Colin Newman interview
Modern Dance, 2000
This interview finds Colin Newman [CN], Wire-man and Swimmer waxing lyrical about past, present and future to Modern Dance [MD].
To Swim and to Swim...
MD: What made you realise that being in the 'music' biz was the job for you?
CN: Mmm. Not sure that I consider myself in the music business! My motivations are ultimately pretty simple these are to make and be involved in good art. It's a matter of survival to learn how to function within the economic structure we all live within and to know how to get paid for what you do but the 'music business' per se, for me, is something completely different.
MD: Everyone says how difficult it was to get started. How was it for you (ooh, Matron!), and is coping with 'success' easy?
CN: At the time when Wire first started, record companies were throwing deals at anything with spiky hair or even spiky attitude. For example, in the road where I was living in Brixton at the time there were members of three bands with record deals (two with majors). So I can't say I paid my dues, or maybe just 'right time right place'. Can't say I've ever been successful enough for it to make a real difference.
MD: Did you find the press generally helpful?
CN: Again in those early days there was very little difference between the bands and the writers we were especially taken up by the late lamented Sounds—Jon Savage and Jane Suck were constant companions, at all the gigs, etc. People wanted new things. Don't get me wrong about all this, if Wire hadn't been any good the doors would not have been so open but in those days the press in general were more interested in the direct thing and copy was in no way as much PR-led (and compromised) as it is now.
MD: At what point did you start thinking about a change of direction ie: from Wire to solo?
CN: It didn't really work like that. It was more to do with material and diversification. I wrote the majority of the 'tunes' on the first three Wire albums. However I never considered it fair that I dominated the writing so in order to give more space for the others I started selecting what I brought to Wire which left a lot of material over. The original plan was to see if we could get a 'Wire' imprint at EMI and put out quite a diverse set of material on it. I could say it wasn't really a practical consideration or I could say EMI didn't have the vision. Anyway they were going through corporate changes and in the end Wire just left with no real plan to find another record company. A-Z was written and demoed and Beggars Banquet wanted to sponsor it. It seemed like a sensible idea. Nothing was really planned; Wire at that point (1980) wasn't very interested in chasing after deals. A lot had happened in the last couple of years to disillusion us. For myself, I just needed a soapbox!
MD: After producing music of one style, was it difficult to go to composing music of a differing type?
CN: Erm. Bit of a general question! For me a lot of this stuff is really about context and technology. Having some kind of feel for what is appropriate in any particular period is a skill worth cultivating in my opinion!
MD: Although comparisons are inevitable within the music business, would you say you have any similarities to Robert Fripp?
CN: Yikes! No disrespect to 'the captain' (as Eno used to call him) but I hope not! Mind you I have been compared to Paul McCartney in another interview and that's worse. I'd like to feel I'm not like anyone (wouldn't we all?!)
MD: Electronic experimentation is now much easier due to modern recording techniques, did this fact rekindle your enthusiasm for this?
CN: Big subject. In the 1970s I mostly wrote on acoustic guitar—usually sitting on the toilet, acoustic was good in the bathroom—I'd have to play anything new a whole load of times just to memorise it all. Then I started recording on two track tape. After that I started alternating between borrowing other people's four tracks and bouncing between machines. However the biggest steps came in the 1980s when Malka and I first lived together. Having another musician as a partner meant that we could 'justify' buying musical gear over, say, a washing machine. It was in this period that we started to amass the gear that became the Swim studio. It was also the case that this more or less coincided (around 1985) with the first explosion of midi gear by 1996-97 we knew that we could actually make finished items 'at home' as it were. This period was the really exciting one as regards possibilities because you could start to make stuff that didn't sound like 'home recording'. Obviously it all developed since then and each period has its technology which becomes accessible at a price point unimaginable ten years previous. By now we can make multi-track hard disk recordings and edit broadcastable videos in our own space. I could really go on much more about this subject and all the ramifications therein but it's the subject of a complete article in itself.
MD: Do you still get a buzz from performing live sets?
CN: Of course. The current period is one in which live events have become again important and people find ever-interesting ways to integrate different technologies into a live set. Very healthy.
MD: Your best known as a guitarist, but what other instruments can you play?
CN: Erm... Kazoo! I can't really say I can play any instrument that well although sometimes I use the guitar to access certain melodic/timbral information. I'd say my premier 'instrument' is the Macintosh G4.
MD: Was the label originally conceived just to promote your own material?
CN: Like many things it kind of came about by accident. The first release which was Malka's album Rosh Ballata was originally made for release by an Israeli label but they backed out so we ended up licensing it to a different Israeli label and then decided to run off 1000 and see if we could sell them in the rest of the world. The rest is, as they say, history. The second release, Oracle's Tree, was something we'd been working on with Samy Birnbach (an ex-Minimal Compact member like Malka, now known best under his DJ Morpheus monicker) for many years during the period we lived in Brussels. It seemed logical to make it the next release. The third, Immersion's Oscillating, we made a kind of sideways movement on by not promoting it as us. It was the first purely instrumental release and was the one that started to attract other artists through the series of remixes we put out in its wake.
MD: Why name the label Swim?
CN: Like many things it has many meanings (swim = do it—swim = survive, etc.) and like many of the best names Malka came up with it.
MD: Swim is expanding slowly, featuring other artists. What would you say are the criteria for being signed to your label?
CN: The criteria are simple but quite personal. We are always listening for some kind of intent, a kind of confidence in ideas—people who aren't trying to sound like someone else or trying to obviously package themselves for genre consumption. Lastly we do operate our taste and although it is quite catholic I guess there are things that what we put out have in common although I'd say the only truly common sound is 'quality'.
MD: Tell us a little more about the label?
CN: Another rather big question! It's not something you can sum up in a few sentences. We try to have a personal connection with our artists to build, if it doesn't sound too pretentious, a school of excellence. We will always err on the side of trying to get the artists to take the next step rather than ploughing the same furrow no matter how successful that furrow has been. We've tried to avoid falling into some of the obvious stylistic traps that can render a label successful in the short term but cause artistic sterility. This approach of course means that we court obscurity in the public mind—but the real problems besetting the 'music industry' is that 99% of the market is controlled by large multi national corporations and like any business where large amounts of money are involved there is an inherent drift towards mediocrity. Better to be small and interesting than big and boring! Again, this is a very big subject and I could say much more.
We are very proud to have released some truly awesome discs—Lobe and Hibernation by Lobe, Instar by Silo, In Glorious Black and Blue by Ronnie & Clyde, Cryptic Audio by Dol-lop and Symptoms spring to mind as well as a couple of great samplers (Water Communication and Swim Team #1). It is also a matter of great pride that we are able to have Malka and I's personal releases as well as those by Immersion received and feted in that exalted company.
MD: Does owning the record label now detract from making music?
CN: Sometimes there are time conflicts but we gain so much more than we lose. By this I mean that what is important in any artistic venture is not how you do it but what you do and this is totally influenced and permeated by our artistic relationships with the people we work with—both on the label and surrounding it. This gives us a fantastic context and connectivity. It is that fact alone which actually makes being a small and rather poor record company worthwhile. Without it there would be no real reason to do it.
MD: Everyone has their heroes, who are yours?
CN: Don't you know I come from a generation that didn't have any?!
MD: Where do you get your inspirations from?
CN: I can't answer a question like that. It's just too general. And anyway I haven't got a clue!
MD: It's great to see Wire back together again. Obviously it will have been different, but have the gigs/reunion lived up to what you expected, and are there any plans for Wire material?
CN: I suppose I'd better deal with first things first. Wire is one of those strange kind of items (it's been noted elsewhere that its members tend to refer to it as some kind of elusive fifth member). It tends to occur in cycles the existence of which tend to be governed by the logic of whether there are more reasons to do it than not to do it!
Right now we've kind of passed beyond the 'it's a good idea to have it in the world' stage onto the next one which kind of doesn't have a title yet!
For me, a lot of what is interesting about Wire in 2000 is the way we are approaching it. There is no record company; no one is subsidising it. We are completely in control. In this mode several interesting things have been going on. Firstly we have reclaimed our own history. Although some of the things we have been playing have their roots in material which is up to 24 years old this is not being approached as some kind of retro item. Given the individual member's commitment to contemporary music, this is an important point.
Secondly, we have been setting up our own independent, self-financed venture. There is a structure that enables us to do things. We recorded a very early rehearsal and released it as The Third Day. We recorded the Royal Festival Hall night and released it as It's all in the Brochure. We are just waiting on mixes from recordings made in Chicago with Steve Albini. We also recorded the Garage shows on multitrack. These items are not available by conventional distribution but are only on sale at shows or through our mail-order set up at www.pinkflag.com.
Thirdly, this allows us to actually plan for the future rather than get locked into some kind of album/tour syndrome. The next phase will be to start to develop new material, there actually is new material in the set we have been playing but obviously we need to develop more. The commencement of this will mark the beginning of the next phase (the first one finished with the Garage gigs). I could obviously say more but it's more or less an interview subject by itself!
MD: How important do you think the Internet is regarding the music business?
CN: I think if I could impose a 'word ban' on interviews then I think the words 'technology', 'Internet' and 'music business' would be on my top five list for any situation! As I've said before I really can't comment on the music business and as for the 'Internet' in a way I really don't see it as anything different to 'radio waves' or 'telephone cables'. The thing itself is nothing, I don't even know what that word means! In terms of our work then I can say that email has been for many years our main medium of communication with every kind of person that we work with. It goes without saying that this interview has been conducted by email as many are. Swim has had a home page for many years and is also part of a new online venture called posteverything.com which is kind of like a home for those labels who are badly served by conventional distribution. The more important issues are connectivity and the foundation of interest based 'communities' which can operate at least on some level outside of restrictions of common time and place. Fans of innovative and very often hard to find music do represent on such a community. For us it makes sense to reach out to those people. For the music business in general I doubt if there is much to gain from that. Doubtless they will just be looking for more channels to market their usual mediocrity.
MD: Away from the music business, what are your other interests?
CN: It's that word again. Let's just pretend it says 'your professional life'. I'm a boring workaholic who seems to have very little 'free' time. In the end I suspect I do everything the same way so in a way there's 'activity' and 'sleep'.
MD: Finally what of the future?
CN: This year has been my busiest yet. With a full Wire schedule to add to it all time present and future seems to be disappearing. However it has to be said that work begets work and I get to interesting situations and the future holds more of the same!
This interview originally appeared in Modern Dance and is reprinted with permission.