Colin Newman interview
This feature originally appeared on the www.splendidezine.com website, and finds them [S] talking to Colin Newman [CN] about all things Wire, music and more.
As a kid in England in the late '70s, I was in the right place to witness the dawn of Wire—but it was the wrong time. Like I said, I was a kid—a kid living in a safe, gentrified London suburb where punk rock was a half-understood rebellious notion and songs like Rasputin and I Lost my Heart to a Starship Trooper dominated the radio waves. If you'd tried to play 12XU for me, I probably wouldn't have seen the point. When you're ten or 11 years old, it's hard enough to see the point of art, let alone art-rock. Fast forward to 1986. The same kid picks up a copy of the newly-reformed Wire's Snakedrill EP. Now I get it. Back-catalogue buying ensues. Wire's 'second coming' proceeds apace. It's a new millennium. Wire, having gone their separate ways after gradually losing creative steam in the early '90s (and reuniting briefly in 1996), are back. They're playing their old songs—finally, a chance to see them do 12XU live! Having 'known' and dealt with Colin Newman for a few years through Swim (the UK-based label he operates with his wife, former Minimal Compact bassist Malka Spigel), it was an easier-than-average matter to connect with him and discuss Wire's return. This interview consists of three conversations conducted in person prior to Wire's Chicago performance, and via email in the weeks that followed it.
Conversation 1: On Returning (Metro, Chicago)
S: For the sake of people who aren't going to read another article about this, I'll ask the obvious question: why a Wire reunion now?
CN: Okay, it's a valid enough question. It's very simple. We were invited to curate an evening at the Royal Festival Hall in London, and it's the kind of offer that you really can't refuse—the money was good enough for us to put on the kind of evening that we wanted to put on. But we had to make a Wire for it. We literally didn't exist at that point—we hadn't played, as Bruce (Gilbert) said, 'guitars in anger,' for many years. So we thought, 'let's see if we can do it,' and we got together in rehearsal over three days to see if we could make some fairly convincing noise. What we thought was, as what was required was Wire and not some variant of it—that means three guitars, bass and drums, vocals—then the simplest thing to do was to explore doing old material, which we never did before. And of course, when we bring our sensibilities today to it, it comes out sounding a bit different. And that's a developing thing, really—it's really developed over the time we've been playing together. So the three-day rehearsal worked out, but then we got slightly stymied because (drummer) Rob (Robert Gotobed) pulled a muscle in his shoulder, I think it was, so the show got put back for six months because rob couldn't rehearse... Which in a way was a good thing, because it kind of 'built' the whole thing. There was no idea, in Britain, whether there would be any audience at all for Wire, and we were expected to fill a venue of two-and-a-half thousand people with Wire and a bunch of their mates, so nobody knew whether that was going to happen or not. There were various 'backstop' plans. But ticket sales started to increase, people started talking about it and getting interested in it, and those people were not the kind of people who'd known us since the '70s—they were people who weren't born in the '70s! That really became something that kind of took on a life of its own. It was kind of weird—suddenly all these people were interested in Wire who hadn't really been interested in Wire before. That was really the process. We got to a stage where we thought, 'now that we're putting this thing together we should probably do something with it'. Obviously there were a couple of warm-ups before the Royal Festival—you cannot step out of the rehearsal room and onto the stage at the Royal Festival Hall and hope to get away with it. You've got to firm it up a bit. So we played a couple of warm-ups, and then we got an invitation to play All Tomorrow's Parties, which is a very, very cool festival and just really perfect for us to go and try out what we were doing on a different audience. So that all looked really good, and the Royal Festival Hall thing went okay—we got through it, we filled it—we couldn't have sold out two nights, but we certainly could've filled another large hall with the people who couldn't get in. We got slugged in the NME—par for the course—and then played All Tomorrow's Parties and they loved us. It was really great to go and do that because one of the problems with the Royal Festival Hall scene was that it was very much a Wire show, and there's a certain core of people in London—and people who came from all over the world—who are pretty serious Wire fans, so there was already this core of critical appreciation. Slightly preaching to the converted, although Malka and I did an Immersion thing, an A/V presentation—Graham did 'something' as he said, and Michael Clark did some dancing in the middle of the Wire set, which caused a bit of barracking. So it was a good night, and it went great at All Tomorrow's Parties, too, so we decided 'let's go and do some shows in America,' and it seems to have been going very well. People seem to think—I'm just reporting on people who've commented on the show—that we sound very 'current', that it's very 'muscular'. There's a physicality about it that's a kind of post-electronic thing. Obviously it'd strike every person differently. I feel fine about doing it—it's certainly not a revival show.
S: It's Wire for 2000.
CN: It's Wire 2000, yeah.
S: So of the songs you're doing, are there some you like more than others? Early material more than later material, or something like that?
CN: I don't think so. It's fairly even, actually. When we set out to do this, we had a big list of stuff that we worked through, and the things that we chose were basically the things that worked within the sound field that we were generating, using the technology that was appropriate. So it's there because it works. We might in future hack off some of the older ones and gracefully slide in newer songs—organically change rather than being suddenly something different.
S: Does this mean that there'll be more new music from Wire?
CN: Well, we aren't making any records, but we are making 'items'—we've already made two, actually, and we've done some work towards making a third one. We'll just continue making items, which are limited release mail-order and show sale items (CDs), and we'll see how that goes. We don't really want to get in with a record company and go through all that, because that would make it very tasteless, really—because then it is a comeback. We want to avoid that. Once there are large sums of money riding on it—somebody else's money, not ours—then the pressure is on for it to meet expectations, and there's pressure, not from the audience, but from the industry. We don't want to play that game any more. They can all f*ck off.
S: You'll just do what you want, on your own terms?
CN: Absolutely. Obviously it helps running a record company—I know a lot of the mechanics of doing that stuff...
S: But we won't see Wire finding a new home on Swim?
CN: No, absolutely not. That doesn't figure in. The two items so far have been mixed in Swim's studio, but that's it. I think what I bring from Swim is a kind of know-how about how to do things, and there's an obvious connectivity—a synergy between the things. It'd be far too difficult to have Wire on the label.
S: Too much to handle both?
CN: It'd be impossible to handle!
Conversation 2: Elaboration (via email)
S: Back when, prior to the initial reunion, you all got together and determined which songs you could play to your satisfaction, were there any songs you wanted to do but couldn't?
CN: Having realised that the only way we could possibly do the RFH thing would be for us to use our own 'catalogue' as the basis for a working 'stand up venture' we went through a lot of stuff. From my own point of view I was only interested in stuff that we could make somehow 'current'. From that point of view what something meant in a previous period of time is of less relevance that what it means now.
S: From what I remember of your 1988 tour, your current tour seems to involve less equipment, and is in general less technical/more guitar-centric. The energy level also seems higher, more 'punk rock'. Is it more physically demanding for you?
CN: I do wonder what band people saw in the '80s! Wire live have always been two guitars, bass, drums, vocals with occasional bits of lo-fi synth from Graham thrown in (a wasp in the '70s and a Casio SK1 in the '80s). Wire has always been demanding in more ways than one!
S: Are you seeing or meeting a lot of fans who weren't even alive when the original songs were recorded?
CN: Of course it depends on which original songs... But anyhow Wire has quite a mixed fan base. I personally tend to avoid the term 'classic' about any piece of recorded music (every recording is of its time) but I think there is something classic about Wire's attitude and modus operandi.
S: In general, have you found over the course of this tour that Wire are thought of as 'elder statesmen' of punk rock, art rock, whatever?
CN: Perhaps. I tend to feel a bit uncomfortable with all that kind of stuff. In truth we are gods for .0000001 percent of the music listening public. The others have never heard of us.
S: Mute recently reissued most of Wire's back catalogue. If you could go back, a la George Lucas, and re-make one of the records, which would it be? And what would you do with it?
CN: In a way that is what Wire has been doing. Certain pieces have been modified out of all recognition. One of the advantages of a stand up item is that you can remix on the fly. For the final gigs of this series (at the Garage, London) we did a version of Heartbeat that owes little to the original. There is a lot I don't like about the mixing of the '80s albums but it's more fun to mix the ADATs from the live shows!
S: As a label-owner, you've been on both sides of the fence, band/label relations-wise. Based on your experiences at Swim, is there anything you wish you'd done differently back when Wire was first getting started?
CN: Oh, lots! But then again, all experiences are of their time. I would need to know what I know now to have made different decisions. You gain objectivity and some measure of wisdom as you get older (well, in some cases, anyway). That doesn't mean you don't make mistakes, but I hope that what I bring to Wire now from my perspective as a label boss can help Wire not make mistakes we have made in the past.
S: In your opinion, is there a quintessential Wire song? Some have suggested 12XU, or perhaps Drill.
CN: Certainly 12XU and Drill have a common root in a very basic kind of Wire rhythm (called 'Dugga'). However, there are many kinds of Wire; it encompasses many moods and those change over time. The mood of Wire now is quite different from in either the '80s or the '70s... So basically it's down to personal preference!
S: I know you mentioned that Wire had no plans to record a new album, but the word is that while in Chicago, you spent some time recording with a certain high-profile Chicago producer. Can we hope that this tour might spawn some new Wire recordings? Was your work with Albini related to the third Wire 'item' you mentioned during our previous conversation?
CN: For me, the most interesting part of the Wire 'plan' is that not only do we operate as an independent live entity (no tour support, we carry very little baggage) but we are also not allied to any formal record company. However, Wire makes and makes available 'items' through merchandising at gigs and over the Internet at pinkflag.com. These include recorded items, and we've become more ambitious with these as we go on. So far we have made a couple of limited edition CDs, and yes, the third will (if it works out) be a set of recordings we made at Steve Albini's 'Electric' studio. We spent two days there and basically recorded the set we were playing during the US tour with as few frills as possible. Steve plans to mix these later this month and if we like the mixes we will release them. We have also recorded all three nights at the Garage (where we played some things not in the US set). There is a second track to also make more 'considered' items using the audio from the live recordings and the 'electric' sessions (actually after pf3 this mode will probably become more pronounced).
Conversation 3: On doing business (Metro, Chicago)
CN: Is this (interview running as) text or audio?
S: Text. I suppose we could run the interview audio, too, but nobody really feels like listening for that long—at least not to two guys talking in an echoey room.
CN: Absolutely! I wish you'd talk to some of those people who send is MP3 files in email.
S: People really do that to you?
CN: They really do that to us. Those go straight in the bin.
S: You mean they send them for you to consider putting them out on Swim, right?
CN: Right, for Swim. And they go, unlistened-to, straight in the bin, with a 'please don't send us your unsolicted MP3s' reply.
S: That's even worse netiquette than emailing you a bunch of bad old jokes.
CN: Well, yeah. We've got a 56k modem. Sometimes these things take half an hour to download and we have to pay telephone charges.
S: Some people just don't seem to have any idea about these things.
CN: Absolutely. I wish there was a primer to tell people how they should deal with record companies—it's just another person. If you bug them—if you send them fifteen emails asking 'have you listened to my demo?'—That'll pretty much guarantee that it's not going to get listened to. We always make it very clear: we listen to everything and we get back (to you) if we like it. That means, also, that the converse is true. And if they put a self-addressed envelope in it, we'll send it back to them.
S: That seems pretty reasonable.
CN: We're not in the business of ruining people's day—saying 'I think this sucks because a-b-c'—we just don't reply if we didn't like it. It may be suitable for someone else.
S: Well, it's your label, after all. I don't think you're obligated to give a reason.
CN: Yeah, absolutely. It's a financial commitment. There are no guarantees of sales. Not in this world.
S: Do people just do saturation bombings of (MP3s), where they'll send an entire album's worth of tracks to you, or to a bunch of labels at once?
CN: No, it just happens sometimes... If they send you one, I'll reply to them and say, you know, don't do that. Sometimes people send unsolicited stuff, but quite often now people ask, and they get that response—that we listen to everything, and we'll get in touch if we like it, and they should be able to draw their own conclusions from that, if they have any intelligence. If they're not intelligent enough to work out what that means, then we probably shouldn't be working with them anyway.
S: We get the same sort of thing—people will ask us to review their MP3s, and they'll give us a bunch of links to songs they've got all over the place... As if we have enough time and bandwidth to hunt these things down.
CN: Nobody has time for all this stuff. That's the problem. We could get into a huge technical discussion about MP3s, but... Well, I used to know—before CDuctive was taken over, I knew, very well, one of the guys who was running it, and we had this whole long MP3 discussion. I just can't see how you're going to get anyone to pay money for it, y'know?
S: Why would you pay money for something you can get for free?
CN: Absolutely. The thing is, the only thing that would guarantee income is, basically, unpopularity or obscurity. You can get any number of downloads of the latest David Bowie album or whatever from some Hotline site, but you're not gonna get some kind of weird record that nobody's heard of, because nobody's going to bother encoding it.
S: There are definite advantages to MP3, though I don't think they've really come out yet—especially at the retail level., For in-store play and so forth.
CN: I see MP3 really as a replacement for cassettes—basically, once you get the download speeds fast enough and the players cheap enough, you can whiz up your MP3 player with a bunch of tunes, get on your skateboard or whatever and listen to 'em. Of course, you probably won't know what half of the music is 'cos you'll have jammed it in the player and sped off... Then you'll probably have to find out what it is and you'll probably end up buying it in some physical format in the end. I think physical formats are here with us for a while. The death of vinyl has been long predicted, but the coolest thing in '98 was the 7".
S: The only different thing about vinyl now is that it costs twice as much.
CN: It costs a lot to make as well. You can't make any money on it at all. It's impossible. It's just pure promotion. I don't see any way of making any money on it in the quantities that we do, but it's very exclusive items...
S: The people who make the vinyl are usually the people who love it and remember it.
CN: Of course. There's already some kind of hierarchical layering going on—most people don't have decks (turntables) anymore. Decks are for real or hopeful DJs, mainly. People sometimes inquire why we don't put a particular release on vinyl, and it's 'cos we can't imagine anyone playing it out, to be quite honest.
S: It's hard to find a decent turntable now, too.
CN: It is, isn't it? I use the same one I've had for years. I don't have two, though.
S: I've been shopping around for 1200s because my turntable is dying, and the prices are exorbitant now.
CN: Well, there are quite a few DJ shops these days.
S: Yeah, but you used to be able to get something decent at retail. I've priced 'em at DJ shops but they're usually marked up through the roof. You used to be able to get a 1200 for around $400, but now...
CN: How much do you pay for it now?
S: Over $600, without a head.
CN: Well, look at the TB303—there's an example of something you couldn't give away at one point, but then people started paying 900 or 1000 quid for a TB-303. It's absurd... Just because it does a squelchy acid noise that sounds exactly the same on everyone's records... I'd have thought that was a good reason to avoid it.
S: But that's what the 'kids' want.
CN: Right, and now you can emulate it in software anyway, and it sounds the same.
S: Sounds better sometimes.
CN: Yeah. But just as cheesy.
Originally published in splendizine.com during 2000.