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Wire interview

Radio 2JJ, 1979

The following extracts come from a one-hour radio show from Radio 2JJ, Sydney, broadcast in early December 1979. Bruce Gilbert [BG], Colin Newman [CN], and Graham Lewis [GL] were being interviewed in London via satellite.

2JJ: What have you been doing most recently?

CN: Well in the last week or so we did a four day presentation at a theatre in London call Jeanette Cochrane Theatre which is part of the Central School of Art and Design which was something of a slight step away from the normal live rock gig in that we presented four individual pieces which took the form of sometimes being non-musical and followed that which something which was a presentation of the whole band. The live thing is something we're starting to think about opening up in a different way because we have toured, not extensively, but enough to realise that presenting the same show for 30 nights, of just songs, isn't sufficient for us to consider all of our time doing. Even though we always present new things, at the same time we found ourselves somewhat limited by the standard rock venue and the king of atmosphere created and we were just basically looking to do something else in a different way.

GL: It was a case of trying to do something slightly different in order for us to keep our interest at a high pitch, shall we say. Previously we've always played at least 30% new material, if not more, whenever we have played live, at times it has been 100%. But the Jeanette Cochrane was a multi-media event in that we had video which was integrated into the performance. There was a studio situation, also a camera in the foyer which was used in the performance and a roving camera using time delay, there was prerecorded tape, pre-recorded music combined with live music, no music at all times. Robert actually painted a canvas for 15 minutes during his piece. Bruce's was an art... what would you say?

BG: A sketch.

GL: Colin's piece had 15 guitar players; five playing A, five playing E and five playing D, most of whom couldn't play guitar anyway. It was quite a spontaneous piece. That was the first hour of the show. Then we played a piece called Crazy About Love, which came from a John Peel session we did, which was one 15 minute piece of improvisation. That started off the last 30-40 minutes of the show and then we presented new material. There was only three songs from 154.

2JJ: What sort of audience did you have for a thing like that? A rock n' roll audience?

CN: It didn't feel like we had a rock n' roll audience. It was quite surprising. There were people who were theatre go-ers who came. The audience was different every night. Possibly on the Friday and Saturday there was a slightly more rock audience than on the Monday and Tuesday. But there were very few people coming who were expecting a rock gig.

2JJ: Did you call it an event or a concert?

GL: It was called People in a Room. The actual theatre itself is a very nice, small theatre. It holds about 350 people. So there weren't that many people who got to see it and all the tickets were pre-booked, so that it wasn't the usual thing which happens at a gig where people turn up at any time during the night—coming at 10 o' clock and expecting to see the main band after the support band. The doors opened at 7:30, it was a two hour show which continued from that point and finished at the end. There were no encores.

2JJ: It's interesting that you seem to be truing to push the more experimental side of your output. Was that a plan from the start?

GL: I think we've always worked in exactly the same way. Obviously possibilities open up just due to the nature of us working on it a lot longer. You have a greater idea of what you don't want to do which often leads you to find what you would like to do. It is a departure from what we were doing before but it is a very logical step in the sort of organic change, if you like, from what we were doing. The band started with four people who couldn't really play at all and moved on through the various areas that it has done.

CN: The most interesting thing that we should always bare in mind is that it is possible for us to do anyone of a number of things. We can be anything from a pop group to an 'artistic venture'. It's a matter of not being ashamed to be what is right for the particular moment. We're not leaving behind what we've done before. Songs still come up and the strengths of writing changes. People get better and more competent at putting things together. If we can get the chance to do things on quite a wide scale that will please everyone and we'll be able to apply the same kind of quality which we have applied to making albums to everything we do. That's very essential rather than experimentation just for the sake of it.

2JJ: How does your record company view this kind of activity? Are they encouraging you or pushing you to get more popular?

GL: Our record company have quite a few difficulties of there own at the moment. We tend to pursue what we consider to be the logical steps for us to able to work. I think there were a lot of people from the record company who came to see us at the Jeanette Cochrane who absolutely hated it because it was something that they had never seen before. I don't think it's just them. I think as a whole everybody realises that the business as such is quite a reactionary one and likes to keep things very steady and very slow, because one is more able to exploit a slow moving object rather than one that is moving quickly or in more diverse directions.

2JJ: I suppose they must have found it difficult to come to terms with your first batch of material anyway. An album with 21 songs on it must have seemed strange to your common or garden-variety record company. When did you record most of that material?

GL: It was in 1977, but what had happened was that we were asked to play at the Roxy Club in London on two nights, when they were making a live recording, or a record of the club—not just of the people who were playing. So we went along with that and actually recorded. They then came to us and asked if we'd like to listen to the tapes and we selected the two tracks from those. The producer of that album was Mike Thorne who became our producer for the last three albums. People had asked us if we'd like to make a one-off single. That seemed to be the way that people went about working at that time, but because we had so much material we didn't think we could select one track that was representative of what we were doing at that time so we asked id we could make an LP and they said yes. So we went and made Pink Flag.

2JJ: Did you perform the material live in the same way as on the record? It seems to flow so well on the record.

CN: We've never tried to reproduce an album on stage. There was never a time when all songs on Pink Flag were in the same set, or from the other albums that we've done.

GL: I think your question is praising the fact that it works as an entity and it's always been the same with all our records. People are going to listen to an album more than once in which case it should stand up to hearing it that way, whereas a live show it's a one-off, it's a unique event and as such we've always tried to make it different every time that we've played.

2JJ: You must get through a lot of songs if you do that short material, because some of them are only...

CN: That thing about short and long is something that we've often talked about at length about. The ultimate thing is how long is a piece of string? We've never really thought about whether they we're short or long. What tended to happen on the first album is that the song ended when the words ran out. Now the idea is just to make them even simpler without any attempt to have any kind of verse or chorus; just have one chord going through all of it and then you can create any melody over the top of it.

2JJ: Repetition and monotony...

CN: I absolutely love that. On Map Ref. or on Indirect Enquiries we used that. If you listen to indigenous music, Arab music or Flamenco music you'll find there's the same quality of very few notes being repeated. It can build a kind of trance thing which is very effective as a communicating medium. I think you can put people through too many changes in the course of a song by proving how many chords you can play.

GL: I don't think we've ever been in love with decoration as such.

2JJ: Was there a long period of time between the first two albums and 154?

GL: I think the problem people have in assessing them is because albums for us tend to be rather artificial full-stops. They're the public presentation of the way we've been working. All of the material for 154 was actually written and demo'd last Christmas 1978. So it's actually misleading, but it's the way we've always worked because we work very quickly.

2JJ: So it's already out-of-date to a certain extent?

GL: I think albums always are. After the songs are written and rehearsed in a sense they are out-of-date.

2JJ: I've got a quote here from the last edition of a magazine called 'Sport' and what might interest you, in light of the shows you've just done, is this advice he gives to the musicians or activists in the field of culture. He says: "the future of the revolution, of which rock n' roll certainly is no longer a part, would be bleak but for technology. Holograms, synthesisers, satellite and video communications, these are the new tools 'street people' must learn to use and to interpret them soulfully. Transistor energy will soon require human energy unless more understanding is made of technology. Just as Elvis and others mastered the tools of their generation so must we master the tools of ours otherwise, as in Orwell's 1984, we will have no real potential; being totally manipulated and left to our own resources not being able to play any realistic part in world culture—a generation of proles, isolated from technological reality, living a tribe like ritual of sleeping all day and wiping ourselves out by night." What's your reaction to that?

GL: Have a happy new year! [laughter] I think it's right to a greater extent. Everyone's got to come to terms with technology, not just as 'street people'. I think people's philosophy and behavior towards technology has been sadly lacking in the past ten years or so.

CN: If we're to play any part in any kind of cultural event we're going to have to become involved in the kind of things that are going to be happening. It ultimately comes to a point where we're talking about accessing rather than just video discs or whatever, because that's short term. In maybe 20 years time, probably less than that, it's going to be people accessing any kind of information, music or culture. It's going to mean Joe Bloggs sitting in his house will be able to send increasingly creative messages to people. It takes it right down to the basic level of someone talking to another person. You have to see through the technology, it becomes a kind of a veil, which once you've come to terms with very simple manual operations—like a telephone keyboard—then you can summon any information, or talk to anyone. It's going to completely change the emphasis of everyone's lives. The Victorian work ethic becomes more and more something which we're going to have to depart from. The idea that people are educated to work in a job for the rest of their lives is going to be something that's not going to happen. If they work at anything they're going to work at home more creatively, because they'll have time to do that.

GL: If people don't come to terms with that technology they're not going to be involved in the censorship or the availability. You're going to get a very interesting situation developing where you can put a weird French avant-garde film on the same footing as a James Bond movie, or a video movie that I'd made at home and you've got the same access. Then the whole entertainment industry and rock n' roll field of the last 30 years has been very redundant, very straight and very boring!

Originally issued with a WMO newsletter in 1996.