Not Your Father's Supergroup

by Wilson Neate


These days, the mere mention of the term “supergroup” has many of us reaching for our revolvers. Since the species originated in the late ‘60s with Cream, it has mutated, periodically returning to terrorize audiences with its unfortunate coiffure, lamentable sartorial choices and varying degrees of rockist excess.

Fortunately, Githead has nothing in common with the likes of Asia, the Power Station or even Velvet Revolver, although its personnel are all established artists with lengthy résumés worthy of a supergroup. Guitarist/vocalist Colin Newman is best known for his work with the legendary Wire and bassist/vocalist Malka Spigel was a member of Minimal Compact—as was Githead’s drummer, Max Franken. (Newman and Spigel have also recorded together in various electronically inclined incarnations and jointly run the Swim~ label.) Guitarist Robin Rimbaud (aka Scanner) is probably the most (in)famous bandmember, although not as a traditional musician; in the early ‘90s, he attained overnight notoriety for recordings constructed from cell-phone conversations hijacked with a police radio frequency scanner and has since emerged as an immensely prolific artist. His work ranges across numerous media and genres, encompassing relatively conventional and highly unconventional electronic recordings; museum and gallery installations; scores for film, radio, theater and dance productions; and innovative live performance events.

Notwithstanding their churlish moniker and their dueling guitarists, Githead aren’t the noisy, shouty rock band one might expect. They favor intricate, rhythmically hypnotic avant-pop with rumblings of funk and dub, fashioned from a subtle hybrid of organic and electronic components—occasionally showing continuity with Spigel and Newman’s previous collaborations, as well as evoking ‘80s Wire. The debut Headgit EP and the album Profile have drawn comparisons to NEU!, Harmonia, PiL, the Cure and Joy Division, and the group is currently building a following with gigs around Europe (including a recent opening slot for Dieter Moebius and Michael Rother at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall).

Githead’s core members talked to PopMatters about the ways in which the band connects with its members’ previous recording projects; about what happens when Rimbaud puts aside his scanner and straps on an old-fashioned axe; what it means for artists in media other than music (aside from Rimbaud’s varied résumé, Spigel is also a photographer) to work in the context of a rock band; and whether crafting songs from spam e-mail solves what Brian Eno recently called “the last hard problem in music”.

PopMatters: You’ve all known one another for some years now; had Githead been in the works for a while?

Robin Rimbaud: Not as this kind of concept. I could have imagined us creating a more electronic project in the past but having been friends for so many years now it’s always been an underlying belief that one day we would make something “happen”. This has taken us completely by surprise in the most positive manner.

PM: Colin has said that Githead grew, in part, out of a desire “to do a rock band”. What was appealing about that? Is Githead a rock band?

Colin Newman: It’s a weird thing but Malka is a bass player and I’m a guitarist and we’ve been together for a pretty long time but in all that time, apart from a couple of guest appearances with Minimal Compact, up to Githead, Malka and I had never played our respective instruments in the same band! That’s the personal aspect but of course all that is really down to context. It wasn’t really until the late ‘90s that live music started to become something anyone wanted to feel part of and Malka and I are nothing if not fashion victims.

Githead is a rock band within the broader context although, of course, what we propose is our own particular peculiar hybrid. What we do is always dictated by the material so there is no limitation imposed by the idea of being a rock band. It’s just a structure really.

Malka Spigel: It’s also about the right time and right place.

PM: How would you say Githead is distinct from the other projects you’ve been involved in?

CN: For me, what I get involved in is a result of organic developments and although there are different projects I’ve been involved in, events tend to make it that I’m really only ever mainly focused on one project at a time. I haven’t made a “solo” record since 1996 and I don’t really have plans to make another. Githead obviously develops somehow from my long-term collaboration with Malka but having others involved gives it a much broader canvas somehow. Wire has always been highly dysfunctional and alternates between uncomfortable, fractious co-operation and sullen non-activity. I always try my best but I can’t pour all my energy into a black hole. In that respect Githead, as a relationship, is much lighter and cleaner. Sure we have our moments but the band gets its core strength from the fact that Malka, Robin and myself can set up and play in our tiny garage studio and, within a relatively short time, will have come up with something. There’s nothing really laboured about it. We are perfectly able to write as a band. Which is a novelty for me, although completely usual for Malka!

MS: We all have different backgrounds when it comes to being in a band. Robin has never really been in a band before and Colin says that Wire have never written as a band so in that respect Githead is more similar to Minimal Compact in that both bands write together. There are subtle differences of course as different characters are involved. Writing as a band, as we do, means that you have to, in some way, expose part of you which you don’t normally share. The studio in which we create the music is very small and you have to be very comfortable with the people you play with.

PM: So Robin, this is the first time you’ve played in a band context?

RR: Curiously, I had a number of groups when I was younger. Inspired mostly by the tape culture (before the Internet and file-sharing took over) of swapping cassettes by mail across the globe, I had an industrial group, Dau Al Set, a jazz oriented freeform experimental group, Koven-O, and other little playful collaborations. However, Githead is the first time it’s felt as if there’s a clear understanding of how this group unity can operate.

PM: You’ve been involved in countless collaborative projects across an array of different media. Does the creative process in Githead have anything in common with previous collaborations? Or does it differ significantly?

RR: Collaboration is always about a shared understanding and responsibility, about offering space to others within the frame of the project. I’ve always enjoyed the challenges and subsequent rewards it has to offer. Githead has a strong sense of space around the songs we develop. This is the first time I’ve actually directly worked within a song structure though, clearly following a more rock-established delineation.

PM: Taken alongside your other work, Robin, are there ways in which you find Githead liberating, or perhaps restrictive?

RR: In terms of performative-based works it’s extraordinary—live shows, though so far on a limited scale, have been universally dynamic and progressive; they offer up a relationship between us and the audience for me in an utterly unique manner. The crafting and shaping of song-oriented material is also extremely rewarding. It’s restrictive only in the frustration of trying to maintain a solo career as well as making a firm commitment to the group sensibility. It’s more of a process of adaptation to a different timetable of rehearsals, recording, etc., that hasn’t followed in my other work persona.

PM: Githead is a band with one foot (or several) in the world of contemporary art. How do you think that translates to Githead’s creative process and to the music itself?

CN: I’m completely convinced that you cannot create an entity like Githead by designing it on paper and hoping it will fly. The big surprise for us all was how quickly, given a fairly simple set of rules, the project developed its own life. It’s kind of like Githead designs itself. However, there are some individuals in it and they have their own identities and connections and, as it happens, all of the “front 3” have strong contemporary arts connections which enable us to bring certain creative strategies to bear on the project.

Also, if one sees Githead as a container of those individual artistic entities then many different possibilities can open whereby one set of individuals can between them be an installation, a performance, a gallery exhibit, a band, etc., etc. The fact that we have some contemporary arts credibility and can operate as a rock band also can enable us to operate in the area between those disciplines which is often so poorly explored.

PM: Malka, would you say your work as a visual artist informs what you’re doing with Githead?

MS: It’s quite subtle how one medium of work feeds into the other. Perhaps the only relationship is in the energy each gives you back. It can operate like a loop: the energy of one thing can feed the other.

PM: When I saw you and Colin play at the Knitting Factory in New York a few years back, there was a visual dimension to the performance, with slides and video. Do Githead’s shows involve such elements?

MS: Not right now. Githead is a real live rock band. I’m not talking about musical style, more about the directness of relationship between band and audience. The Knitting Factory thing was more like a combination of installation, performance art and video. I’m not saying that Githead will not take that direction but right now, while we are able to play in small venues and have a real intimate relationship with our audience, it seems a bit distracting to bring in other stuff.

PM: Is there a significant difference between Githead on record and Githead live?

CN: I think surprisingly little. At its root a Githead piece is the sound of us playing together. Some pieces are constructed a bit differently but take a listen to the live tracks on Free Git [an EP given away with online orders of Profile] or the live track downloads on the Githead web site or even the “live in the studio” session on the XFM site and you’ll perhaps hear a difference in emphasis and a different sound field due to different conditions but it’s essentially the same kind of thing. Obviously there has been a lot of attention given in the production and mixing of the album in order to ensure that the thing has maximum impact and bears repeated listens but it has always been important to us that we can play it live and the best way to achieve that is to actually sound like that anyhow.

RR: Githead [in the studio] is preened and primped at the finest hairdressers and stylists with Colin’s production, but live is a dynamic force we are developing. It’s a far more physical and aggressive approach at times, especially with the force of Max and Malka holding this mainframe together all the time.

PM: Robin, something that you seem to emphasize in a lot of your non-Githead work is accessibility and the involvement of the audience as a participant at some level. Do you feel that playing on a stage with a band minimizes that? Is the loss of that aspect problematic? Or do other things compensate? (People headbanging, holding up lighters, shouting “Wally!”, requesting “Freebird”….)

RR: Ha ha! Ironically, Githead offers this opportunity completely. As we feel so comfortable with each other we’ve already reached a point which I know Colin hasn’t been realising with Wire, in that we communicate directly with the audience now, joking, telling stories, taking photos of each other, doing our best to dissolve this invisible performance audience/performer wall. This more “rock” aesthetic already comes loaded with an image and a history that we can play with and manipulate. Unfortunately, no-one as yet holds up a lighter during the slow numbers!

PM: Colin, how is playing live with Githead different from playing live with Wire?

CN: Wire live is pretty much all about power. There isn’t a lot of light and shade. It’s very effective and it impresses the hell out of people.

With Githead it’s very different. It doesn’t lack muscle but it’s about more than power. If I can sum it up it feels to be more about engagement. We’ve not played many times live so far (we just did our seventh gig, only our fourth with Max) but one thing I start to feel from the audiences (at the risk of being corny) is love. We are also starting to move more into an area of audience interaction that Wire have never done. At our last gig in Paris we asked people to take photos while we were playing. Even giving them cameras. We want to make this little piece of theatre, amongst others, a feature of the shows. The best shots can end up on the website.

In a way it starts to go beyond the simple dispensing of the tablets of stone from the lofty pulpit. The live event is the one musical item you can’t download, copy or partially experience. You are either there or not. It’s about a moment in time and so it gets its meaning from the fact that this is also what audiences are looking for. To be part of an event, to make a connection.

PM: In your live multimedia work as Scanner, Robin, you’re often very much an absent presence (e.g., a shadowy figure working away at the foot of a screen, with pieces like 52 Spaces) and sometimes you’re not actually there at all (i.e., installations that don’t require your presence). Do you find it strange now being the focus of the audience’s attention?

RR: Honestly, I couldn’t enjoy it more! I’ve always had issues with the ego of performance and personality regarding populist figures. I’ve playfully referred to myself as a “minimalist anti-hero” in the past, so Githead is such a shared responsibility that I can take comfort in this wider view, in that it’s not about one person, it’s about a group approach and therefore attention can be considered differently.

PM: Your work as Scanner has often involved a degree of randomness or chance in the live context. Is there any room for that in Githead’s performances?

RR: Absolutely. We are developing material that offers the combination of tightly rehearsed song material mixed with more freeform improvisatory material like “Raining Down” which we can extend to whatever length and tension we desire. The strength of a live group offers this space.

PM: Colin, Brian Eno has talked a good deal recently about lyric-writing as the last great problem facing musicians (i.e., while advancing technology has changed so many other areas of the creative process, the process of lyric-writing remains essentially unaffected by technological advances and presents the biggest challenge to musicians)—have you cracked that problem with Githead, with lyrics that incorporate “found” texts (spam, advertising lingo, junk mail, etc.)? It seems ironic to me since many of Githead’s lyrics actually remind me of the lyrics you arrived at in the old-fashioned way (in solo work and with Wire): striking, unexpected, surreal juxtapositions or subversions of ideas and language.

CN: I can’t help laughing at this! Brian of course famously claimed (and I paraphrase) that you can sing any old rubbish because no-one listens to the words in pop songs anyhow!

When we started Githead, Robin came with the idea of using those random spam texts that spammers were sending to try to defeat spam killers. It’s a classic bit of Githead really because it’s the meeting of that idea and my love of editing everything that led to a way of generating words. Of course, none of the words are just spam or other bits of unsolicited verbiage; there’s a selection process going on that starts to shade meaning in and somehow topics arrive.

Malka’s introduction to Wire came through her brother who described it as sounding like a rock band fronted by a lawyer! I seem to have an ability to deconstruct and reconstruct meaning in my own delivery. (This used to royally piss off certain people within the Wire context who didn’t like me turning their carefully constructed prose into virtual nonsense, that is until they realised it was art!)

I would never be so pretentious to make the claim to be making poetry; it’s something more akin to verbal atmosphere. Sometimes the meaning is quite pointed if you know how to decode it but I’ve never been big on narrative.

In general I find so many lyrics truly annoying and actually I think quite the opposite to Eno in that respect. The words do matter and if someone is crass and obvious in their lyrical content then I tend to have no faith in the musical content. If you have a voice it should do something, make an emotional bridge between the listener and the sound. I’m not really into putting in obvious emotions but there are emotions there nonetheless.

PM: Is there a particular dimension or approach that you bring to Githead, Robin? And, conversely, is there anything in Githead that you take back to your own work? (Can we expect a Scanner guitar-based album?)

RR: I think I bring a sense of humour and playfulness and an opening to ideas that we can all easily engage with. I play the guitar quite differently than Colin and in fact much of the development of our sound is this interweaving in a sculptural manner between the shapes in sound that we create. Not sure as yet whether new Scanner releases will feature too much guitar though. Let’s wait and see. Curiously, “Alpha” features a guitar pattern I originally wrote when I was just 16 years old!

PM: How do you see the band’s evolution from the Headgit EP to Profile?

CN: I think it was “Alpha” that made me realise that we were taking a big step on from an already auspicious debut. That’s kind of why we opened the album with it. One of the biggest problems of perception that faces Githead is that some people won’t take it seriously if they think it’s a “side project”. Which is why I have been really concerned to raise the bar for the album and make an album which is as good as anything which is out there. This project has so much potential both in terms of what we can achieve artistically and in terms of where we can take it. On that level, Headgit was a kind of primer whereas Profile is the first big “statement”. Githead is a band with a refreshingly low boredom threshold so we are always going to be pushing forward and bringing on new ideas but I do think that the step between Headgit and Profile will be found to have been a very significant one.

MS: It’s hard to really say. I think the EP is a bit more raw. Maybe the EP is a question and the album is an answer?

RR: We are friends in a shared responsibility developing this Githead creature as a live entity. It’s constantly capturing our mood and individual voices and influences and as such will continue to change; as such, the debut EP and album offer alternative postcards of how we were and are at particular points in time. What I enjoy is not having any clear idea of where this could potentially lead to next.

PM: Malka takes lead vocals on a couple of tracks on Profile—will you be singing lead any time soon, Robin?

RR: Goodness knows. I’m actually quite shy. I can hide behind Colin live and sing backing vocals but lead vocals—not sure at all. If the moment arrives that my voice would work then perhaps, but I’ll be a nervous wreck!

PM: You’ve recently added Max Franken on drums. Is this primarily for your live shows or is this part of an evolution in your sound?

CN: Although the fact Max doesn’t live in London does impose certain restrictions on how we can work together, the fact that he and Malka are an established rhythm section is a big plus. However, in any case, we are only really able to operate on the level we are operating right now because we can use our studio to develop the material and there physically isn’t room for a live drummer!

We never had any doubt that Githead needed to play live and that we needed a live drummer to do so. Max is really dedicated, which is what we need. We are still very much developing in the public’s consciousness and we need to patiently build an audience so Max’s cheerful disposition is a big plus.

PM: Do Githead have groupies? Which Githead has the most admirers?

RR: I’m sure in some perverse imaginary universe we each have our own groupies—Colin has his Wire long-term supporters who continue to follow him everywhere, Malka has her LomoHome/Minimal Compact fans who are curious and I have my mixed art/new media/outsider crowd who are fascinated. Of course, we have a tally count at the end of each live show to see who had more fans there.

PM: Is it simply a coincidence that you seem to play more in continental Europe than in Britain, or is there something about the respective audiences that makes mainland Europeans more receptive to Githead and your other projects?

MS: It’s hard to play outside of London in the UK. Out of seven gigs so far (on July 11 2005) we have played three in London, two in France, and one each in Belgium and Holland. A lot of this has to do with the way the market is. Record companies subsidise new bands playing provincial gigs in the UK. You have to be really big or subsidised. It’s too early to say where we have our main audience.

PM: Do you think there’s any chance of Githead doing America any time soon?

CN: I honestly believe that America will be the theatre in which Githead is capable of making its strongest connections but in terms of public perception there is still a way to go to be able to realise that. We’ve had some very good feedback to the album already and things are most definitely pointing in the right direction. What I can say is that we’ll be over there to play as soon as it’s humanly possible!

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