Mike Thorne interview
Kevin Eden [KE] talked to Mike Thorne [MT], producer of all of Wire's EMI albums and singles and Colin Newman's A-Z.
KE: Can you tell me a bit about your background and how you eventually got into production?
MT: I'd studied composition at The Guildhall. But I've also got degrees in Physics. I was editor of 'Studio Sound' and doing quite a lot of writing, both pop and classical reviews, some for 'The Guardian'. Then in the early seventies I worked in a recording studio from where I got fired. I was the tea-boy, otherwise known as assistant engineer. I'd worked on the Deep Purple sessions for Fireball. All of this was converging on record production, but as far as I was concerned it was converging on A&R. I wound up with a couple of offers in London, one of which was with EMI. I joined them in March 1976. I did A&R for a while then at the end of 1976 I started producing because so many people had asked me to... I looked around and figured I could do it as least as well as the other people who were messing things up.
KE: What sort of things did you start producing?
MT: In my first year I did five albums: Gryphon's last album, I saw them off; then Live at The Roxy; then a French group call Telephone which went gold; then a live Soft Machine album in Paris; and, of course, Pink Flag.
KE: In terms of the Wire story you're work on the Live at The Roxyalbum was where we know your name from.
MT: The idea for 'The Roxy' album certainly caused some consternation at EMI. I remember hanging onto the pay-phone at The Roxy talking to the head of EMI. Logistically it was a major effort getting all of that together.
KE: What attracted you to Wire and pushing them for a deal with EMI?
MT: I thought Wire were great. Very strong, distinctive music with an attitude. It was music that I liked. And the criteria I stuck with for production was to make music I like with people I liked. I don't make music that I like with people I don't like and visa-versa.
KE: Within a month of 'The Roxy' album you recorded a series of demos with them, even before they had signed a contract.
MT: In my mind Wire were ready to record an album but you have to get better recordings for the internal selling, if nothing else. It's also a good way of getting to know a band.
KE: Wasn't there concern that Wire might jettison some songs in favor of newer material?
MT: I thought the absence of preciousness about a song was very good. They have a certain life where it means something where people are interested in it, and once it becomes routine they jettisoned it.
KE: In the Wire book they say that you really helped them get used to the studio and feel relaxed.
MT: When we went in the first day I took a jar of home-grown just so they could settle into the studio. I didn't want them to get precious and to put the pressure on the first day. Everybody got completely ripped and the studio fear was gone after that.
KE: The band played all the tracks live in the studio and then overdubbed?
MT: Yes, they played it like a set and Colin would always sing live, except Strange which was re-done. Colin didn't play much guitar on that record, apart from the solo on Lowdown, although he did go out and buy his white Ovation. It looked nice.
KE: Did you offer any musical ideas?
MT: I saw my function as lightening the load on the band as much as possible while they concentrate on the main action, which is getting the intensity of the songs. I did play piano on Reuters which is buried in the mix. I was extremely shy about pushing my talents forward.
KE: There were some vocal harmonies on Mannequin and Strange. Why did you feel the need for this?
MT: Dave Oberle, the lead singer in Gryphon, was brought in to do some big sweet backing vocals on Mannequin. It was a different color, the same way that there are flutes on Strange. That was a serious overdub. They're actually clusters of flutter-tongue flutes which I scored a semi-tone apart. There's about eight or ten of them just following the same pattern. But because I was very shy and retiring about my contributions they are fairly low in the mix, whereas they should have been forced up a bit.
KE: By the time of Chairs Missing you were being pushed to play on the sessions.
MT: They dragged my involvement out of me. Bruce said: "Unless you play those keyboards and synthesizers we're going to get that Brian Eno in!" I don't think they would have, but they pushed people into doing things. This was where everything started to get layered. It all went down live, because you get the energy which you can feed on. Then the overdubs went on and things were replaced.
KE: Shortly afterwards you went on tour with them.
MT: The Lyceum gig in July was the first time I played live with them. I was terrified. I'd done all my preparation and got all my charts together and Colin changed the running order and I didn't know where I was in the set. That left me completely lost and about 2 seconds behind the beat. I just gave up. [Wire went to CBGB's then came back and continued the tour with Mike.] They taught me not to take it too seriously. The keyboards were hard work because on Another The Letter we'd recorded it with a sequencer but I had to play the damn thing and most of the time they played things twice as fast , and I am no way a virtuoso.
KE: When it came to 154 Wire had been through the mill on the Roxy Music tour and had had a run-in with EMI over Outdoor Miner. It's also well documented that these sessions were far from easy.
MT: There was an incredible step up in their playing capabilities when we went into 154. Wire sessions were always a battle anyway. There was no way I wasn't going to get a hard time every session. And this certain wanton obliqueness in what they were about and my goal and concern to work with the music created a constant tension. I remember those sessions just being full of disagreement and tension about just about everything we were doing. I wasn't too precious about things, if an idea didn't meet with approval there was always another idea. When Wire played the songs in the studio it was generally getting the cheese-grater guitars and jangly bashy noises right, so if you take out all of that it leaves a big gap which has to be filled. And it was filled very creatively. We experimented with the whole studio.
KE: Colin says that there were already certain power blocks developing on these sessions. Were you aware of this at the time?
MT: I just always saw it as people functioning in certain ways. They had a certain style, quite often those grated on each other. Colin just gravitated in my direction. If anything I ignored the personality side of all the tensions much more than I should have done. I went in to just deal with the music. My approach, if something wasn't right, was to go toe to toe with somebody.
KE: After that you didn't work with Wire anymore.
MT: Towards the end of 154, after one particularly intense mixing session, I called Mike Collins and said "I'm sorry, I just can't do this anymore, but don't say anything to anybody just yet". Then when they came down to the next mixing session Bruce said "So you did the deed". The creative tension worked but I didn't want the personal wear and tear. Having said that I still think it's an exceptional album and it still amazes me, even when I listen to it, just how unique it sounds.
KE: But you did go onto work with Colin on A-Z.
MT: Colin and I got along well. And he presented me with his demos which I liked. I had a new synth and I asked him if I should bring the synth I relied on before or should I look for completely new solutions on the new one, and he said he wanted new solutions. It was recorded in cheap time at Scorpio and I think it's got some of the best keyboard playing I ever did on Seconds To Last. A long solo which, again, is undermixed. Typical shrinking violet! That was done first thing in the morning and it was 11 o'clock and I was on New York time then so I was completely out of it and the only reason that it played beautifully from beginning to end was because I was sitting there listening to the band and reacting to them and I was playing to keep them going and keep the dynamics of the track moving. And when I came around and woke up I realized I'd done something very good.
KE: Colin has said he thinks that A-Z was 'a bit over pop' and that this caused a bust-up between you.
MT: Pop may mean obvious. But the way a musician hears it is very different from how the public hears it. A musician hears all the nuance, all the background that goes into it, but you've got to lay it our for the great unwashed. They simply don't have that background, so musician's ears are very different and I was always very concerned to expose it. From my side of it I always push it in pop direction. But it's only a pop direction in the sense of popular, not pop as a style, because I want people to hear these records. After A-Z Colin came to me talking about musical experimentation and other grand schemes, but I'd just had enough and we just kind of drifted apart, exacerbated by me living in New York by then anyway. I think it was that they had all come of age and were challenging the parents which is exactly what they all did going on to produce their own records.
Originally issued with a WMO newsletter in 1996.