In 2014, Colin Newman and Malka Spigel relocated from London to Brighton. This move would prove to have a significant impact on the musical career of the husband-and-wife team behind the post-punk supergroup Githead and the instrumental electronic duo Immersion.
When Newman isn’t working with his legendary English band Wire, and Spigel isn’t intermittently reuniting with her Tel Aviv band Minimal Compact, they run their record label Swim~. This small outfit spent a great deal of the 1990s exposing electronic music artists who had an abstract bent and an ear for the pastoral side of the genre. Newman and Spigel formed Immersion in the label’s early days to round out their roster. This moniker would stay active until the turn of the millennium. As electronic music was fading into the background, a renewed interest in the conventional “rock band” setup took its place, paving the way for a Wire reunion.
The Immersion name may have gone down for a nap by this time, but Newman and Spigel remained active. In its stead, they formed Githead, a band that allowed Newman and Spigel to perform songs not suited for Wire or Minimal Compact. The quartet enjoyed a fruitful run, joined by Robin Rimbaud (aka Scanner) on guitar and Minimal Compact’s Max Franken on drums. Then geography/reality kicked in, and the Githead name was retired as everyone went about their hectic schedules.
Around this time, Newman and Spigel thought it would be an excellent time to pick up stakes and see if there was another city in which Swim~ could thrive. Upon arriving in Brighton, the couple found themselves longing to fire up the Immersion machine once again while integrating themselves into the seaside town’s local scene.
One thing led to another, and Immersion were suddenly hosting a series of sold-out performances with four different collaborators over two years. The collaborators at what was known as the Nanocluster gigs were the German rock duo Tarwater, Stereolab singer/guitarist Laetitia Sadier, German electronic musician Ulrich Schnauss, and their old bandmate Scanner. Plenty of music was written and recorded before the shows, giving Newman and Spigel the perfect opportunity to unleash a new studio project for Swim~; the album Nanocluster, Vol. 1.
The couple hope to see more volumes come to fruition with different collaborators in the future. Still, the lingering COVID pandemic and the logistical problems of traveling and performing music during the time of Brexit don’t offer a clear picture of the future. Talking to PopMatters through Zoom one day, the two musicians gave the rundown of how Nanocluster came to be and what they were looking for in their collaborative partners. In these uncertain times, the couple admit that the most they can hope for are for fellow musicians to hear the new Nanocluster album and grok it to the point where they feel moved to throw their hat in the ring for a future volume.
Before talking about Nanocluster Vol. 1, I’d like to turn back the clock and talk about Immersion’s origins. I think I read somewhere that the two of you came up with Immersion just to get another artist’s name on your Swim~ label.
Malka Spigel: More or less. It was during the ‘90s when electronic music of that kind was just starting. Most of the people we kind of liked didn’t have a strong image. It was kind of mysterious. We thought, “we’ll be Immersion.”
Colin Newman: You could have a compilation of “different artists”, but it was all the same person under different names. It was very much the flavor of the time. And so, we pretended to be from Germany.
MS: I don’t know why.
CN: Yeah, I don’t know why.
How long did that image keep up?
CN: About two minutes! [laughs] I don’t think anybody really cared.
MS: It was a period where people didn’t really care as long as they liked the music. It wasn’t about the image or how famous you were.
CN: We weren’t really projecting ourselves. It was part of running the record label. We had other artists on the label. It was just another artist on Swim~. That was the feeling of it, so it wasn’t like we had to say, “oh, it’s that one person from Wire and that other person from Minimal Compact.” That was entirely irrelevant to the music.
MS: Yeah, the music was so different to what we’d done before that we could be kind of new.
Do you find it surprising that you’re still doing it in the year 2021?
MS: Not really. Why would we be surprised?
CN: Well, there was an early period of Immersion from 1994 through to 1999, and that was very much something that was happening at the time, and we didn’t actually do anything as Immersion until 2016. That was partly because of the way that things moved. In the ‘90s, it was possible to be running a small label that was putting out new releases. We made ours in our studio, and other people made theirs in their studios, and it was all quite electronic. We were part of a scene.
Everything changed when the new millennium started. It started to become more like rock music, and you needed to put a band in the studio. That became something that we couldn’t really do. But at the same time, we decided that we wanted to have a band, so we had Githead. That lasted from the early 2000s up to around 2012, 2014, something like that. It wasn’t like we fell out or anything; it’s very difficult to have bands living in different countries. It was problematic, but we moved to Brighton in 2014, Malka and I, and we thought, “let’s do something that’s just us.” And we did have a project that was just us, and that was Immersion, so we kind of came back to it.
MS: Also, we love synthesizers and electronic gear. It’s natural for us to do it.
Is there anything particular about your move to Brighton that got Immersion moving again?
MS: Possibly. It’s not as urban as London, and we are very close to the sea. It’s not something that we’re strongly aware of, but I’m sure it affects our mood, and our mood affects the music we make.
CN: I think that’s more of an effect that leads to Nanocluster. London is so big, and the scene is very concentrated in east London, and we didn’t live in east London. The idea of being able to make an event, however occasional, would have involved quite a lot of work and finding a space. It would have been much harder to do it in London, where we lived. Part of the agenda we have in Brighton is to be part of the scene, as it were, to create our own little corner of it.
MS: Because it’s a small city, we got to know quite a lot of people very quickly, other musicians and promoters. It kind of helped, I suppose.
CN: We know every promoter in Brighton, which is crazy! Because we don’t know so many people in London, and we know lots and lots of people here. We’ve been here a while now, and it’s coming up to our seventh year, although we kind of consider ourselves to be relative newbies. It is a small enough city for us to know a fair amount of people here and feel part of it yet big enough not to be so in-your-face that you totally can’t deal with it.
MS: It’s a very creative city with lots of creative people. We keep discovering more and more people that we like the music of, and we think, “wow, they live in Brighton!”
Did any of your Brighton connections lead to Nanocluster happening?
MS: None of [the collaborators] are from Brighton. We had a venue we could easily use. Some people pass through Brighton because they play here and other people we invited especially. It’s easier to organize in a place like Brighton, I suppose.
CN: And we have a specific connection with each other. We’ve done things with all of those artists before; they’re all friends. It’s very much in our style, the way Malka and I do things because we’re a couple. It’s not like a band. There’s a studio quite near here, and sometimes we walk past it, and there are groups of people standing outside. You can tell from body language that they’re not related and not necessarily friends. You know that they’re a band, just by the way that they stand. We don’t have a band relationship, Malka and I; it’s personal. In many ways, the people we’ve had as collaborators on this album, we have a personal relationship with. They’ve all stayed here.
MS: That’s part of how we did it. People would come and stay with us, and we create the music together. It becomes more personal if it wasn’t very much before.
Walk me through the origins of Nanocluster. How did it all come together?
CN: When we first moved here, we had a very good friend named Alex Murray from an organization called One Inch Badge, and he said, “if you’re moving to Brighton, what you need to do is create your own scene.” We totally took it to heart. So we thought, “what could we do to create a scene?” Have an event! So we started by having an event at a place called Hope and Ruin. It was just us playing and some other people playing; there was no collaborative aspect to it. It was kind of okay. It enabled us to get to know Andy Rossiter, who is the promoter that put on the Nanocluster gigs. [Writer, broadcaster, and DJ] Graham Duff was also involved in that. When we were talking afterward, Graham said, “you should think about having a concept to it. Maybe do collaborations.” We thought it was an interesting thing. How do we make that into something that could work? So we started to think about how we could take the idea of collaboration into a night. Building on that, we thought, “okay, who can we invite?” As we started to put together the first real collaboration together, we started talking to Andy, and he said, “you should go to the Rose Hill.”
MS: It’s a very small venue. It used to be a pub, and they turned it into a little arts center with a studio and a small stage. It feels a bit like home, which is good for what we do. There’s a small audience; quite intimate.
CN: That proved to be the perfect fit. We did the first one with Tarwater, and we had no idea if anybody was going to come. The events all follow the same pattern. It’s four half-hour sets; half-an-hour opener, half-an-hour Immersion, half-an-hour for our collaborators, and a half-an-hour combined set. That’s what we’ve done every time. Tarwater hadn’t played in the UK for a long time, and they’re not super well-known, and Immersion is not that well-known as an item. With a capacity of around 100 to 120, we didn’t know whether we would get ten people or 50 people. As it turned out, every single one of those events had been pretty much sold out. I don’t know quite what it is about Nanocluster, but once we had done one, word kind of got around that this was something unique.
MS: What you get is music created within a few days and played maybe once, ever. Maybe not. But we did record every collaboration here in the studio. That’s how we ended up with an album.
CN: It was kind of built into it that we would work on pieces, that we would play, in the studio. You could, of course, have something where you would just invite people to jam, but Malka and I don’t really do free jazz. We like something with a bit more structure to it. It just seemed more sensible to do something where people would come for two or three days, we could work some stuff out in the studio, and then we could figure out how to play it live. You could be brave! You’ve got to be able to think, “okay, we can get something together that actually works and makes sense to an audience in a quite short period of time.
MS: And also be open enough to play with someone else and invent stuff. Some people are much more guarded or nervous about that. A certain kind of person would be easier with it than someone else that’s more nervous. Each one was very different, but they all worked out really well.