Robert Grey interview
Stereo Society, 2000
Robert Grey [RG], Wire's sometimes-elusive drummer, was interviewed by Mike Thorne [MT] for stereosociety.com.
MT: The first obvious question: what does it feels like to be on your first American Tour? That's a capital 'a' and a capital 't'.
RG: Right. What it feels like. It feels a lot different to be at the end than to be at the beginning even though it was only eight dates. Not a long tour by any means. I think when I was in England I went through more anxieties about what could go wrong not having a crew and just having a soundman. We were all responsible for ourselves getting through the day. Now I've got to New York, I know it worked. But, before you set off you think, have we got enough people with us to account for all the problems that might come up. But, it does work. I feel pleased that this tour worked out. The personal friction didn't come to the surface, which they have in the past. So, that made life a lot easier. We are more equipped and more relaxed these days to handle the problems that do come up.
MT: The tensions you referred to is something I have observed from a distance and sometimes close-to for many, many years. Do you think those tensions are an essential part of intense music making or do you think they're not necessary to make intense music?
RG: I don't know if my experience in making intense music is broad enough, really. Because the people in Wire know each other so well, I think they relate to each other probably more deeply. You can only be in one group, which is your main group in your life. The other things that you do are additional to that, and not as deep. People look at you as somebody from Wire, and they want you to do something, which they know you can do because of Wire. Whereas, Wire is more of a pioneering sort of entity so it's bound to be more challenging. I don't think people outside of the group—well, speaking for me, anyway, wouldn't challenge you in the same sort of way. They would want to do what they know you can already do or they think you can do.
MT: A lot of people don't understand the social element or the social dynamic of a group, and the way everybody spurs in very aggressive ways, sometimes in very supportive ways.
RG: Yes. Social dynamic of the group. Speaking for Wire, it just seemed you needed four people to have a group when it started, and to catch four people who saw this group as fulfilling their personal ambitions which also became the group ambition. Yes, the way people relate to each other, that's the sort of a continuous unfolding story. I feel that I am the least verbal communicator in the group, for whatever reason. I don't know, maybe because of the way two people in the group might relate to each other more intensely than the other two. That becomes a sort of leading influence or policy-making influence. Is that social dynamic? I suppose it is. They got a way of taking things further on and that sort of goes through with the process and another thread is taken up at some point.
Looking at Wire now, I think there's more openness. People don't relate by going off into corners. I think there're more relations between the four of us whereas before it used to be more in twos, I think. It's not social dynamic, it's more creative dynamic, isn't it? You're putting together little pieces that you've gathered while you've been on your own, while you've been away from the group that you think will be interesting to introduce to the others. When you do come together, you bring these objects, Bruce would say, I think on his sculptural theme, you bring these little stones or bits of wood or something mechanical. You introduce that and that has an influence on the dynamic of the group. Maybe it makes people look at something in a different way or think in a different way. What was a threat in the beginning now becomes something you can use, something you can make into a piece. People on the outside can look, think, or listen to it and they can find something in it. It draws in other people.
What were you doing in the few years when you weren't part of Wire and, secondly, when you came back to Wire, in view of what you just said, what did you bring that was fresh?
Well, I was still, post-Wire, in London for a year and I sort of thought this was the end of my drumming career. If I moved out of London, which I was quite interested in doing, that would take me away from all the musical contacts so that would be more of a final end to my drumming. I think at the end of that year I was just feeling more like I'd like to be in the country rather than being in the city and, maybe, I would just stop drumming which I thought would make life simpler and easier in a way. I just needed a rest and to find a new direction.
I actually stopped playing or practising for a couple of years. That's just my kit drumming, but I was still pursuing my African drumming interest. I used to go this class in Stockwell while I was still in London and it gave me a new area of looking at drumming. With about three, but no more than that maybe five or eight people, we would play African dances together. I was looking for new things away from kit drumming, which is a more solitary activity. This gave me a new angle on playing rhythms, but, also, having gone through that period of thinking, that life would be simpler without drumming.
When I started playing in Wire, I didn't have any sort of musical basis to draw on in a sort of technique sense. I thought I would go through this book of drumming rudiments, which I'd had for years and years but never actually studied. All proper drummers say rudiments are the essential things you must have. So, why not take a look at it and see what it does for me. It was sort of going back to square one, in a way. I also got Ginger Baker's drumming video, because he was my original inspiration, and to see what he has to say about drumming. I watched that video quite a lot. I was trying to get back to what started me off drumming in the first place. I needed to go back to that original starting point before I could go forward. I'd reached the point of saying to myself, I was drumming before Wire and if I go back to that point, I can start again from there.
I wasn't needed in Wire due to the electronics and the computer age, and that made me sort of think that everything in Wire was wasted which sounds sort of drastic but, because I was no longer in the group I sort of felt it as all being for nothing. That was the reason I stopped drumming. But, I haven't reached the point of saying I was drumming before Wire and starting again from there with a sort of basic improving technique and things. I found I was able to build on that and also being in the country and having space around me where I could go to my drumming room and not be disturbing anybody else. When I lived in London, I'd never been anywhere I wasn't conscious—even if people said they didn't mind if you're practising something, I think it is fairly infuriating for people to listen to it. It sort of makes you a bit self-conscious, but, if you've got somewhere you can make a noise, then you know it's not annoying anybody, that's quite liberating. So, I took practising much more seriously then. I tried to do an hour of playing everyday.
MT: At some point in your life, you started calling yourself a drummer as opposed to somebody who enjoys drumming occasionally which is probably about the time that Wire was being formed. What do you think flipped the switch there?
RG: Did I ever call myself somebody who played the drums? I think once I'd started I did feel serious about it because I'd never sort of dedicated the amount of time you have to spend to learn an instrument. I'd never felt attracted to any other instrument that I would dedicate that much time to it, and, before I started playing, drums is what I always wanted to play. But I thought to be a musician you had to have this sort of magical quality that you were born with.
That's how it seemed to me. I didn't realise that it was just a matter of hard work and learning how to play. I thought you had to have this special thing which set you aside as a musician.
MT: Was there a period after you left Wire where you didn't play drums at all? Did it drive you crazy?
RG: In the '90s. Yes. Oh, yes. At the end of the '80s. I think I went through a couple of years. I missed it, but no, it didn't drive me crazy. I got through without it. It was time to regroup, I think, that was how I was feeling about it. I needed a starting point. I don't know if that makes sense really, but for whatever you are doing, you need to know why you're doing it. You need some sort of a starting point because the Wire process seemed to me to have broken down completely. So, after that, I needed another starting point to get going again.
MT: While you were away from Wire, you went through quite a few other drumming situations, as it were. What did you do during that period? Who else did you play with and with what type of ensembles?
RG: Well, there were two. I played at the Purcell Room at South Bank at the invitation of Susan Stenger who did this. It was an evening of American composers. I think I'm right in sync, and we played a piece by Reese Chatham, the name of which I don't remember. I had a lot of anxiety about doing that because I really only played with Wire. The idea of playing with five people whom I had never been on a stage with before definitely gave me sleepless nights, and also the thought that at least two of them were proper musicians. Although they had asked me to do it when they actually saw what I did, they might not have been terribly impressed. That was the sort of worries that I went through and also that it was just a one-off in that, if you did get things wrong, then you couldn't make up for it the next night. It was all or nothing and, also, it was only one song so you couldn't even warm up through the set. It was the final number of the performance so it was sort of—people expected it to be something special. Well, it turned out all right. Yes, it turned out all right. It was quite a learning experience as well. The thing that did help me get through the worry of the one-off performance which you have to make of it what you can. I think that's what it comes down to with one-off performances and, if that's all 'tis, it's too bad you don't get a second chance. If there is no second chance, you can't worry about how it might have been better on the second night, but that was the first thing I did with Susan.
The second thing she asked me to do was to play a piece in a John Cage evening at the Barbican, which I thought was going to be a similar sort of situation in line with the Purcell Room with about 400 seats, but it's a small room. When we got to the Barbican, it was actually the big room, which sort of put a bit more stress on all the performers. That was the second time I played something with Susan so I had that reassurance.
I certainly felt very exposed standing on the stage. I wasn't playing drums; I was playing percussion in that. I was playing the instructions in the composition where I had to play one piece of metal and one piece of wood which I was free to find. I spent quite a bit of time at home just tapping what I thought were interesting looking pieces of wood but potentially musical instruments. While beginning to think at one time that I wasn't going to find anything, I did find two things. One was a hubcap. That was my piece of metal, and the other was a flat, 8 x 16 x 1" piece of wood which had quite a nice resonant tone to it. So that was all-and I had to read the part, as well. It's a musical illustration of a Zen garden; the percussion is the rock. No, the gravel. That's right the gravel on the ground, the earth, the foundation, and the flute and double bass are, I think, they're the rocks. But, you know more about your case than I do. You'll have to check out this piece. He was a Zen Buddhist. Yes. I'm rambling, aren't I!
MT: We like it. You're always coming back to being concerned that you're not a proper musician. Do you think most musicians are always worrying about being found out and that's what keeps a good musician on the toes as opposed to being complacent?
RG: I'm not sure. I think sort of from the way I started because I didn't start playing drums until I was 25 or so. Obviously, I have no musical background. You know, I didn't play an instrument in school. I think that has always made me feel—although I love drumming, that has always made me feel more on the side of non-musicians than musicians because I didn't know enough about it to qualify. I didn't have any certificates in musicianship. I suppose it depends on your point of view, doesn't it? I suppose people who watch Wire think they are musicians. Well, I wouldn't mind them thinking that of me but I know the others would much rather prefer being called non-musicians than artists. They don't like the idea of being described as a musician. But, personally, I always want to feel I am improving what I'm playing. My technique's improving which means I can be more diverse in what I can offer to the group or to other people who are interested in working with me.
MT: One thing that struck me with your drumming last night was that it was even more coherent and concise that it was in the olden days. In other words, the pre-break. How did it feel to you coming back? What were the differences when the four of you got back together again? Or the improvements.
RG: Well, I did feel my practising had paid off. It made playing and life easier. I have no blisters. In the old days even after eight days I would definitely have blisters on my fingers. I guess that's technique—using your hands in the most efficient way that you can. So, practising has done something to my hands. They must spread the stress sort of evenly over the skin rather than it being on a particular spot. I feel more relaxed; it's not as hard work. It used to be really hard work. I think I made it hard work probably because that was the only way I knew to get through the set, but I really, for years playing in Wire, I would hit everything as hard as possible. I thought that was a convincing performance, but I don't do that anymore. That's probably one of the reasons I've got less blisters.
MT: What was it like settling in with the others again, on a personal level?
RG: I think we had three days of pre-rehearsal which was in October, and we weren't playing at Festival Hall until February because it was rescheduled. During those three days there were lots of anxieties about was it a mistake to go back into the group and would I end up being in the same position as when I left. I just thought it was worth trying. We played Drill at Bruce's 50th birthday party and that was after a period of about five years and I hadn't really spoken to anyone in Wire. Although I didn't feel close to the other people in the group, it just made me feel that there was this indefinable bond between the members in the group and having the four people which make up Wire on the stage seems to be the right place for it to be. It's not really explicable. Even though I wasn't talking to the others, really, I couldn't deny there was this connection which, at the time, there was no talk of Wire reforming, but that sort of stayed with me—that was a sort of inescapable fact, so, when the offer came that we should play at Festival Hall, that was one of the factors that made me think it was right although I still had to persuade myself quite a lot that I wasn't doing the wrong thing. There were still anxieties involved.
MT: Did you all settle back into the same creative patterns or did you find yourselves taking different roles between the four of you in any way?
RG: Well, I think we've gone back into the beat-group pattern which is, you know, gradually through the '80s, the beat-group pattern it was generally felt we had to move away from that and this is why retrospective, this sort of interlude we are in at the moment. I mean the future is the next question we've got to face, which we are thinking about at the moment. The retrospective is, that's legitimate for Wire because we've never done it. We've never played our old songs; we have always moved on to different things which has probably kept our audience to a fairly small group because it tends to disappoint quite a few people if they don't hear the songs they want to hear. If I went to see a group and they didn't play what I was expecting, I think I would be disappointed as well.
MT: There are so many artists and musicians who mention Wire as being the seminal influence in what they did—the group which started them off and which projected them. You seem to have had an undue influence in that respect. Is this something which startles you or something which inspires you?
RG: Does it startle me? Well, I think everybody goes through the same process of hearing, well, maybe the same thing as me hearing Ginger Baker playing. I suppose he must have started off thousands of drummers when, or he still is working but is something which is some sort of message which comes from the outside that is a life-changing sort of message. I don't think you can sort of quantify it; you can't feel what it is like for the other person. If I got my message from Ginger Baker and they got their message from Wire, it is completely separate from me, isn't it? I suppose it's flattering, but it's a bit like having a conversation with somebody and you say something, and they say, 'yes, that's a great idea, isn't it.' Where does it come from? It's clicking, isn't it? When you put out records, you're clicking with sort of thousands of people, I suppose, rather than just that one person. It's not something I think about, but I'm sort of thinking about it now. If that's what started them off, that's great isn't it that they found a sort of starting point but I couldn't.
It just happens. There must be a word for it, but it just happens. You know I just like to think I'm glad that's happened from whatever, wherever it came from.
MT: The obvious final question: what's next for Wire? I have to ask the question. I do apologise.
RG: Well, the future; that's what we're working on. It can only come out when we get into a room and start making noises and talking to each other. Because we're older and we've been through a period of separation which is, I think unavoidable, but was probably a good thing, we're coming back refreshed. We've got new stones and new bits of wood and new sort of little objects that we've found in the meantime to bring back and sort of exchange and bang together. I mean the working relationship is there; it's just a matter of getting it going again, picking up on the threads which make it work, which make the Wire machine move.
Originally published on the stereosociety.com website.