Graham Lewis interview
This interview finds uzine [U] talking to Graham Lewis [GL] about Wire and his many solo and collaborative projects.
Graham Lewis was/is a member of Wire, Wir, Dome, Cupol, Duet Emmo, P'O, Gilbert & Lewis, He Said, He Said Omala, H.A.L.O, Ocsid and Hox. For a more elaborate introduction, see our Hox review below... The questions were sent out via e-mail by (pv); the answers were received soon after, on June 29th, after Mr. Lewis got back from a short trip in Sweden ("Midsummer was beautiful... a vivid midnight sunset/rise").
U: Are you satisfied with the extra attention the rerelease of It-ness on R&S is getting? How is the response in the UK and in the USA? What has the response in Sweden been like? Does the response really matter for you?
GL: Our decision to license it-ness to R&S was to make it available, as the Origin pressing had all but sold out. Distribution in Sweden is difficult for us, so on this occasion we didn't release here. As to UK & USA, direct response was favourable but press coverage scant. The successful completion of work is most important but responce is encouraging and can be enlightning.
U: It-ness explores darker themes, it says in your press release. Why is that?
GL: Does it? Darker times/memories?
U: What is Knot about?
GL: Surveillance, stalking, obsessive jealousy, betrayal. It's rather Old Testament with Hopper neon and shadow.
U: How high is is was whispered. To convey what kind of feelings?
U: Icon of I can is about Hollywood star Hedy Lamarr but also about a composer I couldn't quite grasp the name of, and a transmission of some sort?
GL: George Antheil is the name of the top avant-garde composer of the '20s who wrote machinelike, 'mechanistic', rhythmically propulsive pieces with names like Airplane Sonata, Sonata Sauvage, Jazz Sonata, Death Of Machines and Ballet Mechanique. The two invented and applied for a patent for a 'Secret Communication System' for frequency-hopping applied to the radio control of torpedoes, using slotted paper rolls similar to player-piano rolls to sync the changes in transmitter and receiver. It even called for exactly 88 frequencies, the number of keys on a piano. (Thanks to: American Heritage of Invention & Technology Spring 1997 Vol. 12/No. 4.)
U: What do the letters of NEWS stand for? (North East West South—or does 'W S' stand for 'warmer south'?)
GL: North East West South.
U: Why is Spring so melancholy?
GL: The initial stimulus for the text was the suicide of a Swedish friend. He had prepared the act meticulously, which was very much in character. Buying rope and drill. Measuring, then choosing a panoramic window view. Suicide always leaves so many unanswered questions.
U: How did Hox happen? Did it evolve out of H.A.L.O?
GL: No. Out of He Said Omala. When Mattias Tegner was busy on another project the work on what became Hox began... Mattias is credited for advice.
U: How did you and Andreas Karperyd meet? Why did you start working together?
GL: When I was in the process of putting together the design for the H.A.L.O. CD Immanent the Swedish record company MNW recommended Andreas as his company Frequent Form handled the bulk of their output's design. Andreas and Mattias Tegner were old friends and collaborators with projects such as Omala. We shared common interests and approaches in sound production and creation. It seemed natural that we should attempt to work together... this became He Said Omala.
U: Could you tell us a bit more about the magazine Merge (which he cofounded) or the kind(s) of design he produces? (And could you provide an URL or two, perhaps?)
GL: I believe Merge exsisted for six editions... it covered a broad range of art, music and cultural subjects. With an international group of contributors. For all small publications cash-flow is an ever present Problem, combined with the pressures experienced by all freelancers... Merge died. Andreas has worked in a wide range of design including record sleeve, packaging, web design... At present he is working with the Prime Sounds site... Recent work includes contributions to the products of Propellerhead Software, Sweden... Recycle, Reason.
U: Who is Hakan Nilsson, who provided that curious picture at the back of the sleeve?
GL: Doctor of Art History, co-founder Merge, Origin, writer, critic. Photographs he took in the storage areas of the Natural History Museum, Stockholm.
U: Have you still been pursuing your own graphic design or video 'careers'? How is Sven doing and does he still want anything from you?
GL: Sporadically. He changed his name to Edvard. [Sven was a 'visual arts alter ego' of GL's—Ed.]
U: Is there a video for any of the Hox tracks? Would you want to do soundtrack work for movies or commercials? Is Hox strictly music, or do you cross over to performances as well?
GL: Not specifically. I could, I composed the soundtrack for a short a couple of years ago. We have performed a few times... with video... but Andreas is not particularly attracted to performance. Studio and installation are more so.
U: Are you occupied with other things apart from artistic ones, e.g. businesswise?
GL: Active Father.
U: You have been living in Sweden since 1989. How do you look back on the London which you started to dislike in the eighties? Could you imagine ever returning there (like Colin did)?
GL: London had been very good for me but the time came when I believed I needed to live elsewhere to develop. Returning is not in my plans at present.
U: It seems to me that you are not an overtly political person, but that you have strong views nonetheless. Knowing that you live in Sweden, then, what is your view on the recent riots at the EU summit in Goteborg, please? How do you look upon the transition from the ideological sixties, seventies and eighties (Reagan era) to today's the mega-commercialised 'global capitalist economy' era? Where do you think we are heading?
GL: Uuum... the decision to live as an artist is political. 10,000 demonstrators, a few hundred organised distruptors, alcohol and almost continuous daylight, a police force with a popular mandate to enforce the law on the streets of a democratic country, these ingredients always promised to produce a volatile cocktail. The likes of which I believe we shall see repeated increasingly as fustration and anger grow over the apparrent impotence and weakness exhibited by elected governments to regulate/restrain the unfettered power of the global economic giants, in the context of a World IT Revolution. Against this background one sees an increasing fragmentation of 'societies' already disintegrating under the pressures of a conveniently discredited socialist philosophy. The instability of the globalised market. Migration unmatched in scale since the middle ages and the fear of famine and sickness, spread by global climate change and the casual attitude of governments to the HIV virus and its treatment. Nationalists and speculators are invited to make hay... where you're heading you better know, 'cos when you're called it's time to go!
U: Not a lot of people realise this, but you were already in your mid-twenties when you entered the music scene with Wire. How did you live through the sixties and the seventies? Which were your musical influences?
GL: I was 23 when Wire started. The '60s and '70s. My father was in the RAF working in fighter squadrons so as a family we lived up and down the East coast of England. By good fortune I was perfectly geographically situated on an airforce base in East Anglia to receive via a small transistor radio the output of the pirate radio stations... an incredible and influential experience... Jimi Hendrix, the Electric Prunes, the Walker Brothers, the Move, the Righteous Brothers, Aretha Franklin, the Cream, the Stones and Beatles, plus a million other pop and soul sounds came straight and virtually unmediated out of the sky for the price of a 9 volt battery!!!!! Combine this with the record collection the youth club bought from a particularly hip London West Indian called Mick, every classic soul record, and you have the basis for an interest in that new thing POP music. NME Pollwinners Concert 1968, Stones released after drugbust to play unannounced, Satisfaction and the first live performance of Jumping Jack Flash, the Move destroy their equipment, I'm 15, move north. Geronimo and John Peel, just about anything that was on at the City Hall, Newcastle; St. James's Park and Filmore North, Sunderland, Free x 6, schools x 7, followed by art college Foundation Course Lanchester Poly, Coventry, start dj-ing and working on the entertainment production crew, Lanchester Arts Festival 1972, dj between Marcel Marceau, Ken Campbell Roadshow and Roland Kirk and that's just one night! Chuck Berry ding-a-linging, Pink Floyd. Other times Hawkwind Lemmy and acid, Kevin Ayers, Coxhill and Gong. See Roxy Music on their first tour at the Belfry Country Club, Sutton Coalfield... I had been infected with post modernism. Neu! Exposed to German Motorik, ahhh! Successful application to Hornsey College of Art, LONDON! BA Hons. Course. Serve as Social Sec for 2 years free drinks and entry... search London for music... book Feelgood for 60 quid, Ian Dury and the Kilburns, meet Bruce Gilbert. Complete Degree surprisingly in Fashion. Sell some work from my degree show which is eventually manufactured and shown in the mags. POP! POP! POP! Get lucky... meet Lynn 'Absolutely Fabulous' Franks—she digs my stuff recommends me for a design job... ace! Five grand a year plus royalties to produce drawings. Pistols, 100 Club Fest., Gilbert asks me at a Vibrators gig at the Nelson, Holloway Road to a rehearsal, borrow bass (said I could play), Colin and George ride me hard, "you can't fucking play!" "So what? I want to!", surprisingly asked back the following Saturday, I have attitude. This will become Wire...
U: Judging from Kevin Eden's book on Wire—Everybody Loves A History—you learnt to really play the bass at the same time as Robert Gotobed was learning the drums. Did that collaboration gel well right from the start?
GL: The short answer to that is no. Let's just say Robert and I were ambitious and rather frustrated by each other's ineptitude and the progress we were making initially, this did result in a few rash words... but persistance proved rewarding and George's exit more space and harmony. [George Gill was a member of Wire in the beginning, before they were even recorded at the Roxy, London—Ed.]
U: To me the interaction between you and Bruce Gilbert has always been magical, sounding as if you were walking a tightrope and only the lyrics could save you. Did you deliberately set out for such a sound, did you polish it very hard?
GL: The lyrics/text are often a good guide to the operating rational/irrational at any given time. Ideas and poems. Great attention went into the composition and editing of texts, whether singularly or colaboratively written, whilst often much tobacco and alcohol were consumed. As far as I'm aware polishing was confined to the passageways at the MZUI show installation at the Waterloo Gallery.
U: Colin Newman once called 12XU "the basic Wire rhythm, the father of Drill"... Is there such a thing as a 'basic Lewis rhythm' for you? For instance, some of the tracks on It-ness remind of pre>He... And what was so special about the Drill workouts which Wire used to love playing live so much?
GL: I concur with Mr. Newman. Drill was Wire's Research and Development Vehicle for a time ensuring at least one improvised item in any performance. Over time the tempo and duration became faster and longer making it a physical as well as creative challenge. This could produce the state of No Mind, a trance-like/timeless experience. pre>He contains recordings of early experiences I enjoyed with fx and drum machines. This is a pleasure I continue to employ and enjoy.
U: People will probably assume that "Lewis plays the bass", judging from the part you took in Wire. But obviously, you play electronical instruments as well, and have probably experimented with all kinds of musical tools. Are there any instruments you'd wish you'd master? Which are the instruments you love to work on the most, e.g. for songwriting?
GL: To have mastered one would be an achievement... however, virtuosity on a musical instrument has never been the springboard for my own creativity. Often, skills must be aquired to execute an idea but mastery is not the end in itself. For instance, I loved my short career on the saxophone around the time of Crazy About Love. In a period of 3 weeks, from picking up Robert's rather broken horn to lowering it, I played 4 concerts and the John Peel Session at which Crazy... was recorded. For writting I often use loops produced from a variety of sources, including sampler, drum machine and at present Mac with Logic. Other compositional aids are walking, bicycles, driving, train journeys and swimming.
U: How do you compose your songs, roughly? Do you make most of your music at home by now?
GL: See above.
U: Would you still be able to step into a studio and make something from nothing, like Dome did in October 1980 for the Peel session?
U: Reading Kevin Eden's book on Wire and your quotes on the mathematical methods behind Dome's 3R4 or the enumerations in Mercy or A Mutual Friend, or even the grid system behind Map Ref. 41°N 93°W, I was wondering if you still 'composed' or wrote your songs that way? (Incidentally, I was also curious what your opinion about Peter Greenaway was, because of this.)
GL: I've always had a love of numbers. Their presence in songs and their composition has been a natural manifestation of this. 106 Beats That is a good example. I started trying to write a text with 100 beats of meter... The subject became autobiographical as I worked producing the line 'got a head for figures'. Finishing the text early one morning I discovered to my horror, I'd failed, numerous recounts still delivered the total 106... a readjustment by way of the title secured the text's survival. Funnily enough Colin then utilised it to break one of Wire's then musical rules of never changing key. 106... musically is one continuous chain of key changes... a veritable harmonic number crunching exercise. 3R4 was graphically scripted and vocally cued by a count because without sequencing there was no other way to set the noise gates. Eric Radcliffe did the count for the complete duration of the piece, the inclusion of [him saying] '3,4' in the mix was a testament and credit to this. Numbers are unavoidable in composition. I have not seen any Greenaway for ages. However, his early work I found visually arresting whilst the overall effect rather cold.
U: In your lyric writing, you have a strong feeling for metaphor. Where does that sensitivity stem from?
GL: Pattern recognition, memory.
U: Has your lyric writing changed in any way? Has your relationship with language(s) or their possibilities for metaphors?
GL: I've tried various processes but the use of a notebook and pen seems the most reliable. Trying to capture the elusive thought. One is always striving to change, discover.
U: Judging from your lyrics and from your somewhat declamatory voicing style, and from some of your stagings (e.g. those tube hats), I've always wondered if there was a strong cultural background to this, e.g. from literature, the theatre, etc. Might we ask which authors influenced you and which ones are your current favourites—and why? For instance, your press release quotes Paul Auster...
GL: This is a tricky one and could lead to a very long answer. To avoid that, I'll say: little theatre, except much Beckett and Shakespeare. Artists many, including Beuys and Duchamp. Literature much including Calvino, Pynchon, Elroy and recently DeLillo. Auster was quoted because it seemed so apt.
U: Have you got any literary ambitions yourself? Have you written any short stories or novels?
GL: No. Not prose.
U: Do you feel at home in Sweden, with that kind of cultural bagage? Do you live in the city or the countryside? What do you like best about the country?
GL: I am at home in Sweden but I suspect I shall always remain a stranger... In the 4th largest city in Sweden. What I like about Sweden is the relative equality between men and women, and its enlightened attitudes toward children's care and education. 50 years of socialism has had an effect.
U: What is your current setup? Are there any instruments that you've sold over the years but that you wish you'd kept?
GL: The centre is a Mac running Logic and Reason, Beyer Dynamic DT250 Headphones, a Mackie desk plus my old analogue and digital gear. I've only sold amplification over the years but have had several well liked basses, guitar fx and keyboards stolen.
U: It has struck me that you regularly include emulations of horn sounds in your songs, e.g. in Spring or on Take Care. That's a bit unusual in the 'genre' you operate in?
GL: I hadn't thought about it... is it?
U: Do or did you pay special attention to bass parts in songs? Did you learn your instrument by copying any particular bassist's style? Do you have any favourite bass players?
GL: I do. Not really. When young: Jack Bruce, the Motown players, Andy Fraser, Willie Weeks. Mingus, Charlie Hayden, George Clinton.
U: You once said that discovering Bill Laswell made you feel less lonely about what you were trying to do when you started out with He Said.
GL: It was his use of sampling in Praxis.
U: Have you been following Laswell's later career or the releases on the Axiom label?
GL: Not really.
U: What is your opinion on Godley & Creme? And on Gilbert & Lewis? How influential do you think you have been?
GL: They had beards. They didn't have beards. If we influenced anyone I hope it was not to grow a beard.
U: What have been your most satisfying moments with Dome?
GL: Crawling around in total darkness 'discovering' the contents of the studio during the recording of Dome 2, the recorded results of which produced two tape loops which were the basis of the composition Keep it...
U: What about a Duchamp & Beuys duo, should that ever have happened? To what effect, do you think?
GL: Du Be Du Be Du, in drag and covered in honey... urinal felt fat?
U: In Kevin Eden's book on Wire we can read about the kick you got upon entering Berlin's SO36 club for the first time. Do you still get kicks like that? Where did they happen?
GL: Midnight sun, in Sweden on Mid-Summer.
U: What have been your most satisfying moments as a solo artist?
GL: The releases on Mute were satisfying being my first. I once saw a T-shirt I'd designed 6 years previously worn by someone on Gozo, an island off Malta. Mostly satisfaction arises and falls quite naturally in the course of any work.
U: To me, apart from Hail, Threw her gewgaw [on the v/a 2CD Mesmer Variations from 1995] ranks among your best solo work. Why was it never released properly, or even on vinyl? And why are you no longer releasing your solo work on Mute?
GL: Threw her gewgaw was made specifically on invitation for the Mesmer Project which was released by Ash International on CD. It became unrealistic when I moved to Sweden.
U: In the same year as Hail, Mute also released the first LP by Recoil, which reminded me a bit of your work. Did you ever notice that record?
U: Did that collaboration with drummer Mark Snow ever lead to a record?
U: How about working with Brian Eno again?
U: When you did those videos for Opal, did you meet up with Alex Patterson? The Orb did an exquisite remix for Wir's So And Slow It Grows...
GL: I'm not aware of it... oh, yes, sitar and tablas.
U: And what about Michael Clark? Do you still want to work with each other? Are there any other choreographers you'd like to work or have worked with, such as Tharp, or De Keersmaeker?
GL: We did... at the Royal Festival Show 2000. I've recently made several works with a Swedish choreographer Susanah Akerlund... I do enjoy working with dance, one's contribution is surportive to the performance. One awaits invitation.
U: Bruce Gilbert seems to have been rediscovering Pierre Henry (a.o.) over the past few years. What have been your major musical kicks or discoveries from the past few years? Which records are you currently grooving to on a Saturday evening—or enjoying on a Sunday morning?
GL: Miss E ...So Addictive; Cafe Tacuba Avalancha De Exitos; Michael O'Shea (WMO); Ilpo Vaisanen Asuma; Gunilla Leander Primates; Russell Haswell Live Salvage 1997-2000; Tricky Maxinquaye; Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan En Concert A Paris...
U: What is Russell Mills up to these days? And Michael O'Shea? And Mike Thorne?
GL: Russell Mills is alive and working in the Lake District, UK. Michael O'Shea is dead. Mike Thorne can be found in NY or on his web site The Stereo Society.
U: Why should one never forget to clean in the corners?
GL: Because this is where you will end up if you are uncareful when painting.
U: Much obliged, kindest regards, lots of respect!
Originally published in ULTRA WWW Magazine [uzine] and reprinted with permission.