Colin Newman interview
Robots and Electronic Brains, 2001
This interview originally appeared as part of the Where Did It All Go Wrong? feature and finds the Robots and Electronic Brains fanzine [REB] talking to Colin Newman [CN].
Colin Newman needs no introduction, so I'll be brief. He was, and is, in Wire, runs the Swim record label which, despite being tagged as a 'dance' label, but hasn't released a dance record in four years, and he has plenty to say.
REB: You strike me as the kind of bloke who will have plenty to say about the music press.
CN: I do, really. I think the huge difference between now and 25 years ago is that 25 years ago, the rock'n'roll industry was still a bit fringe, a bit cowboy. That was for good and for bad. I mean, you'd have some rank, out-and-out capitalist exploiter types, and also some idealistic hippie types, and various people doing record labels in the early indie days because they wanted to get music out, they wanted to have their mate's band out.
It had a certain kind of innocence about it. There were hangovers from Tin Pan Alley about it but it didn't have that huge corporate thing and, as far as mainstream culture was concerned, it didn't matter how mainstream the music was, because it was still outside the mainstream culture. You didn't have, until about 1977, even the the biggest pop stars being in national papers. Previously, if you wanted to read about John Lennon or Rod Stewart or whoever, you had to get a music paper. And there were people who existed only in those pages and that was what drew so many people to those publications.
The first one I ever saw was Melody Maker in 1964. It had The Yardbirds on the cover and I didn't know who they were. I was just a kid, I'd never heard of The Yardbirds, y'know? They weren't on Top Of The Pops and they weren't famous because you didn't hear them and it was like that was another world. That was quite exciting. I remember cancelling my weekly delivery of TV21 and taking the NME instead, aged seven. I was absolutely mad on music.
No-one, but no-one, would do that now. What you could say is that now the whole industry, the mainstream and the media is in a symbiotic control mechanism so therefore what you get in the magazines is just bought copy. It's all the result of promotion, it's all part of marketing. There is very little outside of that, so it's no wonder nobody wants to buy it any more.
REB: What are your first musical memories?
CN: My parents weren't remotely musical but, in pre-Radio 1 days, there was pirate radio and there were one or two shows on the Light Service—Stuart Henry and Kenny Everett—and there was Radio Luxembourg. I was just glued to it. Radio was for me the escape. Front room: television, parent's world. Dining room: homework, radio, my world. And that was a real distinction and I was absolutely mad on music. My becoming aware of music happened more or less at the same time as The Beatles came up. There were two things I knew before that. One was Telstar because I heard somewhere that it was supposed to be the music of the future and I liked that idea. Also, the Everly Brothers' Sealed With A Kiss which I remember from a holiday with my Aunty and Uncle and I must have been about five or something. Music always had a very strong emotional impact on me. It was a very strong influence in my life.
REB: Were you listening to any particular type of music? Music probably wasn't classified so tightly at the time...
CN: What was fantastic about growing up in the 1960s was that music was not put into categories. Millie Small was exactly the same as The Small Faces was exactly the same as Diana Ross. It was all the same music. You knew that what was different was Engelbert Humperdink and Tom Jones, that was your parents' music, but as far as the kids' music went, it was all the same. The whole notion that a band could change its style in three minutes was perfectly acceptable. I grew up with that idea, I was a complete and utter fashion victim—whatever was new, I was into. That was just obvious, you didn't even discuss it.
It was so much simpler, there weren't so many choices. We have so many more choices now and there are so many things trying to influence our taste and you can see, like, how does Robbie Williams get away with it? As an entertainer he's quite funny but in terms of the music, it's total shite and of really only marginal interest. But somehow, not only does he make it as a... girls are supposed to like him and boys are supposed to identify with him, but he's also supposed to be cool. Well, excuse me! I mean, just what is that? There's nothing remotely cool about what he does, it's just entertainment. I don't think you would have had a phenomena like that those years ago. That's obviously the result of someone having invested a lot of money in making that sell. Of course, anyone who's even vaguely smart can see straight through it but you now also have a market of people who buy CDs who wouldn't have owned any music had they been that age 20 years ago. Now everyone has a stereo and everyone should have some things to play on it. Those people who really don't have any taste or any interest in music just have to get stuff like that because that's what everyone else has got.
REB: Was there a tribal NME/MM thing between you and your mates?
CN: I wasn't really aware of that. My Uncle was the first person to show me a Melody Maker. He worked in the music shop in Salisbury where Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Titch used to come and buy their drum sticks. He gave it to me saying "this is what the musicians read."
I had no notion of what that meant. I was incredibly lucky. One uncle gave me a record player for, I think, my fifth birthday. A record player and a round tin of records. I didn't like one single one of them but it didn't really matter. That record player stuck with me until I owned my first stereo and that was much later in life. As a kid, to have your own record player and be playing your singles that you bought down the town...
I wasn't really aware of that NME/Melody Maker thing. You had to order the NME from the shop. You couldn't just go in the shop and buy it, they maybe had just one copy and if you didn't go in on the day it came in then you wouldn't get it. So the idea that everyone was down the town buying it wasn't so true. It wasn't as underground as my subscription to Oz that my mom didn't know about. When I think about it now, the notion of the NME being even slightly underground now is completely absurd, but it wasn't then. You had to be a really special person. My mum was like "there's a whole newspaper all about music? What have they got to write about?" I'd read every single word and do the crossword.
REB: Do you remember particular writers or pieces?
CN: It was only later on I started to become aware of writers. Charles Shaar-Murray was probably the first one. The others are writers from around the punk time, and they worked for all of the papers. Most of the ones that I knew and were most responsible for bigging-up Wire in the early days worked for Sounds. John Savage, Jane Jackman (Jane Suck) and Dave Fudger. Those were the initial three people who came to absolutely everything and just wrote about it. NME were behind at that time. Melody Maker was a muso's paper. The NME was always seen, when I got old enough to make those kind of distinctions, as a bit of a comic. Reading someone getting a good slagging in the NME was entertaining. They would go for the obvious targets. I remember something on David Cassidy; "he's got SPOTS!" My sister had David Cassidy posters plastered all over her walls.
REB: When did you become disillusioned with what the music media was offering you?
CN: I read the NME and all of them solidly through the 1980s on and off. In the 1990s I'd started to become bored with them. To be honest, I'd only buy the NME now if there's a review of something that I'm involved with. Strange to say, Wire get extraordinarily good NME right now. They're actually the paper who are being the most supportive out of all of them, of Wire, not Swim. Swim gets, I would say, although we haven't put out a dance record for four years, our main support from the dance magazines. Jockey Slut always give us good reviews. I've lost count of the number of reviews we've had in DJ, whereas we struggle with The Wire. They've totally ignored releases that've got great reviews in lots of other places. I have a rather jaundiced eye in regard to The Wire.
I know how stuff gets into papers, I know what levers get pulled. It's not absolutely true that every single piece of information in there gets bought, but if it's not to do with money then it's to do with influence. I notice that with Wire the NME have gone, in 12 months, from being 'what the fuck are they doing?' to 'these guys are, for old people, pretty fucking cool' because I think they've realised that if they don't appear to be on the case and supporting it, they might not be seen as they would like. But they can just ignore Swim, it's not important enough for them to take notice of. Nobody's going to write in and ask why they didn't review the new Silo album, although we live in hope...
REB: Why do you think people have moved on from the weeklies over the last few years?
CN: I just think its to do with the whole thing that—I don't want to sound like a neo-Marxist here—but the thing is that large corporations have got the idea that you can make large amounts of money selling music/sex combinations of various kinds. It's not rocket science; you get someone who looks nice, put the right kind of production on it, market it the right way, you spend a certain amount of money and there'll be a certain number of people to buy it. That is in direct antithesis to the idea that some boys or some girls get together in a room, make a bit of a noise, think it's good and get out there and do it. That latter way seems almost foolish and innocent in comparison. Take the Spice Girls. There's that American way of thinking through economies of scale, so that this is appearing in every single place that it can appear. They just go for every single media and get something in. It's not in Angling Time because none of them fishes, but you know they'd be in there if they could. That's someone who's paid enough money to push on every door. Someone who's doing it for the music just doesn't have that chance. I was talking to a friend of mine who's running a label in America and he was saying that if you go to the chains with an album and tell them it's great music, nobody's gonna be interested in it. They're not in it for the music, they're just interested in what's around it, the packaging and the marketing.
This is highly disillusioning for people who are interested in having interesting art in their lives. They don't particularly want over-packaged. They might think 'oh yeah, I really like Radiohead' but how many Radioheads are there? What's the ratio of Radiohead to Britney? On the mainstream you're getting very, very little. The underground is perpetually in the state of being watched like a hawk in case something comes up that can be grabbed, manipulated into a package and then be sold. I mean, look at drum'n'bass: in two years it went from being a vibrant scene that totally defined a city to being 'buy this Goldie record'. Your average person who's not that interested in music just wants one thing. 'What? I've got to buy a record player to listen to this music? F*** off. Just gimme the one thing.' Then they'll say it's not very good. Well, of course it isn't because you don't get anything out if you don't put any effort in. But everyone wants everything pre-digested. It's not as bad here as it is in America, at least we have a percentage of people who are prepared to make a bit of effort and search out what's interesting.
Those people exist—look at All Tomorrow's Parties. ATP was the best thing that I went to last year. Look at something like Sonar where I also DJ-ed last year. Who says that there is no market, no interest in alternative music? There f***ing well is, there're a lot of people interested in it, but there's no place for them to go. There's no centre any more because the centre is filled by the mainstream. The only way that anything outside the centre can exist is by heavily nichifying itself, so you get these little niches that are cut off from each other by the mainstream. So you get the people who are just into pure noise. It's a very obvious reaction to Britney—just make a horrible f***ing noise. Those people are going to think that anything that's got a bit of a tune in it is rubbish but there's a lot of difference between something that is kind of musical but not mainstream. Divide and rule really suits the mainstream.
There's no real central thread, there's no one magazine. There isn't a publication where you could hear about all the cool stuff it would be a rallying point. But publishers wouldn't be interested in doing that. It's something that I think about a lot and I also think that now we're in the age of cross-media, we're not just talking about music. It used to be that listening to records was all I could do as a kid to recreate myself as something different to my parents and to be somehow out of the reality of the small town. Now there are so many ways to escape and the generation gap is not so great. The gap between me and my son is not so great as between me and my parents. It's quite sad, one of Ben's mates came round and said, "I've got this stuff on my walkman. You wouldn't like it." He said it was hardcore or something. It turned out to be Green Day. Now, his dad is desperate to show how cool he is, so he likes Green Day. I'm not allowed to like Green Day. I can't be seen doing with stuff like that.
REB: It seems to me that the weeklies pay lip-service only to non-guitar music.
CN: That was the big thing that NME especially didn't do. They had their two pages or whatever of dance music but in 1994 or 1995 you shouldn't have been able to read about anything other than drum'n'bass because that was what was happening. The whole problem was that they got trapped by indie. There was a very clever thing done with indie. In the 1970s, the idea of 'indie' was tightly defined. It meant independent labels with independent distribution. It wasn't a style of music, it was a total movement because people wanted to get stuff out that you couldn't get in normal shops. This was fun at the beginning and then stars started to come out of it. Labels like Mute and Beggars Banquet were having big groups and records in the top five. The majors started to get very worried: 'What's happening? What if these labels start to take over? Our groups are looking a bit naff. We need to get some indie. But indie's a sound isn't it? That's it. If we say it's a sound then we can have our own indie bands'.
I remember the point at which it happened. It was 1986 and someone came to me and asked what kind of movement I was into. I just talked about various things and they said, "Don't you like Indie?" and I said that 'indie' was just a form of distribution and they said, "no, it's a sound, man." So I was like, what the f***'s that about? But as soon as it became a sound it could be marketed by major record companies. It's not for nothing that in 1995 you saw an absolute top of Brit Pop. Brit Pop was indie become mainstream. That was the stuff that the NME had always championed so in a way it was perfectly natural for them, but the thing is that as an intelligent music listener you have to periodically get yourself into new stuff even if you're resistant to it because it sounds a bit different. You have to expose yourself to it and see what happens. I've done that on numerous occasions and suddenly the old stuff doesn't sound quite as good. The new stuff sounds better.
I think it was inevitable that the NME blew it. The thing is: what are they going to grab now? It doesn't make any sense for the NME to have pages on dance music. They have to find something. It's terribly important for them to survive and they know it. They can't do sorted Ibiza stuff because so many other magazines do that now and they'll be struggling to keep going as dance music has now become so mainstream that it's mainly selling to people who wouldn't buy magazines about it.
REB: That's the irony isn't it? The NME spent all it's time trying to invent the next big thing, and then ignored it when it really arrived.
CN: Absolutely. It was a huge tactical error on their part. They could've kept their Brit Pop connection but also covered dance music. The thing is that also there's the whole thing about promotion. It's a very difficult area because small labels can't really afford to do any promotion. In the early days of dance music people would press up a few thousand white labels and take them round to the shops by hand. They didn't do any promotion, they were just giving copies to their mates who happened to be DJs. So the stuff wasn't coming in through the normal channels, so they weren't servicing records to the NME. I think that was the point at which they'd become lazy because the NME doesn't buy its records. It's like, if you want to get a feature in the NME you have to take the journalist somewhere, pay for his flights and so on. That's as an independent label. As a major label, you also have to supply the coke. Or whatever else is required. So, they have suffered from colossal arrogance. When Swim used to get NME in the early 1990s it just came to a point where we couldn't afford to do it. We got one feature because we flew a journalist to Vienna. That came out of my pocket. Wire don't have to do stuff like that. The last thing we had was that they reviewed a gig in Edinburgh. They got everything wrong, but it was a fantastic review. It proves one thing, that they had no promo person giving them all the information, they just had a stringer who went along. We didn't put anyone on the guest list.
REB: Wire constantly changed throughout the band's lifetime, but now it seems that you've come back to the starting point again by releasing the 12 Times You 7".
CN: Pink Flag sounds very old to me now, but we've started re-exploring that material and we do it harder, faster and more reduced and it sounds like now. It's like making it into new bits of music and out of that is coming a whole new idea. The big thing for us last year was All Tomorrow's Parties which is all Post Rock groups—very slow. Then there's Wire who go slow and then they go F***ING fast! It was like all these kids suddenly got a red-hot poker up their bum and they really got excited. They'd never seen a group go fast, and we're old as well. F***ing Hell, where do we get the stamina from? For now, that's new, that's original.
It's a different idea to sampling ourselves. Like all Wire things, it's very simple. We're very creative about difficult problems. We were asked in May 1998 or 1999 to do Daniel Miller's Meltdown. Bruce called me up and said we'd do Pink Flag and that sounded like a good laugh. But that didn't happen because Rob didn't understand the point and then we got an offer through from the Royal Festival Hall. The same thing, but with a big pile of money. Robert's not particularly greedy but it makes you think there's some point to it!
In the 80s we started with the Year Zero concept—ignore the past—so we had to have a new concept for this time. So, we just started playing the very oldest material and see what we can play and what we can convince with. I had two ideas for how to make Pink Flag new. First, if it's got two chords in it, that's one too many. Second, perhaps we could have a bit where everything drops down and comes back in again, just like a dance music dynamic. And that was the seed. In the rehearsals we went through everything we've ever done and some other stuff including a lot of laughing about how bad some of it was. We came up with 20 pieces that we could more or less play, played that and then did All Tomorrow's Parties, then went to America. As we were going, we started adding new things and taking the older things further and further and now we're at the point where there are still some older things left. I'm specifically writing new fast pieces because we've discovered that fast is cool. Nobody else is doing fast. Fast will happen this year. Fast rock is NOW. Good slow, is always good, but there's been a lot of slow, the only thing that's been fast has been drum'n'bass but there's not been anything fast in the rock arena for ages. Even the idea of doing rock music, by virtue of the fact that indie became mainstream and then dance music became mainstream doing rock music five years ago would have made no sense. Now it makes perfect sense because it's interesting because that's not what other people are doing.
REB: I enjoyed 12 Times You.
CN: That's very classic of how the work will go. It is completely sequenced. In the 1980s I worked with sequencers and samplers but the thing about them is that with a MIDI sequencer, you don't get a view of what you're doing, you're just programming the tune down a cable. The big difference between that and hard disc recording is that you see the waveform, you see the representation of the sounds: that's where it starts, that's where it finishes. That makes a very big difference to how you can make things work. In breakbeat music, the great artefact of the music is the jerkiness. The jerkiness comes from the little gaps between the samples, from the samples being not quite right and from the chopping up of samples. That's what made the music sound interesting and different because it's not like natural playing. With hard disc recording, you can see if there's a gap and choose to stretch the audio to fill the gaps, sounding fluent. What that does with Wire is make it sound more machine-like. What I did with 12 Times You was find an interesting sample of Bruce's guitar and then built the track around it. It sounds like machines to me. It came out of the Garage recordings and I did it to entertain the band. Then it was like 'shall we do a 7"?'
On the surface it sounds the same. If you listen to 12 Times You and then listen to 12XU on Pink Flag, the old one sounds so slow. It's like old men. I heard it at a party over Christmas and I had to ask them to take it off, I couldn't stand it. Awful and slow.
When Wire play Pink Flag now it's like a f***ing rocket. It's not as fast as 12 Times You because it's a different beat, but it's such a big rock noise that it's overwhelming. It's really exciting. It was for the chop but on the last night at the Garage we reversed the set list and instead of opening with it, because we thought it was funny to start the gig that way, we closed with it and of course we had a lot more energy. When we played in Edinburgh it blew their heads off. The guy who put the gig on said that he has never had as much kudos for a gig in his life. And he lost money because they didn't publicise it very well.
REB: Finally, is the change in the music press part of a wider cultural shift?
CN: I think there are so many publications. The DTP revolution meant that anyone could put out a magazine as long as they could find someone decent to write in it. If you are just about to buy a DVD player you'll buy What DVD, there are so many other titles about that weren't there before. The music press is competing with all that. There always have been specialist titles but it was all so much more narrow and there was so much less of it 20 or 30 years ago. But that doesn't mean that something which is real and genuine can't touch people. Certainly the focus of what I'm doing at the moment is moving away from the music mainstream. It's all art now. Art is big business and Wire and Swim will succeed hugely better in that arena than trying to compete with Britney.
Robots and Electronic Brains
This interview originally appeared in Robots and Electronic Brains.