it's all about the happy accident, the chance operation—for something magical to happen. Maybe only for a moment, but it always does...
GR: Is DJ Fake a play on DJ Spooky (ie: the names rhyme)?
I saw Spooky a few times. He was always like the Alan Holdsworth of the turntable. That is cool, I guess, if you're into that.
GR: Who is Alan Holdsworth?
CS: Guitar idol—plays fast, fluid. You could substitute almost any guitar hero.
GR: Are you aware that the Gentle Giant vibraphone run that reoccurs a few times on the Knots compilation has also turned up on The Magic Sound of Fenn O'Berg (Mego)?
CS: I don't know that. I've heard Giant popping up in rap records over the years. Knots happened because of that. There was a 2CD compilation from Gentle Giant called Under Construction. It came out on the band's own label, and contained this sample bank taken from original 16/24 track tapes. They're doing another compilation, Scraping The Barrel, that will have another.
I'm a big fan of prog rock... see www.progressiverock.com.
GR: Wasn't prog rock (specifically Peter Hammill) the common ground outside of Wire that Kevin said that the two of you had musically?
CS: I believe so. Almost everyone I know in the UK—Wire included—was into prog rock in its heyday. If you're of a certain age group, it would have been unavoidable. They all have stories about seeing Van Der Graaf or Genesis live, so it's funny how unfashionable it has become. Admittedly, I can agree with a fair amount of it, but I still find it one of the most interesting times in music.
GR: Was Colin's Blank Canvas from the Swim Team Onesampler originally intended for Knots?
CS: Yes, it was originally, but didn't make the final cut.
GR: Why not?
CS: It didn't fit.
GR: In the Knots sleeve notes you say that 'technology makes us obsolete.' What did you mean by that?
CS: This was the whole criticism of Kraftwerk when Autobahn made the top 40 in the US. That people won't play music, machines will. And in prog rock circles, it's all about the virtuoso, the human aesthetic. So there's this whole man vs. machine debate with electronically made music—that it isn't real since it isn't 'played'. I remember when sampling arrived in the early '80s, I had a friend who is a classical violist—he clamoured that it would put people like him out of a job. Of course, the viola is a machine as well...
GR: Have Thermal & Seofon released anything else?
CS: Sure, a bunch of things... go to www.boxmanstudies.com.
GR: Presumably Thousand was named as such because the CD's were in runs of a thousand?
CS: Probably some subliminal thing...
GR: Is Thousand also winding down or is the label continuing?
CS: Winding down, but who knows? Wire Mail Order has had a good run and one that I'm proud of. When I think about the last five years and WMO, it's been quite a run, maybe for myself more than anyone else involved. But as Kevin said, we've come out on top, and that's a good place to leave it.